(I am taking a 1-update break, and will be back on May 11th (15th for Public) due to me receiving my vaccine shot…again…which may be miserable. I will update Patrons if a further delay is needed. Thanks for understanding!)
It said a lot about the person that even with all her wealth and gifts, Magnolia Reinhart still couldn’t buy the affection of Drakes.
Surely, if there was any species you could buy love from, it was them. Drakes loved gifts. The more expensive and flashy, the better. Magnolia Reinhart had literally thrown money upon her arrival at the Drake people in Zeres and her very presence was a polarizing, contentious topic that had Oteslia glaring at the other Walled Cities.
Then again, history was a huge problem between Magnolia and any sort of warm reception. She was a Reinhart. Her people had ‘stolen’ the north from the ‘Drakes’—a claim which the Humans and Gnolls disputed hotly. The long war between species had cost both sides immeasurably over their existences, however, so the fact that level-headed members of both species were willing to reach out and talk was a good first step.
…It was just a damned shame that Navine Gemscale didn’t like Magnolia Reinhart. Also, that the woman had charm, but not charisma.
Literally. Magnolia had reason to venture the same comment as she sat in the pink carriage before one of Oteslia’s ballrooms, reserved for another social gathering…of suffering.
“Ressa, do you think that I’m unlikeable? Is that the problem?”
The [Maid] twisted in her seat, from where she was eying the steps leading up for traps, ambushes, or just obnoxious people she’d have to deal with.
“You’re asking if you’re unlikeable.”
“Yes, Ressa. Why? Do you think that’s the case?”
The [Maid] pursed her lips.
“…You have a Skill that literally charms people for you. What do you think?”
Magnolia Reinhart hesitated as she adjusted another rudely pink, stylized hat, this one from an era called ‘Victorian’. Rather magnificent—more Terandrian than Izrilian, so she felt it helped. She wasn’t going to copy Drake styles and offend them further. Also—they didn’t tend to wear much in pink.
“I rather felt as though the Skill were the icing on the pastry, as it were. A delicious concept made even more delicious.”
Ressa rolled her eyes.
“Consider it the one teaspoon of sugar in a vat of lemons and limes.”
“Ressa. I’m not that uncharming. I have tact! Elegance!”
“Ye-es. That’s just not the same as being likeable.”
The two argued for a minute, before Magnolia sighed and Ressa opened the carriage door. They met Navine coming up the steps.
“Navine! So good of you to meet us. Is your mother not attending…?”
“Helessia doesn’t care for this kind of social event, Lady Reinhart.”
Navine nodded carefully at her. Magnolia smiled, a bit too warmly. The two regarded each other, and Ressa bowed.
“Ladies Reinhart, Gemscale.”
The silence broken, they exchanged another polite smile and followed Ressa up the stairs. Obviously—it should have been the other way since they were following a servant, but Humans had different customs than Drakes.
Navine glanced at Magnolia, and wondered if the Human was trying to find a suitable entrance spot for fine, agreeable conversation. There was the rub, though. This was the third such social gathering they’d attended, and they were growing in scope as more interested parties came to meet the Human who wanted to try for peace, or at least, an end to conflict.
She had the vision. She had the power. Navine just didn’t like Magnolia Reinhart.
She admired the woman. Magnolia had taken control of her house. She had rallied the North during both Antinium Wars, fought off the Goblin King, and even intervened in issues like Liscor’s siege. She generously funded projects that had potential to improve lives; had even negotiated Admiral Seagrass’ trade routes that let commodities flow from Baleros to Izril at fair prices in the north, especially sugar.
Magnolia was better on paper than she was in real life, and identifying exactly why was hard. When she displayed her love of sweets, talked trade knowingly, or enjoyed herself, she was downright Drakeish. Other times…it was a certain coldness of her attitude. A suggestion that if something were to be done, she would have it done and damn all who stood in her way.
Danger, perhaps. Then again, it was also reassuring. If Magnolia Reinhart were as likeable as she wanted to be, she would have few weaknesses.
…It still didn’t change the fact that the Oteslian ball was going to be awkward. Navine sighed.
The practice of superior Drakes in any hierarchy never being preceded by a subordinate wasn’t a strict law, but it was a difference between Human sensibilities, many of whom were happy to have a servant in front of them, scurrying ahead to open a door, announce them, and so on.
It was just a cultural difference; albeit one that had led to said important Drakes being assassinated in a statistically higher rate of deaths than their Human counterparts. Each species did things different. They copied each other, but the differences in established customs became far more notable.
For instance—Oteslia had ballrooms. Izril, Terandria, Baleros, Chandrar—everywhere had ballrooms, or other similar, large, flat spaces where people gathered…although Baleros sometimes had different elevations because Lizardpeople liked the contrast and they were weird like that.
The elevated ballrooms of Baleros aside, what made Drakes and Oteslia in particular unique was that because the Walled City had finite space, each noble family did not have their own ballroom. Rather, Oteslia had public ballrooms, which they rented for any number of events.
Second? Oteslia did its socializing back-to-front as Humans reckoned such things. Or even Pallass.
Mivifa Selifscale sighed as she adjusted her ceremonial armor—which was predictably hot. It beat the dresses, but she hated the social-dance every good adventurer knew how to do. She’d rather be flying on her days off work or work. But no, the First Gardener was attending and she wanted this to be a success, so Mivifa would meet Magnolia Reinhart, they’d all smile…
It was going to be a disaster. But an Oteslian disaster.
Socializing. Mivifa knew Pallass’ society and how they did things. She knew the north too, and the social hierarchies of Walled Cities to petty little Adventurer’s Guilds.
There were always the important, the non-important, the people who didn’t care, and the ones who did, far too much. The social climbers, the ones with actual power, which was often confused with the people who had social power…that was basic across every species and nation.
What was interesting was how Oteslia decided to go about social gatherings. Rather than have the self-important try to invite themselves, jockey for invitations and kiss the tails of the powerful, Oteslian socialites went about it the other way.
If they thought you might be important, you got an invitation. If there was even a hint you might be on the up and up, they sent you a gold-filigree card begging you to attend.
Therein lay the trap. Once you got there, you had better be as charming, witty, important, or powerful as you wanted to be. Because if you weren’t…no one was going to invite you again. The people on the up-and-up got kicked down and stomped on.
Mivifa rather liked the system. It weeded out a lot of nobodies. It still didn’t change the fact that this was not her event.
“This is so totally not Archmage. I feel like I’m going to Creler—damn it. This is why I don’t attend these things!”
She muttered to one of the other high-ranking Oteslians—their Earthspeaker. Which was, in fact, the [Druid] chosen by the Circle of Druids in Oteslia to represent them.
Not their best, which was a relief. Not the most high-level, or even the one with the most authority. You might get someone like Nalthaliarstrelous if you did that, and that…was a problem. The [Druids] were smart enough to choose someone charismatic and approachable.
In this case, a Drake [Vinetender Druid], whose special trick was conjuring some magical wine. He was also in the First Gardener’s inner circle, and knew Mivifa’s other job.
“Just seems odd. Named Adventurers don’t need to keep up a reputation for sanity. Greet the Human and laugh—then you can go.”
“I still need to monk around for an hour or two, don’t I?”
“…Monk? You mean, attend? Yes. Yes you do. Er—how is Cirediel, incidentally?”
“Besides trying to get under the dress of his latest obsession? Fine. He wants to visit the Meeting of Tribes, but at least he won’t be here.”
Mivifa sighed. She might have to work, but not dealing with Cire was a plus. He hated social gatherings like these, and the First Gardener obviously didn’t encourage him to attend because of who Cire was and his running mouth.
Oteslian balls had another uniquely…charming…feature. Which was that they loved the traditional ballroom dress of Drakes.
Styles changed. Humans and Drakes and every species changed styles. That was normal. However, one hallmark feature of Drake dress was…the length.
Humans had floor-length, many-layered dresses sometimes. Even ones held up by wood frameworks to appear artificially inflated. Drakes? They didn’t do as many layers, but instead of clothing that reached to the floor, their dresses trailed on the floor. They had tail-length cloth. Men and women—although for Mivifa’s money, women had it worse.
Whoever had invented the concept of trailing dresses and feather-weight cloth deserved to be repeatedly stabbed. It might be fine for one person, say, at a wedding, with bearers to lift it out of the mud, but Drake ultra-traditional clothing meant everyone wore it.
Imagine how many knots appeared when six Drakes wearing long, flowing clothing passed by each other. Imagine how many fluttering pieces of cloth landed in your food, or suffocated people standing five feet away.
…Ironically, this was also something Mivifa liked, since the only high point in standing and making idle chatter was watching someone go flying by tripping on a trailing hem, or a waiter getting clotheslined by two dresses forming an accidental knot.
She had heard the dresses had a point, but Mivifa had never really seen anyone pull off the look properly. Indeed, when Magnolia Reinhart swept in, she wore a very trendy, modern fashion that was all-Human and much more sensible if she didn’t want to make a fool of herself by tugging at her dress and apologizing to the lady she’d gotten tangled with.
Similarly sensible were the Gnolls who were attending this event. They stood to one side, nearly four dozen of them—a minority still in the mostly-Drake ballroom, which had dignitaries from every Walled City—noticeable for their Plains Gnoll dress.
Not revealing or even that behind Drake formality. However, certainly Gnollish. Mivifa counted some Weatherfurs predominantly, a few other big tribes, a tall Gnoll even by his kin’s standards who had to be Ekhtouch…and of course, Plain’s Eye.
They kept their distance from the Drakes as the banquet began. Some of the Oteslian locals drifted over, as Oteslia did have the largest Gnoll population of all the Walled Cities, and Mivifa herself made a note to talk with the only Gnoll she wanted to speak to—Feshi, the uncomfortable [Strategist] who’d been on the news.
That was better than could be said for Magnolia. She greeted Mivifa as the Named Adventurer came over with the First Gardener.
“Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers! So delighted. I have heard much of your exploits and been simply dying to meet you.”
“The honor is mine, Lady Reinhart. I hope you are enjoying Oteslia?”
“It is a lovely city. Truly, a fit for [Druids]. I’ve only ever seen trees even a tenth as big in the Forest of Vail! No wonder my gardener—Nalthaliarstrelous—decided to visit. Have you met him?”
The First Gardener had a pained look on her face at the [Druid]’s name. However, Mivifa smiled at the compliment. Oteslians loved their city’s greenery. It was all convivial until a Drake from Fissival coughed.
“Ah yes, the Forest of Vail. How is it doing under Human care? I rather heard all the [Druids] left after the Treant Wars.”
And that was the Creler egg in the soup. Mivifa saw the First Gardener glowering, as well as the Salazsar Wall Lady, but Magnolia just smiled and replied.
“That is Veltras land, but I take your point, Lord Archiset. Perhaps you could one day visit and see for yourself, though.”
The haughty Drake raised an eyebrow and adjusted his monocle, which Sir Relz of Pallass had brought back as a trend. Another stab-worthy offense in Mivifa’s books.
It was a good reply, and tactful. Diplomatic, even. But Navine’s observation had been dead-on. Magnolia acquitted herself as well as one could in a fairly hostile environment. The Drake watched, murmuring, but while she never lacked for conversation, she was an island even less-populated than the Gnollish diplomats.
The Drakes stood back and judged. Mivifa could see the future. The ball was going to be politely standoffish. Some Drakes might dance, someone might insult someone else and start a fight; at worst someone would bring up the wars or insult the Gnolls, but Magnolia wouldn’t win the hearts and minds of everyone present unless she…Mivifa couldn’t imagine it.
So then, this was the scene. Mivifa drifted away as soon as she could politely manage it. She glanced around, grateful the other visitor who might have been worthy of this moment hadn’t invited himself.
Saliss of Lights didn’t do formal parties. Nor would the guards have let him in, naked as he would undoubtedly be. If he wanted to cause trouble, though? She could just see him tossing a ‘make everyone’s clothes transparent’ potion towards the ceiling, or lacing the drinks with a truth serum or something.
I’d pirate with that, though. What am I saying? It would be a disaster. But a totally Archmage one.
Mivifa sighed. She liked Saliss’ ability to refuse to do anything people wanted him to. There was no help for it, though. He was off making potions with Xif; had been after leaving the discussion over the Village of the Dead’s raid.
Her blood still raced from that. Mivifa went to find another drink, remembering the sight of real adventurers fighting undead. She wanted to be there, not here.
Some [Herald] called more names as Mivifa went to look for the wine. Oh, good. More visitors come for political gain or to take sides about the Human-issue.
“Presenting: the Wall Lords of Salazsar, Ilvriss and Nerul Gemscale! Also presenting: the Wall Lady of Manus, Rafaema Skywing!”
Navine Gemscale choked on her drink as a familiar face appeared on one side of the ballroom. Magnolia glanced around, with a bit more interest. The Wall Lord who’d been to Liscor?
Everyone was more interested in the Drake who had fought against, and then besides Zel Shivertail. The powerful Wall Lord from Salazsar, whose unexpected appearance gave everyone pause.
They almost missed the unknown Wall Lady who glanced around imperiously, just as impatient as Mivifa at this formality. The First Gardener on the other hand and Mivifa herself?
“Rafaema’s here? Did you hear about it?”
Mivifa grabbed the [Druid] Earthspeaker. He had hurried over, eyes just as wide.
“I think the First Gardener did receive the request, but so fast? Now? This is wonderful!”
“This is Creler-crap! If she’s here to meet Cire, he’ll annoy her again! He’s still love-struck and if they fight, they might not agree to see each other for another decade!”
Mivifa had the exact opposite opinion of the others. She had a more realistic understanding of the two’s relationship and Cire’s maturity compared to Rafaema. The Earthspeaker gave her a startled look. Mivifa rubbed at her neck-scales.
“No help for it. I’ll go greet her.”
Rafaema and a known war hawk of a Wall Lord? The ball was getting interesting. Mivifa was edging past trailing dresses, people who wanted to meet the Named Adventurer and talk about their ‘little monster problem’, get her autograph, or wonder if she was seeing anyone special and was there room for romance—
When she passed by the refreshments, Mivifa paused to fill her goblet, and saw a small, interested crowd watching someone doing the same. She slowed.
She must have missed the announcement, or no one had given it. Perhaps they thought she wasn’t worth announcing, but someone had clearly decided to invite her, as someone who ‘might be important’.
The strange thing was why she’d even accepted it. But perhaps that was because Mivifa had sensibly cut her off from her alcohol stash in her home.
Lyonette du Marquin was trying to pour another cup of wine. However, she was so sloshed that she’d clearly missed twice. She leaned on the table, took a gulp around red-rimmed eyes, and finally noticed Mivifa staring at her.
Lyonette managed. Then she tossed the wine cup back. The drunken [Princess] wobbled, looked around, and then found a chair to sit down in.
The Horns of Hammerad’s disappearance had not done her well at all.
She was leveling her [Worldly Princess] class. Yes, that was it. Worldly experiences. Was there anything more worldly than being patted on the back while you threw up everything you’d eaten that morning?
If there was, Lyonette didn’t want to know. That had been this morning, and she’d found the alcohol cupboard locked. So she’d done the logical thing.
She’d gotten the invitation and had no intention of participating…until this morning. However, Lyonette knew balls. She was a [Princess].
Balls had alcohol. It was considered bad form to drink the host dry—but Lyonette wasn’t a [Princess] here. She was a visitor.
And she didn’t care. She was done! Done with heartbreak! Done with grief!
The Horns of Hammerad. Lyonette wanted them to be alive. How many times, though? How many times did she have to stare at her beating heart being smashed by a boot?
Done, and done. And also done. Lyonette was hungry. Mainly because she’d lost her breakfast. She reached out, stared at whatever it was on the table, and grabbed one.
“Is this the rumored sushi that Erin—Erin—?”
She drank to kill the frog in her throat. The voice interrupted her.
“It’s from Baleros. Rice and fish. Or vegetables. I think it might be Drathian?”
The [Princess] bit it, with no care for delicacy or tact. Any other day she would have scolded Mrsha for doing the same.
Well, today she was all disgrace. She could see the Drake [Socialites] watching her. She didn’t care.
“Lyonette, you’ve had too much to drink.”
A clawed hand went to pull the drink away. Lyonette slapped it down.
“Touch my cup, peon, and you will regret it.”
She pointed at Mivifa. The Oldblood Drake blew out her cheeks, thrashed her tail, and looked around.
“I don’t have time for this—Lyonette, if you die of alcohol poisoning—”
“I have poison resistance, thank you very much. My family has a glorious—inebriated history of being drunkards! You can’t kill us with drink!”
The [Princess] went back for another sushi-thing. It was very good and she was hungry. She heard amused voices.
“So this is the Human who controls the flowers? You know her, Adventurer Mivifa?”
“This is Lyon—a friend of mine. Of Saliss of Lights. She’s a bit—er—”
“I. Am. Mourning. Which I shall do in public, without shame or hesitation! Every ball has a drunkard. I’m doing my part! And if you would like a Faerie Flower—ask me later. Or ask Saliss of Lights!”
The young woman with hair like tiger’s orange cut by ember and carmine waved her mostly-empty cup at a Drake who backed up. Some of the other watchers sniggered, but Lyonette felt liberated.
Was this how Erin felt all the time? Free? All the social conventions she was dashing—no, this was more like Ryoka. Or Mrsha, running around buck naked.
Maybe she should try that. How much lower could she sink?
“The Horns are alive. They must be. They can’t just—just leave Mrsha! Mrsha! Alone, dealing with the damned Thronebearers! Why won’t they leave me be? Why can’t people just stop dying?”
Lyonette went for another goblet. There were currently four Humans in the entire banquet. One was her, being mocked by all present in her quest to drown her sorrows.
The second was a [Merchant], mainly here to hobnob, ingratiate himself, and sell whatever wares he could. The last was Magnolia Reinhart, unsuccessfully trying to charm the Drakes without her Skill.
What might have happened otherwise? What boring tedium might have taken place over hours? Nobody would know, for Lyonette heard someone speaking.
“…raid on the Village of the Dead. Just appalling, how Humans let that sit and fester. It was something, though. And you heard about the Helm of Fire? A win for adventurers, even if half of them died.”
The other Drake nodded, adjusting his copy-monocle.
“Too true. But what if the Humans get the Helm of Fire? That’s our artifact! I’m actually listening to the broadcast where they’re trying to assign treasure shares. The Flamewardens of Pallass—well, better Pallass gets it, eh?”
“Exactly. Is there a chance?”
The monocle-wearing Drakes shrugged.
“Well, since the inciters of the raid are dead—the ah, ‘Horns of Hammerbad’, the odds are—”
“They’re not dead!”
The voice silenced everyone in the local radius. Gossip cut still as the two Drakes looked up and saw a young woman striding towards them.
She had on a hastily-purchased dress in the traditional style—just to make her fit in, which trailed across the floor, spotted with some wine from the goblet she’d tossed aside.
Her hair, of which other people had said so much, was fiery, and so on, but mainly uncombed. Her eyes flashed with anger as she raised a finger.
“How dare you spread false allegations around you—you peasant? The Horns of Hammerad are not dead!”
“Who is this Human? Another one of those Reinharts?”
The Drake without the monocle spluttered, looking indignant. She reeled back from Lyonette’s wine-breath. The other one just tilted his snout up and sneered at her.
“And you would know better, Miss Human? If you watched the broadcast, I’m afraid you’re not much more of an expert than we. Nor are you more qualified to make a judgment call based on your condition.”
Some of the other Drakes in earshot sniggered. Lyonette heard a voice mutter ‘like an inflated wineskin’, followed by more laughter. This Human was just an amusing buffoon, like Magnolia, but different.
Her mouth opened haughtily. Lyonette could have said many things, such as the statues in the [Garden of Sanctuary] were proof the Horns’ fate was in question. Or that her judgment was also informed by knowing details Drassi had cut from the broadcast, like Wistram’s involvement.
What she said above the tittering wasn’t that, though. Lyonette drew herself up.
“I suppose you would know better, sir? To my eyes—and it may be the wine talking, but I think not—you do not seem to have the wherewithal to judge an adventurer one bit on the attributes of fitness. Nor do I think you yourself are a [Warrior]—or could swing a sword without severing your tail!”
She pointed at the other Drake’s paunch. The monocle-wearer turned beet red as the audience took a second to untangle her diatribe, then chuckle.
“How dare you.”
He reached for his side and the audience saw he did carry a shortsword. It was most-likely ornamental, though, since he tangled in even drawing it.
Lyonette du Marquin had no such compunctions. She reached for her dress, shifting fabric, and the ring of steel made everyone’s head turn.
She drew her sword in one move. The Drake choked as he backed up, still wrestling with his belt.
“I am no [Warrior]. But I do know how to use a sword, sir. Moreover—I was taught by none other than the Horns of Hammerad themselves, and a Gnollish [Knight], Brunkr Silverfang! By Yvlon Byres and Ksmvr of the Free Antinium! I know them personally, just like I happen to know Drassi, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers—and that idiot with the monocle you decided to copy! Before you spout your ignorant tongue about them being dead, reconsider your words, and then swallow them because I don’t think you have anything to add to any conversation whatsoever! You are nothing more than a libelous rogue and gossiping prat, and I do not need to be sober to call you to account.”
There was an art to insulting people. Mrsha had learned some of it from Lyonette, but the student, for all her natural talent, had not grown up in a Terandrian court. Drunk off her feet, Lyonette could still spit Terandrian-style insults.
She’d missed doing that. Nice Lyonette, the Lyonette who made amends for her thieving, [Princess]-snob ways, always tried to be nice. Even to people who didn’t deserve it.
The young woman sheathed her sword, thankful she didn’t stab herself, as the Drake stumbled back.
“You—you savage! How dare you come into this place and insult Drake hospitality!”
He would have gone on, but Lyonette cut him to pieces. Not with a sword, but with the blade she was most qualified to wield: her tongue.
“Oh, Drake hospitality? Did you organize this ball, sir? Are you under the employ of the First Gardener? If not, I feel you are taking credit for her work, which is the quality of the meanest sloven and coward!”
He opened his mouth, but Lyonette was ready to stab him again—verbally. The Drake was saved from himself by his partner finally registering something Lyonette had said.
“I say—did you mention you knew the Horns of Hammerad, Miss? As in, you actually took sword-lessons from that actual Human—the one with the silver arms?”
“Yvlon? Of course I did.”
“Really? Then her arms are made of silver? I saw her punch a wraith in two! But I thought her skin was painted or some such—some kind of war paint ritual?”
The [Princess] gave the Drake such a dubious look the other woman blushed.
“Painted? No, they’re silver. Metallic. They weigh twice as much as a regular arm. Three times, maybe. Yvlon’s strong enough to lift a beer barrel by herself—well, her arms. Her legs are weaker. She got them after a Creler tore the last ones off.”
The other Drakes had drawn back after the sword had come out, as one did from a crazy person. Some of Oteslia’s guards had begun hurrying over to escort her out, piercing diatribe or not. However, now, a keen ripple of interest ran around the others.
“Crelers? Wait, I heard about that. Aren’t the Horns one of the adventurer teams dubbed with slaying an Adult Creler? What do they call that again?”
Someone else spoke up, loudly. A female voice, for a female Drake. Rafaema had spotted the strange Human. She had no idea who she was; there was no way she was the same person as Ferris’ target.
Lyonette looked around for another cup, but she did not like being this drunk, and had really been turning more to stuffing herself when she’d seen the food table.
She missed Mrsha. She missed Pawn. She missed the inn, and her friends and Erin and…because she missed it all, Lyonette was only too happy to nod.
“Hell’s Wardens. That’s exactly right. They killed an Adult Creler. In the Bloodfields. I saw it afterwards—and I’ve known Griffon Hunt.”
“Really? You mean that [Archer] who slew the Skeleton Lord with that wall-trick?”
A Drake came over, remembering Halrac’s moment from the scrying orb. Lyonette corrected him.
“[Marksman]. He’s a marksman. Halrac is his name.”
The other Drakes murmured. More and more interesting. Of course they’d all seen the scrying orb, or missed it and been gossiping about the event all day. It was more interesting than most things, even the Meeting of Tribes. And here was a young woman who claimed to know half the big names there.
“You said you knew the Halfseekers too. That’s a Gold-rank team that used to work in Drake lands. Who’s their leader?”
Another tested the waters. Lyonette snapped a reply.
“Jelaqua Ivirith, of course! Do you take me for a liar, Miss?”
“No, I only—”
“You ‘only’ asserted otherwise. Very well. Seborn is the [Rogue], the Drowned Man, Moore is their half-Giant [Green Mage], Ulinde is their [Spellslinger], and they used to have twice as many members, including a Goblin. Jelaqua is seeing Maughin of Pallass, Seborn used to be a [Pirate], and Ulinde hiccups for five minutes straight if you serve her limes. Is that detailed enough for you?”
The listeners’ jaws dropped. Lyonette looked around; she needed to sit down. She found a chair, sank into it rather gracefully, and looked around.
“If we are on the topic—yes, I know them. They are dear friends of mine, all of them. Do you have any more questions?”
Rather to her surprise—
It was not going well. Or rather, it was going perfectly acceptable and like last time, which was not well.
Magnolia Reinhart sighed inwardly. The Drakes were too standoffish! She was ready to offer any number of contentious takes, gossip about the Horns of Hammerad and the Village of the Dead, but everyone from Navine to the other dignitaries was too cautious. They stuck to socially acceptable topics.
“That’s it. I’m going to engage them in conversation and throw caution to the wind, Ressa.”
“Be careful. This isn’t the North and you can’t get away with a mistake.”
Ressa murmured back on the pretense of refilling Magnolia’s plate. The lady hid a scowl.
“Don’t tell me you think I should act like Zanthia?”
She named the most formal, uptight [Lady] of the north, Zanthia, who taught countless [Ladies] manners and etiquette with an iron hand. And tongue. Magnolia rolled her eyes as she recited a lesson from rote.
“‘If a man and woman stand together for over five seconds, they have already suggested intimacy, correctly or incorrectly.’ Phaw.”
“Do you really want to gamble everything you’ve worked for on being right?”
Magnolia glowered at Ressa, but the [Maid] was right. Decades had gone into this moment and the truth was that Magnolia knew she was making a mistake by playing her cards too close to her chest. Boldness would work, but being in this precarious scenario meant that was the least likely thing you wanted to do.
How could you break through the mental barrier? Well—the answer seemed to be with lots of alcohol.
An interesting shift had moved part of the ballroom’s occupants. Like a spiral, they began to gather around something. Magnolia had seen it happen for a pair of Drakes who’d gone for daggers before being separated, a sprawling Drake who’d tripped fantastically and tossed her plate over eighteen people—
This time, the interest was more than in the accident. Magnolia stood on her tip-toes to see, cursing her lack of height. She turned to the taller Ressa.
“Ressa, what are they interested in over there? Has someone had a bad reaction to the food or something?”
The [Maid] peered over the heads. Then her eyes widened.
“Magnolia. You know the young woman you had on your list of things to do after ingratiating yourself to the Drakes here?”
“Which young w—her?”
“You may wish to move her up your list of priorities.”
Magnolia blinked. Then began to walk forwards.
It was called charisma. But what that looked like took many forms. It wasn’t just being likeable; that was one obvious example. However, it was also the ability to simply draw attention. To command attention.
Erin was a natural in some ways. Hers was often gentle—until she smacked you in the face with it. It was being likeable, finding the best in people, caring for those who no one cared about.
Lyonette’s charisma was different. She could do leadership, likeability, but her charisma was best when it was her, not a copy of Erin.
That meant—well—her charisma had edges. Make a stupid comment, yank the chair out from under her, and you’d get cut. Mrsha had learned that more than once—mainly from the chair trick.
“Yes, of course he could kill the Skeleton Lords. Pisces? I would believe it. Do you have to see everything to believe it?”
“No—but you must admit, the assertion that he slew no less than six in a battle is insane! That [Marksman] barely killed one. Even if that Human is a [Necromancer]—”
The others shuddered. Lyonette turned to the Drake arguing with her.
“I will have you know that Pisces is one of the most accomplished [Duelists] you will ever meet. Do you recall the King of Duels’ battle? The brave Instructor Tomoor? Well—he does not own a golden bell, but Pisces once possessed a silver one—and that was when he was sixteen!”
“Have you seen him fence?”
A young Drake put in excitedly. Lyonette nodded, chewing furiously as Magnolia stopped, staring at her.
“More than once. It was a rather funny moment at that—I believe he bet an entire cake against Ceria and Mrsh—er, a young Gnoll that he could beat the Captain of the Watch in a duel. Liscor’s Watch Captain, that is.”
“And did he?”
Lyonette sat back, sniffing haughtily in a copy of Pisces’ manner. Then smiled, despite herself, at the memory, much funnier in hindsight than at the time.
“He never managed to do it. He attempted to provoke her. Accordingly, she ordered him arrested. However, he managed to fend off two Senior Guards and an entire squad with a mop handle for over ten minutes. Then they arrested him and put him in jail.”
“What about the cake?”
“We brought it to him in prison.”
With big frosting depicting the incident. Mrsha had drawn it and then put Pisces behind bars before giving him the biggest piece. When Lyonette related that, all the listeners laughed.
Stories. How did you connect with people? You told them stories. And what better place in the world for telling the best stories about people than…The Wandering Inn?
“Do you have one about the Flamewardens? Captain Keldrass and his team?”
“No, I d—”
Lyonette nearly snorted wine out of her nose as she remembered one. She coughed, and went on.
“Very well. I…do have one. Do you know the Strongheart farm? Well, Captain Keldrass, Bevussa—also of Pallass—once visited his farm. I forget how it came about. I think Wailant, who’s a former [Pirate] himself, had invited Seborn over, but managed to get both teams instead. He liked adventurers. But he has ah, a custom—so allegedly, after drinking copiously—both teams found their Captains and the Stronghearts stark naked, shooting wands at targets in the field.”
Scandalized, some Drakes looked appalled and whispered, while others nearly died laughing. Even the scandalized Drakes wanted Lyonette to go on, though. This was enough gossip material for a month!
“What is it with Humans and getting naked every five seconds?”
A Drake muttered, affronted. Another one looked speculative.
“…I bet it’s the lack of a tail. It’s so easy. You just pull off your pants and—done!”
Theories on Human propensity to nudity were put aside. Everyone wanted to hear more.
“So you are from Liscor? I keep hearing that city’s name on the news, and I hadn’t heard it since, well, the Second Antinium Wars! Are there really…Antinium walking the streets? Those horrible things?”
Everyone looked at Lyonette. The young woman’s brows crossed.
“There are Antinium, just like Gnolls, Humans, and Drakes, Miss! In fact, I happen to know some of the Antinium and they are good people.”
Those around her shouted her down. Lyonette rose to her feet. She’d lost her audience in a moment. Her wild, drunken charisma had backfired. The [Princess] was in no mood to take back her words, though. She pointed around, eyes flashing.
“I see. Have any of you ever met an Antinium? Then you clearly know all about them, from hearsay and history! Pardon me, I mistook myself for the expert in the room! Do you know a single Antinium sir? Have you seen one in your life? No? What about you—or you, sir? Or…”
She began defending them. However, here lay Lyonette’s mistake. She swung around. A Gnoll stepped forwards, arms folded.
“I have met Antinium, Miss. In battle and up close. They have killed too many of my friends for my liking.”
Lyonette wavered. Hunt Commander Makhir of Manus looked at her. The Drakes around Lyonette murmured, recognizing his armband. Manus. The mood began to turn against Lyonette.
Magnolia pursed her lips. Now would be the time to say something, if only to save Lyonette from being pelted with dishes and food. She owed the young woman that, at least. She only wished Lyonette had chosen any other contentious topic in the world to need defending on. Still—Magnolia opened her mouth, as Lyonette searched for a reply.
“Your service to the Walled City does you credit, Hunt Commander. However, we can acknowledge war paints all enemy [Soldiers] the same way. The Antinium of Liscor are different. I can attest to that myself. The Hives are a separate matter; to my understanding, Liscor’s Antinium are even split from them ideologically. I am sure Miss Lyonette did not mean to impugn your fellow [Soldier]’s sacrifices in any way.”
A voice interrupted the argument. Not Magnolia’s. Wall Lord Ilvriss and Nerul Gemscale walked into the gathering by the food table as naturally as could be. Lyonette’s eyes widened.
“Wall Lord. That is interesting, coming from you, yes?”
The Hunt Commander swung around, seemingly as startled to see Ilvriss here as Ilvriss was to see Lyonette. The purple-scaled brows rose, but then Ilvriss looked at the Gnoll military leader from Manus.
“Hardly, Hunt-Commander. Merely pointing out a fact. More to the point—one should know one’s enemies, shouldn’t they? Especially those not fully united, rare as that might be within the Antinium. Or is divide-and-conquer not a recognized strategy in Manus?”
The Gnoll blinked. Everyone susurrated, and a young Wall Lady nodded behind Ilvriss. Rafaema locked her eyes on both Human and Drake. Finally! Someone who understood!
“I take your point, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss dipped his head at Makhir’s growl.
“My apologies, Hunt-Commander. I stepped in more to save this young woman from being a target of ire. We happen to know each other. Miss Lyon.”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Nor I, you.”
He gave her a long look as Lyonette rose. All those present blinked.
“You two know each other? This young woman? I am Nerul, by the way. Nerul of House Gemscale of Salazar. Delighted.”
The older, bigger Drake shook Lyonette’s hand in a firm handshake, smiling. She looked at Ilvriss’ uncle, then him.
“I am—delighted to meet you, Sir. I do know Wall Lord Ilvriss. We met. In Liscor. I…”
She trailed off, uncertain how to explain he’d often come to the very inn she worked at, the Erin-connection. Ilvriss finished the sentence for her.
“We both knew the Horns of Hammerad. And yes, the Halfseekers, the Flamewardens of Pallass, Griffon Hunt—fine adventurers all. I myself do not believe the Horns of Hammerad are dead until I see the very proof of it with my eyes. Hell’s Wardens do not die easily. Nor do [Mages] that Magus Grimalkin of Pallass himself has acknowledged!”
If only as lazy and in need of improvement. However, the little speech did wonders. Lyonette saw Ilvriss lift his cup. To the surprise of everyone, he spoke.
“Miss Marquin. Would you join me in toasting the bravery of adventurers wherever they might go? The courage to fight the undead? To the Horns of Hammerad!”
She lifted her cup at once. Everyone in earshot did the same. Lyonette clinked the rim of her cup against Ilvriss’. Then—they drank and began to talk.
Like old friends. Two people who had just seen the Horns, who had tried to help. Who knew them and had seen them vanish and worried out of more than passing concerns.
The Drake Wall Lord and the Human from Liscor. The ballroom watched, and began to turn on that moment. Rafaema, Makhir, Magnolia—all found themselves orbiting the moment, to their satisfaction, surprise, or disgruntlement.
Mivifa watched Lyonette from afar, jaw opened wide. The First Gardener, Earthspeaker, and the others were all looking at her. The Named Adventurer nearly threw up her claws, but it was the Wall Lady of Salazsar who tossed her plate up. Navine Gemscale nearly screamed.
“What is going on?”
The last piece of the puzzle no one had noticed—yet—that only the Salazsar Drakes would be able to put together made Navine nearly explode.
It was the ring on Lyonette’s finger.
Rafaema of Manus was confused. No—confused was what she’d been fifteen minutes ago. Confuzzled, bamboozled, flabbergasted—those were appropriate words.
Gobsmacked. That was a good one too. The female Dragon was staring at the target of her latest obsession of the last few months.
Lyonette du Marquin. 6th [Princess] of Calanfer if Ferris was right. He probably was; he was supposed to be one of Manus’ best.
However, Ferris hadn’t told her about that damn ring. It sparkled in the Dragon’s vision every time Lyonette shifted. She was speaking eagerly to Ilvriss, like they were old friends.
“That’s a Ring of Salazsar. A Wall Lord’s ring. You don’t think…?”
She whispered to one side. An answering growl came from the other person who could hear and reply, even with his enhanced hearing.
“I have no idea, no. But it’s definitely a Ring of Salazsar. The only Wall Lord I can remember there being a stink about not having his was Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
“No way. No way in all the walls in…he’s supposed to be a loyalist!”
“Maybe they’re just…he doesn’t know? Or she charmed him? Or it’s just intimacy? There was that Wall Lord who married one of my people.”
Hunt-Commander Makhir looked interested. He was Rafaema’s bodyguard, and while she normally resented Manus’ eyes on her, she was grateful for his input now. He wasn’t one of the Drakes; the Gnolls of Manus were just as loyal, but willing to talk to her about the tribes and other issues.
“The question is: does Calanfer know? Think of it the other way, Rafaema, yes?”
The Dragon tried to frame it in Human politics. Makhir waited, sniffing at his cup. Rafaema made a guess, like she was at her lessons. Her eyes widened.
“Hold on. Do you think maybe he arranged for her to go missing? Or—or he met her and this is a play from Wall Lord Ilvriss on Calanfer’s throne? That would be the most insane—”
“A Terandrian interest from a Drake? That’s a move worthy of a Wall Lord of his ambitions. Who knows? I’ll ask questions. But that young woman’s got more than just the eyes of the Drakes on her. Keep your eyes open.”
Makhir’s warning was one of the reasons why Rafaema trusted him and [Spearmaster] Lulv so much. She glanced over and saw Lyonette step back and immediately turn to a Gnoll as Ilvriss was practically dragged off by his sister. She drew closer, trying to listen.
“Excuse me. You are, er, Lion Solstice? I hope I am not disturbing you.”
The Gnoll gave her a dubious look, having perhaps heard Ilvriss slip up. Lyonette smiled.
“That’s right. And not at all! You are?”
“Ah. Excuse me.”
The Gnoll bowed slightly. He beckoned towards another Gnoll drifting their way.
“I am Gorauun of the Weatherfur Tribe. I was told you were the one who gave Faerie Flowers to a friend of my tribe. Also—did I hear you say that you learned to use your sword from a Gnoll…[Knight]?”
He gave Lyonette an interested look. She nodded, then spotted a familiar face coming her way.
“I also believe you know Feshi of my tribe—”
“I do! Hello again! How is um, Yerranola doing? Lord Kallinad? I didn’t see him here.”
Feshi was smiling at Lyonette, blinking with just as much surprise. She watched Ilvriss walking away. Then turned to Lyonette, who had managed to add more to her speculative value.
“They are both doing well, thank you, Lyon. They are still at the Meeting of Tribes.”
“I see. If Yerranola needs more flowers, I can arrange that.”
Gorauun coughed. He was an [Interspecies Negotiator], but was clearly out of the loop. Feshi murmured.
“Miss Lyon controls the Faerie Flower trade in the city.”
“The…entire trade? For the alchemical artifacts?”
The Gnoll looked surprised. Lyonette blushed. She was sobering, but the alcohol was still in her veins, making her a bit incautious.
Incautious and unable to think ahead, or she would have seen what was coming next.
“It’s a long story—”
“Excuse me! Are you the person to speak to for these flowers? My tribe came here to gather some for our [Shamans], but all our sellers told us they were suddenly out of stock and no more could be had!”
Eight Gnolls strode over at once. Unlike the Drakes, they had no problem butting into a conversation. Now Lyonette found herself talking to Gnolls who were as interested in her for the flowers as the Drakes had been for tales of adventurers—
And the Drakes still wanted to talk to her! She gulped from her cup, but made a mistake; she still had wine in there.
“What about this Gnoll? I have never heard of our people becoming [Knights] in any number. Was he born on Terandria or…?”
Gorauun still wanted to know. Lyonette’s face fell. The Gnolls, including Feshi, saw her sniff into her goblet. Suddenly misty-eyed.
“I—I don’t know if I can say. That is—if it’s appropriate to say here.”
She looked around the crowded ballroom, hardly the moment for an intimate, emotional moment. But Lyonette felt pretty darn emotional and intimate right now. The Horns—she looked at the Gnolls.
They might never know, if they parted ways.
“His name was Brunkr. He was a Gnoll [Warrior]—but he became a [Knight] right before—I’m sure he became a [Knight]. He was from the Silverfang tribe, in Liscor. Do you know them?”
Every Gnoll but one nodded, and then the last one did just out of peer pressure. Lyonette went on.
“I’m afraid…he was killed by a Named Adventurer. In disguise. Another Gnoll—Regrika Blackpaw.”
Feshi stiffened at the Named Adventurer’s name, whose title and reputation had been revoked, but she didn’t know why. The other Gnolls leaned in.
“How can this be? I heard Regrika had been stripped of her rank. She killed another Gnoll? The Blackpaw tribe denied that could have happened—”
“I saw her the day after they found him. It was her. Brunkr was—”
Lyonette spoke, misty-eyed. Ears and tails drooped as she recounted Brunkr’s meeting with her, removing the part about trying to kill Mrsha. Talking about his wound, him coming around, teaching her sword lessons.
Memory smoothed over his faults. Or the telling of it did. Lyonette finished with him getting his life’s dream, again taking out her part in giving him the class, making it seem like a random event of luck. By the time she finished the sad tale, there wasn’t a dry eye or furry nose not being blown.
“You were friends with him? A Gnoll?”
Lyon nodded at Gorauun. The Gnoll pressed a paw into her shoulder, but gently.
“Then you do him credit. It is good to meet a Human who considered a Gnoll so much a friend that she mourns him and remembers his name.”
“I wouldn’t forget.”
The [Princess] protested, as if that would be an unthinkable crime just to forget. And it would be in her world.
Not all Gnolls had learned to expect that of Drakes, though. Liscor was not all of Izril. So there she stood.
The Human who knew Drakes, Antinium, and Gnolls. Who had friends among adventurers. Who knew the very people who were on television.
“Miss Lyon is from Liscor. Didn’t I hear you say that you knew the Players of Celum?”
Feshi was saying to the others. More heads snapped around and some Drakes, unable to bear the wait, moved into the circle.
“Of course I do. Or do you mean the Players of Liscor? Um—the new Players of Pallass?”
“Really? Then do you know those plays? Do you have a copy of one? I have been advocating for a group to come to Oteslia!”
“I’m sure I could get a copy, Miss…?”
“Similaw. You could? That isn’t an idle boast, I hope?”
Lyonette scowled at the Drake.
“I do not make claims I cannot back up, Miss. I know the Players—but the plays are their property. Still, if you really wanted one, you could ask Esme or Temile…”
“I’ve tried, but they apparently get too many [Messages] to reply back to a single one! Even from a [Judge] of Oteslia!”
“Oh. Well. That’s not a problem for me. Perhaps I could ask.”
Look at her. In the center of it all, drawing in all the loose attention, with something for everyone. The Human. The bridge between worlds.
“The wrong one.”
Magnolia Reinhart murmured. She looked at Lyonette du Marquin. What a strange change had come over the arrogant brat she’d once met in Calanfer’s courts. She would have never believed it.
There she stood, far more of a woman than she had been a year ago. The same Lyonette that Magnolia had left to her own fate—no, this was the ideal outcome of letting her learn or fail on her own.
What Magnolia didn’t know was that it hadn’t been the sink-or-swim decision alone that she gave to people that had changed Lyonette. It had been the inn.
The [Lady] did know that the [Princess] was a good fit for this place. Yet there could have been someone else there.
Only one other person knew that, here. Only one other person saw the young woman laughing and making an inane comment instead of Lyonette. Less poised, more random, perhaps more offensive without meaning to be.
Wall Lord Ilvriss wondered why Lyonette had his ring on her finger. He glanced at Nerul and made a gesture. Navine was still haranguing him.
“If you’re here to sabotage me and mother, you can go right back to father and—”
“Excuse me, Navine. I have to talk to Lyonette. You might consider doing the same rather than ignoring Magnolia Reinhart.”
He let Nerul block Navine as she choked. The Wall Lord saw Lyonette talking to Drakes and Gnolls, all of whom wanted a piece of her. However, a Wall Lord had his tricks. He had the lay of the ball, and even if this was Oteslia, there were always moves you could do to get a private word.
“Excuse me, Miss Lyon. I see the floor is clearing. Would you care for a dance?”
Lyonette turned. A monocle popped off a Drake’s cheek, the tension holding it there lost. Gormauun checked his goblet as Feshi choked into her cup. The other Gnolls and Drakes turned to look at Ilvriss.
Lyonette just gave the Drake a look that said she knew what he was doing—and perhaps what he hadn’t thought of—and then nodded.
“Why not? Thank you, Wall Lord.”
There wasn’t actually much presence on the dance floor, but the musicians playing slow music saw the movement across the room as the Human and Wall Lord moved and half the people there followed them. They began to strike up a beat.
Ilvriss cursed as he heard the actual music to dance to. He pretended to slow, talking to Lyonette urgently.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were in Liscor with Erin—”
“I was! I’m looking for the cure, remember?”
Ah, yes. Of course. He eyed her.
“Haven’t you found it?”
“I’m getting it researched. What are you doing here?”
“I’m…on business. I can’t explain now.”
Could he trust her? Lyonette was giving him the same look. Ilvriss thought rapidly.
“We can discuss that later; I will extend an invitation or call on you.”
She nodded tightly, watching the pairs moving across the ballroom. Lyonette eyed the extra-long dress on her. It was thin fabric. Not sheer; modesty necessitated the opaqueness, but one gust of wind might turn half the dresses into one of Ryoka’s parachutes. Long, flowing—the worst thing for dancing. Ilvriss had a long ‘suit’, but it would be just as cumbersome to dance with.
Worse, this wasn’t a Terandrian ballroom and she had no desire to prove she knew a royal waltz to the Drakes and Gnolls. Lyonette studied the others as she spoke.
“Fine. Can we help each other or do you just want to dance?”
“Hardly that. Have you seen Oteslian dances? I will spare you that. Just one question among many—do you know if the Horns are alive?”
They tilted. Lyonette pretended to study his feet.
“No. But their statues aren’t in the garden.”
Ilvriss smiled, despite himself.
“Good. My second question is this: why do you have Erin’s ring on your finger?”
Lyonette blinked, and then noticed the piece of jewelry.
“Erin once hinted it was something useful. I…took it to not forget. Also, Mrsha would probably walk around with it on or lose it somewhere.”
“Well, that’s something. It’s significant. Especially in Drake culture. I fear my sister saw it.”
The young woman’s eyes widened in worry. Lyonette began to tug at the ring, forgetting that everyone was watching them. Ilvriss stopped her, putting his claw over her hand.
“Don’t. If you have it—perhaps it will help you more than Erin.”
“It…didn’t save her.”
Lyonette murmured, ducking her head. Ilvriss closed his eyes.
“It wouldn’t have. Not in an ambush. Just know that if you need help—it may save you. If you are ever, truly, in danger, show it to a member of Salazsar and use my name.”
The [Princess] hesitated, on the verge of taking it off anyways. Then she nodded and smiled up at him.
Navine was choking on the air. Had she just seen that? The quarrel—her taking off the ring and him stopping her?
And the smile? She wanted to sit down—no, get a drink—no, do both. This had gone far, far beyond a joke. This was too real.
She had to tell her mother. Everyone had seen it too! Now the two were laughing about something.
“Can you imagine what Erin would do if she were here? She’d probably already have set loose a plague of rats in the ballroom.”
Navine didn’t have an eavesdropping Skill or a magical ring for the same effect, so she completely misinterpreted the comment that made Ilvriss throw his head back and guffaw.
However—that wasn’t even the end of it. As the music began to play, the Human and Drake glanced around.
“Very well, best of luck to you. Oh—I may want to speak to Adventurers Saliss and Mivifa if I can. The business of Salazsar, though. Hopefully we can help each other.”
“Of course. Now—are we going to dance?”
Lyonette had been studying the other dancers on the ballroom. It was as dreadful as she feared. Some knew how to dance and she saw the whirling motions twirling the cloth into the air in an actually very lovely pattern—but also three couples tangle and one go down to a sprawling, cursing heap.
Ilvriss winced as he glanced sideways.
“Say rather I thought better of it. I will apologize—”
He made to bow, and Lyonette caught him.
“Are you mad? That is so—embarrassing! Is the implication that you can’t dance? That you’re that rude you’d offer to dance and refuse? That I can’t dance?”
The Wall Lord caught himself, but hissed back in irritation, his topaz eyes narrowing.
“I appreciate your attempt to save us face, Miss Marquin, but Oteslian traditional dances—not to mention their attire—is not for amateurs! I can handle myself because I took a month of lessons on top of my regular ones! You’ve never even seen them dance!”
“Then show me! I’m a [Pr—a fast learner!”
Lyonette held her arms out. Ilvriss looked around, saw Nerul waving excitedly, and made an annoyed sound. He adjusted her grip to the customary Drake positions, and spoke, rapidly.
“Step back. No—further back. We separate and meet—we can do one practice run and then stop. This is not a waltz. You see—”
Drake dances were fundamentally different. If the Terandrian style focused on the dance as a back-and-forth between both male and female, both partners intersecting as a couple—Lyonette realized the Drake viewpoint was different.
The style of dancing was as old as their Ancestors. Which meant it was copied from Dragons. And Dragons were giant creatures. Hence the cloth, modeled after their trailing wings and tails. It also meant each dancer gave the other a lot of space.
But the most characteristic difference between Human and Drake styles? Drake dances were selfish. There were entire moves in it that only cared for a single dancer, that you could perform alone. To dance, then, was to perform to your watchers.
It was beautiful. Showy. Lyonette could have studied it eagerly for days, learning all the steps! However, she only had time for one dance, and she was listening to Ilvriss as much as watching the few good examples.
“There. Now you know how complicated it is—”
The musicians were upping the tempo, and the few couples who’d dared to try their luck were evacuating the floor fast, realizing that this was not the song for bravado. Lyonette caught herself.
“I think I have it.”
“What? Are you as insane as Erin?”
The Wall Lord caught himself, nearly stumbling as he went to turn and avoided their clothing tangling at the last moment. Lyonette tossed her head back challengingly. She had not spent weeks dancing with Antinium just to pass up the one opportunity to test herself now!
Let alone on a proper dance floor, Drake or not.
“I may not be perfect—or even close to it. But I can give it a [Flawless Attempt]. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you, Wall Lord. So if you prefer not to…”
The purple-scaled Drake gave her an exasperated look. Then, despite himself, a smile appeared on his face. Challenging. Not the tired Ilvriss, or the stoic, mannered Wall Lord.
He looked at her, irritated, almost admiring of her bravado. Alive.
“If you trip and fall, I will not be able to catch you.”
“I won’t fall.”
[Balanced Posture], as if she were a [Lady] or [Dancer].
[Basic Footwork], for the [Fencer], [Warrior], or the above.
[Magnified Training] to learn as fast as she could.
Last of all, and certainly not least.
The ballroom chatter went silent as the Drake and Human walked towards each other. This time, Ilvriss stopped a good six feet away. He bowed, and so did Lyonette. Then—the two turned as the music swelled, the tempo picked up.
“Ancestors. Are they going to dance? My nephew must be mad. I knew a Drake who died by strangulation during a dance gone wrong.”
Nerul whispered to the nearest person to him—Feshi. Rafaema watched nearby, confused. The young woman clearly hadn’t known the dance.
Yet there she went. Mivifa stared as Lyonette spread her arms. She had no tail, but if she had—she would have lifted it slightly, like Ilvriss, curling the tip up.
The trailing, cumbersome, tangling damned dresses, the curse of Oteslian high society did something magical then. The light, featherweight fabric, layered complementary colors—Ilvriss’ a darker variation on blues, even purple on the deepest layers like his scales, Lyonette’s a fiery red and oranges, like her hair—
They caught the air and lifted up. Loose fabric began to whirl. Like opening flowers, or wings made of cloth—
The dresses began to fly. Trailing after the dancers as they turned, moving without letting the dresses touch the ground. Mivifa stared, entranced as she saw one of the first and only proper Oteslian dances take place.
A proper Oteslian dance was one in which you seldom stopped moving. It was selfish, as Lyonette had observed. Moreover; it was a show. You moved alone and rejoined your partner, in whirling arcs of cloth calculated to take advantage of the dress’ unique qualities.
It was a purely Drakeish idea. A Dragon’s arrogance. The secret of the way the dance ran was this: if you were anything less than perfect, you looked like a stupid idiot. It was meant only for someone who could appreciate it, who trained for it.
Who could give it the respect it was due.
Step. The young woman’s hair fluttered behind her like the outer petals of her dress. Almost like red wings.
Turn. The Wall Lord was almost as graceful as her, even without the Skill. His face was a study of concentration as a dark bloom of color followed him, like ink in the water.
Everyone was watching, from Drakes to Gnolls to the only other Humans in the room. It was beautiful, and the two’s contrasting colors and species only added to the surprise. The effect.
It struck him dumb. The sight made him go silent.
Even he…even he had only seen a proper dance of Oteslia’s colors eighteen times in over a hundred years.
Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn, the Earth Dragon of Oteslia, never attended formal balls. He wouldn’t have thought of this one, but two things had changed his mind.
He had heard Lyonette was here. And Rafaema.
He’d dressed like Flash and like the street, neglecting a suit or formal clothing. Ready to stick it to…whomever he was going to stick it to.
Now, he saw the Wall Lord and [Princess] dancing across the ballroom. As vividly as the first time he had ever seen it, as a little baby in the First Gardener’s arms.
Cirediel saw Lyonette smiling and felt jealous. He had no idea who that purple mushroom was, but he was jealous. He wanted to be dancing with Lyon! Even if he had never mastered a tenth of the steps.
He spotted Rafaema in the crowd, watching the event with all her usual intensity. The Lightning Dragon didn’t spot Cire at first. She was locked on Lyonette.
The young man began to push his way through the crowd, intent on greeting Rafaema as if it were a race, or demanding the next dance from Lyon. Did his mother know her? Maybe that was his in!
The whirling dance continued for only three minutes. Then—unable to continue steps she didn’t know, panting, Lyonette slowed. Her dress finally touched the floor and Ilvriss turned from where they had stopped, like two figures set diagonally apart, backs turned—to look at her.
The art ended. The applause began. Lyonette smiled and swept a curtsy at the [Lady] applauding with eyebrows raised. Magnolia Reinhart laughed ruefully.
Ilvriss met his uncle and sister’s gazes and shrugged. He bowed to Lyonette.
Cire strode towards Lyon, determined now. He passed Drakes murmuring.
“Astonishing! So that’s what it looks like!”
“You’re not supposed to trip people up with it? Well, I’m never doing that. I’ll wear a suit next time.”
“Totally Archmage. I mean—amazing. Ancestors damn it—”
Cire stopped. He turned, at the familiar voice. His eyes searched the crowd. The Drake’s head was turned and she looked…far, far older. Her scales weren’t even the same pigment. She looked taller and wore ornamental armor. Nevertheless, he knew that voice. Who else would say…?
Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers turned back as Lyonette walked back to the crowd, now a part of Oteslian society. Lost amidst them—the Earthspeaker saw Cire and blanched. The First Gardener whirled as Cire stared at the Named Adventurer.
“I—um—this—why are you here, Cire?”
He stared at her, stunned. Mivi—no, Mivifa, who had claimed there was no way she could be the same as the naked Drake, Saliss of Light had—
His eyes saw the wrinkles in her scales, the way she had grown older. Her expression, even the way she stood. The deeper tone in her voice. Dead scales, discolored patterns, every mortal sign of aging.
He stood there as Rafaema turned. The young Dragon backed away as Lyonette saw him and grimaced; Cire stood out even among the colorful Drakes. Bewildered, the [Princess] saw the stricken look on his face. Too real to be…
Mivifa stepped forwards. Cirediel turned and ran. He shoved past Drake waiters, ran past the Gnolls. Ran like the undead of the Village of Death themselves were chasing him.
Thus, the most memorable, successful, and of course, scandalous ball in Oteslia…kept right on going.
Magnolia Reinhart and the [Princess] of Calanfer stood in the center of the ballroom, speaking, drawing attention by virtue of their respective talents.
The [Princess] was better at attracting it unwillingly; she had an excellent teacher. The [Lady] of House Reinhart was better at other things.
“The Helm of Fire is a Drake treasure. I understand the shares of the adventurers’ artifacts are not sufficient for how many participated. It is likely at least one object will be auctioned; no one team can afford the price of a relic-class object. Given that, I would be delighted to make a bid for the Helm of Fire.”
Heads turned. Lyonette frowned at Magnolia, breaking her discussion off on the very same topic.
“You would purchase the Helm of Fire on behalf of the Drakes?”
The [Lady] smiled at Lyonette, and her eyes held the [Princess]’ just for a second.
“It would not be the most outlandish thing I’ve ever bid on, Miss Lion Solstice. However, I very much doubt I would be in the minority for this bid. Even my coffers are not unlimited. Perhaps I should back a more appropriate source? Drakes should reclaim Drake artifacts, even if only in bidding. Now, which Walled City should I support if that were the case? Where is the First Gardener? I have an intriguing idea to offer her.”
Some of the listeners gasped at the idea. Magnolia’s knowledge of adventurer bidding wars was esoteric. If it came to a bid, of course the Walled Cities would be among the top contenders for a relic of their species. Oteslia would never have a chance, though. Not against Salaszar, Pallass, Fissival, or Zeres.
If you could buy affection…Magnolia was doing a better job. However, the First Gardener did not immediately appear to lend credence to her offer. Which was fine; the rumor was enough.
The First Gardener had, in fact, hurried out of the ballroom on some public matter with the Earthspeaker, Mivifa, and every other high-ranking Oteslian official. It raised Ilvriss’ brows and Nerul’s, because they noticed such things.
No one cared what was happening in the ballroom anymore. Mivifa flew out of the ballroom, shouting for him. Heads turned as the Oldblood of Feathers used her unique wings to fly.
Cirediel was gone. His protectors panicked, fearing what this truth might do to him. Mivifa was joined in seconds by the [Pegasus Riders], who spread out to search the city for the unique boy they were charged with protecting.
This was his city, though. Where might he hide? Mivifa flew to his usual hangouts, not sure what to say. What could she say? She cursed Lyonette and the party—even as she felt a horrible sense of relief.
He knew. It was time he knew. If only it could have been broken to him more easily.
Even Hunt Commander Makhir joined in on the search, his nose an invaluable asset. Manus and Oteslia were sometimes at odds, but they had not actually been to war in…well, a century. Roughly the time a certain egg had been found, while Manus was raising the young hatchling themselves.
No one noticed the truce except for the most savvy experts in Drake politics, who noticed the two cities never came to blows. Like the Cyclops of Pallass, for instance.
In this, Manus was united with Oteslia. Makhir hurried off, cursing at the tangling scent-trails—and issues of tracking a flying quarry.
Rafaema of Manus did not fly into a frenzy. She had seen Cire’s face as he looked at Mivifa. She knew…exactly what had happened to him in that moment.
The Dragon walked out of the ballroom. She spread her wings and leapt into the air. She had not worn the traditional Oteslian dress, instead taking to Manus’ customs of wearing armor even at formal events. She flew upwards, then turned.
She had not told the First Gardener. However, she thought she knew where Cire was. It was Mivifa’s instinct to look for his haunts, lock down the walls and gates, the First Gardener’s to check Cire’s rooms.
As if he were a normal boy. Rafaema shook her head. She knew where he was. They’d think of it. She got there first.
The door of the protected, sealed room was ajar. Someone was crying inside. The girl found the boy inside. He was kneeling on the ground. He tried to hide his face and wipe his tears when she saw him.
They were both young. A hundred years, and they were young. Young—and terribly old. If they had been allowed to live beyond their walls, they would have seemed far older.
Somehow, Oteslia had preserved the innocence of their Dragon. The girl was changing. Growing older. Manus wanted a leader, so it had never been the same.
The First Gardeners had seen the value of childhood, of happiness, however forced. Joy until he was older. They had protected it—too much.
Better than her, though. The girl heard the boy’s voice.
“Go away. Go away, Rafaema.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Cirediel. I knew you’d be here.”
She stepped into the little room, past wards of magic long since spent. It was a strange place. It had been hidden for countless ages.
Here—in the very roots of Oteslia’s great tree. Buried among the growing wood. Unearthed by chance. It had held only one thing, that the First Gardeners had found here.
An egg. The legacy of Dragons. No one remembered who could have put him here. His parents were lost to time.
He had been carried from this place before he hatched. He had grown up in different rooms, far above, changing nurseries, rooms.
He would remember this spot, even so. Just like she did.
“Get lost! I—I’m not crying. Tell Mivifa I don’t want to talk to her! I don’t want to talk to anyone! They’re all liars! They lie to my face and laugh at me.”
The young woman hesitated. Then she stepped further into the room. The boy was curled up, hiding under his wings. A ball of misery.
A Dragon. He’d taken off his ring. The other protections.
Were it anyone else, Rafaema would not know what to say, other than the way a [Commander] inspired soldiers. Rough discipline. Knock some sense into him.
Cire, though…she stood there for a second. Then she plucked her ring from her finger, murmured two phrases. Her body changed.
A long neck rose. Her true scales were deep blue. Not like sapphire; not purely one color. They looked like the color of sky before dark storm clouds overtook them. Her eyes shone with two colors; topaz and amethyst. Gemstones.
His scales were brown and green. Like the very tree itself. A wondrous brown, though. Not like soil or mere wood. His eyes were a clementine orange mixed with rosewood pink.
They were the last of their kind, as far as either knew. Two children, raised by well-meaning, overprotective guardians with grand dreams for them.
The last hope of their kind. Leaders of their descendants to a glorious new age.
It was a heavy burden. They were so young. No one could tell them what they were.
The Earth Dragon snuffled as the Lightning Dragon stepped into the small place where he had been found. Abandoned? She spoke, looking down at him; she was larger than he, and both were still growing.
“You didn’t know Mivifa was a Named Adventurer?”
“I knew. I just never saw her. Not like that. She lied to me. She told me just the other day she wasn’t…I knew.”
Cire’s voice was sulky. Rafaema hesitated, and then nodded. He probably did, deep down. He hid his face in a wing.
“Leave me alone, Rafaema. This is so—not Archmage.”
She rolled her eyes at the childish expression. She huffed and inadvertently shot some sparks from her mouth in irritation.
“Grow up. I know they coddle you here—you know they’re tricking you. Tell them to stop. Or do you really think the First Gardeners all go on holiday when they get—”
The younger boy shouted. His voice echoed loudly and dangerous drops of acid escaped his mouth. However, that was not what made the girl relent. It was the pain in his voice. He hid his head in his wings again.
“I know. Don’t you think I know? I just don’t—”
It was always like this. She said something and hurt his feelings, or he made her mad. They fought every time they met. For the last two of their kind, they should have been more kind. Maybe it was because seeing each other so briefly just made them more lonely.
However, there were things only they could say to each other. Only they could understand. Cire’s eyes opened wide and looked up with a mortal horror. He whispered.
“I knew. I can tell when they’re getting older. I don’t think about it. I don’t want to. Call me a child if you want, Rafaema. I don’t want to say goodbye. I looked at Mivifa—and I saw her dying. Rotting with age. I’m going…I’m going to see her die. She’s going to grow old and I’ll still be young. She’ll hate me.”
The young woman looked down at him and remembered the day she had realized her friends were different people wearing their faces, acting like them. She had tried to destroy it all, that day. For nearly a decade onwards.
“I know. They think it will make us feel better.”
She had known they aged and died from the start. Him though…he was more fragile. He cried more than she did, over dead pets. Over his beloved parents.
Manus had made her heart hard. Or maybe it was just the difference between them. She stepped forwards and awkwardly tried to place a claw on his shoulder. That was such a…Drake thing. A bipedal gesture.
She lay down next to him instead.
“That’s who we are.”
“Some of the Drakes say it’s because we’re better. I hate it. I don’t want to live this long. I want to be grown. I don’t want to do any of this.”
She let him snuffle and lay there. She too wished she had someone to ask all the questions in her heart. She was the older one, but in moments like this, she was helpless to tell him anything that would make him feel better.
All she knew of her kind were in the oldest of stories. Dragons were just mythical beings. Quests for [Dragonslayers] and [Knights] to challenge. Ruthless predators. Rulers…
Not people. In this moment, Rafaema realized a truth of her kind, through living with their descendants, the Drakes, for so long.
This was why Dragons didn’t mingle with other species. This was why they hid away. They stayed only for a generation, two at most. They did not remain to protect the places they formed connections to.
Because all their friends passed away. That was what Cire was always afraid of.
What a well-meaning accident. A disaster Oteslia had made out of good-faith attempts.
The two children said nothing more for a long time. He broke the silence by reaching for a little ring. His body blurred, shrinking, compressing into the fragile, false form he wore among them all. Still unable to hide who he really was fully.
She did likewise. Cire wiped at his eyes, then tried to smile.
“I really wish you hadn’t come. This is so—uncool. You seeing me like this.”
She let the lie pass, again. Rafaema shrugged.
“You’re not ever ‘cool’. Better this than seeing you chasing after another Drake and telling me how many people you’ve had sex with this month.”
He turned red.
“I’m more mature!”
She just looked at him, until he blushed more furiously and ran ahead. They didn’t fight as fiercely as before. This was how her visit had started. Maybe it would be better this time.
“Let’s get back to the party. I have business there. Besides—you should show yourself so they all stop worrying. The First Gardener should be present. You’re making more work for her.”
“I know that. I have business there too! Did—did you see that Human dancing? There’s something about her.”
Rafaema scratched at her neck spines. Two seconds and he was back to normal. She tried to humor him—and failed.
“You mean, the [Princess] of Calanfer?”
Cire smacked into the doorframe. He whirled, eyes wide.
“What? She’s a [Princess]? I knew there was something special about her! You felt it too, didn’t you?”
Rafaema frowned. She spread her wings as they left the secret place and leapt into the sky after him. Cire swore as she shot past him; she was the faster flier too. Faster temper, faster, stronger, older…he labored to catch up.
“How do you know?”
“Manus has intelligence. You should try getting some yourself. We have reports on everyone—she barely tries to hide it. You really didn’t know?”
“No! No one lets me see intelligence reports after I took one to show the others!”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
They flew on. Someone spotted them within a minute; Rafaema raised a claw and Cire waved guiltily. The relieved [Pegasus Rider] began calling off the alarm as they flew back.
“There was something about her. I just knew…she’s pretty hot, don’t you think?”
“…Do you think before you ask me these things?”
Rafaema glared at Cire. He shrugged impishly, flying backwards through the air and trying to lounge at the same time.
“You did feel something, didn’t you? [Princess]-senses. That’s my new power.”
The Lightning Dragon sighed.
“We don’t have [Princess]-senses. That’s just the storybooks of Dragons kidnapping royalty. Read between the lines! They were political hostages. Besides, I’ve met [Princesses] before. And [Queens]. There’s nothing special about them.”
“Oh. Well, maybe she’s special. I feel it. Come on, I’ll introduce you. You’ll see it too!”
He darted ahead. Rafaema shouted after him.
“Where do you feel it? Because if it’s where I think it is—I’ll stab you. Right where you feel it.”
The return of the two wards of their Walled Cities to the ball…went about as unnoticed as their departure.
More people were concerned with Lyonette and Magnolia. The younger woman’s connection with the Gnolls, her startling familiarity with Ilvriss and all it suggested…
There were rumors about that already, from Liscor. Now she was here, right when there was a chance for peace. Her dance had impressed the Drakes. The gossip about Ilvriss was already covering miles.
Scandalous. Intriguing. Even charming.
Wrong. Horrendous. Not to be suffered. Not here. Not in a Walled City. A Human…?
No. As Rafaema and Cire walked through the crowd, Cire with the confidence of the First Gardener’s son to push through towards the [Princess], the dignitary changed directions. Instead of Magnolia, he introduced himself.
“Excuse me—you are Miss Lion Solstice, of Liscor? I have heard so much of Liscor myself, and I wondered if I might have a word?”
Lyonette turned to the smiling Drake. He, like many of the Drakes here, bore his city’s sigils proudly on his arm. The city above a wave—Zeres.
Some of the others harrumphed at typical Zeresian rudeness. The [Dignitary] transferred his wineglass from one claw to the other. He took Lyonette’s hand, speaking.
“Your dance—I am sure everyone has offered compliments, but it was quite exceptional. Are you with Lady Reinhart? Ah, what am I saying? Two Humans in the same city? I’m also told you control the flower-trade. Remarkable, at your age.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m not with Lady Reinhart, but we are…acquainted.”
Lyonette felt the handshake go on a bit too long. She tried to tug free. The Drake smiled.
“Humans in the south. Trying for peace in our times. Even hints of marriage between species on the highest levels.”
His eyes locked on the ring. Lyonette blushed and tried to yank her hand back.
“I don’t know what you’re insinuating…sir, but that is both personal and incorrect! None of your business, either way!”
The Drake looked down at her. Rafaema sighed as Cire waved for Lyonette’s attention, but the [Princess] was too busy to notice him. She saw the Drake finally let go.
“I rather think it is. This—is what I think of Human reconciliation, Miss.”
He reached for his side, drew the dagger, and lunged in one movement towards her chest. Rafaema’s eyes went wide. Lyonette stared, recoiling too slow. The other Drakes nearby just blinked at the smooth movement.
The Zeresian Drake missed. He twisted mid-lunge, and ducked the dagger which nearly went through his skull. It flashed through the air until it buried itself in a distant wall.
Ressa snapped. She’d thrown the dagger, spotting the move in the midst of the party. However, she was too far away, too crowded, for another shot. The Drake’s dagger stabbed—
Into Lyonette’s side, missing her heart. He snarled, drew the blade back. Lyonette was trying to hurl her drink in his face, reach for her sword. He aimed again—
Staggered. Every guest in ten feet save Lyonette and two other Drakes went flying as Magnolia slapped the air. It should have tossed the Drake with the dagger like a bug against the wall, but he had anti-aura training. He snarled, but brought up the bloody dagger. Lyonette was gasping; her face had gone white.
Poison! She saw a flash of a young woman lying on the ground. No! Not this! Not—
Ilvriss was running towards her, sword raised. Magnolia was shouting as Ressa tossed another dagger, but Ressa held back from charging the killer. The [Maid] was guarding her target, looking for a second. The Drake deflected the projectile. He took careful aim at Lyonette’s throat, reaching for her hair.
It was all happening in seconds. Cire’s head rose as he picked himself up from where he’d been thrown by the Skill. He saw Lyonette crying out, the dagger swinging.
Then the second Drake brought the sword down. It was a perfectly-executed cut, just like she’d done a hundred thousand times on the training fields.
Hunt Commander Makhir, bow drawn, racing into the ballroom, saw the assailant’s arm drop, dagger still clutched in the claws. The Drake spun, staggering—went down on his knees.
She had cut his tendons in the same stroke. The young Dragon’s sword rose. Her eyes were wide, but she finished the move by memory. Instinct.
Rafaema beheaded the Drake, finishing the sword technique. Ilvriss slowed; Ressa paused with a trio of daggers ready to throw. Magnolia Reinhart blinked as Rafaema of Manus stared down at the first person she had ever killed with a weapon.
Then Ilvriss was charging for Lyonette with a healing potion—a second before Ressa thrust him away, with a general antidote in her hands. Finally, someone inhaled to scream, the guards rushed forwards, Mivifa and a dozen [Pegasus Riders] burst into the ballroom…
Lyonette’s face regained color as the failed assassination attempt ended. Halted by a Wall Lady of Manus, made on a Human—which one didn’t matter—in Oteslia. By a Drake of Zeres, in seeming, at least.
Rafaema, kneeling, shaken, sword still bloody, looked at the Human whose life she’d saved. Makhir was looking for more targets, the First Gardener and Magnolia speaking, guards surrounding them, and someone hurling accusations at the Zeresians who were bellowing back.
Amidst it all, as Lyonette looked at her savior and their eyes met, Rafaema felt it too. For her, an electric crawl running down her body. A full-fledged reaction, like Cirediel had described. Only, not mere attraction. This was more than instinctual like or dislike, acquaintanceship, friendliness, distrust, lust—all of which Rafaema could process as they came to her, person to person.
This was different. Cirediel had thought it was liking her? Idiot. That silly little—
Rafaema sniffed, but it wasn’t smell. More like…a faint connection. Pheromones, or something only for them. It didn’t come from Lyonette, but she had been close. Her eyes went wide.
She sensed another Dragon on the [Princess].
All things considered, it was some party.
[Worldly Princess Level 25!]
[Skill – Greater Resistance: Poison obtained!]
Ceria Springwalker woke up. Panting, head covered by a wet bit of cloth. Someone had managed to give her water, and she was not dead. She sat up in the mud-brick home, sheltered from the desert heat in the lee of wherever she was. She babbled—raised a hand to her head—head fell back.
She still managed to send it off.
Ceria to Montressa: Alive. Find Pisces. Ksmvr. Yvlon. Can’t tell where. Teleported. Lost. Chandrar.
Then she passed out again. Her friends realized as Montressa ran out of her rooms screaming—they were looking in the wrong continent.
Too slow. Too late.
The Horns of Hammerad landed, each in a different nation.
Author’s Note: It’s a short chapter! If you were expecting more, well, there was more, and I would have written it and revised it, but I ran out of time.
Namely, getting my 2nd shot in the middle of my writing schedule. Shots are important…but it might be unpleasant so I’m working around it.
I won’t be updating on Saturday to give myself a break to deal with it (last one was not fun), but I’ll be back on Tuesday! And if I’m conscious enough—the Patreon poll should come up with this chapter! I had another 1/3, but it needed more polish so I haven’t included it here; it also isn’t a thematic fit in some ways…
Well, that’s all from me. This is the legendary ‘short’ chapter; hope you enjoyed! See you when I get back…soon! But stay healthy. Very important. I still haven’t gotten majorly sick or broken bones while writing this entire web serial, which is actually sort of nice given how long it’s been—let’s aim to keep that record going!
Zel Shivertail by ArtsyNada, commissioned by Flower Knight Yarrick and Discord readers!