A Gnoll and a Drake without hats walked into a casino. If you laughed, it was only because you had mistaken the smiles on their faces for something else.
At roughly the same time, other important people gathered. Not fellows. Not if you called Navine Gemscale and Helessia Gemscale ‘fellows’.
Magnolia Reinhart. The First Gardener of Oteslia. Wall Lords and Wall Ladies. Drakes, a few Gnolls, all guests of the party that had never really gone down right.
Zeres’ army had led to that. Assassins after Magnolia Reinhart. It had to be said, she had failed to impress as of yet. Everyone had seen her dramatic entry into Zeres, with all that wealth and gifts on display. But had they gotten any?
No. Did she think she could buy Drake affection? Buy goodwill and treaties? Absolutely not!
…But she could give them something. It might help.
This was the hour, however. The hour did not include Saliss of Lights, or the Gentlemen Callers, or Xif, or Shriekblade.
It did include Nerul, Osthia, Ilvriss, Rafaema, even Cire, who was here because he’d heard Lyonette was here. He was giving the First Gardener a headache, but he hadn’t called anyone Creler-headed to their face. Yet.
Magnolia Reinhart had yet to arrive, yet Navine Gemscale felt that was only appropriate. She had to offer them something substantive, or she would be all talk and no delivery. She had been so…much of a let down. What had happened to the young woman who had taken control of the Reinhart family? Not that Navine wanted that ruthless woman, but where was the Deadly Flower of the North?
Questions. They dominated the minds of those present. Rafaema glowered, behind a layer of makeup.
Makeup, because the damned ink wasn’t coming off. Makhir and Ferris were especially watchful, and she’d had to order them not to bring an actual guard. She’d refused to tell them what had happened, but both could recognize a Grade-A asskicking when they saw one.
Who is Onieva? She looked around, but the Drake wasn’t here. Rafaema wasn’t at a simmer. She was on a boil and the lid was shut—long enough for her to see what the Human was scheming.
“Who is Rafaema?”
Saliss was asking the same question. He was keeping an eye on Tessa; she’d collapsed after taking the damn cure. But he speculated with Mirn.
“Do you mean…?”
Mirn stood with Saliss. The [Alchemist] snapped, then tried to modulate his tone.
“You remember everything?”
The Named Adventurer should have been smiling, then. But he hadn’t been and even Mirn was afraid to ask. It was one look. A shuddering breath. Saliss bit out the words.
“I remember. That she was there. As she saw it.”
“Who is Rafaema? Why have I never heard of her? Focus on that, Mirn. I’m going to find one of Chaldion’s lot. I’ve never heard of her, but maybe she’s a grade above mine. Maybe he doesn’t know.”
“Hah! But what about uh…Tessa?”
Saliss stopped at the door.
“If she wakes up and she’s sick, do your thing.”
“If she’s violent?”
“Try not to bleed everywhere.”
Saliss shut the door and walked off.
Questions that mattered. Saliss’ would also be…why? Why was he doing this? For Lyonette, obviously, Erin, in the local ‘now’. But why was he doing this?
How much longer?
For Wall Lord Ilvriss, as he watched Magnolia Reinhart sweep in, and the grand ballroom—recycled from the last time he had danced with Lyonette here—he had a thought. He could trust Lyonette. He did not know how much she could help, but now he had to ask.
“Can I trust her?”
He waited, glass in hand, ignoring his mother’s looks as he stood with Nerul, not next to Lyonette.
“Good evening, Drakes and Gnolls of Izril. I realize this is a small gathering. Smaller than I had hoped, but I see that Oteslia has attended in full. It is my honor to meet you, once again. I pray your indulgence. For the time has come to speak candidly.”
Magnolia Reinhart’s voice reached them first, before the [Lady] herself. The guests looked around, over a thousand of them. Some suspicious, others bored or just hostile, even now. Lyonette did not move, just glanced around at the open doors, showing a view of the city.
She had no doubt that what would follow was impressive. She, in fact, knew what would follow, at least, the contents of it, the big twist. Oh, but it was huge.
Yet that was not the question she had asked. Now, and then. The noble Drakes stirred. Some adjusted their trendy monocles. A few popped out as the amateurs forgot to hold them tense and they broke on the ground. The others turned, some in the flowing dresses, a copy of which Lyonette wore.
Navine focused on the common, bronze ring on Lyonette’s hand and her brother. Then her head snapped up.
For here came Magnolia Reinhart. No—outside there was a roar of voices. Shouting. The Drakes turned to the steps leading up to the grand, public ballroom. They could see something coming up the steps. They pointed.
Then the others saw it. Ilvriss blinked. Nerul began to chuckle. He threw his head back and laughed, a deep guffaw. His was one of the few sounds amid the gasps or just silence. Even the First Gardener was taken aback, but Cire stood up with interest, as Mivifa hid behind a curtain.
For here came a carpet. No, the carpet. The very same that had unfurled at Zeres. A train of Humans, even a Gnoll in a [Maid]’s dress, rolled out the vast, ridiculously long piece of cloth. Straight through the ballroom, up the steps.
Here she came. Heads turned, and the people tried not to crowd. But surely…surely…there she was.
Speaking through the stone, addressing them, as she rode, standing on top of the rolling vehicle coming up the stairs. No…it was floating off the ground. A pink carriage.
“Do forgive me, friends. But I had to make a bit of a scene out of it.”
The pink carriage rolled into the ballroom, through the double doors, as Magnolia Reinhart stood on it. Ressa calmly brushed at her shoulder as she stood with the same pink dress she had worn when she stood on Pallass’ walls.
There was a meaning in each thing. Lyonette had eyes for Reynold, though few looked at him. They were gawping at Magnolia, or the servants proceeding with treasure after treasure, held on pillows or in their arms. And the Dragonsail, fluttering behind the carriage…
But the [Butler] she looked at. The same man she had seen a few times before. Erin had liked him. So had Ryoka. He looked older. Tired.
His legs. He had legs. They were as striking as any Lyonette had ever seen. The feet were carved, and she did not see them in the shoes. So were the upper legs, joined to the torso. But he could not wear pants, for a coruscating beam of magical energy, like lightning, connected foot to the upper part of his legs, where shins could be.
Magic. He looked left, as he slowly moved into the room and came to a stop, and a bridge appeared that Magnolia might step down. He nodded at her once, as Magnolia descended into this moment.
And all Lyonette could think—as she looked at this grand scene that the Lady of House Reinhart could engineer, at what was coming next—at Magnolia Reinhart’s confident face, hiding what had to be nerves beyond belief—was the same thing she had asked her then.
“What is wrong with you?”
Lyonette du Marquin saw Magnolia’s hand stop, a bit of cake perched on the fork.
“I beg your pardon?”
The [Princess] was shaking. She looked at Magnolia. Her plan still echoed in Lyonette’s mind. It could work. It could. It was intelligent, it had been well-planned.
Yet something was wrong. And it was this.
“Forgive me, Lady Magnolia. But I meant to say…what is wrong with you? What has changed? Why are you so…timid?”
Lyonette du Marquin rose along with Ressa’s brows. But the [Maid] did not look disapproving. She saw Lyonette stand like everything she was.
Red hair, blue eyes, the product of luck or Skill—a strikingly beautiful young woman who held herself, even in ‘disguise’, with the poise she had been taught from birth. Something else as well. A dignity, an age she had earned that her sisters lacked.
Not just like a [Princess]. Like youth, the very embodiment of it. It was quite familiar to the two. It hurt that it was nostalgic, because it meant you truly had changed. Even when you swore you wouldn’t.
Age judged youth. It famously loved to do so. However—youth? It went two ways, and it was never comfortable. That was called fairness.
“What do you mean, Miss Marquin?”
The [Princess]’ eyes flashed.
“I must struggle, Lady Reinhart, to find help for my daughter.”
“Which I have given, to the fullest extent I can without tangling this issue further.”
Lyonette jerked her chin down, in a grudging nod.
“I know, and I thank you on behalf of The Wandering Inn, and myself, Lady Reinhart. That is not what I was referring to. Rather—I am perplexed. No, I am angry and outraged. Because I had come here expecting to beg and fight for a single favor, not have it held out wholesale.”
“One supposes it would be a lovely relief. Why do I feel as though you hold the opposite to be true?”
Magnolia’s eyes were outwardly perplexed, but she tapped her forefinger against the stem of her teacup. Lyonette shook her head.
“That is the good, equitable, nice thing to do, Lady Magnolia. It is not what I expect of the Deadly Flower of the North! I was prepared to sign almost anything. That I would sign…something punitive. Demanding. Not necessarily unfair, but which gave you something I did not know I possessed, or was willing to part with. And in return, I would have the famous carriage. Or the aid of no one less than Ressa, and damn the consequences.”
“Interesting. Is that all?”
Lyonette was breathing hard already, but she met Magnolia’s gaze because she couldn’t speak like this and not do that. Her eyes strained, so she focused on the words pouring out.
“No. You came to Zeres like a storm. Forced the Serpentine Matriarch to allow you access, displayed the grandeur of your house. Then—you came to Oteslia like a mouse. All these people who have come to visit you, Zeres besieging the city itself? You have not…pulled at them. Or pushed. I know you can.”
“What do you imagine of me?”
Magnolia toyed with a ring on her finger. She was still. Lyonette didn’t have to imagine it.
“Secrets. Everyone has them. A Wall Lady suddenly supports you because of a little letter on her dress stand. Another—a rich [Merchant] is set to become very rich if she backs you. So she does. It does not cost House Reinhart as much because there are clever ways to do it. Preferential treatment. Another group backs you because you tacitly support their enemies.”
“Calanferian politics, in short.”
“Politics. Wherever you go. The very heart of diplomacy, with the bows and ribbons removed and the insides exposed. I do not think it is evil, or reprehensible. It is only how we behave. I would not hold it against you, Lady Reinhart. Rather—the Magnolia Reinhart I heard of, that even Calanfer saluted, was the very woman who would strangle anyone in her way with the very noose they wove for her, and drag them after her as unwilling allies. The flower that could not be plucked, even with adamantine gloves.”
At last, Magnolia Reinhart laughed. It was soft, amused, genuinely amused. She shook her head.
“I quite liked that turn of phrase. I still do. What do you think, Ressa?”
“They called you a flower, rather than a viper. Flowers are still innocent, Lady Reinhart. They should have called you a Creler, if they could bear to call a [Lady] that. Crelers don’t just defend or hunt. They crawl into your room and lay eggs in your head.”
Magnolia’s lips quirked. Ressa was fixing Lyonette with a long look that was more painful than the [Lady] herself. It was not disapproving, however. She almost looked encouraging.
“I will admit. I have changed my methods, Lyonette. It is true; I could employ less kindly methods. I could be more persuasive.”
“Yes. Why aren’t you?”
Lyonette was breathing hard. Magnolia pursed her lips. She didn’t move. She just sat there, accepting Lyonette’s frank criticism. That too, was wrong. She was no outraged personality, to throw Lyonette out on her rear. But Lyonette was sure she could say something to singe Lyonette’s ears.
Why have you changed?
To that, Magnolia Reinhart sighed. She put down her teacup, and stretched. She looked at Lyonette—then calmly, and quite deliberately, put her feet up on the low table between them. Lyonette was appalled at such a display of indifference to the Oteslian furniture. But Magnolia Reinhart just looked up at the ceiling and murmured.
“You know. I quite feel like you do, some days. Why should I listen to fools, with no notion beyond swinging a sword at their ‘enemies’? Why do I allow them to impede me? Why should I tolerate them waving a stick in my face, as if that is the only power that matters in this world? I could not. Zeres’ army stands outside. I could prevail on my allies and make their situation untenable. Move other Walled Cities and groups against them. I do have connections.”
She lifted her hand. Lyonette saw it change in the air, her fingers leaving…afterimages? Yet it was a delicate, slow movement. Magnolia Reinhart reached out. Dozens of trailing images of her hands, opening something.
“I could ask him.”
Was it a scroll? Or the idea of a contract? Lyonette saw a man standing there, cursing, staring over the bow of his ship. She saw something, writ between them. A simple contract.
Coin and goods. Trade and security.
Gold for sugar. House Reinhart famously imported it from Baleros, free of [Pirates] or price fluctuations. With none other than…
Lord Admiral Seagrass glanced up, and Magnolia Reinhart smiled. He frowned at her, and only at her, and raised two brows, impatient, glaring over the wreckage of ships after his encounter with The Pride of Wellfar. Lyonette saw something glowing on his arm.
A tattoo. None other than House Reinhart’s. Magnolia nodded at him, and her fingers curled. Then—abruptly—she released her grip, and he faded, looking annoyed. Lyonette saw Magnolia’s head turn.
“I could prevail on a certain, notably upstanding, [Stormlord Captain] with certain…scurrilous rumors to raid Zeres’ famous trade routes. He is no fond friend of them, you know, since the Walled City does like to throw its weight around. He would have a cost, of course, but I could pay it. I could hire [Pirates]. I could forge the same kind of deals my family is famous for.”
“Favors for silence. Murders done. Fortunes stolen. Lies made. Lovers. Lovers. More lovers…discrepancies in taxes paid. Embezzlement. Secret projects and children.”
Ressa had on a pair of reading spectacles. She was going down a list. Lyonette saw Magnolia’s gaze flicker left for a moment. She focused on the cards Ressa was flicking through, hoping to see just one bit of writing…
“It is what I am good at. I do admit it. If you wanted me to, I could even become…nastier. A blade in the dark. That was why the Assassin’s Guild broke ties with me. Not because they were offered more, but because I refused to wield them. I could have the Admiralty of Zeres wake up and find their comrades’ throats cut if I prepared. Is that what you would like, Lyonette du Marquin?”
Lyonette took a moment. She had to look away from that burning gaze. Two burning sage-green and sand-yellow irises in a lovely [Lady]’s face. Not at all soft, even like the most deadly of flowers. She whispered, hoarsely.
“Not all of it, Lady Reinhart. But why do you do none of it?”
Magnolia Reinhart sighed, sat back, and the force behind the stare flicked off like a switch. She looked at Lyonette, tiredly.
“Because, Lyonette. A tyrant is still a tyrant, no matter if she dresses her hand in perfume and hides the blood with silk, rather than steel and sorcery. And a tyrant can change the landscape with force if need be. They can make fortresses, make terrible war, and destroy many things. They can also create places where wealth, learning, and a kind of happiness emerge, that is true. What they cannot do is change minds. You can unite foes against a single enemy. But once the monster is dead, they go back to quarrelling. You can force a cease-fire. Peace does not come like that.”
Lyonette looked at Magnolia. Was she…quoting something?
“That still does not mean you must do without any of it, Lady Reinhart.”
“Of course not, my dear. I do not. There have been times, even recently, when I forced certain people to stop. When I did, I was quite unkind. I simply prefer not to get to that point if at all possible.”
“But why not then—I understand that, Lady Magnolia. I truly do. But what about…there have been times when I felt as though if you had but given us aid—you could have had considerable parts of Liscor! You could have used…”
“…The knowledge of your guests. They’ve done well for themselves. Some of them.”
“You never used it. They were just guests of yours. I know you are not that simple. Erin…she can find the best in people. Yet I refuse to believe you cannot do the same.”
Ressa nodded, fractionally. Magnolia sighed.
“Very true. I could have had Kevin begin his…what is it? Solar Cycles? Very catchy. Or perhaps unearthed young Joseph’s abilities in kicking round objects. I did not. In truth, I rather expected Erin Solstice to get sick of them, much as I was. She can find the best in people. Yes. I never tried.”
“Why didn’t you? Even Invrisil is making a soccer team. If you…”
“I do not need more wealth, Miss Lyonette. I could throw away every artifact and gold coin I could get my hands on and not notice it. I do not, actually, need more power. Not in that regard. Isn’t it lovely that they are making something of themselves? I am sure they are levelling up and doing something worthwhile, that helps multiple cities.”
“You didn’t help them.”
Lyonette accused Magnolia. She sat down, because she was getting tired of standing to little point. Magnolia shook her head. She pursed her lips, and again, seemed to quote something.
“We cannot shape them. Only give them the chance to be all they might. A tyrant’s claw weighs down on all souls, yet the hand of kindness smothers as well. If they are to rise, Lyonette, they should do so on their own merits.”
“…I have never heard that sentiment expressed before, Magnolia. Not once. The first part about tyrants—of course. Never the second. Why would you not help people? Focus on them? Bring out their best?”
“Whether they want to or not? That is quite like The Wandering Inn, Miss Marquin. Quite like a certain young woman who could see the best of everyone. Antinium, Goblins.”
“Yes. You don’t share that belief?”
Magnolia Reinhart smiled, eyes glittering.
“I did. However, I have met wiser guides. It is entirely possible for me to gain my way by force and words. It will not change anything. I came here not to drag Drakes kicking and screaming into peace, but persuade them. So yes. I will not bully or blackmail or threaten them. Nor will I tempt their greed and avarice, or push one or the other into potential. I came here for something far longer. That applies to how I have acted. Earth…is a dratted inconvenience. But for it, I could have worked in peace, I think.”
Lyonette looked at Magnolia.
“Who told you that? They’re wrong. Without Erin…without the inn, the world would be worse off. You need to find the best in people. She’s befriended Goblins and Antinium and…”
“…They stand out. Don’t they? Ahead of their time. Touched by a kindly [Innkeeper]. They will have the most difficult lives one can imagine. Perhaps it is kinder, to give them all that, as terrible as their lives have been and will be. Perhaps. But that is Erin Solstice’s choice, not mine. Because she can do quite a lot where she stands, but I? I could do everything. I could build them a city, engineer pacts and peace and gather them up.”
Magnolia clapped her hands and Lyonette saw it. A city, perhaps not Liscor, somewhere safer, backed by all of the cunning of the Five Families, the wealth, agents like Ressa and Reynold who kept undesirables away.
“A tyranny of kindness. No. That is too far. I admire your struggles, Miss Marquin. If you ever come to where I stand, I wonder if you will think as I do, though. Hate me. Take whatever I offer, or do not. But I oppose only the rawest calamities. The Spider. All out war. I do not lift up, and I do not crush anymore. I leave people be. If they will change, make more of themselves, that is well and I support it. I refinance areas struck by disaster, I offer opportunity. But if they will not change, if they will not do anything, I do not force them. It is their choice.”
She turned to Lyonette.
“That is freedom. That is the ideal way to rule, if you strip down your own ambitions and moralities and views of how you think the world should be to its plain core. Strive to make the world better without forcing people into your schemes.”
Who? Who in the world told her that? Lyonette rocked back in her seat. It sounded so weary, so different from what she would have imagined the Magnolia of old saying, she had to believe it wasn’t just something Magnolia had come up with. Who had told her that?
“You are wrong, Magnolia Reinhart.”
Ressa sighed as Lyonette stood. She looked at Magnolia as Lyonette curtseyed, quite appropriately, as a [Princess] did. A swish of the dresses, an inclination of the head to a powerful [Lady]. No more.
“You are wrong. I will be there for your announcement to the Drakes. It may even succeed. But whoever told you that—there is no limit on the good one can do.”
Magnolia sighed as Lyonette spun on her heel, to visit Ilvriss, so furious she was shaking. She called after Lyonette.
“Very good, Miss Marquin. Drag them kicking and screaming into your vision.”
The [Princess] stormed away without a word. Ressa glanced at Magnolia. She walked over, and for once, sat down, where Lyonette was. Magnolia eyed her, but picked up her cold tea cup. She frowned at it, and it began to steam as the enchanted ceramics warmed themselves.
“She is right, you know. There is nothing wrong with fighting for something. You have, all your life. He’s not perfect. Look what he’s doing now.”
“He is out of his mind and I fear for him. We will head north as soon as this ends, siege or not.”
“…And? You believe everything you just said?”
Ressa folded her arms, glaring. Magnolia sighed.
“The difference that I realized, Ressa, is that when I was Lyonette, she was right. Now? I can move mountains. Teriarch is right. There is too much power to do it fairly. I could never guide Kevin into making Solar Cycles. It would be too easy.”
She stood, brushing at her dress.
“Come, Ressa. It’s time.”
Without a word, the [Maid] rose. She helped prepare for the grand, gentle pact of Magnolia Reinhart. She couldn’t help but remember something that the very same guide and mentor had once said to Magnolia, though. She muttered it and Magnolia stopped dead.
“…you need not be a Dragon yourself, though.”
As Magnolia Reinhart greeted the Drakes of Izril and laid out her grand plan for a kind of peace, two men sat in The Dragon’s Hoard. Fairly appropriately, in name and symbolism, though they couldn’t see all the threads.
“A fairly posh place.”
Ratici looked at Wilovan. The Gnoll was checking a menu, glancing around. The restaurant section was set in the center, and to the sides were the gambling tables.
Magical cards, dice, even a new area where you could place wagers internationally on events like gladiator bouts or fights. Wilovan glanced over as he heard a small voice, leaking into the magically divided areas.
“…and here comes the Champion of Rust, into the greatest arena of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! The terror that came out of the sands! The One-Armed Warrior! The Silver-Killer! Yv—”
But he was distracted. The Gnoll looked around. If a lot of the guests here were rich, there was a noticeable contingent who were not. Who were…in a word…disreputable.
Of course, a fellow could be honorably disreputable, but Wilovan felt in his marrow these were the gents who did not deserve the name. They skulked in the background, avoiding the light where some Drakes and Gnolls did come to just gamble.
“I wonder where the leader is?”
The [Thief] snorted.
“Look ahead, Wilovan.”
“Ah, a fellow at the heart of things.”
Wilovan went to tip a hat he didn’t have. There he saw the person to put a question to. It was a burly Drake, laughing at the largest table in the center of things. He had some quite lovely companions, some fellows and ladies of a peculiar sort of expertise in one area—just like Wilovan and Ratici—and he ruled this place.
“Hm. Looks like a few…colleagues.”
“Yes indeed. Good to know a large city doesn’t want for fellows like us.”
The two Gentlemen Callers stopped only a second. A few heads glanced their way. They did not look for the exits. A question was a question when you asked it.
“I wonder if he’ll keep us waiting?”
“It falls in line with the lack of manners we might expect, Ratici. I suggest we start with an appetizer. Do you like…tomato fritters?”
“Wilovan, insofar as I dislike anything, that is the most repulsive food I could imagine.”
“Mm. Appropriate for the moment?”
The Gnoll waited politely for a [Waitress] to come over. They waited, and knew that the Drake in the center had noticed them. Even so. A fellow had to wait for the right moment to take the spotlight. They just wondered one thing, if anything.
“Is it today?”
Wilovan glanced up from the knife and fork he was placing just so. He glanced at Ratici.
“We shall find out, won’t we?”
From another perspective, it looked different. The Dragon’s Horde. It sounded like a joke, but the Drakes did like such things.
The tables rolled with coin, but they weren’t a casino, if that word was even in this world’s vocabulary. Not yet. The tables made money, but they had rich clientele.
Which was stupid. Logical, as far as they saw it, but stupid. You didn’t want the rich to come here. Well, you did, but not just the rich. The rich were few and far between, and they tended not to come back if they spent a fortune.
Having more accessible stations for someone with only a bit of gold, and incentives for them to come. More addiction. More…delight.
That was what it could be. As it was, this was clearly just a base of operations. If you came here even a few times, you’d notice figures slipping in and out the back hallways. They avoided you, unless you poked your head in, because you were the innocent guest. And there were rules.
Rules, set down by the huge Drake in the center of the room, at that table three times bigger than even the largest group ones. He was a big fellow, not yet fat, but with the way he was eating, he clearly had reached the top of the food chain. Indeed, he had a huge kind of suit on him.
Again, not a suit—not yet, but a swaggering set of clothes still aping other people’s fashions. Hence the doublet. Terandrian, the watcher guessed. He had a lovely Gnoll on one arm. But she was, in fact, very dangerous, if the stiletto dagger he’d seen her use to nab some treats was any indication.
She was not, however, a Face. There were three of them present. Here was the boss. Here were the best underlings.
Three against…the figure glanced over as he adjusted his hand, half a mind on the game.
Two. He knew the three, not the two, the Gnoll and Drake who’d walked in with style. Hat-men? From the north? He liked them almost at once.
Not so for this lot. There was a lazy Drake, feet up on one of the couches, stacking gold coins and counting them. A Gnoll, sitting with arms wide, trying to hide his patchy fur with regrown fur that still stood out, no matter the dye job.
Lastly, the Drake whispering to a huge, two-headed dog he kept feeding huge portions of meat to. Not three-headed; two giant heads, a dark blue coat, and fangs that made the watcher glad he was well clear of the monster. Even a Carn Wolf would take one look at this hound from hell and decide he had better things to do.
Since he was closer, from his table, he could actually pick up a few words—not that the center group tried to keep their voices low.
“…There’s just not as much good soil this month.”
The Drake counting coins was complaining. The Drake in the center stopped letting his companions feed him treats and snapped.
“Well, go water more and you’ll get more good soil. Everyone knows that. I keep telling you. There’s mites around. I’m dealing with them. You can take a month with less than a wagonload of soil, Ecleeif.”
Ecleeif. The Drake counting coins; thinner than the other three and with a kind of whine in his voice.
“It’s not like you’re getting any less—Porun—”
The furious stare from the center made him amend his words.
“Chief. Mind your manners. We’re at work, Ecleeif.”
The [Beast Master] snapped, glancing up from his hound, who issued a growl. Ecleeif sulked back into his seat. The watcher smiled, and the person opposite him folded.
He couldn’t help it. He muttered, so low no one heard him.
“Oh my god. They’re stereotypes. Are they doing it on purpose?”
They had to think they were genuine. He cast a glance down at the two figures watching the center table as they ate. One was picking at a fried tomato, the other flirting with the [Waitress]. Yet they had a kind of edge to the way they sat.
“Are you going to play or not?”
At last, one of the other players demanded. The watcher jumped. In doing so, he knocked over his stack of silver coins.
A commotion made Wilovan look up. The Drake in the center was looking their way, signalling one of the [Waitresses]. However, a shout at a table made everyone’s heads turn.
A figure was scrambling after some coins rolling all over. The other [Gamblers] at the card table were on their feet, shielding their cards. Wilovan raised his brows.
A young Human man was scrambling to pick up the coins, some of which had scattered so far by him turning and spraying them they’d actually bounced off a table. And into someone’s soup.
“Ancestors damn it, Rickel!”
One of the Drakes roared. The young man hurried over.
“I am so sorry—I have no idea how they got this far.”
“I’ve been looking forwards to eating all day, sir!”
The Human was a gambler, clearly. A bad one, and flustered as he tried to apologize to a couple breaking from their gambling or watching the scrying orb. He reached for a coin pouch, a small one.
“I uh—I’ll pay for it.”
“And the damage to my dress!”
The Drake insisted. Rickel bit his lip.
“I…of course. How’s…this?”
He offered them a gold coin. To Wilovan’s eye, even if you factored in the soup and the dress—not exactly the most expensive one, it wasn’t bad. The Drakes hesitated. The Human stared at their faces.
“Wait, is that not enough? Um…how’s this?”
He added another gold coin. Bit his lip, and added a third.
“That’s all I can afford. Is it enough?”
Did he not know how much he was offering? Ratici snorted in disbelief, but the young man didn’t look rich, especially if three gold coins was a setback. He was gambling at the silver-tables, not gold.
“It—well, it’ll have to do. Go on, now.”
The Drake shooed Rickel away and scooped up the gold coins. His partner even fished out the silver coin out of her soup.
“You fertilizer-head. Don’t you know how much a gold coin is worth?”
Rickel went back, flustered, to his table, apologizing to the other diners who seemed to know him and were clearly amused. The Human rubbed at his head.
“Uh—sometimes I’m off. Sorry. I think I’m out. Especially if I’m paying for the food.”
He looked at his much-depleted money pouch and his face fell. The other [Gamblers] laughed at his misfortune, but the Drake in the center raised a claw and boomed.
“I’ll cover it.”
“Boss, why do you like that idiot?”
Rickel actually threw a salute with a grin, and the Drake addressed the whining Drake counting coins.
“Because he’s funny, and he has good ideas now and then. He’s harmless. Come back tomorrow, Rickel! And next time, don’t put all your coins where you can toss them into soup!”
Laughter. Red-faced, the Human hurried down the tables, heading for the restroom. He tripped halfway across. On a silver coin.
He crashed into a table and the Drake in the center of the room laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his huge chair. Rickel got up, flustered.
“I am so sorry—”
“Not at all, sir. Don’t you worry.”
Wilovan helped him up; Ratici had saved all the dishes and drinks. It didn’t escape the center group’s attention and they fixed on Ratici. Not Rickel. The Human glanced at Wilovan as the Gnoll picked him up and dusted him off.
“Thanks. Feel free to laugh. I’ve made a mess of myself.”
He grinned, cheeks still red. He had an inviting smile, which was probably why the others tolerated him, despite messing up their game. A young [Gambler]. Wilovan shook his head, remembering his hat was gone.
“A fellow doesn’t laugh at another fellow’s misfortune. I hope some good luck comes your way, sir.”
Rickel’s lips twitched.
“I love the way you said that. Now there’s a bit of style.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m pleased you noticed.”
Ratici glanced up. Rickel looked at the two of them.
“You’re not from here, are you? You have…amazing style. I’m Rickel, by the way.”
“Mister Rickel, that puts a stride in my step, so it does. You’re not half badly done yourself, if I may say so.”
Indeed, the young man had a quite nice set of clothes on himself. Nothing in the vein of either the Gentleman Caller’s style, or the current one, or the suit and fashion on display in the center of the room. He had a kind of jacketed hoodie on, able to be buttoned up, comfortable green pants with a slash of white down each side, and a complementary undershirt with Oteslia’s own regalia on it.
Throw on a hat and he’d not be too bad. He grinned at Wilovan, fashion recognizing fashion of its own. His was not at all popular or in vogue…but he wore it as if it was.
“You’ve got to have style, right? Well, I have to go—but you know this is a trap, don’t you?”
Wilovan’s smile never changed. Ratici glanced up. The young man kept smiling.
“That’s a fairly odd thing for a fellow to say. Dangerous, even.”
Wilovan remarked calmly. Rickel nodded. He glanced at the two of them.
“It is. But I like you two. You walk in here, cool as cucumbers, and sit down. Why?”
Ratici raised his brows.
“Are cucumbers cool, Wilovan? I never looked into how cool any were.”
“It may be they’re fairly pleasant in that regard, Ratici. I have never eaten a warm one.”
The Human laughed. He laughed, throwing his head back, and looked at them, even more amused. Even more happily.
“I like you two! You’re not afraid? At all?”
Now the figure in the center was waiting, staring at Rickel with clear annoyance; he was getting in the way. Wilovan glanced over the young man’s shoulder.
“Sir. I’d advise you to stay in the restroom a good spell. Or have a wander in the city. As to your question? Sometimes a man does what he does. He’ll pay the cost of it. Tomorrow. Or today. We’ll find out, won’t we, Ratici?”
“That we will, Wilovan.”
Rickel was lost for words for a moment. He stood there, then looked at the two. He shook his head, and flipped a coin.
The coin flipped around and around in the air. Wilovan looked up. The coin fell, glittering, bounced off Rickel’s thumb—and straight into his eye.
He swore, stumbling away, as the silver coin bounced off and someone picked it up. Wilovan shook his head, and Ratici adjusted his belt.
“Well, more to you.”
Rickel called out after their backs. He walked off, sighing, hands in his pockets, as the two Gentlemen Callers walked on. They’d forgotten all about him already.
“So here’s the two foreigners who think they can plant seeds wherever they want.”
The Drake in the center was the gardener. He was the head. He was the boss.
And this was a Gang. Idioms aside, Wilovan knew what this was. Oteslia’s largest Gang was here. He raised a paw to his head, realized his hat was gone a third time, and nodded.
“Good evening to you, sir. My name’s Wilovan. My companion here is Ratici. We were hoping to have a word, as it were, if you weren’t too busy. A pressing matter.”
“Good evening. Do you hear how they talk?”
One of the others at the table wheezed with laughter. The Drake in the center looked over, picked up a fork, and tossed it at the Drake.
It was the thin fellow who counted gold in the open. He dodged, cursing, but just. The tines of the fork buried into the couch cushion.
He nearly hurt that fellow. Wilovan frowned. Ratici just shook his head.
The others fell silent as the Drake glared. Then he shifted his eyes to the two.
“So who’re you? The Gentlemen Callers?”
“Some call us that.”
Ratici murmured. The Drake snorted.
“Well. They call me the boss. Or the gardener, if we’re out in the open. Poruniv, Oteslia’s Second Gardener.”
As names went, there was significance in it. Wilovan tipped his head, and Ratici did the same.
“Well, sir. If we could have a word regarding a certain bit of unpleasantness, that would be a gracious thing.”
“Hah. You northern lot are funny. I never thought I’d see a Drake and Gnoll instead of Humans. Just goes to show.”
Poruniv’s eyes narrowed.
“You’ve got a lot of guts, strolling in here. You think I want to hear you out? Ecleeif, Zanzeil, Neverwhine. Get up.”
Three figures rose. The Gnoll with odd fur patches, hands suddenly in his pockets as the rest of the table scattered wide of him. The scowling Ecleeif, stopping to shove all the gold into his bag of holding, bare-clawed. And Neverwhine, and the giant dog, which rose.
A huge rumble from the two maws. Wilovan and Ratici never looked sideways.
“This is my place. The Dragon’s Horde. You want to come here, to the Second Gardener’s Gang? The Earthtenders? Other gangs in Walled Cities would know better, but that’s the north for you. I’ll tell you what: if you tell me what I want to hear, you might walk out. You think you two are the only Faces in Oteslia? You’re looking at four of them.”
The Second Gardener stared down at Wilovan and Ratici. The Gentlemen Callers never blinked. Wilovan calmly reached into his jacket. The three next to Poruniv tensed, but he held up a claw. Wilovan slowly pulled out a club.
Just a polished, wooden club. He raised it, as the rest of the room stared, and placed it down on the table in front of the Second Gardener.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mister Poruniv, sir. We may be a rather bit uncouth, but we have a question to put to you. Will you stop harassing a certain lady under our care? We consider it rather unmannerly, sir. We hope you’ll say yes. Because we don’t intend to take no for an answer.”
The Second Gardener’s eyes bulged. Then he laughed. He pointed at the little club; not even a long one. Even the other faces snickered—two of them. Ecleeif was just scowling.
“Poruniv—it’s a waste of time to get hurt, even if there’s only two. What if we…?”
“Shut up, Ecleeif!”
The Second Gardener whirled on him. Classic. Unprofessional. Wilovan’s nose wrinkled. The smaller Drake backed up and back Poruniv’s head turned.
“You two are annoying me, you know that? Let the ‘lady’ go? You mean that Human who’s taken all the Faerie Flowers out of circulation? Who hired you two to take them? Tell her we can deal or she’ll find a dagger in—”
The Second Gardener stopped. Wilovan calmly squared his shoulders.
“It’s unmannerly to involve civilians in this. And since I find this entire business distasteful, sir, and how you’ve done things, I don’t care to prolong it. I am Wilovan of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Wilovan of the Gentlemen Callers.”
“And Ratici, of both.”
The two nodded once. Poruniv stared as Wilovan picked up the club. He pointed it at the leader of Oteslia’s biggest gang.
“I challenge you, sir. To an ungentlemanly bout. To the death. Here and now. Let’s have it done.”
Dead silence reigned. It was an open challenge. Wilovan would have done it differently, more eloquently, in the ways of the north. But sometimes you had to state your case plain, rude and boorish though it was.
And frankly, he did not care for Poruniv’s place, his attitude, his gang, or what he had done. Wilovan’s eyes were calm. The Drake?
“Now I know you’re both idiots. Why would I take up a challenge from two idiots?”
“Two Faces. Does the south not count Faces, or do you not have enough to remember how it’s done?”
Wilovan nudged Ratici as the Drake snapped at last. Poruniv’s eyes narrowed. He glared at the [Thief].
“I’ve killed more Faces than you’ve ever seen. I don’t need to throw down with every foreigner who comes to my city.”
Wilovan saw the pronouncement run through the group in two ways. The Gnoll with the paws in his pockets nodded. Neverwhine frowned a bit, and Ecleeif looked done with it all. None objected, and the others standing behind Poruniv were careful not to let him see their reactions.
They wouldn’t protest, at any rate. And now Wilovan saw more guests who were smart heading for the doors. The idiots just watched, but more figures were coming out and blocking the exits.
Well, it was going as badly as the two had thought it might. Wilovan sighed, and turned to Ratici.
“Looks like it’s today, Ratici. A crying shame.”
He reached out, and Ratici shook his paw, solemnly. The Drake nodded.
“A shame. We came here, asked a question, and you can’t say we didn’t try. It’s just a shame when a fellow doesn’t have dig-nity.”
He said that last word oddly. The criminals of Izril’s south saw the two shake their heads. Rather like an audience watching fascinating actors in a bit.
“A fellow expects it, but without dig-nity, what can you do? Indeed, Ratici.”
Poruniv refused to rise to the bait, although he was smiling through gritted teeth. It was the way they said it.
Dig-nity. Stretching the word out with that little pause in between. So much of a word that it was two, the way they said it. Ratici nodded, sighing.
“Are you two done? Because if I lose my temper, there’s no last chances. And I don’t think you’re that stupid. No duels.”
Wilovan turned to face the Second Gardener. He shook his head.
“No, sir. You’ve made that rather clear. A fellow states his mind, and we take him at his word. Eh, Ratici?”
“Well then, shut up and—”
All three Faces shouted at the same time. The Gnoll tried to cut at it with something, then dove away. Neverwhine grabbed his hound and blurred to the side. Ecleeif just ran for it.
Poruniv held still as Ratici threw the object he’d retrieved with lightning speed. He saw it coming; perhaps his reactions were slower than the other three, or some of the [Thieves] who’d seen the blur, but he held himself still.
The magical barrier around him caught the strange, runic cube in midair and blasted it. Wilovan and Ratici were already throwing themselves backwards, but the Second Gardener laughed.
“You Ancestors-damned id—”
Then the cube opened as the magic tried to disintegrate it, and the world imploded.
Negative space. A sucking vortex. Wilovan saw magic, the air, and the Second Gardener all rush towards the hole in the world.
As he rolled to his feet, club in hand, and struck a head so hard it would never rise again, Wilovan felt the pull at his back. Even from a ways away.
A few facts. Firstly, most gang leaders had something like that. Protections from assassinations from fellow gangs or even within their group. But most fools kept their magical barriers just past their skin layer. Which helped…but not if something literally sucked out magic as well as your body.
Fact number two? Unfortunately, the Second Gardener’s barrier was a bit too far removed. Wilovan whirled and saw a Drake screaming.
“Kill them! Kill those bastards!”
He was missing all the scales from his face, arms, and front, though. Literally ripped off his body by the pull. He was grabbing for a healing potion. And while he was backing away, the Gentlemen Callers’ hats were off.
You know, it was hard. A man did his best. He kept a hold of his temper. He acted as he should be.
A gentleman. Even when he wasn’t. The hats weren’t just fashion or a symbol. They were a reminder. A heavy one.
When they came off, it was a relief. A terrible relief. That was why the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were tolerated. Even by the other Gangs, who laughed at them. Never to their faces. Izril’s south learned the same lesson the north had learned.
Violence. Sheer violence. Not battle nor glory nor even fury. A Gnoll raised his club and hit someone so hard their skull shattered and their brains moved.
A [Thief]. A [Thief] was not a combat class. Yet he stole lives. He grabbed a dagger out of someone’s claws and buried it back in her eye. They never hesitated. They never spoke. As if even the acts of speaking, shouting, were wasted. All of it was channeled into one thing.
A [Thug] with a club. He performed no tricks. He had no flash. He swung and swung and men and women died. Aim for the joints. Aim for shoulders. Anywhere a blow like a hammer would do the most damage. A cluster of five tangled around a table and realized there was no blocking it when he struck down a swordsman’s guard and left the sword buried in the screaming Gnoll’s chest. No dodging—one cartwheeled left and a Drake appeared and slashed six times. The two tore around another table, scattering the others like wheat.
“Kill them! Kill…”
A choked voice. The two were headed for the side of the room, because they had failed. The Second Gardener was alive. Secured behind more protections and a wall of blades. It was probably today, but the Earthtenders would pay the toll.
Not for anyone Level 20. Not for Level 30—Wilovan snarled and ducked a [Dagger Art]. A wide-eyed Drake passed by him, caught in the Skill, and he swung his club once.
But it was two and four. Two and three, since one was incapacitated. A Face…
The air turned to fire. Wilovan inhaled flames and bellowed, the first sound he’d made. Ratici tore out of the flames and saw the Drake named Ecleeif standing there, pointing a finger. No spell. The [Sorcerer] just pointed and the air turned to flame. He backed up, cursing, shooting a spell in his off-hand with a wand as Ratici dove at him.
A hound leapt. It covered thirty feet like a bullet of flesh and weight. Ratici performed an [Aerial Dodge], just in time for Neverwhine to come from the other side, with, of all things, a shield and whip. It cracked, the tip exploding in the air with a shower of deadly ‘sparks’. Flechette shrapnel. Ratici felt one sting his arm for the first time.
Wilovan was on fire, but he barrelled out of the flames, as the [Sorcerer] tried to suck the air out of the world. The Gnoll came face-to-face with a shorter Gnoll. But his paws were armed with the signature weapon prized by Gnolls of the south in Gangs.
Claws. They slashed, light, fast. None even close to a killing blow, aiming for Wilovan’s arms, chest. He struck, but the other figure blurred into dodges, burning Skills, slashing Wilovan six times. The Gnoll barely felt it as Zanzeil backed up, grinning.
Then he felt the burning pain. An agony so specific, Wilovan had it in a moment.
The claws. They were made of…Wilovan registered them as Ratici spun, dodging two biting heads.
Curved legs. Fangs, attached to a crude band of metal. Zanzeil went for Ratici. Wilovan snarled, abandoning the potion. He charged and the claw-wielding expert backed up in alarm.
“Keep them away from me!”
None of them wanted to die. They threw underlings at the Gentlemen Callers and they died. Ratici tossed a vial into a group of six and it exploded, sending screaming Drakes and Gnolls crashing down. Not because it was any alchemical substance or poison. It was all-natural…magma.
“Wilovan! There! There!”
The Second Gardener turned. Poruniv saw a staggering, burnt Gnoll turn, and those eyes fixed on his. The [Thief] drew his daggers and three Faces hesitated.
If it was today, we’ll take you with us. And the thing about the gangs was that they were pragmatists. They really didn’t want to die.
“Hey! Over here! Over here!”
A shout. Wilovan almost missed it, but it was familiar. And so was his hat. It sat on a head as Rickel waved. The Human shouted and Poruniv’s head turned.
The Gentlemen Callers hesitated, but it was close, and if they—they looked at each other. Ahead was certain death, but a repayment of dues.
They turned and ran on a single hunch. It could have been a trap. But the young man ran, and they surged down a hallway.
“If you let them get away, you’re all dead, you hear me? Dead!”
The others ran, although Elceeif stayed back, letting Zanzeil and the roaring hound, led by Neverwhine, with a group of the most deadly underlings surge forward first. They pounded after the Gentlemen Callers. One was poisoned! The other had taken a few shrapnel hits and they were outnumbered. All they had to do…
They charged down the corridor, turned, cursing, and headed right. Where were they? Rickel? Wilovan? Ratici? They must be fast, but…wait a second.
…Where were they?
“This way, this way!”
In the exact opposite direction, Rickel urged Wilovan on. Ratici was jabbing something into Wilovan’s shoulder.
“Antidote. If that bastard cut it with something else…”
“It will do. Give me my hat.”
Wilovan snatched the hat out of Rickel’s hands. Ratici was turning, priming a weapon, but no one was coming after them. They were going…the wrong way.
“We have a minute. They think we went that way. Come on!”
The two traded glances. Oteslia’s best gang…? But Rickel was running, and he could run.
Some people were sprinters. Other people were marathoners. Rickel belonged to the hundred meter—get-out-of-trouble specialists. He dodged around a screaming [Waitress], vaulted a cart—Ratici was already next to him. Wilovan just charged through everything but the Human, who he tipped his hat to.
“Terribly sorry, Miss—”
Rickel pointed, and Wilovan crashed through a door into a yard around The Dragon’s Horde. There was a wall. And…a ladder?
“I should have put it up, but I wasn’t sure I’d have time.”
Ratici blinked, stowing a grappling hook. Wilovan looked at Rickel.
“It was a risky bet to gamble on. If your Skill didn’t work…”
Rickel shook his head, grinning desperately.
“What kind of idiot bets on life-or-death stuff? I’m not a high-level [Gambler]. Shit, they’re coming…”
The ladder, strategically placed, was being wrestled into position, but the fastest members of the gang had come right after them. They poured out the door—and into Wilovan’s club.
Thump. Thump. Thump. A heavy sound emerged in quick succession, puzzling the Human at first. His heart was pounding out of his chest. He had never done this, risked his life like this, but—what was that sound?
One, two, three, four, five-six, seven—Rickel heard the sounds and turned as Ratici swarmed up the ladder. He turned, and stopped for a second.
Seven bodies and a [Thief] halted before exiting into that deadly kill-zone. A Gnoll stepped back, and stormed to the ladder.
Ratici grabbed Wilovan and he tumbled over the wall. Rickel leapt and landed hard, swearing. Ratici nimbly dove and landed like a cat—but he tossed down one last object before he did.
The whumph and smoke and screams echoed in the background as the three ran for it. Rickel kept pace until he had to slow, clutching at his side. Ratici and Wilovan just towed him on.
“Well, that’s torn it. We need either the Watch or to get Miss Lyonette to safety. If they’ll continue.”
“Might not. The Watch will never get them, Wilovan. They’re right in the open. Either they’re twisted to sideways, or something’s up.”
The two Gentlemen Callers caught their breath. They looked at their hats, put them on their head—and they were alive. Alive, thanks to the Human, grinning, shaking with adrenaline.
“I’m…I’m going to pee. And then puke. I’ve never done that—we nearly died.”
Rickel gasped, holding his heart. Wilovan clapped him on the shoulder.
“We didn’t, thanks to you, sir.”
“I know…you’ve got to go!”
“What about you?”
Rickel had run so hard he tasted iron. He tried to speak, coughing.
“—catch up. You have to go. You’re with the Human with the Faerie Flowers, right? She’s going to be assassinated! Poruniv’s sending a huge group. In the open.”
Wilovan and Ratici tensed.
“I heard him and double-checked. I’ll—”
They were already going, but Ratici held for a second to hear Rickel’s voice. Wilovan was pounding down the pavement—where was she now? Rickel gasped. He had saved them in a moment when even they thought they’d die. But why? Who was he? Part of the answer was in Rickel’s next words.
“Ask her. Is she…? Are we from the same place? If she is—”
He grinned. At last. At last!
“We’re on the same side.”
Magnolia Reinhart stood with her famous carriage behind her. She walked down across a gloriously long carpet, past lines of servants holding treasures. In that moment, she looked like a fitting guest of Oteslia.
The scion of the Five Families. The Deadly Flower of the North. A foe, perhaps. To be trusted? How could they trust her?
What did she want, really? Some dearly wanted it to be something genuine, like Navine. Others saw her as inherently untrustworthy, the great manipulator in some game they could barely see.
Ilvriss studied the [Lady] as she passed him by. Lyonette looked at Magnolia, hands clenched in her dress, disturbed by their conversation of yesterday. Waiting. All of them.
“Drakes and Gnolls of Izril. Or is it ladies and gentlemen?”
Magnolia’s lips quirked. No one spoke, nor did they chuckle. She looked around, eyes alight.
“I know I have put on something of a show. We have engaged with my visit in delightful ways. And, I will admit, less delightful and somewhat tedious little gatherings. I suppose it is to be expected; we are nominally enemies, after all.”
That alone drew a chuckle. Drakes nodded; at least she wasn’t going to lie about the truth. Magnolia nodded as well.
“Yet we could dance forever, and while some of us dance quite well…I did not pack my dancing shoes, among the many things I thought to bring. Some of them gifts. And I do mean that quite sincerely: gifts. None of this is meant to impel you to a decision. In the coming moments, I will lay out a proposal. It is my sincere hope you will ask questions, think on it, and reply in earnest. I hope, naturally, that some of you choose to agree, to participate. But I will not force you.”
Her eyes lit on Lyonette.
“I will not lie, or obfuscate the truth. Which is quite difficult for me—”
More titters of amusement. Magnolia glanced about, breaking the look.
“—but it must be this way. Without further ado: Ressa. Please distribute copies of my proposal.”
“And what would that be, Lady Reinhart?”
A Drake called out, one who hadn’t lost a monocle and was Wall Lord of Manus. Rafaema frowned at him; he wasn’t of the High Council. Hunt Commander Makhir’s ears twitched.
“Why, Wall Lord Aldonss, exactly what I claimed and said from the beginning. This is a gathering, put on by the First Gardener, to assemble like-minded Drakes—or anyone willing to listen—to propose a simple thing. Peace. Between Human and Drakes. As I have said from the start.”
The Wall Lord looked at Magnolia. He began to snort…but then stilled.
“You mean, you were serious?”
She sighed. But it was not an uncommon reaction. Peace? It was too simple. Too…straightforwards for a woman rumored to walk in zig-zags and squiggles. Yet it was true. She had come here, to try and make peace. That was what she did. That it took them by surprise said something about plans and schemes.
Ressa and six other [Maids] and two [Butlers], including Reynold, had simple stacks of scrolls in their arms. They passed them out, and Drakes gathered around, reading over each other’s shoulders, snatching more to inspect. It was a contract—a copy of the one Magnolia Reinhart presented to the First Gardener.
Ilvriss read one with Nerul and the [Diplomat] began swearing before he was halfway down the page. He recognized a legally-binding magical contract when he saw one, but it was what it contained that made his mind race. Navine held it up for her mother, eyes incredulous. Rafaema read her copy with Cire peeking at her.
“Is she serious?”
Rafaema scoffed. But Cire just blinked.
“Wait…is it bad? It’s not…”
“This is ridiculous.”
One Gnoll from Zeres tore her copy up before she was halfway through. Her companion, rather than join her friend, gave her a steady look.
“Why don’t we read it first before shredding it entirely? Excuse me, Miss Human? Another copy, please.”
“But the contents…is this serious? It’s nothing!”
“On the contrary. It’s everything. It may be less ambitious than you expect of me—but I think it is eminently acceptable. Or do you disagree, First Gardener?”
Lyonette had her own copy, proffered to her by Reynold. She read the same thing she had looked at yesterday. It was indeed simple. Iron-tight, such that even Nerul doubted Mister Superior and all his best teammates could find a loophole. But simple.
“Uncle. I think I have it all set out; it’s the most straightforward contract I’ve read. But can you make sure we have it right?”
Osthia was staring at it and blinking. Nerul cleared his throat and Navine and Helessia drifted over.
“Of course, nephew. Family. It’s…well. It is a straightforward, three-part contract. Three clauses, no open ways to rephrase or add anything. Firstly, a commitment to the project known as the ‘Wall of South and North’—that bit’s a placeholder. Second? A mutual defense clause. If the signatories underlined therein come under attack, their counterparts are obligated to come to their aid only if the following groups should attack. From the north: Terandria. From the south? Antinium.”
Makhir was blinking at the contract. A mutual defensive pact against two specific enemies. Not Baleros, or the King of Destruction. But the Antinium? Rafaema wanted to know what Manus would make of that.
“That’s…and the last bit?”
Navine looked at Nerul. The [Diplomat] smiled and nodded at Magnolia like he was a [Fencer], acknowledging the first cut of a bout. She winked back with a smile.
“What I suspect will cause the biggest fight because it might actually be…a simple non-aggression pact. Again, non-binding in terms of future wars. It does not prohibit us from making war or joining it on the north. It does, however, declare that the signatories—the sides who sign the pact will no longer consider themselves in a state of war. Humans and Drakes. They will not support, financially or militarily, the yearly conflict in the Bloodfields, and will agree to open borders and trade…assuming there are any that exist, which, given the state of things, is impossible. But it would mean…”
Ilvriss murmured succinctly. An end to even the scheduled battle at the Bloodfields that cost lives each year. In truth, it even made sense. Neither side waged war as they could, because of the Antinium. But it was—
“You cannot be serious, Magnolia Reinhart. Do you think we’ll agree to this?”
“Which part…is it Merchant Redoger?”
“You have it right, Lady Reinhart. And I represent my city of Marwsh, not just as a [Merchant]. You would have us agree to put money into this wall, say we’re at peace—what will the other cities think?”
“That it is a good idea?”
Navine snapped. She turned.
“Honestly, what part of this is so concerning? I would like to hear more—”
“Wall Lady Navine! This is far too much to accept!”
“Why? Which part? Not wasting lives and weapons at the Bloodfields? Do you know how much it costs to clear it out each year, to begin with? We lose nearly a dozen [Soldiers], even when we clear it at range.”
“After the last battle? When House Veltras—”
“Oh, so you’d be fine if you thought we won the last one?”
The babble of voices grew, but Magnolia Reinhart clapped her hands.
And there was silence. She spoke, brightly.
“I believe there are three issues in the contract. Each one I hope to discuss. I hope each one is reasonable. Let us break it down, if you will. The first is simple. A clear-cut agreement that we do not need to be at war any longer. That the Bloodfields skirmishes waste lives. What does anyone gain from them?”
No one had an immediate response. They fought there because Humans and Drakes were at war. But to outsiders, including Lyonette, it was the most reasonable part of Magnolia’s proposal. She shook her head.
“It has always seemed to me that the only thing that wins at those skirmishes are the Bloodfields themselves. The most you could say is that some level from the conflict, and that is a poor silver lining. Indeed, some years, both Human and Drake groups have refused to send soldiers to fight and die there. This will simply make that arrangement, that sensibility, permanent.”
“And invite critique from all sides.”
“I imagine that is already the case for anyone who is present, Wall Lord Aldonss.”
Magnolia returned. The Wall Lord hesitated, but gave her a grudging nod.
“If you had that as your only clause, we could discuss it. But this second part—Manus would never accept it. A complete defensive pact if the north is attacked by Terandria? Your Houses Veltras and Wellfar just attacked a Human navy.”
“I will admit, Wall Lord Aldonss, that was not the case when this contract was drafted. Do note the date.”
…Months ago. Ilvriss nodded. That was fair. Yet the Wall Lord went on.
“Very well, but in exchange, you promise that the north—or whichever Houses sign this, and I see around two dozen—”
Zanthia of House Briez
Pryde Ulta—who had written her name in a tiny gap above Bethal’s, just below Magnolia’s. Lady Wuvren…Lyonette recognized the names.
“Powerful Human Houses. But they would march entire armies to defend us if a third Antinium War broke out?”
Those present were patently skeptical. To which Magnolia simply responded.
“Of course we would. By ship or through Liscor. I chose the two largest enemies of our peoples; Terandria and the Five Families have an uneasy relationship, as the present now indicates. The Antinium…even more so. [Diplomat] Nerul, I assure you we might even provide a clause that exempts Ailendamus in this case if war were to break out before signatories begin signing. But yes, Drakes might well join the north.”
“And be wiped out. We march our armies north, they die and we’re weakened.”
A Drake from Fissival folded his arms. A Pallassian [Senator], Errif, edged away from him. Magnolia Reinhart frowned mightily.
“This is a magically enforced clause, Spell Lord Uhis.”
“There are ways around it. We need not send all our forces.”
“Then you will not. I do not believe any [Strategist] would demand that, anyways. But it is still binding.”
Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes glittered and the Spell Lord frowned, looking for a retort.
“…Then why would we take this as genuine that the Five Families would come to our aid during an Antinium incursion?”
Two eyes flashed, and for the first time, genuine ire entered the [Lady]’s tone. Ilvriss looked up as Magnolia Reinhart swung around and placed her feet, confronting Uhis.
“Because we will. Because, Spell Lord, I am Magnolia Reinhart. And I did ride to the aid of the Walled Cities and Drakes during the First Antinium War. Or did you forget? I believe it is in your history books, though you do tend to omit my name.”
She looked around, and they looked at her. You did forget, didn’t you? The Lady of House Reinhart had been far younger, then. Younger than Lyonette was now.
“That was decades ago.”
“And I was there, sir!”
The [Lady]’s voice cracked back and the Drake flinched. Magnolia’s eyes burned.
“I was there. No contract forced me to march. The Five Families considered letting the Walled Cities crumble, but I defied even the head of House Reinhart to muster an army. I did not do it expecting the Drakes to throw their gates open and call me a hero, and I am glad to find my trust was never misplaced, not once. I did not do it for accolades; they called me a traitor when I returned. I did it because the Antinium were a threat to all of Izril, just like the Goblin King.”
She looked around.
“The Goblin King, whom the Drakes marched against to fight in the Second Antinium War. So before you say anything, I do not hold that debt over the south. Even if I could. I hope, though, Spell Lord, that I have at least earned a modicum of trust. If the Antinium attack…I will be there. Have I earned the right to say that?”
The [Lady] looked about. No one, not even the red-faced Uhis, dared gainsay her that. Lyonette held her breath. For a moment, that was the Magnolia she wanted. But then the [Lady] calmed. Smiled. And hid away her fangs.
What a waste.
“…Both are somewhat contentious offers. The last, perhaps the most. But I must explain it. ‘The Wall of South and North’. Ressa, the diagram.”
The [Maid] brought out something. Not just a blueprint that Reynold walked over to get, but another object. A custom-made dais, set with a huge quartz-stone that reflected something into the air.
“What project is this? A Wall? As in a Walled City?”
The First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, asked. She wasn’t sure what to make of Magnolia’s offer. It was ambitious. And yes, almost less than she had expected Magnolia to offer. But it might work. She might be able to agree to that. But what would the other Walled Cities do? Her eyes lingered on Cire, then Ilvriss, Makhir…
None of them gave away their thoughts. Zeres, Fissival, and Pallass were noticeably absent in any major respect aside from individuals. And this contract only had one of the Five Families and their allies signing it.
Not enough? She looked, as Magnolia Reinhart unveiled her final trick that wasn’t a trick. Because she explained it. Because she showed them openly what it was, to get them to agree.
“On the contrary, First Gardener. I do not put a lot of stock in walls around cities. It has always seemed to me that you can just…fly over walls. Oh, don’t bristle. It was a little joke. I know there are protections and I do not doubt they have saved countless lives. But if there was ever to be a wall I built, I would not shelter Invrisil. It is…this.”
A wall rose, glittering, a kind of projection that Lyonette recognized. Because she had met someone who did the exact same. The [Architect] of Liscor, Hexel, had the same thing in a Skill. This was more permanent, made out of magic. Magnolia gestured at it.
“A way to make good on the promises outlined. Peace. Defensive pacts. And…a way to be more than distant allies, or disgruntled neighbors. I did not have the way to realize it. So, a long time ago, nearly a decade, really…I reached out to someone who could help me. He completed it, a great work. One of the last, I think. Before his death.”
A name traced out as the project unveiled itself. Lyonette had missed it the first time, and she gasped. Ilvriss murmured.
“Drevish the Architect.”
One of the King’s Seven. The famous, deceased…Rafema stared at it.
“What is it?”
For it was no Walled City she had ever known. It was, in fact, a wall of a strange kind. It had a roof—of sorts. But it was a long, slightly curved wall. No battlements on top. Indeed, no one could walk on top of it. It looked like it would fit into something. And it was entirely hollow. Strong, thick walls, as thick as Manus’ second layer of walls. Defensive spells aimed…up? Some down. Clear anti-tunneling defenses, and two reinforced gates at either end.
The most curious bastion she’d ever seen. It almost looked like it was designed to defend against itself. That was to say, people who’d already entered it. And aerial attacks—half the defenses were pointed straight up.
“I regret to say that Drevish’s amazing abilities did not extend to names. Or rather, he considered the ‘Wall of South and North’ a quite apt title and never bothered to update it. Yet he did pour his genius into this project. I believe it can be done, and quickly too. With the right funding and will.”
“It’s the most damned confusing construction I’ve ever seen. And I grew up in Manus. What…what is this for?”
Wall Lord Aldonss and Merchant Redoger peered at it. Of the two, it was the [Merchant] who asked the right question. Magnolia Reinhart smiled.
“Why, the High Passes, of course. The actual, second area seldom-used. The pass between north and south. This would be a tunnel. A pass…within the High Passes. Protected from monsters and anything underground. A safer road than even Liscor, with respect. Liscor does flood, and it does have the Bloodfields. This? This would be…”
“It would be madness.”
Helessia whispered. The Drake actually tried to prop herself in her bed and her attendants moved to help raise her up. She spoke, coughing lightly, as she looked at Magnolia.
“With all due respect, Lady Reinhart—even I could not agree to this. War-hungry [Lords] would allow its completion—if only to send raiding parties through. It would be the prize to whichever side held it; unfettered access to the enemy’s lands.”
Ilvriss agreed. His scales prickled, just imagining House Veltras holding it, able to send through a lightning-army whenever they wanted.
“Lady Helessia. I am so glad you spoke. Nor do I think you are a fool, and you recognized the very same thing I pointed out to Drevish when I first brought up the problem. To which, I have to say, he laughed and came up with a solution in fourteen seconds. And it is this: no force can or ever will fully take this wall. Because of the gates.”
She pointed. Now, everyone focused as the blueprint focused on the two gates inside the walled tunnel. Two gigantic gates that looked as ugly as any Manus fortification Rafaema was familiar with. She muttered.
“You could put an entire army there and have every [Mage] blast it and it wouldn’t break.”
“Yes, Lady Rafaema. Not to mention, the tunnel is not exactly a good place to fight. No fortifications for an army assailing either gate. Do you see? Each side will have access. A key is not needed; one can simply shut the gate and hold it. And the other side…”
…Would rather pass by Liscor or climb around it than go through. Rafaema tapped her lips. She was beginning to understand.
“Then how would it work? I can see it’s defensive on both sides. But if one side closes the gate…”
“The other doesn’t get through. I could hold this with a thousand Drakes against twenty, fifty times that number. Yes…so we would have some safety. Obviously a garrison, but Lady Reinhart. This ambitious project will cost gold for dirt. Why would we make this, fund it, work together for a door we can both slam in each other’s faces?”
Magnolia looked to the side. And for the first time, Merchant Redoger, not she, answered.
“…Because we wouldn’t. Not unless an actual war occured. With all this effort put in, it’s too costly. It’s a crying waste of gold if we did that. But we would not have to. There would be two trade routes to either side of Izril, west and east. It would change the economies. House Veltras goods flowing in from one side, Invrisil’s monopoly would break—Pallass wouldn’t be the Walled City in control of all the goods flowing from the south.”
Errif yelped. But Magnolia Reinhart smiled.
“It is a [Merchant]’s answer. What good is a door, if it is always locked? I thought someone would understand.”
The Gnoll nodded at her. Thoughtfully, Ilvriss tried to imagine it. It was far from Salazsar, but it would provoke a boom of settlements near the door—assuming it stayed open. Perhaps…multiple Liscors. Before, he would not have thought that was a boon, but a city with Humans and Drakes and Gnolls might not consider each other so…alien.
He looked at Lyonette, and wondered if Magnolia had looked at Liscor as the example. But she hadn’t. This was years, nearly a decade or more, in the works.
This was Magnolia Reinhart’s proposal. A contract of three. And no matter how they craned their necks or twisted, none of her guests could say that any one part was beyond all comprehension. There were certainly parts they objected to, and the whole was a grand, dubious undertaking. Put their names on the contract?
Yet. Wall Lord Aldonss looked at Magnolia Reinhart. He cleared his throat.
“…Forgive me, Lady Reinhart. I understand that you would now have us ask questions about details, and we would likely receive…gifts…and communicate this with our cities and our own people.”
She twinkled at him, expectantly.
“I sense a ‘but’, Wall Lord.”
He nodded, almost smiling.
“But. Is this truly it? Do you have a future design, or is this the whole of what you propose? I would take further revelations poorly, you understand.”
She clasped her hands together, and spoke sincerely. But oh, even when she was, she was bad at it, Lyonette thought.
“It is, Wall Lord. The whole of it, I swear on truth stone and Skill and House Reinhart. I could not lie to you. Not if I wanted sincere allies. And I must have that. I did not come to trick you, or force you to agree. I hope each Walled City will hear this and deliberate. Negotiate, although it is a straightforward contract I have no intention of changing. I hope at least one Walled City will sign, and other Drake cities as well.”
Her eyes lingered on the First Gardener, but it was a troubled reply she got. Aldonss sighed.
“This will not lead to peace, though. Even if we create this in our lifetimes, the gates might close for decades. It will not, I fear, do more than end some of the hostilities at the Bloodfields. Yet I imagine it will continue, and distrust…it cannot be said that this is the cure for Drake and Humans’ bad blood. Not after so long.”
Everyone nodded, then. Even Magnolia Reinhart. And here it was. Lyonette saw her take a breath.
“I know. You know, Wall Lord Aldonss, I feel like that is almost a poor argument. Because, yes, it cannot fix the history of war and injustices we have done against each other. It is only a step, and a small one at that. But it would be a step, the first taken in millenia. A step, for another step in the future. This is not enough? If you say this—I would be very upset, because even coming to this one step has taken me half my life, Wall Lord. And it would be my greatest triumph if I could realize it.”
She turned her head, and regarded her plan. Magnolia chuckled softly. Lyonette felt like the next words were aimed at her. But then—Ilvriss and Navine and many others thought the same thing.
“I know some of you expected a genius proposal from me. I do hope this meets your standards. Yes, it is not quick. But change never is. And…I must tell you something. True change never is. If, by some miracle, each Walled City agreed to trade and make peace with their enemies, the Humans, tomorrow, I doubt it would change a thing. Because that is not how the people would see it. Those are but words.”
Rafaema found herself nodding. Yes. Yes…she locked onto Magnolia and listened more intently. The [Lady]’s head turned.
“I can force those present, persuade them into doing things my way. But that does not change the citizens of your cities. It will not change their children. This might. Seeing Humans coming through a safe passage, cities where our kinds mingle? It is a good first step. You see—there is a way of looking at things like this. It is like…to use an analogy fit for Oteslia, a tree. A hope. We plant it, and water it, and do things to the soil I suspect.”
She waved her hands, impatiently, as one of the actual [Gardeners] snorted.
“We let it grow. Over years. Decades. Until it is mighty. A beautiful tree, fit for shade, sometimes for fruit, sometimes just to be. And then some fool takes an axe and in an hour, undoes decades of work. That is inevitable, I am afraid. If not a fool, then a lightning bolt in a storm. A wildfire. Bugs. Dreadful things. You cannot prevent it all.”
She tsked, as those experienced in the art of horticulture winced at memories. Magnolia Reinhart went on, looking ahead.
“…But that is why you plant hundreds of trees. Entire forests, in case one falls. Multiple forests, you see? Some will inevitably die. Others, though, will live. However. It is a fact that you will not see the results in your lifetimes. You will see the first trees. Not those that reproduce and come after. Yet what you are doing—is making the world better. Just not for you. That is what I would like to do, if you will help me.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss had never met Magnolia Reinhart before. This was not the woman he expected. He envisioned what she was imagining. How…difficult that was. How against everything he had been raised to think it was. Forests. Nothing immediate.
Good for the future. Hard work with no reward. Yet—when statues faded, there trees would be. They would not bear your name. They would not be the same ones you planted, but descendants that survived if you worked hard.
Who would do such a thing? Who could appreciate it? Not you. Not your children. But…
Ressa stood there, behind the woman she had chosen to follow on her lonely quest. And she knew the answer.
You would never benefit yourself. No one would thank you in your lifetime, or see the full scale of what you had done. But perhaps. Perhaps someone with eternity ahead and behind him would. He could see it, and see what she had done across the ages he slept and woke.
A girl’s answer to a weary Dragon’s despair. Even now—what a young, idealistic idiot. Ressa closed her eyes as Magnolia Reinhart spoke.
The First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, did not know what Ressa saw. But at the same time…she saw. She looked at the image and idea Magnolia was talking about. Not as it was. Everything was so blurry. But her eyes roamed, looking for the Earth Dragon, listening to Magnolia with an uncharacteristically solemn look on his face. A gentle, slightly wild child. Her son.
As he had always been, for them all. She clutched at her heart and had to sit. Mivifa helped her down. She saw it too.
Wall Lord Ilvriss shook his head. Magnolia Reinhart stood there.
“I will have peace, as honestly as I can contrive it. I am not your enemy, ladies and gentlemen. Believe me. Whenever a threat should arise, be it [Witch] or Antinium, Necromancer, or plague, that is what I must fight. I stopped my cousin from making war at Liscor. Because that is our role. Let us allow Izril to change, and fight only what we must.”
There she stood, a watch-woman, holding a torch, looking at him. At him. He nodded to her. So that was what she was trying to be.
He murmured. Yet not a second passed that he thought she was wrong. Only saw what it had cost. Was that what Zel Shivertail had seen? Why had Ilvriss not gone with him? How the future might have changed if he was the him that could go back.
“I should have been me, back when I was him.”
He saluted Magnolia Reinhart with one claw, and she dipped her head at him and walked on.
They admired her. Even Cire, who stared at an image she had conjured.
“That would be nice. I like trees.”
…But she disagreed. Lyonette du Marquin shook her head. And she spoke, though that was not arranged, though she knew it was unwise to attract attention to herself.
“It’s too long, Lady Reinhart. We can do more. You say we will be allies—that is to say, north and south for only the most dire enemies. You give these species a chance to change over time. But I have been to a place where bonds just as great can be forged far faster. Why not ask for more? Let those who sign that contract be allies in all wars. In all battles.”
Drakes shook their heads at her, and Ilvriss fixed Lyonette with a gaze, but her hands were clenched. She had seen it.
“When there is danger, we will be there. That is a promise between true friends. I know there are those who could make such a promise, now. Perhaps not all. Not by one contract. But…”
And her head turned to Wall Lord Ilvriss. Magnolia Reinhart shook her head. She smiled at Lyonette, sadly.
“I am sure it would endure, Miss…Solstice. I do not doubt the strength of your words. Or individual friendships. However, even if we could agree to that—and we do not trust each other enough—”
She looked around, and met rueful smiles with her own.
“—such promises would only last as long as we lived, no matter how hard we tried to keep to them. The problem with such fiery pacts, you see? Inevitably, they are broken. Because they must be. Because something changes. Something slow. We will not see it, friends. But we may live proudly, if we keep ourselves moving to that goal.”
The First Gardener nodded. A [Druid] in the back let his tears dribble down into his beard. And that was why he followed her. The [Druids] of Oteslia nodded.
Such gentle persuasion Magnolia Reinhart used. Lyonette wanted her to inspire. Lead by example! Do more than hold out a hand—grasp mine. She could not love Magnolia’s idea, not alone.
Nor—the shaking figure. Makhir felt a nudge. He looked over at Ferris and the [Infiltrator] directed his attention left.
“Rafaema? Is something…?”
The Lightning Dragon stared at Magnolia. She was shaking. Shaking her head, backing up a few steps, her discipline shattered. She saw what Magnolia was talking about. She saw the scale, taken in mortal lifetimes. But unlike Cire—Rafaema was horrified.
“No. No. It’s too long. It’s too much. I can’t—”
Her breath came in gasps. As if something heavy were on her chest. Panic welled in her, and she could not explain why. Only that she saw herself. Over those long ages. Was that what it took? Alone?
Cire touched her claw. Rafaema turned. She tore away from Cire and stumbled away. Magnolia Reinhart glanced at her, as she stood in the center of it all.
Some would never agree. Drakes and Gnolls left to tell their allies exactly what the Human wanted and conspired to oppose it. But more than she could have hoped at this weary point stayed. Not a single quill touched the contract. Not yet.
A tiny step, that she had to write in ink by the time this ended.
The debate was in full force, and Magnolia Reinhart occupied the center circle, talking candidly about the cost—which Drevish had tried to marry to speed and quality. It was said you could only get ‘cheap’, ‘quick’, or ‘good’, on a project, and not all three. It was a truism Drevish had laughed at. For lesser people, perhaps. While he had died, his work had not.
It was at this moment, as Lyonette hung back, offended to her core, without being able to fully denounce Magnolia—only that she was doing the right thing the wrong way—and as Ilvriss was thoughtfully heading over to introduce himself to a stiff [Butler]—that someone came rushing up the steps.
“First Gardener—a minor issue.”
Shaerrha glanced up. She listened, then approached Magnolia.
“Lady Reinhart. Do you have any…Human allies in the area?”
People listened in, and the First Gardener let them as Magnolia Reinhart raised her brows.
“Many allies, but none directly here.”
“Ah. Well, there is an emerging situation. It may become…unpleasant. I am told Liscor’s army is there, and they are pragmatists. But the Admiralty and Zeres’ army also hold the area. And while I am told Admiral Asale and the Admiral of the Land are reasonable—the current Sharkcaptain is not. There are four Humans trying to reach Oteslia. They have passports and I do not know how they got this far unhindered. But they are [Knights] and Zeres seems prepared to capture them.”
Lyonette’s head turned. Magnolia raised her brows. She took a deep sip of tea.
“And who might they be?”
“Thronebearers of Calanfer. If their golden plate is anything t—”
Magnolia Reinhart was too much of a [Lady] to do a proper spit-take. She didn’t even so much as purse her lips. Lyonette du Marquin, on the other hand, was quite capable of expectorating all over Nerul. The [Diplomat] stared down at his vest.
“I have never seen such a splendid execution. The old Winebreath Blaster. Classic diplomatic trick. You, young lady, are a credit to your home. Natural talent. Indeed.”
Ruefully he walked away. Lyonette didn’t even hear—she turned.
Oh no. Not them. How had they…? Mrsha had written to her about four idiots, but not…
“Dear me. By provoke, do you mean…?”
Magnolia Reinhart glanced towards the double doors. Shaerrha bit her lip.
“Oteslia is just ahead! Ride! Ride, damn you!”
Dalimont roared. The three Thronebearers surged after him, terrified. A sea of Drakes were hot on their heels.
“We have passports! We h—”
An arrow grazed Ser Lormel’s head and he ducked. To be fair, it was a practice arrow, but the idiot didn’t have his helmet on and he was trying to put it on as they rode. Which was an exercise in futility and he lost track of it. It went rolling and two Drakes tripped over it, which was something.
Lormel nearly went back to get it, but Zeres’ army, loosing arrows without arrowheads, daring them to take a swing, was cutting off their exit.
“Do not draw your blades. Even if they attack.”
Dalimont growled at the others. They had their hands on their hilts, but they could see the Drakes wanted them to spill blood. Then they died.
It had all gone so well. The Liscorian army had been very reasonable, especially when they saw the passports originated out of Liscor! However, Zeres?
“They’d violate the rules of war just to kill us?”
“I believe they would, Dame Ushar. Listen to me. One of us has to make it to Oteslia.”
“The gates are closed!”
“Then do nothing. If they beat or torture us, tell them only the truth. Listen—”
Hands were grabbing for Dalimont. Warily, he knocked them down with his glove, but he dared not strike at the jeering Drakes. He saw the Admiralty, including a thunderously powerful Drake with an aura that sent barbs into Dalimont even from afar. Arguing with two leaders.
Was this where they failed? After going so far to reach the 6th Princess? As someone grabbed his leg and he jerked, Dalimont feared it was so. His horse reared, and if a flying hoof struck—
Exactly that happened. A Drake cried out and the others shouted.
“They’re attacking! Get them!”
“No, damn you! The Eternal Throne—”
Blades came out. Dalimont went down, cursing. Not now! Not after all! He was thrashing as someone ripped off his helm and put a spear to his throat when he heard a sound.
…At first, he thought it was a horn, from one of the Singer’s songs.
But it wasn’t her songs, as he had heard in desperate hours. It was just a horn. First one, then two—musical, in a sense, but a single, crescendoing note.
They came from the walls. The fighting slowed. Someone shouted.
“1st Marines, about face! Formation! Formation!”
It was a worried tone. Dalimont, still on the ground, didn’t dare move. The other three Thronebearers rose, armor muddied. Scarcely believing it. Yet in the distance…
Oteslia’s gates were swinging open.
Both Zeres and Liscor’s forces reacted with calm alarm. There was no chance Oteslia’s 1st Army would sally forth. That would be silly.
…But just in case. [Archers] and [Mages] trained their arrows on the gates. The Sharkcaptain crowed and pointed to Asale.
“See? Wait for it—that damned coach is coming!”
Asale rolled his eyes. The Admiral of the Supply doubted Magnolia Reinhart was so stupid as to do something expected. Indeed, no pink carriage came out of the gates.
…But Magnolia Reinhart did.
The Sharkcaptain choked on his own words. He stared as a figure filled the gates nearest the Thronebearers.
“You idiot. Belay that order. We will not assassinate a [Lady] of the Five Families in the open!”
The Admiral of the Land roared at the Sharkcaptain. Bows went up and untensed, as the [Lady] halted there. Asale’s spyglass was one of thousands on her. What was she doing?
Well, standing there. But that wasn’t what made Asale’s eye lock on her and realize she was playing a different game from the impulsive Zeresian army. His gaze swung sideways.
“Ah. That would be…the First Gardener of Oteslia. Bows. Down.”
Shaerrha Brasswing stood beside Magnolia Reinhart. She looked shaky with nerves. Magnolia was serene—or at least, outwardly composed. The Sharkcaptain, Femar, hesitated.
“What in the name of Creler nests is she doing out there?”
Well. Standing with Magnolia Reinhart. And then…walking forwards. Asale saw Magnolia Reinhart glance around, smile, and make a comment.
To a tall [Maid] who produced a parasol, a pink one, and opened it over both’s heads. On her right, Mivifa of Feathers strode forwards, grim, staring around at the army in front of them. And behind them came Oteslia’s guard. And…
“That’s a [Druid]. One of Oteslia’s finest.”
The Admiral of the Land was slower to catch on. Asale just lowered his spyglass when he saw another face.
“And Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar. His sister too. If eyes don’t mistake, that was Wall Lord Aldonss.”
“What are they doing?”
“Walking, you idiot.”
Diplomat Nerul was striding along in a new shirt, rubbing his claws together happily and waving for any scrying orb that might be there. Asale rubbed at his face.
“You just walked into their trap.”
“Nonsense. We have an army. Do they want to be captured?”
“Oh, please, Femar. Yes, let’s capture the First Gardener of Oteslia, Magnolia Reinhart, and multiple Wall Lords and Ladies of different cities. If we even got close—I count three Named-rank threats. There’s Shriekblade…and there’s Saliss of Lights. Four. And look at the walls.”
The Drakes looked up. Asale pointed out more figures had joined Oteslia’s [Soldiers]. Who were now manning the walls as if they expected an attack. The figures wore [Maid] or [Butler] uniforms and they carried…presents.
Bows. A spear. A box you did not want opened in your direction. They had, of course, been meant as gifts, and many weren’t combat items. But if they had to give them to Zeres’ army…
“We are not going to attack. Send word to 1st Marines. Tell them to let the Thronebearers go.”
Asale sighed. Femar spluttered.
“I’m going to—”
“If you go down there, Sharkcaptain of Zeres—”
The Admiral of the Supply, who was a peer to his cousins with levels—and seldom gave orders, raised his voice. Even Femar stopped, and turned, full of anger.
“—What? What will you do?”
Asale glared at him.
“I’ll save a recording and play it in every barracks in all of Zeres. Not that I’d be the only one.”
Femar hesitated. Magnolia Reinhart was proceeding slowly across one of the bridges, waving at the disbelieving Ser Dalimont. Asale sighed.
He had probably helped Magnolia Reinhart more than he could believe. Admiral Asale looked at the image that would be playing on every scrying orb.
Grand Magus Eldavin looked at the young woman…no, the woman, walking with her head raised, smiling, chatting, at ease.
As Zeres’ army drew back. They could attack. An arrow could claim her life—well, if it got past her ring. But would they attack?
For there walked the First Gardener, Mivifa, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and more. Would you attack? Because you could. And if you did, it was war. But if there was a chance of peace…
“You did it.”
Eldavin looked at Magnolia. Then—clutched at his heart. Why did it hurt…? But he never took his eyes off of her. Gnolls and Drakes and Humans, walking together, to stop some idiots from getting slaughtered. Daring an army to attack. Knowing full well they wouldn’t dare.
A message. Asale leaned on his chair. Not for the first time, he regretted not accepting Magnolia’s invitation to Oteslia weeks ago, the Serpentine Matriarch’s will or not. He was so focused on the events outside, he nearly missed the next bit.
Inspire them. She was doing it. Just what Lyonette had wanted. Magnolia Reinhart had looked out and seen the Thronebearers wallowing in a trap of their own stupidity—
And she’d gone to save them. Not for them, but because of what it could mean. She’d talked the First Gardener into it, Ilvriss, and the rest. Some had resisted—and it had been no less than Wall Lord Aldonss who agreed first.
Lyonette du Marquin stood on the steps of the ballroom, watching the small group going to thumb its nose at Zeres depart. She would have gone with Magnolia, but the [Lady] had stopped her.
“Not you, Miss Solstice. I think you and the poor unfortunates out there should not be, ah, together on scrying orb. Don’t you?”
That was completely reasonable. So Lyonette remained. She didn’t fear for the [Knights], yet dreaded their arrival. Magnolia might save her some trouble by convincing them to keep their heads down.
Maybe they could go after Mrsha. For once she didn’t dread them as much, not with the cunning [Lady] on her side. Lyonette was wavering, as Cire chased after Rafaema, who was sitting, head in her knees, not with the others.
Naturally, that was when Wilovan and Ratici found her.
“Lyonette! Get inside!”
A Gnoll tore up the stairs, followed by a blur of a figure. Lyonette looked down. He was singed head to toe. His clothing was battered and he had cuts showing through his fur.
Ratici was hot on his heels. The Gentlemen Callers barked one word.
Lyonette saw them a second later. Ratici leapt, snatched an arrow out of the air as Lyonette turned and ran. In truth, they misnamed what was coming for her.
[Assassins] used stealth and cunning and had shown how poorly they did in a stand-up fight in the north. The Second Gardener didn’t have many, if any in his Gang. He just sent a mob to kill Lyonette.
Dozens of figures were swarming up the steps, blades in hand. Someone screamed for the Watch as Lyonette looked towards the ballroom. The ballroom filled with people and few guards now, who would be diced in seconds and had so many openings—
Ratici pointed and she raced down the steps. Of all the times—! Magnolia wasn’t here, nor was Saliss, or anyone else! Even the staff had gone!
“Kill the Human!”
“Why are they after me?”
Wilovan bellowed. He and Ratici charged down the street. The [Thug] turned, saw a wagon, and bellowed.
“Off your seat, sir!”
A Gnoll had a second to gawp before Wilovan was up. He tore the Gnoll out, tossed him onto the street, and to Lyonette’s surprise, didn’t commandeer the wagon—it would be too slow. Rather, he cut the horses loose by ripping their harness off the wagon, then strode around and struck two wheels with clinical blows.
The wagon collapsed, and Wilovan grunted.
A wall of dirt rose, blocking the rest of the street, aside from a single opening. Wilovan glanced at Lyonette.
“Inside this building, Miss. Sword out. We just have to wait for Mister Saliss. Don’t move. Ratici will have the inside. I’ll stand here.”
He set himself. Grimly, calmly. Lyonette felt her throat constricting. Her heart pounding. What madness was this?
She didn’t know, not knowing what had passed with the two. But she did know a dead man when she saw one.
She saw Erin lying on the ground.
“Glad we could get to you, Miss Lyonette. We owe a Rickel a favor. A good man. This is the place, Ratici.”
“A good place, Wilovan.”
The two tipped hats. Lyonette saw Wilovan take a huge breath. He turned, and smiled jauntily at a mob of low-level, deadly, unscrupulous men and women. Then he bellowed, for perhaps the first time in memory.
“Watch! Summon the Watch!”
They never slowed.
As Magnolia Reinhart greeted the Thronebearers, outside the gates, someone came pelting to get them nearly ten minutes after the mob first attacked Lyonette, shouting—Ilvriss turned, cursing, and Saliss blurred. Too late. Everyone who was moving, moved.
A hat lay on the ground. A man made his stand. He should not die. A [Princess] beseeched him, and a fellow tried to honor her request.
It was golden. It was a shout.
“[Boon of the Princess]!”
Out in the open, but she didn’t care. A Gnoll, a [Gentleman Thug], a contradiction in terms, laughed, as it whispered in his mind. It was so bright. Was this real magic?
His club never sang. It just struck and it was a sick thing, as sick as the beast was, without a hat. He held the gap as they went over the top of the walls and wagon. But they came for him. Trying to get past the guardian.
When it fell, they died. But they had knives and arrows. Here came the Gnoll with claws, dodging past two sacrificial pawns. He slashed, six times in a moment, and Wilovan waited for the sting and burn. A fool with a sword ran him through the side.
Too many to dodge. Not for a big lad. The two looked down in shock. At—the torn fabric. The sword literally running through Wilovan’s side—across his fur. His poor coat.
[He Scratched Only Thread].
A club descended on the swordsman as the Gnoll leapt backwards with a cry of alarm. The Drake staggered, alive, but shaking his head, bewildered. Heeding not the cries.
[I Struck Him Deaf].
—Until he fell dead, Ratici’s blades buried in his throat. The [Thug] laughed. It was so golden. No, so bright. Was it just in his head?
…It wasn’t. As the others backed down and Zanzeil fled backwards, and Ecleeif stopped, took one look at the furious duo, and carefully slapped himself with a stray brick and lay down in the alleyway, the rest saw the light.
It did not come from Wilovan’s Skill. It came…from a ring. It should have been bronze. Or it had been. Now, it was gold. It was shining.
The [Worldly Princess] stared at it. What was…this? She saw a ring, the very same ring that Erin Solstice had once worn. A gift—from the Wall Lord of Salazsar light up.
At last. When you needed it. When, and where it mattered most. Just a formality. A trinket that spelled out a single word.
The light burst upwards. In a distant Walled City, an alarm rang.
“A Daughter of the Walls calls for aid!”
They were alarmed. What was wrong? The people stared at the scrying orb where Ilvriss was turning, looking back at Oteslia. The scrying orb was on delay, so they saw the beam of light shoot upwards from inside the City of Growth.
…Ilvriss definitely wasn’t wearing the ring.
But what did it do? Lyonette stared at the glowing ring that had activated due to her distress and fear. Calanfer had objects just like that. Seraphel had a tiara that shielded her from danger, and so on.
Lyonette’s ring of [Fireballs] was pointed, but Wilovan was in the line of fire. Her sword in her free hand that held the glowing ring. Yet it hadn’t exactly done more than scare the army of criminals.
To be fair—that was good. But they realized the light wasn’t harming or hindering them in any way.
“It’s just a trick! Get her!”
Zanzeil, the Gnoll with the Creler-claws, pushed at a low-level [Knifer]. There were nearly eighty in the attack wave left, and the boss himself was on the way since he wanted blood.
And…the Watch wasn’t attacking. Cirediel hesitated as he watched. He’d been about to come to Lyonette’s aid, but there were so many. He raised the brick he’d picked up.
Why was the Watch not coming? Pegasus Riders were circling, but an armored core had yet to advance. They were pointing. Seeing something.
“Lady Rafaema, don’t!”
“Out of my way!”
A furious struggle to the side. The only other person who had remained who could help, Rafaema, was struggling with Makhir and Ferris. Both Gnolls had her wings pinned and she was bashing both, Ferris taking the worst of it since Makhir was behind her. Her mouth was sparking, but they were holding her back.
“We cannot risk—”
Cire stared at the two. Then at Lyonette, and the glowing ring. Someone was aiming a bow at her! Where was the Watch?
“Cire, stand back.”
“Aren’t you going to save her?”
The [Guardsman] hesitated. Cire squared his shoulders. He ran forward, brick raised. If they didn’t go for Lyonette, then—
“I wouldn’t do that, Cire.”
Someone blocked him. Cire wavered, but a claw shot out and plucked the brick from his claw before he could move. A huge figure barred the way. He had an impressive physique, not muscled, but a telltale discolored patch on his neck. Well—newly grown scales too.
The Second Gardener, flanked by the last of the Faces under his command, saw spears rise. Instantly, Oteslia’s Watch converged.
“Let go of the First Gardener’s son.”
A warning voice. Neverwhine and his hound hesitated. Even the two-headed dog stared up at nigh on four dozen bows trained on them. But the Drake never moved. He tossed the brick aside.
“Hello, Cire. Don’t worry, it’s all fine. They’ll be out of our city soon enough.”
He grinned at Cire. The Dragon stared up at him. No—not at his face, or build, which were foreign. But at that patch on his neck. His voice trembled.
“Poruniv? Is that…?”
Cire’s old friend looked around at the Watch, who gritted their teeth in silence. At Oteslia’s flying guard, who looked at each other in silent alarm.
Neither Dragon moved, though Rafaema struggled. The light—
A press of bodies around the wagon and walls. [Thugs] and [Thieves] and worse gathered around.
“Someone kill that damned Human already!”
A roar from the frustrated Face leading them. One of the [Thugs], armed with a deadly hammer—a literal hammer, but so deadly if you swung it hard on either end—was queued up. He didn’t want to die, but there were only three of them. All one needed was to get past the [Thief] and [Thug] and strike once.
Someone jogged up and joined the crowd trying not to foul each other up.
“Hey, are you all here to kill that Human?”
“That’s right! What are you, an idiot? Where were you?”
The [Sneak Thug] snapped at a Drake. The figure caught his breath.
“Sorry. I have no idea what’s going on. But you’re here to kill a Human with a ring? Red hair? Right over there? Exactly forty one paces?”
The [Thug] hesitated. He stared at the Drake. It wasn’t Saliss of Lights; you tended to notice nudity fast. Nor Ilvriss. Nor anyone he personally knew. The Drake was, if anything, just some random Drake. A [Trader]?
The Drake backed up. Then he produced a vase, for some reason—because he was a [Pottery Trader], but that was unnecessary background detail—and crashed it into the [Thug]’s face. The Drake went down and figures turned.
“What the hell?”
A [Thief] raised a dagger uncertainly as the [Trader] gulped. He stabbed, but an armored hand grabbed it. The [Thief] looked up into two burning…lenses? An armored face. An armored body, ruby-red.
“Rubirel Guard! To the aid of the walls!”
A Drake with a halberd decapitated the [Thief]. The crowd of criminals whirled. They saw three bodyguards crash into the mob.
“Attack! Attack! In the name of Salazsar!”
Something bounced off Zanziel’s head. The Face saw a furious…little…Drake woman throw more items from her purse. Suddenly, he realized more figures were emerging, literally running forwards and hurling objects, drawing blades.
Another object bounced off his face. He looked around.
Then more figures broke forwards. Even Oteslia’s [Guards], some of them. But mostly travellers, people who had moved, but anyone who…belonged. Allies, citizens. Summoned by the ring.
Salazsar’s last defenders.
Lyonette saw a mob sweep into the side of the small group of killers. Drakes, Gnolls, civilians, aside from a few of them with actual armor and weapons. The criminals turned, caught off-guard and already nervous. A few began to attack back, like at the old Drake lady waving a cane.
Wilovan snarled, but saw Zanzeil, the Face, slash someone across the arm before they could slash the little figure.
“Retreat! Get out of here! That damned ring—”
More figures were sprinting towards them. And this time—a blurring shape came up the street. Zanzeil took one look at Saliss of Lights, followed by Mivifa of Feathers shooting out of the skies, and ran for it.
Poruniv stared as his attack failed. He stared at that damned ring—then at Cire. Mivifa was flying towards him, and she had seen the Second Gardener.
He twisted a ring and a spear jabbed, but he distorted out of reality before he was touched. Mivifa landed, as Saliss of Lights threw an orb at the retreating criminals running for bolt-holes, many boxed in and surrendering.
Rafaema was still howling, though. She was shuddering, striking the paws holding her. She was enraged. No—burning—
“Rafaema of Manus. Enough. You are hurting your people.”
Only when the voice spoke did she come to her senses. She looked around, and saw Magnolia Reinhart standing there. The [Lady] was a bit winded, but watched Ilvriss and the sons and daughters of Salazsar charging into the city—as well as their allies. Anyone who truly had ever made an oath to defend Salazsar. She’d heard of the rings; more ornamental than useful. Never seen one used.
But it was to Rafaema that Magnolia turned now. The Drake was panting, wild-eyed.
“Let go of—”
Then and only then she saw the bloody-faced Gnoll, still holding onto her. Ferris? Rafaema lowered her arms. Makhir was bleeding, but not nearly as badly wounded.
“What am—I didn’t—”
Her head had gone white. She’d been ready to fight, but they had held her back and she had thought she was going to die like when that Drake, Onieva, got her. But she’d been ready to fight.
Rafaema reached for him, and then doubled over. She nearly fell, and this time Makhir was holding onto her.
“Wall Lady Rafaema? Wall Lady! Are you well? Lady Reinhart, back up—get a [Battlefield Healer]!”
Makhir snapped at Manus’ [Soldiers]. Ferris tried to rise, and Rafaema was clutching at her chest. It hurt. What was—? She felt like she was going to explode, all of a sudden.
“Oh, be quiet, Hunt Commander. What a mess. Rafaema. Rafaema, do you hear me?”
A voice. It was so knowing, so pervasive, it even fought through the Lightning Dragon’s confusion. She shuddered, unable to do more than listen. Something terrible was trying to emerge. She fought now, to keep the lightning from exiting her lungs.
“Listen to me. Do not let it out, here. Fly. Do you hear me? Fly as high as you can. Go! Fly!”
How did she know? How did—
Rafaema was in the air before she could think. Her wings strained, but the magic carried her up. Makhir, held back from Magnolia by Ressa, saw his charge fly straight up. Her eyes were glowing. Her mouth was opening and—
Something burst out of Rafaema. A sudden change in her. Near-death, Magnolia’s speech, something—many things, a confluence of it. An awakening.
Makhir and Ferris saw it. The First Gardener, hurrying towards Cire, Manus itself, watching the events on the scrying orb, suddenly focused on a figure streaking up, high over Oteslia. So high even the great tree receded. No one noticed at first.
They did when the sky split in half and a bolt of lightning pierced the heavens. A strike so thunderous every cloud discharged all the rain within it.
Gigantic leaves fell from Oteslia’s tree. Every animal in a thousand miles screamed—and then hid. Makhir stared up as Rafaema lurched in the air, then discharged a second, smaller blast. How did that woman…?
“Stress. My word. You would think Manus of all places knows how to rear Oldbloods.”
Magnolia winked at Makhir, then lost her smile. She pinched the bridge of her nose. Oh dear.
“Ressa. Tell me I’m not seeing what I’m seeing?”
“You are blind and deaf and stupid, Lady Reinhart.”
She had a nosebleed. Ressa offered a handkerchief to Magnolia as the [Lady] wiped at her nose. And stared at the…scene.
The ionized air filled Oteslia. Outside, an army of Drakes was in disarray. No less than the Admiral of Supply himself came to a halt, too late to save…
Well, the Human. The young woman with fiery, just, striking red hair, a certain complexion of the features, blue eyes, standing with two weary men with hats by her side like bodyguards. Or [Knights] of the street.
Which took nothing away from the actual [Knights], battered, dirty, yes, who had come to a halt and thrown themselves into kneeling postures before her. Just to complete the moment? The high tension in the air, the crowd of Salazsar’s Drakes, multiple famous individuals all here to see, the ringing in your ears after lightning split the world in half and the rain pattering down, revealing gold on the armor, and that shining ring on her finger?
Well, there was Wall Lord Ilvriss, curiously missing his ring himself. Wall Lady Navine and Helessia, shielded from the rain by a kindly [Combat Butler], both looked at the Human. The ring. The [Knights].
All that was missing was a scrying orb. Fortunately, Ressa had slapped and deactivated every one she could see. But here it was.
Oteslia. City of Growth. Rickel laughed until he nearly fell off the rooftop he was watching from. He sipped a cup of coffee and laughed in delight.
You loved to see it.
Author’s Note: I can, of course, check Twitch chat when I write, which is a hindrance and a help. But sometimes I can tell if a chapter is good or not…and be surprised either way.
I feel this is stronger. It has the flaws of a web serial, but I was ‘in the zone’, which applies to writers as well as athletes. Anyone can do it in any scenario, I think.
This was 20,000 words over two days, and…18,000 in one sitting. One of the longest chapters I’ve written, albeit in two parts how I posted it. The reason it came out this way is because of how I’ve learned to write, even over the last few years.
It is not that I become better at every chapter I do. I have ups and downs. But my new system of writing over three days, rather than one, allows more chances for quality to emerge. Me streaming live-writing, doing things like exercising before I write, stretching, all sometimes click together for my best chapters.
Now, was this one of them? I don’t know. That would be your decision. But I felt good writing it. It may rush in places, especially near the end, some parts especially prose might suffer as I work onwards, but it is spontaneous, even though parts are planned. How it comes out is random. Like…experimental cooking. Every now and then you get a nice cake.
Thanks for reading.
Zel vs Ilvriss by Curry, commissioned by Ayutac!
Gothics, Yellat Day, and more, by LeChat!
Wyrm, Fetohep, Mushroom, and more by Brack!