8.41

[The Wandering Inn will be on break until the 14th of September for Patrons!]

 

…After all, what was the worst that could happen?

Oblivion. Nay, worse than oblivion. A depth of horror and agony unfathomable. Death as kindness. Existence where suffering pitied you, and corruption—oh, yes.

Corruption of more than just you and those you held dear. A spreading plague to engulf every fathomable thing, until the few lights left were drowned and nothing remained, and it devoured itself. Perhaps there would be something, afterwards, a start again.

But would you bet on it? If one fell, who fell next? Would you gamble, with those odds?

The answer was that sometimes, they did bet against outrageous fortune, because it must be done. They took the wager and paid. That was what you also remembered. The cost of failure.

Mindful of the odds and the dangers, the stakes that grew larger than just them, another door was locked. An old foe counted. Watchtowers lit in warning, edges honed in preparation. However, not even one dared peek through. No one defied the edict.

Not this time. Not yet.

There were affairs and businesses of every court, even as fallow as they now lay. Japes and trivial pursuits?

Not as she had heard it, not for a long time. And ‘long’ meant something here, even to her. So when the summons arrived, she was nervous.

Her sisters and kin made much of it. They laughed and joked she had finally crossed a line—half seriously. So she did her hair, put on the most elegant of attire and accentuated her makeup to impress. No half-measures, no chance of offending. This was an official summons, not when they came laughing.

The Faerie King called her name, so Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui answered.

Obviously, doing her hair was a metaphorical statement, but every being had a way to primp and pamper themselves. From a certain perspective, it did look like the haughty woman did just that. From one point of view, you could see her painting nails, brushing at dark, beautiful skin with a brush.

Or see one of the greatest beings of fables sleeking her scales with an ointment, even patterning each vast scale with delicate, subtle designs, paint, even words in her world’s tongue. Which looked like she was applying rouge from another angle.

Her sisters laughed at her, but there was an edge to the merriment. One draped herself on the windowsill of her mansion with the mountain as backdrop.

A vast head emerged from a tunnel gleaming with inset jewels along the stone walls. A voice hissed like thunder towards Sikeri.

“If you get us kicked out, Sikeri, as soon as I’ve properly moved in, I will be beside myself! What will we do? We’ll have to eat you!”

Laughter from within. More of her kin made similar…assurances. The Wyrm snapped insults back as she flicked some makeup at the other women calling down at her from the base of the slope.

A magical firefight of hurled insults, words that turned into screaming spells, blasted through the air as the Wyrm on the ground hissed at her kin, who replied with earth-shattering retorts, verbal and magical.

The petty argument only stopped when a sighing, annoyed, furry woman picked her way across the ground, a basket with mushrooms in hand. Nama glanced at Sikeri and her kin. Everyone but her was already inside, and the windows were shuttered. They stared out from the cracks, from under shuttered garage doors, balefully.

Sikeri finished her preparations, and debated over a gift. She ignored the jeers as they started up, as the furry figure…from one point of view…kept walking, through the newly founded patch of reality, homes for those from other places.

All relative terms. This would have been petty drama, as Sikeri was used to at any time. Certainly, she paid her kin little mind—although she catalogued a host of insults to be held as grudges for later payback—because such threats bore little weight.

Conflict, real conflict, was rare here. It was not allowed or half the denizens might have already turned on the others. Some fools couldn’t help but be themselves, like the giant oaf blundering around, still looking for the little morsel who had pepper-sprayed and kicked him. Sikeri and her kin were not that crude.

However, the summons was concerning. Very. The Wyrm was nervous, not least because her sisters were not…joking. It was an outside chance, of course, very remote, that all of Wyrm-kind would be expelled.

It was still there. That was a consequence for their species, though. For her, Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui, specifically? It…it could be bad.

The number of things that could worry Sikeri were few and far between. An invitation to the Court of the Fae was one of them. It could go very badly indeed, especially if they were in a bad mood.

…Sikeri had not heard of a time all of them were in a good mood since she had fled here. The jollities of the court were long since past. So she prepared as quickly and as best she was able, and made the trek there.

It took a long time and a moment, as such things did. She travelled the entire way in a trice, but still experienced the long voyage. She had not begun in the outermost areas, nor the forest, nor city. Even so, it was a while.

A bad sign or good? It meant they were content to wait. It could be displeasure. It could be this wasn’t too important.

What had she done? Sikeri could think of a number of things, but given this? She…she had a theory. It wasn’t her fault! She had been a tiny bit opportunistic, with her knowledge of prophecy, seeing a chance, using an invitation to plant a message on a mortal agent. So what?

Yes, it was an off-limits place, and she had been a guest of Melidore’s company…but she hadn’t thought it would turn out like it did. Sikeri shuddered at the memory. She began to sweat.

He had made an appearance. Himself. In fullness. If she’d known that, she wouldn’t have interfered. So she’d twisted fate a tiny bit…in this one case. Which turned out to be a big case.

How mad were they? More importantly…which court was it going to be?

The woman, sweating a bit, came to a halt as she finally crossed into an inner place out of the more peripheral realms. She came to a palace. Of kinds. A courtyard, a sweeping place of delights and mystery and danger depending on what you saw, leading into a place for them to, well, be.

Further in, and greater acts abounded. Things were too real here. Do not lie. Lies could still be told, but sometimes they told themselves, and said things you didn’t want to hear. Truth began to blend with…possibility.

Here was a place for great audience and decision. Sikeri’s scales crawled with unease as she presented herself.

She noticed two things at this particular moment. Firstly? She was not the only guest today. Which was good! It meant she was not the lone, prime target of wrath or interest. The less important, the better. It did not jive with her usual sense of importance, but ego in this place was…dangerous.

When she stepped through the gates and saw inside, Sikeri exhaled in relief. The breath emerged as a plume of frost in quiet air.

The Winter Court awaits.

That was better than the Court of Spring. Winter could be harsh, cruel, and their mischief carried jagged edges.

Spring laughed. Spring made merry. Yet they were the more unpredictable of the two, and if Sikeri had heard buzzing, and the lights of the Spring Court had been out, and shadows darkened the hallways, she would have run, summons or not.

Even here, she saw so much to bother her. There was no broken city. Not here. No sign of disrepair; they had never left.

Yet so much empty space. It should have been filled, whichever court held sway. Countless little figures playing tricks and games with the great.

So few. Sikeri had walked here long ago, as a child, in her mother’s hand. She looked left, at where little Pixies should be pestering a calm figure. Or…

Naught but frozen space. Memories. No tumbling jesters. No laughter.

From a gathering that could sweep across the entire realm, spill out into each place, the host had reduced. Sikeri passed through an empty courtyard with a fountain, through hallways where only cold warriors stood, watching her. Uneasily, she nodded to them.

They never moved. The few other visitors walked along, some terrified, some in awe, not knowing what should be. Even Sikeri’s heart hurt for them.

Even in the court, when she finally reached them, all was not well. Look, if you ever come here, and see. For you shall never meet a more splendid gathering than this. Even if you are reborn from vessel to vessel, even if your soul wanders, you will remember…

…remember…

There were so few of them left. And still, their numbers were of countless thousands, shifting, never able to conform to that rule of petty math. Sikeri still saw it.

August figures turning, scrutinizing the visitors. Laughter, playful, as the youngest still paid homage to the tricks and jests, but only in places. They danced around the visitors, in many shapes.

It fooled those who had somehow made it this far without understanding how you were supposed to look. Sikeri fended off a little flying sprite by hissing at an impish member of the court, who skipped away, laughing.

Her eyes sought out the empty thrones. Sikeri relaxed. Good, good. He wasn’t here. That would have been a bad sign.

The Winter Court was made up of more subdued colors, but one learned to appreciate the subtler contrasts. The Spring Court was radiant, chaotic. Here were stark, contrasting colors, or subtle shades until entire parts of the court lay in a kind of darkness that revealed itself to be slow contrasts of midnight.

Brilliant pale frost, as painful as the pure, fiery intensity of the sun in space. Or…

Sikeri’s slow circuit of the room halted. What was that?

She had seen it before. They truly were…

A group of them sat and stood apart from the others. Their garb was festive. They had a limberness to their movements, an air that smelled of new earth, growing plants.

The Summer Fae, here? They refused to take the same air as their kin. They deliberately held their ground, in the heart of cold and winter. Was it a quarrel? Rebellion, however slight, a message? Mourning?

Not petty Fae, either. One of them was the very same personage who had led them to the party in question, the one where Sikeri had made…slight errors. She hadn’t known. No one had told her!

Melidore, whose full name was like Sikeri’s, too long to write out, stood with his group, in discord. Arguing with a delegation of the Winter Court.

A female Fae, for whatever looks and such terms were worth, was arguing with him. Her skin was pale blue, and her hair like crystals. She wore a scowl to match his thunderous fury. Sikeri halted with the other visitors, and turned her ears to that conversation. It couldn’t be coincidence. If those two were here, whose paths and fates had both crossed with that little mortal…she heard the words drifting towards her ear. What were they arguing about, what grand fate or designs?

“T’was not yours to choose, ye daft cunt! I chose, and let it be so. For better or worse, I invoke prophecy.

“Prophecy be damned. Nevermore. We have paid every price. Theirs was greatest.

Melidore pointed. The entire court of the fae went still. Sikeri’s stomach churned.

He pointed at the empty thrones. Two. But one was sometimes sat in. Sometimes used, although you should tremble if it was taken. But the other?

The other was covered by a veil. No, a shroud. The other would never be used again.

Even Ivolethe went quiet. Melidore raised his voice. His arms.

“Not for friendship! Not for fate! Nevermore, I said. Nevermore.

The force of the argument made Sikeri begin to feel physically ill. Nor did she like the way the two Fae kept glancing in her direction. They scrutinized the visitors, some of whom clearly had business with lesser members of the Court, or just stood there, stunned, not even noticing this argument amid the countless things they had to tune out or be overwhelmed by.

Did a hundred thousand visitors and supplicants stand with her? Or just a handful? Time…time was…elusive here. Sikeri might well return before she finished her business here, if it was quick enough. She hadn’t seen herself on the way here, though, so she doubted it.

“There she is. Let us settle this now, Melidore.”

The other high Fae caught sight of Sikeri. The Fae around him stirred, and a familiar buzz filled the air—not friendly at all. She instantly bowed to the Winter Court, on the grounds that Ivolethe and her kin looked slightly less hostile and this was her place. Could she play them off against each other? They looked equally matched, at least those two did. If she was cunning, maybe—

Thoughts betrayed you, here. Sikeri knew better, but she fell into her own nature. Both of them saw it. Ivolethe laughed evilly. Melidore’s eyes narrowed.

“Agreed, Ivolethe. If it must be done, let it be done! More was done that day, and not all ill. This, though, this interference? The petition? We shall hear it now and be done. Especially that one, who violated the hospitality of guests.

He pointed at her. Suddenly, the entire Faerie Court turned. Teasing figures broke away from the haughty, annoyed older cousins of Sikeri, escorting the boy who used to have a stick that Ryoka had once met.

The Wyrm was caught out in the open. She froze, and then saw how neat the trap was; no, how she should have counted the guests as well as the court itself. Many were puzzled, or amused, or understandably wary.

But even here, the guests…her head snaked left. She saw a furry figure with spectacles offering a basket of her mushrooms around. A trio of Kings stood idly to one side, watching with bright eyes.

Uh oh. Oh no. Sikeri turned to run. She was, of course, too slow, and had been the moment she came here. The little boy from the city pointed at her.

“Is she why we’re here?”

His older kin nodded. Every eye fell on Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. Melidore strode down from the central dais, and the summer and winter split. Ivolethe on the other side. The Fae was enraged. He pointed.

You, who interfered more than she should! You, who twisted everything for her own ends such that no one can make sense of it. You, who interfered in the one place you should not. Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. I call on the Faerie King to judge you and what passes.

“I—I was only acting in my nature. I throw myself on the Winter Court’s mercy. Allow me to explain. I was just—”

Sikeri stuttered. But Melidore did not wait for more words. He flung his head back, with nigh the same wrath and emotion as he had that night, confronting the intruders, the unwanted guests.

“Do not answer to me. Answer to him. I call on the judgement of the Faerie King. Oberon!

The Wyrm froze. The court rocked with the name, invoked here. She would have fled, screaming, and was turning, but too late. Too late…Ivolethe’s eyes gleamed. Nastily, with a mirth that her mortal friend knew only too well, as she pointed at the trembling Wyrm.

“For the judgement of the Court, I call him too. Oberon!

Two times. Everyone was watching. The empty thrones, the Wyrm, who had flung herself on the ground. Two times…there was a law of three. This time, the guests, the court, Melidore and Ivolethe all chorused it.

“Oberon.”

He was there, sitting upon the throne. As if he had always been there. Two eyes older than any other being here stared out underneath a frozen crown. They caught Sikeri and she quailed. The Faerie King pointed down, and the warriors of frost moved from their posts.

A storm blew, as if the Wild Hunt prepared to ride. The shaking Sikeri looked up. Lips moved, as the Faerie King slowly rose from his throne.

…It wasn’t a light matter after all. Now, the eyes said. Now, let the judgement begin.

The Faerie King held up his hand. For one second, his eyes roamed, searching. Everyone waited. He looked right, left, at things unfathomable. Waiting. Waiting…

For something, as Sikeri shook and cursed the mortal girl.

It was all her fault!

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin lay in a bed, staring up at a ceiling with some kind of architectural art design going on. These interlocking pillars, which created a hypnotic effect as the dark marble ceiling, a good ways up, way too high for anything but showing off really, let bright dawn’s light spill in through two much lighter windows.

She was thinking. The Wind Runner had on some rather nice garments. All silk, if you could believe that. Who made so much clothing like that? A kingdom which wanted to show off, that was who. Ryoka wore deep, almost jet-black silk, dyed to exacting standards. It had just a hint of royal purple, another nod to the Ailendamus motif; their colors were purple and black.

A light green, rather pretty color broke up the super dark colors, the better to highlight. Light green or silver were the secondary colors.

Just like a certain someone’s features. The colors were almost spot-on. Now there was an ego for you.

Privately, Ryoka actually really liked the colors. If she was going through her super-rebellious phase, only a few years ago…let’s be honest, she had still been in it when she appeared in another world. It just looked different.

If she’d been dressing in all-black and experimenting with eye-shadow…this would have been her thing. Ryoka shuddered.

“Dead gods. Imagine that. A [Goth] in this world. That’s all we need.”

Now there was a stupid thought. She wondered if it were possible, though. There were already [Philosophers] and their equivalents, [Sages]. Could there actually be…she tried to remember some of the more outlandish ideas.

“[Superheroes]? But that implies they have powers. [Magical Girls]? That’s…a bit too close. Uh…uh…[Cultivation Experts]?”

If any one of those classes was actually possible, she’d clearly chosen the wrong thing to invest in. Then again…Ryoka’s head rose, and then she flopped down onto the bed.

It was so comfy. Clearly enchanted to make you just nod off. She wondered if there was an actual [Sleep] enchantment on the covers. Ryoka just wanted to lie there and not face reality. Everything was easier in abstract.

Like Ailendamus. She had been under the wrong assumptions when she came here, but she’d known she should go here, for the chance, despite the risks. Given her pursuit? Definitely. She hadn’t counted on Sammy tagging along.

Or the Duke Rhisveri being a Wyrm, rather than a Dragon. Ryoka, in her hypothesizing, had sort of just assumed he’d be a Dragon. Or a super-angry Elf. If she’d had a third guess, it would have been a Djinni in disguise.

Him being a Wyrm complicated things. For instance—Ryoka had been prepared for a lot when she came here. Not the Death of Magic killing a Great Knight of Ailendamus mid-transit, or Rhisveri trying to kill Sammial or strip-searching her.

But had she been thinking—‘if this is the third damn Dragon I’ve met, will I do what I need to in order to grab that scroll?’ Absolutely. It had been an outside shot, but if seducing a Dragon was what someone had to do, Ryoka was willing to give it a shot if he’d been the right age. Essentially between Teriarch and Trash Dragon.

For the good of Erin Solstice and all that. Not that she’d really been thinking it was an option! Just…

“This could be a problem.”

Ryoka rolled over one more time, went crashing out of bed, and lay on the ground in a tangled mess of her sheets. She didn’t move, but stared up at her right hand. The one with two fingers missing. Oh—and a bracelet made of different-colored jade interlocked together.

The problem with Wyrms who didn’t even look at you as remotely viable, and more of a glorified letter with perfume attached, was that they were too damn practical. The magical artifact was an unbreakable tracking bracelet. Rhisveri had told her he’d fry the blood in her veins before she escaped.

He also knew her name and could scry her, so between those two problems, Ryoka was well and truly a captive. Not that she intended to leave without getting something, but Ryoka had a second problem.

She was…lying in the bed here. Not being tortured or mind-probed for more information. Given that Rhisveri was more likely to go for the actually nasty medieval torture devices rather than hot wax, that was a good thing. On the other hand, it was still a bad thing. Because Ryoka was here, and he hadn’t summoned her for further interrogation or…anything for the last five days.

He might have forgotten she existed. Ryoka certainly mattered, but now that he’d caught the thief who dared to try to steal from him, the Duke and Wyrm of Ailendamus had more to do. So Ryoka was just a hostage with less importance than she wanted.

“I met a Dragon. That’s worth something! Doesn’t he want to know more? About Sikeri?”

Ryoka got up and paced. She was in trouble because she was a Wyrm’s hostage, and lacking pressing, urgent, you must strike a deal or get knowledge from me pressure, she could well imagine him keeping her for years!

She didn’t have years. She didn’t have a month. She had to get his animosity off her back so she could go after Mrsha, get the scroll of whatever-it-was for Erin, or both.

Now. The problem was…Ryoka walked to the door. She opened it, walked into the guest room’s antechamber. Then a living room. Then she chose the wrong door again, and walked into a parlour. Out the parlour, and finally found the room to the hallway.

She stepped out of the door, peered right and left down the huge, just absurdly giant hallway. Ryoka was no stranger to money, and from her family, she knew that the newly-rich liked big mansions, usually with the latest trend that looked rich but was about as comfy and homey as an overpriced hotel suite.

White marble, giant, expensive things like wine racks—no taste, just what people think rich should look like. She gave Rhisveri credit; his palace was not tacky. It was absurdly huge, but now that she knew each corridor was large enough for a Wyrm to move through, it made more sense.

Apparently, along with designing entire wings, the Wyrm had actually carved up other palaces from the kingdoms Ailendamus had conquered and had them connected to this place. There was some style in having someone else’s throne room as your tea parlor.

Anyways, this area was right next to the royal wing, which was off-limits to all but the royal family except via invitation. Rhisveri’s haunting grounds. Even this area was remote from the usual guests of court. Sammy was somewhere around here, but Ryoka had yet to find where he was.

She looked around the huge hallway, past the pillars reaching up to a domed walkway with a giant relief of Ailendamus’ first War of Reclamation of ancient lands, nearly two hundred years ago. A piece that was thousands of feet long and told the entire story. Chronologically.

It seemed like no one was here. Ryoka Griffin slowly shut the door behind her, and it magically locked itself; only she or the staff or someone with the right authority could open it at will. Not much for Ryoka’s privacy, but such was a prisoner’s lot. She stepped down the corridor, glancing around again…

“Do you wish for something, Miss?”

A voice from the side. Ryoka whirled, cursing. She didn’t kick the figure standing to the side of her door, mainly because a bare foot kicking plate armor was really stupid.

The Knight of the Order of the Thirsting Veil watched her without much friendship in her eyes. Three more [Knights] all stood there.

Female [Knights], and the same Order that Great Knight of Ailendamus had belonged to. They had been posted on Ryoka, proving Rhisveri had [Knights] to spare. Ryoka smiled.

“Um. No. Just looking to see if you were here…”

“We will accompany you to your destination without drawing attention to ourselves, Miss. You may find refreshments that way. The royal wing is in the other direction and off limits.”

The blank-faced woman pointed, her expression never changing. Ryoka nodded. She started in the other direction, then turned back.

The Great Knight who the Death of Magic killed was apparently part of their Order. Probably beloved, if the casual looks they were giving her were any indication.

Purely professional, but with that underlying edge that told Ryoka they hated her guts. She was a professional stink-eye expert, so she knew what she was talking about. It read as, ‘we are here to escort you because you’re a prisoner and we’ll be so professional you’ll never see us, ma’am. But if we get the order, we’d just love to gut you and leave you dying on the floor.’

That kind of stink-eye. And yes, Ryoka got all of that from the look. She had also seen the ‘we are co-workers, but I will happily run this heavy piece of machinery and turn you into paste if I ever get the chance to fake an accident, because I hate you and your stupid orders that much’. Come to think of it, she wondered if that had actually happened. Two months later, she’d seen there was an accident in the newspaper…

“Alright, then. Thank you.”

Ryoka trotted down the corridor, and didn’t even hear them keep up. When she turned her head, she saw nothing.

Permanent invisibility or camouflage spells, muffling enchantments on their armor, and I just bet they have enchanted weapons. They also use poison. Great.

She knew they were there because the wind vaguely told her something was displacing it. But Ryoka thought, privately, this was the hardest challenge yet. Convince the angry Wyrm to give her a treasure and stop holding a grudge. Ryoka Griffin.

Why couldn’t he have been a Vampire? A super-hot one? Ryoka had been all ready to put down the Fierre card.

 

——

 

King Itorin II was one of only five rulers in Ailendamus’ history. He was still somehow Itorin II because they had to re-use a name. Dead gods, there were Terandrian kingdoms that hadn’t come up with a new name for millenia!

Two hundred years. Ailendamus had gone from being a minor kingdom that had emerged from an old bloodline after the Kingdom of Thire lost the last eligible member of its royal house and collapsed—it was turned into multiple new, smaller kingdoms on the hopes some might fill the vacuum—when it renamed itself as Ailendamus and quickly began to gobble up everything in sight.

It was the success story of Terandria; the little nation that could and did and then stomped over everyone else and became a world power. Of course—Ryoka closed the history books.

These accounts don’t talk about Rhisveri. The ‘miraculous battles’, the ‘daring strategies and revolutionary ideas’ not to mention sudden boosts of magical, metallurgic, and other knowledge all were glossed over in the telling of their history by very biased accounts.

“But fill in the gap with a ___ and there you are.”

Ryoka Griffin stopped. She made a face.

“Rhisveri is a ___. He’s actually _ ____ __ ________. Fuck. That ___ ______ ____!”

The bracelet was better than she thought! No wonder Rhisveri hadn’t made her a prisoner confined to her room. She couldn’t even think out loud in the library—one of them—without triggering its effects.

“Better than a [Geas] spell. But it makes sense. If he can do this, imagine what happens if they need to win a battle. One second they’re facing the ‘outnumbered yet dauntless army of Ailendamus, outnumbered eight-to-one,’ the next? Angry ____ breathing ____ all over the entire army.

It was like having Teriarch in your back pocket for emergencies. The other Terandrian Kingdoms were not ready for it. In the past they might have slain Giants and Dragons, but in this era?

A Wyrm-backed Kingdom, slowly swallowing up the other ones. Can he even be stopped? Is there a check on Ailendamus’ power? Probably, if the other nations team up. But he’s playing the long game. He might be ready to slowly grow in power and make alliances for a thousand years.

Ryoka put her feet up on the table and leaned back in the very expensive chair. She kept doing it, staring up at the ceiling, until someone made a sound.

“Excuse me, miss? That is the property of Ailendamus.”

Ryoka looked up as an angry man strode over. She stared at her bare feet on the table.

“This is a reading space!”

“Sorry. I’m just resting. I am a guest of the palace.”

She didn’t move. She had it up to here with being bossed around. The staff escorting her and feeding her knew she was a prisoner, so she didn’t exactly get good—or even warm—food delivered to her room. Rhisveri might have ordered it, he might not have. She didn’t know.

“Take the thief to a room and ensure she does not leave the palace. The same with that boy. I will send for them later. They are spelled to make sure neither can escape or betray Ailendamus’ secrets.”

Rhisveri had ordered the guards to do that when Itorin II, the [King], had come to ask what was happening. Ryoka hadn’t gotten close to him since then. The [Knights] helpfully blocked the hell out of her whenever she wanted to go anywhere important, and she didn’t really want to either be beaten or choked unconscious, as it was clear they were ready to do so.

So this petty person wasn’t going to make her put her feet down. Ryoka ignored the man.

“Put your feet down, Miss. Now. This is a library.

“Take it up with Duke Rhisveri. I’m a guest.”

Ryoka knew she was being petty, but she liked sitting like this, and glaring at her bare feet in this empty library was just a show of power from some petty person. She rocked back even further, and wondered if he was going to try to kick her feet off the table. Or if the guards would stop her.

The man did neither. He just took one look at Ryoka, turned red, then unexpectedly calmed down.

“Very well. You are banned from the library today. [Forced Removal].”

“Wait. Wh—”

The [Librarian] clapped his hands and something tossed Ryoka out of the library. It picked her up and threw her out the entryway, past a pair of [Strategists] and some military officer.

They watched as Ryoka slid a good six feet on the marble. Carefully, all three backed up, wiped their feet on the rug, checked the rules on the library’s front, and went in, voices low, whispering.

Ryoka sat up.

“There are [Librarians] in this world. Cool. I hate it.”

Then she lay down. Right up until one of the cleaning staff asked her to move.

 

——

 

She had so many questions. What kind of high-level Skills did [Librarians] get? Sorting Skills seemed like Level 30 at most. Did you unlock hidden wings of books lost to time at Level 50? Could you defend your library from an army at Level 60 single-handedly?

She didn’t ask, and it was a pity. Ryoka Griffin paced Ailendamus’ palace, and felt…well.

This was familiar.

Strangely, yes. A Terandrian Kingdom had a mostly Human population, as expected, but there were half-Elves and Dwarves instead of your odd Gnoll or Drake. It was a bit disconcerting to see more than a token representation of their species.

Architecture different. Culture different. All these [Knights] and a certain amount of pomp that even Magnolia Reinhart had lacked; if she was the [Lady] with [Butlers] and [Maids], this was more high renaissance to Ryoka’s mind. Not the historical, mind you, but what Earth wished it could have been.

Where magic met imagination, you could make amazing things happen. So, different culture, different architecture, different captor.

Same prisoner. It reminded Ryoka of, well, a number of interactions. Had she been a hostage of Az’kerash? No, but the animosity felt familiar. Dealing with the Dragon wasn’t as hostile as this Wyrm, but it was certainly like her journey in the land of the fae.

Powerless, helpless Ryoka. An immortal with something she needs. All check. The Wind Runner scuffed along the floor with her bare feet. She looked around vaunted Ailendamus and felt something was wrong.

But what? She saw as many guests of the palace as servants. Ailendamus was no place for just court; half the people she passed looked like administrative assistants of some sort. Huh. So this place had an actual bureaucracy. She didn’t exp—

“Miss. This area is off-limits.”

A [Knight] materialized, scared the daylights out of a [Scribe] and Ryoka, and blocked her path forwards. She looked up and read the archway.

Administorum du Status.

Her lips moved silently. Either it was stupid, or it was some kind of bastardization of Latin and Terandria’s naming convention. Administration of State?

She looked at the [Knight] as the staff instantly made a gap around them. Ryoka shrugged. The unfriendly [Knight]’s face was visible behind her visor. Well, blankly unfriendly.

“Alright. Where can I go?”

“Nowhere in session or use. No higher official areas of the palace. You are confined to public areas and the immediate grounds, Miss.”

What an unhelpful reply. Ryoka was starting to dislike this [Knight] as much as the woman clearly—

No, no. Ryoka drew back. Wait a second. This was also familiar. Instant hostility only makes it worse. Imagine they’re like you.

It was a lesson hard-won, by meeting enough people willing to literally kick the crap out of her. And also by beating a copy of herself to death. Did wonders for your mental perceptions. Ryoka would recommend it, again.

“Thank you, Miss Knight. Can I ask where I could go to…stretch my legs?”

The Thirsting Veil [Knight] stared at Ryoka, then reluctantly replied to the reasonable tone and request.

“I suggest the outer gardens, Miss. They are typically unoccupied. However, formal events or gatherings…”

“…Don’t need me. Understood. Thank you.”

Ryoka Griffin walked back the way she’d come, ignoring the looks. The thing was, Rhisveri was ignoring her. Sensibly, in a way. What could Ryoka do?

He’d found his thief. Uncovering her identity and Teriarch’s status was clearly important, but not pressing. Ryoka needed to reverse that. She needed to also find where Sammial was and if he was safe.

Tyrion. What was he going to do? He had just nearly lost Hethon and Sammial. Now? Ryoka bit her lip.

This could be ugly.

“Um. Could I visit another prisoner? I have a friend. Sammial. If I could—”

“No interactions between prisoners are allowed.”

Ryoka stared at the unhelpful [Knight]’s vague shape in the air. This time she didn’t hide how annoyed she was.

“He’s a boy. I asked yesterday to have my request relayed—”

“His well-being is assured. No prisoners may meet without approval.”

“And who can grant approval?”

A moment of silence as she saw the three other invisible [Knights] shift.

“…Duke Rhisveri and the royal family are the only figures with the authority to grant permission.”

Ryoka narrowed her eyes.

“Then, may I petition for an audience with Duke Rhisveri?”

“No. The Duke will summon you when appropriate.”

There was a definite note of satisfaction in the [Knight]’s voice at this infuriating bit of logic. The Wind Runner’s kicking foot itched. The wind blew ominously around her. For a second.

Then she turned.

“Very well! Thank you for your help, Miss [Knight]. I’m sure Sammial’s safe and well-cared for. I wouldn’t dream of a [Knight] endangering a child, and I’m glad Ailendamus is holding to those high standards.”

She heard nothing but silence after this as she quickened her pace. Ryoka hoped that if Sammial needed anything, he’d get it.

As for this…Ryoka glanced back at the invisible [Knights] following her. She wasn’t certain, but she suspected she was getting four invisible glares under the visors. An enemy in enemy territory.

…Why did something bother her? Ryoka was working on it.

 

——

 

The ‘gardens’ were predictably the largest, most manicured area of green that Ryoka had ever seen. If you had a great palace of marble and stone and metal, you needed to prove you could also command nature.

It was nice, though. Ryoka stepped more lively down the steps of one of the entrances leading out of the palace, inhaling fresh air. Flower beds, multiple gazebos, some over water, an entire lake someone had decided to convert into a place to row boats, long walkways around exotic plants…

“It’s like someone crammed every single idea into one place. All this place needs is a menagerie.”

“The menagerie is that way, Miss.”

Ryoka bit her lip. Then she had to grin. She turned her head to hide it. And it wasn’t even a mocking smile.

There was something actually amazing about having this much space. Not about boring wealth, as Ryoka had observed. Buying a rich mansion that looked like exactly what other rich mansions looked like was stupid and self-aggrandizing. But this?

You could run for miles and not lap Ailendamus’ palace. What runner, in this or any other world, didn’t want a private running track? It wasn’t even as if this garden was artificially made either; Ryoka saw and heard a number of birds flittering around, and even some of the more acceptable bugs like butterflies.

It made her want to…run. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder, and sighed.

“I don’t suppose running is allowed in the gardens?”

She expected a happy ‘no’, but to her surprise, the [Knight] instantly reappeared.

“Running is acceptable, Miss.”

The Wind Runner paused. Okay, now they were going a bit too far. She scuffed at the ground.

“I’m not sure you know this, Miss. But I am a Courier.”

“Your magic has been disabled, as have your Skills. We are capable of keeping up with you if you wish to exercise.”

“Really.”

The [Knight] did not reply. Ryoka stared into the deliberately blank expression. Was that taunting she…?

Oh yes. Ryoka began to jog forwards. Instantly, she sensed the four figures following. Ryoka turned her head. Were they really thinking they could keep up in plate armor? Maybe it was enchanted. Maybe they had Skills. Even so…

She began to accelerate across the ground. The Order of the Thirsting Veil followed, silent as a whisper. But not intangible. Ryoka sensed them at her back. So, she picked up the pace.

Her legs felt good, moving after so long in captivity. She lengthened to her long stride, and then decided to pick up speed.

Niers Astoragon would have been happy to see someone who could run. Ryoka Griffin could run. She began flying down the road, faster than she had ever been before. She ran for a living, not just to push herself like on Earth. A diet of magic and Skill-enchanted foods made her body stronger; she’d observed that. Most importantly? A stamina potion meant you could beat any marathoner in the world.

The wind blew around her face, lifting her raven-black hair behind her as the Courier ran. Her eyes opened wide. She was smiling. She accelerated into near top-speed running. And then did a double-take.

You’ve got to be—

They were right behind her! The four figures were actually more visible as wind gusted over their enchanted armor, revealing the invisibility with minute specks of dust and whatnot. What the…

Ryoka sped up. She was practically sprinting. She didn’t even need to turn her head to know they hadn’t lost her.

How? Ryoka’s ego instantly protested this was wrong. Her brain began to fight with it.

Levels. They were all [Warrior]-classes at least Level 20. Skills; their armor might even boost their natural strength. Not to mention…she chanced a glance back.

Were those eyes she saw? Burning a hole in her head? Oh, yes. They hated her guts. And they were also Ailendamus’ finest.

[Knights]. Women who might have been selected from thousands to be the best of the best. They…they were competitive, polite to the point of being aggressively hostile, and thought that they could do anything Ryoka could do.

In short, they were exactly like Ryoka. To the point of practically challenging her to a footrace to prove they could beat a Courier without Skills.

Oh my dead and hopefully rotting gods, they’re me. Ryoka realized—she was staring at four Ryokas. If she had existed in this world, not come from Earth, what would her natural personality probably lean towards? If she was patriotic and had found a way to channel her levels…

Five Ryokas ran down the garden, the visible Ryoka attracting a few curious looks from passersby. That was way too many Ryokas. And they all hated themself. Each other. Ryoka would know.

There was just one thing. Ryoka looked back at the female [Knights] running with actually good form behind her. She couldn’t help it. As they stared silent murder at her—she grinned. Her teeth flashed and she grinned.

“Okay. You’re pretty fast. Let’s see if you can keep up.”

She turned, and sped up. All four [Knights] felt the wind change. From blowing in their faces, the headwind turned into a tailwind. Of course, it helped them too, and they followed her with ease. She was pretty quick without Skills, but they were—

Ryoka was headed straight for a six-foot tall hedge politely separating two parts of the garden. The [Knights] hesitated. Then the Wind Runner turned. She had spotted a decorative rock next to the wall. She dashed towards it, leapt, and performed a safety-vault, pushing off the top of the rock. She landed on the other side, scared the heck out of a young couple kissing there, and kept running.

“Sorry! I was j—what the hell!

Ryoka’s parkour trick had been meant to lose the [Knights]. She saw one of them appear over the hedge, copying her move. The other three came over as well. By jumping. They landed, losing speed, then shot forwards in a sprint.

Jumping boots? Oh, come on!

Ryoka took one look at them. Oh yes, the four mini-Ryokas all stared back. The Wind Runner grinned harder.

Well then.

 

——

 

Baron Regalius, the [Baron of Ceremonies], was touring Ailendamus’ gardens after another knighthood ceremony. The second this week; it had been six hours long. Even he felt rather tired, so he was walking the vast palace.

In fact, he’d stopped to address some of the newly-knighted Order of the Hydra training in one of the open practice courts. Inspire, commend, invigorate. That was Regalius’ duty, and he took it seriously.

“It should be my pleasure to host a number of your Order, Ser Yoriven, at my mansion in the capital tonight. A toast, before you venture forth to claim the Dawn Concordat!”

The [Knights] were exceptionally flattered by the invitation; it was doubtless the first time they’d been invited to a noble’s mansion.

As always, the key was that Regalius did not ‘condescend to show the commoners true refinement’ as an uncouth peer might. He truly intended for a fitting meal and entertainment before they headed off. After all, a [Knight] who distinguished themselves might well be a peer in time.

He was just debating taking off his jacket to do a bit of sword practice himself and checking the position of the sun when something caught his eyes. The wind changed. One of the Hydra Knights turned and pointed.

“Now there’s someone hard at work too. Look at that woman move.

They were pointing at a distant young woman, running barefoot across the royal gardens at top speed. Regalius’ plucked brows rose.

“Who, may I ask, is that? A [Squire]? A Runner?”

The Hydra Knights had no idea. Regalius frowned at the young woman. She was vaulting some of the hedges placed around to control the flow of traffic, leaping over flower beds, and kept glancing over her shoulders.

A guest of state? There were limits to how one could behave. He began to stride forwards, to call out to the young woman. Then Ryoka Griffin really began to challenge her pursuers. She took two steps towards another low-rise hedge, but rather than jump over it, she did a running front-flip, touched the ground, and kept going. There was another hedge no more than fifteen paces ahead. The Courier headed for it.

Regalius, and a pair of little boys fighting with toy swords, clearly waiting for their parents to finish their business, saw the Wind Runner do a running side flip, curling up like a living cannonball, hit the grass and do a roll into a spring back to her feet. And she was still running.

My word!

The Baron’s eyes popped. Then he saw four figures materialize. He recognized the Knights of the Thirsting Veil by their darker armor, sigilry, and distinctive, all-encompassing, water-proof armor to handle the poisons that were sometimes liquid, sometimes airborne.

They were following this young woman, this Runner—she could not be something else! They tried to copy her. Two did and went crashing through the hedge like thunder. In plate armor.

All the [Knights] and the [Baron] winced. The other two [Knights] were smart enough not to try the trick, and just followed. But the young woman wasn’t even done.

As they slowed down, she did a spinning cartwheel. Then began to do a series of consecutive handstand flips. She did a barrel roll over the next hedge, and turned.

 

——

 

The [Knights] stared at Ryoka Griffin. Grudgingly impressed. They had stopped trying to copy her, and began to turn invisible again. The Wind Runner smirked—right until she heard a voice.

“I say! Excuse me, Miss!”

She turned in time to see the most dressed man she’d ever seen in her life striding towards her with another group of [Knights]. He had a long coat which the wind was contriving to make flap as impressively behind him as possible.

He looked like he belonged in a movie or show, and he was either the biggest side villain ever or the supporting good guy who was going to get killed in some big battle.

“That was a most impressive display, Miss! Dame Knights, Miss Runner, the splendid lance-arrows of Ailendamus be with you. I greet you on this splendid day, as Baron Regalius du Ecte, [Regent] of the Barony Veilau! Might I detain you for the slightest word?”

Baron Regalius spoke…exactly like you thought he would. Ryoka stopped, sweating, blood rushing, and the four [Knights] reappeared.

“Uh. Good morning to you. I’m Ryoka Griffin. A Courier.”

“Splendid. What a fine display of physical acumen. Milady, I am at your service, as are the Knights of the Order of the Hydra.”

They bowed, a more casual-looking group of a dozen [Knights], some training in practice gear, others with armor on, all carrying wooden weapons. They gave their peers in the Thirsting Veil a competitive, polite, loaded look, then turned with clear interest to Ryoka.

Baron Regalius? He swept forwards and tried to kiss Ryoka’s hand. She nearly turned and ran. Unperturbed, he gave her an elaborate bow with a hand sign—then a nod to the [Knights].

“May I not only thank you, Courier Griffin, on behalf of Ailendamus for providing such a vital service—I should also like to inquire as to that display of physical acumen! Is this some new training program? I hope so, or else the [Gardeners] will be more upset than ever.”

He glanced knowingly at the destroyed hedge. The two little boys were still staring, open-mouthed. The [Knights] glanced at each other. Ryoka was hesitating. This man had no idea. She wasn’t going to spoil the fun.

It was one of the Thirsting Veil [Knights] who coughed into one gauntleted hand as she removed her helmet. She glared at Ryoka, then bowed stiffly to the Baron.

“Baron Regalius, I regret to inform you that Miss…Ryoka Griffin is not a Courier in service to glorious Ailendamus. She is a prisoner of state. We are accompanying her in the course of our duties.”

She said nothing about destroying the greenery, though twigs and leaves were still patterned across her armor. She was red up to her ears, though. Oh yes, much like her in the end.

Baron Regalius’ eyebrows rose. He stepped back for a second, caught himself, and glanced at the Order of the Hydra, all of whom looked openly surprised. Ryoka waited, for accusations, for the elegant Baron to turn instantly hostile.

Then, with the most dramatic flourish and shake of his hair, he swept a hand across his brow and smiled. It was deserving of a television show and a flash of light from his teeth.

“A prisoner? Well, such matters are out of my purview. Nevertheless, a prisoner of great Ailendamus is still a guest of state! If this Courier has the run of the palace, I should still like to ask about such fascinating tricks!”

He turned to Ryoka, and gave her a fabulous smile. She felt like shading her face to turn down the glow of personality.

“I do not know the particulars, Courier Griffin, but I hope you will resolve whatever issues lie between you and the crown.”

Is he serious? Even the Order of the Thirsting Veil looked taken aback for a second. After a second, their leader spoke, gruffly.

“Our apologies for disturbing you, Baron Regalius. We shall make sure Miss Griffin does not disturb others in the garden.”

As if she hadn’t dared Ryoka to…the Wind Runner’s glare was cut off by a hearty laugh.

“Disturb? Our sisters in the Thirsting Veil might not think that was special, but I’d like to learn how to do a flip like that! Imagine flipping over the enemy’s head—or running like that! Is she not allowed to talk to us, Dame Knights? We’d like to ask questions!”

The Order of the Hydra all nodded as one of the [Knights] put a sword on his shoulder. He peered at Ryoka.

“She’s not a war criminal, is she?”

“Her exact status is confidential, Ser Knight.”

The female [Knight] looked like she regretted everything that had led up to this moment. But the Hydra Knights were already pressing around. Ryoka’s guards hesitated. They clearly weren’t sure if this was permissible.

“If she has no restrictions placed on her, I would consider her a guest in all but name. Has a [Chamberlain] issued orders as to her hospitality?”

“No, Baron Regalius.”

“Ah. Then she is a prisoner of war? The crown has classified her as…?”

“…We are unsure, Baron Regalius.”

The [Baron] looked disbelieving.

“I have never heard of a guest or prisoner without proper credentials. Who gave you your orders, Dame [Knights]? I do not mean to impugn your duties, but this is highly unusual.”

They gave him a look that said they knew it.

“Duke Rhisveri prevailed on the [Knight-Commander] of our Order stationed here for this duty, Baron Regalius. He issued no official designation to any member of the palace.”

The Baron paused. He pressed the heel of his gloved hand to his forehead, face openly perplexed.

“The Duke…? Well, I should hardly question his will. Given the circumstances, it would behoove us all to act as if she is a guest of state. I shall have a word with the [Chamberlain] ere I depart.”

He emphasized the words. The [Knights] nodded, as if he was settling something for them. With relief. And then Regalius gave Ryoka another sparkling smile.

“Do forgive me, Courier Griffin.”

She had already been besieged by the Hydra Knights. They were everything the Thirsting Veil were not. Friendly, even disconcertingly chummy.

“Is that trick a Skill, Courier? Or can anyone learn how to spin in the air like that?”

“You want to learn to parkour? Why? It’s not a combat trick.”

“Ah, but it looks like fun! Could one do that in armor?”

“I know you can backflip in armor. So it’s possible.”

The answer came out of Ryoka instinctively, mostly because the Thirsting Veil [Knights] were still glaring at her. The Hydra Knights begged to learn.

“We’ve only a day or two before we march for the front lines. Perhaps some pointers? We could work out the rest. We’re bound for the warfront.”

“The war? You’re to fight on the front lines, Ser? Which area, may I ask?”

One of the female [Knights], who had taken off her helmet to reveal dark red hair and a once-broken nose, was frowning at Ryoka. She had freckles and had introduced herself as Dame Chorisa. The Hydra Knight, Ser Yoriven, had flax hair, and a beaming personality. Almost too young, despite being twenty years of…Ryoka blinked. He was younger than she was!

“That’s right. We’re bound straight for Kaliv, to give the Dawn Concordat a right thrashing! If we’re not diverted to fill the ranks of our brothers and sisters. I hear two legions are giving the Order of Seasons a grand fight. Our Great Knight, the Dame of Hills herself, is leading the charge!”

“What has it been? Three duels with the Summer Champion?”

“Three! Pressed back twice, pushed him once. Neither one has felled the other yet! I would run all the way to either front, but we’ve two more days and the Baron has graciously invited us to his mansion! What a fine speech he gave—my entire family was there to see, and my nephew and cousin both want to follow after…”

It was disconcerting. The Thirsting Veil [Knights] were clearly veterans, and traded words with the rookie [Knights] heading off, but they actually took off helmets, clasped hands, and introduced themselves as Ryoka watched. Baron Regalius smiled, with calm reserve.

They were going to die. New [Knights] with sparkling armor or not…they were headed into a warzone with too much vim and vigor for Ryoka to smile properly. She glanced at the Baron. Then at the [Knights].

“You’re the Order of the Hydra. Ah…”

How did she say it? Peasants? Common-folk? How would Lyonette put it? Peons? She was surprised that Ailendamus had a Knight-Order devoted to that. She hadn’t heard of it.

Regalius seemed to read her mind. He bowed, one arm outstretched.

“It is my role, Courier Griffin, as [Baron of Ceremonies], to induct these brave souls into their order. Ailendamus boasts the most [Knights] of non-noble blood of any nation in the world, and a fine thing it is. Any man or woman may one day earn land or a title from the crown by dint of deed or wit. So it is written, and so we see the success! Even one of the most famous [Knight] orders in all of Terandria is losing ground to a ‘new’ order.”

The Hydra Knights nodded proudly, and the Thirsting Veil gave a strange salute with two fingers. Ryoka blinked.

This was Rhisveri’s kingdom, though. She peered at Regalius.

“So…becoming a [Knight] is possible for anyone? Anyone at all?”

“Anyone who meets their exacting standards. Only the finest become [Knights]. Other roles are open for all. I myself am no fine [Warrior]. We must each find a suitable place to serve, Courier Griffin. If I could fight as well as those present, I might find myself impelled to join the military. Alas, I cannot.”

Regalius gave her a wan smile. The Hydra Knights protested.

“Surely you can use a blade, Baron Regalius! Let’s see it.”

Ah, well…if you press me, Ser Yoriven, I was already intending to beg your indulgence. A moment.”

He clicked his fingers and two personal guards appeared. Or manservants? Ryoka saw Regalius toss his huge coat to one side, divest himself of a scarf he’d chosen, and reveal another layer of embroidered cloth.

Dead gods. He didn’t look bad!

Ryoka and the Thirsting Veil Knights all silently agreed on that. Some Hydra Knights too, and they were so busy watching Regalius flourish with a blade that they never saw the other audience appear until one of them poked Ryoka with a training sword.

She yelped. Regalius looked over and saw two boys, nobles’ sons, staring up at Ryoka. And two dozen more children, from serving children to guests. He blinked.

“Are you…the Wind Runner? The one who calls the wind?”

One of the boys stared up at Ryoka, his words carefully enunciated. Yet he looked at Ryoka with a certain knowing. She blinked.

“I am.”

The children murmured. A girl with a little hairnet pointed at her, excitedly.

You’re the one who can make people fly?

The Wind Runner started. How did they…?

Her fans. Her fans, who sent [Message] spells to each other or wrote, or just communicated with the power of gossip. Not the posers like Tyrion or Lupp or Ieka, the adults, but the real, hardcore fans.

Children. Of all the Couriers in the world, and they were all famous celebrities to children, the Wind Runner had a fantastic talent. They’d heard about her. And hadn’t that boy who kept shouting for her said she could do it?

Make them fly. Ryoka Griffin looked at the shining eyes, as Baron Regalius, amiably confused, swept his hair back.

“What’s this now?”

 

——

 

Children across the world loved to fly. It was simple. Just grab a sheet and soar through the air, as high as twenty feet overhead. Don’t let go, though! Well, twice the Wind Runner had dove and caught the children whom she could see were slipping—and they never went too far up, those ones.

The wind could be kind. It could also be cruel, but Ryoka had a word with it. Anyways, the wind loved to fill the little sailcloths, toss children up and let them come down, slowly.

Fly. A dream so grand, and she could make it happen, for a few minutes, for a few hours.

It changed something. It changed everything. Because it was one thing for a strange Courier to appear, able to parkour, tricking and flipping all over the place like a fish out of water.

Quite another to see how she let kids enjoy a dream, and carefully caught them, essentially nannied and worried over them, more than parents. More than one had laughed as a kid went splat a few feet off the ground. It was a good lesson to learn: ‘hold on when someone said hold on!’. Ryoka, though, was the anxious Wind Hen Mother.

It made the Thirsting Veil Knights…confused. The Hydra Knights just laughed along, and Baron Regalius found it all fascinating. That was how he and Ryoka ended up speaking.

“Simply extraordinary. Wind magic?”

She’s not supposed to be able to—

“That’s right.”

Ryoka ignored the whispering in the background. Regalius nodded at the sight. She had been worried he’d tell off the children for consorting with the nobles’ sons and daughters, but he was more taken with the activity.

“Wind magic. Blowing children up and down like that. Does it work with adults? What am I saying? You are the Wind Runner. I heard a new Courier from Izril could fly…”

“It’s a bit more complex. Uh…but yes, it can work.”

And then she gave away the secrets of flight. What had she done? Ryoka avoided projectile vomiting on Regalius long enough for him to adjust the lapels of his jacket, still floating behind him in the wind. He looked at the wind, at the children, and nodded.

“What a delightful scene. Perhaps it can be replicated. Ailendamus does not lack for talented [Mages]; I wonder if [Aeromancers] would provide this service for children across the kingdom?”

“What?”

Ryoka hesitated, her mind going blank for a second.

What?

The children cried out, ecstatic. Regalius nodded, looking pleased with himself.

“It would be a lovely diversion. You know, I heard a motion in the courts to adopt a formalized education system—not just the individual schools for [Knights] and academies of magic. Someone suggested it in lieu of entertainment, which of course prompted a discussion on whether the state should mandate festivities.”

“Uh. Ailendamus doesn’t, I presume.”

Ryoka Griffin could just imagine what Duke Rhisveri thought about children. He’d been prepared to kill Sammial when—

“Well, only to a certain extent, Courier Griffin. We host approximately forty one holidays each year, wherein festivities are provided across the nation. For regular entertainment, there are [Bards] and [Singers]—much like the Singer of Terandria—who travel the nation. Song Crystals, exceptionally popular, have also been subsidized, you see. But the Singer has declined to tour Ailendamus as of yet—I suppose she’s worried about the war or politics.”

Ryoka’s mouth fell open. Regalius went on, with a clearly informed point of view.

“The question is: would the Kingdom find it preferable to fund [Toymakers], or create new bodies like these ‘Players of Celum’ I have heard so many fine things about? That is the topic of the hour in court.”

“The topic of…”

The Wind Runner weakly repeated. The Baron nodded.

“Now, I am minded to bring up flying as a recreational activity. I do not know how far it would traverse the court, but it would be a fine topic to present for myself, especially if it gathered acclaim. I hope you will not mind me borrowing it?”

Ryoka Griffin just stared at him. Then she turned her head and heard a shout.

“I say! Make way, children! If you can fly, then why not a [Kniiiiii—oh dear.

Ser Yoriven didn’t so much fly as glide past the children on an improvised sailcloth. He crashed into another hedge-sculpture and attracted the wrath of a [Gardener], who had just come by to see the destroyed lawn section.

Ryoka Griffin looked at him, fleeing the angry man’s wrath and the dangerous hedge-clippers. She looked at the Thirsting Veil [Knights], who were signing autographs for some shy children, mostly girls, who’d come up with bits of parchment or the autograph cardboard squares they’d gotten somewhere. Someone thrust one in her face, and Regalius signed one with a flourish for a shy girl.

She had to ask.

“The court decides everything, Baron Regalius? I thought the crown would…”

Or Duke Rhisveri. The Baron looked surprised.

“That you do not know, Miss Griffin, means you are a new guest. New to Terandria itself, although the Court of Masks is unprecedented in any case.”

“Court of Masks?”

“Indeed. It is not the Crown, nor the…how shall I say it? Not a formal echelon of government. Rather, it is simply the Court of Masks. I do apologize, it is hard to explain.”

He laughed, a bit self-consciously.

“You see, it was first put in place after his Majesty, Itorin the First, second [King] of Ailendamus, decreed that there should be a way to let meritorious thoughts inform good governance. He, in his wisdom, saw fit to create a setting wherein anyone was free to express their opinion, frankly, without retribution. Behind a mask. It was a splendid success, and the Court of Masks has changed somewhat over a hundred years, but it is a fascinating sight. I would like to show you.”

Ryoka Griffin listened. She felt a strange sensation tickling her stomach.

Rhisveri. It had to be. He had created…

“They all wear masks? That’s what I assume.”

“More magical than that, Miss Ryoka. I could not tell you who I spoke to unless they dropped hints. Which is one of the games of court, of course. I am almost sure I know the [Royal Captain of the Guard]—he has a lisp, though there is no intonation or height or even scent you could guess! Just words. In that place, if invited, a guest or member of state may find themselves frankly expressing an opinion to a [Great General] that they could not otherwise. There will be no retribution for utterances there, although one may earn quite a standing and the respect not garnered otherwise. Isn’t it fascinating? When I first heard of it, as a boy, I thought there was a place to rise or fall on your merits.”

On your merits. Ryoka Griffin felt like something was wrong with her jaw. And ears. Because that sounded like the most egalitarian, fanciful theory-based way to run a system…ever. It sounded so much like a philosophy-student’s wet dream that she wanted to find someone to shake and tell them it would never work in the real world.

But it existed, and apparently did inform the decisions made in government.

“More than one decision in the Court of Masks has been put forward by the crown, Miss Griffin. You may find yourself speaking with the [King]. Who knows, perhaps I have, and never known it.”

Ryoka took a look around. At the garden, the [Knights], Ser Yoriven, the children playing happily, the Baron Regalius who wanted to copy this on the basis that it made children happy—and it finally hit her.

From the library to even her guards. With the exception of perhaps one being, Rhisveri, the Wyrm itself—Ailendamus was not itself corrupted. Not evil.

It might be arrogant as a nation. It certainly made war. However, no one that Ryoka Griffin had met today had that underbelly of cruelty or disdain for others. She felt she would have noticed. If anything, she had met more ominous people back on Izril.

Ailendamus…was prosperous. It seemed to treat its people well, have systems in place that created more equality than other places Ryoka had been.

“Do people starve in Ailendamus, Baron Regalius? Do you have [Farmers], a lower class?”

To that, the [Baron] gave her a haughty look.

“The [Farmers] are not the lower class, Miss Griffin. No less than six of our holidays honor them. If you are referring to the collective farms they work on—yes, Ailendamus has seen fit to organize its agriculture rather than let them compete. It has worked fairly splendidly. We are no longer dependent on Noelictus’ fields.”

Rhisveri. Rhisveri—had he made this? Was she able to not give him credit for this? Ryoka Griffin wondered. But she feared the truth was—it was his doing. The Wyrm cared nothing for the life of a child. But he probably wanted a kingdom that ran efficiently. Even in the cold void of carelessness, there was an argument that a happy populace didn’t cause trouble.

No, no, she was giving Ailendamus too much credit. It probably had cracks and flaws and people caught there. It just wasn’t the nightmarish kingdom of corruption, puppeted by a Wyrm. It could be a decent place.

Ryoka Griffin stood there, wrestling with the horrible realization that she couldn’t label all of Ailendamus as mindlessly evil and had to treat them like people. And if they were people…if Rhisveri was more than a ‘bad Wyrm’?

She was doing this all wrong. Ryoka had been combative, angry. She had a certain right to be, but Ryoka Griffin knew from her many experiences that her right wouldn’t get her anything. To get what she wanted, to move the levers she needed…she had to be clever.

The Wind Runner had walked the lands of the fae. So she looked at Baron Regalius.

“I should like to visit this Court of Masks, if it’s allowed, Baron Regalius.”

He smiled, but her guards objected. The Court of Masks was warded against harm and assassin and arguably better at ensuring Ryoka did no mischief inside of it, but they weren’t sure if this was allowed, and therefore it should not be.

“I shall inquire with the [Chamberlain] tomorrow. I do have a pressing duty to entertain the Order of the Hydra today. Until tomorrow, Courier Griffin?”

“Of course, thank you, Baron Regalius.”

When the children had been reluctantly told there was no more playing with the wind—today—and the Order of the Hydra followed the [Baron], whom Ryoka actually liked, she was escorted back to her rooms. Food, sleep…Ryoka had some books on Ailendamus to check out.

“This is a magical, powerful place, isn’t it?”

She commented to Dame Chorisa. Ryoka could feel it. The wind was stronger here.

“It is built on a natural leyline, Miss Griffin, and historic sites of old.”

The Thirsting Veil Knight caught herself, then slowly began to replace her helm. The incident with the children had done something to the [Knights] too. They weren’t as sure as they had been.

Oh, but they still didn’t like her. Ryoka felt that. So she turned.

“…The Great Knight who kidnapp—who took me to Ailendamus. What was her name? She was part of your Order, wasn’t she?”

If they could have disliked Ryoka more—the slightly relaxed shoulders rolled back, up. The four [Knights] went dangerously still.

“Dame Eclizza. Great Knight of the Order of the Thirsting Veil. The Pale Serpent of Ailendamus.

Chorisa spoke through gritted teeth. Her eyes bored into Ryoka’s face. The Wind Runner nodded, slowly. She spoke, carefully, without mockery or as she had before, carelessly. Because she’d realized something.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I barely met her before…we teleported across the world, you know. I didn’t kill her.”

The Thirsting Veil [Knights] started. Ryoka saw one’s head turn, then snap around. They looked at her.

“Dame Eclizza died in the course of her duties, Courier Griffin. She was a war hero to Ailendamus.”

Chorisa spoke. It was a nothing-phrase. Ryoka nodded.

They didn’t know.

“I didn’t kill her. I can swear on a truth spell or Skill. I’m sorry she died. There was nothing I could do to stop it. We were travelling via the spell when the Death of Magic killed her.”

The Death of…? Suddenly, all four visors were locked onto Ryoka’s face. Chorisa hesitated. The [Knight-Captain] looked at her sisters, at the empty corridor, and swung back to Ryoka.

“This is not information we are authorized to hear. We do not discuss the affairs of state with prisoners!”

Her tone betrayed her. Ryoka nodded, reasonably. She turned and walked down the corridor.

“Absolutely. Understood. In that case…I’m not talking to you. I’m just Ryoka Griffin, Courier, walking here. Talking to myself. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Sammy, the boy who came with me. He was an accident. I don’t know if it was that or just bad luck. But we met, somehow, during the [Greater Teleport] spell.”

The [Knights] followed her as she strolled back to her room, listening. Ryoka thought they had stopped breathing.

“It was the Death of Magic. And the Death of Chains. They were there, somehow. The Death of Magic spotted us and cast a spell—somehow. Through the teleportation spell. That’s how Dame Eclizza died. She still perished because of me. But that’s what happened. I…would want you to know that.”

Ryoka Griffin stopped at her door. She looked back, at the four visible Thirsting Veil Knights, who were looking at her. She wondered what their faces were like, behind their helmets.

All was silent for a long time. Then Ryoka heard a whisper, strangled. From one of the others, the tallest one.

“Did…she die well?”

The Wind Runner saw Chorisa’s head snap around.

Dame Lacres! Find your sisters for a changing of the guard!

“Yes, Knight-Captain!”

The other [Knight] jerked to attention, performed a salute, and ran. Ryoka looked at the [Knights]. In silence, she nodded and closed the door.

 

——

 

The next day, Ryoka Griffin visited the Court of Masks. It was like…well. Venice’s festival of masks meeting Phantom of the Opera inside some kind of reinterpretation of a secret society, but without the depravity and greed.

That was how she could describe it to an outsider. When she and Baron Regalius stopped outside the Court of Masks, they found an archway and wardstones so powerful Ryoka felt the hum.

“Your guards will not be needed inside, Courier Griffin. Unless they object, I do not believe any force short of an army could bear actual threat inside the Court of Masks.”

Regalius looked at the four [Knights]. They did not object. They were quiet, today. And less instantly hostile. Ryoka glanced down at her bare feet and silk clothing. She looked at the masks, each on a pillow.

Masks. Ryoka had seen the old masks people made. From hawks to owls to long-nosed, eerie placeholders for the face. Sometimes for a purpose, like the old doctor’s masks for plague. Others, simply for entertainment. Style.

These masks were like that and more. Each one was carved in a different shape. Here a stylized sun, there your owl, a classic bird mask, over there just an oval with two eye holes. Each one fit over the face with a simple strap.

The difference that took Ryoka by surprise was that they weren’t all white masks. No bone-white, creepy audience of masks this time. Each one had color. Beautiful color, sometimes. Ryoka saw a veil of cloth hanging from one mask, a strange but fascinating pattern on the cheeks of another in three glowing colors.

A golden mask, a complete ensemble with a conical hat, one that only covered the eyes and nose…

Some were amazing. She stared at a mask like some ancient war-visor. Regalius picked up the one that slid over the eyes, like some ancient [Bandit] or [Gentleman Thief].

“Choose whichever you wish, Ryoka. It will be yours and yours alone, so do find one you like. Don’t worry about which conceals your face. It will not matter once we enter. The mask is flavor; you can tell, for instance, I am wearing this mask—we can identify each other based on that, or you may keep yours hidden until we enter. I am not adverse to either.”

“Won’t they tell who you are based on that mask? At least that you’re male.”

Regalius smiled as he fastened the mask to his face. Ryoka hesitated over a full face-mask with spiral patterns, like some sunburst motif, only colored dark silver.

“Not inside. You will see. I advise you to listen, watch, learn, before speaking. It is a sight most guests are taken by. Shall we?”

He offered an arm. Ryoka edged past it, and they entered through the archway as the [Knights] waited. There was only one entrance to the dark Court of Masks, which seemed to be darkness from the outside. Yet as Ryoka and Regalius walked inside, they saw what it truly was.

A dark ballroom? Some grand audience chamber or theatre with Ailendamus’ elite, waxing poetic philosophy?

Ryoka expected either. What she got was the void.

Black space. She was standing in space. There was no floor, no sky, no walls. For a second, she felt terrifyingly, horrifically like she was in transit to the world of the fae.

“Steady. This disconcerts me. Where are we bound?”

A voice spoke to her right. She turned and saw Baron R—

…Who was that? A figure walked next to her. A figure with a mask over eyes and not the nose. But the lips, the chin, the bearing and physique of the person who stood there?

She had no idea who it was. It was not that there were no clues; on the contrary, for one second she had the distinct impression a half-Elf was peering down at her, hair darker than Ryoka’s hiding a face behind the mask as two lips smiled, seven feet tall—

The next, that she was speaking to a Drake, the mask in the same spot, but gender, coloration, height, all confused. It shifted every time Ryoka thought about it, so that if she focused it would keep flicking as she failed to keep ahold of details. If she did not? She simply knew and remembered it was the half-masked person she was talking to.

Baron Regalius.

“Steady. Do you remember me? No names, here.”

“I do.”

The Baron was pleasantly surprised.

“It takes even seasoned [Diplomats] and experts a few minutes to get used to this. You are remarkable—we often call each other by masks—Sunburst.”

Ryoka Griffin nodded slowly.

“Thank you.”

She did indeed get ahold of her senses, arguably faster than Regalius himself. This was a weird modality of being.

It was not, however, unknown to her. In fact, it was simpler. She stepped into the Court of Masks, the first room, and gasped.

Nearly two hundred people stood on top of a lake by night. A bowl of clear liquid, which rippled around their feet as they walked on the surface. Some stood by the shore, talking, admiring an old watchtower; a few standing on the decrepit railing.

“Where is this?”

It came from Regalius. He peered around, fascinated, his voice betraying neither accent nor tone, or again, always a different one. He turned to Ryoka.

“You see? I think someone finds how to recreate these scenes. We stand in foreign courts, in the desert—far too hot for my taste—and other places. There is food, a chance to be sociable—elsewhere. You see those shadows?”

Ryoka did. There were hundreds of masked people like her, walking, talking in groups. Some were walking to the ‘edge’ of this place, and they vanished into the darkness. Interspersed with them were shadows, vague, blurred outlines of people, for all that easier to make out details like height or figure.

“They are heading to other rooms. Sometimes they get heated. Those shadows are the staff, or perhaps those who want to listen but not be heard. As for the topic, there is always a central theme. We might ask. Excuse me—”

He strode into the first passing group of six masks, walking together. Ryoka had no idea who they were. They were arguing, loudly.

“—cannot, I say again, cannot let the Five Families become involved in this war. It’s not about reinforcements to the Dawn Concordat.”

“Then I fail to take your point.”

Another mask spoke back. Neither person was identifiable; it was, as Regalius had claimed, a perfect place to be anonymous. Because of that, the first speaker was confident, and others deferential, quiet or bold, or the opposite of how they normally were because it was this place.

“It is my belief we can triumph over a struggle with the Five Families, even if they sent multiple transports instead of just three. Pride of the Wellfar or not, it’s not that I worry about. It’s an ensuing grudge, you see? If they rally behind every other nation under the stars whenever we go to war…”

“I take your point. Izril is difficult to assail. Continents apart. It’s why the Chandrarian offensive is going so poorly now the [Knights] have little immediate reinforcement…”

“A ridiculous crusade. I said it, as you recall.”

“You did. I remember that.”

The lead mask was a snarling dog. It must have been that they liked to take masks and seldom changed them, or else Ryoka guessed they’d never know each other.

“Excuse me. It’s me. Half-Mask. I’m showing around a newcomer. What’s the topic of the moment?”

The other masks turned, some visibly annoyed, others spotting Regalius as a sort of familiar ‘face’.

“You, is it? You’re just in time. House Veltras is sailing towards the fleet with The Pride of the Wellfar. It looks aggressive, though anyone who knows why isn’t saying. The fleet’s turning, but they’re days from a port at best speed. They’ll never make it if the Pride’s moving to engage, and all looks like it is.”

“The Five Families? But why?”

“No one who knows anything is saying. Well, I’ve heard six theories. The most outlandish being that we offended Tyrion Veltras by refusing the marriage offer and another being we kidnapped his son! Hah!”

Ryoka, glancing around and following ‘Half-Mask’, glanced up sharply. Snarling Dog addressed her.

“New, are you? Well, we all weigh each other on merit, as I’m sure Half-Mask explained. Speak clearly and be honest, but think. A poor reputation here lasts, and no one gets by without proving they have something worth hearing. I am Snarling Dog. Do you have anything to add?”

The Wind Runner paused. Sunburst voiced her opinion before the six present.

“Regarding the war? I am of the opinion the Five Families are not an enemy to take lightly. However, I would be more concerned as to why they are allegedly attacking. Or do other nations attack Ailendamus lightly?”

“Well said. It may be affairs of state we have no idea behind.”

A mask—Majestic Owl nodded at her.

Or they are typically arrogant. I would believe either one. Well…well done, Sunburst. Let’s call you that. I’ll remember your mask. I don’t agree; it seems to me we should be focusing on the consequences of the war from a military standpoint.”

Snarling Dog replied with a snap in their voice. They had some support, and led the conversation away as Sunburst trailed after. It was certainly a sight to see.

Sunburst looked around at the other groups, some of whom were just gossiping. Half-Mask, with a knowing nod, went to find a less military-minded group to ply the fascinating theory about wind to. Sunburst heard any number of conversations strike up.

Arguments, debates, petty little gossip, scandalous talk that they would never repeat anywhere but here.

Yes, eight. In one bed.

“No. Is that something you censure?”

“The question isn’t censure, surely?”

“It is if the public hears about it. Displays of debauchery do not exactly endear the nobility to the public. It is also a stain on Ailendamus’ reputation. Moreover, there’s a health cost.”

“…You’ve lost me. How is it a health cost?”

“Well…eight? Surely that has to take away from one’s physical acumen.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about? We’re talking about eight…partners…in one bed! Every night!”

Sariant Lambs. I said, ‘Sariant Lambs’, not…whatever you were intimating.”

“Oh. Well, that’s still different.”

Sunburst laughed at that. However, it wasn’t all just practical military matters and gossip. There was exactly what she’d expected, for once. And that was high philosophy.

Two masks were debating hotly. Pink Moon and Clamshell. Pink Moon was making a lecture to a small crowd.

“The Crown should make a point to tax Song Crystals.”

Clamshell was appalled.

“Surely not. We subsidize them already.”

“Yes. ‘We’ do. However, my point is that they are pieces of entertainment. The working populace has time for such pursuits; well and good. They have merit. Yet a tax, however incremental, makes a statement of direction. It is one thing to improve oneself, another to be lax and lazy. If the Kingdom is to prosper, the people must strive towards self-improvement. I do not say ban them altogether! Yet by holding up those who work harder…it goes back to my argument of the Great Knights of Ailendamus being unbalanced. We have members like the Dame of the Hills who are substantively lower level than others.”

“She is a half-Giant. She has matched blades with the Summer’s Champion three times! I would watch your words, Pink Moon.”

“I will not. Does her species give her the right to the title over a higher-level [Knight]? If so, what message are we sending? To be exemplary by deed and self-improvement, or to be born better?”

The two strutted about, arguing, taking observations or comments from their crowd. Was this how Aristotle and Socrates went at it? Sunburst shook their head.

A social ecology of its own here. There were those in favor, those with supporters—and those on the outside. Anyone who shouted or obnoxiously tried to make points was ostracized; thrust away. There was no violence here, but a ruined reputation?

A new mask, Cracked Raven, made itself known to Sunburst as it was thrust out of conversation after conversation, running about like a chicken, shouting. It did them little good; they reminded Ryoka of a young [Lord], barking to be heard, but no one had to entertain them here. The other masks turned away from Cracked Raven.

A meritocracy indeed. This…this had Rhisveri’s claws all over it. Here was a place to express ideas, but more importantly, here was a true court of politics. The nobility would be playing on two angles, as their public identities, and as the Court of Masks, where their power availed them little.

It was possible to ‘exile’ someone if a majority of the group disagreed. It wasn’t done often, but Sunburst saw a shimmering white barrier appear around other groups, and then suddenly around Cracked Raven. They tried to charge into another group, and were thrown backwards. Publicly locked out of talking with anyone who didn’t interface with them.

Overwhelmed, the figure stumbled, collapsed in the center of the lake-illusion. Blocked by all, but not ignored; the masks were pointing at the target of derision. Now there was a ruined reputation. Cracked Raven would have to work their way up from the bottom or stop attending; everyone would remember that.

Sunburst saw the masks turn to the popular darlings of the hour, the known ones, like Snarling Dog, who had power in this place and wielded it. This was what Rhisveri wanted.

A logical place. Let the best rise to the top, here and here alone. That was the ruling force. Logic and reason, the best arguments. What could make this nation better?

Utilitarianism at its finest. They came up with good ways to make government run better, or people happier. But the masks…why the masks? So you were anonymous? Or so you could hide behind them and present ideas without retribution?

It was very like Rhisveri to make this after all, Sunburst decided. It was how a Wyrm saw people. You are not people, with faces, only values of worth. No wonder he had let this flourish.

Sunburst—no, Ryoka Griffin looked around. Perhaps she was being too harsh. It was a fascinating place.

She just had no time for it. She had no time to get on Ailendamus’ side, change parts of it she hated, or…anything. She looked around and closed her eyes behind her mask. It was like a second face; she doubted she could even take it off if she wanted.

The bodies changed, but the masks stayed the same. A separate world. An unreal space, like, well, the internet, really. How interesting. She turned.

How interesting. But she could not linger. So, on their first day here, Sunburst set about turning the Court of Masks on its head. After all, this was a neat and orderly society. But Ryoka Griffin was a troll to outmatch Durene. Sunburst cracked her knuckles.

It was time for ‘batman’ to ride once again.

 

——

 

They didn’t believe who he was, at first. It was days until they let him out of his room. They didn’t tell him where Ryoka was and he. Was. Angry!

Sammial Veltras let them have it. He thought Ryoka was dead and that evil man with the goatee killed her. He didn’t know where he was. Ailendamus?

“I am [Lord] Sammial Veltras. I demand you let me go!”

The servants couldn’t even enter his room. Not when he raged. Which meant the little boy starved; he refused to eat the food they put outside his door. When he passed out, he found they’d cleaned up, and he ate, then threw another tantrum.

Only when his father sailed on Ailendamus was the palace made aware that this was not some boy with delusions of grandeur, but the genuine article.

The problem was Duke Rhisveri. No one touched the Duke’s projects, so the servants, who could have told you from Hour 1 that the kid thought he was Sammial Veltras, had been unable to ratify it via any normal chain of command.

After the truth came out, there were stupid [Generals] and [Strategists] and [Diplomats] who came to ask Sammial questions. The boy screamed at them. He demanded to know where Ryoka was, but no one answered him.

So he ran away. Yesterday had been all shouting, all day long and the [Strategists] who had invested in magical earplugs were not keen on talking to the little boy. When they finally, reluctantly, told the [Servants] to open the door with a very upset [Diplomat] and three [Carers], they found no Sammy Veltras.

He’d escaped. Everyone rushed to the window because it was four floors up and if the little boy had decided—the staff had locked it, but they hadn’t been able to even stand inside with a [Lord]’s aura assailing them! Was he…?

Sammial Veltras waited until they rushed outside. Then he crawled out of the dresser. He’d hidden in the drawers; adults never thought anyone could fit into places like that. And without his aura making the room hostile, or just his aura’s natural presence, he was like a ghost.

It was a trick Ullim and Jericha had fallen for more than once. Hethon wouldn’t have fallen for it.

Nor would Ryoka. Where was she? Why had she come here? That evil Duke. Sammy was fuzzy on arriving—he thought he remembered a half-Elf laughing at them while they transited, and then he was on the floor, and Ryoka was arguing with the Duke…

It was all a haze, but someone had to rescue Ryoka, and Sammy was [Lord] of House Veltras. So he peeked out of the room, and ran down the hallway.

Of course, the search was on, but a little boy in a huge palace versus a small number of searchers wasn’t even a fair fight. Especially because the searchers did not want to tell everyone they were looking for a little boy who would instantly shout, ‘I am Sammial Veltras’ at the top of his lungs.

Sammy realized he didn’t even have to hide behind vases and suits of armor! The palace was used to children and guests, and half the staff wanted to take him to his parents. When he assured them, haughtily, he was fine, they only nodded, and went to find the nearest [Head of Staff], [Chamberlain], or so on.

Sammial then ran away before they could come back. None of them knew where Ryoka Griffin was. He was pointed to two guest wings, where the men and women had no idea who a ‘Ryoka’ was.

She had to be in the dungeons. Sammial sat, chewing on a bite of steak as children around him ate or ordered food.

They had a banquet hall. Another child might have been too afraid to eat, or considered the exigencies of hiding vis a vis public areas. Sammial was hungry. Therefore, he marched in, sat down, and ordered a steak, and no one looked twice at him.

“—Wind Runner!”

It was then that he heard Ryoka’s name. Sammial turned. He saw a girl talking excitedly in noble clothes with some friends. He marched over and the group of girls stared at him.

“Where’s Ryoka?”

Sammy demanded. They looked at him a bit askance. He had on the guest clothing, but his accent, lack of manners, and everything else painted him as a foreigner.

“You’re not polite. I’m a Duchess. Go away, boy.”

One of the girls sneered at him. Sammial’s eyes narrowed.

Where is Ryoka?

And once again, he used his aura. His aura, which everyone in his family knew was so powerful at his age that it defied belief. A prodigy, they said. To develop one so strong at his age?

What was it like, though? Well, an aura was who you were. Untrained ones like Sammy’s were pure expressions of class and personality; later on they could become a theme. Like Pryde, who was sheer, well, pride.

Sammy did not wield his aura like she could, or many [Ladies], who could change from a delicate cloth to a razor’s edge.

Meeting Sammy’s aura was like being smacked in the face by a hammer with ‘Sammy’ written on it. He had as much finesse as a certain [Innkeeper], but more force than she did out of her inn.

The young [Duchess] went cross-eyed and nearly fell out of her seat. Sammy could throw people out of rooms, make horses run away, and even force people to do things sometimes. However, no sooner had the [Duchess] recoiled, then her six friends all stood up.

He’s using his aura! Rece!

Stop! Stop!”

They pushed at him. Children turned and a few of the minding staff saw a shouting match erupt. They walked over, not seeing the invisible battle between one boy and seven girls. They pushed, but none of them were Sammy. A few had higher-ranking classes.

Sammy had Sammy. Who also had Sammy.

Where. Is. Ryoka!?

“Here now, let’s n—”

A [Carer] recoiled, stumbling backwards, and fell over a bench from the shock of hitting the aura. The other adults stared, and half the girls were in tears. Two more glared at Sammial. One just looked at him, confuzzled as everything. She answered—no, three did. They had to.

“We only met her! You’re so mean!

“You didn’t answer me! Where is she?”

“Outside! She let us fly!”

More [Carers] and bodyguards were rushing over, attracted by the row. They were careful, but their wards were in trouble, so while they might not kick this unknown child to the moon on the chance he was a noble or [Princeling], they were going to do something.

Sammial didn’t care. He pointed at the most authoritative of the girls, who wasn’t bawling for her caretakers.

“Where is she now? I have to rescue her!”

Instantly, two more girls stopped crying. They stared at Sammy with interest.

“Rescue her?”

The girl wearing a brocade dress of silk herself looked at Sammy. Then a girl burst out.

“She promised to come back and let us fly! But I heard the Baron of Rules say he was taking her to the Court of Masks!

The other girls oohed. The guards and servants slowed as the crying stopped. Should they interfere? The little boy pressed the girl who’d heard this.

“Who’s the Baron of Rules?”

“Baron Regalius. He’s always around. He wanted to show her to the Court of Masks. She might be there!”

“What’s that? Explain!

Patiently, the girls and their leader did.

“The Court of Masks is where Ailendamus’ main court is. We’re not allowed in alone until we have our majority. But everyone looks like everyone. I went in there with my mother. It’s…scary. I mean…important.”

“Where is it? Tell me. I have to rescue Ryoka!”

“Rescue her from who?”

The Duke.

The girl in the brocade dress peered at Sammial. She had reddish hair, but it was marred, by the high standards of hair-color in Terandria, by dark violet. She eyed Sammial, then beckoned. He stomped over impatiently and she whispered in his ear.

“Is she the one the Duke’s mad about? The…Thief?”

He looked at her. How did she know that?

“Yes! Where is she? He’s going to zap her with lightning again! Or take her clothes!”

Take her clothes? He strips her?”

She was horrified! The boy hesitated. Sammy was a bit unclear on the details, but it did seem like Ryoka tended to lose her clothes around Duke Rhisveri. He’d seen Ryoka naked, they had to take off her clothes once she started sweating blood, and he could have sworn she’d lost them recently in his presence, although the details were unclear.

“Yes!”

“I didn’t know he did that! I hate him. I’ll tell you where the Court of Masks is. No one will be able to find you when you’re in there.”

She whispered in his ear. Sammial listened.

“Thank you. I will remember this! A [Lord] remembers favors.”

He dashed off. Then ran back to take a huge bite of his steak. The girl watched him go. Only then did the breathless caretaker even manage to fight her way towards the group.

“Your Highness! Are you alright? Did that ruffian hurt you?”

“I am alright. Nanny Lemra?”

“Yes, your Highness?”

“…Does Uncle Rhisveri have a habit of behaving…uncouthly towards guests?”

The [Nanny] bit her lip before figuring out which lie to tell. Which, for a smart child, was really all the answer you needed. The [Princess] of Ailendamus stared after Sammial Veltras. She wondered who the Wind Runner was. Her brother had assured her she would believe a [Princess] could fly. She hoped she’d get a chance.

 

——

 

That was how Sammial Veltras came to the Court of Masks. The attendants stared at him as he marched up.

“Sir, the Court of Masks is not open to those under…”

Sammial had a way to deal with people like this. Not a good way, but it was one he’d learned worked. He lifted his chin, glared at the poor man, and spoke.

“My friend is inside. I am going to find her. Out of my way!”

“I—”

The [Servant] looked at the others, who fed him to the dogs…or Sammial. Either he could deny this young man and risk wrath, or let him in and hope all went well.

“Absolutely, sir, but you will need a mask.”

“A mask? Why?”

Sammial listened to an abbreviated explanation of the Court of Masks and understood exactly 0% of it. He eventually lost patience, snatched a mask, and ran inside. Sammial Veltras found himself standing in a void of the abyss. He looked around, disoriented, shouted, and realized he’d…changed.

He was bigger. His voice sounded different. Sammial looked about. He saw the distant ‘rooms’, like far-off visions of places in the oasis of the void.

His heart was suddenly beating out of his chest. Sammial ran, clumsily, towards the rooms. He found himself in one, a desert court, and stopped, panting.

“Steady there. Is something wrong?”

A mask like a starfish addressed him. Sammial jerked.

“What? What—no, I…I’m looking for a friend.”

He sounded older. Starfish nodded.

“Fair enough. Say, what have you heard about this Five Families business?”

“The what?”

“You haven’t heard?”

Starfish was delighted.

The Pride of the Wellfar itself is sailing towards our blockade at sea! Tyrion Veltras himself is on it. They have some objection with the kingdom, or so it appears. Maybe it’s just flexing muscles, but it’s dangerous. What do you think, eh?”

“Father.”

Sammial muttered. Something pressed at his chest.

“What was that? What do you make of it?”

Starfish turned his head. Sammial looked at him.

“I said, House Veltras is going to stomp Ailendamus’ fleet flat. Good!”

The Starfish mask recoiled.

“Well now, I can see you’re going to be a lively one. I’ll remember you…”

The mask peered at Sammial’s face. As it did, the overly red Starfish, encrusted with little gems, loomed larger. Yet there was no face behind it.

There was, and wasn’t. Sammial saw a Minotaur’s cheeks—then a Naga’s slitted eyes, and body—but he knew it was his mind playing tricks. Only the mask was constant.

He had no idea who this was. 

“Why don’t you say why it was deserved? Or was that hyperbole? Here.”

Starfish patted a cushion of Nerrhavia’s courts, but suddenly Sammial was backing away. His breath caught in his lungs.

“No. Who are you? Where is…she…?”

“Ah, ah. No names here. You must be new. That’s a clue. You don’t want to be giving them out.”

The Starfish waggled a finger. Sammial didn’t answer. He looked around. So many masks. So many faces, voices without identity.

The boy turned, breath suddenly coming in gasps.

Who…is this?

A voice. Sammial turned and saw a looming horned figure. Glowing eyes, the face of a—a monster—

Starfish rolled their eyes.

“Don’t do that, Blue Demon. This is—”

“S-stay back!”

The words came out of Sammial’s mouth. He looked up at the looming figure. Then the Blue Demon’s mask was on a short figure. It regarded Sammial, perplexed. But the boy’s eyes were wide.

He realized what the girl had meant. Spooky?

Even for an adult, the sight of so many masked faces might be disconcerting. Frightening. For Sammial? He looked around, then ran back the way he’d come.

Hey, wait!

Starfish got up, but Sammial was in the void. And that was terrible too. It reminded him of the journey he’d had with Ryoka.

No. It reminded him of lying in his bed, feverish. Dying.

All the masks. Sammial broke into another room and froze. They turned, scrutinizing him.

Masks. Like [Assassins]. 

Who are you all? Where is she?

The boy screamed. But the masks just laughed at him.

“Who’s this fool? Shouting gets you nowhere in the Court of Masks.”

“Someone from the countryside, I’ll be bound. A new boy just come of age.”

“Say now. Is that implying you have something against provincial nobles, or the young?”

“No, I was just making a point about—er—causation—”

The mask spluttered as Sammial looked around. Another mask leaned in.

“Why did you assume it was a boy?

His breath. Sammial clutched at his chest. Then he ran.

“I’m looking for—”

“Hey. You can’t just barge into a conversation! There is such a thing as decorum!”

A half-mask turned to him, offended. Sammial saw the group flick their fingers and something pushed him back. Terror turned to rage, and that was comforting, at least.

Don’t you dare push me! I am—listen to me!”

He remembered the rules just in time, and threw his aura at them. But even his aura was wrong. It was…blank. Denuded of personality.

It still worked. Snarling Dog rocked, but Half-Mask and Majestic Owl instantly threw up their hands. Something met Sammial’s aura, and abruptly—blew him back along with the magic of this place.

“Now there’s someone without tact. Apologies, where were we?”

Head ringing, Sammial stumbled. He looked around, breathing more wildly.

Hey! Listen to me! Someone—someone speak to me!

He cried out, trying to look for something that wasn’t a face. But suddenly, Sammial was aware of the shade-people. He was surrounded by masks and ghosts. His aura wasn’t working properly here and they were blocking him out of groups.

The [Lord] ran right, and then left, shouting, but the others just excluded him. Now he felt like he was in one of his dreams. Trying to talk to people, his father, but no one listened. Surrounded by shadows. By masks. Only, this was reality, not a dream.

Yet for the boy, they began to merge. He was surrounded by ghosts. His mother. His breath caught.

He didn’t want to see his mother. Not here. The dead. They were all dead and so was he.

He clutched at his chest. His mind wasn’t working right. Neither were—his—lungs—

Overwhelmed, his breath catching, starting, stopping, unable to inhale, the masked figure collapsed, to the amused laughter of those watching. Sammial lay on the floor as a few shadows dithered over him. He tried to breathe. He tried to scream for help, but no one knew his name. No one cared.

Help me. Please. No one moved. Sammial tried to shout, to tear the Cracked Raven’s mask off his face. He was alone. He couldn’t breathe. The world turned dark as he tried to…

“Mother?”

She was coming. Coming to take him with her. He tried to run, to crawl, as a dead woman, a mask, reached down for him. His eyes opened wide.

Then air filled his lungs. The wind blew, in the Court of Masks, and a Sunburst mask bent down.

Sammial?

The boy looked up as an unfamiliar voice and body spoke his name. But then, Sunburst was helping him up. Even their hands felt different. Yet they spoke to him, and the wind blew, giving him air.

“It’s me, Ryoka. Sammial, how did you get here? What’s wrong?”

“R-Ryoka?”

The Cracked Raven looked at Sunburst. They were both there. Only, instead of finding her—she’d rescued him, again. He clung to her, shaking.

 

——

 

Sammial Veltras was here. Somehow, he’d escaped his room, found his way into the Court of Masks. Ryoka couldn’t believe it.

But it was him. She saw him, eyes welling with tears, face relaxing from terror. He was no longer choking, having a panic attack. The wind blew around them.

A few masks were looking over, realizing something had been actually wrong. Ryoka stared about. She looked at Sammial, at Baron Regalius, peering at her from behind his mask.

Half-Mask. Snarling Dog came over with the others.

“Was something actually wrong with Cracked Raven, Sunburst?”

“Something was. I think it’s alright.”

“Let’s call for a [Healer] or the staff—unless Cracked Raven is fine? Very well, as I was saying…

Snarling Dog needed to make her point. Her point. The military mind telling others why the Five Families’ involvement was such a problem might have been one of their finest [Generals]. Looks were deceiving, after all.

…But she looked like a [Head of Staff], a mother behind her Snarling Dog mask. Or was she a [Head Baker]? Did they let those in? Ryoka swore it was flour on an apron.

Not that she saw that. One second Snarling Dog was a Gnoll [Hunter], the next, a Drowned Woman, half Quillfish. No one could see through the mask and their magic or Skill or whatever this was. It was a layer of reality separate from the regular one, to preserve anonymity.

A shame then, that to Ryoka Griffin, it was all just…a matter of perspective.

She honestly had no idea if she could have done this before the land of the fae, but the instant she had set foot in here, it had reminded her of that place.

See the world a different way. It was far, far easier to look behind the masks than it was to change the Faelands to another perspective. As Sammial calmed down, Ryoka tried to explain. He was agog.

“You can tell? How?”

“…Good eyes. Can you do it, Sammial? All you have to do is…look at reality from a different angle. See the meaning from the other side. I don’t know how to put it into words, but it’s possible. Do you understand?”

The boy gave her a look that said he, as a child, understood exactly what she was asking him to do and exactly how insane it was.

He gave it a shot. Ryoka kept trying to tell him how it worked.

“They’re different people, hidden by magic, but they’re still…them, Sammy. That’s the entire point. They reveal themselves with every step, breath, and word. Look at those two, arguing about the Great Knights. About merit. See them? Pink Moon and Clamshell. See them?”

“Yes…who are they?”

Ryoka Griffin smiled. The two revealed themselves to her as she looked at them from afar. Stepping out of the shadows of their masks. Ah.

“…I don’t know who Pink Moon is, but she’s a Human [Lady]. Young. Going on about self-determination and levels. She might be from a poorer house? Well, I know why Clamshell is arguing for the system as it is.”

“Why? I can’t do it.”

“He’s a half-Giant. A half-Giant in court? Sammy, are you okay? Have they been treating you well?”

Sammial Veltras nodded. He tried with all his might, to see what Ryoka was seeing. All he succeeded in doing was giving himself a nosebleed, which was impressive in itself. Ryoka offered him a handkerchief.

“Listen, Sammial, don’t lose me. I need to do something here; I might not get another shot. I’m going to mess with the Court of Masks.”

She was a hacker in the system. Someone with knowledge of both internet societies and the ability to see behind each mask. Ryoka Griffin rubbed her hands together. Sammial brightened up.

He wasn’t as afraid, with her here. And he liked being taller. Everyone was of a height here and no one ignored him because he was a child. They ignored him because…he shouted and lost his temper…hold on.

He felt like he was learning something. But what? Sammial had a chance to talk and realize when people started ignoring him—or they just told him he was being childish to his face. Ryoka Griffin began doing a circuit of the Court of Masks.

She was looking for people, introducing herself, weighing in on arguments, but in a distinctly…interesting…style that she could only pull off like this.

For instance, everyone was willing to debate everything and you got plaudits on saying the right things to the right people. For being smart, of course, but who had the time to do that? Ryoka Griffin just broke into the Clamshell vs Pink Moon argument.

“Listen, I am completely on board with a merit-based system for Great Knights, but the fact remains that we have underrepresentation among minority populations like half-Giants. If one decides to become a [Knight], and succeeds by their standards, doesn’t that make her more unique than every regular Human candidate? The same for half-Elves.”

“It only does if you are trying to promote a comparison of species! Which I don’t think we want! Everyone is equal in Ailendamus!”

Pink Moon spluttered, as the young woman turned flustered. Sunburst turned to Clamshell, as the half-Giant tried to hide how pleased he was.

“Clamshell, back me up. Surely you understand that it’s not comparison so much as understanding, realizing there are fewer half-Giants present. If we don’t account for a disparity in populations, we are de facto ignoring them by flooding an equal playing field with Humans. If the Dame of the Hills had to compete on an ‘equal level’, there would be a hundred thousand Humans and her in the same pool. Which is not fair because there would be one half-Giant.

“Very true, Sunburst.”

Pink Moon began to object. Sunburst, aka Ryoka Griffin, happily interjected before they could come up with a cohesive argument.

“…Which is why, to some minds, you could see a system of incentivizing half-Giant population booms. Free housing, even some kind of, I don’t know, reimbursement from the crown for children so that more Dames of the Hills appear?”

“What?”

She caught Clamshell mid-nod. Her audience began to mutter as Sunburst introduced the idea of paid procreation to their minds. And then skipped off with Cracked Raven as the hubbub started.

No, she didn’t support targeting minority populations to repopulate with government mandates. She wasn’t even sure where she landed on the inclusion of minorities as a factor in other selection processes. It was complicated.

…But it was really easy to present the most confounding, annoying debates that were prone to huge, blow-out arguments and run like spit. Especially if you could see who was arguing.

“Look. Do we need Dwarven steel? Or do we need the secrets of Dwarfsteel? Ailendamus is effectively beholden to Deríthal-vel. The Dwarves are able to charge their prices, or they sell to whomever buys more. But if Ailendamus undercuts their steel for, oh, twenty years, then I think someone’s more likely to come to the table. What do you think, Lion?”

She turned to a spluttering Dwarf amid an argument on trade. Sammial was talking with Clamshell, who’d followed them.

“I’m not against half-Giants!”

“Why?”

Stop asking why! It’s obnoxious!

“But why don’t you like the Dame of Hills if you like half-Giants?”

“She’s an example.

“Why not someone else?”

Nice one, Sammy! He had just evolved from…eight-year old rhetoric, to about eleven. Not bad for an hour’s work.

Ryoka caused chaos. She actually felt bad about one time, when she literally walked a haughty noblewoman into insulting the ‘consorting aristocracy’ who had nothing better to do than pander to the lowest-common denominator—straight into a certain Half-Mask and his friends.

Flame war! Flaaaame waaar! Ryoka Griffin was doing this to serve a purpose, mind you. Firstly, a huge grudge against Rhisveri. Second?

She was waiting for someone to notice. And as she toured each area of the Court of Masks, Ryoka Griffin began to realize something else.

“Sam—Cracked Raven. There’s something odd about this place.”

“…Besides the fact that we can walk straight up and down, Sunburst?”

“Yeah, besides that.”

Ryoka peered at each ‘room’, the different, selected illusions now all seething with arguments and fighting, and half the group looking for her, to keep arguing their side she actually didn’t care about. She squinted.

“…Strange. It’s a circle.”

“No, it’s not. You’re stupid. I mean, your opinion is demonstrably wrong, Sunburst. They’re all over the place.”

Sammy corrected himself. Ryoka shook her head.

“…No, they’re not.”

She saw what he meant. From a certain point of view, you could get to any number of the floating talking-rooms in the void, like stars in the night sky.

From her perspective, they were walking a long, circular corridor into rooms. Wait a second. Was she still not seeing…?

The world shifted. Ryoka vaguely, vaguely, made out a long…curving…circular…hallway. With rooms branching off. She looked at the boy, the ground—then lost it.

The void returned.

“…I feel stupid.”

There was an inner court to the projection. And…Ryoka began to feel her way through the void, and saw the arguing masks receding. Aha.

There were places they couldn’t go. Places that, unless you knew how to access them…Ryoka had suspected as much.

Even a Court of Masks needs someone to oversee it, maintain it. There are private rooms in Rhisveri’s community. Sammial struggled after Ryoka, having to take Sunburst’s hand.

“Where are we going? I can’t…you’re going weird places, Ryoka.

“I always go weird places, Sammy. That’s my specialty.”

Ryoka Griffin reached for a door handle—pushed her hand through a void of space—and pulled. Then they found it. A door into—

The center of the Court of Masks. A room apart, never meant to be found by the rest of them. The young woman and the boy stumbled into a strange parlor. For it was a parlor, a private room for guests to sit, socialize and talk.

Only, it was made of ancient stone. Black jade for a floor, luminous crystal furniture. No—half were crystal of some kind. The other half stone until you looked closer and saw how they were too rounded, too natural. Stone, but it had once been alive.

Petrified wood. Interspersed around the tables were other oddities. Ancient pottery, so fine that the porcelain looked wafer-thin, a tea set that Ryoka was sure any appraiser in any world would value on the level of a royal possession. Or higher.

It was currently in use, and a half-full cup of tea had apparently been left at random on a stack of ancient tomes. Next to it, a huge feather was just…lying on the ground. A beautiful one that tapered from an off-tawny brown as deep as the forests to a sky grey.

The point was that each individual component was mysterious and grand. Rich stone that even Earthers believed was magical. Fossilized wood, in the shape of service. Ancient pottery, and to Ryoka’s eyes, a certain natural motif of enchanted collectibles. A big feather.

Together, they looked like a mess. The kind of hodge that not even pigs would podge. Completely out of place in Ailendamus, in short, and telling because no servants or Chamberlain du Asthetica or whatever would let a room like this exist.

It followed that the occupants of the room had put what they wanted here, and if anyone touched it, they too would soon not exist.

The occupants. Ryoka came to a slow stop. Everything slowly came together, at last. She saw three figures turn, out of presumably more. They were…doing the same thing everyone else had been doing.

“…in a terrible tantrum. It behooves us to leave them alone. In experience, leave alone.”

The first voice had no origin, just a general echo, as if you were hearing it after it bounced back from a place unseen.

Not in kingdom. Not in land. He does not say everything. Nor why the world shook last solstice. Nor. Nor. It came from Rhir. My roots. Even now, they shake. You understand? They are shaking here. Something has happened.

The second was old, grating. It sounded like dead wind in the woods, crumbling stone. Ryoka stirred. The third made no sound at all, just a keening whistle.

They turned, and Ryoka saw them. Sammial saw them. Three people, who, in this place, a safe space in a court famed for anonymity, could take the time to talk.

Three innocuous masks. The archetypical Crying Man mask from Greek tragedy, the first speaker. No…Ryoka’s eyes were round.

—That was how he looked to Sammial. The second had what Ryoka could only describe as a Fish. Silver Fish. The third? A Happy Cat.

They turned, without shock—more curiosity.

“What is this? Does Rhisveri introduce? No presence. No decorum.”

The Crying Man looked disapproving. The other two were more wary. One squinted at Sunburst, pointed.

“Two. What do they seem, Sophridel? That one carries magic like mine.”

“Never seen before. Never before has either walked the Court of Masks.”

Sophridel returned. The Crying Mask tilted the mask left and right. Like someone tilting their head.

Impossible to find this place. Yet found. One sees us.

The other two jolted. Crying Mask, Sophridel, stared at Ryoka, much in the same way she stared at h—it. Alarmed.

“So ancient, so cunningly done. Seen through by eyes and unmade. In an instant, secrets revealed. And a boy.”

Ryoka Griffin said nothing. Sammial, Cracked Raven, was looking at the three, a bit disappointed, but at the vast room, far more interested. He didn’t see them. Presumably, even here, they didn’t take off their masks. Or maybe they saw each other as Ryoka saw them now. Besides which…one of them could never take off the Crying Mask on its face…no, its body.

It was the mask. Ryoka didn’t know what she was seeing. She saw a presence, filling the air, ‘turning’ to face her.

But what did it turn? Shoulders? Arms? Legs? It had none of these things. It—Sophridel—was all masks.

They floated in the air, a body, a column of faces. Snarling beasts. Strange objects given eyes and the semblance of faces. Smiling and crying, blank-faced.

Masks. That was all it was. Ryoka felt something tingling on her face. She realized then, in an instant.

I’m wearing part of it. A mask, hundreds, thousands, all enchanted. She hadn’t given thought to how they had been made. Ryoka began to try to take it off. She could not. She looked at Sophridel. Then the second.

Two bright eyes gleamed at her. The second speaker, Silver Fish, knew her more than the curious first. The hunched, short, barely five foot six person was humanoid in vague ways. Still far better than her two companions. Yet her body had no skin. Her limbs looked grown, not like the fleshy digits and rather deliberate biology.

More than anything, though, she looked old. Shrunken. Ancient of days. Here had been vibrancy. Here had been life. It had faded away, and living wood had turned.

She was stone. Fossilized wood. The figure was, to Ryoka, like the forest in the lands of the fae. Like Nama, if lesser.

Earth and nature, no longer living, but still bound to the same element. Just changed. The figure regarded Ryoka with as much fascination, even more, then snapped.

“Gilaw! Do not harm. Not yet.”

“Cannot in this place. Sacrosanct. Disapproving.”

Sophridel added, a distinct tone of unhappy rebuke in its voice. Ryoka saw the third figure freeze in creeping up on them. She was something too. A seven-foot tall, armored woman with a shock of hair like a mane and dark skin.

Ryoka gave her a blank look. She wasn’t…uh…that unusual. Then Gilaw twisted her neck nearly ninety degrees around to stare at them.

It hurt her as much as them, clearly, and she clapped a hand to her neck and screeched. Ryoka backed up at the same time as Sammial.

Okay, she fit with the others.

There they stood, regarding each other. Intruders, the secret group within the Court of Masks. The founder itself, the being that created this space. Two wearing its masks. Ryoka, with eyes and understanding from the realm of the Fae.

Sammy. He stared at the huge feather on the ground.

“It’s huge. Is it a Griffin feather?”

He walked over and picked it up. Instantly, Gilaw looked offended. She grabbed the feather, and she and Sammial began to tug on it.

“I want it. It’s mine!”

Sammy shouted. To which Gilaw, the adult woman, said nothing, just glared. Somehow their strengths were equal in this place.

“Sammy.”

“That one does not see. [Lord]. Young.”

Sophridel commented to its companion. The stone tree-woman peered at Ryoka.

“Magic like mine. The furthest travellers. Is this Rhisveri’s guest?”

“Logic dictates it so. Disturbance. We have been found.”

“It knows Rhisveri already. Summon him. Gilaw! Leave it!”

Like a scolding mother, the tree-woman went to Gilaw and began scolding her. However, the armored woman refused to give up the feather for a good ten more seconds until she sulkily let go. Her gaze locked on Sammy, though, and she peered at him. Then she hurried over to Sophridel.

Little boy. Hair so…stands so…eyes so…

The masked…masks…informed her. Gilaw’s head turned and she peered at Sammial dangerously as he admired ‘his’ feather. Ryoka’s skin prickled. She was asking for a description.

She was going to remember that.

Ryoka could have stayed and tried to puzzle it out herself. She was closing in on the answer, the truth, but she didn’t have time.

She hadn’t expected to find this place, in truth. She had already set the entire Court of Masks abuzz, to the point where the creator, the Court itself, Sophridel, was staring at her disapprovingly.

“From every corner, a name. Sunburst. Arguments and discord. That one. That one. Come hither. Resolve.”

It was speaking to someone. Ryoka’s eyes flicked to the door they had come through. She sensed, even in this place, the wind blow slightly. Warning her.

Someone very unhappy was coming. That was enough. The tree woman touched Gilaw, and the strange woman started.

“Gilaw! Do you feel it?

The foreign woman tilted her head, clapped a hand to her neck muscles, and nodded. Sophridel looked over.

“Fithea. What?”

The wind. She walks with the wind. Windfriend of old!

This was what it was. Ryoka Griffin realized, as the trouble she’d caused in this genteel forum finally caught up with her. A figure went tearing through the Court of Masks, ignoring the faces he could see behind. The ruler who didn’t bother to play the games.

Duke Rhisveri, the Wyrm. Just as planned, really. Aside from this. When you caused trouble, someone had to sort it out, even in this so-called impartial realm. He knew exactly where Ryoka was, perhaps aided by Sophridel, and stormed into the room. He beheld Ryoka and Sammial and stopped, seeing they’d ferreted out another secret.

The Wyrm was incandescent. However, even he stopped as Ryoka stepped back. Sunburst pointed a finger as all the pieces came into place.

“It’s not just you. It’s not just you. Immortals. Immortals and…

That was obvious. But what were they? Her gaze swung back. Gilaw? No clue, but she was clearly wearing another mask on top of the one she already had. Transformed? The other two…Ryoka looked, and it came to her.

Sophridel. An…elemental. Yes, an elemental. But not of what you’d think. Not of fire, or ice. An ancient Elemental of Masks.

You could mistake Fithea for the same. Until you saw her. Wood turned to stone. A fossilized, ancient of nature. A stone…Dryad.

It burst out of Ryoka. So that was what Ailendamus was, at least in part. That was why here. That was why masks. Immortals. Perhaps the last of their kind.

“Sanctuary. Sanctuary!

A sanctuary for the last. A kingdom protected by the immortals of old. More than Wyrm! Led by the Wyrm, but a collective.

The Minister of Decorum, Sophridel, turned, confused, to the Duke of Ailendamus. Fithea, the prickly Conservator of Forests, another high-ranking official, turned to the Great Knight Gilaw. That was what Sammy saw, even when they were marched out of the Court of Masks.

A tall, blank-faced half-Elf, Sophridel. An old Dwarf woman, scowling at Gilaw, a dark-skinned woman with a mane of hair punching her palm. Fithea grabbed Gilaw before she could knock Sammy’s lights out.

And the last, the angry man with the goatee that Sammy hated already. The great magician, brother of the [King]. Rhisveri.

He was screaming at Ryoka. Sammy put hands over his ears, and then remembered he had a feather. He clumsily put the quill into his belt so it trailed behind his head, like a crazy parasol. He could still hear, even blocking his ears, the roaring argument.

You dare to upset my Court of Masks and trespass—I will have your fingernails plucked from your hands and fed to you!

“Rhisveri. Rhisveri. Is this the Thief?”

Fithea interrupted. The angry Duke snapped at her.

Yes! How did you let her find the inner place, Sophridel?”

The Elemental was hurt. Stately, the half-Elf drew himself up. Even now, Ryoka could see him and both of them knew it. After all—he was still his true self, just disguised.

“She sees. Impoliteness, Rhisveri Zessoprical, hurtful. Others should know.”

Others. Rhisveri’s head turned as Ryoka’s ears perked up. He snarled.

“This is my affair and I will deal with it.”

“It is not any longer. She walks with the wind. She is a friend of the furthest travellers!”

Fithea interrupted. The Dryad grabbed at Rhisveri’s arm. He went to shake her off—then caught himself and stopped. Almost gently, he prised her hand off his arm.

“I know that. Do you think I am a fool?”

Fithea and Sophridel looked at each other. Rhisveri snarled.

Do not task me at this moment. That was what the Thief claimed. I also smelled…”

He gave Sammial a wary look. The boy was picking his nose.

“…I will tell you later. I thought the Thief was dangerous, but her claims were beyond outlandish. The furthest travellers…I was going to ask you, Fithea, about them.”

“Not do anything with her?”

The Dryad was appalled. Ryoka found it was time to break in. She bowed, to Sophridel and Fithea.

“My name is Ryoka Griffin. I am—”

Shut up!

Rhisveri blasted a [Silence] spell so hard into Ryoka that Sammial saw her fly backwards. He clenched his fists.

How dare you! I’m going t—

Rhisveri’s head swung around. Sammial stared at the livid face. He slowly backed away. He was learning. Arguably faster than Ryoka.

The Duke took a shuddering breath as Ryoka lay flat on her back. She slowly sat up as he snapped at his companions.

“I was content to wait. We are at war, and that little thing is leading us into conflict with the Five Families.”

“That was your fault. We advised you to—”

Shut up. The Thief claimed protection from the furthest travellers and tried to invoke them, so I did not melt her on the spot. I was content to wait.”

“Until when? Dubious.”

“Until they arrived! With the winter! However, it seems she was not content to avoid my wrath. Five days and she puts the Court of Masks on its head!”

“Were you planning on keeping it from us until our next meeting? I wish to speak with…”

Ryoka Griffin got up. Her head was spinning, but the magical mute button didn’t keep her from hearing. So that was what Rhisveri had been planning. He…was going to be disappointed about the winter idea, but it made sense.

The Wyrm kept arguing with his companions, but it was clear who was in charge. Fithea stormed off to tell the ‘others’, with Gilaw hopping, literally hopping behind her, as Sophridel went back to sort out the Court of Masks. Rhisveri turned on Ryoka.

“Take that brat away.”

“Ryoka! Unhand me! That’s my feather. I found it! Ryoka!”

Sammial kicked as his pursuers finally caught up with him, but he was actually wise enough not to put up much of a fuss. Rhisveri was left with Ryoka outside the Court of Masks. He looked at her.

“I could kill you now for this, Thief.

The Wind Runner moved her mouth and found she could speak.

“My name is Ryoka Griffin, Duke Rhisveri. I am under two protections, as you know. I want to explain my case for why I tried to steal from you. I want to negotiate for—”

His eyes began to bulge.

For what? You? Negotiate? Let me make something clear. The only reason you are not dead or hanging in a torture chamber is because of your benefactors. Do you think you have room to negotiate?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I don’t have time to waste. I want to negotiate, and you refused to see me, Duke Rhisveri. You know what was on me. Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui, remember? If you’d just listen.”

The Wyrm was looking about. He muttered, half to himself, half to Ryoka.

“Listen. This thing demands my attention when—listen? To you? Pay attention, mortal Thief. Because I will tell you this once: I will interrogate you as to the particulars of your ‘benefactor’, the furthest traveller’s connection, and that charming lady at my leisure. You do not make demands of me.”

He pointed at Ryoka, then advanced so he could begin aggressively poking her in the chest. Ryoka glared and tried to swat the finger down, but Rhisveri was strong.

You. Have. No. Value! You are a glorified letter! A busybody socialite, like the countless flies demanding my attention! You represent and associate with greater powers. You yourself are worthless. When I wish to negotiate with a higher power, I will reluctantly do it through you. Why should I listen to a word you say?”

Because the gods are coming back!

Ryoka almost shouted it. Almost. But she didn’t, because she knew it had to be said.

Just not necessarily to Rhisveri. After all. Which side might he choose? What might he do if…?

One look at the way he stared at Sammial was proof enough he might land the wrong way. Even so, she was struck for a second, as he raged at her.

Wait a second. Is that right? Am I not the same person who went to the lands of the fae? Who knows Tyrion Veltras, Magnolia Reinhart, Teriarch, Lord of Flame? I am. But does that mean I’m essentially a glorified…social climber?

They have all the power. I do not. My power is derived from friendship. 

Rhisveri was done screaming in her face. He stared at the Wind Runner, flecked by spittle, as some of the guards, including the Knights of the Thirsting Veil, and a curious [Princess], all stared at the target of the Duke’s pique. The Wind Runner stood there, looking stunned. Then she spoke.

“Dead gods. I’m a…a sycophant?

She sounded so genuinely, horrifically appalled that Rhisveri’s enraged expression cleared up. He stared at Ryoka. Her look of self-actualizing disgust.

His eyes did that bulging thing again. His cheeks swelled. He tried to stop it. Then Rhisveri burst out.

Hah!

He laughed, for a second, as the unexpected humor came out. Then he glared at Ryoka. How dare you make me laugh?

A window opened. Ryoka Griffin felt an invisible hand seize her foot. She had a sudden premonition.

“Wait, waitwaitwait—”

He tossed her out the window.

 

——

 

That night, as the hubbub died down, Ryoka Griffin had cause to retract her instinctive conclusion to Rhisveri’s comments. Sammial was somewhere else, and she had been unable to see him, confined to her quarters, but she assumed he was well now that more people realized he was Sammial Veltras.

She had done some thinking. A step forwards in finding out the secret group in Ailendamus and realizing more of what this nation was. The [Knights] hadn’t beaten her with sticks for causing trouble, just marched her back to her room. Sammial had met her and she’d prevented him from dying from lack of oxygen.

All wins. She had even met the Duke again—but failed to get him to come to the negotiating table. That was because he was right.

Ryoka was a glorified socialite in a sense. She had very little actual power save for the people she rubbed shoulders with.

In the grand scheme of things. The Wind Runner reminded herself that she was Courier Ryoka Griffin. She had won the wind’s friendship and power. She had walked the lands of the fae. Her being able to navigate the Court of Masks proved that. She actually had a decent amount of wealth too. Not as many artifacts as established Couriers, but she was not worthless.

She just wasn’t able to move a Wyrm or negotiate on the level it took to make Rhisveri pay attention to her. She could not offer Teriarch much that he didn’t have. That was the same problem. Ryoka Griffin had moved up in the world, but she was now the literal messenger-girl in the game of kings. Or the letter itself, as the case might be.

Ryoka thought she could push Rhisveri based on promises, Sikeri, and so on, but he was right in assuming the odds of the fae coming to this world were remote. Even remoter than he thought, in truth.

Teriarch was also unavailable—as he was—to lean on. So Ryoka was left with Ryoka’s resources.

“And I don’t have enough.”

The Wind Runner scowled. As she lay in her comfy bed, she didn’t have the immediate answer out of the situation. Make friends with people like Baron Regalius, forge ties, albeit as a captive of Ailendamus.

As the Wind Runner lay there, her thread and mind kept snarling around Sikeri. That was what Ryoka couldn’t understand. If Rhisveri met her…she assumed it wasn’t a casual invitation extended. Why him? Were there no male Wyrms in the lands of the fae? What did Sikeri know?

 

——

 

What did Sikeri know? Well, it was also fair to ask what she didn’t know. What had she done?

The Wyrm trembled. She stood there, for…how long she couldn’t even tell. The Faerie King looked at her, then past her.

Then Oberon, King of the Fae, stopped. He held still, waiting. Everyone, visitors from far-off worlds, guests of the Realm of the Fae, the Winter Court and other fae, all held their breaths. Sikeri waited.

But nothing happened. He waited. The Faerie King waited and the moment was but a moment, but it lasted…how long? No one could say. He waited for the right point in time. Looked straight at Ryoka Griffin.

And spoke.

 

——

 

She was asleep when the voice called into her head, just like it did to so many who levelled. A voice in her mind. Only—a different one.

Distant, yes. Very distant. But far stronger.

Far louder.

“Ryoka Griffin.”

Her eyes opened in the middle of the night. Blearily, the Wind Runner looked around. But no one was in her room. Her eyes fluttered back closed, and she assumed it was like when you heard someone ring the doorbell but no one had. Phantom noise. It wasn’t a level up, anyways. She’d never hear that again. She began to drift off—

“Ryoka Griffin.”

This time there was no mistaking the voice. When it came the second time, it shook the entire room. Ryoka Griffin was out of bed and halfway under it by the time she came to her senses.

“Oh no. Oh fuck.”

She turned around. No, nononono…it had come for her at last. The consequences of being an idiot.

That voice. She knew that voice. She had heard it once before. It was him.

How? Hadn’t he said the gateway would be closed? Why?

Because she’d called his name. Three times. Oh dead and hopefully rotting gods which weren’t as bad as this! Ryoka raced around the room, then ran out of it, screaming inside her head. Something dragged at her.

The terrified wind, in the dark corridors. Ryoka stumbled past four figures and saw the [Knights] asleep at their posts. The wind was dragging at the Wind Runner and Ryoka ran.

I’m so dead. I’m so dead! 

 

—Ryoka Griffin, 20??, died of never keeping her stupid mouth shut! Again!

 

She didn’t know where she was going. Only that she was summoned. And she had to attend. When the third time came, Ailendamus’ palace shook.

“RYOKA GRIFFIN.”

A Wyrm froze as he felt the entire palace move. He sensed the unfamiliar power, whispered ten thousand curses, and began preparing for what? War?

Fithea ran, screaming, through the hallways, searching for…she felt it too. But the target, the one who was dragged, running through the hallways where no mortal woke, not even the guards, was the Wind Runner.

She didn’t know which way she went. She was running down ancient corridors of stone, through older parts of the palace, founded at its inception two centuries ago, through parts leading to catacombs, storage rooms…where was she going? Why?

Something came to her, as, heart pounding out of her chest, she nearly collapsed. Ryoka Griffin heard a scream in her mind as thoughts finally caught up and collided in realization.

The fae came every year. Winter Sprites, they called them.

The gateway was old. Once, they came freely. Until tragedy.

This palace was built on a leyline. A—

Her head snapped up. She stared at something, buried at the bottom of Ailendamus’ palace. Forgotten by all.

A broken stone archway. A near-perfect circle, long-since broken, but still tracing the entryway. Writ with words so faded that they had lost all meaning. Covered in old lichen.

Ryoka’s breath caught in her chest. She stumbled towards the gateway, felt at the air.

There was nothing there. Just empty air. Yet she, for a second, touched the stone and saw them.

A bare sliver of an opening. So thin, perhaps even they couldn’t sense it. A risk, but one taken. Just a sliver, like a door ajar. So that you could press your eye to the crack and see…

The Court of the Fae stared at Ryoka. Sikeri stood before twin thrones. He looked at her and sat back.

Well. Ryoka Griffin froze. Those eyes caught her. Well now, you are here. All things are in place.

Let the deliberation of the fae begin.

 

——

 

From afar, they argued. She could see them, like a vision, that of someone from a mountain’s peak staring down below the layer of clouds to a tiny prairie below. That was how far it was, if you multiplied it a thousand times.

Even so, she vaguely caught the meaning. Not the words. Not more than the scene.

The Fae of the Winter Court, the great Wyrm, cowering before the ruler of this place. An audience of…visitors. Three Kings. Who smiled at her. Nama, waving.

A crack in the gate. Why? Just for her? No, Ryoka realized. Because she was needed. What was this? A trial?

Ivolethe was on one side, Melidore, the other. Fae were arguing their case before the Faerie King. It was as simple as the oldest arguments and trials in history.

One side was for, the other against. What…now, there was the key. Yet, as the Faerie King listened, it was clear something was off.

They weren’t arguing about what mattered. He was barely looking at Ivolethe and Melidore as some of the fae actually fought, with hands and claw and tooth or ringing swords, so furious was their debate.

But it wasn’t what was actually at stake. Two piercing eyes found Ryoka. Brown, like the world tree’s roots. Shifting to green, like the growth of every new life.

Oberon looked at her. What did he want? Then at the cowering Wyrm. There were clues here. The Wind Runner tried to piece them together.

She was no stranger to the rules of the fae, but she was still rather simple. Even Ivolethe admitted that. The Court of the Fae watched the young woman’s slack face trying to piece together what was expected. And because they were the Court of the Fae, they had no time for her meandering mind. They skipped ahead to the point where she got it in time, as casually as you changed postures.

“That one interfered! That one had no right! Because of a silly serpent, she throws fate into disarray. She meddles!”

A Fae of frost and winter snapped, pointing at a Wyrm, a guest of their realm. A member of the Summer Court, gleaming with life among somber cold, retorted.

“Meddles in prophecy! Hold your tongue, fool! That we should grant either thread of destiny a passing glance there is too much. I say it is not worth any cost! Any chance.

The Faerie King heard both arguments and frowned at Sikeri. He did not speak. He did not need to, for he could think louder than either could scream.

That one had violated rule. Hospitality, the law set down as the guests attended. She had meddled.

Sikeri begged forgiveness. She would have thrown herself on the mercy of the court and probably squashed them, if the Winter Court had mercy to spare. They did not. They jeered and mocked her.

Yet again, that was not the issue. Or else…those eyes moved and the one called Ivolethe quailed. Others had interfered and broken law, twisted destiny just as strongly. So, he waited.

Waited, until at last, the Wind Runner spoke. And the audience realized she was not here to testify. She was not the accused. She was not the jury, either! Certainly not the judge or bailiff. Even Melidore and Ivolethe were surprised. They looked at Ryoka, and everyone realized.

She was the victim. The plaintiff.

Ryoka Griffin realized it too. She also knew, then, she had to advocate for herself. What did she say? She tried to lay down the facts.

“Milady Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui did interfere with me in no small way, your Majesty, Fae of the Winter Court. My fate may be tangled, it is true…”

The fae waited, impatiently, some shouting insults at her, others laughing at the confused mortal in her pajamas. Visitors from afar murmured.

“What is that?

“Human. What world hails she from?”

“Why before him himself?”

“Is there anything to eat?”

Nama handed the last speaker a mushroom. The visitors from worlds apart watched yet one more.

“I…I don’t wish to press charges, your Majesty. Sikeri has caused me trouble, but I do not wish retribution. I am stuck where I am. Perhaps something has gone astray. It’s done, isn’t it? So…so…”

They waited, so impatiently, she felt it. Even the Faerie King looked as if he was about to roll his eyes. So, what? Ryoka Griffin tried to think. It was done. Even he couldn’t undo the past…probably. Punish Sikeri? And risk her wrath? It might even help, and the Wyrm was giving Ryoka the side-eye of legends. So what?

Then she had it at last. Oh. It was the nature of the day, and her realizations. Ryoka smiled broadly, with relief.

The Faerie King, Oberon, nodded. He was already smiling as she finally figured it out, and spoke it. Exactly what he wanted and waited for. He had heard her request and summoned Sikeri. He had called the Court of the Winter Fae. Just so she had all the pieces to make the request he knew she was going to make.

Fae logic. The Wind Runner, who danced on the kindness of immortals. The messenger girl with no real value of her own. She bowed before the Winter Fae, but there was a sparkle of daring in her eyes that made her friend clap her hands and laugh.

“This is all but one petty life, Fae of the Winter Court! It should not concern the Faerie King, or you at all! Fate? Mine is but one world, and a world some despise.”

Melidore glared at her. Even he nodded at that. Yet, the mortal girl swept them a bow.

“Even so, someone from the lands of the fae did interfere; what of it? The fair folk cheat and lie and do what they please. I expect no less from my great friend!”

A peal of frozen laughter. Ryoka concluded her argument as she looked at Sikeri, who didn’t understand, out of all of them now.

“So why deliberate? Why worry? Because…for every deed there are consequences. Every prank, the potential for retribution. Don’t worry about the consequence. Accept what happened. Still, I, Ryoka Griffin, humble mortal, was sent across a world—no, two worlds bearing a message. A message I had no idea I carried, but a letter still. From Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui to Rhisveri Zessoprical, from Wyrm to Wyrm. I may have little worth! But I am still a Runner. I am a Courier. And all deliveries require fair payment in kind. I demand Sikeri pay me the cost of running a message across the lands of the fae and from world to world.”

What!?

The grovelling Wyrm’s head rose. The Court of the Fae stopped. Nama chewed on a mushroom.

Oberon smiled. At last, the pieces were in place. The request had been made. It took her a while to get there.

Now, all the fae heard it. There was a breathless moment of silence. Then a whoop of laughter. A cackling guffaw from the friend of the plaintiff. Then, the fae laughed, and laughed loud. The Wyrm protested. She shrieked. She made her case, and Ryoka Griffin watched from a world apart as the court deliberated.

Yet the Winter Fae laughed, with that icy edge of cruelty and mirth. Oh, they rather liked that idea. Sikeri was screaming, an approximation of ‘over my dead body’, and the trial was in chaos.

Then. He rose. The Faerie King stood, and all was still again.

For a lesser trial, it might not have mattered. But the problem was the gate. Even to open it a sliver, he was here. Oberon looked at Ryoka Griffin. That was why Melidore and his folk protested, Ivolethe argued for.

What was the worst that could happen?

He knew. Surely, he, of them all, knew more than anyone else what could happen. Even so. The Faerie King reached out, a short distance, just plucking with his fingers.

A span unimaginable, in a fraction of a second. He pressed his fingers against the closed gate, against the crack in reality—and pulled.

 

——

 

They felt it. Six of them, two following the lost one warily through the ocean, two more playing games with their chosen, one more the ruler of this place, fighting with the angry dead—all of them felt it.

Their heads turned. Towards Terandria.

What? Now? Why? They closed it!”

The Huntress was wary. The Dancing man warier still.

“Do they mean to make war? It would be the height of folly.”

“Yet they might triumph. Would they pay the cost, though?”

The two were all but ready to flee. Even the ghosts felt it, and flocked around in confusion. A Void Dragon seized the chance and took wing, flying across the ocean with the recent dead, representatives.

The six hesitated. A crack was danger, but for both sides. Why? They sensed him staring at them with malevolence. The Bearded Leader raged.

“What are you doing to our world? How dare you?”

Oberon smiled. Mockingly. Through just a tiny crack in a door.

Why? To mock them. Because it mattered.

There were many reasons. For fate. For chance.

But most of all…Ryoka Griffin stared as the broken gateway moved. The world twisted. for a second, they locked gazes and she felt an understanding shoot through her. A Dryad wept, falling, crying out. She heard countless voices calling her name.

Cousin!

Why? The Faerie King pushed something through, dropping them at Ryoka’s feet.

Because it was fair. Because there were rules. And he of all the fae—kept his word. He had always kept his word. No matter what it cost.

The gate slammed shut. Ryoka Griffin was alone once more. The palace rocked, and mortals began to wake. She saw the gateway crumble, another link broken.

The Wind Runner resolved to never, ever, say his name again. Not like that. Not three times. Unless she had to, of course.

What had he left her? What had Sikeri forfeited? Ob—he had paid it in stead of the Wyrm, and no doubt she’d have to pay the cost. Ryoka did not envy Sikeri.

He’d paid it? Suddenly, her breath caught. She bent down. It was dark. She couldn’t see what it was, at first, so she whispered, searching for the wand she’d been given to find the bathroom at night.

“[Light].”

The magic of this place shone down. She found what the Faerie King had left her, a pile of it. It was…weathered stone.

Little stones. Native to the strata of whatever land they came from. Rocks, not very big; none even half the size of her hand. Some very small. Some were granite. Others basic stone. Sandstone?

They had…holes in them. Holes, not always in the exact center. In older mythologies, people liked to say they were magic stones. River stones that had a gap just like…

Stones. Ryoka saw dozens rolling about. Not magical. Stone.

Now, a lesser Ryoka would have begun screaming hysterically about the world’s most valuable private rock collection. She would have been stupid, for a while at least.

The Wind Runner just looked down at the stones. Then, abruptly, turned the [Light] spell off. In the darkness? She took another glance downwards at the stones in her hand. From…a different point of view.

Then she saw. Saw how each one was different, each bit of stone written, marked with a magic that had no box and never would.

Written with words. She couldn’t even read them. She didn’t know the language. Yet Ryoka held up one and felt the inner heat. She knew it, because it was what the word meant.

Fire.

Each stone written differently. Each one, a coin. Currency. His people’s currency. Ryoka looked down at the money.

Obol of the Faerie King. She felt at her pockets for a bit of string. After all—she was fairly certain she was rich. And she was definitely going to flaunt it.

 

——

 

So then, that was how the Wind Runner’s name reached Itorin II again. He was already intending on talking with the young Lord of House Veltras, but both his son and daughter brought up her name.

So did some of the ministers. Something about the Court of Masks? The royal family heard her name more than once that day.

A [Princess] of Ailendamus and a little [Prince] both crowded towards the window, fascinated. Their father held them back, eying the figure standing there, fists clenched, warily.

Duke Rhisveri. He stood there, staring out the window like thunder, and no one, not even the royal family, disturbed him. Yet he was not the only person.

Baron Regalius, Fithea, Conservator of Forests, a liaison to half-Elves, and far more. They looked at her by morning.

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt, Courier, prisoner of Ailendamus, standing in the courtyard. Letting a little boy sail around to peals of laughter. Sammial Veltras.

Children, her adoring fans, stared as the wind blew harder. Ryoka Griffin stood there, as the wind whipped around Ailendamus’ palace. She was smiling.

No one pay any attention to me. I’m just doing my own thing. Nothing to see here.

She winked at Sammial as her hands moved. Juggling coins as she faced the palace. Currency you had no name for. Ryoka Griffin, approximate wealth: richer than a certain Wyrm.

Faefriend. Willing to make a trade.

Depending on what you had to offer.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I’m not sure I did this chapter justice. My shoulders hurt. It’s not arm pain anymore…just sore shoulders. I’m pretty sure it’s from being too tense.

I’ve had months that wore me out before or kicked the stuffing out of me, but these last two might be the ‘best’ yet. It’s time for a break.

One week. All I need is…one week. Maybe more? One week. Just so I can relax. Between a comic and everything else you don’t hear about, and even on regular months, I wear myself out.

I don’t know how I did it before the monthly break. Probably with weaker, shorter chapters. But during my week off, I get to relax. I don’t go on vacation if that’s what you imagine. I don’t go on rollercoasters—even if we did that anymore—or frolic in distance climbs or hike mountains.

I sit in hibernation-mode, playing video games, reading books, watching television and movies and Youtube videos because that’s how I reset. By turning my brain off for a while so I can keep working. Hopefully that results in a longer working cycle and more quality.

Until then, thanks for reading and vote on that chapter! Thanks,

—pirateaba

 

Yellat Plushie by Kalmia!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/kalmiayarn

 

Merr the Storm by Lire!

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Flos and Belavierr by Auspicious Octopi!

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58 thoughts on “8.41

    • Sikveri still saw it -> Sikeri

      Here was stark, contrasting colors -> Here were

      the two Fae kept glancing her direction -> glancing in her direction

      the huge, just, absurdly giant hallway -> huge, just absurdly

      Lord Regalius -> Baron Regalius

      The City Runner headed for it -> The Courier

      Sammy put a hand over his ears -> put hands over his ears

      Teriarch was also unavailable—as he was—to lean on him. -> to lean on.

      So that was what Ailendamus is -> was what Ailendamus was

      at the four, visible Thirsting Veil Knights -> the four visible

      Ryoka vaguely, vaguely, made out a long -> Ryoka vaguely, vaguely made out

      able to parkour and tricking and flipping all over the place -> able to parkour, tricking and flipping / able to parkour and trick and flip

      The air emerged as a plume of frost in quiet air -> The breath emerged
      (?, not wrong, but air emerging in air may be confusing?)

      …remember… -> …Remember…
      (?, unsure about rules with ellipses, however, as is, it seems incongruous with other uses this chapter?)

      Thank you for the courtly chapter! Please enjoy your break, and take care!

    • Wow! I know this is off topic but I finally caught up to the latest chapter. This is so exciting. And frustrating because now I have to wait ;-)

      I started in 2019 with the audio book, which is great to listen to while running. Especially the Ryoka plot line. I must admit that I freaked out at the end when she didn’t even meet Erin, there were still so many open plot lines and yet so much time was devoted to Erin just cleaning the inn and cooking pasta.

      I immediately searched for the next book, which, thankfully, just came out on audible.

      I honestly thought over the following 40+ hours I would see some closure on the Az’kerash thread, Floss, and find out what happened to Ceria and the Horns of Hammerad. Boy was I naive.

      It was not until I got to the end of the second book that I googled TWI and found out that it was a web serial.

      So, I started back tracking and reading Wistram Days in book 2 and the started in on book 3. Months later I was so excited to get to chapters that were written in 2021.

      Now, I have read up to this chapter, joined Patreon, read the last turn, and I am eagerly awaiting the next chapter due out soon.

      So, thank you PA for creating this amazing and fun to read world. I really love your work.

  1. “He also knew her name and could scry her” Is this using her real name or her Ryoka Griffin name. Because if I’m not mistaken in book 1 or 2 Teriarch couldn’t scry her due to her name having different spelling or something like that on earth.

    • It’s not necessarily Rhisveri using the true name.
      Teriarch was going off of a name Magnolia had given him, and possibly some description. Rhisveri was going off of security camera footage and was able to get her location without scrying (as Teriarch notes in 8.33 that it’s not a scrying spell and that’s why they couldn’t track it); though Ryoka is unaware of this distinction.
      Her name being known means that it can be narrowed down easily through other channels even if she escapes.

      • Wait, nevermind; that was just targeting through coordinates.
        Regardless: Rhisveri has his methods of being able to find her location, name or not.

  2. Ryoka – Richer than a Wrym.

    Perfect words to place on the tombstone when the duke loses it.

    Still was a bit surprised to see how “Orderly” the court of Masks was, but how it had yet to achieve the same invisible field and field of chaos that the internet provides.

    Still for all of the problems the kingdom is simply a kingdom with people alive and moving about. Where even jerks with good ideas can make things better even if you want to strangle them.

    Should be curious to see how Sammial will do especially now that he had accidentally introduced himself to a princess.

    Still the amount of chaos that has come is not nearly as bad as what shall come in the later days.

    • It’s orderly because it’s more like a small forum than the internet – most people can recognize and know the other major players, regulars. Anybody shouting nonsense is kicked out, ostracized. But, it does leave them open to very fucked up morals, but at the same time… It’s medieval times, so they could do it anyways.

  3. This is gorgeous, as always I am astounded as to how the pieces have come together.

    It’s certainly a bit of a surprise to myself, as it was the Wind Runner, that at least internally Ailendamus is a good empire.

    • Its secret ruler and his allies have probably had a lot of time to observe the mistakes of other rulers before they started this project. Possibly it might not even have been their first attempt at nation or empire building.

    • Well, if you want to make a secret sanctuary for a bunch of Immortals, you want a secret sanctuary that *lasts*. Any truly uncaring or prejudiced, not to mention evil, nation would have societal upheaval through the centuries. If you really want your nation to act as such a sanctuary, you want everlasting internal peace.

      Much, much better that everyone is happy in Ailendamus, the farms are well tended by lots of happy and respected folks, there’s enough foods for everyone, corruption is kept at a minimum, and that the crown at least appears to be impartial, just, fair and listening to reason.

  4. Finally, I now have an OTP. I was kinda on-the-fence for most pairings. Now, I would just love to see the shitshow that would happen due to a marriage of Sammial Veltras and Aliendamus’s unnamed [Princess]. I hope this is something that will happen eventually. I can already imagine the drama and intrigue. Hilarious.

      • I can see it now.

        How did you two meet?

        He got kidnapped by my uncle who was trying to capture his mother in law because strangers who bring winter to our world tried to steal something from uncle’s vault…

        But don’t worry as he ran into me asking for help in trying to find her. Everything worked out because she gave a bunch of rocks to my uncle for the object… Don’t ask as they were rocks, but pretty weird rocks in how he kept cursing about being less rich than her… Despite owning the kingdom.

        What about you?

        Man doing interviews – that’s it! I quit! Either they are making this up or the world just went crazy!

      • I’d hazard a guess that the value is just that the Duke will want them, similarly to how he wanted the King Arthur autographs. Nothing intrinsically useful, but they have value in this particular situation.

        • I think something along the line of pure elements or pure elemental magic bound in those stones.

          I would be disappointed in them being the magical counterpart of a 100-Euro-note, even one backed by the fae treasury.

          • I was also thinking this, with curiosity as to whether they could be used to buy the help of other elemental forces, in a similar way to how Ryoka has the help of the Wind.

    • They’re money. Money is power.

      More specifically, they’re coin that the *Fae* will respect. Remember that trading with the Fae is *really fricking difficult* as they find the “valuables” of most places worthless. Having actual Fae currency is a *huge deal*.

      It means you can buy favors from the Fae. There’s very little that could be more valuable.

    • They are bitcoin. Intrinsically worthless, but unique, irreproduceable, and tradeable to anyone who has the right sort of “interfae” connection.

    • I think there like bits of magic, but connected to the understanding the person they came had. I figure something like a dragon shout and dragon soul in one.

  5. My subscription to your Patreon has saved me so much money in books I don’t buy because I’m too busy reading your story. I’m constantly amazed at how fast you write and is still able to pump ut such fantastically high quality content.

  6. I always really enjoy the fae chapters. There is always so much up in the air with them and the payoff usually just leaves more questions. Well done and enjoy your rest!

  7. All the cheers for High Flying Kids, Trolling In Masks, Conning Conniving Wyrms and Taunting Dead Gods!!! Loved this chapter!!! Looking forward next chapter and Kickstarter getting to next goals!!!

    • On another note: Can we PLEASE make an official THE WANDERING INN COMIC???!!!???!!!???!!! PRETTY PRETTY PLEASE WITH WHIPPED CREAM AND ACID FLYS ON TOP!!!

      • I’d rather have a cartoon. Of course that one would most likely be heavily edited. No multiple attempts at harvesting blue fruits etc. But one with plenty of slice of life to offset the action? Yes, pretty please.

  8. I, for one, am glad that Ailendamus didn’t turn out to be a cartoonishly evil kingdom like Medain. Yes, it’s militant and expansionist but it’s still a good place for its own people.

  9. Who else has read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear? Something about Ryoka being this empowered by allies and this financial windfall reminds me of a speech from those books on the importance of extrinsic power.

    On the face of it, Ryoka is puny compared to the Wyrm she’s imprisoned by. But being (on the face of it) backed by Oberon trumps even all of his hoarded wealth and his pet project kingdom, so even though his intrinsic power is far greater, he’s still going to have to acknowledge her backers and sudden bizarre wealth.

    Once he gets over the next hissy fit that mucking with the ley line will trigger.

  10. I still don’t like Ailendamus, sorry. Empires everywhere have been internally successful (at least sometimes), while murdering people who are defending their homes.

    Also I’m not impressed by them blaming high ranking military officers for things that don’t seem to be their fault. The admiral’s ship was where it was supposed to be – not even nearby. The General was impersonated by a high level mage- he wasn’t there either. The ships involved in that cluster got thrashed by the dancing Lord, so they’re punished or dead. If the admiral was directly responsible for the poor security protocol and lax naval officers, that’s one thing. Why the general?

    Rhisveri may be behind the kidnapping and attempted murder of a child, the invasion of Khelt, war of aggression on the neighbors where they use poison gas, burning farms and blockading trade and ruining people’s livelihoods- but the country is enabling him.

      • I like it much more because it has a purpose, to be a sanctuary for some of the few remaining immortals. Yes, it’s egoistical but not as egoistical as being the king of Destruction and way better than Ro’shal as it only has greed and fear motivating it, not cruelty and sadistic lust.

        I’ve got no problem with villain protagonists but it irks me how, in previous volumes, we used to be beaten over the head with Flos=Good, when it’s manifestly not true. It’s a tricky balance to portray his mind control over his subjects, they are justified in “believing” he’s good, but a lot of the time it was like the omniscient neutral narrator also stated it. Just like how we are told Duke Regalius truly respects the [Cannon-fodder Knights] and wants to do right by them as they deserve it and, at least so far, we haven’t seen anything to contradict it.

        That royal classes shape their subjects has been very well established by now: Reim’s subjects are depressed when he’s depressed, amused when he’s amused, furious when he’s furious; Lady Pryde’s subjects are prideful; Medain’s Golden Ranks are somehow both Gold Rank adventurers and cowards, like their king.

        So this raises a very interesting question: if the subjects of Ailendamus are not villainous, then does this not mean their rulers aren’t either because it’s the ruler that shapes the subject? It’s either that or because the true rulers seem to be a council of immortals WITHOUT classes and only a puppet king, the subjects are not outright brainwashed by the [System]. Ironically, that would mean they are some of the most free people in Innworld.

        Now that I think about it, it seems like only royal classes mentally dominate the personality of their subjects. We haven’t seen any such effects in the democratic cities/states: Liscor, Pallas, even Belchan… If that’s true then Sellme’s little band of [Anarchists] is ironically undermining the freest polities in Innworld, Drake cities ruled by Councils, instead of fighting against the true evil of monarchies that utterly dominate and shape the minds of their subjects through [Skills].

        I would love to see his face when an Earther anarchist/democrat/liberal/whatever explains it to him that people with the class [Anarchist] are just as much pawns to the [System]…

      • Ailendamus is better then current Reim because of the slavery stuff. But current Reim is actually fairer on the punishments and what not of it’s leaders and actually has more “valid” reasonings on why it went to war when compared to Ailendamus. Remember the Gnolls that got killed by the PM of Belchans actions.

        Yes he asked for things that went too far in my opinion but his attack is based on valid reasonings and then the other groups attacked him not the other way around.

        If we include historical Reim stuff then Ailendamus is probably better in all cases with its justifications and what not.

        • I mean Flos cares more about his demands being met than the Gnoll lives. He isn’t exactly losing sleep over the gnoll Gazi murdered back at the end of volume 1. I read it as Flos using the gnoll as an excuse to have a “justified” war to level up his army.

          • I mean, thats kinda missing the point, what do the gnolls in vol 1 matter? its not like they were HIS gnolls, the gnolls that died here were HIS gnolls they swore for him and therefor his and he cares for them

  11. As aggressive nations go, do you like it more or less than Reim?

    I think part of the problem with Ailendamus is that Rhisveri doesn’t really view humans as people, but more as either pawns or pests. He’s worked out ways to productively farm them, but he’s quite callous about marching them off to the slaughter.

  12. I was wondering something, I might have missed it, is the scroll that Ryoka wanted still in the vault or has it ‘mysteriously disappeared’? I feel that there would be different paths for Ryoka to take in negotiating her release depending on that answer.

  13. For chronically sore shoulders, try going to physical therapy (PT) if you can afford it/insurance covers it.

    Sometimes people use their muscles more than their muscles are capable of being used healthily. Usage doesnt always equal muscle built, and then youre using your muscles- overtaxing past their meagre capability constantly and generally a bad time.

    that happened to me, and then I got some specially designed strengthening excersizes and its mostly better now.

    take care, i love your work.

  14. Sammy is growing up, I could just cry. I think I actually did.

    It’s good that Aliendamus is a just country but I still worry about why Rhisveri is driving the expansion. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay quiet and not draw attention.

    Thank you Pirate, chapters related to the fae are always so magical.

    • Maybe Rhisveri was thinking that (a) the stronger Ailendamus gets, the better it can protect them, and (b) the larger it gets, the greater the chance of finding other immortals hiding out and offering them sanctuary? Could also be a personality thing (he’s quite greedy) and/or a stipulation of the pact he made that he would try to assist Ailendamus to greater and greater strength

      • Yeah true. It’s just that there’s a limit to how much a single wyrm + immortal collective can risk right? If they try to conquer too much the push back might be too much to handle.

        • Indeed, but security in obscurity seems a risky strategy as well, given the incentives for conflict found in a system of levels.

  15. Please forgive if this seems off topic, but I was an avid follower of the Inn until an unfortunate confluence of mental health and Erin being frozen meant I just couldn’t bear to read about the charecters I had come to care about so much being hurt anymore, or worse… This is the 1st time I have posted since then and I have not read a single chapter since then either – I don’t dare dspite having bought all the Ebooks.
    I have to ask a hopefully simple question – is Erin alive and back to normal in the Inn?

    • Not yet, but soon I guess. My best bet is…
      Erin will wake up at the end of this volume.

      And yes, I agree thay you shouldn’t read this volume with your current mental health. Some chapters are really depressing esp. the slavery. But there’s still happy chapters qnd parts 😁

    • I’d like to debate draz’s opinion on whether you should read on yet, but I’d find it very hard to do so without significant spoilers. (Except to say that yes, Erin is still on ice, but not gone forever). I don’t think it should be worse for your mental health than previous volumes, though.

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