[I did another interview with the friendly Fantasy Inn! Check it out here!]
It was now time to ask questions, even if the answers were undesirable. Simple questions with answers like barbs, if you asked them right.
If you got truthful answers. Each one of them knew all the little lies, half-truths, omissions you could get. They also knew how to cut to the heart of truth and yank it out if they had to.
Did they want to?
Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar had learned you could not buy truth. You could buy words, you could buy the answers you wanted, and have them shouted loudly, but truth? The closest you could get to that were experts. A kind of loyalty.
“Who can we trust?”
He murmured to himself. His audience of five, including himself, sat, thinking hard. More than that? Ilvriss was getting answers—in part to that question. Answers he…didn’t think he wanted.
Xesci, the [Courtesan of Change], was the kind of person who had all the answers by her very nature. She did not—usually—give them out since there was such a thing as confidentiality and client privilege, especially in her line of work. These circumstances dictated otherwise.
“I’m not a truth teller. So I can’t tell you for certain, that just because I sense a…a love, or certain things, that they’re not agents of the Necromancer.”
She prefaced herself again. Nerul, Ilvriss’ uncle and [Diplomat] at the top of his class, wiped at his brow, slightly. He was sweating from a ‘quick jaunt’ that had him climbing all the way down to the gates of Oteslia and back up to their higher mansion. He could have hired a sedan chair or the like, but that was too noticeable. He replied to Xesci.
“That’s where we come in. Captain Osthia and I do the back-check. Income, suspicious visits, and so on. We have the diadem of whatever-the-hell for a final check. But we do need impressions, Miss Xesci. So…what have you learned?”
Again, the Courtesan pulled a face. At last, Ilvriss stirred. The last member of their group did not. She was shaking slightly, curled up in a corner of the room. Shriekblade, or Tessa, depending on how she was feeling, was not in a good way of late.
“I know you have reservations, Miss Xesci. But I swear on Salazsar’s walls, it will not leave this room.”
“Even as fantastic gossip material. My promise as well, on my tail.”
Nerul added. Ilvriss glared at his uncle, but a [Diplomat] knew his targets, and Xesci smiled a bit, surprising Ilvriss.
“Fair enough, Wall Lord Nerul. Then…I don’t think your sister is an agent. Nor your mother, Wall Lord. Nor Magnolia Reinhart, the First Gardener, your Miss Marquin—especially not her—or anyone on your Priority One list. Actually, my impression is that Magnolia Reinhart and Miss Marquin, and your sister…definitely not. I can’t prove it, but that’s my instinct.”
Ilvriss relaxed. He relaxed, and he didn’t know how tense he’d gotten. Nerul clapped his claws together.
“What a relief. Start with my dear niece, who I would be very upset to learn was an undead puppet or conspirator. She does have absences and secrets…”
“So does any Walled Drake. Why are you certain my mother and sister are safe, Miss Xesci? Can you elaborate?”
They had to look into such things. Again, the [Courtesan] eyed Ilvriss.
“There are some answers, Wall Lord, that…you might not want to receive.”
The purple-scaled Wall Lord blinked a few times. Nerul bit his lip and his tail curled up, but Ilvriss wasn’t quite sure what Xesci meant. He got sure in moments.
“I can see which face or likeness I would ah, take, if I were to work for a certain client. You know that. Well…I have met those who have no face, or who are just—odd. That’s a big hint. However, both of your family members have distinct people in mind—a range. Everyone does.”
Ilvriss nodded, trying to block out Xesci’s own analysis of his childhood crushes, loves…Nerul leaned forwards.
“Just out of curiosity, who’s mine?”
Xesci glanced at him. Ilvriss groaned.
“I want to hear it.”
Captain Osthia Blackwing muttered, then coughed as everyone looked at her. The Pallassian [Wing Captain], presumed dead and under the name of Captain Shieldscale, saw Nerul smile.
Ilvriss had asked Xesci already, so he knew her answer.
“Charming women, Wall Lord Nerul. I could choose from nearly forty faces.”
“Ah, how appropriate. No one person?”
“A few. But that would be, ah, exoticism. I think. People you’ve met but never interacted with.”
“And you know this because…?”
“I would have to improvise them naked. And I recognize a number of influential faces, even without being an expert on regional leaders.”
Nerul started laughing. Ilvriss covered his eyes with one claw.
“Can we return to my sister?”
“Absolutely, Wall Lord. It’s simple. I ah, saw a number of faces in her mind’s eye, but one of the reasons I think she can’t be an agent is simply that she…that is to say, some of my co-workers do know she’s engaged their services. Privately.”
Ilvriss’ face went blank. Xesci went on, as Captain Osthia glanced at Ilvriss and Nerul sat up, eying his nephew.
“It would be good cover, but I somehow doubt a true puppet would maintain that kind of intimate…”
“You happen to know these fellow workers? I have never heard of Navine ever visiting a brothel or…it would be all over Salazsar!”
Ilvriss protested. He was already uncomfortable with Xesci’s power in some ways. This? This had gone off the uncomfort waterfall and he was fighting discomfort sharks in the water.
Xesci was an expert of intimacy, and she winced. She had a very bland face on; the schemer she had been when she first met with Ilvriss. It helped her detach, and she claimed it made her smarter, if ruthless. There was still enough of her to look awkward on his behalf.
“I’m sorry, Wall Lord. But I did see a number of figures, so it indicates she could only be a double-agent.”
“Which we can investigate. So that’s instinct and knowledge for you. Anything we should know?”
“No, he has a point. Wall Lord, I know this is difficult, but anything relevant, Xesci…?”
Osthia gave Ilvriss a pleading look. He had to stand up and walk over their private, secured rooms to pour himself a drink. Not wine; he had meetings to go to later and he was off the stuff. But he wondered if you could do something similar—just to drown out sensation. Distilled plum and lemon juice, no sugar, maybe. He’d ask for some made up.
“No one I know. Rather handsome Gnolls, Drakes, even a Human—that would be my co-worker. And uh—two female Drakes.”
The spray out of Ilvriss’ nose-holes and mouth made Tessa roll out of the way reflexively. He turned, coughing.
“Ah. Uncomfortable secrets. Don’t let’s get on the Turnscale wagon, nephew. We have bigger fish to kick.”
Nerul wagged a claw. Ilvriss shook his head.
“I’m not about t—I just—Navine?”
“I told you there were answers you didn’t want to hear, Wall Lord. Your mother…”
Xesci looked even more uncomfortable. This time Nerul and Ilvriss traded a look.
“Er, Miss Xesci. For my nephew’s sake, if it’s a matter of delicate…”
“No! Not in that way.”
Ilvriss breathed again. Xesci paused.
“She just doesn’t have Wall Lord Zail in her mind. Someone else. A Drake. Multiple ages. Perhaps deceased? A lover? Er…”
She watched as Ilvriss slowly rubbed at his eyes.
“…We’re going to have to look into this, aren’t we?”
“I’ll handle it. Just give me a description, or better yet—pose with the face so I can do a rough check. I’ll do it later.”
Nerul murmured. Ilvriss sat back down, heavily. After that opening salvo into finding allies and uncovering Az’kerash’s minions, he thought nothing would surprise him.
…Right up until Xesci told him why she was almost convinced Lyonette was genuinely non-Az’kerash.
Captain Osthia shouted. Xesci lifted a claw.
“Two things. It is not strong. Not in an…intimate way. First loves. I would be hesitant to look like that. It makes it too much like cheating on someone…with a copy of them. But she does like this…Antinium. A Worker, I think?”
Ilvriss was least-surprised of all of them. Which still meant shocked. Xesci gave him a helpless nod.
“It is surprising, but this is personal, something unconscious, Wall Lord. It’s the fourth Antinium I’ve seen.”
“Well, hers was the most accurate, I believe. The others were…I would call it a very specific desire.”
“For what? Insects?”
“Or being frightened. Someone’s deepest fantasy can be a terrifying, albeit safe, encounter with something…not quite like a person? I’ve seen Goblins, Golems, even a Creler, the King of Destruction—fame is popular—two of the four I saw were actually of the one they call the ‘Small Queen’, Xrn, and the askers were both male.”
“Please stop talking.”
Ilvriss felt like he was going to die. He shifted focus.
“…I doubt there’s much chance Navine or Lyonette could be puppets with that kind of imaginative backstory. Can we go to the Gardener?”
“Of course, Wall Lord. You’ll be glad to understand her desires are standard.”
“A bit colorful in one of the images I could have chosen as a fantasy. She apparently met a rather splendid Minotaur, in a bath-house or something, because I—”
“Ah. Magnolia Reinhart, then. She’s harder to read, as [Ladies] are, but her maid, butler, and so on all had people in their desires. It’s…complicated.”
Ilvriss just wanted to know if they were monsters in disguise. Xesci hesitated.
“The [Butler] loves someone who’s dead. I can tell. They tend to be idealized. Captured in a particular pose or dress. The maid—”
“Ressa. Former Assassin’s Guild.”
“—She’s simpler. A number, including Lady Reinhart herself. I’m not sure if that’s love or desire. However, Lady Reinhart?”
“…I could do someone attractive to her, certainly. But the face of the real person she wants is—impossible. I’d fail. I could become him…but I’d still be wrong. And I don’t know why.”
The [Courtesan] frowned. Professional pride appearing for the first time. She was reluctant to divulge these deep, intimate secrets, but she did. Ilvriss sat up.
“Please, explain. Could that mean…?”
“Oh, no. I know who she loves. It would be that fellow—I saw him in the scrying orb. Grand Magus Eldavin.”
“Really. That explains a lot. If I could use this, Salazsar would be able to confirm a number of intelligence hypotheses that—sorry, sorry. Secret.”
Nerul sat back as Xesci gave him a look. Ilvriss frowned.
“That’s not too unusual.”
Xesci nodded patiently.
“Yes, Wall Lord. But I have an instinct beyond mere Skill, because I am good at my job. If I presented myself to her, I feel as though I would still fail to capture…something. Something is wrong with that image, yet it is right. Does that make sense?”
“It doesn’t to me, either. She’s…a challenge. Although I’m not likely to find out why.”
“Well. It seems as though they’re at least not undead puppets. Have you found anyone who matches that?”
“One. But it could just be a lack of loves or someone who really doesn’t care. Not high-ranking, but I will pass you the name…”
Nerul rubbed his claws together, nodding. Ilvriss leaned back in his chair to process what he really didn’t want to think about in some cases. He only looked up when Nerul spoke.
“I said, which one do we reach out to first, nephew? I’d put money on Reinhart. Risky, given who she is, but you said she intimated she was an ally.”
The Wall Lord hesitated.
“…We need to run more checks on movements, connections—”
“On Reinhart? Hah. Tell you what, I’ll do my best work, get Blackwing to help me, and pull in all of Salazsar’s intelligence. We’ll come back to you in a year with squat. The First Gardener’s probably just as bad. A Calanferian [Princess]? We’ll only trace her back to Izril, not before.”
“True. But we can’t make a mistake.”
Nerul fixed Ilvriss with a keen, perceptive eye.
“Nephew. You already took a chance with the three of us.”
He gestured at Shriekblade, himself, and Xesci.
“It’s time to take action. We need allies. It could go bad, but now is not the time to sit. Not now. Not with the Gnolls boiling mad and threatening a war we can’t sustain. For the Antinium or the Necromancer. Someone needs to be caught up.”
Ilvriss knew he was right. He rubbed at his face, then nodded. And then looked at Nerul.
They’d all heard the news, even under siege in Oteslia. It was complicating an already complicated affair with Magnolia Reinhart, and his own mission. Ilvriss met Nerul’s eyes directly.
“Tell me something. Did you know about this, Uncle?”
Nerul gave him a clear look which could have held a million lies. Yet he did shake his head.
“No, Ilvriss. I didn’t have a clue. Nor would anyone with half a brain have told me, given my job. Mind you, I might have found out…but I didn’t know. The question is: did anyone in Salazsar? Did you?”
Ilvriss saw Osthia’s gaze swing back to him. She had no knowledge. He frowned.
“No. But then, even for a Wall Lord, I’m younger. I wonder if my father would have access to that kind of information? He would be the only one in the family. But we do know Fissival’s always loved magicore.”
“Along with any number of magical items. Well, it’s a mess. And I can’t envy whomever’s sent to calm the Gnolls down, if anyone. Bloody idiots might just escalate and that will not go well. There’s little respect for [Diplomats] among High Commands.”
Nerul grumbled. Ilvriss raised his brows.
“Do you actually think you could do something, Uncle? What about the siege?”
“The army outside? Of course! Mind you, Zeres’ Admiralty is smart. They’d run if I walked at them. They know a shark in the waters. Let’s stay focused. Allies and Necromancers. Where do we start first?”
Ilvriss thought about it. He glanced left, and smelled and saw Tessa lean over and vomit onto the carpet. She collapsed into the puddle and lay there, curled up. In the silence, Ilvriss gestured.
“Probably with her.”
“Why is she sick?”
Wall Lord Ilvriss asked that question to three [Healers], all of whom had no idea. Well—one never got a chance to investigate Shriekblade. She came round, slashed with her claws across the poor Gnoll’s face, and sent the [Healer] screaming for…a [Healer].
“Adventurer Tessa. You will collect yourself.”
Ilvriss snapped, as Osthia wrestled Tessa back to their coach. The scarred Drake turned her head and gave him a stare like a wall had sprouted eyes.
“Shriekblade, then. What is wrong?”
“She’s gone. She’s gone. I have to go get her. I’m never going to be okay again. She’s gone. She’sgoneshe’sgoneshe’sgone…”
She was having some kind of breakdown, like a [Soldier] fighting a horror for the first time. Ilvriss looked at Osthia, but the other Drake had it.
“Do you mean…the Healer of Tenbault?”
Tessa looked up. She shot to her feet.
“Yes. I have to go get her. I’m leaving.”
With that, she began to try to commandeer the coach. Osthia stopped her. Tessa kicked her across the street, and Ilvriss jumped for the coach. Cursing, he fought with Shriekblade and got her to stop—mainly because she collapsed halfway through trying to claw out his eyes.
“No. She’s already dead. Goblins are killing and eating and raping her. She’s dead and I’m not going to ever be me again.”
She lay there as Osthia caught up with Ilvriss. He looked at his helper. Shriekblade was their ace in the hole, the one genuinely high-level deterrent against a traitor. They needed her better, as callous as it was to ignore her own distress. But how? Damn. Goblins?
Ilvriss had a sinking suspicion it might be connected to a lot of events. But for now, he wrestled Tessa back into the coach and began to hunt for a temporary cure to what ailed her.
“So, feeling any side-effects? Are you alright?”
As they partied out the night in Oteslia, Mirn, the [Protector] of Pallass’ secret bar, a Sentry as they called him, former [Soldier], and friend to Saliss of Lights…and Onieva, asked a question that really cut down on his personal enjoyment of the night.
Such as there was to be had with a bunch of horny, silly kids like Cire and his friends. Some were interesting, like Lyonette for instance, but Mirn had come for Onieva.
She gave him a long look.
“Well, be careful. I know you’re on a high after so long, but don’t lose track of the time! And be careful what you put in your body!”
“Mirn. Mirn, you are the last person I want to hear that from.”
Oneiva laughed as she followed the group down the street. Mirn rolled his eyes, tail curling.
“You’re the one who told me to be careful!”
In truth, Onieva shouldn’t have been out there at all. She should have tested the new, faerie-flower substitute for her potion, but Mirn understood she’d been desperate. So she’d taken it. It had worked perfectly…and would probably be a huge upset in the alchemical world and all that, once Saliss returned.
The problem was that Onieva was clearly deliriously happy, and thus, incautious. Mirn had to be the one to watch out for complications. And there were going to be some.
“What are the side effects?”
Saliss gave Mirn a look as he prepared the vial. He’d taken one drop as a taste, sworn a blue streak, and told Mirn his crazy hypothesis about the changing, convenient nature of the Faerie Flowers was right.
“It means this stuff is adapting to what it does, and Xif and I and all the idiots trying to make it into something are effectively gutting its usefulness, Mirn. I’ll write him a note and get the others to stop…after I take this.”
“I got that. But what do you mean, side effects? Did you sense any?”
Saliss just snorted.
“I don’t need to, even if I could. Mirn, I did my research. Faerie Flower drinks that make you go back in time and dream true-ish dreams, but lead to incredible depression or dependancy. Glory drinks that make you cry buckets. Soporific smoke and so on. They’re tricky flowers. There’s always a catch. I don’t doubt that fertilizer composite does something too. Maybe it makes anything it grows allergens or something. So when I take this…I need you to look out for me.”
The Sentry folded his arms.
“And do what, exactly?”
“Make sure it doesn’t wear off when I’m out there. Make sure to test whether it’s doing anything to my head. Memory, and so on. And most importantly—”
“—Avoid a scene.”
Mirn repeated the instructions. Onieva rolled her eyes.
“Please, Mirn. When do I cause a scene?”
“…I’ll stomp on your tail, you Wyvern-bitch. Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten how many bars fights you cause every time you go out.”
She laughed and danced ahead of him, spreading her arms and swinging around in a wide circle. It caught the attention of Lyonette and the others.
“Mirn! I’m so glad you’re here. This is going to be a good night!”
“That’s right! I told you they were sort of Archmage!”
A shout from the rambunctious teen, the leader, Cire himself. The others cheered and Mirn felt his head beginning to ache. That was the beginning of a long night.
“…Am I old, now?”
It was a terrible thing to think. Because, Mirn felt, if you had to ask, you already knew the answer. He reminded himself that he was youn—he wasn’t technically young, but he was far from aged! He wasn’t at his middle years…y-yet.
He had no back pain. He was a former [Soldier] who had kept his levels, and knew what the hell ‘Archmage’ meant. Mirn might not be able to do a backflip like Onieva, who promptly astounded the skeptical kids, but he could still march forty damn miles with armor and packs.
The thing wasn’t his disabilities, it was his ability to…well, run around. Mirn was a one-bar Sentry. Literally. Sometimes that bar moved, but it was because someone was literally kicking down the door. He had forgotten that ‘fun’ involved hitting eight places in one night, mostly because you kept getting kicked out of them.
“We’ve got a real [Lady] with us, so everyone behave! Let’s show Lionette a good time, since I finally got her to come with us!”
Cire crowed, oblivious to how that made Lyonette start. He was turning up the charm, but he’d forgotten that alcohol adjusted all the dials.
Well, he had something. Mirn saw someone hurry into the pub, which had wisely given them an outdoor table, and come back with an Oteslian rye. Naturally, Oteslia was an expert at brewing all kinds of alcohols. Every city had their specialty, and Zeres had a lot of foreign imports. Pallass could hold its own as could Fissival, because of alchemical or magical drinks.
But if you ever wanted to stare at a row of two hundred different beers and then walk to the ‘ale’ category in massive breweries…this was the place.
Mirn had no desire to do that. He served two dozen kinds of drinks, max. His clientele wanted alcohol, and if he had any, that was good. In that sense, Mirn was a terrible [Bartender]; he had about three levels in the class.
But he was a damned good Sentry, so what he saw was everything.
“Let’s see. Eighteen to mind. That one’s already drowning, that one’s on something…the rest are rather fine.”
Mirn was actually surprised. One was clearly as drunk as a Sariant Lamb alcoholic—and the little things did have a drinking problem, which was hilarious—but the rest weren’t in over their heads.
Rather…he eyed them. Something about a few of Cire’s gang of friends gave Mirn a vaguely odd sensation, but he didn’t parse it fully. He was a bit distracted.
“Damn. He is handsome.”
“He is, isn’t he? If only he had ten years. And his head out of his tail.”
Onieva took down a beer as the others egged each other on. Cire promptly had to copy that, and two of his friends. Mirn eyed Cire. It was hard…not to.
He was far too young, but now Mirn understood why people followed him about. He was young, but everything that was perfect about being young. Not a scale out of place, and Mirn was sure Cire had no idea about scale creams or tonics that some of his friends and clientele used. Some things were just unfair. Even his scales and eyes set him apart; there were ‘bronze’ Drakes, or ones with copper-colorations, or brown.
Few had a meld of colors like his. Not Lizardfolk. Not Drakes. Well, staring at handsome kids was not his job, so Mirn went back to watching Onieva.
And Lyonette. And…well, it was interesting.
“Whoo! Hey, Utasen, why are you looking sick? We’re just getting started!”
Cire laughed. A new friend, whose name he somehow already knew, looked appalled.
“You just took down four beers!”
They weren’t small tankards, either. Mirn sniffed at his drink. Not spiked or worse than anything; it had a pleasant scent, and he tasted it and guessed it was corn? Too light for him, but tasty.
Even so. Cire didn’t even wobble as he spun around on one foot to show how fine he was. By contrast, his Drake friend looked wobbly.
“Everyone knows Cire’s got two holes in his boots.”
One of the female Drakes put in dryly. Cire laughed and held up his boots. Lyonette sipped her beer, refusing to take it down fast. Mirn saw Onieva spin a tankard around and wink at Lyonette.
“You won’t hang with this crowd if you can’t hold your liquor. But why the hell are you all wasting good beers?”
So saying, she gulped down half of her drink with about the same effect. Cire’s brows rose as Onieva finished off her tankard. Mirn rolled his eyes.
“Onieva, don’t bully them.”
“Oh? Can she hold her water? Look at these old crabs.”
Onieva reached out to a sniggering Gnoll and slapped his shoulder so hard he fell out of his seat, much to the amusement of others. She looked around.
“I’ll have you know that I could drink all of you under the table.”
Cire grinned and Mirn shook his head. He had no idea, but Onieva, even without turning on her complete immunity to alcohol, was still resistant. She had trouble getting drunk.
“Hey! Pull out a Firebreath! Let’s take some shots.”
That came from both Lyonette and Raef, the Gnoll sitting next to her. The young man grinned as Mirn tried to kick Onieva. He got a stinging retort to his shin and swore, holding it.
“You don’t like spirits, Miss Lionette? Can I call you Lionette?”
Raef leaned over, smiling with his teeth. Lyonette copied him, showing no unease. She did hold herself with a kind of dignified reserve. Mirn eyed her as a bottle was brought out by a [Server], who demanded payment in advance. Cire scattered gold coins on the table with a promise of more to come.
Little brat. That was the First Gardener’s son, alright. Mirn watched as he took down a shot of the famous Drake whiskey with Onieva and two others. They were going to be in trouble soon.
“I don’t usually drink, actually. I’m around alcohol a lot, but I’ve worked as a…a [Server].”
Raef’s eyebrows rose. He…gave Lyonette a look. Mirn raised his own brows. Wasn’t she supposed to be a [Princess]? That was what Chaldion had told him while he briefed Mirn for this odd mission. Chaldion had told him Lyonette wasn’t as important as Saliss, obviously.
“Yes. But tonight’s a night to have fun, so I’m trusting Cire to show me the ropes.”
Lyonette smiled, and the young Drake burped, realized she was talking to him, and went back to playing the good host of the event, a bit abashed.
Clever girl. Mirn nodded along, and realized two things. He did have experience in watching drinkers, and there was a difference between them.
When you had alcohol, how you drank it revealed something about your personality. A clue, at least.
Young people…of which Mirn felt a growing disconnection with…drank a lot. Infamously, but it wasn’t without purpose. Their consumption waxed and waned. It was social, and so they had competitions, or imbibed a lot when the excitement dictated it. Their goal was to have fun, and so they went for a night of fun that might end up with them head-first in a pile of their own vomit, but not necessarily.
By contrast, if you looked at Onieva, or Mirn himself, or, interestingly here, two of the young friends of Cire, they took over the whiskey and drank it down fast. No savoring it, or even the need for snacks. It was practiced. They had something like water or a juice along with the shots, or mixed it in. They weren’t excited by the prospect of drinking; they knew exactly what they wanted.
Calmly, each one took down enough to obscure reality for a bit. Make them stop thinking. It was cynical drinking, in a way. You didn’t need other people for it and sometimes you preferred that.
What was odd was that Onieva and Mirn should know how to do it, but why would Raef and those two drink like that? An odd personality trait in younger generations. But Raef calmly poured himself a double shot and took it down without blinking, much to Mirn and Lyonette’s astonishment.
Mirn himself tried that, and had to reach for a pitcher of water. Nope, it wasn’t diluted. So there were three people here with constitutions of steel!
The last kind of drinker was just Lyonette, incidentally. Lyonette alone. Someone who didn’t actually drink that much due to her upbringing, and had been told by well-intentioned idiots that it was a social thing, to be done at banquets and smaller events, but completely missed the context of it all.
Especially because this was the first time Lyonette had really been able to kick back with peers, not run a business or be responsible for a child. She was a small minnow in deep waters, and someone had just spiked the pond with rum. Mirn watched her as she experienced the joys of social drinking, perhaps for the first time.
Raef, or, as she was behind the illusion, Rafaema of Manus, watched Lyonette with about as much keenness as Cire. More so because Cire was caught up in a competition with the odd Drake woman who had invited herself along.
The male Drake was quieter, the responsible guardian. That was fine. Rafaema was focused on Lyonette. The trouble was…
Was she lying to Raef already? She claimed she was used to working. Which wasn’t a [Princess] thing at all.
Ferris claimed she worked at the inn. Maybe she actually did? Or she saw it as work.
In her way, the Dragon was as world-weary as Mirn…and she had four times his lifespan to amplify her views. She was not here to party like Cire—and she saw how much he had to drink to bypass his own natural immunities to alcohol. Even Onieva began to fall behind just due to the sheer quantity he could imbibe, which would explode a lesser Drake’s stomach.
Still. Onieva was odd, as well as Mirn. Rafaema had a feeling about them…but it could wait. For the moment, she was doing something unpleasant for her city. Which, to judge by the news coming out of the Meeting of Tribes, was as Drake as you could get.
Those damned idiots. We don’t need a war with Gnolls! Did Luciva know about this? How am I going to fix it? What else have they…
“It’s the cities. It’s always the cities. Everyone asks why we fucking hate the walls and the boots. It’s stuff like that.”
One of the non-actor Gnolls began growling as that very conversation came up. Cire turned, looking a bit uncomfortable.
“Hey, that’s Fissival. Fissival is totally Creler eggs, Rox. Oteslia’s okay. I’d know about them doing anything bad.”
“Just because your mother’s the First Gardener, Cire? Hah! They’re all evil. You don’t know. You’re a Drake.”
“Hey now. Don’t bring us down, dude. Let’s not monk about on boring stuff.”
That had to be an actor. Raef rolled his eyes as a Gnoll cut in, fur dyed strategically, ushering them to another bar. On the way, Raef leaned over to Lyonette.
“What do you think about the Meeting of Tribes thing, Lyonette?”
“Me? Oh…it’s terrible. One supposes they have their reasons, though. Cire! I believe you wouldn’t do anything that terrible. You do know a lot about Oteslia, don’t you?”
Raef frowned as Lyonette went over to console Cire, who cheered up.
“That’s right, Lionette! I do! And if I’d heard about that gemstone or whatever, I would have had someone go dig it up.”
“You can do that?”
“I mean, probably, yeah. I could probably get the Pegasus Fliers to do that.”
Rafaema frowned at Cire, who was bragging too hard. And at Lyonette, who was clearly interested in Cire. Genuinely?
She hadn’t drunk much. Rafaema glanced around, then, as they headed to the next bar, suggested a round.
“Let’s all take a shot to Fissival sticking its fat tail into an ant hive!”
The others cheered at that, and Rafaema saw Lyonette protest. Cire, laughing, offered her a shot and she sipped at it, then reluctantly took it down.
“So, Lionette, where are you fr—”
Raef headed over to Lyonette, as the others began to dance or drink or grab snacks and bother the other clientele. It was turning into a damned party and Cire knew everyone. But this time Onieva got in the way.
“You’re looking a bit unsteady. You can say no, you know? Come on. Do you know how to dance?”
The [Princess] shook her head, eyes determinedly clear.
“I can. And I’m having fun, Onieva, thank you. I’m actually a quite decent dancer.”
Onieva raised a single brow, mockingly.
“Saliss told me all about your ballroom dancing. But that’s not dancing. Come on. Mirn, get over here and let’s have fun!”
“Dead gods, Onieva…”
Again, Lyonette was spirited away and Rafaema cursed. A party? Why had she thought that was a good idea? It was, in fact, the worst way to get Lyonette to spill anything. Even if she was drunk…
“Hey, Raef. Stop getting in my way! Those two crabs are bad enough, but I’m trying to impress Lionette!”
“Shut up, Cire.”
Raef glowered, watching Onieva and Mirn actually join in quite proficiently. At least they were acting their age, or not hiding it, rather. The other actors hiding their true ages and pretending to enjoy shaking it out in the bar, or laughing?
She hated it. He had to see it. Rafaema’s lip curled. Cire was already away, catching up with some friends.
He did see it. Or else why did he always gravitate towards the genuinely younger crowd, letting his group follow him around? It might be unconscious, but it was there. Raef leaned back, plotting her next move.
Two more pubs they hit, and each time Mirn calmly advised Lyonette to take a glass of something else because she was overdoing it, or Onieva took over the event. She was here to have fun—and apparently get in Rafaema’s way. However, the Dragon noticed something interesting as Mirn yanked Onieva aside after she headed to the restroom. They whispered for a second and Rafaema glanced up from watching Cire and Lyonette flirt.
“…and what’s eight times sixty three?”
“Dead gods, Mirn. I don’t…five hundred and four, okay? Who wrote that crap?”
“Well, I hate him. What else?”
“What’s the key component of healing potions?”
“Eir gel. Basic faculties are all here! No side effects, okay?”
Mirn nodded. Rafaema glanced over. Onieva knew Saliss of Lights? Right, she was his cousin. Interesting, though. And interesting how she was as intoxicated as Cire and Rafaema.
Which was to say, not at all. Lyonette, even Mirn and the other actors were all feeling it, but Onieva had an inexhaustible amount of energy. Maybe she was a [Social Drunkard], or some class that turned this kind of thing into power? It fit the socialite. Rafaema nodded to herself…right up until the street fight.
“What? Someone’s doing what?”
A Drake was talking to Cire, plucking at the young man’s arm.
“In broad daylight! I mean…whatever, Cire. We were just walking along and they told us to clear the street.”
“And did you?”
“Do we look like Lizards? ‘Course not! We were about to really get into it, y’know, but they said we’d settle this tonight. There’s eleven of us and thirteen of them. Come on, can you bring some of your group?”
Cire hesitated as Rafaema and some of his minders’ heads turned. He was bright-eyed with excitement, but he did waver.
“I dunno, Lotse. I’m showing this Human around—Lionette—”
“She can watch! Come on, Cire.”
The Drake girl was definitely not an actor, and she and some Drakes were asking him to…Rafaema scooted over.
“What’s this, Cire?”
“Someone tried to bully friends of mine. I dunno, Lotse, I’ve got a reputation to worry about…”
“That’s right. Cire, we’re here to have fun. Let’s uh—let’s go get some snacks. On me!”
A Gnoll emphasized the words, glancing around for backup, but Lotse grabbed Cire’s arm as the Drake began to backpeddle.
“Cire! We’re begging you. Are we friends or not?”
The Earth Dragon’s eyes turned back. His expression cleared—then took on an obstinate cast that Rafaema didn’t like.
“Of course we are. I’ll come with you.”
The Gnoll grabbed for Cire, but the Earth Dragon prised off the paws with casual strength.
“I’ll just duck out for a second. Come on, Lotse. Twelve against thirteen’s fine. We’ll just…”
He glanced at ‘Raef’, but the Dragon just folded her arms.
“You want backup?”
“If you want to come, Raef? What, you too good for it?”
Rafaema ignored the goading words. She had trained with a sword and she doubted Cire was trained in anything except how to hit a toilet bowl when sick. She had killed someone, just this week.
“I’m not fighting your battles. Nor should you.”
She emphasized the words. Cire just made a face at her.
“They’re my friends, Rafae—I mean, Raef. You never leave your friends when they need you. Come on, Lotse. She’s Creler-brained.”
The Drake blinked at Raef. Cire hurried her off.
Rafaema was going to kick him again for being so stupid. She sat there, growling, and glanced at Lyonette who was free. The Gnoll actor was sounding a quiet alarm and four of the others hurried out of the bar, cursing. Rafaema had a clear shot at Lyonette. She stood there, cursing—then went after Cire.
Not for his safety, but for anyone he tangled with.
…Maybe for his safety. He was a Dragon, but he was still…
It was a fast fight, so Rafaema arrived when it was one minute into it, and thus almost a third over. She watched, coming to a halt in the shadows as a smaller crowd watched two dozen mostly-Drakes brawling.
Clubs, fists, nothing edged. It was a street fight between two groups who didn’t have anything more than pride on the line.
But pride…well. Rafaema watched the melee. It was a bad one. No formations, no tactics other than ‘hit anyone who’s not my buddy’. The thing was that Cirediel was in there.
And he changed things. He was young, yes. Transformed by magic, yes. But he was still a Dragon.
He had little training, too. Even so, Rafaema watched someone throw a hook at him as Lotse tackled a Gnoll and they went down, throwing punches. She probably had [Street Fighter] as a class, because she hit the Gnoll in the jaw with a vicious elbow. Cire?
The Drake throwing the punch had a good one. He’d probably brawled enough. Cire? Cire blinked, reflexively put up his hands to shield his face, and backed up.
In short, everything you didn’t do in a brawl. And yet—Rafaema saw his eyes open, and he blocked the punch. He returned with a big, telegraphed swing. The Drake saw the motion, but it still laid him flat.
Cire was too quick. Too strong. And while you could equalize it, like the Drake with [Lesser Dexterity] or something that swore and punched Cire in the back for downing his buddy—Cire just turned and tried to uppercut him.
Tough. Rafaema watched someone glance a club off of Cire’s shoulder and wince at the unexpectedly jarring impact. It was still fairly even—until another haymaker from Cire tossed someone else clean out of the fight and into tomorrow. Then it got nasty.
“They’re using potions or artifacts or something! They brought a leveller!”
Someone clearly thought Cire had levels above his age, which was actually fair. Lotse’s jeer and her friends were cut off as a furious Drake tore a dagger out of his belt.
Cire froze, eyes on the sharp blade. Instantly, the other unarmed brawlers moved back. Rafaema tensed. What was Cire going to do? If he breathed acid, or panicked…
He jumped up and began to fly back.
“This guy’s berserking! Lotse, Auhousa, get back!”
He grabbed at his friends as the Drake charged, scattering the others. Cire threw out a wing as he changed directions for Lotse. So the Drake went for him, dagger out.
It might snap on his scales. Unless it’s enchanted. Rafaema saw the entire moment. Either way—she had her sword hilt in her hands. Step in, slash. Don’t kill him. She’d have to cut off his…hand?
She leapt forwards, and the [Knife Fighter] charged at Cire. Right into a broomstick.
The thing about broomsticks was that they were not designed as weapons. Too light, no edges—quarterstaffs were heavy and hurt, and were a decent weapon.
Then again, so was a broomstick if it hit your neck right as someone swung it. Not a killing blow, but it laid out the poor Drake. As did a foot, kicking him in the chest.
Rafaema slowed. Cire recoiled, and the Pegasus Riders shooting down from the skies roared.
“Oteslia’s Watch! Break it up! You’re all under arrest!”
“Creler eggs! It’s the boots! Run!”
Lotse and the others ran. But the lone Drake with an actual knife didn’t get away; an old Gnoll had come out of his shuttered shop-home with a few others and were beating Cire’s assailants with weapons. Well, in one case a Gnoll looked at a Drake with a kitchen knife in her claw and ran for it.
“You alright there?”
Cire was still frozen, staring at the downed Drake. The old Gnoll panted as he leaned on his broom. He had greying fur, and Oteslia’s Watch swept down around him, chasing the others. They saw Cire was safe, and Rafaema saw the plain relief in their eyes.
“I’m fine. Thanks uh, Mister. That was totally Archmage of you. I would have probably taken him out, but I didn’t want to hurt him.”
Cire nodded at the dagger. Plain steel. He would have been fine. Rafaema sheathed her sword, sighing. But then the old Gnoll smiled.
“I’m sure you would have been, Cire. But you never learn. You keep closing your eyes. Sixty years and you never fixed it. You should, or it’ll stick.”
Cirediel stopped, walking towards a severe [Pegasus Rider]. Rafaema’s head turned. The Earth Dragon’s eyes opened wide. He looked at the old Gnoll, and the [Shopkeeper] grinned.
Just a shopkeeper. Just one of the many citizens of Oteslia, who probably knew Cire as one of the many kids running around. As he had always done. As he had…
“Uh. Do I know you, old guy?”
Cire tried to chuckle. But something surfaced in his eyes. The Gnoll glanced at him.
“It’s me. I’m sure you’ve forgotten, but I’m Eshell. We used to hang out sixty years ago. I was…”
“…a [Shopkeeper’s Apprentice]. You worked at the place we got our sweets. At—”
Cire stared at the shop the Gnoll had come out of. Sign faded. Rafaema didn’t read it, but the Earth Dragon recoiled.
“We stopped going there—but you were—”
Eshell looked at Cire. The Earth Dragon backed up.
“That’s a bad joke. Eshell left Oteslia. It’s been only…”
His eyes flickered. The Gnoll glanced at the Pegasus Rider, who had noticed Cire’s behavior, dismounted, and was striding over.
“There’s never a chance to talk to you, Cire. But I just wanted to say hello. Don’t worry. I’d never say a thing. It’s just…good to see you. I doubt you’d want to talk, but I have a family now. Well, grandchildren. Your age. Maybe you’ll meet them.”
Cirediel backed up from the Gnoll. The [Shopkeeper] looked at him.
The Pegasus Rider swore. Cire looked at his old friend, whom he had forgotten about. Purposefully, Rafaema had no doubt. In the shadows, she watched as he backed away from Eshell without a word. He ran, leaping into the air. So fast, flying away from the truth.
No, she didn’t prefer Cire’s life at all. Or how Oteslia did things.
Back at the bar, Cire returned with an explosion of laughter, seizing two drinks, and towing Lyonette to dance with him as if nothing had happened. That something had was obvious. That he would not talk about it? Doubly so.
Rafaema returned too, a bit too dispirited to interrogate Lyonette, if she even could. She decided she’d just prevail on her as Wall Lady Rafaema. She didn’t want to talk to Cire, even if he wanted to. She was about to tell him she was off, and walking across the bar when someone beat her to it.
A Drake tapped Lyonette on the shoulder as she did a quick-step with Cire. He turned.
“Hey, guy. I’m dancing with Lionette.”
And with that, the Drake produced something. He had a coat on, and was not one of the younger partying people. He held it up and Lyonette turned.
“I’m sorry, I’m—”
She blinked at the Faerie Flower. The Drake smiled.
“It’s not good to hoard, Miss. You know what happens to hoarders?”
He was already stabbing. Lyonette tried to back up and bumped into Cire. The Drake snarled—stabbed her with his empty claw, and blinked at it.
“What the f—”
Rafaema’s head spun. Who the heck was that? A Drake adjusted his cap, and a Gnoll with a top hat stepped through the doorway.
“Backup! She’s got a bodyguard! Get me—”
The Drake reached for another blade, and two more figures rose. Someone tried to come through the doorway and disappeared into a casual backhand from the Gnoll with the top hat. Lyonette reached for the sword she didn’t have. Rafaema spun, drawing her own sword…
—And saw one of the two figures was down. Mirn stood over a Drake, rubbing his fists. The other was lying on the floor too. How the—?
The first Drake attacked, oblivious, having finally gotten another dagger out. He snarled, looked over, saw all of his buddies were gone, and the female Drake with pink and cobalt scales leaping over the Drake she’d taken out in a flash. She had a bottle of Firebreath whiskey in her claws. Rafaema ran after her. She was going to get h—
The funny thing about wine bottles was that they were actually harder to smash than they looked. Rafaema saw it thunk into the Drake’s hand, face, eye—and didn’t break. Parts of him did. Onieva kicked his legs down and went to stomp, but by that point he was so far out that she didn’t bother completing the motion.
Five attackers, all taken out in moments. Rafaema saw Cire’s head spinning left and right, comically, just as much as Lyonette’s. The Lightning Dragon only wished she could claim credit for anything.
Who…? She looked at Mirn, dusting his claws off, Onieva, who tossed the bottle down and put her claws on her hips, exasperated, and the two hatted figures…who were already gone.
Who were they?
“Just one time. Just one night without someone trying to kill me, thank you.”
“It reminds me of home.”
The party was over, obviously. Cire’s brawl was one thing, but an actual murder attempt? The Watch had arrived with amazing speed, no less than Oteslia’s Pegasus Riders, which was very suspicious.
As suspicious as Cire’s ‘friends’, who all had drawn some actual artifacts the instant he was in danger. Mind you, they’d still been slower than Mirn and Onieva, but that wasn’t fair.
A Sentry and Architect were always ready for danger. They speculated on the whys and wherefores as they went. However, the two Gentlemen Callers had assured them they’d get Lyonette home safely.
“How are you feeling? Good? Any side effects? You took out those two as fast as I’ve ever seen you.”
“Mirn, stop worrying. I am fine. In fact, I’m amazing!”
Onieva did a happy cartwheel and Mirn tried to smile.
“I just wonder when it will wear off. You’re taking a huge risk, you know.”
The Drake kept on cartwheeling with amazing grace, especially since she had to account for a moving tail, and then stopped. She turned.
“Mirn. Those Faerie Flowers are going to change everything. Once Saliss gets ahold of them…it could be everyone.”
“I know. I know, just don’t get ahead of yourself. Come on, if you have to celebrate and still be up…here.”
He stopped, and checked a note he carried. Carefully, Mirn walked over to a door set among countless other doors in a residential street, and knocked twice.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for a cow?”
Without a word, the door opened. Onieva mouthed silently.
“Why a cow?”
The Gnoll sitting inside the doorway grinned.
“It’s a good password, though, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s really not. Hello, Onieva and Mirn.”
The Sentry’s eyes widened.
“I’ve heard of you. The Mirn and Onieva?”
“Keep it secret. What the hell are you doing, talking before the door’s closed?”
Mirn scowled. Abashed, the Sentry closed the door, and locked it. Mirn checked the door, looked around the Turnscale bar, as they were known, and saw this one was big. Big, populated, and, to his eyes, established.
Some of the bars like the ones he had to run had a lifespan of days or months at most. They were literally abandoned buildings or rented. This one? It had custom sofas in circular patterns, a magical ‘curtain’ to separate one section, and areas for relaxation, consultation…Onieva blinked.
“Is that a smoking section?”
“Like it? I’m Esse. It’s got magical containment so you can have a puffer and not disturb everyone else.”
“Dead gods. I’ve got some. This place is…”
The Sentry smiled proudly as Mirn and Onieva looked around. The two chorused almost at the same time.
Esse looked puzzled. Mirn pointed at the door.
“This isn’t reinforced enough. You’ve got a decent lock, but I could blow this thing down with a single spell. Where’s your magical shielding?”
“This is too crowded.”
Onieva agreed with a frown. There had to be three hundred people in here at once! Which, of course, was a given due to Oteslia’s massive population—millions meant that any Turnscale population could easily fill a bar like this and every inch of it several times over. However, allowing so many was a risk.
“How are you going to evacuate them if it goes bad? What about a raid?”
Mirn glanced at the other Sentry. Esse blinked, then grinned.
“Oh, a raid? We haven’t had one of those—not a raid—for a decade! Trust me, we’ll hear it coming.”
“That’s what they all say, before everyone gets caught and exiled. And you’re using a week-old password with the cow thing.”
The Gnoll’s smile vanished as she realized this wasn’t a joke or light commentary, Mirn was serious. The [Protector] glared at Esse.
“Magical shielding? How long has this bar been open? You know you should rotate every two years at most. What about screening?”
“Listen, you just walked in here and you have a problem? Take it up with our Architects. I’m just the Sentry for this bar.”
“This bar? You have more?”
Onieva and Mirn chorused, outraged. Esse frowned at them, and glanced around for someone more senior.
“I don’t know what Pallass is like. I hear horror stories, but please, Architect, Sentry—relax. Oteslia’s more like the other cities.”
“Other cities…I’ve never seen this. Not in the other Walled Cities.”
Mirn shook his head. Onieva just frowned around. Then frowned deeper as someone knocked on the door. Reflexively, she and Mirn backed away as Esse casually adjusted the spyhole. He should have motioned them back; there should be a checkpoint area to shield the interior from view and buy a second, or at least a spell trap waiting to hit anyone coming through.
What was wrong with them?
The two settled down at an actual bar with a variety of drinks and food. Rude opening aside, they were still Mirn and Onieva, and some recognized them once they introduced themselves.
“It’s not Esse’s fault. Let me get you to an Architect. Oteslia’s not as hostile as many places.”
“How is that possible? Even if it’s the First Gardener, the entire city?”
“They just don’t enforce it. Thank the [Druids].”
Mirn frowned, until he realized the Drake explaining things was being literal.
“Thank the [Druids]. I think they tend to lean on our side. None of them ever come in here, but between you and me…if they were searching for us, they’d probably find us. No one can hide anything underground with them around.”
Mirn shuddered at the very idea. Onieva just frowned. Mirn turned to her.
“You haven’t seen this before?”
“I didn’t go here before, not often. I just met with Architects. If I did go out, it was just anywhere I felt like.”
The [Protector] grimaced. Onieva was a rare case in that when she went out, there was almost no way to trace her back to Saliss. In a sense, she was freer than anyone here…so long as she was Onieva.
“Anyways, I’m just glad no one got hurt and this potion is working so well. No side effects?”
Onieva yawned, smiling.
“None. Tell Saliss it’s the best thing ever and to make more.”
“I will. Say, is this place in need of funding? We can provide a few services. Mostly protective, but financials…and alchemical.”
One of the Drakes leaned forwards, interested.
“We’re set for the first two, but what do you mean, ‘alchemical’?”
The two were explaining what they could add for anyone in need, when Onieva’s head turned. She kept a claw on her cup, but frowned.
“That piece of Ancestor crap.”
Mirn froze. He kept smiling, but didn’t turn his head.
“You know that thing about saying shit and having it proven, Mirn? There’s a tail.”
The others gathered around Onieva turned pale. The Drake woman leaned back casually, and her head turned. Mirn didn’t look around.
“Who? And how sure are you?”
Onieva’s mouth moved.
“…Could be a coincidence. But it’s one hell of a one if so. Eyes at eight o’clock. Lone, fur.”
Mirn waited a beat as Onieva pretended to flirt with the Drake on her left, then he turned to go get a drink. On the way to the bar, he glanced at the bartender.
“Sober up. You’re drunk.”
The Drake nearly dropped the mug she was passing to Mirn. She glanced under the counter.
“Wait on it.”
Mirn turned and finally spotted who Onieva had picked up. He walked back.
“Did someone follow you? Is it Pallass?”
One of the others squeaked. Mirn and Onieva exchanged a glance.
“Doubt it. But we were just in their company. It could be they’re fine.”
“Maybe it is! Don’t scare us!”
Onieva shook her head. She stared, turning in her seat on the pretext of waving at Esse. Of course, the figure pretended to be in his cups, but it was definitely Raef. The Gnoll, one of Cire’s friends. Onieva’s eyes narrowed.
“…Something’s off about him. Mirn, do you see it?”
“Nothing I’ve got is alarming me besides the face. Onieva, what is it?”
The [Alchemist]’s eyes stared across the room at Raef for a long moment. Her tail began to thrash, slowly, as she turned back to Mirn. She gave him a needle-toothed smile and murmured.
“…That’s an illusion.”
Of course, Rafaema knew this existed. Not all of Manus’ High Command even admitted this place existed. Discussing it with her? Not a chance.
Yet she had, like Cire, had many instructors over the years. Some had taken risks. Some had, because they were them, told her, shown her things she never forgot.
Lead us. But what did that mean? It was a question Rafaema always asked.
“How will I lead my people?”
How could she reconcile this to…she sat in a Turnscale bar, having used the password she’d collected to get in. It was a relief it worked, but she’d shadowed Onieva and Mirn here.
Shadowed, in a way only she could. They might have noticed a tail, someone who had to follow them on foot. They had no scent Rafaema could take up, even if she could smell like a Gnoll.
Nor could someone hanging high, just below the cloud layer expect to see them.
Unless they were Rafaema.
This was certainly more of a lively place than the ones in Manus, the few she’d been to. But then, Manus knew almost everything. It had informants among all groups, and if it didn’t crack down often, it was because it was concerned with greater matters.
“Hello there, are you new or waiting for someone?”
They were too friendly here. Raef smiled at a Gnoll who’d come over.
“I’m just uh, looking around. I’ve been to places like this before. I’m just…I’m trying to understand?”
“Of course. Listen, if you want to talk to anyone, my name is…”
That was a good excuse to keep mostly unobserved. Rafaema glanced at Onieva and Mirn. She knew she might be spotted, but if she was, she’d explain she was one of them and find out more.
It certainly went to telling her why they were so good at fighting. So, Saliss of Lights’ cousin was one of them? That was important intelligence. Did they know something about Lyonette? Could she prevail on being a Turnscale to get their aid?
She was so busy trying to work this out she didn’t notice the population of the bar decreasing for the first few minutes. Then she noticed people heading out.
“Looks like a big party’s going on! Anyone with us?”
An excited Drake ran over, shouting the reason why they were all leaving. Rafaema’s eyebrows rose. This was casual. She wavered, but Onieva and Mirn were staying put. Even so, she had to probably introduce herself or…
She was headed for the bar when it struck her that too many people were leaving, all at once. Quickly, not like people making up their minds. But Onieva sat, with her curious coloration.
Her curious mismatched eyes. How she’d made Rafaema start, when she first saw them. Cire too, but she wasn’t…one of them. They’d be able to tell. But if she knew Lyonette—was it connected?
Rafaema approached the bar, but the [Bartender] had hurried into the back. She glanced around, and her heartbeat picked up. From three hundred people, the room was emptying fast. And she wasn’t stupid. But then Mirn glanced over.
“Hey there. You’re one of us, aren’t you? Cire’s friend?”
Raef hesitated as he put a tankard on the bar. He adjusted his belt.
“That’s right. I’m new to Oteslia.”
“You don’t say? So are we. Always good to meet someone like us. You know the rules, I hope?”
“Of course. Not a word to anyone. I don’t tell lies.”
They probably had truth stones. Rafaema calmly took a chair two seats over. Oh, dead gods. Had she gotten herself into…?
“I’m telling the truth.”
“I know that, dear. Mirn. Sentry. You know Onieva?”
Someone waved. The female Drake who was so casual, leaning with both arms back on the bar’s counter.
“Hello! Raef, right?”
“A secret’s a secret. Everyone has to keep them. I know you’re new, a citizen, not anyone else, so it’s fine, you knowing and nothing else. It’s a Sentry’s job to sort out protection and whatnot. Especially if someone does come after us.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone. It’s just chance, us meeting like this. Sorry if I’m…”
Rafaema looked around and her throat went dry. Esse, the Sentry, was calmly locking the door. As one did, when not letting anyone in. But…they were the last person in the bar besides them. Evacuated, in less than ten minutes.
Shoddy. You should all be out the door in less than one minute. A wakeup call.
“We believe you, Raef. Onieva, don’t scare him. It’s just…there are rules. Call it paranoia, but anyone who seems odd who isn’t known? Concerning.”
Mirn winked. Raef swallowed. Sword on hip. Activate teleport scroll or alarm and Makhir can be here like lightning. But he and Ferris don’t know I’m here. I gave them the slip!
“What have I done besides show up?”
“Nothing. That’s fair. Like I said, we have to be paranoid. So we’re not accusing you of anything. If you belong, you belong. But the ring needs to come off.”
Rafaema jerked. How did they…? No one should be able to tell. No one except—
Onieva’s eyes glittered as she glanced at Rafaema. The Lightning Dragon looked down at her ring. Had she adjusted it and made it more noticeable? Fool. Fool—
The air began to ionize in her lungs. She spoke, calmly as she could, in a whisper. They didn’t know her.
“I’m sorry, but I really won’t tell anyone.”
“I’m sure. But you cannot walk in here in disguise.”
“…Isn’t that the point?”
Mirn blinked. Then he threw back his head and laughed. He swung himself out of the bar and Rafaema twisted, hand on her sword hilt. But the Drake looked at Onieva and shrugged.
“He’s got us there. Onieva, maybe we’re being too overprotective?”
“Psht. Maybe we are, but that’s our job, Mirn.”
Onieva swept her neck spines back. Mirn hesitated.
“…Let me talk to the bartender. One sec. Onieva, come with me. Raef? One minute, I promise.”
He headed towards the back door. Onieva followed. Rafaema hesitated.
I’m in a trap. I have to go, now. She stood up, wavered, as she heard the back door shut. Not that way. So she strode over to the front door. She didn’t have the key, but she could unlock it from the front! She fumbled with the locks, listening for anyone coming through.
They’re the most dangerous if they think I’m after them. I just have to risk it. I—
They were her people too, weren’t they? But they didn’t know her. She didn’t want to have to kill them, or call down Manus and Oteslia’s wrath on them. Rafaema was still a Dragon. Like Cire, but with training. If she had to—
She tore the door open, teleport scroll in her claw, wings opening wide to shoot into the sky, at a speed that would take even them by surprise. She would have leapt forwards, but for the fact the door was blocked.
“Hi there. My name’s Onieva.”
A Drake with pink and cobalt scales smiled at her. Her mismatched eyes gleamed under moonlight. And the glowing bottle she held.
Rafaema recoiled with a cry of surprise. Her sword rang as she dropped the scroll, but Onieva just waited for the Drake’s impulsive lunge. Then she slammed the door in Rafaema’s face.
The Dragon collided with the door in a whumph as it slammed shut. She caught herself, whirling—were they going to attack? Wh—
Then she saw the bottle, stuck to the door with a bit of something tacky. The glowing bottle that had been in Onieva’s claws. Rafaem—
The door wasn’t up to Mirn’s quality, but it still reflected the burst of force without more than a quiet burp. Onieva threw the door open, and strode in.
Mirn’s club was in her claws. He had a backup, and could have helped, but she was the highest-levelled person here.
The ‘Gnoll’ was lying on the ground, his shape flickering slightly from the impact that had sent him hurling across the room. Onieva charged as ‘Raef’ tried to get up.
He was tough. Mirn watched from the back door, ready to move in to help. Esse was watching for an incoming raid, but if there was one, they didn’t see it. Tough, fast, and strong. Whomever this stranger was—a female Drake?—she was also very good with her sword. Someone had trained her well.
Mirn watched as Onieva began to kick the stuffing out of her opponent. Oh, but it was ugly.
The first thing the Oldblood Drake tried to do was breathe something. She opened her mouth, roaring, swinging her sword, and aimed at Onieva. In response, the [Alchemist] threw a small vial into Raef’s mouth and a smoke bomb blew out of every orifice. Raef was blinded, and whatever she was trying to spit was gone completely.
She still swung madly, and quickly too. Was that [Enhanced Agility] or [Greater Agility]? What level was she? Onieva circled around the smoking figure and lashed out. A nasty blow that rewarded her with a cry. She circled as the figure spun.
[Enhanced Toughness] too. Mirn couldn’t imagine Onieva taking it easy. Not in a fight. Not here. Nor did she. She calmly walked around the slashing Raef, took her legs out, and backed away as the figure thrashed. Raef was almost back on her feet when the Sticky Web jar exploded all over her. Then Onieva picked up a chair and began bashing her on the ground with it.
In another time, Saliss could have ended the fight in seconds with a spray of acid or another potion. But Onieva had to improvise. Which meant she ‘only’ had some low-grade potions anyone could afford, or you could attribute to her being a relative of Saliss in the worst case.
She ‘only’ had that. Chaldion’s heir.
Rafaema should have stopped moving, because the sturdy chair had already broken from the impacts. Onieva glanced at the handles as it broke off, and backed up. The female Drake tore out of the sticky webs, roaring, spitting electricity.
“Ancestors. What is she? A mini-[Juggernaut]? Some kind of [Indomitable]? [Berserker]?”
Mirn muttered. Onieva backed up as the sword hunted for her again. A lunge—Mirn would have been sweating if he was tangling with whoever this was.
Onieva? She dropped Raef as the sword missed her. Did not dodge away, but dodged into her, took her down, pinned her, and began to choke her.
Mirn had experienced that move first-hand. Short of a Skill, a [Warrior] had no way to free themselves and it had to be terrifying. The Drake couldn’t breathe electricity, only thrash, and Onieva had the perfect posture to lock her joints down with minimal effort.
…Even so. She was having trouble. Raef was so strong even Onieva was being thrown, using all of her weight and force to keep a stranglehold over the throat. Who was this? But the movements were slowing down. No matter what you were, you needed to breathe.
A minute. Then two minutes.
The furious Drake was still fighting. Her illusion spell was almost completely off. Mirn was checking her face, frowning. He blinked as Esse grabbed his arm.
“I see it. Shit. Onieva! On—”
She was going to die. To a single Drake! Here! Rafaema couldn’t breathe. Two minutes had passed, but she couldn’t breathe and the other Drake was on top of her.
She’d tried to cast magic, but Onieva had just avoided the spell, then webbed her claw down. The Lighting Dragon felt something rising inside of her. Not here! Not this way! Not—
The arm released from her throat. She gasped, and lay there. She began to rise, but someone was still on her in a joint-lock. Two voices were speaking.
“Leave her. A Wall Lady disappears, and there will be hell to pay.”
“Mirn. She’s seen us.”
“Well, if she reveals anything, Esse, you, and I are compromised. That’s a given. This place has to be abandoned anyways. She knows what will happen. But Onieva, I am telling you, as Sentry. Leave. Her.”
“I’m an Architect, Mirn. You don’t give me orders about threats.”
“I give it to you about citizens and people I protect. [Protector]. Leave her.”
Dead silence. Then Onieva suddenly began to laugh.
“Really? Fine. We know who she is. Alright…”
Then they picked her up. When Rafaema came too, she was lying on the street, in an alleyway two streets over from the repopulating bar. Only when she got back to her place, where Hunt Commander Makhir and Ferris arrived after searching all night and stopped, ready to berate her, did Rafaema realize the final insult.
Someone had written ‘idiot’ across her face in ink.
Onieva relaxed, in the awe of the others who’d seen her. She was the best of them. Mirn could not imagine anyone who could beat her.
“Want to speculate what that was?”
Esse had left them be with food and drinks. And, Mirn suspected, gratitude for not killing Rafaema.
It could still go bad, and the two Pallass-residents were ready for all of it. Sometimes, though…well. Everything was a risk.
“Nah. I’m tired. I think…no? It’s not wearing off. Mirn…it’s not wearing off and it’s been hours. It’s as good as the other version! Better!”
Onieva pinched herself, and was delighted. Amid it all, danger, annoying kids, and the rest, her delight remained and Mirn was happy for her.
“That’s wonderful. What do you think Saliss will do? Can he share it around? Maybe we can provide it for the others, if only my bar. What do you think?”
Onieva’s lips moved. She frowned.
“…That would be wonderful. We still have to figure out side effects, but we’ll have to see what Saliss thinks when he’s up.”
Mirn was nodding, tired, but elated, when something stopped him. He looked over at Onieva.
“…Or you could tell me now. Unless you’re not thinking about it.”
The Drake snorted.
“Why? I can’t read minds. Ask Saliss.”
Slowly, Mirn sat up at the bar. There was a difference between being playful, or being…Onieva…and ignorance. And this was different from how she’d ever talked.
“Right, Onieva. But I am saying that you would know what Saliss is thinking.”
The [Protector] felt his stomach knot. Onieva looked at him. She lost her smile; she was not a fool, after all.
“Mirn? Something wrong?”
“Do you…not remember? What’s your class, Onieva?”
“[Alchemist], of course. And don’t ask me my level. Some things are secret, even to you.”
“Just like Saliss?”
“We are cousins. But he’s the Named Adventurer. I’ve never wanted to…Mirn? What’s wrong?”
The [Protector] sat there. Wondering if he should tell her. Wondering what he should say. Would Saliss…?
“What’s the catch?”
He understood it, now.
Lyonette had a hangover the day after the outing. She discovered how much it hurt for nearly an hour of lying in bed.
When she finally arose, Saliss was lounging in the dining room, heckling Xif.
Xif had his head in his paws, but he looked more rested than Saliss or Lyonette. Onieva was nowhere to be seen, but Mirn was with them. Lyonette paused.
Her voice caused her so much pain that she stopped. Saliss glanced up, and tossed something at her. It bounced off Lyonette’s head and she glared at him.
“That’s a vial, dummy. You catch them and drink them or it looks as stupid as…that.”
“What is it?”
Lyonette whispered. Her throat was sore, she felt exhausted and grumpy, and the naked Drake was not who she wanted to see right now. Saliss raised his brows.
“A Hangover Potion. But if you don’t want it…”
The [Princess] scrambled so fast to down the orange-flavored vial of actually tasty liquid for once that Mirn snorted. He nodded at her as she came downstairs, headache and fog already clearing.
“Where’s Onieva? I have to thank her, and you, Mirn, for last night. And the Gentlemen Callers…?”
“Gone. They’re looking into the people who tried to kill you. They said they finally have a lead since some were actually taken alive. Onieva’s resting.”
Saliss replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Is she here?”
“Nope. She’s private and she partied harder than you. You’ll see her around.”
Lyonette could believe Onieva needed a rest, hangover cure or not. She’d seen how much the Drake drank. Cire, Onieva—they were excellent customers, in a sense, for The Wandering Inn.
“Well, thank you, Mirn.”
“No problem. Saliss and I can keep you company without them.”
“Really? You’re not busy, Saliss? I thought you were working on the potion with the flowers all night.”
“Nope. I took a break too.”
“I trust it was somewhat fun? I had…a somewhat enjoyable experience.”
The Named Adventurer paused for an infinitesimal moment Lyonette missed as she stared at a bought breakfast; no one cooked here, not Mirn or the two [Alchemists].
“I’m told other people had a fun night. Onieva can have all the fun she wants. Saliss gets the jobs. Saliss is the responsible one, and can you believe that?”
“It boggles the mind.”
Mirn whispered. Saliss shrugged.
“Everyone needs Saliss. My cousin’s even more worthless than I am, if you can believe that.”
“No. She’s not.”
Lyonette glanced up from a sandwich as the two Drakes locked gazes. Saliss obviously didn’t like Mirn; maybe it was a history? She knew that.
“I can’t believe you figured it out. We’ve…have we wasted the potential of the flowers?”
Xif’s first remark made Lyonette sit up. Saliss turned back to Xif, and a huge, happy smile crossed his features.
“Xif, my friend…absolutely, yes. I figured it out and you didn’t. And all your hard work has, in fact, been negative work. I figured it out and you—”
He got up and began to dance, chortling at the Gnoll [Alchemist]. Lyonette stared at them blankly.
They caught her up on the unique properties of the Faerie Flowers later. Lyonette shook her head.
“You mean, by trying to find out their properties…”
“We have now created nearly a thousand bad combinations with them. Which means anything based off of those formulas is probably gone too. As it stands, we have a flower that’s a powerful fertilizer, sleeping agent, painkiller, drink additive…now we have to figure out what can be made that’s not ruined by Xif’s hard work.”
For all that, Saliss didn’t appear as annoyed as Lyonette expected him to be. If anything, he was more focused and less annoying than usual. He turned to Lyonette.
“What’s the first thing to do? I promised Wilovan and Ratici I’d stay with you.”
“Well, looking into the killers after me would be my first step—”
“—And they’re doing it. I’d advise you not to get in their way.”
Lyonette bit her lip, but she accepted that with a curt nod.
“Then, Mrsha. I have a number of people to petition.”
That was how Lyonette found herself sitting and sipping tea with Magnolia Reinhart.
Why she paid a visit to Wall Lord Ilvriss, who had also requested to meet Saliss of Lights on behalf of the sickly, shivering, shaking Shriekblade.
And the reason why the [Druids] of Oteslia heard her, in their Circle. From Nalthaliarstrelous to Shassa, because she knew Mrsha, and Drakes and Gnolls she had never met. Even a Beastkin.
All to answer the one question that mattered. Not who was after her, not even, at this moment, how to cure Erin Solstice. Her only question:
“How can I save my daughter?”
There was so much power here, represented in individual people and groups. The only problem was that Oteslia was under siege.
And that Lyonette had nothing to offer them. Oh, she had many things, but very little herself. Very little tangibly.
They knew it, too. They knew her. That was what shocked Lyonette.
“A [Princess] of Calanfer begs our help for one of our kin.”
The first [Druid] spoke from where he sat, a single eye fixing on her, his large eyes gleaming behind brown, leathery skin. Lyonette had expected grey, if at all. She did not know the [Druids]’ number included those from Baleros, the rare Beastkin tribes.
Nor had she ever met one of them like this. Hawk was ordinary, a Rabbit Beastkin compared to…
At first she had thought he was almost like stone, so unmoving and still. Yet stone did not have horns; a pair, one larger, one smaller. What was so strange was that despite being Beastkin, adopting more humanoid characteristics, he could walk on all fours or upright.
Rhinoceros Beastkin. The others sat in silence, letting each speak. One sat in the midst of an actual stream of water, a waterfall in miniature, which somehow gave Lyonette the impression the Drowned Man was not being struck by the water, but enveloped in it.
Nalthaliarstrelous himself sat with Shassa, the [Spiderweb Druid], far enough away that the nest in her staff didn’t bother him. He was rubbing at the head of a creature, trimming very gently the horns of a Corusdeer, young, not yet adult, who had an overgrowth of the horn.
“A child. She has the class, but children have many classes.”
“Do you discount her as one of us for age?”
That came from a Gnoll making a cairn of stones. In their inner sanctum in Oteslia, Lyonette had been surprised to see hundreds of [Druids], some on patrol for cruelty. Others growing food or plants. Some tending to animals.
They were not all alike. If Nalthaliarstrelous represented their most warlike aspect, some of these [Druids] were clearly peaceful, like Shassa had been. Others walked hand-in-hand with the politics of Oteslia.
They knew who she was. She gulped.
“My…identity is known to you, [Druids] of Oteslia?”
There was no point in denying the truth. Nor would it have been wise. Nalthaliarstrelous snorted.
“Even if you dyed your hair, Lionette Solstice, it would have been obvious. You hide your class, and name, but not nature. Your aura reeks of Terandria.”
The [Princess] colored; she had considered it was difficult to conceal her identity, but it was another thing to be so casually revealed. The leader of the [Druids] was not the Rhino Beastkin, but a Drake, fairly fittingly.
She sat on a hovering basket of soil in the air, a levitating plant growing up there, roots reaching down to basins of water placed to feed them. A naturally levitating plant? She pruned it carefully, flicking bugs down for a giant mouse-thing to eat. It reminded Lyonette of Apista, because the rodent—fully six times larger than your standard rat—was too intelligent. It was in the eyes.
“Your identity is known to us, Lyonette du Marquin. Rest assured, we will not reveal it. We are not part of Oteslia’s plans. However, the concerns of [Druids] still exist. You would have us do what?”
“Send [Druids]. Or just one to find my daughter. Bring her here. I know it is in your power.”
Lyonette looked directly at Nalthaliarstrelous when she said that. The [Druid] snorted.
“And kill those who pursue her.”
“She is a child.”
“Yes. And we are no enemies of the Tribes.”
“Then you’d let her die? She’s done nothing wrong!”
Lyonette saw Nalthal’s eyes flash, and movement flickered around the Circle. It was the Drowned Man under the waterfall who spoke, his voice like Seborn’s.
“We make no war on Roshal. Injustice exists and we choose our battles. If you asked us ten thousand years ago, when there were many times our number, you would have a different answer, Princess Marquin. From other circles, different as well.”
“This one asks for what gain do we move, when you might well find your aid in similar allies.”
Shassa spoke nervously, glancing at Nalthal. Lyonette looked at him too, and thought of her second meeting of that day, with Magnolia Reinhart. The Human [Druid] scowled at Shassa. He must have told them a lot. But he was clearly not happy with the decision. Proof positive: him kicking Shassa in the stomach.
However, the Circle was a vote, or so it seemed. Lyonette tried again.
“If you would intercede, just to help her…?”
“Miss Marquin. What could you offer us? Everything is a trade, and we do not forswear our pacts. Let us say we gave you our aid. Perhaps you resolve everything peacefully, in safety. In the worst case? We defend our sister, child or not. We might die like mayflies, but we will honor our words. For what would we weigh the lives of many [Druids] and our kin here with a single one of us?”
Another nod, from a Gnoll.
“If it seems callous, simply count how many lives are weighed on either choice, Lyonette of Calanfer. Betimes that is simply what we must do. Or did you not see the grim necessity wrought at Liscor by Druid Nathale…Nathelire…Druid Nalthal?”
She had come to a too-practical group. Lyonette bit her lip.
“If you know I am a [Princess] of Calanfer—then would you accept a promise on behalf of the kingdom?”
She was willing to sign a lot she had no right to. But the [Druids] just snorted.
“Were you [Queen], we would consider it. Yet Calanfer lost its forests and sanctuaries. Lost it and clung to their Eternal Throne. Calanfer has little good will with us, Lyonette du Marquin. The actions of your predecessors have done much to harm us.”
The [Princess] defended herself. To that, Nalthal laughed nastily. He flicked a shaving of Corusdeer antler at her.
“Of course not. But we remember. That is how it works. No aid will come from us. Begone and waste neither’s time.”
His eyes lingered on her.
“Go. Sometimes you must do what is necessary yourself. Seize it, [Princess] of Calanfer. You cannot ask others to fight your wars forever.”
Of course, he was right. Lyonette laid out her second case to Magnolia Reinhart after they finally got to the heart of the discussion. She had no idea why Magnolia had segued into Grand Magus Eldavin.
She was sweating as she tried to sip from her tea. The first part of their conversation had gone well, but Lyonette was keenly aware she was outmatched, if Magnolia Reinhart’s aura didn’t prove that itself.
In Skill, experience, aura…Magnolia Reinhart was renowned as the bloodless warlady of the north. The Deadly Flower. Well, she was bloody enough in the past, but her ability to make deals was the stuff they told stories about.
Curiously, she had not swept Oteslia with backdeals, threats, or grand, covetous deals as of yet. If anything, Lyonette had considered her presence in Oteslia as inoffensive as possible, especially at the ball she’d attended.
“I would only need a small favor, Lady Reinhart. I would, of course, repay it many times over.”
“Indeed, Miss Lyonette? Or is it Lionette? Do forgive me, I forgot to clarify which it was. We must keep up appearances. Although…I would have personally changed more than a single letter on my passport.”
“…Lyonette will do, Lady Reinhart.”
The [Lady] smiled as Lyonette flushed. The [Princess] resolved not to let it shake her. She met Magnolia’s gaze.
“You know my daughter is in grave danger. From the Plain’s Eye tribe and others. I do not think you are heartless, Lady Reinhart. The [Druids] are—out of necessity, they claim. But you could give me a small escort. A few favors. All I would need is…”
She hesitated. Lady Reinhart helpfully filled the gap.
“My carriage. Which I presume you would ride out of Oteslia, with, perhaps, Reynold driving it? Two [Maids]? I can well imagine it might break Zeres’ cordon. You do know Liscor’s army has joined them? Well, even combined, if Reynold got up to speed, they could not catch him.”
Lyonette nodded slowly.
“…And once I had my daughter, I could bring her to safety.”
“Indeed. Along the way, would you, by any chance, out of, oh, necessity, be forced to run over any Gnolls of the largest tribe in the world with my rather famous and noticeable coach? Or kill Drakes if any got in your way?”
The [Princess] did not respond. Magnolia Reinhart pretended to pluck lint off her dress. Ressa produced a duster and flicked it over her arm. The [Lady] gave her [Maid] a long look. Ressa smiled politely.
“…In my hour of delicate negotiations, Miss Lyonette, bloodshed is not desirable.”
Magnolia lifted a finger.
“I told you, Miss Mrsha departed the city she was last in, in the company of Sellme, if what the Gnolls hunting her are shouting can be believed. I am not sure this is for the best, although it makes tracking her harder than this other white Gnoll. He moved objectionably fast.”
Lyonette sat up. Magnolia went on, scowling.
“If that child is as bright as I am led to believe, she will slip away if her captors are that. If not? If the chance arises in any city they are in, my people will try to escort her to safety. But they do not know where she is. We believe she is in a number of cities near the one she fled from, but the hunters are searching every person on the road.”
“Then you do have people looking for her.”
Lyonette whispered. Magnolia Reinhart glanced up.
“My dear. If this was the north, they would have already delivered her to you and I would be claiming my ransom in…what would I ask for, Ressa?”
“Probably cake and ice cream.”
“Ah, that would be like me. But I do not have as…many…agents in the south. I am not inclined to lend you my carriage unless the need arises.”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
Lyonette whispered. The lack of resistance was like a balm on a burn. But Magnolia Reinhart waved it away.
“Miss Marquin, it is I who must thank you for being rather charming. At the ball, you know? Being a gracious visitor with a number of Drakes who have every reason to dislike you is rather difficult and I am not exerting my, ah, more pressing charms. Shall we talk about what you might do for me, in the interim you are here, under this lovely siege? Very refreshing. No boulders crashing down around us, no arrows, no rationing as of yet…I quite think we should copy it in the north.”
The young woman hesitated.
“Naturally, Lady Reinhart. But if Mrsha is found…”
“I assure you, Miss Marquin. If you have the opportunity, rush—with considerable decorum, foresight, and caution—to her. However, I have a little soiree planned for tomorrow. Soirée. Dreadful word. I’d rather it was a dish. Raspberry or something. That’s what it sounds like.”
“Are you hungry, milady?”
Ressa bent down. Magnolia paused.
“…I do believe I am, Ressa.”
“Ah, then I shall fetch a delicious sampler of sweets fit for a pig.”
“Thank you, Ressa. Are you hinting at anything?”
“Not at all. Your Highness, will you take anything?”
“Er…perhaps something savory?”
“Very good, your Highness.”
The two watched Ressa go. Magnolia murmured to Lyonette.
“You know, she only tends to act like this to prove a point, when she thinks I will be embarrassed. I would prefer it if you would be your charming self tomorrow. I plan to finally make a concerted appeal to the gathered individuals here. Some cannot arrive due to this dratted siege…well. It is time.”
Lyonette’s ears perked up. Time for what? She sipped at her tea cautiously as she was served a kind of delicate brie, crackers, fruits, and Magnolia stared down at an entire cake. Lyonette was impressed. It would have gone for several gold in The Wandering Inn, even without her markup. There was so much frosting as Ressa cut a slice that she wondered if there was more actual cake or frosting in it.
“Ressa. You offend me.”
“I am so sorry, Milady…”
Magnolia stopped Ressa as she went to take the rest of the cake away.
“You slice the entire cake if it’s meant to be eaten, Ressa. Lyonette, will you take a slice? No?”
She delicately put a fork into the first bite of pure frosting as Lyonette and Ressa exchanged a glance.
“…You were about to unveil your project, Lady Reinhart? Is that not…well, peace between Drakes and Humans?”
Lyonette prompted after a few seconds of horrified staring. The thing wasn’t that Magnolia ate like a pig. In fact, her manners were better than most. She sipped her tea, ate with a very small fork…it was just that she didn’t stop. Lyonette felt her teeth melting and heart beginning to stop just watching her and jerked her eyes away.
“Indeed. I have yet to offer the many exquisite gifts I so tempted the Drakes with. For that matter, we have yet to come to any accord on peace. I did ask them what they envisioned. The idea of mutual cooperation…rather like talking to a bunch of angry bricks in a wall. So it is my turn to make an offer, and I have one. It only remains to be seen whether they will listen at all. Hence, your involvement.”
Lyonette nodded. She had observed how much dislike Magnolia Reinhart generated by being…Magnolia Reinhart. Which was not surprising, given her family’s history.
“Of course I will attend, Lady Reinhart. However—with deepest apologies, I am sure you can accept some reservations? I would not want to be privy to anything untoward.”
Magnolia laughed drily.
“A Calanferian [Princess] to the core. You will not take it on trust?”
“I would prefer to know what you plan to offer Oteslia, or the Drakes at large, yes, Lady Reinhart.”
The woman pursed her lips, but to Lyonette’s deepest surprise, she nodded.
“Very well. Ressa, fetch some of the materials.”
“You’ll tell me?”
This was not Magnolia Reinhart’s modus operandi at all. Nor was it wise in any game to show anyone the cards you wanted to hold onto; knowledge was power, even if it was only time to prepare and think. Yet, Magnolia Reinhart met Lyonette’s gaze calmly.
“I cannot have secrets. Not for this. It must be a plan without frill or duplicity. Do you see why I struggle so, Lyonette? This is what I intend…”
She outlined her plan. Lyonette’s head shot up. She leaned forwards and said—
But of course, her daughter mattered more. Lyonette was already flustered when she went to meet with Wall Lord Ilvriss.
Who also knew who she was. At this point, the [Princess] felt like she should wear her tiara just to present herself properly.
“Miss Marquin. I apologize for the awkward situation. Alchemist Saliss. Greetings.”
It was actually one of the few times the two had met. Lyonette forgot they were not actual contemporaries, for all that Pallass had been open to Liscor for a while. Saliss walked butt-naked into Ilvriss’ temporary estates.
“Wall Lord. I hope you don’t mind, but I dressed up for the occasion. Is that Shriekblade lying in a pool of her vomit? Classic Tessa.”
Ilvriss had been prepared, but no one was prepared for Saliss. He actually did a double-take, snapped his gaze up from Saliss’ bare…bareness. Even Lyonette looked askance at the [Alchemist]. What did he…?
Both Human and Drake looked down and their eyes tracked a miniature version of a tuxedo or similar dress.
…Attached to Saliss’ tail. Ilvriss closed his eyes. Then he turned to Lyonette.
“This way, Lyonette. I presume we shouldn’t stand on formalities?”
She smiled at him, genuinely, for the first time that day.
“Of course not…Ilvriss. If that’s acceptable?”
“I would rather imagine that lies up to you, Lyonette. Thank you. I have to apologize again—one of my employees, the Named Adventurer Shriekblade, is ill, so this serves a dual purpose.”
Mannerisms. If Magnolia, even at her most open, was a kind of dignified, charming social dance, and the Druids a fairly blunt enclave, then Ilvriss was a different kind to both. He had that [Merchant]’s manner, almost. Businesslike, direct, but with a certain style of due dignity and ceremony. Lyonette had some familiarity with it, and sped up her own tempo to match his, like a good [Diplomat].
Speaking of which, Ilvriss introduced her in quick succession to Nerul, a charming, if somewhat portly Drake, Captain Shieldscale, a brusque [Soldier]’s [Captain], and Xesci, who seemed too charming to be a [Secretary], and the comatose Shriekblade.
“My personal aides this time. A rather…different group, but trustworthy.”
Lyonette frowned. She had little read on the [Captain] or Xesci, but Nerul made her hair want to stand up. As a [Princess] of the famous political kingdom, she had more respect and wariness for him than anyone else in the room except for Shriekblade.
She sat there, muttering to herself.
“She’s dead. I’m dead. She’s dead. I’m dead…”
Saliss had focused on her without even doing more than nodding at Nerul and giving Xesci a second look and frowning. He squatted down as Lyonette was caught up as to the reason Shriekblade was in this state. She bit her lip and Ilvriss glanced at her.
“A strange coincidence. Unfortunate given the timing. I need Shriekblade to be…herself. I had few recourses left; it was either a [Druid] or [Alchemist] Saliss.”
Of the two, Lyonette would have gone with a [Druid]. She fully expected Saliss to annoy the Drake with countless thin scars all over her body, but to her surprise, he didn’t. He squatted down and spoke, almost kindly to her.
“Hey Shrieky. It’s me. Saliss. Remember me?”
She didn’t say anything. Saliss turned.
“Look. I dressed up my tail. You’re not doing well, are you? Tessa? Shriekblade?”
“She’s dead, Saliss. She’s dead. I’m not going to be well again.”
The Drake muttered. Saliss shook his head.
“You don’t need the Healer, Tessa. Hm. You’re sick. Are you eating? Mirn would throw a fit. Let’s see. Are you…?”
He went to feel at her forehead and Shiekblade moved. She drew two daggers and slashed at his claw so fast Lyonette didn’t see her move. Only that Saliss was two steps back, on his feet.
“Yep. She’s dangerous. I’m surprised no one’s dead.”
Ilvriss rubbed at his cheek, and Lyonette saw tell-tale signs of a healing potion; fresh scales.
“It has been troubling, to say the least. She refuses to take anything. We did administer a calming spray…”
The [Alchemist] shrugged.
“Tessa’s got more of a tolerance to that kind of thing than a [Veteran Warrior] does to healing potions. You might as well spit onto a warm towel and toss it on her. It would do about as much good. She’s really down; I don’t think you’d be able to take her out of it, just blank her for a while. And that won’t help.”
Ilvriss hissed through his teeth.
“I feared that was the case. Saliss of Lights. Could you prescribe and create something to help Miss Tessa? A calming draught? Something to at least keep her from violence? Restore her senses?”
Saliss tilted his head, regarding Ilvriss.
“Do you mean make her work?”
There was no change to his tone, but Lyonette’s honed abilities made her glance up. So did Nerul. But Ilvriss glanced at neither his uncle trying to signal him, nor Lyonette. He met Saliss’ gaze calmly.
“I mean, help Adventurer Tessa. Not Shriekblade.”
“Good answer. And the answer is…no. I can give her any number of mind-altering tonics, but I won’t. I don’t prescribe potions for this. That’s sort of how we got here.”
He gestured at Tessa. Ilvriss, a bit taken aback, looked at her.
“But how can she…?”
“[Healer]. [Thought Healers] if you have any. Get a [Druid]. But she’s out for at least a week. If the Healer comes back, so does she, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
Saliss eyed Ilvriss. The Wall Lord paced around a bit.
“Adventurer Tessa’s aid is necessary, Saliss. We need her now.”
“Well, I can’t do it aside from turning her into a Golem. Sorry.”
Saliss gave Ilvriss an almost apologetic look. Almost. Lyonette, wavering, looked between him and Ilvriss. He had to have thought of it. Why wasn’t he saying…?
“Saliss. Do you think a Faerie Flower might help her?”
The Named Adventurer turned his head slowly to Lyonette, and his flat, blank look told her that he was not happy. Ilvriss glanced over.
“Faerie Flowers. Yes. It did cross my mind. Do you have a supply in Oteslia, Miss Marquin? I heard…something about it?”
The fact that he hadn’t heard all about her monopoly surprised Lyonette, until she remembered he was a [Wall Lord] who specialized in gems and not a [Merchant], [Herbalist], [Gardener], [Alchemist], or so on. She nodded.
“I have some in the city. Saliss, could we give um, Shriekblade, a Faerie Flower drink? A Minotaur’s Punch? It’s helped people like Halrac and—”
The Drake folded his orange-scaled arms. Ilvriss and Lyonette turned to him.
“Why not? It helped me considerably, Adventurer Saliss. Have you tried the drink?”
“Have I tried…? Who do you think I am? Of course I’ve tried it. And I’m telling you, I won’t give it to Tessa. Nor am I going to whip up some kind of magical cure based on it.”
“Because it might work. And that would be terrible!”
The Drake snapped. He looked at both blank faces and threw up his claws.
“Tessa doesn’t need another potion! I don’t think there’s a single potion in the world that could fix her, unless it’s one that just clears out everything she’s drunk for the last twenty years! Yes, you might make a miracle-drink. But it’s a bad idea.”
The [Alchemist] looked from face to face and realized…they had no idea what he meant. Not even Nerul—maybe the odd Drake, Xesci.
“But if it helps, Saliss…”
They didn’t understand and Saliss didn’t know how to fully explain. He raked a claw through his neck spines. How to explain that the worst thing would be if it did help, because that meant…?
He made one mistake. A huge one, but Saliss hadn’t thought Lyonette would spring the question on him. Because he’d forgotten that she was well-meaning, genuinely probably a good girl, especially for a [Princess]. But she just had no context for this. His mistake was saying all this, arguing with Lyonette and Ilvriss, in front of Shriekblade.
The Adventurer had her claws around his leg before he could move. Saliss whirled.
But she didn’t have her blades out. She stared up at him.
“You…there’s a new potion? What’s a Faerie Flower? I’ve heard of it. What does it do?”
Saliss cursed. Lyonette wavered.
“It’s—Wall Lord, maybe if we applied it to a Potion of Cleansing or something similar? Saliss, if you don’t want to make it, perhaps Xif could?”
“No. Tessa, you don’t need it. Get off—”
“I need it. Saliss, don’t stop me. I’ll kill you. Give it to me. Give it—who’s Xif? Xif of Pallass? He makes some of my potions. Where is…?”
The [Alchemist] was one of the fastest Drakes in the world. He was second-fastest in this room. He went for Tessa, this time in a complicated grab. She dove past him, and shot for the door.
He charged after her. Lyonette saw Captain Shieldscale go after both. Nerul cursed.
“Ilvriss! I’m going to stop them! Is she going to gut that poor…?”
He ran out the door. Xesci hesitated, but then followed on the general principle that everyone was running and she’d better get a head start. Ilvriss cursed, going for the door, but then stopped. He very much doubted that he could beat two Named Adventurers, even if they found a coach. The Wall Lord turned.
“I’ve bungled this situation nicely, Lyonette. It’s been—difficult.”
Lyonette hesitated, about to go after them, then strode over to the door and closed it. She was also aware of how fast the others moved. The [Princess] looked at Ilvriss. He was far more tired than she remembered. But some of the grief…it was not necessarily gone, but it had changed.
“Why are you here, Wall Lord Ilvriss?”
They had not been able to get into it at the ball. The Wall Lord smiled, bleakly.
“I am on an assignment. Self-imposed. I actually intended to meet with Magnolia Reinhart later today.”
“I just met with her. May I ask…what for?”
Wall Lord Ilvriss hesitated. He looked at the closed door. Then at Lyonette. It occurred to him, suddenly, that Saliss of Lights, who was connected to the Cyclops of Pallass, a dangerous Drake and a possible ally, but a…dangerous Drake…had just left. Leaving Lyonette alone and proving he was about as good as the Gentlemen Callers at bodyguarding.
To be fair, it was difficult, and combat experience did not equate to good preservation instincts for anyone but yourself. However, he had left Lyonette behind and Wilovan and Ratici were likewise missing. Ilvriss looked at Lyonette.
It was becoming a paranoia, as Nerul had pointed out, in how few people he did trust. Even now, he wrestled with the implications.
Yet. If there was one person in the world he would have taken the chance on, for better or worse, because of what he thought about her, because of what she could do—it would have been Erin Solstice.
Lyonette? Could he really imagine a Terandrian [Princess] had come all the way to Liscor as part of some Necromancer’s scheme?
…Absolutely, yes. In fact, it happening without some kind of guidance was even more suspicious still. Ilvriss realized his claw was on the doorknob.
“Important business, Miss Lyonette. Very confidential to Salazsar. However…I trust only a few people with the particulars. And this Oteslian business confounds it all. The Meeting of Tribes as well. Trust is a difficult quality these days.”
“I…I imagine so, Ilvriss.”
Lyonette glanced at the Drake. He took his claw off the handle. Then carefully produced a magical key and locked the door. Then he twisted a ring on his claw. She glanced around.
…Now that she thought of it, she had seen no servants in this mansion, as evidenced by some track marks, a general sign this was not a place you hosted people. She saw Wall Lord Ilvriss turn.
“It would be acceptable for me to inform you of the details. And now might be an opportune moment. May I trouble you, Miss Lyonette, for your time? I would only need about twenty minutes.”
“I…would like to make sure Alchemist Xif is well, Wall Lord.”
“Naturally. Perhaps after?”
He stood, quite polite, the same Drake she remembered with deep purple scales, a certain dignity like a [Lord] of Terandria to him.
Claw on his sword hilt. Of course, Lyonette had her own sword too, but she was well aware of the difference. She glanced at the shut, locked door. Empty mansion. No one to hear her…she took a few steps back.
“What…kind of questions?”
Thirty minutes later, Lyonette found Alchemist Xif with Wall Lord Ilvriss. Nerul glanced up, breathing hard, and eyed Ilvriss.
“You took your time.”
“We had to catch up. I answered a few questions. Is Xif alive?”
Lyonette snapped. She stalked past Nerul without a word. The [Diplomat]’s eyes narrowed at ‘questions’. He glanced at Ilvriss as Xesci and Osthia turned.
A fun fact. Because their biologies were rather similar to Humans, albeit with scales, lacking noses, and so forth, unlike Lizardfolk who were closer to actual lizard biology rather than mammalian, many things were the same.
However, unless you were a Drake—and even then—it was harder to tell someone was blushing. Or, alternatively, had been slapped. Blood below the scales was less visible, but swelling was still swelling.
Ilvriss rubbed at his cheek. He supposed he deserved that, when viewing it from her context. Yet he gave Nerul a significant look.
“I assume they were questions that had good answers, nephew?”
“The best, Uncle. The best.”
Nerul smiled and Osthia let out a huge sigh of relief. Ilvriss felt his own shoulders relax. They could talk more. For now—he pushed into the door as he heard a cry. Nerul’s head snapped up and they crowded through into the shared home.
Shriekblade had taken Xif hostage in the laboratory they’d set up, and Saliss had broken in, but been unable to enter without her making good on a threat to slit his throat. Mirn, who’d been napping, then nearly died to the whirlwind of blades, watched with a club in his claw, but Saliss had no weapons in his claws. He just looked ahead, bleakly, then walked away.
Lyonette du Marquin and Wall Lord Ilvriss heard sobbing. They entered the laboratory and saw Shriekblade. Still a mess, and this time compounded by tears, snot, practically lying on top of a terrified Gnoll.
Xif had an empty vial in one paw. He looked at Shriekblade, but she had dropped the daggers. She was sobbing, feeling at herself.
“It worked. It worked!”
The impromptu potion lay empty to the dregs in the bottle. Lyonette saw the Named Adventurer sobbing, and shaking, then laughing in relief. She was better. She broke into a relieved smile that she traded with Ilvriss.
Finally. Some good news. Ilvriss smiled all the way back to his mansion. Right up until Xesci whispered to him. She had noticed two people in the crowd around Lyonette’s home and they concerned her greatly.
“On the list is the First Gardener’s son, Cirediel, and a Wall Lady Rafaema. I…I can’t get anything from them. At all.”
Questions. While the others asked the important ones, it was the considered opinion of two fellows of singular talents that they could ask one, as it were.
Singular talents. A man had a number of gifts, some quite good ones, if he was lucky. However, expertise was hard to come by. Insofar as anyone could claim anything without being a braggart, they were fairly good at one thing, each.
The two were Wilovan and Ratici. They knew a lot of things.
They knew they were not good men.
They knew they had failed when they absolutely should not.
They knew they did not want to fail again.
They knew a girl was missing, a child, rather spirited, but entirely innocent, and that was a terrible thing. If they found out who was threatening to harm a hair on her head, all bets were off.
All hats were off. They had been on their best behavior, so far from their normal grounds. And see what happened? People kept taking advantage of their kindness.
It was enough. They had one question, and sometimes a fellow had to ask, no matter what the answer was. They had chosen to ask a question like that. The two walked through Oteslia, in their best suits.
Ratici still had a vest, but he had chosen a good, Wyvern-leather one. The kind a fellow brought out and kept well-secured. His pants were a bit different; a Noelictus-brand fiber, black as shadow. Not black as black could be, because that was altogether too dark and stood out at night. He had on his usual cap, but he’d even taken the time to buff his shoes, and fetch the good ones that didn’t just make no sound, but made anti-sound, sound which ate other sounds.
Wilovan had on a more formal attire. Erin had called it close to a suit from her world, but it was more open than that. And with deepest respect to her…she didn’t know clothing.
No constraining fabric when he turned, twisted, or lifted his arms. Nothing to catch onto either, mind you, and the outer layer wasn’t silk, or even fine cotton, but a stiffer composite from Ironrams. Mixed with cotton; you weren’t about to ask for a solid weave, my word, no. It gave him a grey look, as the cotton woven in was of roughly the same color.
With his top hat, he looked a bit too austere, so he’d chosen a patterned scarf, a token from an encounter no gentleman talks about, patterned green and braided with a soft cream color. Now there was a fine piece of clothing, fit for any man, rich or poor. Like Ratici, his shoes were buffed, personally, and his pants covered all fur.
They stood out. Neither Gnolls nor Drakes dressed exactly like they did. It was more of a northern look. But the two Gentlemen Callers were used to such looks. If anything, it was funny.
“Seems to me we stand out here as much as in the north. Two fellows, never quite right at home, Ratici.”
“That’s true, Wilovan. However, perhaps there’s some comfort in that.”
“…I fail to take your meaning, Ratici.”
The Drake [Gentleman Thief] shrugged.
“It’s one of those things where a fellow never has to think ‘well, the grass is greener over there’. He’s always a bit out of place wherever he goes.”
Wilovan turned to his friend and companion of long years.
“Why, Ratici. If you don’t mind me saying, that’s as philosophically fine as I’ve ever heard you vouch.”
“I suppose it’s your comments rubbing off, Wilovan.”
The Gnoll smiled. They walked on, in that unhurried, self-assured stroll. They did not stride quickly, nor meander. It was slow, purposeful. Deliberate.
Style. Of course, they both knew where they were going. Wilovan even had a rounded walking cane, and Ratici had a little map of Oteslia, so they wouldn’t get lost. Not that they had an appointment, but both were sure they were expected.
Here were the facts: five fellows had conducted themselves rather unpleasantly yesterday. Five fellows—and it wasn’t as if there hadn’t been some rudeness before, hmm? This time, though, there were people to ask.
The Watch had four, but the fifth had vanished rather unexpectedly. Of course, Ratici and Wilovan were old hands at this. They had sat the man down, offered him a drink, and pressed him gently on where he was from and what all this spot and bother was about.
He had vouchsafed the information quite quickly, and they had taken him at his word. After all—when he told them this ran through the biggest Gang in Oteslia, and exactly where to go if a fellow was to have a chat—why, it all sounded straightforward.
They’d asked him to sit tight and he’d obliged them. So the two Gentlemen Callers had prepared themselves for a little trip.
“…I’m told the fellows at Invrisil have disbanded. That is to say, they’ve been replaced. Not enough left.”
Ratici mumbled. Wilovan nodded.
“One of them wrote to me. I have the letter here.”
He proffered it, but Ratici didn’t look at it.
“You can tell me, Wilovan. A [Reader] gets through such things faster than me.”
“Very well. In summary, he spoke about cost. It seems the last bit was too much coin, even for most of the fellows to pay.”
“When you take a lady out…”
“…you spare not a dime. Even so, they considered it that way. Crimshaw put his hat up.”
Ratici traced a claw gently along a wall. He flicked a coin up, then approached a booth selling something. He did not steal, but bought and paid with the stall owner. A girl, who beamed at the large gold coin. What kind of fellow stole from children?
“Here. A souvenir.”
“Not a gift fit for the lads back at Invrisil. Normen went off, you know. After that girl.”
“Good. I thought he had promise.”
Ratici tipped his cap at the Gnoll girl. Wilovan did the same with his hat. He paused, as the Drake attached something to his vest. Wilovan debated, and eventually stuck his behind an ear, since he had one and it did not do to infringe upon the other’s look.
On they went. Ratici adjusted the little flower hanging out of his vest’s pocket. Wilovan had it tucked across one ear. It got them admiring looks from passersby. Glares from a few fellows, especially since the Gentlemen Callers tipped their hats at a few ladies. But if a man wasn’t brave enough to wear a flower, how could he hope to ever make a positive impression?
They did not go into the dark streets of Oteslia, into the poorer sections. If anything, they went up. They headed to a commercial district. To a rather ritzy section, really. True, it wasn’t the kind of place some self-respecting folks like Erin Solstice would go, but…
It was a gambler’s den. But someone had taken the den, and upgraded it into a casino. If they had words for that kind of thing. The Gentlemen Callers would have called it a ‘money haven’, or a ‘flash visit’. Or…
A base. Not that there wasn’t food, a restaurant, and a place to play cards, dice, and other such activities for massive amounts of coin. Ratici felt at his vest.
“I should have taken my cards along. If we have time, we should play a few hands.”
“If we have time, afterwards.”
Wilovan agreed softly. The two checked themselves one last time, and then strode up to the door.
“Excuse me, sir. Miss. Would you happen to have an open-door policy on this fine establishment? Me and my friend, Ratici, here, were hoping to play some games and enjoy ourselves for a night on the city, as it were.”
The male and female Drake at the door gave each other a look at the odd accents, address, and dress, but it was clear both had money. One leaned over, whispered, and the first Drake nodded.
“Head on in. Someone will let you know the rules. Do you have weapons?”
“Nary a one.”
They were searched, of course. Wilovan and Ratici stood back as the two found not a single weapon—aside from a pocket knife Wilovan used to trim his claws. They took it, and let the two Gentlemen Callers in.
Of course, they were expected. Of course, the two knew they were expected. Sometimes, though. You had to ask a question. They tipped their hats to the lovely lady in the rather scandalous—yet fetching, you had to admit—dress as she smiled and asked them if they wanted food or the tables. Ratici ventured he would prefer a bite to scope out the scene, and Wilovan agreed.
They were charming, polite, and followed her into the casino, nicknamed ‘The Dragon’s Horde’. The most lucrative establishment with rich clientele, some of whom had actually come by their earnings honestly. Run by a fellow said to be in charge of a bunch of other fellows, who had sent said fellows to pay Lyonette a visit.
The two Gentlemen Callers followed the Drake [Waitress] to a table and sat down as eyes focused on them. They smiled, looking around.
As good guests did, they left their hats at the door.
Author’s Note: This chapter is split into two parts. So the next one picks up right after this part. Read on! Unless you’re a Public-reader and reading them right as they come out. No one will suffer waiting as you do, not before, not after.
Hob and Goblins by tobinkusuma!
Magnolia, Erin, and Ieka by Tomeo!
The Last Tide by Miguel!