If you had never heard of her before, well, that was hardly surprising. She was famous, but so were all her siblings by virtue of being born. She was important—but hardly the first son or daughter in her line.
In a world where the King of Destruction existed, her fame was very small by comparison. Her importance next to nothing as she did not rule her nation. She was not the most beloved [Princess] of Calanfer; nor, in this moment, even the most important.
The 6th and second-youngest [Princess] was needed in the dark hours of the war with Ailendamus. Unmarried, and whilst not said overtly, the only virginal, eligible [Princess] for marriage that Calanfer had to offer.
That mattered in Terandria. Calanfer’s [Princesses] were a type of wealth the Eternal Throne of Calanfer used. Marriages could give classes; at the very least they conferred status and connections with Calanfer. The appeal was more than just immediate as well. If a [Baron] or a [Lord] married a [Princess], their children became royalty, and had the potential, however faint, to succeed the throne.
Thus, Lyonette du Marquin was one of the last bargaining chips, as the 7th Princess was far too young, being only thirteen, for anything but an arranged marriage—and if Ailendamus were to triumph in the interim, all arranged events would be off.
Thus, Calanfer needed to marry a [Princess] off for immediate military gains if such a thing could be arranged. Hence, their unmarried [Princesses] were important.
Lyonette, that was. Not her.
Many had never heard of her outside of Terandria, or the closest kingdoms in the south. Yet, of all the [Princesses], even the eldest, 1st Princess, Shardele du Marquin, who was married to one of the highest-ranking [Dukes] of Calanfer, or the 3rd Princess Aielef, who had married into Kaliv’s own extended royal family to affirm ties between the Dawn Concordat—a practice they had honored for countless generations—arguably the most famous of all was the 4th Princess of Calanfer.
Not because she was the highest-leveled, the closest to the throne, most radiant, or most beloved. It was a reputation besides all that.
They called her Seraphel the Cursed behind her back. Seraphel du Marquin, the 4th [Princess] of Calanfer.
Seraphel the Widow. So named because she had been married three times. Each time—the marriage had ended in death.
…Not, actually, in the case of the second marriage. The first had been to an old man in his seventies who had died in bed. The second to a boy, who broke the engagement; it was just his fiancée who died in the attempted elopement afterwards. But you know how people talked.
The third husband of Seraphel du Marquin though—had died rather quickly after marriage. The mere fact that Seraphel had not stayed in any one relationship for more than four years at most, and the deaths of two out of three had given her the name.
Seraphel the Cursed. Not exactly a name that was helpful for future engagements. Nor—bluntly speaking—was her value as high as before. She was old—which was to say, she was nearly thirty years old instead of being younger. Of course, that was only in terms of marriageability. Of course…that was what a [Princess] was generally good for.
So, then. If you had heard of her, Seraphel would be ‘that’ princess, the one from Calanfer who killed her husbands by ill fortune. Unmarried once more after the Noelictus incident; perhaps they’d find a husband willing to take the risk abroad, poor girl. Still a [Princess], though. She’d have a fine, pampered life if it weren’t for the war.
That was what they would say, and assume, because they had heard of her nickname and the barest, dubiously-confirmed ‘facts’, that they knew her.
So, when the 1st, 3rd, and 4th [Princesses] of Calanfer attended the ball, Seraphel attracted the most looks of all. There were the usual titters of interest, the looks towards her as people recognized her name.
Not that it was necessarily easy to tell the [Princesses] apart if you had never seen them. Each one had red hair. The fiery red to deep crimson, marks of royal blood in Terandrian royalty.
“Announcing Princess Shardele, Princess Aielef, and Princess Seraphel du Marquin of Calanfer!”
The eldest was Shardele, and only in her mid-thirties at that. Each [Princess] had been born roughly two to four years apart, and Shardele, the named successor over her younger brother, the 1st Prince, had been set up to inherit the throne. She had married one of Calanfer’s most powerful [Dukes], and her image as the reliable, intelligent daughter of his Majesty Reclis du Marquin, was firmly in the mind of Calanfer’s people. If any had been at this gathering of the nobility and foreign royalty, they certainly would have flocked to her.
Of course, that was due to the fine work of the [Bards], Thronebearers, and other elements of Calanfer’s propaganda arm who sung her praises. Shardele was…fine. She knew the games and the steps, but in all likelihood, if Reclis keeled over tomorrow, it was her Majesty who would take over. Calanfer’s [Queen] was as sharp as her husband, and Shardele might get to either ruler’s deftness or their actual levels—in twenty years.
“Don’t worry about the whispers, Seraphel. They do talk so.”
The 1st Princess turned to the 4th, with a beatific smile on her face, as if she was addressing one of her enamored subjects. Since it was her sister, it just reminded Seraphel there were whisperers.
Of course, Shardele had meant to say it for anyone listening in. She was aware of her reputation and she was a dutiful daughter in that she rigorously maintained it. Naturally, being an avid consumer of Dreamleaf had to help in that regard. She was most certainly blissfully in the clouds even now for this wonderful…ly tedious gathering.
“Yes, quite. The things they say when we are at war. Half the nations represented here are holding back when they know we are fighting a common enemy. Let’s remind them of that.”
Aielef’s voice was more snappish and awake. Obviously, because Kaliv was being slowly overtaken by Ailendamus and she was in the most danger. She spoke well, and you’d never know to look at her fiery orange hair that it was, in fact, dyed.
Aielef was blonde and unfortunately, a bit purple. Quite attractive in its own way, but it would never do for a [Princess] of Calanfer not to be red-haired. She dyed it.
She also spoke of the need for other kingdoms to take up arms with the Dawn Concordat, quite happily omitting the fact that her husband was fighting—and her two children were both in Kaliv. Then again, this was a diplomatic tour Aielef was on, and they occupied one of Kaliv’s strongholds.
The somewhat uncharitable facts about the two [Princesses] were probably not being thought by anyone else in the room. Shardele and Aielef were more like exotic birds, and their peers among royalty and other nobility were keen on meeting the [Princesses], entertaining their pleas for support for the Dawn Concordat, and perhaps Seraphel for a marriage to a cousin as a favor.
They didn’t know the older two like Seraphel did, but the 4th Princess of Calanfer had grown up with her siblings for a while before they’d begun to be married off, and they did like to visit ‘home’, the capital and Eternal Throne of Calanfer.
Siblings knew all of their family’s faults. Shardele sighed and Seraphel nudged her slightly as they glided across the floor, each one the image of grace and decorum and Calanfer’s famed etiquette.
“Breath tonic, Shardele. You smell like dreamleaf. Were you smoking it by the bushel?”
The 1st Princess didn’t even glance at Seraphel as her younger sister whispered it. She took a small vial and sipped before tucking it away; it could have been any number of things, or, as some would rightly assume for the wrong reasons, a breath freshener.
“I resent that, Seraphel. We haven’t seen each other in nearly a year and a half, and we are at war. I try to be kind, and this is my thanks?”
The 4th [Princess] rolled her eyes, but subtly. And Shardele wondered why her children, Calanfer’s heirs, slept so much and had such vivid dreams all their lives. Well, it beat the times she’d ‘experimented’ with stronger substances.
Aielef met the host of the ball with all smiles.
“Your Highness. You do us a great honor in welcoming us at this hour. Calanfer thanks you, and his Majesty sends regrets that he could not attend himself. Alas, the duties of war are most pressing.”
She bowed slightly, and the oldest [Prince] of Nadel bowed back, smiling.
Nadel, the small nation known for the Lord of the Dance more than its [King]. Prince…Seraphel’s brows crossed and a Skill plucked the name from memory…Ruis was fifty years old. One son; third in line to the throne and unlikely to inherit. Considered highly loyal; he had no apparent ambitions. Often he helped with royal affairs by orchestrating and overseeing these kinds of events as the royal diplomat of the family.
Facts dredged from their encyclopedic knowledge, each [Princess] smiled. They could have recited the names of every member of Nadel’s royal family up to the third generation removed in a heartbeat. When they bowed, it was in the unisex gesture of Nadel, with the slight flourish of the body that the Lord of the Dance had stylistically added by virtue of everyone copying him.
“Princess Aielef, Princesses Shardele and Seraphel, you are welcome in Nadel. Of course, we understand his Majesty’s pressing concerns and we hope that your visit will prove fruitful for the Dawn Concordat, our old friends. Please, enjoy yourselves and I hope to speak later, if we may?”
All three [Princesses] nodded. The polite speech that Prince Ruis delivered at reasonable volume was meant to be heard by many. It might have seemed like sweet nothings and it was—a bit.
However, if you could translate it, you could pick up on some clues.
‘Our old friends’. The Dawn Concordat had been enemies to Nadel as well as friend. Fair-weather friends was a better word for it, but it meant Nadel wasn’t blind to Ailendamus’ threat. However, Ruis didn’t even suggest an alliance, merely expressed hopes of a ‘fruitful visit’. In other words, Nadel was willing to help—not overtly.
Seraphel could have told anyone that before hearing the speech, but she breathed politics so the mental decryption was second-nature to her.
This was the 4th gathering she’d attended, in and out of the Dawn Concordat’s borders. What she and the other [Princesses] were doing—all six of the ones in Terandria, even her teenage sister, the 7th Princess, Ellet—was fundraising. Seeking support.
Calanfer was good at diplomacy. So these three [Princesses] had gone from place to place, speaking of Ailendamus’ unconscionable aggression, assuring people the war was not lost—but if they saw fit to contribute money or arms? Reminding them that they might be next.
They got little in the way of outright support. Even here, people were afraid to openly shout their loathing of Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat wasn’t beloved universally. Nevertheless, with a bit of charm Skills, actual charm, and the exigency of the war, this gathering might net…
Three [Princesses], and Nadel’s not poor with trade, but no noble here is worth that much and they might be reluctant to open their coffers. If the crown chips in nothing, we might come away with…two thousand gold coins? Eight thousand would be the most we could expect.
Seraphel did some mental calculations. That seemed reasonable. How many [Mercenaries] did that buy? How many artifacts? How long could that feed an army? Well, that implied buying food…if a siege occurred, no amount of gold would help.
She would know. She let Shardele step forwards and smile sweetly at Ruis. All three knew what to do.
“I would be delighted if you would introduce me, your Highness?”
He was already nodding, having expected that. Shardele would meet with the most powerful first, as the face of Calanfer. Aielef looked around, already seeking a [General] or militant [Lord] or [Lady] that would care to talk with someone from Kaliv.
Which left Seraphel to take the busybodies and people interested in gossiping. The 4th Princess kept a smile on her face. That was easy.
…In truth, it was about as bad as Lyonette du Marquin expected. Family never changed. Or did they?
She had, but to look at it, not one of her elder sisters had. The [Princess] sat, glumly resting her chin in her hands.
“It seems the [Princesses] of Calanfer have elected not to follow one another, but have come in at once. Quite a humble gesture—no doubt a personable one, given Nadel’s proximity to the Dawn Concordat.”
The speaker in the background was half-whispering, offering a kind of hushed commentary meant to be solemn as the view of the ball slowly rotated about. There was also an element of impreciseness to the commentary, and the scene faded for a bit.
Lyonette frowned and shook the scrying orb a bit. Mivifa had told her it worked, and somehow, the magical connection cleared. Lyonette wasn’t sure why slapping an enchanted glass orb helped, but Saliss had ‘fixed’ it twice by doing just that.
The commentator was visible in the bottom left of the screen; not a Drake for once, but a very formally-dressed woman. Human. After all, this wasn’t on Wistram News Network—or even Wistram’s other offshoot channels.
It was called Terandrian Graces, one of the channels devoted to 24/7 coverage of all things political. The reason the connection was so spotty was that it had just been established and since Wistram wasn’t hosting it, reception was weak even in a major city. Also—it might not be the most-viewed channel.
Certainly not compared to the sports-channel. Wistram Sports was showing a game between Pallass and Invrisil, and Lyonette might have been watching that—but Wistram was struggling to keep up with the demand from Izril, who were tuning in to watch the first species vs species game.
This was more interesting to Lyonette, anyways. This was home. When she’d seen that they were going to broadcast a bit of Nadel’s ball, and that three [Princesses] of Calanfer were attending, she’d begged to have the scrying orb.
Saliss had let her have it—only because he and Xif were gathering with some Pallassians to watch their city win. Well, much luck to them. Lyonette happened to know Joseph had been teaching the Invrisil team longer than Pallass’, so the Drakes might be in trouble.
Anyway, she was watching the ball and calling it for the disaster it was—although only a [Princess] would be able to tell, or a Calanfer [Socialite]. She would have happily told anyone listening—but not even Wilovan or Ratici could sit in the room and listen without starting to nod off.
The two Gentlemen Callers were here, though. Casually standing watch, or amusing themselves while keeping ‘an eye out’.
She wasn’t going anywhere without them anymore, and the two had agreed to escort her from now on after hearing about the stabbing attempt. Lyonette felt at her stomach.
Idiot. Looking at the images from home reminded her of how risky it had been. True—it was a ball and she’d thought she’d be safe in Oteslia! Hah!
No proper [Princess] of Calanfer went about without at least four [Knights] at all times. She could see some of the Thronebearers, fulfilling their duties in both bodyguard and diplomat roles. That was what they were good at.
“Not so much fighting. And I wonder if they can deal with poison if Mrsha managed to poison four of them. Dead gods, what are they doing in Liscor?”
Lyonette was stressed out. It was not an unusual occurrence, but there was a lot to stress about recently. This? This wasn’t helping.
“Disastrous. They didn’t come out all three at once because it was a ‘humble gesture’. They did it because Shardele can’t be bothered to do introductions properly if she’s Palt-ed up on Dreamleaf. She certainly is.”
You could tell by the way Shardele smiled. If you didn’t know her, you’d think she was simply extremely genial; she was in imagination-land and only halfway there was the actual reason.
As for Aielef, well. She was striding about, so clearly anxious that even the commentator was picking up on it. She should have greeted the [Prince] far longer and more effusively, but she hadn’t rehearsed a proper speech.
Normally, their mother, the [Queen], would have taken both to task if she’d caught a whiff of this, much less seen Calanfer’s royalty being anything less than stellar on a scrying orb. However, she had to be busy with actual war, so the [Princesses] were acting subpar…in the one time when impressing someone would actually matter!
As for Seraphel—Lyonette shook her head. Her older sister might be the biggest disaster yet. She’d conducted herself with grace, certainly, and hadn’t made a big mistake yet—but it was Seraphel.
Seraphel the Cursed was what other people called her. Lyonette and her family knew Seraphel by a different nickname. Seraphel the Sharptongued. If you annoyed her, she stabbed you—with words.
She looked well, at least. Lyonette had heard Seraphel had been in Noelictus when she’d run away, and it had ended badly. Another husband dead? She didn’t know the details, but everything was the same as it always was.
Her sisters were not perfect. They could pretend to be, but…the 6th Princess of Calanfer sighed as she thought of home, and saw all the little, familiar flaws.
Then the circling coverage zoomed in and she listened to the politics of home. Her sisters, with all their faults and petty tricks, like swapping makeup with itching powder over someone stealing dress designs. Fighting for attention or favor…
Shardele gazed up at the decorated ceiling of Nadel’s ballroom as Prince Ruis introduced her. Her smile took one of the dignitaries from the cold north off-guard.
“What beautiful sights.”
“Indeed, your Highness?”
The man gave the ceiling a supercilious look—then realized she was referring to the stained glass ceiling. A glass dome allowed the light to filter in a wonderful set of colors.
The clouds had parted, and Shardele clasped her hands together. Almost like a certain Worker, praying. Her gaze was even like his. A kind of…genuine awe. Both childlike in innocence and older; the knowledge of how expensive each huge pane of tinted glass was to produce, the effort of creating the effect.
Then she directed her attention at the man wearing light clothing; even here he clearly found it hot, being used to the frozen landscape of his home.
“I do apologize, Diplomat Marseth. I was simply taken for a moment by the beauty of such colors. Chartreuse; such a wonderful display. It reminds me of the Eternal Throne. Have you ever had a chance to gaze upon it?”
The [Diplomat] sketched a bow, unsure if Shardele was making some kind of complex political reference.
“I have not had the honor, Princess Shardele. Perhaps, circumstances allowing, after the war, I should be so honored. It is one of Terandria’s wonders.”
The 1st Princess nodded dreamily.
“It is. I have visited many kingdoms, and still, I could gaze upon the Eternal Throne for hours. Prince Ruis, your [Architect] captures the light with great skill.”
He nodded, taken somewhat aback by the compliment.
“You humble her, Shardele. This is a new installation, as you have so keenly noticed—I take it as a great compliment, to compare it to the Eternal Throne.”
“Then, the throne itself shines? I have heard it said that Calanfer’s capital is one of the most beautiful, from the very streets to the throne room itself.”
The [Diplomat] commented neutrally, and a slight note of disbelief was in his voice. Yet Shardele just nodded. She closed her eyes.
“Every citizen of Calanfer tries to visit at least once, Diplomat Marseth, your Highness. I cannot describe it, but it is all the stories say it is. To gaze up at it is to see wondrous colors, the like of which can only be found in dreams. Ah—but perhaps I could show you.”
With that, the [Princess] opened her clasped hands. Prince Ruis and the [Diplomat] blinked. For, in Shardele’s hands was…
Light. A wondrous, magical glow. For a second, all those around her saw a vision. An image of a throne, in a room so vast the ceiling could have been a second starry night sky.
Lyonette’s heart jumped. She saw the throne room for a moment. The light that shone from Shardele’s hands eclipsed Nadel’s stained glass windows entirely for a moment.
Colors you only saw while dreaming. The guests murmured in wonder. Shardele smiled, and they recalled the name the Thronebearers and Calanfer’s people knew her as. Unlike Seraphel—they called her Shardele the Radiant.
What they didn’t know was that this Skill was not the power of a [Princess]; the conjuration of memory and dream and the might of Calanfer, but the Skill of a [Dreamer].
[Vision of a Dream].
The effect was still enough to make Shardele shine. Her smile, her fascination with color and beauty—all spoke to a [Princess] who had grown up among wonders, and many saw the vision and longed to see Calanfer’s Eternal Throne. They didn’t realize the Dreamleaf factor.
Only a few people had ever seen through Shardele in moments without having heard of her habit—among them the Bedtime Queen of Desonis, who could recognize a peer in the field, albeit one who had to use crutches to sleep properly.
Not bad, in short. Shardele had failed to make a proper entrance, but she was still using her Skills to impress. Every [Princess] of Calanfer knew the importance of attracting attention, albeit without needing to. Lyonette had shown it off in Oteslia’s ball.
At the same time as Shardele was performing her opening trick, Aielef had stepped back to talk to her escort. A few [Ladies] who’d drifted over towards her recoiled with gasps of excitement or fear—then tentatively moved forwards.
“Is that a…pet, your Highness?”
One of Nadel’s [Ladies] ventured. Aielef smiled graciously as a feral…cat? No, a beaked animal with wings and fur—a Griffin twined around her arms, making a strange purring-grumbling sound.
“Do excuse me, ladies. I am rearing an infant Griffin; one must do their part. My adopted kingdom of Kaliv does raise them, and I have learned to do so as well. It is newly-born, you see. Please, be wary of its beak; but this child will enjoy some petting. Carefully.”
The baby Griffin blinked sleepily at the fascinated nobility, many of whom came over to admire one of Kaliv’s famous creatures.
It wasn’t a subtle gesture; showing off a baby Griffin was in keeping with Aielef’s style, though. Charm them with a pet. Lyonette wondered if she actually raised the Griffin or just kept one around for moments like this.
Well, if it wasn’t biting her, she had to have at least some ability to charm it. Aielef broke the ice that way, drawing the nobility into the idea of owning such a lovely creature, and thus Kaliv’s war.
That was Aielef the Fierce. Again, her image as the [Princess] who had gone to Kaliv was not reality—except in how she was spoken of. Lyonette watched more critically than any of the guests.
Both did well. They were mothers and experienced diplomats themselves, even if they were clearly only going through the motions. They could have done better—but their reputations and value were established.
More so than ‘Seraphel the Dutiful’, which was all the [Troubadours] could come up with after the second marriage. Lyonette saw her sister greeting a smaller group with less flair; she had no pet animals nor an odd class to lean on. The 6th Princess felt sympathy for Seraphel.
If she was there—Lyonette had never been called on as much for these sorts of duties, being too young at the time. Now, though? The [Worldly Princess] thought she could do quite well. Better than Seraphel—perhaps better than the older [Princesses] too.
It was just as well Lyonette wasn’t here. Of all the [Princesses], Shardele and Aielef weren’t Seraphel’s first two choices to impress foreign nobility and wring money from their pockets.
She’d take…Ellet for her cuteness and honest effort that made people fawn over her, and maybe Vernoue, the 5th Princess, since she was the only one who’d ever taken her magical training further. Seraphel for dignity, Vernoue to chat up the [Mages], and Ellet to be attractive.
Lowest on the list would be the 3rd Prince, her bratty, youngest brother who fancied himself a [Warrior], although that was just a boy’s arrogance. Straight below him, dead last, was Lyonette du Marquin. She’d strut in here, refuse to acknowledge Prince Ruis’ seniority and call someone a ‘peon’ before the first hour was up.
Well, she learned it from Aielef. However, the 3rd Princess was smart enough to not say peon in public. Time would improve Lyonette, as would the war, maybe.
If Dalimont can even find her. If she’s not dead, having annoyed the first…[Bar Drunk] she met.
Seraphel could well imagine Lyonette doing just that. [Princesses] did not interact with the common folk unguarded often, and Lyonette? Seraphel pictured the 6th Princess of Calanfer lying dead in a bar-stabbing somewhere.
She missed what someone else was saying. Seraphel blinked and smiled.
“I must apologize, Lord Pulcre. My mind was elsewhere. You were saying?”
The [Lord] smiled, a tad unconvincingly. He was one of the first people to drift over, to meet the semi-famous cursed [Princess]. Seraphel was expecting polite condolences, or questions on how she thought the war was going.
Seraphel hated that question. How do you think the war is going? We’re losing. We’re slowing Ailendamus from rolling on over us, not winning. I can put it as politely as you want, but you and I both know it.
However, she was a [Princess] so she didn’t put it like that. Seraphel didn’t get that question, however.
“I understand you have seen Ailendamus aggression before, Princess Seraphel. Some…unpleasantness over the border in Noelictus?”
Seraphel’s brows rose. Well now. Lord Pulcre wasn’t as unpleasant as his name indicated. And he’d done his research. Some of the other nobility looked interested.
“I did indeed witness battle with Ailendamus—among other events, Lord Pulcre. A terrible affair at Ovela. The death of my husband…I should not like to go into details, you understand.”
He nodded sympathetically, and Seraphel saw a susurration as the star of the hour, the reason this ball had so many people, the Lord of the Dance swept in. He had just returned from a visit abroad—to Desonis?—but he always drew a crowd of admirers and people wanting to see him.
Oddly, he looked less willing to be the life of the ballroom this time and glanced around, spotting the [Prince]. Seraphel smiled at Pulcre, noting all this out of the corner of her eye.
“I would not like to press you at all, your Highness, and I regret bringing up such a recent loss. I only wondered if you had an impression of Ailendamus’ strength from the clash?”
A nuanced question, and the shorter [Lord] had sharp eyes as he glanced at Seraphel. He could have asked Aielef—Seraphel blinked at him. Unguarded, she remembered.
She remembered a young woman, singing in a banquet hall. The Kingdom of Shade, Noelictus, where the sunlight never properly shone down.
A gloomy land. However, one with beauty and a strength of character in its people. Seraphel had been there when the most astonishing events occurred. It had begun with an attack—but looking back, it had truly begun to become strange when she had met the strange young woman.
The young woman who sang strange songs. Who would later become known as the Singer of Terandria.
Without thinking, Seraphel hesitated. Her throat moved, but it was suddenly dry. She coughed into one hand.
She looked around and someone was offering her a glass of refined, purified water. Seraphel sipped gratefully. The Thronebearer had anticipated the need and been carrying snacks and food at the ready.
“Dame Neranthei, my protector.”
She gestured to the female Lightholder, a member of the Thronebearers, albeit in a more specialized role than her previous primary bodyguard, Ser Dalimont.
He had been there too. The nobles looked at the [Knight]. A [Lady] peered through her spectacles.
“Are you the [Knight] in the Singer’s music video?”
“I am, Lords and Ladies.”
Neranthei blushed a bit, but bowed, much to the delight of the others. They wanted to ask her questions, but recalled Seraphel was there. Now impatient, they waited for her reply so they could meet the real star of the ball, which was Neranthei.
What did she say? Seraphel met Lord Pulcre’s eyes again and hesitated. He was a short man, with a goatee. Nothing too odd about him; Seraphel would have taken him for a minor coastal lord judging by the faint weathering of skin and the fact that he didn’t appear on her list of important names.
She added him now. Because…he knew what he was asking. Or if not, he had good intuition. A hundred polite non-answers rose to Seraphel’s mind. A [Princess]’ obfuscation tactics.
But…oh, Eternal steps. She couldn’t help it. Seraphel sighed, took an un-princess-like gulp of the water and spoke.
“I was at Noelictus. At Ovela, where Ailendamus made an incursion into Noelictus’ lands. I should not like to speak too long about that time…it is near to my heart and painful to recollect. But yes, Lord Pulcre. I was there.”
Lord Belchaus Meron was walking towards their group, Prince Ruis by his side. The Lord of the Dance was politely fending off people; he was on a mission. The [Prince] needed to meet his guests from another world, but not here, obviously.
He was looking at Lord Pulcre, trying to figure out how long it would take to wrest him away; a frightfully long time. Maybe even forty minutes; he’d have to introduce himself to Princess Seraphel, and if she or one of the other two asked for a dance or…
“I was at Ovela.”
Princess Seraphel saw the Lord of the Dance approaching and wondered why. So too did the scrying mirror, recording the minor event no one really cared about except Terandrian politicians. She didn’t see that, or she might have minded her tongue.
They thought they knew Seraphel the Cursed. Two husbands dead; a poor, if not terribly unique tale. There was a lot of story that wasn’t covered in that, though.
The 4th Princess of Calanfer raised her head. She regarded the empty glass and glanced up. Her shoulders rose slightly. The almost-perfectly concealed look of tedium in her eyes vanished. Such that you realized she had been hiding it a moment ago. She nodded to herself, eyes flickering backwards in time.
“To say it simply, Lord Pulcre—I saw many astonishing things during my time in Noelictus. I suffered heartbreak, yes. However, I was privileged to have met my friend, S—Cara. You may know her as the Singer of Terandria. I survived an army of the undead raised by a rogue [Necromancer]. And I saw an army of the dead rise to battle Ailendamus.”
The listeners looked around. They blinked at Seraphel. An army of…?
The 4th Princess didn’t realize how interesting she was becoming. She met Pulcre’s eyes. As Lord Bel stopped, interested.
Lyonette blinked. Seraphel had met the Singer of Terandria? But Ryoka and Erin had both said that she was an Earther…she leaned forwards, frowning.
Seraphel looked different. Not as angry as Lyonette remembered her. And she had been—hard to be around for a long time. Indifferent or snappish. But then—she had been married at Lyonette’s age to her first husband, and Lyonette had only really remembered her like that.
The 4th Princess did not seem so, here. She shook her head.
“Ailendamus has encroached on other kingdom’s lands before. I am sure you and I could name a dozen times before today, before Noelictus, Lord Pulcre. Their aggression is a fact. What is not a fact is that the ‘glorious empire’ of Ailendamus always wins. I saw one of their great [Barons] break at Ovela. At cost! However, I saw one of Ailendamus’ grand armies smashed to pieces and flee screaming back across the border. I should imagine that if the war with the Dawn Concordat drags on, I will see that scene repeated a few more times.”
Lyonette’s jaw dropped. That was not a politic response! Seraphel—oh no, she was riled up again.
Shardele and Aielef both snapped around, having heard or sensed Seraphel’s unguarded comments. Both began to drift over, even Shardele realizing this could be…a problem.
Depending on what was said. However, the nobility of Nadel and other foreign visitors liked Seraphel’s comments. This Lord Pulcre smiled faintly.
“You do not mince words, your Highness.”
Seraphel shrugged slightly, embarrassed. She saw Aielef glowering at her and approaching as fast as was seemly. For all her criticism of her sisters, look at her now.
However, it was too late to play innocent. Especially because—Seraphel turned.
“Lord Belchaus Meron.”
He bowed gracefully, with that delightful twist of grace and showmanship. The Lord of the Dance put a smile on Seraphel’s lips that was entirely genuine; who couldn’t love the famous Lord of the Dance?
“Are you here to discuss the war, my lord?”
The Lord of the Dance hesitated. He had Prince Ruis with him, and he glanced over Seraphel’s shoulder before replying.
“In fact, Princess Seraphel, I had hoped to borrow Pulcre—but I find your topic fascinating. I had heard about the Ovela-incident. That you were there, I didn’t know. I suppose Pulcre might, though.”
He half-smiled at the man. Seraphel turned around and blinked at Lord Pulcre. He gave her a rueful look and she put it together.
No wonder she didn’t know his name before then. He was probably newly-titled. Seraphel realized she was now at the center of attention.
“Did I hear you say that you know the Singer of Terandria, personally, your Highness? Have you attended one of her concerts? My daughter has been begging for me to send her across the continent to see just one!”
A [Lady] remarked. Seraphel raised her brows.
“I never attended a concert. I knew Cara before she rose to such fame. Yes, she was at the Ovela incident at the same time I was.”
She had just as few reasons to love Ailendamus—but Seraphel didn’t say that out loud. Cara was not a [Princess] in a kingdom with all their power behind her. Although…she might be safer than Seraphel at the moment.
“So what would you say of Ailendamus, then, Princess Seraphel? Its war capabilities compared to the Dawn Concordat, then?”
Pulcre glanced at Seraphel. Prince Ruis forced a laugh, perhaps realizing this was being broadcast and it might reflect poorly on Nadel…but it was too late.
“Come now, Pulcre. Princess Seraphel isn’t a [Strategist] or [General].”
“Nor a [War Princess]. I’m afraid I can’t speak on military levels or formations, Lord Pulcre.”
He pressed her, ignoring the [Prince]. Lord Bel was glancing between the two. He focused on Seraphel. The 4th Princess saw Shardele approaching. She wavered—but as Lyonette had observed, the words were begging to be said.
There were things Ailendamus had done that Seraphel could not prove. Terrible deeds she suspected them of. Blind accusations would only hurt Calanfer, though. So she did not speak of Afiele, though she had been there, too. Seraphel’s eyes flickered, but it only took her a moment to reply.
“Ailendamus has quite a lot of land for an empire. Vast armies. Its leaders seem competent, and they have magic, fine steel, and a certain resolve in their [Soldiers]. I have seen better.”
Her audience waited. The [Princess] accepted a second glass of honey-flavored water. She sipped at it, and they realized she had made her statement.
Someone laughed before catching themselves. Lord Belchaus hid a smile. Prince Ruis had already hid his behind a cough. Pulcre didn’t bother.
“Then, your appraisal of the war?”
“We can only support our brave [Soldiers] and [Knights] as best we can. Seraphel, you certainly are making a stir! But perhaps we should allow the Lord of the Dance his due attention?”
Shardele swept in, interrupting Seraphel. The 4th Princess saw eyes swing back to the Lord of the Dance. For a second, they’d forgotten he was there.
Lord Bel looked at Seraphel, disappointment flickering in his gaze. He was too canny to let it show and bowed to Shardele at once.
“Of course, your Highness. Talk of war becomes tiresome, although I find Princess Seraphel’s account fascinating. Many [Historians] and [Strategists] make much of Ailendamus’ invincibility in war.”
“War is not a single battle.”
Pulcre observed softly. Seraphel’s smile was like cut glass.
“Indeed not, Lord Pulcre. After all, it occurs to me that someone else has witnessed an army of Ailendamus routing quite recently. Lord Belchaus, didn’t you take an [Admiral] and an entire fleet hostage?”
A ripple of amusement ran through the listeners. Lord Bel saw Prince Ruis wince, but he gave Seraphel an embarrassed bow.
“Merely a skirmish, Princess Seraphel.”
The 4th Princess’ brows rose.
“If an entire fleet was a ‘skirmish’, perhaps Nadel would care to make a battle of it and wipe out Ailendamus’ entire sea force in one go? I should wager on Nadel if the Lord of the Dance were on one side, even with all of Ailendamus’ fleets on the other.”
Shardele looked around, but there was no way to stomp on her younger sister’s foot without everyone noticing unless they were right next to each other and the dresses hid it. She was forced to stand and smile as Seraphel continued. Save for Prince Ruis and Shardele, no one else was inclined to stop her.
Lyonette was smiling. It was as improper as could be, of course. Their father and mother were probably having a fit.
And it was classic Seraphel. Classic…but with a twist. Normal Seraphel would insult you, but Seraphel of today? There was something else.
The 6th Princess realized what it was, when her older sister calmly ignored Shardele’s hints. She approached the scrying mirror, and looked into it. Lyonette felt like Seraphel was looking at her—for a second. Then, the [Princess] seemed to be looking for something else.
“This…television was not present when Ovela was attacked. Or before that—if it had, catastrophe might have been averted. It is here, though. So, I…would like to say that if you see this, people of Ovela. Friends of Afiele, Cara. Calanfer remembers our friends. To you, and to the Twins of Ovela. To the Kingdom of Shade. It was not long I stayed with you, but I remember it fondly, despite it all.”
She lifted her glass slightly. Behind her, Lord Bel swept a glass from a serving tray. Pulcre, Prince Ruis, and the others, copied the gesture instinctively. They didn’t know what they were toasting.
The [Princess] did. So did they. The Kingdom of Shade’s viewers began tuning into the broadcast. They had heard of her too.
…Which meant that Lyonette’s already spotty reception took that moment to turn off. She stared into the blank scrying orb.
Never more than before had she wanted to return home. She wanted to know what Seraphel had seen. She wanted to help.
Her home was in danger. She had not always loved it the same way she loved The Wandering Inn, but it was home.
They were still her family, for as much as she hated and loved them. Lyonette closed her eyes. There Seraphel was.
The 4th Princess touched her eyes for a second after turning away from the scrying mirror. They were actually misty.
Of course, Aielef thought she was just playing it up. She hissed at Seraphel as the three [Princesses] stepped back with their escort.
“You had to make more work for us? There was no cause to start an incident! Mother will be furious!”
“I thought you wanted to remind them of the war?”
Seraphel saw Aielef glowering, but both composed themselves, mindful of the distant watchers.
Lord Belchaus was glancing at Seraphel, having put off his concerns for a moment to linger in the ball. Perhaps that was worth all the backlash this would provoke—it might be in her father’s eyes. The Lord of the Dance was a powerful ally on land or sea.
Regardless, Seraphel still felt washed-up. If Cara was here…if she was in Ovela, it would be war. Here? She was just doing a [Princess]’ duties. In a sense, she had mattered more in Noelictus. Today, she had broken from protocol to hurl a javelin at Ailendamus.
…A javelin made of words, for all that. As sharp as they could be, words could not turn back those armies. Words could persuade, open coffers, and perhaps they might earn money for Calanfer that was needed. In the end, though—Seraphel felt helpless, and she had felt it before. She had not even crossed into Kaliv to see the fighting. Before, that would have struck her as right and proper.
Today, it felt cowardly. That was the 4th [Princess] of Calanfer, Seraphel du Marquin. She looked at Lord Bel and gently rubbed one side of her neck. With more enthusiasm than her sisters, she prepared herself to go back and actually plead for aid in this polite setting while the war dragged on.
Then the Order of Seasons arrived.
Lyonette slapped the scrying orb a fourth time and the image flickered back. But it wasn’t Seraphel.
“This is live coverage!”
Drassi screamed at Lyonette. Lyonette nearly screamed back. Drassi slapped the desk with her claws.
“Pay. Attention! This is an emergency broadcast from Wistram regarding Terandria! I don’t care if you’re not on Terandria or you don’t care—my friend is down there, so listen up! The Order of Seasons of Pheislant is about to intercept an Ailendamus army!”
Noass was nodding rapidly, holding up a map showing the army trying to flank Gaiil-Drome by way of Pheislant.
“For now the coastal nation of Pheislant seemed unwilling to confront Ailendamus despite the trespasses, but it seems the ‘Summer’s Champion’ of the Order of Seasons, one of the leaders of this [Knight]-order, has declared a crusade! Can they do that? Well, I suppose so, but the questions remains: is it war for Pheislant?”
He looked quite pleased with himself for sneaking that reference in. Drassi ignored him.
“We have a scrying spell—yes, there it is! These are [Summer Knights] and a smaller infantry and mounted force—but mainly [Knights]. I’m told there are over a thousand [Knights] from the Order of Seasons. Six times that in Pheislant’s forces of non-[Knights]…but they’re attacking an army of nearly thirty thousand!”
“A flanking force. Smaller than a conventional army, Drassi. They have a good complement of their Greatbows, capable of firing Ailendamus’ famed lance-arrows, though. As well—a number of high-level [Mages]. Er, [Strategists] suggested they might be attempting to set fire to the forests; something Ailendamus has denied.”
She shot him a glare.
“Yes, I get that. I’m no [Tactician] either so correct me if I’m wrong Noass, but attacking a force…five or six times your size sounds stupid.”
“It…could be strategic? [Knights] aren’t a hugely Izrilian tradition, so we’re actually contacting a Terandrian [Strategist] to weigh in on the discussion. Hello? Can we connect to…”
Lyonette tuned Noass out. She stared down at the scrying orb and the central image. Her lips moved as she searched the riding column and found him at the front.
Much to his bemusement, no, chagrin, Lord Pellmia Quellae woke up and realized he had gained the [Matchmaker] class.
He actually had to send a [Message] to his wife to ask if that was a real class, and got the much-amused response that ‘yes it was’, and ‘what had he done’?
Pellmia reflected that rather than doing anything, he had prevented the Wind Runner’s immediate flight from this continent. Perhaps that alone wasn’t enough to earn an entire class, but then again…it hadn’t been a small feat.
Six times that night, Ryoka had tried to excuse herself in a permanent sort of way. Lord Tyrion had not helped, especially because he’d kept trying to discuss courting her, in front of his sons and everyone else no less.
Then he’d wanted to formally notify all of House Veltras as this was a matter of authority given Tyrion’s position as the family head…
Nightmare after nightmare. Pellmia had literally told Ullim to drag his [Lord] off, and tasked Jericha with slowing down Ryoka Griffin’s understandable skittishness.
Honestly, it seemed to Lord Pellmia as he thought about his Level 3 [Matchmaker] class that the very fate of the world, the invisible order that bestowed classes, the Cycle of Growth as defined in the Book of Levels, was itself acknowledging the challenge that was Lord Tyrion and romance in the same room.
He didn’t mind the class, or he’d have refused it, obviously. It wasn’t a particularly [Lord]-ly class, but Pellmia was in his advanced years and it tickled his fancy. The [Lord of Orchards] also thought he could add to his family’s own notes on the class, having it himself. So he rationalized accepting the class and decided he’d throw a small celebration if all went well on his return home.
However, he had cause to appreciate and use one of the Skills he’d gained within fifteen minutes of waking up. Which was breakfast, and the most uncomfortable one Pellmia had shared in a long time.
There sat Ryoka Griffin, exactly opposite Tyrion, not meeting his gaze, fidgeting, as Sammial poked her in the side, much amused by all this, Hethon stared at Ryoka and his father, Jericha hovered, Ullim hurried around serving Pellmia and the others…
And Lord Tyrion kept making it worse.
“Good morning, Miss Griffin.”
He greeted her cordially enough. Ryoka hesitated.
“Good morning, Lord Veltras.”
If there was an invisible perception of closeness—not a Skill that Pellmia had, just his intuition—it had widened overnight. Of course it had. Getting to one knee in front of an audience, in a setting that public with no lead up? In front of his sons? Pellmia had written a [Message] spell to his wife with that lastest development and she hadn’t responded back yet, which was probably from sheer horror.
Had Tyrion done that with Salva? Dead gods. Then again, Salva had never been entirely conventional herself. A conventional woman would have run.
Ryoka smiled at Tyrion like a woman with the noose around her neck. He nodded to her, cool as one of the cucumbers being served onto his plate. Sammial promptly wanted to dump his onto Ryoka’s.
“Sammial, eat your food.”
“I don’t want t—”
Sammial caught his father’s eye and went silent. Pellmia watched as he slyly tried to drop one off the side of the table when Tyrion turned to accept a dish from Ullim. A gust of wind promptly flipped it right back onto his plate.
The young [Lord] stared up at Ryoka and she smiled for the first time that day. Pellmia laughed too and all was well. Right up until Tyrion looked at Ryoka.
“Would you care to go for a ride after breakfast, Ryoka? There are a number of scenic routes, and I used to ride with Salv—”
Lord Pellmia choked on his mouthful of breakfast. Ryoka hadn’t quite cottoned on, but the second Tyrion finished the sentence she’d probably abandon breakfast, leap on her glider and fly into the sun or back where she’d come from.
Tyrion never got to finish it because his mouth closed. Ryoka rubbed at her ear, genuinely mystified.
“I—didn’t quite catch that. A ride?”
Pellmia saw Tyrion glance at him. The [Matchmaker] swallowed, then breathed, and thanked his new class.
[Avert Disaster (Verbal)]. It appeared Ryoka had missed the damning heart of Tyrion’s offer too, perhaps due to the Skill. Now, how could Pellmia…?
He’d stayed up all damn night trying to figure out how to explain to Tyrion—politely—how wrong his approach was. Then he’d tried to figure out how to hammer it into the man’s head, politeness be damned. Pellmia went on instinct before Tyrion could try again. The [Lord] leaned over and murmured very quietly on the pretense of asking for the butter.
“I fear you’re too far in the lines, Lord Veltras. You can’t press the attack with Level 11 [Squires] on pikes.”
The [Lord] glanced at Pellmia. The Level 4 [Matchmaker]—he’d find out when he went to sleep—glanced at him significantly. Tyrion absorbed this, and then something lit up in his eyes.
“Ah. Not [Lancers]? Truly?”
“[Squires] with sticks versus enchanted Drake pikes. In…full plate armor. Oldbloods. Circle and be circumspect. Take my word for it.”
Pellmia had no expectation of it actually working, but for some reason Tyrion actually nodded. Dead gods, the man was just all formations and tactics.
“What if we all took a ride later this day?”
He floated the idea and Ullim glanced at Pellmia, deeply surprised. Hethon and Sammial looked interested. Ryoka squirmed.
“I uh—I might have to pass. I need to go back to Liscor. I’ve been putting it off, but…”
Damn. Focus on one too much and the other runs. Pellmia bit his lip. He murmured his only other Skill gained by his new class.
It didn’t work. He felt no sense of it activating, nor did Ryoka stop trying to explain about a ‘Mrsha’ to a bemused Tyrion.
“We could arrange her to visit House Veltras. If you must go, you must go. However, if you would give me a day to…”
He clearly didn’t actually know what he wanted Ryoka to do in a day, but he was working on it. Lord Pellmia sighed. Ryoka Griffin. He knew so little about her. Perhaps, though—
“Miss Griffin. Would you care to remain just a day longer? Just a day—so we might discuss ah, compensation to your guests? At the Summer Solstice?”
Ryoka’s head snapped up.
“What? The—the guests? What about them?”
Pellmia gave her a genial smile.
“I did recall that you made a pact with them. Free alcohol and ah, corn? My orchards do include some vineyards. Would it be appropriate to leave out some wine?”
“I—that’s not in the pact, but they—they might like that. I don’t know that I have to…can they even get over here…?”
Very interesting. Pellmia watched Jericha write something down covertly. He had no idea what Ryoka meant, but he had thought often about those wondrous folk. He pleated his napkin thoughtfully.
“Would it not be acceptable to try? As an experiment?”
“Try? And see if they come? I never thought of…”
Ryoka’s eyes grew round and Pellmia himself felt a stir at the idea. He snapped his fingers.
“Goodwill is never a poor thing to obtain. I myself make gifts of fine vintages or juices to friends. Would they find a barrel of wine—or apple juice acceptable? It is the time for fine apples…assuming you could stay? I might invite all of House Veltras to my orchards, frankly. The boys could climb some trees, and it’s a splendid time for a day or two.”
Hethon and Sammial looked up and Pellmia smiled at them. Tyrion raised his brows.
“That would be quite pleasant.”
Ryoka squirmed, but the thought of her fae friends convinced her. She looked at Pellmia, abashed.
“I do owe them a huge debt. I wouldn’t be bothering you, Lord Pellmia? I can pay of course and run a delivery…”
“I consider it a gift between friends, Miss Griffin. Think nothing of it. In fact, why not bring back some fresh produce for your little Gnoll friend? You can grow some of the seeds anywhere in Izril.”
“She might really like that.”
Ryoka murmured, envisioning adding some fine fruits to a certain Garden. Pellmia sat back, feeling as if he’d scored a solid lance-hit. The Level 5 [Matchmaker] steepled his fingers. Now, to figure out a way to give Tyrion an angle—well, that was what his wife and daughters were for. If they didn’t get the class…
However, as providence would have it, that was when the Order of Seasons arrived. Ryoka Griffin turned in her seat as a [Soldier] of some kind entered the room.
“Lord Veltras! I—forgive me, sire. I had no idea you were breakfasting.”
The man was abashed. He looked like a [Captain] with more white than brown in his hair—but Pellmia identified him as one of the [Weapon Instructors] that Tyrion employed.
Not a regular [Soldier] or he’d never dare to do this. Tyrion raised his brows, a bit annoyed, but the man had some leeway.
“What is it? An emergency?”
“Not—exactly. But you should see this, lad—Lord Veltras!”
Ah, an old trainer. He was waving a little scrying orb around with the battle going on. Ryoka sat up as she heard Drassi’s commentary. But what got Lord Tyrion was the battle.
“The Order of Seasons is sending their [Knights] against Ailendamus?”
“Exactly! It’s the Season of Summer and they’re in lance-formation. They’re going to try to break them down! Begging your pardon, Ullim, but I thought Lord Veltras would—”
Tyrion was half out of his chair. He looked as interested as he ever did, and Lord Pellmia recalled.
If there was an avid jousting fan in Izril, it was Tyrion. He liked tourneys and so on as much as Sammial liked watching the new football games. Ryoka was blinking at the unexpected interest.
“You—do you know about the Order of Seasons, Lord Tyrion?”
She was interested for some reason as well. Lord Pellmia had no idea about Rabbiteater, or that Ryoka recalled where the Goblin was supposed to be. Yet the coincidence was something.
Tyrion was nodding. He visibly hesitated, reminded of Ryoka and his sons, and glanced at the [Weapons Instructor].
“We can…of course continue breakfast, Miss Griffin. Of course. Forgive my rudeness. I have some passing acquaintance with the Order of Seasons. Master Verdeem, I will have to review it later. Please find a way to save a copy.”
The man nodded, but Pellmia had never seen Tyrion so reluctant to sit down and eat. Still—what a sense of decorum. Ryoka hesitated too.
Pellmia saw the opening and took his chance. He raised his finger, invoked his Skill.
The words spilled out of his mouth on auto. Exactly what he would have said if he had time to compose it.
“Tyrion, Miss Griffin, I say we should hardly wait on protocol here. We are familiar with each other—and I confess, I’ve had more than one breakfast around a scrying orb. Why don’t we watch this fascinating event? Tyrion, you’re an expert on mounted combat. Miss Griffin, do you have friends in the Order of Seasons? Ailendamus?”
“Sort of—did they say one thousand [Knights] versus thirty thousand [Soldiers]?”
“Indeed. Shall we watch?”
Tyrion and Ryoka looked at each other. They wavered—then Lord Tyrion turned to Jericha.
“A larger scrying orb. Call Master Verdeem back. We shall breakfast while watching. It’s far from hopeless, Ryoka. If I understand that the Summer’s Champion is leading the charge…I might say the odds are reversed depending on what Ailendamus has brought. I need to see both forces first.”
The [Lord] looked hesitant as a space was cleared on the dinner table, but his desire to watch the battle overwhelmed his sense of propriety. His sons looking delighted didn’t hurt either, or Ryoka. Pellmia sighed as Ryoka glanced at Tyrion.
Treant apples, it worked! He saw the Skill activate. Perhaps Ullim helped, but somehow, suddenly, they were all sitting together as a scrying mirror was set up. Almost by coincidence, Ryoka sat on Tyrion’s left with Hethon and Sammial crowding her in, Pellmia on Tyrion’s right. She froze—but Tyrion was talking animatedly.
“The Order of Seasons, you see, are aura-experts. A fine group of [Knights] proficient in a number of weapon styles, although they tend to favor the traditional lance as well as weapon-and-shield combinations. Standard, but highly effective. The Season of Summer is their most numerous and high-leveled martial season.”
“There are four seasons, right? I—oh no. That’s my friend.”
Ryoka glanced at the [Knight] riding in front. Pellmia was half-distracted by Tyrion and half by Ryoka’s remarks. Tyrion leaned in, frowning.
“…Not a member of the Order of Seasons. He rides with the Summer’s Champion.”
“Is—is that good? The odds are high…”
Tyrion raised his brows.
“The Summer’s Champion is always Level 40 or higher. Rest assured, Miss Griffin, that the Order of Seasons’ grandmasters are not poor fighters. Your friend is safer in front with the Summer’s Champion than in the back of the vanguard. Hethon, Sammial, observe. You see the way they’re riding? They’ve formed a Trilance vanguard; they’re certainly planning on a lance-charge…”
It was so strange hearing Tyrion talk with such detail and passion about anything. But then—this was his forte. Ryoka’s edginess around him noticeably turned to actual attention as she realized he’d forgotten about courting her. He was pointing out the formation, the way the [Knights] were sitting, the backup lances in their bags of holding to his sons, who also seemed bemused and delighted by their suddenly-talkative father.
In the meantime, they were sitting together. Talking. Oho. Ohohohoho.
Lord Pellmia rubbed his hands together and reached for a cucumber slice. The Level 6 [Matchmaker] felt his Skill working. Just a bit! However, the sight of Ryoka leaning over and listening to Tyrion, asking questions as he pointed out details and explained the [Knight] Order—how could you dream of that after last night?
‘I understand you may have reservations about a relationship, Ryoka. Please address me with any complaints about my character or actions and I will happily discuss them now. I would like to hear any salient points you have.’
Pellmia shuddered. After lines like that had been etched into Ryoka’s—not to mention Pellmia’s—very soul? This was a miracle.
No, this was a Skill. He hadn’t been able to activate it randomly, but it seemed that if he had an opportunity…
[Romantic Push]. The [Lord] sat back, smiling. Then his face fell.
Giant oranges, if Ryoka and Tyrion do come to my home, I’ll have to do this all day. Can our hearts take it?
His wife and daughter might actually expire if Tyrion came out with another line as bad as the rest. However, Pellmia put that aside. For now, he just sat with Tyrion and Ryoka, occasionally interjecting, kicking Tyrion, smiling desperately.
The Order of Seasons rode to war, and the Goblin rode with them. He had nothing better to do.
…No, he truly had nothing better to do. What else was there to do in life, other than to follow friends to battle and watch their backs? Nothing.
The Season of Summer understood a Redfang Goblin’s mind. They were alike in many respects. That was how they’d come to this.
War. A crusade against Ailendamus! They trotted down one of Pheislant’s wide highways, towards the army that had dared to cross Pheislant’s borders and attack the Dawn Concordat from the side.
Ailendamus’ army was larger by far than the thousand some [Knights], mainly [Summer Knights], and the mixed group of Pheislant’s soldiers contributed by noble houses. The retinue and personal retainers of some of the Order of Seasons’ members, like House Kallinad’s [Soldiers] who had come because Talia was riding with them.
When they had heard the Order of Seasons and the Summer’s Champion were marching on them, Ailendamus’ army had halted and moved back. Choosing their battlefield.
Rabbiteater knew all this, being with Greysten, the Summer’s Champion most of the day. He heard the condemnation by Pheislant’s ruler, the outrage of Knight-Commander Calirn, Ailendamus’ threats of war with Pheislant which might very well come to pass if Greysten did not turn around right now—
None of it mattered. The Summer’s Champion had made his choice. Like a Goblin, he would not gainsay his oath. There was only right and wrong, and so summer rode to war. That was very Goblin-like to Rabbiteater, but there were differences.
Such as this: they sang as they rode. The Summer’s Champion had received word that the army had formed up in the pass ahead. He had Spring Knights scouting them, but he made no speeches, even though Wistram wanted an interview. He just began humming—then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he burst into song and the other [Summer Knights] picked it up.
“I rode down summer highways,
Following the spring.
Autumn chased close after,
In dappled leaves falling
Telling me what the future brings.
Summer is fading, the fire leaves
The sky, but I? I rode after sunlight
Until winter passed me by.
Are those Dragon wings I hear beating
Or the drumming of my heart?
If winter comes around me,
If the world seems too dark.
Ride with me down summer highways
And let us light summer’s spark.”
Rabbiteater listened, blinking behind his visor. From Greysten to Dame Voost, the best swordswoman, to Dame Chise to Talia, they all sang. Loudly as Greysten, with all the poor pitch-control as Voost, quietly or melancholic or…
Goblins didn’t sing. They had to be quiet. These [Knights]? They rode with Pheislant’s [Soldiers], armor shining under the sky. Smiling and laughing.
A brotherhood, or sisterhood. Or…family. A tribe of Humans. Rabbiteater had never found the like.
He started as Greysten nudged him. The Summer’s Champion had taken off his helmet. He was still singing, and, as the [Knight-Errant] glanced at him, he realized some of the other [Summer Knights] were doing the same.
Tentatively, more embarrassed and awkward than any other time among them, Rabbiteater tried to join in. His voice was lost among the others, but part of it. Yet Greysten and those around him laughed. So the Goblin sang and remembered an inn where an [Innkeeper] sang now and then.
A glorious memory. A painful one. Yet here, among them, Rabbiteater remembered only the good parts. Let him think of loss and sadness later.
For now: let it be summer.
That was how the Order of Seasons travelled. They sang and rode and laughed or traded jokes and stories. When they camped, they jested and relaxed as if they were on the little outing Greysten had tricked Calirn with, not an impending battle.
Only the Spring Knights showed nerves, yet amidst the good-natured Summer Knights, even they relaxed a bit. The few Autumn Knights were more reserved, but joined in the good-natured nights before they slept and rode again, travelling to Pheislant’s northern border.
When they finally neared the place where Ailendamus’ army was camped, the eyes of the world were upon them. Only then did Rabbiteater think to bring up the impending battle.
“They’ve holed up in the Stone Giant’s pass, Summer’s Champion. Looks like they have at least twenty of their Lance-bow artillery. A number of [Mages]—all at the back.”
Greysten had slowed as a panting Ser Markus returned; he had been one of the Spring Knights scouting ahead. The man drank a gulp from his flask and shook his head.
“We couldn’t approach for fear they’d open up, but it looked like all infantry.”
“Which means they have the horse hidden somewhere. Stone Giant’s pass…I don’t recall any secret tunnels.”
The Summer’s Champion glanced at the distant pass between two hills. Rabbiteater eyed it too, with a [Warrior]’s eye. A nice place to hold off a force like the mobile Order of Seasons. Especially if they had those fabled Lance-bows. ‘Greatbows’, they were called; oversized bows that loosed enchanted arrows that were indeed comparable to lances rather than normal arrows.
One could kill an armored [Knight] in a single shot. Not to mention the thirty-thousand [Soldiers] compared to the seven thousand of Pheislant’s [Soldiers]. True, a thousand were [Knights], but numbers were numbers.
“I see. Well, that settles it.”
Greysten had a small gathering around him. Dame Voost, Ser Zulv, and many of the older [Summer Knights]; his friends and regular company. Rabbiteater was included in that number too, and the other [Knights] were nodding as if it were obvious what had to be done.
“Summer’s Champion, I saw ranks of pikes and what looked like earthworks in front of Ailendamus’ army. They’ve been preparing for us.”
Ser Markus looked ready for the fight, but understandably wary. Greysten just nodded again, rubbing at his orange hair. He grinned.
“That is accounted for, Ser Markus. Get some rest. Order of Seasons! Men and women of Pheislant! We ride on Ailendamus’ army now! Make your preparations! Officers, to me!”
He roared and a cheer met his words. Rabbiteater glanced around, but the other [Knights] were breaking up, checking on their fellows, or their weapons. He leaned over.
“Wait. What was the strategy?”
They’d not mentioned it to him. Perhaps it was obvious. Greysten blinked as he looked towards some of Pheislant’s military officers.
“Oh, that. I plan on charging straight at Ailendamus’ army. We’ll do something with the Season of Spring and the [Soldiers]. I hope you’ll join me in the vanguard!”
He clapped Rabbiteater on the shoulder, beaming. The Goblin blinked at the Summer’s Champion. He glanced around. Hesitated. Then shrugged.
Charge the enemy. Ser Markus’ eager expression faded a bit when he heard the battle plan. Not least because if he heard it…
“It will be a glorious battle! I have command of the center spear. Dame Voost, my left. Ser Zulv? The right. I plan on taking the Season of Summer straight down the pass. I will, of course, need Pheislant’s support.”
“A-absolutely, Summer’s Champion?”
One of the [Commanders] of Pheislant’s forces tried to keep up with Greysten. He expressed his hesitation in that single sentence. Greysten heard it—and ignored it.
“Don’t worry, man. I don’t plan on making your [Soldiers] join us! The Season of Summer will be joined by our Autumn Knights—to counter the spellcasters. However, I plan on keeping Spring back. Ailendamus had several thousand horse. They’re most likely hiding around the hill. There, or there…they’ll want to take us from the rear. You’ll hold them off.”
The Summer’s Champion gestured to the sides of the pass. The [Commander] nodded.
“How many to reserve, Summer’s Champion?”
“All of you. I appoint Ser Thornst as leader of the Spring. Ser Thornst? Keep them off our back.”
“Yes, Summer’s Champion!”
“But sir! That would mean you intend to assault Ailendamus’ entire entrenched force with only the Season of Summer?”
The Pheislant [Commander] looked ahead, and the three ‘spears’ of [Summer Knights] each moved ahead of the rest of the forces. Greysten nodded.
“Exactly! I’m glad we’re on the same page. Alright then, move o—”
“Begging your pardon, Summer’s Champion, but isn’t that tactic foolhardy?”
Ser Markus burst into the conversation. Rabbiteater glanced up from trying to cram a bar of rations through the slits in his visor. The young Spring Knight flushed as Greysten and some of the other officers turned to him, but he had to speak his mind.
“Ser Markus. Go on. You have reservations?”
Merry amusement danced in Greysten’s eyes. Markus glanced at Rabbiteater; the Goblin hadn’t said a word, but surely he saw this was madness!
“Ailendamus has their Greatbows and pikes, Summer’s Champion! They’ve dug into the pass; surely we should consider another approach?”
Greysten considered it as some of the older [Knights] laughed. They didn’t seem worried either. Ser Markus had never fought with the Season of Summer before. He’d heard they were direct, but this?
“You idiot, Markus.”
Some of his fellow Spring Knights wanted to drag the oblivious, if good-natured [Knight] away. If he’d known larger strategy, or studied battles before, he wouldn’t have embarrassed himself like this. Dame Meisa covered her face, already knowing what Greysten would say.
“In my experience, there are few enemies in the world who can’t be defeated by charging straight at them. All you need are more lances!”
Greysten laughed. He slapped Ser Markus on the shoulder so hard that Markus’ horse nearly sat down. Then he raised a hand.
“Enough deliberation! Ser Solstice, join me! To war! Let’s humble Ailendamus!”
“They can’t be serious.”
The prevailing attitude was that the Summer’s Champion was an idiot. Of course, that was in general. In this particular instance, many people hearing the battle plan considered that Ser Greysten was also suicidal.
The scrying spell of Ailendamus’ forces kept fuzzing if it got too close. Someone in the army was blocking the spell, perhaps to keep the element of surprise on Ailendamus’ side.
However, what Ryoka could see was bad. She was no [Strategist], but she recognized classic formations.
Like pikes. Long poles of wood, longer than lances, that you let people run into? The enemy [General] had lined the entire pass with them. Multiple ranks of them. There wasn’t a way for the [Knights] to circle. The Greatbows were mounted in the back, to shoot over the heads of the infantry. Same with the [Archers] and [Mages]; they’d pepper a force trying to push through the front lines.
Just to make it worse, the ground had also been prepared; a huge slope had been dug out, such that you would charge into a little pit and then into the pikes, and then into oblivion.
“Noass, be honest with me. Is this a stupid plan?”
Drassi’s first reaction was to state what most people were thinking as she stared at the projection of the battle in miniature on the commentator’s table. She gingerly picked up a little figurine of a horse and ran it down the pass into the little pike-figurines; a war projection screen.
“Er—it’s certainly unconventional, Drassi. But perhaps the Summer’s Champion has some ulterior strategy we haven’t seen?”
“The plan had better be smarter than this Summer-guy looks. Ancestors, I thought they only did this sort of thing in stories.”
Charge the enemy head-on. It was the move of a fool. Or…the tactics of [Knights], the traditions of a bygone era. Ailendamus’ army looked, well, modern to Ryoka. They had artillery, a rarity among Human nations, in the Lance-bows. They had [Mages], an adaptive army.
The Order of Seasons had [Knights] and one tactic. They were coming down the pass.
“Please tell me they’re not serious?”
Ryoka looked at Tyrion. She had spotted Rabbiteater in the front. She assumed it was him. A Goblin wearing armor. He was holding a lance with the others; in the scrying spell, she could see the Summer’s Champion handing him something.
“He is. He knows what he is doing. I have never met the Summer’s Champion personally, but I have known the Order of Seasons and he is well-regarded as a sound leader and fighter by his fellows.”
Tyrion Veltras sat with that uncanny interest, looking alight as he surveyed the battle. Even…happy. Ryoka glanced at him, and then at Hethon and Sammial, looking just as excited.
People were going to die. She felt a sick feeling in her stomach, but she turned to face Tyrion.
“So—this isn’t a bad move? Because it looks like it’s bad to me. I’m not a [Knight]…what do you think the odds are?”
Tyrion Veltras glanced at Ryoka and realized they weren’t seeing the same thing. The [Lord] tapped a finger on the table.
“In my opinion…the [General] of Ailendamus’ forces has underestimated the Order of Seasons. It could go poorly; how they manage to close the gap in their first charge will dictate the battle. The Lance-bows are a considerable threat.”
“B—so you’re betting on the Order of Seasons?”
Tyrion raised his brows.
Ryoka turned back to the scrying orb. She peered at the projection, rubbed her eyes. She…clearly wasn’t a [Strategist].
It began to rain as the Order of Seasons deployed into Stone Giant’s pass. Roughly nine hundred [Summer Knights] formed three spears along the narrow pass, each one led by a single [Knight].
Rabbiteater was right behind the Summer’s Champion. Greysten had handed him an amulet before the battle began.
“As you are the only [Knight] not of the summer who will engage the enemy with us, Rabbiteater, you must wear this. Good thing I remembered!”
“Good thing I reminded you. Ser Solstice, valor upon your sword!”
Dame Voost trotted past them to take the left, saluting the Goblin. Bemused, Rabbiteater put the amulet on, tying it around his neck.
Behind him, Ser Thornst had the two hundred or so Spring Knights spread out, waiting to intercept a rearwards attack. Pheislant’s infantry and horse were waiting with them, divided up and hanging back.
It was a small army that entered the pass. Greysten hummed the same melody as he stared ahead.
The ground was broken up before the pikes. Behind them, the Greatbows gleamed. The army of Ailendamus had sensibly not formed a huge mass that could be prey to mass-attack spells. They were in ranks, each one ready to rotate out. All the [Archers] and [Mages] were at the back.
“They must be fools. The era of [Knight] Orders routing an enemy alone ended millennia ago.”
The Ailendamus [General] stared at the [Knights] through the enchanted spyglass. They had entered the pass alone, just as Greysten had claimed.
He had been monitoring the scrying spell, receiving intelligence via two hastily-attached [Infiltrators] in Pheislant’s ranks. The earthworks, this chosen position…it all felt like overkill now. Looking upon the Summer Champion’s strategy, the experienced [Strategists] and [General] couldn’t help but sneer.
“Sir. The palace wants to know if you have any reservations before the battle.”
One of the man’s subordinates whispered. General Vexil frowned.
“No, General. It comes from the palace…not his Majesty’s personal seal.”
“I’m too busy to answer, then. Inform them all precautions have been taken. Why is the palace nervous?”
The [Mage] checked the seal.
“It comes from Duke Rhisveri, General. He…would like to know if you have a contingency plan should the Order of Seasons pass your pikes.”
General Vexil’s head turned. He glowered at the [Mage] as if the unfortunate man were doing the questioning.
“I plan on killing at least a third before they pass the first line of pikes. Lance-arrows strike me, look at them! The fools are going to charge us—”
“They are [Knights], sir. The Order of Seasons is one of the most accomplished [Knight]-Orders in Terandria.”
One of the [Strategists] pointed out cautiously. General Vexil was known to be overconfident in his own right. However, the [General] had made all the correct moves…aside from contemplating retreat or defeat.
“Aura weapons. I’m aware. The Season of Summer is fire, correct? They’ll resist our [Pyromancers], more’s the pity. However, we have enough generalist [Mages] to counter their full power. [High Mage]! Put a dampener on their spirits.”
The singing [Knights] were riding closer, nearly within Greatbow range. They slowed as one of the [Mages] activated yet another counter to their powers. General Vexil snorted and told his [Mage] to disregard the Duke’s complaints until after the battle.
He smiled and looked up as it began to rain.
At first it drizzled. Then it became a downpour. The [Summer Knights] formed up as an unnatural storm began to roll in.
“Summer’s Champion! Weather magic! Do you want us to fight it?”
One of the Autumn Knights attached to his spear rode up to them. There were only about thirty, and a third had been placed at the front of each spear, right behind Greysten, for reasons that Rabbiteater didn’t get. The Goblin had been told he was the only other [Knight] who’d be fighting?
Well, Greysten hadn’t said otherwise, and Rabbiteater wasn’t in charge, so the Goblin sat back and listened as Greysten snapped orders. Unlike Markus, Rabbiteater knew better than to question the [Raid Leader] or Chieftain right before the fight.
“It’s just rain. This [General] hasn’t done his research!”
The Summer’s Champion laughed as he put on his helmet. His voice grew louder despite the muffling armor.
“Now we come to it. Knights of the Autumn, I thank you for joining me! Spring, and Fall join Summer!”
The other [Knights] cheered the small group of Autumn. It was the Order of Seasons’ practice to mix their seasons, Rabbiteater had been told. But only two or three seasons; rarely all four.
If Spring led, Winter and Summer might join it. Or…Winter could call upon Fall. However, one Season always led and was ‘supported’ by the others. The worst scenario was having Winter and Summer in equal numbers; their auras and natures clashed.
This was summer. Greysten rode forwards and bellowed across the pass.
“Forces of Ailendamus! Your trespass on Pheislant’s borders and war of aggression upon the Dawn Concordat will not stand! Not while honor and valor remain in Terandria! I am the Summer’s Champion! I offer you one chance to turn back and forswear your war—or else Summer shall advance! What say you?”
His voice rang out across the close, rocky walls. Ailendamus’ forces jeered—then went silent. A voice called back.
“General Vexil declines your request, Summer’s Champion! He warns you that in the name of His Majesty, Itorin II; Ailendamus will offer no quarter nor mercy! It does not sit so well with General Vexil to spill so much Human blood needlessly!”
Some of the [Summer Knights] snorted. Greysten’s head tilted back to stare at the [General], just visible in the back of his army on a horse of his own. He bellowed back.
“He should not have brought his army, then! Brace yourselves for our charge!”
He rode back to his spear, shaking his head. Ailendamus’ horns began to warble, a threatening, if curious sound. Not the blaring scream Rabbiteater expected.
“Knights of the Summer! There is nothing more that need be said! You know why we are here! The enemy has refused to relent! So, ride with me! Until the last of their [Soldiers] breaks and runs! Summer fades!”
The cheer from nearly a thousand throats was a curious one. There was no time to process it. Rabbiteater’s heart beat harder behind his armor. He rode forwards, among a sea of red and gold.
Ahead of him, the darker colors of Autumn formed up, and the Summer’s Champion began to move forwards. He raised his arm, signaling the [Knights] rather than needing to shout.
Walk. The Order of Seasons advanced at a slow pace. Then—a trot.
There was an invisible line in the ground where the Greatbows would begin to open up. Rabbiteater stared at the twenty-some weapons. They would shoot through [Knights]. Unless they were stopped. He trusted Greysten had a plan.
Charge. That was the plan. However, Ser Markus’ fears, Ryoka’s fears…Rabbiteater didn’t share them. He had looked at Greysten. There was something there.
One of the [Knights] barked, repeating the order conveyed through Greysten’s gesture. Rabbiteater urged his horse forwards faster.
His armor was plain metal, but it shone with a [Champion]’s Skills. A cloak of red liquid draped itself around him. A lance was in Rabbiteater’s grip, still raised overhead; an axe and sword on either side. The amulet draped around his neck.
He had lost Erin’s Skill. It had faded before he’d even reached the Order of Season’s keep. Rabbiteater wished it had lasted forever. His hand reached down and touched the axe. The cloak.
His brothers were with him. He was among friends. That was enough.
The Order of Seasons crossed into the maximum firing range of the Greatbows. General Vexil bellowed.
The Summer’s Champion saw the Greatbows drawing back. He shouted an order of his own.
“Knights of the Autumn, with me! Forwards!”
They sped up, ahead of the cantering [Summer Knights]. Thirty [Autumn Knights] and the Summer’s Champion. Incomprehensible to General Vexil. He raised a hand as the Order of Seasons began to gallop.
They were still far away. The Greatbows had a range of nearly two thousand feet maximum—further than an unenchanted ballista. General Vexil estimated three volleys could be loosed, but he raised his hand as he barked orders.
“Four—six bows. Aim at the Summer’s Champion. [Piercing Shots]. The rest, aim for the center of each spear-formation. Hold on my mark…”
He waited. Seeing the [Knights] advancing. Timing it, trading distance for accuracy…General Vexil bared his teeth.
“Now! [Pinpoint Volley]! Loose!”
The bows drew back and the huge arrows loosed from each bow with a sound like thunder. They sped across the ground, boosted by both the [Greatbow Archers]’ Skills and General Vexil’s Skill.
Better bows than even her tribe owned. Rags’ mouth was open. The bowl of spicy noodles and runny egg was sitting in front of her; a fork with a bit suspended halfway to her mouth.
She was watching a nation fighting with the same tactics she would employ. Whether they won or lost—it was a lesson. Rags’ Thunderbows were like crossbow-versions of Ailendamus’ Lance-bows, but weaker, without enchanted munitions.
It seemed to her the [Knights] were dead if you took the battle on paper as it was. However, Rags was a Goblin. Every instinct told her that if they were taking this fight, they thought they could win, and thus Ailendamus was in trouble. There was no strategic understanding behind this; just psychology.
Which was why she would have made such a damn good student. Niers sighed as he munched on a single popcorn kernel, which was pretty much enough for one viewing.
On cue, he saw the Order of Seasons activate their Skills before the lance-arrows reached them. Niers snorted.
“Who’s the idiot who didn’t get that [General] to retreat?”
Rags’ head swung around and Niers ducked, cursing, as she narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t see him. Even with her heat-vision—Niers ducked behind the ice cube and the Goblin turned back to the scrying orb.
Here it came. Rabbiteater saw the bows draw back and saw the Summer’s Champion, riding ahead, raise his shield and bellow. What was he going to do? Shield them all like that Named Adventurer?
No. Rabbiteater saw the [Knights of Autumn] raise their own shields. And…wands?
Half of them weren’t even carrying swords! They lifted small staves or wands, even a book, carrying smaller shields in their off-hands. Ahead of the Season of Summer, they rode forwards. Greysten howled.
“[The Sprouting Shields of the Forest]!”
Rabbiteater’s head snapped up as the Summer’s Champion used one of the combination Skills of the Order of Seasons. Ahead of him, he saw each Knight of the Autumn burst into a colorful…shield?
A hovering barrier appeared around all thirty galloping [Knights]. Aura and magic. The first lance-arrows connected with the glowing barriers and—exploded.
“General! No contact!”
General Vexil cursed as he saw the same thing through his spyglass. He snapped.
“[Instantaneous Reload]! Volley! What is that—?”
The second wave of lance-arrows loosed so fast he saw the blur of the glowing bolts and the explosion once again made the galloping Knights of Autumn vanish. Only when they reappeared did Vexil finally see the curious…barriers they were wielding.
“Those lance-arrows should have pierced straight through a magical barrier!”
He snapped at his lead [Strategist]. They didn’t look right, either. Magical barriers were shimmering walls or physical manifestations like stone. These? These looked like—like—
Mushrooms. Each [Autumn Knight] was racing forwards with a shroom-shaped shield around them. Powered by their auras as well as magical force.
The second volley burst on them and Vexil saw three shields waver; collapse. Instantly, the Knights of the Autumn fell back, racing away, through the lines of their Summer brethren. The Summer’s Champion was using them as expendable shields to cover his advance!
“Reload! I want those barriers gone! [Archers]! Prepare to volley! [Mages]—lightning bolts!”
Vexil snarled. He saw his [High Mage] looking worried. If those barriers could block lance-arrows—
However, the Summer’s Champion had already lost three. He was galloping ahead of the barriers, presenting himself as a target. A lance-arrow flew and he shouted a Skill—blocked the oversized bolt and galloped out of the cloud of smoke and ash. He shook out his shield-arm, dropping back behind the Knights of the Autumn for a second.
Now, Ailendamus’ army was fully in range, and all bows and Greatbows and [Mages] opened up.
“Shields up! [Great Shield]! [Strike my Shield]!”
A [Knight] bellowed as the Summer Knights came into range. Eight more [Autumn Knights] fell back, two nearly falling from their horses as they blocked a third volley of the lance-arrows. They were spent, but they were blocking the most deadly attacks.
The arrows and spells were no less potent, though. Rabbiteater’s shield was firmly overhead. He felt an arrow strike his armor; lodge there.
A piercing attack of some kind. If it hadn’t been for the distance and his [Champion]-enhanced gear—Rabbiteater heard a cry.
One of the Summer Knights fell from the saddle across from him. Someone else slowed, healing potion in hand. Other [Knights] took wounds and ripped potions from their satchels, tending to wounds.
However, the rest never slowed. The arrows fell again. Rabbiteater could see the first rank of pikes now, the faces of the [Soldiers] who had lost their confidence as the thousand-some [Summer Knights] streamed towards them.
Behind them, Ser Thornst had spotted Ailendamus’ cavalry bursting from their hiding places, sweeping in to cut the Summer Knights down from behind. The Knights of the Spring charged, with Pheislant’s forces right behind.
The Knights of Summer were going to hit Ailendamus’ lines. The pikes were bracing up. Rabbiteater lifted his lance, readying himself. What was going to happen next? He stared at the glittering line of steel waiting for him to run himself onto it. He couldn’t slow down. Hundreds of [Knights] were at his back.
“Now! Voost, Zulv! Charge!”
The Summer’s Champion raced forwards ahead of the Autumn Knights blocking the final shots from the Greatbows. The leaders of their spears joined him. Greysten galloped into the trench dug to slow them down and raced up it, straight towards the [Pikemen] in front of him.
Dame Voost, Ser Zulv, and Greysten charged alone into the first ranks of pikes. The Summer’s Champion just lowered his shield and his armored warhorse hit the metal tips. Rabbiteater and General Vexil watched as the thick pikes snapped, unable to pierce his armor.
The Summer’s Champion crashed into the ranks of terrified Humans, swinging his axe with one hand, shield raised. His weapon was coated in his aura, burning, cutting down [Soldiers] around him as his horse left a trail of fire. A living ball of fire laid about with a roar.
To his left, Dame Voost saw the drop. Instead of descending like Greysten, she stood up in the stirrups of her galloping horse’s saddle and leapt.
Rabbiteater looked up and his jaw opened beneath his helmet, despite everything. He saw a trail of fire. Wings?
Dame Voost landed in a burst of flames, passing over the first rank of pikes in a leap, burning wings sprouting from her back. Her sword was already drawn. She parried a startled [Captain]’s sword, beheaded the man and slashed around her, forcing the [Soldiers] back. The Season of Summer’s champion of the blades whirled, slashing down her foes as fast as the Summer’s Champion rampaging in the first ranks.
Ser Zulv was last. He neither leapt nor trusted in his armor to save him from impalement; he slowed as he came upon his rank of pikes and whirled his sword.
He slashed the pikes, severing the tips, and charged forwards into the [Soldiers]. They bunched up, pushing at him with shields, aiming more spears, weapons at him. Ser Zulv raised his sword and cried out.
“[Company: Rallying Teleport]!”
Behind him, Rabbiteater saw two dozen [Knights] pop out of the air and appear next to Zulv. They hit the [Soldiers] unawares, and the band of [Knights] began to carve in, swords flashing as Zulv aimed them towards the Summer’s Champion, who himself was heading towards Voost, sowing chaos in the first ranks.
Three areas folding and the other [Knights] hadn’t even hit them! General Vexil’s world slowed. The [General] was standing in a miniaturized time-slow world to process the battle. Calm. The [Knights] had taken too few casualties, but—
“High-level targets. Send in the Order of the Thirsting Veil!”
Each army had its champions who could break formations. You had to deal with them, but they were trying to give their fellows an opening.
Not on his watch. General Vexil snapped.
“[No Retreat! No Surrender! Hold Your Ground!]”
The buckling pikes froze. Instantly, they swung their weapons up, presenting perfect rows of teeth, despite the small holes in them. They’d hold—even if the [Knights] rampaged all the way through them from behind.
Time returned to normal. Vexil whirled and pointed at Ser Zulv and the [Knights] who’d come with him.
“Mark that group of [Knights]. I want them dead.”
“That’s Wildfire’s Wrath. A company of elite [Summer Knights].”
“Run them into our veterans!”
Vexil turned back. The first rank might take horrendous casualties, but the pikes were aimed at the [Knights] about to charge into the valley before them. They weren’t all Level 40+! He waited…and saw the ground flicker. General Vexil’s eyes went wide.
Ailendamus had dug a trench to force the [Knights] to climb up into the stabbing pikes. A wonderful tactic using nothing but geography to punish enemy forces. A classic that had killed entire armies on Earth; taking the high ground was a nightmare.
Tyrion Veltras had just looked at Ryoka when she pointed out the nightmare of fighting like that. His response had been ‘so what’?
It was a giant hole in the ground. This? This was a magical world.
The first scrolls were unrolled. The Summer Knights charged into the trench. No—over the trench. Rabbiteater stared down at the glowing ‘ground’. He followed the [Knight] in front of him up—over the light bridge.
The [Pikemen] looked up as the first Summer Knights climbed the temporary bridges and charged down onto them. Rabbiteater saw the first terrified Humans trying to swing their pikes up—then he thrust his lance forwards.
Talia and Chise were right behind them. They thrust their lances forwards, wrenching them loose. The Summer Knights crashed forwards.
“Hey. They stole our tactics.”
One of Embria’s [Soldiers] pointed at the [Light Bridge] spell. The Drake rolled her eyes.
“We didn’t invent it, you idiots. Keep watching.”
“They’ve passed the first rank, General! Orders?”
“Put up the [Stone Walls]! Now!”
[Mages] began erecting walls of stone, raising them in front of the charging [Knights]. Vexil watched, stomach churning.
This was going south—the Season of Summer was rampaging forwards. The second rank of pikes was advancing into them, but the Summer’s Champion couldn’t be stopped! He was clearing a path for the [Knights] around him to continue their charge unimpeded.
“Send the Order of the Thirsting Veil forwards!”
The [Knights] on standby and not fighting the Spring Knights surged forwards to halt the charge of the Summer’s Champion. General Vexil pointed.
“[Formation: Anchors of Lead]!”
The Summer’s Champion grunted as he hit a [Soldier] and felt the weight of the impact push him back slightly. Suddenly, trying to push the [Soldiers] was difficult. Each one seemed to weigh three times as much!
“Enemy [Knights] incoming!”
Ser Zulv called. Greysten bared his teeth.
“With me, Zulv, Wildfire! Let’s crush them! Summer fades! [Call to Single Combat]! Come, Ailendamus’ champion!”
He pointed and one of the [Knights] jerked back as if struck. The [Knight-Captain] and the Summer’s Champion wheeled their mounts around. They rode towards each other as the [Soldiers] and other [Knights] fell back. Zulv led his Wildfire’s Wrath company at the Order of the Thirsting Veil, clashing with the poisoned weapons of Ailendamus’ champions. Greysten raised his axe.
“[Hill Ogre’s Smash]!”
His first blow knocked his enemy clean from the saddle. The Summer’s Champion was swinging around and riding down on him in the next second. Wildfire’s Wrath was also taking apart the Order of the Thirsting Veil, who hadn’t expected to fight so many [Knights] uninjured.
However, the leftwards charge had stopped dead in its tracks and the [Soldiers] were closing in. Rabbiteater swung his sword, having left his lance behind. He lashed down, his sword carving shoulders and faces. There was no room to use [Grand Slash]. He was just—fighting! He would have pushed further in, but someone grabbed his shoulder.
“Ser Solstice! With me!”
The Goblin jerked. He looked over and saw Dame Voost. The Goblin recalled himself and backed up. He was part of a group. He had been fighting as if he was alone again. But this?
“Summer Knights! To me!”
The [Summer Knights] were pressing in on the middle where Rabbiteater was, but they’d slowed, inevitably, in the press of bodies. Dame Voost recalled all but the front-most ranks. Talia, panting, rode forwards. Chise was unhorsed and moving back, arm hanging limp.
Voost looked around, taking in around sixty [Knights] in their area who’d answered her shout. She pointed.
“We are setting up a second charge! Here! With me! Lances! Ser Solstice—”
She grabbed a spare from a bag of holding and tossed it at him. Greatly surprised, the Goblin saw the [Knights] moving into another wedge, following Dame Voost. She led them forwards in the press of bodies, moving back in order to gain room.
They barely had twenty feet before the front lines! That was enough, though. The [Knights] moved into a tight formation. Talia glanced at Rabbiteater, expecting the Goblin to get in the way—but he was as well-trained as they were. They moved forwards with the discipline of, well, [Knights].
Voost was aiming for a thin area of pikes. The Humans were staring at the [Knights] as the fighters drew back, knowing exactly what was going to happen.
“Charge! [Burst of Speed]!”
The Order of Seasons hit the thin wall of [Soldiers] and crashed through with all the momentum of a fresh charge. Rabbiteater saw them tear past terrified faces. The [Summer Knights] were shouting wrath and fury, running down more [Soldiers].
“The archers! There! There, with me!”
Voost swung her sword, and the narrow wedge changed directions. They continued to rampage forwards as they ran past the pikes at last. Rabbiteater looked over his shoulder as he heard another shout. He saw another spear of [Knights] crashing through the side of the [Soldiers] around the Summer’s Champion. He began to understand.
They were just…charging. General Vexil realized his mistake. The Order of Seasons hadn’t lied. They had the means to reach his lines. And once they were there…they couldn’t be stopped.
Individual companies were forming up, mounting charges within his army, building up speed and crashing forwards. His entire plan had been to slow them, but they refused to halt.
A formation was useless if it couldn’t hold! Nor could the Greatbows fire on their own soldiers so easily.
He ordered it anyways.
A cluster of [Knights] vanished as the Greatbows tracked them and loosed. Another group ran into walls of magic. They hacked at the shields, and then found themselves boxed in. They went down fighting.
However, too many [Knights] were pushing in. The first ones reached the ranks of archers at last. The bowmen and women looked up as the first angry [Knight] came at them, whirling a bloody sword.
Their nerve broke. They began to run.
“Hold your ground!”
Vexil tried to use his Skill again; if they stopped battering the [Knights], all was lost! He wasn’t able to, but one of the [Strategists] shouted.
The [Archers] turned, and to Vexil’s relief, began loosing arrows point-blank. The [Knight] went down as some attacked with shortswords. He mopped sweat from his forehead, panting. The damned rain made it hard to see; ironically the same rain he had hoped to weaken their auras with was now making aiming the Greatbows difficult.
“Shoot the Summer’s Champion! I don’t care if our [Knights] are in the way!”
He snapped at the [Strategist]. The man paled.
“I will take responsibility!”
“Sir, we can barely tell where the Summer’s Champion is!”
Vexil swung around. Had they lost sight of that [Knight]? Impossible! He was—
Where? The [General] swung his spyglass around. That was when he realized something.
The rain. The rain had become…thick. It was getting hard to see. The downpour was one thing, but why…? Vexil lowered the spyglass, wiped at the front. Was that condensation?
No, he realized. It was…mist. Steam?
Steam was rising from the battlefield. Vexil saw the [Summer Knights] fighting, the glow of their aura-weapons few and far between. Most weren’t using visible weapons; only the Summer’s Champion, Voost, and Wildfire’s Wrath. But he’d heard they were aura-specialists. So…where was their aura going?
The battlefield. Steam was rising everywhere. Suddenly, Vexil felt at his brow and realized the sweat coming from his forehead wasn’t entirely due to fear. It was hot.
And it was getting hotter.
The first inkling Rabbiteater had was when a [Soldier] stumbled and cursed before Rabbiteater struck him down. The man looked—unwell. He’d been clawing at his head. Why?
Rabbiteater thought it was just a random thing. Like a wasp landing inside your helmet; ill luck on the battlefield. However, he realized…more and more [Soldiers] were faltering.
They were getting tired, even before they clashed with the [Summer Knights]. It grew even more apparent after the fourth charge. Rabbiteater saw a man drop his sword, crying out. Rabbiteater swung his sword down, and then stared at the…smoke…rising from the dead man’s armor.
It was then he heard the screams and realized the rain wasn’t hitting him anymore. Rabbiteater looked up.
It was still raining, but the rain wasn’t even reaching the ground anymore. Steam rose in huge clouds. And that was higher up.
On the ground, a [Soldier] clawed at her helmet. It had begun to glow slightly, and she screamed, tossing away the burning piece of metal. In fact—Rabbiteater remembered Greysten handing him the amulet.
He looked down at it and saw a sigil that looked like a burning flame on the ruby. The Goblin raised it and realized what it was.
Amulet of Fire Resistance. He looked around and saw Ailendamus’ army devolving into chaos.
“Hold your ground! Hold—”
A [Captain] screamed at her men. But they couldn’t even hold onto their weapons.
“My armor is burning! I can’t—”
A [Soldier] fought to swing up his shield as Talia rode down on him. Another [Pikewoman] stared at the shaft of her weapon. The treated ash was beginning to smoke. Then—it burst into flame as the [Summer Knight] approached.
Aura. A thousand [Knights] were bringing the heat of the summer into this confined pass. Rabbiteater’s eyes widened.
General Vexil felt the wave of heat dry the damp from his clothing. He croaked.
“Sound the retreat. Dismantle the Greatbows. Hold them off—form a line here and—retreat!”
He hadn’t expected this. The palace? The palace was going to have his head. He had to pull the [Soldiers] back. He could do that, at least. Save the Greatbows!
His [Strategists] looked at him, but then they sprang into action. Vexil scrambled for his mount, which was trying to run out of this—this oven! Damn those [Knights]! Burning to death was not honor!
The [General] was trying to undo the unwisely sturdy knot he’d tied with the reins. He gave up and slashed them free. He was in the saddle when the steam cloud parted. One of his [Strategists] ran back towards him.
“General, they’ve reached the command—”
Vexil saw a lance run the man through the back. The [General] looked up. In the chaos, the [Summer Knights] were routing the fleeing army of Ailendamus, who were running out of the heat wave. Even they had no idea where the enemy really was with the steam blocking everything.
A [Knight], breathing slightly hard, stopped when he spotted Vexil. The [General] had drawn his sword.
“You damned cowards. Which Season are you? Winter?”
He stared at the grey armor—not like Summer or Autumn. Spring? A new [Knight]? No—Vexil saw the [Knight] raise his sword and shield at once, on-guard.
“Hm. Not any season. Just me.”
The [Knight] grunted in reply. Vexil hesitated. A foreign [Knight]? He pressed his knees into his stallion’s side, bracing.
He lunged forwards, riding in hard. His sword extended. The [Champion] saw the blow coming and threw himself out of the saddle.
Rabbiteater hit the ground, rolled. The enemy [Soldier] thundered past him, cursing. Turning. He was too canny to let Rabbiteater take him from behind.
“Face me, [Knight]! I am Vexil of Ailendamus!”
It seemed like he’d run into an officer of some kind. Rabbiteater’s [Dangersense] was tingling. Of all the times to lose Talia and Voost! He hid himself in the steam, grateful his armor gave him more cover. He heard the horse’s hooves even amid the fighting around him.
Well, this was more of a Redfang’s fight anyways. Rabbiteater grinned. He moved sideways, as Vexil’s head turned. However, the man couldn’t hear him.
[Muffled Armor]. A low-level [Knight-Errant]’s Skill. Rabbiteater eyed the horse he could barely see.
“There you a—dead gods!”
That was because Rabbiteater had thrown his sword. He’d angled it right, so the hilt smacked the horse on the neck. Hard. The animal reared. Vexil might have maintained control—but then Rabbiteater threw his shield.
The stallion had had enough. It bucked the [General], and he lost his grip on the severed reins, forgetting they were cut. He hit the ground, but rolled onto his feet.
The [General] spat mud out of his mouth. He whirled, trying to guard himself on all sides. Why had that [Knight] thrown his sword? He turned, sensed the air ripple—
[Grand Slash]. The two Skills collided and Rabbiteater heard a cry. He frowned through the steam. It sounded like the Human had managed to block part of it. But he’d still hit armor.
Good armor. The Goblin stood motionless. Listening. Then he adjusted the weapon he carried. The jade axe began to glow.
[Grand Slash]. Vexil’s sword-arm was torn up. He’d actually blocked most of the blow—barely. His armor had taken the rest. The enchanted metal had resisted it; his gauntlets hadn’t done as well.
He switched hands, his arm shaking. He called out.
Vexil hesitated. He had been about to say ‘I surrender’. However, he’d reconsidered.
Surrender? He would be dead even if he were ransomed. This was a disaster. He had to at least return with some of his army! He’d take what he could, sneak into Gaiil-Drome and burn the damn forest down with a small band if he had to. Then he might survive.
He just had to escape the [Knight]. Vexil crept through the mist, away from where he’d been standing. They were both waiting. Listening for any motion.
Both had enchanted weapons it seemed. Whoever struck first might win, and Vexil was a [General].
[Flurry Strikes] followed by [Lance Thrust]. His last two close-combat Skills. It should kill that [Knight] and then all Vexil had to do was run—or play dead. Either way…
A sound in the mist made him whirl. There! The [Knight] had stepped on something. Vexil lunged.
He had found Rabbiteater. The sword lanced forwards, striking, hitting home. Hitting—
This wasn’t right. It didn’t feel like a body or armor. It felt like he was striking—
The steam cleared. Vexil saw the crimson cloak shift. His sword cut through the Cloak of Plenty harmlessly.
Rabbiteater lowered the cloak he’d lifted on one arm to fool the Human’s depth-perception. He saw the man step back. Rabbiteater swung Headscatcher’s axe. The glowing jade projection slashed through the air.
Vexil saw what he thought was a crimson glow through the visor of the helmet. But why—?
Ser Markus was badly wounded on his left leg. He wanted to heal it, but the tip of the enemy [Knight]’s lance had been poisoned. At least one of the Autumn Knights had neutralized it.
The Season of Spring hadn’t fought in the pass for obvious reasons, and Ser Markus had been roundly berated by his fellow Spring Knights for not realizing the obvious tactic of combining heat-auras. Winter Knights did the same thing in bulk too.
He’d feel awfully embarrassed about it later, and probably hear jokes about it all year. Right now though, Ser Markus was riding into Stone Giant’s pass, despite the pain in his leg.
He found her first, tending to Chise, who was also wounded. More Summer Knights had fallen than Markus would have liked; well, one was too many.
However, Ailendamus’ army was well and truly in flight. Talia looked up.
“Markus, you’re injured. Are the others okay?”
“No one died. We outnumbered their ambush group. Where’s Ser Solstice?”
Markus panted. Talia looked sharply at him, but Markus was worried. Rabbiteater had been in the vanguard. Had he…?
“He’s over there. That fool.”
She jerked her head. Markus turned. What did that mean? He rode forwards, through the clearing steam and found Rabbiteater.
Greysten carefully inspected General Vexil—or what was left of him. It was really hard to tell. Rabbiteater had hit the enemy [General] in the head with his enchanted axe.
“So you didn’t know it was the Ailendamus [General]?”
He looked at Rabbiteater. The Goblin shrugged. Dame Voost looked amused; Ser Zulv was somewhat appalled.
Mainly because Rabbiteater had taken Vexil’s armor and his sword. And his horse. And boots. He was trying all of them on. Ser Markus stared as the Goblin grunted.
“Didn’t know. Thought a [General] would be smarter.”
“Ser Solstice? You killed the enemy [General]…?”
Markus stared, swaying a bit. Rabbiteater looked up and sprang to his feet.
“Markus. Your leg. Here.”
He offered a healing potion, but Markus ignored it. Rabbiteater looked up at the Spring Knight as Markus gave him a wide, slightly unhinged grin.
“He was a [General]. Not Ailendamus’ best. Ser Solstice is as fine a warrior as any.”
Voost remarked. Rabbiteater shrugged with his characteristic modesty.
“No. Would have been harder. He was stupid. See?”
He pointed. Markus stared at the remains of the [General]’s head and hesitated. How…?
Rabbiteater explained as he shook his head.
“No helmet. Stupid, stupid.”
The first battle between the Order of Seasons and Ailendamus was an overwhelming victory. Vexil’s fault was not knowing the full-capabilities of a [Knight] charge.
Ailendamus would send another army. A better army. If there was one difference between an empire of its size and a smaller kingdom—it could afford to lose multiple armies. Not to mention tailor each one for a purpose.
Nevertheless, the Dawn Concordat celebrated the Order of Seasons, welcoming help at last. That was the news. The fact that an unknown [Knight] had slain the enemy [General] was a footnote, but it was a note. Most put it down to a foreign [Knight] joining the Order of Seasons.
Mrsha waved two little flags she’d written Rabbiteater’s name on wildly and cheered, again, silently. She danced around Rags.
Rabbiteater’s amazing! Rabbiteater’s awesome! I want to be a [Knight]!
Mrsha the Squire planned on bragging about it to Ekirra and Visma. She knew Rabbiteater! She would have run down to Liscor to find her friends, but Ekirra was still mad at her. Even though it was his fault!
She’d gotten in big trouble with Selys and Ishkr about that. However, that was yesterday-Mrsha’s problems.
Stinky Rags didn’t even want to talk with Mrsha, though. She was just whispering with Ulvama and Calescent. The [Chef] slurped some of his spicy-noodle with egg that was so tasty.
“Rabbiteater did good. Lots of [Knights]. Think he can get us armor?”
“Hm. Too far. Let him do what he wants. I’m more worried about [Knights]. Looks like Thunderbows are too weak. I need to revisit the plan, then.”
Ulvama just snorted.
“Don’t fight [Knights] on flat ground. Fight in tunnels and collapse roof on them.”
“Sometimes you have to fight them flat.”
Rags sighed. She rubbed at her head, frowning as she considered the battle and how she would have done it. Those [Summer Knights] were too much like the Rose Knights for her liking. Although…a bit less high-quality gear if some had gone down to arrows and whatnot. Less defense, more dangerous aura-abilities. She hadn’t thought to make Goblinhome flame-proof.
“Chieftain Rags, I have fought Izril [Knights]. Even Terandrian [Knights]. More importantly, I, Ulvama, can help you remember when Chieftains fought [Knights]. If I am your [Shaman].”
Ulvama smiled sweetly. Rags glanced at her. The [Shaman] was still trying to get a promise to come back with Rags. The Goblin Chieftain shrugged.
“Taganchiel can do the same. I can do it by myself as well.”
Ulvama’s smile turned into a scowl instantly.
“Taganchiel is chief shaman? That idiot?”
“Mhm. I will tell him you said hello.”
Ulvama tried again, but she kept brushing away Mrsha. The little Gnoll saw the [Shaman] round on her.
Mrsha held up a card. Ulvama stared at it.
Can you pwease enchant my fur with armor?
Mrsha had added a little heart at the end too. Ulvama stared at her.
“You want armor-markings?”
Mrsha the Knight nodded. With her [Fur of the Fortress] Skill, she’d be the strongest kid on the playground! She was sure they’d all seen this and they were probably getting weapons for a proper skirmish. Ulvama checked the note. Mrsha gave the [Shaman] a winsome look.
“No. I’m busy.”
Ulvama chopped Mrsha on the forehead. The Gnoll girl howled silently and kicked Ulvama in the shins. The Goblin promptly kicked back. Mrsha hopped on one leg and held her forehead, debated punching Ulvama—and remembered the Goblin didn’t stop retaliating like other adults did. You hit her, she hit back.
Dispirited, Mrsha slunk away. Stinky Ulvama. She headed for the door instead. Two Brothers followed her, and Mrsha sauntered up to the door. Liska was on-duty.
Liscor, please and thank you!
Liska eyed the note. The Gnoll was chewing on something. She slowly, carefully, reached for another bit of some kind of gum-bark from Baleros that Palt had given her. Popped another square into her mouth.
Mrsha’s face fell. Liska glanced at her.
“You’re in trouble for poisoning people. Shoo. Ishkr’ll be mad if I let you out.”
Mrsha raised her paws in outrage! She couldn’t be grounded! She had enacted justice yesterday! Okay, Ekirra hadn’t forgiven her and she was in trouble because he’d cried, but he had been mean first! And the [Knights] had been—been—
She was trying to write all this down on paper since Liska didn’t know Mrsha-signs, but the Gnoll wouldn’t even read it!
“I’m not letting you out. Go away.”
Mrsha the Indignant raised a punching fist. Liska saw it. She raised a kicking foot.
“I’m not letting you hit me. I’ll kick you. Go away.”
The little Gnoll stared at Liska. She slunk away, but not before pointing two furry fingers at her eyes and then at Liska. A clear threat. The Gnoll saw Mrsha slink behind a door, stare balefully at her, then shut it hard.
“What a little spoiled brat.”
Liska muttered. Mrsha yanked the door open and made a rude gesture. Liska made one right back.
Mrsha the Vengeful would make Liska pay. She was already formulating a way to get more of Calescent’s spice. Spicy ice cream! Spicy gum! Wait, spicy gum sounded sort of nice.
No one could stop Mrsha! She wanted to prevail on her agent, Niers, but he was still observing Rags. Mrsha stomped about, angry, plotting vengeance. A little Gnoll girl without proper parents.
Wanderer had seen it all before. At least she didn’t look underfed. However, she was certainly going wild. No parents. But then…they’d been killed, hadn’t they?
The Gnoll thoughtfully slipped away. It was easier to stare through a window than anything. Although hard enough; the Goblins had good eyes, the Antinium on the roof had nearly spotted him three times, and he wasn’t going to even risk going inside.
Not with those hatted Humans. Still, he wasn’t Wanderer for nothing. He sighed as he returned to the city.
Gnoll child with white fur loses her tribe. Lost, with uncaring Gnolls or…hostile ones. There was just one thing he couldn’t figure out.
“Excuse me. It’s me again.”
When he returned to the inn where he was staying, Wanderer approached the counter. The Gnoll [Innkeeper] gave him a friendly look. Pawful of Cotton wasn’t a high-class inn. It was cheap though, and Gnoll-centric. It certainly wasn’t The Wandering Inn.
“Oh, hello. Etrh, right?”
“That’s me. I just had one more question about the inn—I tried to get in, but it’s closed.”
“The Wandering Inn? Terrible business.”
The Gnoll’s face fell. Wanderer nodded.
“About the…damned murderers. Hectval.”
The [Innkeeper] pursed his lips to spit, eyed his clean counter, and thought better of it.
“What about them? If you’re asking about the murderers, they’re dead. Torn to pieces by the Goblin. Good; I just wish he’d sliced them up before.”
The other Gnoll nodded. His brown fur was as innocuous as could be. Dyed, of course, and then scented with the road and normal smells. He leaned on the counter, frowning.
“Yes, yes. You said. Can you tell me—are you sure it was Drakes who did it? There wasn’t one Gnoll?”
The [Innkeeper] gave Wanderer a blank look.
“One of us? Why would there be? No, it was Drakes.”
“Hrr. Well, thank you.”
Wanderer left it at that. He had no proof of course. But the pieces were there. A Gnoll child picked up by a kind Human [Innkeeper]. Then…some Tribe heard about it and ‘took care’ of the cursed child. Only, they got the Human instead.
They’d come back. Or if it really hadn’t been more than a Drake city…they’d come. Wanderer shook his head. Even with all the guardians, that was no place for a child to grow up alone. Just…how did you get to her? He sighed.
Coinpurse was going to owe him big for making this much work for him.
Mrsha the Not-A-Spoiled-Brat stole Kevin’s laptop. The young man protested, yawning.
“Hey. I need that. What do you mean, it’s ‘your turn’?”
The little Gnoll held up a card. It was her turn! She got a turn, and Numbtongue did. They’d worked it out back when Numbtongue and her had fought over it. Mrsha got a turn, Numbtongue got a turn, and everyone else got a turn.
Since Numbtongue was sad, Mrsha got to use it for two thirds of the time and Kevin, as a ‘everyone else’, could use it for one third of the time.
The [Mechanic]’s lips moved as he tried to work out her impeccable logic. In the end, he shrugged.
“Fine. But let me save my data first. You can use it, but don’t delete anything, understand?”
Mrsha nodded impatiently. Then she took the computer. She wanted to watch the crime movie again. For notes. Mrsha was going to rule this filthy city if she had to stand on the burned tongues of her enemies to do it!
She began watching a movie in the Garden of Sanctuary, but then realized…no one was here. The beavers were sleeping.
Mrsha the Crime Boss looked around. It…wasn’t bad that this was the case, but suddenly she wanted to watch in the common room. She knew she was supposed to keep the laptop secret, but she wanted Ulvama to watch with her. Or Kevin. Or Niers. Or…
Mrsha padded into the common room. She looked around, and then carried the laptop over to Ulvama. She tugged at the [Shaman]’s arm.
“What? Watch? No. I’m busy.”
Ulvama was in deep discussion with Rags and Calescent. Rags frowned at the strange object in Mrsha’s hand, but Ulvama didn’t seem to care. Mrsha stomped her feet and punched Ulvama’s leg—then ran off to a far table to watch by herself.
Stupid Ulvama! Stupid, stinking Ulvama with her big butt and stupid face! Now she couldn’t even watch the movie and have fun. Mrsha looked around the quiet inn. She missed Temile. She missed the [Actors] and Menolit and everyone. She…
She missed Lyonette. She’d promised to come back by now. Ryoka had promised. Everyone lied. Adults all lied and the world was sin and crime and…they all left.
The door opened and closed. Mrsha didn’t look up; she’d put her head on the table. She heard Liska’s voice.
“No killing Goblins. Okay, I said it. You kill Goblins, you die. You can look around for a while, but we’re not open.”
There were some hushed voices. The Goblins looked up. Mrsha raised her head, pulling down the laptop’s screen. She heard a flurry of voices.
“—leave it. Or do you want to cause an incident? Where…? Ah.”
She saw four people standing in the doorway, taking in the inn. Mrsha’s eyes went round. She saw four Humans. Humans wearing golden armor.
[Knights]. Ser Dalimont and the other three Thronebearers spotted Mrsha at the same time as she saw them.
There they were. Suddenly, here! Thanks to Liska! How had they found her?
“There truly only is one white Gnoll child in the city. How strange. Well done, Ser Dalimont.”
The lone female [Knight] nodded to him. Ser Dalimont sighed, rubbing at still slightly-puffy lips. Mrsha shrank in her seat.
Boring competence! Her mortal enemy! Mrsha’s pulse accelerated, like the [Rogue] whose misdeeds had finally caught up to her.
It might be a terrible reckoning. Ekirra had been mildly burned and he’d still had a terrible day. The Thronebearers had been carried out on stretchers.
They were right here, too. Nowhere to hide…Mrsha’s eyes slunk sideways towards the nearest wall. She’d run for it! Numbtongue was asleep, but she could door-port into his room. All she had to do was…
“Excuse me, young Gnoll Miss! Yes, you! I should like to have a word with you.”
One of the Thronebearers strode across the room. The Goblins turned back. Ulvama sharply. She saw one of the Sers—not Dalimont—bearing down on Mrsha.
Liska had already gone back to the door, blissfully ignorant of what she’d caused. However, the rest of the inn’s protectors were more aware of the danger of armored Humans asking about white Gnolls.
Rags was allergic to non-Goblins in armor to begin with. She reached for her bag of holding and the crossbow, eying the four [Knights]. Three Goblins versus four [Knights] wasn’t a matchup she wanted to take after today’s broadcast, but…she eyed the curiously cold patch on the beams.
Maybe she wouldn’t have to.
Niers Astoragon realized he’d been made at the same time as he yanked his shortsword out of cover. Damn! He was all for pranks, which was why he’d helped Mrsha, but depending on how this went, he might have to get involved.
If only to stop four Thronebearers from getting murdered in this inn!
The danger this time was not things going south for Mrsha. Rather, to Niers, it was three skilled Hobs on one side—and four Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings leaning out of their hallway position. They looked grim and if one of those ponced [Knights] so much as raised a hand, they’d be kissing armor-piercing daggers through their backs. Assuming they survived that, there was a mentally unstable Goblin with a crystal sword, an Antinium [Hunter] on the roof, and angry Beavers.
Mrsha saw the angry [Knight] coming and bolted from her seat for the nearest wall. Mrsha the Evasive leapt from her chair—
“Not so fast! [A Necessary Discussion]!”
—And froze. The foreign Thronebearer had grabbed her! With a Skill she’d never heard of! He halted as the other three [Knights] walked forwards. Only Ser Dalimont glanced around uneasily. The other two called out.
“Don’t be too extreme, Ser Lormel.”
“Extreme? I should like a word myself.”
The female [Knight]’s brows were thunderous. Mrsha quaked, unable to move. Help me, Ulvama! Help me, Crimshaw!
Help me, Erin?
Her panic-stricken look made the [Shaman] raise her staff. Her eyes and tattoos began to glow ominously. Ser Dalimont reached for the shield at his side.
“Ser Lormel, perhaps you should halt one second—”
Too late. The Thronebearer loomed over Mrsha. His golden armor was resplendently luminous, polished and buffed. He looked like a shining figure out of stories—only slightly marred by lips that looked like a duck’s bill.
“So, here is the perpetrator of yesterday’s incident. A restaurant’s reputation in ruins! Four Thronebearers of Eternal Calanfer, poisoned! I have some words for you, young lady.”
Ser Lormel leaned down. The Brothers tightened their grips on their crossbow triggers. Niers opened his mouth to shout a word and Ulvama swung her staff up. Mrsha closed her eyes, covering her head as Lormel’s hand flashed down.
“So this is my fate. I’ve washed my paws in blood, and it’s time to dance the hempen jig at last. Do I have any regrets? Only that I didn’t get away with it.”
–Mrsha the [Gang Boss]
An armored finger poked Mrsha gently in the forehead.
“Very bad girl. One does not pour spice into other people’s food. I should like to tell you, young lady, that we all had to visit the [Healer]’s because of you. Most unpleasant. I would like a word with your parents, and I would like you to consider the consequences of your actions.”
Ser Lormel waved a finger in front of Mrsha’s bewildered face, his expression stern and angry. Then he glanced at the other two Thronebearers.
“I say, was that too harsh?”
The female [Knight] frowned, still wrathful.
“Stern words, Ser Lormel, but leave it to her parents to decide a proper punishment. So long as it is appropriately done. What is the saying? ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child?’”
The other [Knight] turned to her.
“I believe, Dame Ushar, that the phrase is ‘if they don’t spare the rod, break their fingers. Spoil the child.’ A rather crude proverb other [Knight] orders employ.”
“Quite so, Ser Sest. Thank you for reminding me. So then, I should like to have a word with this young one’s guardians! Where is that Drake? I assume she’s a [Caretaker] of some sort?”
Dame Ushar folded her arms and looked around the inn imperiously. Ser Lormel frowned at Mrsha. He saw her wide eyes and terrified expression and immediately knelt.
“I seem to have gone too far. I’m not angry, child. Not more than needs be. However, that prank could have hurt someone of less robust nature than the Thronebearers of Calanfer! Which is what we are. Let us promise not to do so again and we shall say no more of it.”
He smiled and held out his hand. Mrsha stared at it and the [Knight] trying to reassure her.
Behind them, the Goblins had gone still. Ulvama had choked on magical fire—in a literal sense—and was now hiccupping it out bit by bit.
The Brothers were all staring at the unexpected turn of events. One of them still had a finger on the crossbow’s trigger. He accidentally squeezed too hard—Crimshaw’s hand blurred and yanked the bolt out before the thunk became fatal.
The Thronebearers all looked up, and took in the room again. They eyed the Goblins warily and Dame Ushar stepped back.
“…Goblins and not a soul in sight. Fellow Thronebearers, do you suppose this child has been neglected? Ser Dalimont, what did you say you heard about this inn, again?”
“That the owner was dead. And that someone like our target was spotted here.”
Ser Dalimont, the [Knight] of Princess Seraphel, turned and looked down at Mrsha. He regarded her as she peered up at him. Ser Lormel rose.
“Perhaps we should do something about it.”
Mrsha saw half the room glance up. Oblivious, Ser Lormel went on.
“Inform the Watch Captain. That is the protocol, isn’t it? No, a [Guardsman]—Drakes do love their Watch. Not a [Knight] in all the south to beseech to make sure this little one has a guardian! I say, is the caretaker of this establishment here? An employee? Hello?”
He called out, raising his voice. Mrsha stared up at him.
Inform the Watch Captain? Why, that was the most ridiculous, most normal thing to do she’d ever heard of! Ser Sest bent down, anger forgotten. He spoke, his lips still clearly red and enflamed.
“Young child. What is your name? I am Ser Sest of the Thronebearers of Calanfer. That is a Terandrian Kingdom. We are [Knights]. Are your parents not around? Are you in any danger?”
He glanced significantly at the Goblins and lowered his voice to a whisper only between them.
“Simply nod if you need help, and upon our honor, we shall ensure you are kept safe. We are [Knights]—I do not know if you know of our class, but we would never abandon someone in need.”
“A child in need. Politick demands certain sacrifices, Ser Sest, especially from home.”
Dame Ushar corrected him. The Thronebearers waited as Mrsha stared up at them, horrified. Ser Sest began to look bemused at a lack of any response.
Oh no. Oh no. Mrsha felt a terrible pain in her stomach. A falling sensation. A sickness. She looked up at the concerned Thronebearers, who she had spiced nearly to death, now peering at Ishkr as he hurried downstairs, a mop in one hand, concerned about…her?
Oh no. They were decent people.
“I’m so sorry—er—”
Ishkr did a double-take as he saw the [Knights]. Ser Lormel strode over at once and performed an elegant bow.
“Ser Lormel of the Thronebearers of Calanfer. Are you this young child’s father, sir? We would like to have a few words, if we may.”
“Don’t forget to ask about the whereabouts of our target.”
Dame Ushar whispered. Ser Lormel nodded and Ishkr stared at him, then Mrsha, not sure where to start.
“Me? Her father…? Er, no, I—”
A loud sniff interrupted everyone. Ser Sest reached for his belt pouch hurriedly. Mrsha sniffed again, and began to cry.
“There, there. We aren’t angry. Here, dry your tears. Ser Lormel, you were far too harsh on the girl.”
Ser Sest offered her a scented handkerchief, which only made it worse. They didn’t understand. They thought Mrsha was scared—or in danger! The Thronebearers protectively closed around her, eying Ishkr more balefully as the Gnoll tried to explain.
“It occurs to me that Gnoll or not, she doesn’t have any clothes, Ser Dalimont. We should at least ensure a Senior Guard is aware of this, shouldn’t we?”
Dame Ushar conferred with Dalimont. He held up a placating hand.
“Gnoll children run around without for a while. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
That, at least, was sensible. The other three Thronebearers weren’t evil stupidity incarnate. They were nice…but still sort of stupid. Mrsha couldn’t stop crying. She felt bad. She had done…a bad thing.
She didn’t want to be mean anymore.
Ishkr finally got the [Knights] to calm down with an abbreviated version of the truth. They ended up sitting around the table, still concerned for Mrsha’s wellbeing.
“A child should not be alone at any time, Mister Ishkr. It is not our place to lecture, but the Thronebearers of Calanfer are by way of being a [Knight]-Order that practices law, social graces, and non-martial skills as well as combat. A dedicated [Carer] would be required in Calanfer; it does not simply do to let one run around, even in the same establishment. Especially an inn. Who is the parent?”
He remembered The Wandering Inn had lost its owner and continued in a whisper, although Mrsha heard everything.
“If they are ah, deceased—”
“No, no. She’s left me in charge. It’s—my fault. I should have kept a better eye on her.”
“Is there no [Carer] one can employ? If it is a matter of funding…”
The Thronebearers were consulting their funds. Mrsha was trying to shake her head as Ushar kept asking her questions.
“So you are fed, cared for, and want for nothing? Are you sure, little Miss? We must leave on our pressing quest, and if you need but anything…”
They had been told Mrsha wasn’t able to talk, so all three politely waited as she scribbled furiously on the table. Mrsha had almost forgotten why they were here, and she was trying to signal Ishkr not to talk about Lyonette! The Gnoll was so flustered though, he didn’t see her. Mrsha hurriedly handed the notecard to Dame Ushar and the woman read.
To the Thronebearers of Calanfer:
I, Mrsha, would like to most sincerely apologize for my flagrant actions and immodest conduct. I prostrate myself before you for my untoward actions and can only, once again and repeatedly, ask for your forgiveness.
It is true that my state of affairs is not ideal, but it is far from degrading. I want for little, and but for my own careless actions, I am normally accompanied by sufficient guardianship, although my parent is not, at this moment, present. I apologize once again and would like to make amends by offering you a refreshment or cake product…
It had taken her a while to write so much. Ser Dalimont had risen to speak to the Goblins, albeit at a wary remove, and Dame Ushar and Ser Sest were still stuck on ‘maybe Mrsha is abandoned’ mentally. Even Ser Lormel seemed happy enough not to ask Lyonette’s name, merely inquire about Mrsha’s health.
But Mrsha had made one huge mistake. They were Thronebearers, not the Order of Seasons. On the battlefield, you could hand the [Summer Knights] the victory every time. However, on the dance floor or when reciting law?
“I say, what extraordinary penmanship! I haven’t seen such grace in half the [Scribes] of the Mage’s Guild we have passed by on this continent!”
Ser Sest remarked. Dame Ushar blinked at the cursive writing, the laborious use of language. She eyed the neat spacing on the card, and style. Slowly, she turned in her seat.
The Thronebearer looked over his shoulder. Dame Ushar rose, and Mrsha looked up as the Thronebearer’s eyes lit up.
“Lyonette has been here. This is letter-writing only someone from Calanfer would employ. Excuse me, Mister Ishkr. Do you know a red-haired young woman?”
Ser Sest nudged Ser Lormel. Dame Ushar ignored them and went on.
“A red-haired young woman, who might go by the name…Lyonette? Lyonette du Marquin?”
Mrsha froze. Ishkr glanced at her, then the Thronebearers.
“Lyonette? Yes, of course. She’s Mrsha’s mother—that is to say, she’s raising Mrsha and running the inn. However, she’s in Oteslia on business—Mrsha!”
The flying kick was too late. The Thronebearers turned into golden statues. They stared at Mrsha, at Ishkr. Ulvama sat back down and reached for some of the cold noodles in one of the bowls. She began to eat, frowning.
She had no idea what was going on.
There was some delight to be had in trivial misunderstandings. Little dramas were more satisfying than larger ones with actual strife.
Much fun could be had about rather a lot of nothing. And if you were bored, you had all the time in the world to devote to…nothing. Or rather, fun plots and schemes.
Perhaps that was how, as Ryoka Griffin found herself riding north to visit Lord Pellmia’s estates, she found herself the target of countless—busybodies.
Lady Buscrei had ridden day and night on the most urgent of business: securing gliders for her family. Lord Swey was slower, not having any movement Skills, but she was told he was enroute.
She greeted the [Lady] of House Quellae and the daughter, Betta Quellae, and was promptly ushered into the parlor. House Quellae was a rather pleasant place to visit, being home to one of the largest orchards in all of northern Izril.
Thus, local [Lords] and [Ladies] often came to pick the produce by hand—or at least, House Veltras’ scions enjoyed that. Keireen Quellae and her daughter were gracious hosts, and Lord Pellmia was no less skilled.
Of course, there was always one bad apple in a metaphor, and that would be his somewhat arrogant boy. He made an appearance, but didn’t linger. Just as well Buscrei hadn’t brought her sons, or it might be another not-so-casual duel in the sparring grounds.
“Buscrei, you alarm me. Did you ride the entire way here pell-mell like that?”
The [Hunting Lady] brushed off Keireen’s dismay at her somewhat disheveled state.
“Bah. I got out of the swamps before I woke up. Otter-dog sled. Then I rode here as fast as could be. Be grateful I didn’t take half the family, but I can’t just drop in unannounced.”
“Any time! Pellmia loves guests. But I don’t think you’re here just for fruit? You’ll take some back, of course.”
“Naturally. And I brought purified water for those picky damned trees of yours. Enough of that. What do you think about Tyrion and the Wind Runner?”
Keireen’s eyes lit up. Betta, returning with snacks and tea, broke in.
“She’s on her way here! Father managed to persuade her to come with Lord Tyrion and his sons! He’s become a [Matchmaker].”
“Of all things, at his age.”
The [Lady] sighed, but her eyes were dancing. Buscrei grinned.
“He’s got to have the right class to hunt quarry, and there’s a Phoenix on the wing if I ever saw one. I’m surprised she hasn’t flown for the hills!”
“Especially after what Tyrion said. Did you hear how he asked to court her? Asked? He knelt down in front of everyone, [Soldiers], his sons, and—I have Pellmia’s transcript, word-for-word. And some of the other things he said in public! Pellmia says it’s been burned into his soul.”
“I’ll get it!”
Betta hurried off and returned with the piece of parchment. She handed it to Buscrei and the [Hunting Lady] laughed so hard she nearly passed out.
“It’s not funny!”
Betta protested while trying not to smile. She looked at her mother.
“If any boy said that to me—even one I liked—I’d hide in the pantry every time I saw them! Does Lord Tyrion have no tact at all?”
She was dismayed, because she’d met Tyrion and while he was stiff as an ironwood tree, she’d rather been enamored by one of the famed heads of the Five Families. More than one young woman in the region liked him.
“He’s always been like that. I think he took a bad hit to the head one time when he was young and it knocked everything but tilting and strategy out of his head. My, my. Can I get a copy of this? Everyone in the family needs to see this. Hah! We’ll frame it in our lodge.”
Buscrei cackled, then turned serious. Keireen had gone off to fetch another guest who had arrived and had been resting from the sudden travel.
“Just so I’m certain, we are on the same side here? Ryoka and Tyrion sounds like an entertaining match. Oswen’s all for it. Especially if we get a Courier in the family. That’s good blood.”
“We are on the same side. We would rather like to see a union as well—if it can be arranged.”
The second guest emerged. Lady Desinee El. Buscrei’s eyes shot into her hair and she rose to her feet.
“How did the House of El get wind of this?”
“We are interested in the Wind Runner as well. If she stays in the north…Lady Buscrei Oswen. Do you have a plan?”
Four [Ladies] conferred in the parlor, but that would soon be two [Lords] and four [Ladies] when Swey and another [Lord] arrived. Of course, that was the most passionate endorsers of this relationship.
“There’s opposition, you know. I ran into old Lord Aghonst, who was practically frothing at the mouth to put a bee in Tyrion’s ear about marrying a commoner.”
“Damn. That dried up piece of leather? Is he on his way?”
“Might be. But he’ll be delayed—I cut his horses loose in the stables and had two of my people run them off.”
The [Lord] and [Climber] smiled smugly. The others in the now-crowded parlor nodded. Already, the lines were being drawn. An anti-relationship faction was no doubt gathering in their own way.
It would depend on who had the best organization, the best strategy. It was also hugely fun. Keireen clapped her hands, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Miss Griffin and Lord Tyrion are ostensibly here to collect some of our finest fruits and tour the place. Something to do with a debt to friends? We’re giving her—or them, Pellmia was unclear—some wine. You all happen to be here for the harvest. My plan is, on first meeting, to organize a little fruit-gathering expedition. In pairs. A competition. Tyrion and Ryoka will be one pair, naturally, and I know Tyrion will compete.”
“So will this Wind Runner. According to my notes, she’s competitive too. I do want to meet her in person.”
Betta had somehow acquired a facts-sheet on the Courier, and was passing copies around. Lord Swey waved a half-eaten peach at the people here.
“That’s fine for an opener, but what if she runs? She pulled a fast one and left my family when she visited.”
“She can’t do that. Simplest solution? Get her to show the glider and someone crashes it. Or—termites. Is there a [Druid] around? We can do the same for the wind suit.”
“I’ll spill something on her clothes and we can have them washed. We’ll need a rotation of places they visit of course; we can’t stretch out one place more than a few days. And it gives us time to set up! The House of El will certainly contribute. Deilan himself would host you all, just to look at her Kaalblade!”
Desinee clapped her hands together. Buscrei rubbed at her chin.
“Speaking of which, isn’t Ryoka taking sword-lessons from Tyrion? We can do something with that.”
Ryoka Griffin felt distinctly unwell. The ride to Lord Pellmia’s lands was fast—everything was fast when you had Lord Tyrion’s Skills boosting your speed. Even with Sammial and Hethon riding more clumsily, and Ryoka was included in the untrained category, they could cover ground faster than most [Riders].
She felt eyes on her the entire way here, and stuck close to Hethon and Sammial. They, at least, were somewhat neutral parties.
It had begun. A terrible suspicion fell upon Ryoka. How else did you explain Ullim just happening to make sure Ryoka sat next to Tyrion at their lunch, or Pellmia engaging her and Tyrion in talk, such that Ryoka couldn’t slip away to contemplate downing an invisibility potion and fleeing?
Lord Tyrion’s proposal—to date—still burned in Ryoka’s head. She winced every time she remembered. Worse, she could already see its effects.
“Was that Lord Aghonst I thought I saw coming up the road?”
Tyrion turned his head, bemused. He was willing to slow the fast-moving group heading north, but Jericha shook her head.
“Lord Aghonst seemed quite—tired, Lord Veltras. I directed him to the keep to rest.”
Where he would be expecting Tyrion, but hopefully be delayed long enough by Ullim to fail to catch up before they arrived. Jericha sighed, but she had cast her lot in with one side.
“We’re nearly at the outskirts of the orchards. I think it might be cherries—I’m told they’re ready to drop! Hethon, Sammial, are you fond of that fruit?”
Both boys chorused happily, although Sammial was frowning. He was trying to copy the [Summer Knights] and set fire to a pinecone he’d picked up. Ryoka didn’t know which was more alarming. The idea of Sammial with a fire-aura—or the fact that the air seemed a tad bit warmer around him.
It was probably her imagination. Ryoka felt hot and cold. Clammy. This? This was a nightmare.
In a nutshell, Lord Tyrion had asked to court—date her. And he was…well, older. He had kids! He was Lord Tyrion of House Veltras, one of the most influential [Lords] in the world. And he had knelt down in front of everyone and—
Thwack. Hethon jumped as Ryoka slapped her head to knock the memory out. No good. The problem was…
How did she get out of this? Just run away? Pellmia had stopped her, and she owed Tyrion for the army, and the fae…but this?
She tried to think of it objectively. In a vacuum, in a complete void where there were no outside factors…the problem was, Tyrion would have had a chance. He was certainly attractive to her in a few ways.
However, he was a father. He had kids, and he was a [Lord] with all that entailed. Ryoka was also Ryoka and her ability to handle this was about on par with her ability to make friends or form meaningful relationships that didn’t involve life-or-death scenarios now and then.
She knew his reputation. He had sieged Liscor! He was a father and she’d already met Relc. She knew all of this—she just wished she didn’t actually like him. Despite everything, Ryoka didn’t hate Tyrion, who rode about like the wind and carried debts and…
“Just not this.”
Hethon glanced at Ryoka. She looked distinctly unwell. The Wind Runner was hiding behind him from Lord Pellmia, who kept trying to move her over to Tyrion.
“Ah, there’s my family. And look! We have guests! They’ve come out to meet us? What a surprise.”
Lord Pellmia beamed and Ryoka Griffin looked up. She took one look at Lord Swey, Lady Buscrei, Lady Desinee, Pellmia’s wife and daughter and the baskets they carried for cherry-picking and turned white. She saw them smile at her and Tyrion.
“Ryoka! We just met. What a coincidence that you should be here when we are. Tyrion, you rogue.”
Buscrei grinned at Tyrion, who nodded to her stiffly, uncomprehendingly.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, Buscrei. I heard you were in Oswen when Miss Griffin last visited…days ago.”
He glanced at her. Ryoka bared her teeth at Buscrei. The [Hunting Lady] winked.
“I just had to come up north for the produce and deliver some of the purified water. Ryoka, it is good to see you.”
“Miss Griffin. We’re all out picking cherries and we just heard Tyrion and company would be coming by for a visit. Why don’t you join us in harvesting, then we can all settle in. We could even make a game of it!”
Swey beamed around—Desinee nudged him. Introductions first! He was being too forwards. Ryoka Griffin looked around at the sly looks, the knowing glances and…snapped.
Hethon Veltras was impressed. He actually saw Ryoka snap, and understood why you used that expression. She twitched so hard her horse froze up, wondering if its rider had died.
“I’m Desinee, Lord Pellmia, I do hope I’m not imposing? I just happened to be in the area and—”
Ryoka’s strangled voice interrupted Lord Pellmia and Desinee El. She slid from her horse and looked around.
The first-wave of the relationship conspiracy glanced at Ryoka, worried. She had a sickly look on her face. Tyrion glanced at Ryoka.
“You seem unwell. Are you motion-sick, Ryoka?”
“No. Thank you, Lord Tyrion. I’m just—”
Ryoka looked around. Keireen smiled innocently at her. Buscrei, Swey—the Wind Runner inhaled. She was not an idiot.
“I’m sorry. I just—I think I haven’t been direct enough.”
Pellmia’s face fell. He tried to activate his [Avert Disaster] Skill, but it wouldn’t work or it was on recharge! He signaled the others, but Ryoka was determined. She had to do it now!
“Miss Ryoka, why don’t you lie down and—”
Swey spoke hurriedly, but Ryoka spoke over him, looking at Tyrion.
“I never responded to you, Lord Tyrion. And I see it’s caused misunderstandings. You asked to court me yesterday.”
She wanted to explode. This? This was as bad as him kneeling in front of her while everyone watched. There were more people watching this time, actually. But while Ryoka Griffin walked in hell—it had to be done.
Lord Tyrion faced her, nodding.
“If you have an answer…”
Ryoka Griffin inhaled, managed not to puke, which was the last thing she needed, and spoke, fixing her gaze on him to avoid the looks from everyone else.
“Lord Tyrion. I appreciate your…offer to court me. But I have to refuse.”
“Noo! No! We have to stop her! There’s a chance! You can’t get the [Matchmaker] class if there wasn’t anything there! Do something, father!”
Betta shriek-whispered into Pellmia’s ear. The [Lord] was looking around. He made a hand-sign to Swey. Get a horse to kick you! That was a good distraction. Swey mouthed.
“What? What are you pointing at the horse for?”
Ryoka ignored the whispers. She went on, sweating as she stared at Tyrion. Blink, damn you! Do you know how hard it is to meet your gaze?
“I—can’t accept your offer to court me for a number of reasons. I’m flattered, but—I don’t want to marry anyone. Or date! You’re a [Lord], and I’m a Courier. And—yeah.”
She stopped. Everyone waited, but Ryoka was done. She stepped back.
“I’m really sorry, but my answer is no.”
Pellmia exhaled like he’d been stabbed. Buscrei groaned. Tyrion? He just nodded.
“I see. Is there no way I can change your mind?”
“It’s not that I’m not flattered! I just—can’t.”
Ryoka was backing up, and the wind was growing. Tyrion trotted forwards a bit.
“I did not offer marriage, Miss Griffin. I simply would like to know if you are amenable—”
“—I have things to do, I’m so sorry if I’ve led anyone to a misunderstanding by being silent.”
Ryoka saw Hethon and Sammial look askance. Lord Tyrion glanced at them.
“Ryoka. Would you not stay? My feelings aside, my sons do seem to enjoy your company.”
The Wind Runner hesitated. They gave her pleading nods. She bit her lip.
“Miss Ryoka, you must stay. What about the gifts to your friends? Fruits as souvenirs for Liscor?”
Pellmia broke in desperately. Tyrion looked at her.
“Is there no chance?”
Hell. Ryoka Griffin was shaking her head. She just opened her arms and the wind caught the windsuit.
“Look, I’m sorry, but this? This is insane. I have to go. I’ll talk to you all later. A month later or something, okay? We can talk then. Just don’t…don’t.”
She looked at Desinee. The [Lady] was opening her mouth to say something. Ryoka had nothing. She just jumped.
“Ryoka! Wait! Don’t leave!”
Sammial shouted, and his plea was the one thing that made the Wind Runner look down. However—she caught the air and was up in a second.
“We pushed too hard!”
Keireen cried out, dismayed. Foiled! Weeks, perhaps months of fun ruined! Lord Pellmia was shaking his head, sighing, as Betta remonstrated with him. They turned to Tyrion, wondering how he’d take it—
The [Lord] was gone. Everyone looked around and saw a shape, faster than an arrow, speeding after Ryoka. Lord Pellmia’s jaw dropped. Buscrei began to cackle with laughter.
“I forgot! He’s as stubborn as stone too!”
He was following her! Ryoka did a double-take as the wind screamed around her. She flew, away from Pellmia’s orchards and colorful trees, straight as the crow flies.
Nevertheless, the zig-zagging figure kept up. He called to her, and somehow she heard him over the roar of the wind.
“Ryoka! Ryoka, halt, please!”
“Stop following me!”
She flew higher, but Lord Tyrion followed her. He was too fast!
It was insane. Even in the air, Ryoka was going fast. On land? Only Magnolia’s carriage could have kept up with her, or maybe the Unmarked Coach. Or…
Lord Tyrion Veltras. Like before, they skimmed across the landscape. He was pushing his horse, but he could speed up. Ryoka looked down.
The only people who could keep up with each other locked gazes. She had never been this fast. But him? When he galloped, he left everyone behind. What must it feel like to chase someone? To stare up and…
She looked away. Began to fly higher. Tyrion called out to her.
Was there a chance?
If there wasn’t, still don’t go. Because you are needed. My sons smile around you.
There was no way she could have heard him, flying hundreds of feet higher. No way—but the wind blew his voice to her. Ryoka Griffin wavered.
What about Mrsha, though? What about Erin? She looked north, to the coast, still invisible from where she flew. Beyond it lay the place where fate had told her she could find a way to save Erin. She couldn’t tarry here. No matter how much she saw in Hethon and Sammial. Why had the fae dropped her back where she started, rather than on Terandria?
Perhaps because they wanted her to meet Tyrion? A [Lord] with an army.
She looked down at him. She wanted to believe he was an honorable man. One who had done terrible things, but someone she could trust. More than Magnolia. She couldn’t fly alone. Something was coming. Something was back.
Even so, this, of all things, Ryoka Griffin ran from. She would rather fight for her life than…
The Wind Runner began to leave the [Lord] behind. Flying up. Away.
Below her, the busybodies were crying out. Shouting encouragement. Swey tore at his mustache.
“No! She’s getting away! Do you think he’ll chase her until she lands?”
“Maybe he should!”
Buscrei nodded at the idea, but Pellmia shook his head. He knew Tyrion. The man wouldn’t press his suit—he was stubborn, but not unchivalrous. He turned to his wife and daughter.
“No, we went too far! Damn, damn and rot! She’ll avoid the north like the plague itself for months! She’s leaving! We can’t go all the way to Liscor! Even Tyrion would take days to get there.”
“Weeks regularly. Far too long.”
An annoyed voice agreed. Betta shook her head.
“There was a chance! I’m sure of it! I’d bet my class on it! Father, can’t you use a Skill? Knock yourself out! Maybe you’ll get another Skill!”
She raised the basket and her father shielded his head. They all looked up. Ryoka was just a speck in the sky, now. Desinee sighed, wistfully.
“That’s it. We’ll never catch her. Not the Wind Runner.”
“Unacceptable. She can’t just fly off. I don’t have time for this.”
Pellmia’s head turned.
“Who is saying that? It’s her decision after all…”
He trailed off. He’d thought it was one of the other [Lords]. One of the other people here. But the voice continued.
“You won’t escape me. Not you, [Thief]!”
Everyone looked around. Sammial rubbed at his ears. He frowned. Then—stared up.
The gathered nobility looked up and cried out. High overhead, the sky opened. The Wind Runner, a speck in the air, twisted—
A bolt of lightning cracked down, glowing red and hit her. Keireen screamed. Lord Pellmia shouted in horror.
“—not escape. You are hunted, [Thief]! I know your name—”
Ryoka Griffin felt one of her protective rings explode. She didn’t hear the rest as the voice screamed at her. She was falling, falling through hot air as her shredded wingsuit shrieked with the wind trying to buoy her up. The impact had torn the cloth—she was falling—
The Wind Runner saw the ground spiraling towards her as she activated a failsafe. The Scroll of Featherfalling glowed—and she slowed, drifting towards the ground. She was dizzy—wounded. The red lightning had sapped something.
Was it fate? She felt the gap in the sky closing, swearing vengeance.
Yet, as Ryoka drifted to the ground, parts of her clothing on fire, half-fainting, she saw him. Speeding towards her, shield and lance raised, looking for the enemy.
Ryoka Griffin was laughing as Tyrion Veltras caught her. He looked down at her, serious. The Wind Runner stared up at him.
“I might be in a bit of trouble.”
Then she passed out.
Author’s Note: I’m back. The break always helps.
Unfortunately, though, this month is going to be the month of business. Not writing—well, also writing, but mostly other stuff. I might have to keep the chapters short-er, and my break timing is going to be odd…but we’ll see what happens and I’ll keep you updated.
Hope this was a fun first chapter back! They’re always hard until I get into the groove of things, but it beats working with 0 breaks. I did that for like, 3 years with only a break every New Year? Madness.
Anyways, I am rest. Hope you enjoyed and see you next chapter! Watch out for lightning bolts from the sky. Thanks for reading!
The Queen and Her Inn, commissioned by MelasD, reader and fellow web serial author!