[The Wandering Inn is on its monthly break until October 16th for Patreons, when the edited chapter is due to be written! It may be delayed or the 1st Draft released then, and the edited version later. See you then!]
“The worst thing that could happen has come to pass. We are damned. This is a disaster in our war; I would even venture to say this may be the end of us.”
The grim voice spoke, in the lands of the dead. A pronouncement so dark, so at odds with hope. But then—the brighter anything burned, the longer the shadows. Every [Witch] knew that.
Not that they were here, among this gathering. Nor was the girl who brought true sunlight into this land. Erin Solstice, the living ghost among the dead—no.
She sat there, on the steps of Khelt’s palace. Right over there. Doing something that looked suspiciously like recreating cotton candy and trying to tempt Xarkouth, the Last Dragonlord of Stars with it.
However, it was not always about Erin. True, part of the dead’s concerns revolved around her, but they did not stop plotting or thinking out of her sight. Thus, a smaller conference took place as one member of the group gave their dire pronouncement.
Nerrhavia of Nerrhavia’s Fallen spoke, and it was a motley crew of ghosts who heard her words. Not Califor. Not Khelta of Khelt; she was ever busy. Rather, Nerrhavia had gathered the ghosts who would listen to her. She did not have even Erin Solstice’s ear whenever she wanted, and that rankled.
However, she did have a contact. A friend of Erin Solstice.
Cawe. And Gerial. She had towed him along, and since the great ghosts were in deep deliberation over the news, he came with. They were friends. Low-level friends, who found themselves consorting with legends.
That Cawe was here was simple enough. Nerrhavia stood there, legend of Cawe’s homeland, albeit a dark one. The [Pickpocket] knew the ghostly ruler was being kind and even flattering to her in order to get to Erin. Well…she liked it.
Nerrhavia didn’t lack for important people to speak to, even without being the most important ghost present. Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen often deigned to bear the old tyrant’s company, despite being at odds. That was, ironically, because they shared interests. One had helped depose the other’s reign and dismantle the ancient empire. But it was still the same land, the same people, in a sense. They were Stitchfolk, and keenly aware that all the power here lay in the Necrocracy of Khelt…and Erin Solstice, in a sense.
“You speak like the six have made some grand move. When, in fact, we have received the greatest hope of all, Nerrhavia. Do not be dramatic.”
Nerrhavia turned, and her braided hair of this vision sparkled, each braid banded by a single ring of power. Her eyes flashed behind eye-shadow and painted makeup, and her dress was the very same she had once demanded cut out of the shade of her throne and stitched together.
“Dramatic? I am never dramatic, Merindue. And if I am—it is not now. I do not exaggerate. If you had but the tenth of my least-favored [Magistrate]’s wisdom, you would see it clearly. Or do I not speak the truth, General Ignoyeithe?”
She turned and nodded slightly to one of Chandrar’s legends. And again…they had lots. However, the [General] who had scorched earth across all five continents, once won a battle with a hundred-to-one odds, and had commanded [Soldiers] in his first victory as a boy of eight?
Some respect due. He took attendance, along with some of the less-popular ghosts, those who had served Nerrhavia in life, and crucially, a [Slaver] of Roshal.
Not the company Cawe wanted to keep, although this ghost was old and had reigned in Roshal long before she had even been born—millenia ago—but it was Nerrhavia’s will. Because if you denied them a seat at any table, they were your enemies. And like it or not, they were allies here.
“Do you see, Grand Emir? General? Would one of you explain to Merindue, my able successor?”
Nerrhavia paced back and forth, sneering at Merindue, and turning her gaze to Gerial and Cawe. She fluttered her fingers at both.
“I trust you are not bored? I thank you, Cawe, my subject, for attending me during this busy hour.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Please, you shall call me Nerrhavia. And if ever a way is found, I shall have your name rendered unto Nerrhavia’s honored families, posthumously.”
Cawe fluttered her wings with embarrassment and Gerial nudged her. She winked at him. However, the Silver-rank adventurer was nothing but approving.
“Now there’s a generous client.”
The Grand Emir rose slowly and sighed. He was old and refused to change, much like Drevish. The Garuda opened his cracked beak.
“I see it plainly, Queen Nerrhavia. For did I not use the same ploy? The same tactics? It may not be intentional, but now there is a scroll that presents hope to each ghost, that they might live again. Unity? The Dragon has shattered it among us, if Khelt’s growing power had not already.”
“Exactly. More fool, he. Yet I sense desperation from Terandria too. They have no mortal agents. We do, though the path is long. But that is not why I summoned you.”
Nerrhavia’s eyes flashed. Merindue sat up, eyes flicking back to the gathering. She was sharp, but Nerrhavia was quick. Proof positive?
It was bare moments after Xarkouth had landed and news had spread of the scroll. Already, the most savvy ghosts saw what would happen and were drawing sides.
Cawe wondered if Nerrhavia wanted to live herself. However, the tyrant of old seemed to have a different goal, or one more subtle.
“You see, that you come, and I call you—I do not call you friends, for we never broke bread or shared water. I only call you allies, and the enemy oblivion. Even now, I tell you that we must, the whole of us, put aside ambitions to live. Cawe, you must speak to Erin Solstice and we to our factions. This must not splinter.”
She put a hand into her palm, delicately. Some of the ghosts murmured.
“No designs on life, Nerrhavia?”
An amused [Martial Artist] murmured. Nerrhavia’s eyes flashed again. That wasn’t metaphor, either; little glowing shards of light in her irises told you exactly how peeved she was. All the time.
“Do you think I am talking lightly? I wish to live with every fiber of my being, but there is one scroll, and too many hands grasping. And I have not the means to grasp any harder. Not here. What I am telling you is that this is the thread that will snap, and drag us all into defeat! So yes. My ambition?”
She made a plucking gesture, as if drawing something from her heart, and blew on it.
“I will have you all make that same pact.”
It was an impressive speech. What made even Merindue hesitate was…it sounded like Nerrhavia was serious. And yet—yes, remember the tyrant. Remember her acts and evil that led them to denounce her, and celebrate her demise.
Also remember she was devious enough to rule an empire for nearly a thousand years, and that she did not want to die twice. Erin and Khelt could use worse allies, even of convenience.
“Then, your goal. I can only assume it focuses on Khelt, or Erin Solstice. Given her companions—why the girl? Khelt has the means to utilize our knowledge and might. She is far from her body, and only a single girl.”
“I expected better of you, Grand Emir. Only a girl? Look. She sits there, in the company of the great ghosts. She had the sword. She had the light. Something turns on her. I would count her as a great ally or enemy had I lived. I will bet on one person to be a vessel for my will. And it will be her, not a scroll.”
Nerrhavia glanced at Cawe and Gerial, significantly. Then turned.
“…And we must focus, because I believe this scroll is a great opportunity, chaos or not. Khelt is needed. We are all needed, and greater deeds must be done.”
“Greater than driving those six from Chandrar?”
Gerial muttered. Nerrhavia nodded.
Ignoyeithe straightened. He nodded at Nerrhavia, and spoke.
“I have been thinking. It is hard to know the exact nature of our foe, even with Erin Solstice’s explanation. Yet…it seems to me we have lacked a perspective on this conflict, strange as it might be. We see it as a predation of sorts. Perhaps survival. A return? This is speculation, from our limited talks with Dragons and knowledge gleaned. Yet I look at it like a [Strategist]. There is a certainty in any battle, no matter how oddly fought. Simply—it is this.”
He raised two fingers, and made a simple fist with the other. He gestured, touching fingers to fist.
“Attack. And location.”
“Not attack and defense, surely?”
Merindue was amused. Ignoyeithe shook his head.
“Defense is a form of attack. Perhaps the word is simply ‘conflict’. Supplies, movement, intelligence, feints…even magic boils down to two elements. Where the attack comes, and the nature itself.”
The [General] floated past them. He stared out into the distance of dead Chandrar, but what he stared at was…the reflection of ‘now’. The many changing landscapes of then. His words came slowly.
“…This is a war. Consider our foes. Six. Able to walk this world, perhaps exiled as we are. Trapped. However, I suspect that they have a way back, just like Erin Solstice. Perhaps scrolls of their own, or similar methods. Now consider their nature. They are all anathema. I have felt such revulsion only a few times. I do not know the ‘Crelers’ which came after me; but the Soulless of Rhir? The things that come from beyond, that Drath hunts? And…A’ctelios Salash itself. These all provoke the same universal hatred in my being. Do you understand?”
His audience looked at each other. Gerial shuddered. What in the name of d…what was a Soulless of Rhir? Some horror before Crelers?
“We are all united against them. [Slaver]. [Rebel]. Garuda, Human, ghost. That is not in dispute, [General].”
The Grand Emir nodded. Ignoyeithe made a palm-bow gesture.
“No, Emir. To my point, then? They are surely reviled in the living world. The one girl who lives hates them as much as we! So this is not a war between the dead and dead things. This is a war that we must regard as all versus them. And…they have attacked in the first theatre of war. The first place which, if they conquer, becomes a beachhead for terrible victories to follow.”
Nerrhavia was nodding. Cawe was struggling to follow the metaphysics of what the [General] was seeing, but the Grand Emir had it.
“…The land of the dead?”
“Yes. If it lies empty, then each dead person becomes fuel for them. It becomes, perhaps, an unassailable ground to attack the living world. They will not know from where the danger stems! They will not be able to fight back!”
The [General] gazed around.
“Queen Nerrhavia is correct. This is no time for disunity. The dead must aid the living.”
“But how? Short of Khelt…”
The ghosts were frustrated, galvanized by the repositioning of this war. If this was the first battle…Gerial was feeling for the sword he didn’t have.
“In times past, it was possible. [Witches] harnessed spirits. Even I had ghosts bound to serve me. Whether they were the ones here?”
Nerrhavia frowned mightily.
“There are ways to touch the living. Usually, ways that the living must enable. But surely…if we could become an army of ghosts? All we can give is knowledge, and Khelt is an unpleasant repository for our power. I do not wish to make them the new rulers of our world.”
The Grand Emir nodded, although General Ignoyeithe was upset by the attitude. However, even Merindue remembered that Khelt had once been an expanding kingdom, and aggressive.
“Thus, Erin Solstice, Nerrhavia?”
The woman’s face twisted.
“Yes. But she does not want to know how to acquire power. None that I could give her.”
“Like what? Draining ten thousand men of life the hard way?”
Nerrhavia went over to try and chase Merindue off.
“Thou wretched and inferior successor! We must pool our knowledge. Surely there is more we can use? Is there any message Roshal might heed, if Fetohep of Khelt spoke it?”
The Grand Emir was tellingly silent. When the ghosts looked at him, he sighed.
“…That we do not see eye-to-eye with Khelt, that we have been insulted, is plain, Queen Nerrhavia. The same for the young woman who will heed none of our words. Yet you yourself are as charismatic as you are convincing. We do not wish to end. Roshal will reconvene. Now. Permit me a time to give your words to them.”
He strode away without another word. Cawe glared at him, but Nerrhavia looked satisfied for a moment, before concealing the expression. Merindue hovered over and murmured quietly.
“Did it work? You clearly aimed to sway them.”
“I hope so. It would be just like the [Slavers] of Roshal to hold back a trick. Indeed, among the many who tried to cheat death who remain…I have tried to make a list, but only a few Dragons, perhaps a few surly fools in Terandria, the last Giants…”
“That ancient ghost? Perhaps. Perhaps…now that you say it, perhaps, but I assumed he would be eaten with the rest. Unless he is like the Quarass? But Roshal, indeed.”
Nerrhavia looked at the Grand Emir. Her eyes glittered like dark diamonds.
“After all. If there were any lot to hoard another scroll of rebirth, or doorway to death…it would be them. Now, to work. I have made my oath. Let us restore sense to this rabble.”
Two [Queens] swept onwards. Was this a war, like General Ignoyeithe claimed? A game of chess? If so, they were more useful than not. Otherwise…
And there the greatest chess player, living or dead, sat, happily giving a dead Dragon a sweet tooth. Sometimes there was a central actor to a story, a heroine of the moment. But it was a poor stage if they were alone.
Speaking of Dragons imbibing sugar…well, it was a peculiar thing. But as Reynold, [Combat Butler], driver for Magnolia Reinhart’s famous carriage, looked on, he couldn’t actually remember if Eldavin—that was, Teriarch, that was, Eldavin—had a sweet tooth or not.
He hadn’t known Eldavin was Teriarch, of course, but he had been ‘let in on the secret’ so to speak after being saved from the [Assassins]’ ambush. He was one of three people to know, and considered it a great honor.
Almost as much as being granted the magical legs. Reynold was no expert on the exact cost of the artifacts, but it was probably more than he had ever been paid or was technically worth. Thanks to them, he could walk.
He was a grateful man. If he chose, he could think on the reasons why he needed the legs to begin with. He could think of his dear friend, Sacra. He could think…they were so cold.
His legs, that was. He could ‘feel’ them, connected to his flesh-and-blood legs. A magical bonding at the joining site. But be it some error or just bad design, they were always a bit cold, since no blood flowed through them.
Reynold didn’t think of that. If he did, surely, it had to be in the context that all that he had lost, or seen lost…had to matter. That Magnolia Reinhart had a worthy dream. If not? Then it was for nothing.
He was at least important enough now to have knowledge second only to Ressa herself. Reynold suspected it was Magnolia and Ressa’s way of repaying his loyalty. For instance…he stared at the two Dragons.
Did Teriarch have a sweet tooth? He didn’t know, because the half-Elf had visited sporadically, and before Reynold was employed as well. And…well, because Magnolia Reinhart made you not notice even a [Glutton]’s appetite for sugar.
Incidentally, she was currently engaged in a quiet screaming match with Lyonette du Marquin, in a [Silenced] corner of the ballroom. Reynold saw Wall Lord Ilvriss being harangued by his sister and mother for similar explanations. He was impressed; the Drake calmly thrust his uncle in the way of his family, and ran for it.
Now there’s a fellow who’s led a battlefield rear action more than once. Commendably fast retreat. No hesitation.
Reynold saw Ilvriss pass by the two Dragons. Now here was his chance to observe, and Reynold had to own that, scouting for enemy [Assassins] and [Spies] as he was doing even now, despite that fellow from Manus, and Magnolia’s own security cordon, he couldn’t take his eyes off the Dragons.
They fascinated him, but he was careful not to give away that he was watching. The one with blue scales—Rafaema—and the one with brown-green, Cire? Different! She was taller, older, and more snappy, and he was a happy-go-lucky scamp. But that wasn’t the fascinating thing.
It was how they reacted to stress. Cire was glued to the First Gardener, checking on Mivifa, going back to Rafaema, peering at Lyonette—making sure everyone he knew was alright. By contrast? Once she’d come down, out of the rain and tremendous hole in the clouds she’d created, Rafaema had taken stock of the situation, then marched back to the buffet table.
She was currently clearing out every dessert with a hint of sugar in it, and this being Magnolia’s party, there was a lot. Even so…Reynold eyed Rafaema.
Lady Reinhart had a secret to her sugar consumption. It didn’t touch her, which was how she managed to eat so much without her heart stopping. The Lightning Dragon? She just ate it, and Magnolia Reinhart herself would have applauded anyone who could eat…
“Five…six…pounds of ice cream.”
Reynold shook his head. Extraordinary. And it wasn’t like that was her only option. Rafaema was going for the sweets, and her minders looked worried she’d puke. But then, the one called Ferris had taken a tremendous beating and was recovering.
The [Butler] didn’t jump. But he had a hand on his longsword, even though only Ressa could have crept up on him like that. He nodded to her as she appeared. The [Maid] turned to Reynold, inquisitive.
“No more killers I could find. Numbers 1-7 are on patrol.”
There had been a bad opening in their security, which allowed the criminal mob to get at Miss Lyonette. They’d pulled their attention back to watch Magnolia, and the only people on guard-duty had been forced to choose between the dignitaries and Lyonette.
“Is it simply Oteslia’s underworld?”
Reynold murmured, covering his lips, on the pretense of smoothing his mustache. Ressa grimaced.
“For a measure of ‘simply’? They have Faces. I want you to post more watchers on Lyonette’s residence.”
“Watchers or ready to intervene? I must say, her guardians have done a rather poor job so far.”
By which, Reynold meant Saliss of Lights, the Gentlemen Callers, and, to some extent, Wall Lord Ilvriss. Ressa growled.
“They’re not professionals.”
She meant as they were. Reynold nodded.
“And are we launching a counter-offensive?”
Ressa folded her arms. She was unhappy, but she twisted a ring and Reynold caught a thought on the linked band on each of their fingers.
“It’s the damned Dragon. Oteslia’s afraid to move on them because whoever’s in charge clearly knows. Magnolia does not want to reveal she knows or get entangled in it. Even the First Gardener would slit all our throats if she suspected we knew.”
Now that complicated things. Reynold grimaced.
“But we have…our Grand Magus. Surely that might persuade them…?”
“If he was—normal—I’m sure that would be an option.”
Reynold wanted to say something un-butler-y. It was a bad situation all around. He didn’t know how far from ‘normal’ Grand Magus Eldavin was behaving, but given that Magnolia and Ressa were worried…
“Then we’re collecting signatures? Stay on plan and leave for Wistram as soon as possible?”
“…Almost. If we leave, we’ll have to avoid Zeres. The Velistrane will pick us up when that occurs.”
“Not myself via carriage?”
It seemed to Reynold they could travel on land just as fast north to a safe harbor, but Ressa elaborated.
“No. That is because you will head north when we depart Oteslia. At that time, you will go via carriage to the ancestral manor. And you will collect a few household trinkets.”
They had been strolling left as they walked, circumnavigating the buzzing Oteslian ballroom, all eyes on Lyonette or the golden [Knights] who had come and knelt towards her, or looking at her ring. Reynold nearly slammed into a decorative pillar.
“A few household…?”
He turned a shade paler, despite himself. Ressa smiled thinly.
“Magnolia has forgotten some of her travel supplies. We will need them for where we’re heading next.”
If you didn’t know what they were talking about, it sounded perfectly innocuous. If you saw Reynold’s face, you’d suspect it was not.
If you were Reynold? You would have understood that, while Magnolia Reinhart and Ressa headed for the Reinharts’ capital warship, he would run a fetch errand and meet them at sea, no doubt.
…Carrying every doomsday and armageddon-class artifact he could tear out of Regis Reinhart’s possession.
There was a contingency. Reynold knew what could be traded to make the ghost give up items, as well as Magnolia claiming her birthright. But that kind of weaponry was a step up from the items Magnolia had requested to use against the Goblin Lord. Just what did she intend to do when she met Grand Magus Eldavin?
Even Ressa didn’t know. But she laid one more piece of information on Reynold.
“That’s just a bit of servant gossip. Keep it in mind when we leave.”
“…Naturally, Miss Ressa. The other?”
“Prepare yourself for a trip. Lady Reinhart has, in her infinite wisdom, decided to split some of her gifts that are Oteslia-bound. She is going to get every signatory she can before leaving. You are going to present some gifts to the Gnolls.”
Reynold’s head snapped up.
“But Zeres’ army is outside. I can’t imagine they’ll be keen to let Lady Reinhart leave, the statement we made at the gates or not! Ressa, I can’t guarantee her safety.”
Ressa gave Reynold a happy, sympathetic smile. And that chilled him to the bone worse than any scowl.
“No. Which is why she won’t be going.”
She patted him on the shoulder. Reynold took a moment to let that sink in. He pressed some cool fingers to his brow.
“About my vacation…”
“After this. Bonuses, as well.”
“Very good, Miss Ressa. Might I request a change in shifts?”
“I have the pressing need to find a drink.”
Ressa thought about it.
The [Butler] nodded smartly, gave her a bow, and stepped lively over to the nearest available drinks. No good, cheap beer or ale. But the fancy stuff did it, and maybe they were serving Firebreath Whiskey, an impropriety to the occasion or not?
He found something almost as good; Hoshill Champagne. Now, your average champagne was slightly less alcoholic than wine. Of course, they also served it in tiny glasses. But Hoshill Champagne was a particular type of the stuff that was made from grapes. All kinds of grapes, but grown on Hoshill.
It was a place in Izril with higher-than-average gravity. Reynold didn’t know the details. Someone had been mucking around with physics, as usual. The end result was a particular kind of grape that took to a stronger, more concentrated drink, even after fermentation.
Strong stuff, which they served in what Reynold had always thought of as a noble’s version of a shot glass. It was a fluted, fancy, thin glass, practically pencil-wide and almost as long.
He calmly walked around the table, to where one of the staff was serving drinks.
“Excuse me, Miss. Would you mind if I…?”
She recognized him as being in the employ of the caterer, and nodded.
“Of course. Do you need some drinks?”
She offered the tray, which had little holsters to prevent the glasses from tilting. Reynold adjusted his suit lapels.
“I shall requisition what is needed, thank you very much.”
She nodded. The Drake watched as Reynold carefully picked out an appropriate vessel. Which was the biggest cup he could find. Then he expertly popped the cork on another bottle, filled the entire cup up to the brim, and took it down.
Her mouth opened wide with awe. Reynold sighed. Now that hit you well and truly proper. One of the other guests, none other than Wall Lord Aldonss of Manus, stared at Reynold. He checked his tiny glass, then tried to copy the [Butler]. He took down two mouthfuls of the Hoshill Champagne and realized he’d made a mistake when the world tilted forty five degrees. Reynold just poured himself a second cup.
Someone else drinking hard was also causing a scene. Two rather shabby fellows were clinking cups of wine. They would have fit in, normally…except that both had scorched clothing, dried blood all over their scales and fur, and they had just been seen laying waste to everyone within reach.
“Not today, then, Ratici. We nearly died.”
“Nearly, Wilovan, nearly. Here’s to nearly. Was that the aforementioned boon I saw on you?”
“Ratici, it was.”
“What did it feel like?”
Reynold’s head turned in time to see a Gnoll with a battered top-hat exhale. Wilovan looked at Ratici gravely.
“It felt like I was a…it was like being filled up with light and…when I saw that ring glowing, I thought—”
He hesitated, and took a drink. Then he shook his head and spoke, solemnly.
“…It felt like I was a decent man. With a hat made of gold, and a knighthood.”
The Drake looked wistful and envious. Wilovan touched his chest, as if he could still feel it.
“Do you think you’ll level, then, Wilovan? It seems to me a fellow might hope for a bit of good news ere he lies down his head.”
“Ah, Ratici, that would be asking. That would…but a fellow does hope.”
At this point Reynold had to break in. The two Gentlemen Callers turned, and gave Reynold a supercilious look. He saw them recognize him. On two levels.
First, as two men who saw someone else who was dangerous. And Reynold had to own—he wasn’t sure if he was the kind of danger they were. His magical legs and recent levels…well, he’d dare any group if he was sitting on the pink carriage’s driver seat.
But the second way they recognized him was, more importantly, as another man with the ability to dress himself. They gave his suit a nod. He gave their battle-worn ensembles the same. Ratici went to adjust his vest.
“Good day to you, sir. I hope we’re not disturbing the environs, such as it were? Been a rough day.”
“Not at all, gentlemen. Allow me to welcome you to Lady Reinhart’s gathering, in the name of Lady Reinhart herself.”
The two exchanged a glance. Ratici coughed into a fist.
“That’s a tall thing for a fellow to offer, sir. We’d be happy, but I’m not sure that’s yours to give.”
Reynold gestured at his garb.
“I am, in fact, Lady Reinhart’s personal [Butler] and driver. I can happily assure you that you two are welcome. Especially in light of you keeping Miss Lyonette alive. Believe me, Lady Reinhart respects acts like that.”
They all looked over to where Magnolia Reinhart and Lyonette were still arguing. By now, Ressa had included a visual filter, but Reynold, and, he suspected, Ratici at least could see right through it. Magnolia was splashing tea at Lyonette, and the [Princess] was pointing at the Thronebearers, clearly shouting ‘get rid of them!’.
“Well, thank you, sir.”
Wilovan broke the silence and raised his wine glass. Only then did he see Reynold was drinking.
“Is it customary for the help to drink? Not that we’d tell, sir.”
“I’m actually off-duty. Can I interest either of you two gentlemen in a fine Hoshill Champagne?”
“I’ve never really tried the stuff myself. I can’t say I’m in the mood for social drinking.”
“Ah, then you will be pleased to note Wall Lord Aldonss’ condition, Mister Ratici. Two gulps.”
Reynold expertly poured two full cups, having to crack open a second bottle as he did. Ratici saw the Wall Lord walking sideways, bumping into people.
“Aldonss? Aldonss, what’s the matter?”
Makhir hurried over, breaking off his surveillance of Rafaema as Ferris composed a [Message] back to the screaming High Command of their mutual city. The Drake was shaking his head.
“I can’t stop. I can’t stop. Everything’s sliding! Is the world on a slant or just me?”
Makhir seized Aldonss. The Drake breathed a sigh of relief as he stopped and began to right himself. Just a loss of equilibrium. He’d really thought for a second…
Hunt Commander Makhir’s eyes widened. Then he looked down and saw both himself and Aldonss sliding down the ballroom floor, despite standing perfectly upright.
Wilovan and Ratici looked at Reynold. The [Combat Butler] offered them a cup.
“Inebriation changes your gravity, sirs. Just don’t drink enough that you pass out.”
“Now this seems like a fellow who knows his drink.”
The two abandoned their wines and took a gulp. It went down hard and stung, but that was what you wanted. All three sighed. Then Reynold nodded.
They stiffened. Both nearly went for their weapons, but Reynold glanced at them.
“I am in Lady Reinhart’s employ.”
“Ah. The Flower Lady.”
Wilovan murmured, relaxing slightly. Reynold nodded.
“I never did foray into it before becoming a [Butler]. But I am from the north.”
“Ah, then sir, you have us at a disadvantage, knowing our names and all. To whom are we speaking?”
“Do pardon me, gentlemen. Reynold, [Butler], at your service. Charmed to meet you.”
He gave both a firm handshake. Ratici and Wilovan smiled, and Reynold managed one himself.
Some things didn’t need to be said. Wilovan checked Reynold’s legs, as everyone did, and Ratici glanced down too. Reynold eyed their wear and tear, and thought of the reports he’d heard from Liscor, the Brotherhood of Serendipitous Meetings.
“It seems to me that I’d be rude to say it, but you were that fellow in the nasty ambush with the Guild, weren’t you?”
“…The very same.”
Wilovan looked at Reynold. Not even many of the guests had put that together. The Gnoll nodded slowly.
“Then, sir. I shall drop it and offer you my sincere apologies.”
“It’s…not necessary. Thank you for your discretion.”
Ratici nodded as well. He looked around at the gathering. They had known each other a minute, no more, and yet, the Drake was confident as he raised a cup.
“It’s been a difficult time, fellows. But that’s what a man has to do. A difficult time of late.”
It was a simple toast that said nothing and said it all. Reynold slowly tapped cups with the Drake and Gnoll. They drank in silence.
The [Server], who had watched the strange meeting in the center of Oteslia’s ballroom, felt someone tap her on the shoulder. One of Oteslia’s Wall Ladies stared at the three.
“…Excuse me. Who are they?”
Debonair. Now there was a word that said a lot. Too much, really, especially if someone used it to describe themselves. It was a word that said what a lot of other words could say much more simply. Fancy for fancy’s sake, perhaps, like ‘eloquent’ or ‘preface’. Sometimes things were too much gilding and not enough substance.
Now, the [Butler], the hat-men? They were style layered onto a lot of substance, which could and would kill you with a tap from a club that pushed your brains out your mouth. On the other hand…the Thronebearers were to [Knights] what debonair was to words.
Or so it seemed to anyone meeting them for the first time. Ser Lormel, Dame Ushar, Ser Sest, and Ser Dalimont of the Thronebearers of Calanfer marched in radiant pomposity towards her temporary home, followed by a seething gaggle of onlookers.
It did not matter that they were covered in grime; in fact, even as you watched, you could see Ser Lormel’s armor magically losing some of the lesser dents, cleaning itself.
“Now there’s a Skill that’s useless.”
Saliss shook his head as he watched the [Knight] gallivant forwards, bowing to some people in the crowd, giving the onlookers a real display of Terandrian etiquette. Which, it had to be said, the Drakes and Gnolls either found amusing, vaguely charming, or ludicrously stupid.
Mirn knew Saliss was shaken, and folded his arms.
“Self-cleaning armor? I’d trade one of my Skills for that. Does it do clothing too?”
He admired a well-dressed man, even though the Thronebearers were in a different style to, say, Wilovan or Ratici. Saliss could appreciate it…but didn’t. He glowered as Lyonette fled into her mansion.
Certainly, the rest of Lyonette’s growing entourage didn’t hold anything but the lowest of expectations for this group. Wilovan and Ratici slumped into chairs as they entered, clearly ready for more near-death encounters. Xif took one look at Dame Ushar as she greeted him and rubbed at his eyes.
Saliss, Mirn, the three watching [Covert Maids] from their hiding places? Not a single thought ran in their heads but ‘how could this lot make things worse?’. They had already outed Lyonette to the rest of Oteslia, if they hadn’t known already, and from what everyone had seen of the war, the Thronebearers of Calanfer were as good in a fight as Saliss’ left sock.
Saliss was tired, dealing with new layers of complexity added to the Oteslian situation. He was no [Strategist], despite being Chaldion’s grandchild. But he could see what they’d see.
“Let’s figure out how deep a hole we’re in. Magnolia Reinhart just tweaked Zeres’ tail again. She’s got a grand plan and people now have to choose sides and support her or not—and it’s a damned tempting offer, but it’s a side. Her side. At the same time, Oteslia’s gangs have Lyonette marked for death, but Oteslia’s Watch won’t go after them hard—did you see that, Mirn?”
“Yep. As bad as it gets.”
“No, no. It’s worse. Because now everyone knows Lyonette is Lyonette, thinks she’s mixed up with Ilvriss from the ring, and we have four gold-plated idiots ready to complicate things. Plus the Faerie Flowers, Mrsha being missing, the tribes of Izril ready to tear the Drakes a second tail, the antidote, and…!”
Saliss didn’t even know about the Dragons. His head hurt. He expected to get a message from Chaldion any moment now. When one came, from the Mage’s Guild of all places, and Researcher Dromenl—he was surprised.
“What? A possible lead? Don’t pull my tail. That’s the last thing we need—where in the name of Sewer Slimes is Anazuland? What’s…huh…what’s this?”
He frowned as he snatched the sheaf from a Street Runner at the door and scanned the pages. Saliss’ eyes sharpened. Even he had only vaguely heard of the ingredients mentioned. He’d normally dismiss it out of claw altogether. But today? He saw something Researcher Dromenl had underlined several times. An appended note.
Khelt has begun experimentation. Alchemical ingredients are limited; superlative experts concur this solution is likely to succeed. Sourcing of reagents has begun.
‘Superlative experts’? As the Named Adventurer [Alchemist], Saliss was insulted. He might have been less so if he came face to face with the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets and the experts who agreed that, if the reagent still existed, it was definitely likely to help. See? You hadn’t lost all the good stuff! Now just get a Unicorn horn, and…
He strode out of the mansion and left Mirn to watch the Gentlemen Callers sit, wearily tending to wounds and discussing the situation. Mirn’s own head hurt trying to process what was at stake.
Lyonette du Marquin had retreated to her rooms already. The Thronebearers were to wait on her pleasure, and that might be a few years in coming. Nevertheless, Ser Dalimont was first on the chopping block as their leader.
“Here of all places. Just like that.”
One of the Thronebearers was murmuring. Ser Sest cast a glance around the mansion, at Xif, the Gentlemen Callers, Mirn, and coughed.
“Dalimont, do you think it’s wise to go by yourself? I could smooth Her Highness’ temper…”
Dalimont glanced up as Lormel offered to join him. He eyed Ser Lormel.
“…When was the last time you attended Her Highness?”
“Hm. Well, not personally, but she was a lovely girl of about twelve…”
“Ah. In that case, I think I will risk her wrath alone. Her Highness, Seraphel, gave me a message to relay to her sister should I meet her.”
None of the other Thronebearers looked keen to join Dalimont, especially since it turned out they’d also let her daughter uh…vanish. They gathered around, taking stock of the situation, as Dalimont girded his loins or whatever the hell [Knights] did.
Mirn watched with a bit of Saliss’ skepticism as they muttered.
“So this is Oteslia. What a huge tree. I’ve seen paintings and the scrying orb world tour, of course, but it is a sight to see in person.”
Ser Lormel nodded.
“Extraordinary. You know, this is the time to purchase some souvenirs in person. As much as one can afford, really. I am told they sell cuttings of some plants, seeds—”
Sest raised a finger.
“Is it germane to gift something frivolous, in times of war?”
“More to gift than not, I should think, Sest. Why, it’s the height of impoliteness to travel a continent apart and not have some token to bring back. Now, what’s this business we’re caught up in? I got that Lady Reinhart’s here—what a scandalous contract! And a siege. And the Meeting of Tribes. And…I say, does anyone have a bit of paper so we can jot this all down?”
Amazing. They were idiots. Dalimont rose as Ratici looked up. Lyonette had called his name, and he marched to the steps like a man towards a Creler nest.
“Excuse me, Miss, Sirs. Paper’s over there.”
The Thronebearers turned. Dame Ushar fetched some writing supplies.
“Thank you, Mister…”
“Ratici. Are you staying with us, then?”
Wilovan raised his intoxicated and weary head; he was indeed feeling a bit of gravity pulling him sideways, not altogether unpleasant. But he was in no mood for another fight, thank you sir. Dame Ushar watched Dalimont head to Lyonette’s room and bowed slightly.
“Indeed, Mister Ratici. We trust we shall not be a burden on her H—Lady—Miss Marquin.”
“You mean, Miss Solstice.”
“Is that the name she’s using?”
Ser Sest exclaimed. Xif poked his head back into the dining room.
“Are you all staying here? Someone had better get groceries. Not me. I’m trying to experiment…”
The Thronebearers traded glances. Lormel looked patently horrified.
“Is Her Highness staying under the same roof as an [Alchemist]? Hardly safe, I must say! Mister Ratici, and Wilovan, is it? And good day to you too, Mister Mirn! I know we are allies of convenience, but I must ask if Miss Lionette is so strapped for coin that she must share a home?”
Interestingly, he gave Lyonette the curious inflection of her fake name. Mirn shrugged.
“I just got here. I think we’re all here to avoid her being shanked in her sleep. There have been attempts already. This is a house given to her by the First Gardener.”
“Yes, but the impropriety!”
Xif looked rather hurt.
“Saliss of Lights is here too. He’s a Named Adventurer and he’s naked.”
“We did notice. But a Named Adventurer is considered de rigueur in making scandalous moves…no, no. Absolutely not. This will not do!”
Dame Ushar had investigated the pantry and found it was almost empty of foodstuffs. She tapped Lormel on the shoulder.
“Add provisions to this list. Make a column—next to the one with the political issues. Lady Marquin surely hungers for food from home. A Calanfer wrap, perhaps for an evening snack? I imagine the ingredients would not be that hard to source.”
“Fresh beef? Perhaps an issue with the [Druids]…”
Lormel adjusted his writing. Mirn, Xif, and the Gentlemen Callers were now watching this side show with a kind of awed stupefaction. Were they idiots? No, were they real?
“Nonsense, I’m sure even Oteslia has a [Butcher]’s. Who has the best Skills here in the appropriate cuisine preparation?”
“I suppose I would do, in lieu of a chef. At least in preparing small treats. [Delight Cooking], you know. Not for meals, but at least something to cheer Her Highness?”
“Ah, I knew you had your weight in gold, Ser Lormel.”
Sest had been taking a tour of the house. He nodded at the Thronebearer and Lormel modestly shook his head.
“It’s only for entertainment. The Princesses do appreciate a bit of a show, especially when they have guests…now, to business. Dame Ushar, your shopping list.”
“Thank you, Ser Lormel. Sest, are you going to walk about the mansion?”
“A few rounds. Lormel, the streets?”
“At once, Ser Sest! Just to scope out this quagmire. Perhaps inform the palace we have made it anon to the Princess’ side?”
“Very good. With deepest apologies, guests—it is a very difficult situation and we have landed ourselves in the center of it. We must make formal introductions later…”
Sest bowed as the two Thronebearers hurried to the door, but they all stopped to shake hands, bow, and then speed out. He walked around the rooms and the mansion’s exterior. Mirn just shook his head and collapsed into a chair.
Humans. I thought Saliss was making some of it up, but they really are all as crazy as the rumors say.
He was tired enough himself that he might have dozed off. The occasional raised word from Lyonette drifting down the stairs was not enough to take him out of a dozing state.
Dame Ushar returning with groceries wasn’t either. Nor Lormel returning, still amid the buzz from outside. Sest? It was only when someone shrieked that Mirn was on his feet, club in hand.
Wilovan had a similar weapon in his grip. They surged forwards as someone screamed.
The watching [Maids] cursed as they focused on the mansion. Already?
It was Xif’s fault. Xif’s, the First Gardener’s, and mainly Xif’s again. Given the gravitas of the situation, the First Gardener had decided Lyonette needed some help. So she’d sent some staff to assist in the mansion’s upkeep, as she very much doubted anyone with Lyonette could wield a broom properly.
Sending staff to a Human who had just been nearly killed? You might want to vet them. You might not want to open the door, but the [Alchemist] had absent-mindedly let them in.
And—Mirn skidded to a halt as he raced upstairs and saw the carnage.
A shock of red hair. Blood. Mirn’s jaw opened. A body in a dress lay on the floor as an innocuous Drake with a feather duster whirled. She looked almost as confused as Wilovan and Mirn. But they froze in shock. The [Assassin] cursed.
“I got her! Understand?”
She threw down something. A badge or calling card, and burst out the window. Mirn looked around for Dalimont, but he was gone. Dead? A traitor? What was—
“What’s happening? Another attack? Dead gods.”
Xif stared in horror at Lyonette’s body. She wasn’t breathing. Someone had stabbed her so many times that—everyone was frozen as they saw the murder. How? Without anyone seeing?
Ser Sest, Ushar, and Lormel appeared behind the group, the slowest to arrive. They took one look at the bloody room, the dead body. Ser Sest nodded.
“Ah. They’ve discovered the body.”
“Well done, Ser Sest. This must be a record.”
Lormel went to shake Sest’s hand. Every head turned slowly as the Thronebearer adjusted his mustache.
“Yes, well. I say, is that a calling card? I do love collecting them.”
He strode over and picked up the token, a kind of curved wing. He tucked it away and Ushar scolded him.
“We have to analyze which [Assassin] it was, Sest.”
“Excuse me. Lyonette is dead!”
Mirn shouted. The Thronebearers turned to him, looking amused. Ratici and Wilovan were turning, realizing something—
A door opened. Mirn saw a familiar young woman poke her head out. Lyonette stared, still angry, and now confused, at the gathered people. Mirn’s jaw dropped as Dalimont heaved a sigh.
“Excuse me, Your Highness. I believe your [Knights] are securing the mansion.”
He closed the door as Mirn’s jaw clicked shut. Dame Ushar studied the dead…body…
“Does anyone have a spare preservation charm? I need a bit more pig’s blood.”
“We could use beetroot juice. It washes easier.”
“Ser Lormel, please. Blood is not that easy to replicate. Excuse me, Mister Mirn? We need to preserve the moment.”
Dame Ushar carefully covered Mirn’s footprints with a fresh splattering of blood. She stepped back, nodded, and closed the door. Then she adjusted something on the front.
The sign was a bit askew. The Thronebearer dusted her hands.
“We need a new window, Lormel.”
“I will ask the help to look into it.”
“What is going on?”
Mirn burst out at last. The Thronebearers gave him an odd look. Sest explained after a moment.
“Why, security of course, Mister Mirn. This is just the first step. I’ve taken the liberty of placing wards on all the windows, and I suspect the roof isn’t fully secured yet, Ushar, Lormel. Also, we have at least four pairs of eyes. I noticed three of Reinhart’s staff.”
“Fitting. I suppose they’ll deal with other surveillance.”
The three Thronebearers trooped downstairs. They stood around the table as Lormel consulted their notes. This time, their audience followed and looked again.
“This is by way of being the pre-murdered-quarry feint. A classic in Calanfer, and I am delighted it worked here. I apologize for the ruse, but it is always most convincing the first time.”
“The dead body?”
“Pig’s meat. I bought some blood and meat from a [Butcher]’s. We do have to hang a charm up to make sure it won’t smell or rot, but that room is effectively occupied. Some [Assassins] break in, see the dead body, and leave. Not that you intend to let them onto the premises, you understand? But it is amazing how often they check the signs on the doors.”
Ushar smiled. Sest rolled his eyes.
“We only let in that one so she would cast further bounties into doubt, Ushar. Let’s not imply that we make a habit of letting killers near Their Highnesses. Now, I’m nearly done setting up the sound wards, Lormel. What’s the situation politically?”
Ser Lormel adjusted his hair with a comb.
“In a word? Tricky. We’re clearly married to the Wall Lord Ilvriss, aha, that is to say, both as allies of convenience and perception-wise. I should wait on Her Highness’ word, but I have already had nearly eight invitations from concerned parties wishing to meet with one of us, personally.”
“Very good. Perhaps I should visit them?”
“Polish your armor first, Ser Sest. I actually have written invitations as well. How many, Ushar?”
“Sixteen. Then how about this? I shall respond to all signatories via the Mage’s Guild. No, no, the Runner’s Guild. Let me just accidentally list all parties in correspondence so they can see each other…and my delighted acquiescence…on behalf of Calanfer, the Eternal Throne protect all allies…that should do.”
“Do you think they’ll buy it? Perhaps it’s too blunt, Lormel.”
“Not for [Knights] far from home. Forgetting to respond individually is a classic mistake, Ser Sest. Now, when you go, they want you to ride in a carriage.”
“Ah, excellent. Then I shall ride myself. Armor shining. Should I announce myself? Ser Sest of the Thronebearers of Calanfer!”
Dame Ushar tapped a finger on the table.
“Mm. That’s quite good. Give them the Duke’s bow as well before entering.”
Mirn traded a look with Ratici. The other Drake looked like he’d turned into a fish. Was he hearing things right? Were the Thronebearers…
“Excuse me. What are you doing?”
Xif looked bewildered. The Thronebearers instantly elaborated.
“I’m so sorry, Alchemist Xif. This is by way of being a rushed moment, so we have failed to elaborate. Simple politics. Sers Sest and Lormel are simply engaging in a muddied waters tactic. The Thronebearers prevailing rather publicly on a lot of interested parties, nay, allies. At least in presentation.”
“And presentation leads to reality at times. Lormel, would you draw up a list of all the priority candidates to keep track of?”
“I have a list of thirty two and growing. Would you like to quibble over the names?”
Sest glanced at the list. And there it was. Like watching a fish, flopping on land, finally enter the water. The Thronebearers didn’t even seem bothered by the tangle of politics. This was their battlefield and they calmly set to work. Dame Ushar stepped outside for a second and Mirn listened as she vocalized loud enough for the watchers to hear.
“Excuse me, Miss? I am Dame Ushar of the Thronebearers of Calanfer, at your service. May the Eternal Throne watch over you! Might I trouble you for directions or a method by which to communicate my deepest thanks to Pallass for allowing my company safe passage? Perhaps an embassy? Quite a splendid journey, near the end, but I do see their warning about Zeres was to be heeded. Perhaps a way to send a written letter? Thank you.”
She marched off. Sest shook his head.
“Ushar does like the theatrics. Should we ask her to skulk in armor amidst nightfall?”
“With a shadowed figure? Next to whose mansion?”
“Mm. Make it one of Her Highness’ enemies. She gets to rub soot into her armor. Who are we bribing and how much?”
“Can you slip…eight gold pieces to…this Drake? A Wall Lord Aldonss’ staff. And then, of course, slip up.”
“Maybe just drop the bag. Let’s not all fall over ourselves, Lormel. Save that for the right moment.”
“Too true, Sest. Too true…”
Fascinating fellows. Quite an upgrade from fancy idiots. But it occurred to their audience, watching the Thronebearers, that perhaps these were the reinforcements they needed in this hour. After all. Lyonette had a Named Adventurer in her corner. She had Mirn, the underworld’s famous duo, and a lot of allies.
What she did not have—until now—were people who could help her deal with the many factions warring for her interest. And, more crucially? Sest and Lormel were drawing up a rotation, and Ratici and Wilovan, Mirn, even Xif, realized none of them intended to leave her side, sleeping or eating.
She didn’t have good bodyguards. The Gentlemen Callers were good fighters. Terrible bodyguards. There was a difference between being able to kill someone and watching someone. Saliss had the exact same problem. The Thronebearers of Calanfer lived for this job alone.
“I rather think we have a chance of escorting Her Highness out of this mess, between us all, Lormel. It’s Dalimont I’m worried about. The man’s changed.”
Sest said at last, when they were done with their brainstorming session. By now, Mirn, Ratici, Wilovan, and Xif were sitting with the Thronebearers, having learned a respect for their methods. Mirn glanced up as Lormel nodded eloquently. Ushar stepped back in, having sent a signatory address to Pallass and accidentally read part of her letter out loud for ‘great services rendered to Calanfer’.
“Are we gossiping about Ser Dalimont? For shame.”
Sest ducked his head, but he glanced significantly around.
“You see, Mister Mirn—”
“—I thank you. It is not that we don’t trust Ser Dalimont. All of us were sent by our respective members of the royal family. Ser Lormel normally guards their Majesties, the [King] and [Queen] of Calanfer, I am Princess Shardele’s champion, and Dame Ushar is the chosen representative of Princess Vernoue.”
It was all Terandrian to Mirn, but Ser Sest had a point.
“Ser Dalimont is—or rather, is recently—Princess Seraphel du Marquin’s [Knight]. That is, her chosen representative of the Thronebearers in enforcing her will, defending her honor, a trustworthy aid and confidant. Calanfer is united as one, but there are…factions, shall we say.”
Lormel coughed tactfully.
“Indeed. Not that we, any of us, bear Her Highness Lyonette any ill-will. But Dalimont? Changed.”
“How so? He seemed like a fairly well-set chap. Not that I’ve seen much of him yet.”
Wilovan leaned over. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings might be divorced in some ways from the Thronebearers, but they had interesting similarities. Especially as two groups that sometimes regarded their own members. Ushar pursed her lips.
“Well, Dalimont was not in Seraphel’s camp to begin with. This is gossip, of course, but I have to admit…I’ve been itching to speak of it. We haven’t had a moment to spot it, but the differences have been growing. Her Highness, Princess Seraphel, didn’t have a champion until recently; she had no desire to do so.”
“Who is that? The…”
“4th Princess, Mister Xif. Lyonette’s the 6th.”
“Oh. And wait…she’s a [Princess]? What!?”
“Keep up, Xif. Is that significant, Dame Ushar?”
“Mm. Not really, Mirn. I would say it is significantly insignificant, given Princess Seraphel’s…personality. She can be difficult.”
“I say, Ushar! A bit harsh!”
That was Lormel, protesting. He explained to the group.
“Princess Seraphel has had an unlucky run of it. I would put a better spin on it if we were not so closely allied…between us, she is ‘Seraphel the Dutiful’ in Calanfer. Her other nickname is…Seraphel the Cursed. The Widow. She has survived two husbands now in their graves.”
“Three, if you count the fiancé who eloped.”
Wilovan looked as uncomfortable as Lormel about this line of gossip, which the Thronebearer clearly appreciated. Lormel sighed.
“Not in any case. One died of age, in bed, another a hunting accident—after they divorced, but still—the last one, most recent, soon after they were wed, in battle. So I suppose it should not count, but it does. Dalimont was escorting her on that last marriage. Messy business. Quite a scandal at the time, over in Noelictus. It…changed him.”
“I never knew Dalimont as well before that. How do you mean, Lormel? Obviously, I’ve seen how he acted at Liscor. Differently.”
Ushar rested her weight on the table. Lormel, oldest of the lot, and the one who’d been at the royal court, frowned.
“I—I don’t know how to say it. He pledged his allegiance to Her Highness, Seraphel. He certainly levelled up a bit. He was a [Knight] like any other—decent. Mannered, a bit ill-fated to be chosen as Her Highness’ leader to escort her to the wedding, or so I thought. He came back without as much patience. For some kinds of activities, you see? Like at Liscor, where he did away with our customary address.”
“It’s part and parcel of our very order.”
“Yes. Well…he wasn’t the only one who changed.”
Lormel murmured. He cast his eyes up towards the ceiling, where the ‘discussion’ that had gone on for at least two hours had at least stopped being vocal enough to be heard through the floorboards. Lyonette had stopped shouting. Lormel tapped a finger to his lips.
“I have heard rumors Princess Seraphel changed too. But no further can I speculate. And what happened there? Only Ser Dalimont knows.”
“Surely you could ask another Thronebearer who went with them.”
Ushar remarked. Ser Sest shook his head.
“I would make a joke about the Kingdom of Shade, Noelictus, if it were not entirely unseemly, Dame Ushar. I fear the only ones who could tell us of it were those two, unless the dead can speak. We sent a royal escort to Noelictus with Princess Seraphel. Ser Dalimont is the only one who came back.”
Princess Lyonette du Marquin did not like him. She did not trust him, or the other Thronebearers. They were an inconvenience, fools, and had nearly died to no good end. She was not Calanfer’s pawn. She had her daughter to save and she knew the Thronebearers.
She had every right not to trust them. Dalimont could even agree with her frank assessment of their combat capabilities.
What saddened him was that she wondered why her sisters had sent their [Knights], and Seraphel, 4th Princess of Calanfer, him. Lyonette du Marquin did not think of familial love in their actions. She just saw familial gain.
It saddened Dalimont, because that was no way for her to live. He had not thought of it like that before. Now? He looked at Lyonette du Marquin and struggled to recognize her.
Not in appearance; she was clearly older, changed by her experiences, but in everything else. The way she held herself, looked at him. Even spoke.
Gone was the young [Princess] who made a name for herself by calling people ‘peons’ and refusing to so much as acknowledge anyone she considered lesser. Even her presence felt different. She had been a Princess of Calanfer, before.
Here was a [Princess]. Dalimont would not have credited the transformation, and he wondered if his companions would sense it. But he had seen a change just like this.
“Your Highness. I beg your pardon for our interruption to your plans. Yet Calanfer is at war. The crown would seek you out as it would any hope of defending the Dawn Concordat.”
He saw those blue eyes narrow. You mean, a tool. A weapon. Dalimont hesitated.
“…Yes, at least as far as His Majesty is concerned. However, I do not represent the Eternal Throne alone. Princess Seraphel bade me come and render you aid, Your Highness. Not purely for her political gain! I cannot speak for my company. But I shall do as I believe Her Highness, Seraphel du Marquin, wishes. And that does not mean I shall demand you return immediately.”
It surprised her, though Lyonette kept her face clear. Dalimont was born and bred in Calanfer, though, so what others would miss, he read.
The thing was, she was skeptical. She knew the 4th Princess of Calanfer. Seraphel du Marquin was not as…unkind as some of her sisters. She was famed for her sharp tongue, her failed marriages. But she and Lyonette had not been closer than any other two sisters; far less than some. Neither were they enemies.
“She has changed, Your Highness. I do not know how else to say it other than…an experience. No, I apologize, for those words are lacking. It was…”
Dalimont closed his eyes, and the perplexed [Princess] lost some of the ire and actually listened after two hours of remonstrations. He didn’t blame her; she was terrified for her daughter. He had wondered—but it was true. And her learning of their journey, their encounter with Mrsha, and him understanding her position had taken that long just to go through.
But there was more she didn’t know. Ser Dalimont had changed. He had been in the company of the 4th Princess. How could he explain it to her? He tried, hesitating, but all he could say was—
“…An adventure. Such as the one you yourself have gone through. Princess Lyonette, I beg you. Listen to me. I am Seraphel’s will. She sent me, war or not, to help you. My fellow Thronebearers may demand you come home. Seraphel…does not. She is worried for you. She is not the same woman you knew.”
The [Princess] looked at Dalimont. The Thronebearer rose from his kneeling position where he had rested. His armor was still battered. But gold was not light, anyways.
“I will tell you almost all that I can, without revealing Her Highness’ secrets, such as they may be. For the rest? You must ask Princess Seraphel herself. It may be an incredible tale, Princess Lyonette. Nevertheless, I tell you this: it was an adventure. A tragedy in parts. Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade, saw war and calamity. The dead walked. I fought undead and saw a [Necromancer] assail the living. I saw war. And…the very same monster who assailed your inn. The Spider herself.”
He clenched a fist. Now, Lyonette was listening. Dalimont shook his head.
“Her Highness was there. Yet it seems that at the center of it all…it may sound incredible to say, unbelievable, but at the heart of it, among the many things, the reason she changed and we escaped the direst of odds was a simple—meeting. We met someone extraordinary, before her name rang across the continent and world. You know her, I think. We met the Singer of Terandria under Noelictus’ dark skies.”
Lyonette’s eyes widened. She stopped growing angry, questioning Seraphel’s intentions. She sat down and listened. Because though the story was incredible, unbelievable—she had met someone too. And she knew more than Dalimont of why it had come to pass.
In Noelictus, the Singer of Terandria had appeared out of nowhere, seemingly. Her tale intertwined with the 4th Princess of Calanfer, among many others. Dalimont spoke, haltingly, conveying as much as he could to explain to Lyonette why she could trust him. Not all of it. He didn’t know all of it, and what he did speak was incredible enough.
But that—was a tale for another time. And before Dalimont could tell it fully, Lyonette du Marquin and he both turned and saw the news coming from Terandria.
A single battle among many, but an astonishing one. What made the two stop was that Lyonette looked at the figure and named him. Dalimont realized that, somehow, his long journey across another continent had led him straight back home.
It was all, somehow—connecting.
A [Knight]-order quite unlike the Thronebearers of Calanfer rode like fire. Literally; some of them ran so hot after the battle that their horses’ hooves ignited the ground.
However, theirs was a distant flame to the Order of Seasons’ true might. Pheislant’s fighting army, much battered, but rescued from a complete rout, rode with them, as did the liberated prisoners.
To the south, the Summer’s Champion and Order of Seasons’ main force fell back for reinforcements. Yet they had survived the anvil of the Order of the Hydra.
This disparate force was moving deeper into Ailendamus’ territory, cutting east, already being pursued. But from the Order of the Hydra, who were on foot.
“We have a window to strike from. I will not gainsay Ser Solstice his choice. If anything, I say it is the only option left to us! We could fall back and regroup, but Ailendamus will be forced to pursue us. We might even hope to enter the main battleground of Kaliv and the Dawn Concordat, as we hoped.”
One of the most senior Spring Knights voiced his opinion as they rode. He was one of the former prisoners, a Ser Gauradin, who was checking his armor as he spoke. He adjusted a gauntlet, then murmured to the company.
“…I think I have the wrong armor set. Mine has my name etched in it, just behind the cuirass. Can anyone check?”
The recently-liberated prisoners were trading their gear back and forth, much of which had been neatly, conveniently stored. One called out that she had Gauradin’s armor and they arranged to trade the next time they stopped.
What the Spring Knight didn’t say was what everyone knew. One person’s unorthodox tactics had turned the battle in their favor. If Ser Solstice thought continuing the raid across Ailendamus’ lines would help, well, the recently-liberated prisoners were not about to question his judgement.
If anyone would, it would be Talia Kallinad, one of the most senior Summer Knights present. She wasn’t sure she would.
There he rode. Talk of the hour, the mysterious Goblin Slayer of Izril. Ser Solstice, or the ‘rabbit eater’, as the Order of the Hydra knew him.
The Goblin [Knight]. She couldn’t decide what to make of him anymore. She had ridden to his aid and did not regret that. She had seen him best a [General] of Ailendamus—for the third time.
And now? He had two auras.
Every [Knight] could tell. Gauradin rode forwards, next to Ser Solstice.
“A fine moment, Ser Solstice! If we were at the Order of Seasons, we would celebrate your achievement! It is customary, you see, for friends and comrades to toast the occasion. We of the Order of Seasons call it the Advent of Color. I had not your acquaintance except in passing, even though we rode in the same host. I would take it as an honor, Ser, if you would allow me to participate. You have liberated us from ignoble imprisonment and won a great battle.”
“I would also join your Advent upon our return!”
A Summer Knight who had ridden with Talia called out. Ser Solstice raised his hands, his body language expressive despite the armor, but he didn’t object. He seemed quietly pleased as the others gathered around him.
The hero of the moment. Behind him, Ser Ilm was discussing Rabbiteater’s new change with a veteran Summer Knight. Neither Zolv nor Voost were here, not the Summer Champion’s personal guard, but every Order of Seasons [Knight] was an aura-wielder, and thus among the world’s experts in using them, aside from [Ladies], royalty, and the few other classes that specialized in the subject.
“Two auras. Now, neither one is seasonal.”
“Does it matter, Ser Ilm? An aura is a fine thing! Two? Why, that’s rare even among our order!”
“Not unheard of, but yes. I only fear it will make Ser Solstice’s life more difficult. Not worse—but we have a precedent.”
“Do we, Ser Ilm?”
Talia rode closer and joined the conversation. Ser Ilm nodded, the Autumn Knight’s eyes alight with scholarly interest.
“Sometimes a member of our order is so gifted as to receive two at once. Even be caught between seasons, though that is rarest yet. It is a blessing…and a complication.”
“I can see the complication. Will his auras fight for dominance? He cannot sustain both at once, surely.”
Talia knew auras. Each person had their innate personality, beliefs, willpower, made manifest. If you could physically manipulate it, that was a huge, versatile help. But…like any muscle, pool of magic, or so on, it had limits. Ilm nodded seriously.
“He will have to find his balance. That he has two means two forces weigh equally upon his soul. For instance, I am Autumn’s Child. You two are Summer’s Wrath. He? Something in him speaks to Hearth. Something in him is quite Brave.”
“I cannot doubt the latter!”
The Summer Knight laughed. Talia smiled politely, and Ilm went on.
“He shall have to train. Battle will help him, I think, although I hope it will not cost him anything. I see Ser Markus and Dame Meisa are already showing him the basics.”
Talia looked ahead. And there they were, his friends. She had been among their number just a month ago, and would have been most pleased of all. She was conflicted. And Ser Ilm noticed.
“I was gratified to see you break Ailendamus’ lines with us, Dame Talia. But I would be remiss in not mentioning the wedge between you and Ser Solstice.”
“I cannot credit it, Talia.”
The other [Knight] leaned over. He frowned, flipping up his visor to stare at Ser Solstice.
“You have never elaborated on your reasons for drawing a line, nor did I ask. But I have not found his conduct unbecoming! Unconventional, perhaps.”
“I cannot explain, Ser Ioust.”
“Very well. But I shall make amends for my own absence of warmth.”
The man nodded sharply and rode forwards. Talia bit her lip. They had noticed her obvious split with Rabbiteater, in the mess hall and at other times. Greysten had had words with her, but not forced her to do anything. Now? Damn it all—she ground her teeth.
Why was it not easy?
They made camp shortly, only travelling far enough to avoid pursuit. There was a lot to do, injuries to attend to that healing potions had not fully fixed, armor to swap, plans to be made.
Rabbiteater was at the center of it, with the veteran [Knights] and Pheislant’s command. He was not eloquent, but Talia saw him surprise the others with the course he plotted. He was not an expert on maps. He did not know the particulars of their logistics or Pheislant’s army’s style.
However, he did see places to hide, places to strike from. He was a veteran raider and knew how to lose pursuit or make a defender’s life a misery.
She absented herself from the discussion, though she had every right to attend. She still didn’t know how to act around him. Talia was attending to her armor when someone joined her.
“Dame Talia. A word?”
Dame Meisa. Talia glanced up. They were closer to the sentry posts than the camp proper, a ways out from the latrines. Talia saw few [Knights] around.
“Of course, Dame Meisa.”
She tensed a bit, despite herself, as Dame Meisa sat, removed her helmet, and began to check her own gear. The two were silent for a moment. But Meisa was Spring and spring did not like waiting.
“I was pleased to see that you honored your vow at the end. Rabbiteater might have died, but for your intervention, and I thank you for that.”
Talia’s hand paused as she applied a thin coat of fast-drying paint to her armor.
“I only did what any [Knight] of the Summer would do, Dame Meisa.”
“Of course, Dame Talia. But I didn’t know if you would do even that. You’ve made your feelings about Rabbiteater plain.”
The Summer Knight calmly put down her breastplate. She suppressed her aura, although posture was more difficult.
“—That sounds unworthy of you, Dame Meisa.”
“Does it? I didn’t know if you would ride to the Goblin’s defence.”
“You rode with him. I was not about to let any [Knight] die in vain.”
“And if it was just Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice alone?”
Talia set down her tools.
“If you want to take me to task for my views, Dame Meisa, it feels like this has been a conversation long set aside.”
Meisa’s not-quite-glare never wavered.
“Indeed. I recognize that, as a Spring Knight not yet set in her season, I cannot take a superior [Knight] to task.”
“By all means, Dame Meisa. Speak your mind.”
“Very well, Talia. Then I find your conduct towards Rabbiteater dishonorable and shameful. I am glad you acted properly at the crucial moment.”
Talia Kallinad was not the woman you turned to when you defused a situation. The Summer Knight felt her temper roused in an instant.
“Really. That is an incredible position from you, Meisa. Should we simply ignore that Goblins have been our enemies? That Goblin Kings have destroyed entire nations?”
“I think we should make a difference between individuals and species! Or did his identity undo the fact that he saved us from the Bear of Ailendamus? He sailed across an ocean because you asked him to, Dame Talia. And you insulted him time and time again, when before that I counted you as his strongest ally.”
Talia did not deny that. She folded her arms.
“And I am not blind to the fact that the instant I vouched my doubts, you hopped entirely into Rabbiteater’s camp.”
“Is that a slur on my dignity, Dame Talia?”
Meisa asked, calmly. Talia shrugged.
“You tell me. I do not suggest that intimacy is disgraceful. I am not a prude, Dame Meisa. But it is one thing to greet a Goblin [Knight] as a comrade, and another to go as far as you.”
The Spring Knight smiled with more than a hint of Winter’s element.
“I confess, Dame Talia, you may be right. Perhaps I have ‘hopped’ faster than most. But I will tell you, honestly, that it was you who pushed me into it.”
Talia hadn’t expected that.
The Spring Knight stretched out her legs. The two sat alone, ignored by the rest of the camp. Unheard—except for Ser Markus, trying to slowly edge away, on his way back from the latrines.
“You drove me to it, Dame Talia. I will confess, it was swift. And motivated by sympathy. Sympathy, aye, for a brave warrior who crossed a sea for war, did all this, and was stabbed in the chest by a woman who would not look him in the eye. But I found he was more than he seemed. So I will not be lectured by you and—what are you doing, Ser Markus?”
Talia’s head snapped around. Ser Markus froze, halfway behind the tent.
“I, ah, was just heading off. Don’t mind me, Dame Talia, Meisa.”
“You look as if you fear we’ll kill each other, Markus. Don’t be a prat. We’re talking.”
Meisa nodded. Both stared at Ser Markus and the Spring Knight hesitated. He checked his armor, then shook his head.
“I appreciate the situation is deeply personal and thank you for your words of assurance, Meisa. Talia. But with respect? I have sisters.”
He made his escape. Ironically, his flight calmed the argument. For a moment. Meisa turned back to Talia.
“You disgust me, Talia. I held you in considerable esteem, and we fought for Ser Raim together. Despite that, despite sailing to Baleros for your brother, you could not see past the color of Rabbiteater’s skin and eyes. For that, I hate you. It is like our half-Elven brethren in the Order of Seasons facing issues with the least-tolerant of our order.”
“How dare you. It is not the same—”
“Then why did you ride to his aid? Why do you clearly struggle to maintain your hostility? I am glad you are conflicted. Mayhaps, with time, you will stop breathing hypocrisy. Good evening to you.”
Dame Meisa rose, and Talia was rendered speechless for a moment. She watched the Spring Knight walk away. Talia caught up after fourteen steps. Meisa swung around.
“There is one thing you have yet to think of, Meisa.”
Meisa waited. Talia looked past her, at Rabbiteater.
“Some day that helmet will come off. Some day, if we live, and I do hope we all will—he will have to choose where he goes. Will he stay with the Order of Seasons? Will he live his entire life behind a mask? Will you go with him? You offer him a Spring’s fancy, Meisa. Do not deny it. Or would you wed a Goblin? Do you see the end of the strange road he has taken?”
Meisa hesitated. And Talia thrust the only knife she had home. Which was that Meisa’s kindness was not necessarily forever. The Spring Knight looked at Talia.
“Spring is short. For however long it lasts…”
“That is the fault of Spring. It runs off, ever quick. Think more carefully yourself, Dame Meisa, on what you believe. And what you think he believes of your actions.”
Talia turned on her heels and strode off. Ser Markus ducked back behind a tent flap. She turned, and kicked him through the canvas.
The Order of Seasons had gotten away. No—worse. They’d gotten away, looked good while doing it, and humbled a third Ailendamus [General].
Or had one [Knight]? Rumors were flying everywhere about this ‘Ser Solstice’, and fact was hard to tell from fiction, so little stock was placed in the veracity of everything. But he was a name to remember, especially if he popped up again.
“I want those [Knights] crushed! Not by another army! Tell the Dame of the Hills to kill them all!”
Rhisveri stormed out of a war meeting, knowing full well that his words would be tempered by the damned [King], his advisors, [Strategists], [Generals], and all the incompetents.
“Incompetents. Mortal fools with a fraction of my lifespan, who think a Skill equates to strategic genius! I don’t know why I bothered to create them!”
He raged in private. It was his counsel who calmed him.
Yes, Rhisveri was the Wyrm who ruled Ailendamus. But even he had people he listened to, although the relationship was notably unbalanced. Nevertheless, Sophridel, the Elemental of Masks; Fithea, the ancient Dryad; Culnous, eldest of the Merfolk; and a few more were allowed to speak to him.
Not Gilaw or children like Menorkel the Titan. Rhisveri had a hair-trigger temper. Yet even he needed someone to vent to.
“Let them fight their wars. Ailendamus wins in the end, Rhisveri. Take a step back. If we lose mortals, we lose mortals.”
It was a calm rejoinder from a remarkably…cold…eyed man. With horns. And colored skin. As in—not the colors normally associated with Humans. If he was even Human. Which he was not. Nor was he a Demon of Rhir…technically. That was a catchall term for them. He?
He was closer to, oh, let’s say, the genuine article. And his dispassionate expression didn’t change, even when the worst casualty reports came in.
By contrast, Sophridel was a logical being of many faces, but he was not uncaring, just incapable. One could care and didn’t choose to, the other was simply alien to it.
“I did not create Ailendamus to waste lives, Visophecin. This reflects upon a larger setting. The Order of the Hydra was bested.”
“Not by lack of numbers. It was a fluke. You saw that high-level [Knight] charge out. Izril. He did not fall into the trap of their system of warfare.”
Culnous pointed out. Rhisveri growled over it.
“I don’t care. If our strategy were perfect, flukes would make no difference! And now House Veltras is sinking our navy!”
“One fleet. Which you had a hand in.”
Visophecin calmly reminded Rhisveri. He didn’t flinch from the Wyrm’s glare—in this place, they were all in their natural forms.
“Peace. He was unwise to kidnap Ryoka Griffin, and Veltras’ child. So I believed. Yet I see a deeper wisdom, by chance or design. Or did you not feel it as she opened that gate?”
The horned man turned and nodded at Fithea. Even Rhisveri bit back the hostile comment. The Dryad commanded attention; she was oldest of them all, and that said a lot.
“I did, Fithea. I have also heard of the commotion she caused just yesterday.”
“That was Gilaw’s fault as much as mine. Culnous, are your people distraught?”
“Only startled. No harm done.”
The Merman spat some water from his mouth as he swam up in the portable vessel. He eyed Visophecin.
“I was sorry to miss her. You arrived in a storm. Do you want to meet her too, this Wind Runner?”
“I already have observed her with the children. I did not care to get close. Someone must treat her with due wariness.”
Visophecin’s caution infected the others. Rhisveri glowered.
“The coinage she has…”
“Rhisveri. Do not fixate.”
Sophridel spoke, and the Wyrm hissed. He really wanted that money, but Fithea was more focused on the gateway.
“I heard voices. Do you know what this means? She has offered you a meeting with your kind, Rhisveri. Worlds apart! She cannot be ignored. You must meet with her. If you will not, I will.”
“You do not know what she wants, Fithea!”
“No. We do not. And it must be something, given the forces at play, mustn’t it, Rhisveri? I wonder exactly what this Ryoka Griffin is seeking?”
Visophecin made Rhisveri hesitate. If you had to rank them in terms of power…well, power was a silly game to play. But if you did, and you took out Culnous being the head of his people, Fithea’s respect, and such?
Visophecin was one to make even Rhisveri at least watch his tongue, now and then. The Wyrm smiled.
“My affairs are mine. Have I not done a fine job?”
The man paused a moment. When he spoke, as many times, it surprised the others.
“You have. I will not deny your role has done more for us all than can be stated. And here is the proof: Ryoka Griffin.”
“How do you mean, Visophecin?”
Sophridel floated closer, more masks turning to face the man. The cold eyes flickered with something like…interest. Visophecin smiled, a rare motion.
“Why, because we have finally entered into what I will colloquially call the ‘big leagues’, Sophridel. The grand stage.”
“Ailendamus was not that already?”
Rhisveri snapped, offended. Visophecin shook his head.
“No. Rhisveri, reframe your perspective as Fithea suggests. We have had successes. Ailendamus was a major power decades ago, over a century ago. And it has had more power here that it has not needed to even unleash.”
He gestured around at all of them, and the others besides, the shadow players behind Ailendamus’ greatness. There were nods from all around. Visophecin looked at Rhisveri.
“However. We have, by chance, luck, or a design on a grander scale, now had someone try to steal our greatest treasure. Concurrently, we have also had a marriage invitation—a pact analogous to matrimony. I do not pretend to understand Wyrm courtships, but it is there, is it not?”
“Er…in a sense.”
Rhisveri recoiled backwards. Visophecin went on.
“The first pact to Ailendamus’ ruler.”
“Nonsense. We’ve had plenty of…oh.”
Rhisveri saw everyone look at him, then at Visophecin. The man tapped his lips, and a tail—of a kind—moved behind him.
“Yes. To the true ruler of Ailendamus. We have established contact, even possible trade with a foreign power. Only, instead of on a planetary scale? A dimensional scale. We have entered into a new phase of imperium. So when I say I take this matter seriously? I take it seriously. I suggest you reframe the Wind Runner not as a thief, but as tidings, Rhisveri. Now—what shall we do about it? Leave the Order of Seasons to the mortals. We must be serious, cautious, resolute, for we dance a game with our kin. And they play as well as we.”
The other immortals slowly nodded. Now there was a reason why you had Visophecin come and speak, for all his idiosyncrasies. There were far worse things to have than a devil on one shoulder. Well, the other one had…uh…Gilaw? Rhisveri tapped his claws on the ground.
“It’s too soon, almost.”
“Almost. But such invitations never come when they are wanted exactly, Rhisveri. We must adapt. That it is inconvenient to us?”
“Damned inconvenient! There’s no way we can accept—”
“Discuss it, Rhisveri. Remember. Scale.”
“Hmph. Then we need to accelerate the Dawn Concordat’s war. It’s going very well. Soon—and once we have Calanfer, we’ll have the Dragonthrone! A proper meeting place! A proper safe place, if we can restore it.”
Visophecin and the others nodded. Ryoka was one thing, but that was a long-laid plan. Fithea sighed in longing, but she did not covet it as much anymore. The voices! Oh—she stretched out trembling, ancient limbs.
Hope was closer than she thought. She wanted to see her kin again. Visophecin watched her, and Rhisveri. Yes, now was not the time to withdraw and hide. The only question was: who would gain? He resolved to meet this Wind Runner as soon as possible. After all, they were united behind Rhisveri and Ailendamus. But you could always make a private bargain.
There was nothing in the world that could not be taken cynically. If you grew up seeing it, breathing treachery and learning gain and manipulation, then in time, that was all you saw.
No matter where it was, no matter what the gesture. A gentle hand stroking a lock of hair on a child’s face. A smile, a compliment. It was all artifice. Of course, then someone might protest that a ‘mother’s love’ was a genuine thing, that people trusted and cared for each other.
To which Seraphel du Marquin and every member of Calanfer’s royal family would probably have laughed until they were sick—if that was not completely unbecoming of royalty.
Do you really think your family loves you? Or are you, and those around you, simply better at lying to yourselves? It was all gain. If you raised children kindly, it was so they remembered, and because it reflected on you. If you followed the law, were pious and noble, it was because it behooved you to do so, rather than be seen as a thuggish brigand.
It was a cynicism that ran beyond bone-deep. Crucially, though…Seraphel sat on horseback, riding briskly and somewhat uncomfortably ahead of the royal carriage through the rocky pass.
It was wrong. So the greatest lie was a trick on her, believing Calanfer’s family was the truth behind every household, only with the paint and gilding stripped away in private. The truth was…she had seen loving families.
Just not hers. Oh, it was there, in a strained, distant way. She had considerable affection for some, exasperated and crossed with the quibble of the month though it may be. She was just—
Very changed. Seraphel du Marquin rode through the rocky pass next to Kaliv’s border. They had just passed through that famously narrow gap, one of the few into Calanfer from Kaliv. The very place that had been in the news—where Calanfer had won historic battles against invading forces. Krawlnmak’s Pass. A rather silly name for a landmark of Calanfer and place of so many military victories.
Sullied by the Archmage of Death’s fall. It was, of course, garrisoned at this point in the war. The fortress which occupied Kaliv’s side of the pass was a deterrent to attacking armies. Should they want to cross into Calanfer, they would have to fight both the fortress and the famously treacherous ground.
Of course, it ran the other way too. Kaliv’s fortress was a not-so-subtle reminder to Calanfer; they could hold it if the two nations ever came to blows. Which they had not, because fighting was not usually a game Calanfer liked to play.
Wit and diplomacy. Elegance and style. Seraphel du Marquin was not alone as she rode, nor was the royal carriage. In fact, a baggage train and countless servants were accompanying the royal procession, not to mention nigh on a hundred Thronebearers of Calanfer.
A huge number, but the capital had rotated them out of Calanfer in order to guard the [Princesses]. Nominally, they were there to support the war effort and reinforce the local garrison, but they were bodyguards.
No one wanted to take chances. Indeed, as was so often the case, this was a move on multiple fronts. Seraphel could not guess her father and mother’s exact thoughts, but she knew the game.
“Let me see. It would be a suitable gesture to Kaliv that we are contributing to the war effort, to let Aielef return. That I and Vernoue are here proves that, to other nations, we don’t think Kaliv will fall. We also get to garrison one of Kaliv’s fortresses and prove that fact with our escorts. Oh, and it makes Ailendamus think something is happening. And…”
Schemes. Calanfer’s royal crown played them out like another person played cards. Not always malicious, or even wrong much of the time. But it was always a scheme.
It made other nations rather refreshing to Seraphel. Nadel had been a wonderful diversion. Charming, in love with its famous Lord of the Dance, and safe. Each kingdom of Terandria had its peculiarities. Seraphel had been to more than a few, and it was not just a definition of borders in some cases.
For instance, Desonis really was marshy and wet. A complete climate change, and still, they had a remarkable indoor life and a cheerful indifference to storms. Seraphel had once been asked if she’d like to go for a swim as a minor hurricane was blowing through the area.
By contrast, Nadel had an obsession with dance and music, to the extent that [Dancers] and schools were an acceptable occupation, and even the meanest inn or dive had better footwork than you’d find in other nations’ major cities.
Workers, and even [Scribes], could leave their jobs for a lunch, or break and shake out their exhaustion or stiffness in dedicated buildings. Seraphel had heard it described as a ‘night club’ by some of the Lord of the Dance’s guests, despite them being open in the day, but she hadn’t had a chance to meet them long…
A pity. There was so much Seraphel wanted to do, but Calanfer was at war, and she was still a [Princess] of Calanfer. On a royal tour to ‘boost morale’, in Kaliv’s border regions.
In truth, Seraphel suspected it was partly to give Aielef a reward for her campaigning to raise support for months on end, and to let her go home. Seraphel and Vernoue? It might be a punishment. She had not exactly gelled well with her parents on her return, and while she had made a striking impact at the ball at Nadel, it was not in the way the [King] and [Queen] would have preferred.
Well, Seraphel was a little rebel. And not the worst of the bunch, because Lyonette was still out there.
“The Princesses of Calanfer return! Glory to the Eternal Throne and Mighty Kaliv! Hail the Griffin Queen!”
A voice from up ahead. Seraphel sighed. There went the peaceful quasi-silence of the ride. She had to own, she was a bit saddle-sore, but it beat being cooped up in the carriage with Aielef and Vernoue the entire way here. The Thronebearers were doing what they did best: impressing the local populace that had come out to see the procession and greet their liege-lady.
Aielef of Calanfer waved genteelly from her carriage, smiling as people called out her name. She hadn’t done badly here; Seraphel saw people calling out to her, welcoming her back. Well, they would love the [Princess] who had married their Duke.
He was not someone Seraphel had met more than a few times, but it had been a prestigious, acceptable marriage in the Terandrian royalty bloodlines, and, importantly, a pact between Calanfer and Kaliv. It was customary for at least one of the royal family to wed to Kaliv, as their alliance was exceptionally important.
Aielef, the 3rd Princess of Calanfer, had a small family here. She was Aielef the Fierce, known as the most outspoken, bravest of the Princesses of Calanfer, a fitting match for Kaliv’s tough kingdom.
…Or so the propaganda said, at any rate. In truth, Seraphel wondered how well Aielef matched Kaliv. Because the first thing she said as the carriage’s windows were rolled back up was quite audible to those nearby, if not the distant crowds.
“Disperse them immediately. I don’t want to see them when I reach the manor. I don’t want to breathe the same—”
Ah, and there it was. Good old Aielef. Seraphel rolled her eyes.
If you knew the Princesses of Calanfer by their gossip, each one had a peculiarity. Seraphel was ‘Seraphel the Dutiful’, Shardele was ‘the Radiant’, and so on. It was a good way for the people to separate the large royal household and identify with them.
However, if you wanted to do it the way Seraphel did, you took them at their faults, not their imaginary virtues.
Shardele smoked Dreamleaf like a [Charcoal Burner] smoked wood. Menisi had an obsession with things that went beyond mere ‘scandalous’, past ‘depraved’, and into horrific. Aielef hated the peasantry, a habit she’d passed on to some of her sisters. Seraphel herself was known for once insulting one of her three brothers so badly he hid in his rooms for eighteen days.
Vernoue was in her mid-twenties, and had yet to grow, but she’d demonstrated an amazing ability to ignore people already and just read her magic books. Lyonette? Lyonette was a brat which encompassed any number of issues.
After her was Ellet, the youngest [Princess], the 7th, who was only twelve or something. She was cute, had been spared the company of many of her sisters, and was doted on by her parents. Her fault was…that she was charmingly naive and delightful…and had an objectionable habit of chasing the dogs around…
Alright, Ellet didn’t have a major one. Yet.
Aielef, now…she was cleverer than Lyonette. She never said ‘peon’ where there was a chance it could be overheard. She was all smiles as she swept out of the carriage, waved, and blew a kiss outside the fortress. Then she hurried inside.
“I am exhausted from this life on the road. Ithe? Ithe, my sisters are here, as I wrote. Have them led to their rooms. I do not wish to speak to anyone. I will be in my observatory. Oh, and someone deal with the Griffin.”
She strode into her home, which doubled as one of Kaliv’s keeps, and Seraphel saw the whip crack as servants clustered around her. They bowed, keeping well out of the way as the other two [Princesses], the 4th and 5th, entered far more slowly. Seraphel waddled a bit; she’d ridden all day and she wasn’t used to it, still.
Vernoue glanced up from her open books and put a book leaf in between the pages. She fiddled with her reading glasses, which she didn’t really need, Calanfer’s [Princesses] being the product of good breeding, but thought made her look mage-like.
“We’re here at last. Good. I was getting tired of Aielef’s snapping.”
“I should have thought you’d have tuned it out, Vernoue.”
Seraphel murmured. The 5th Princess regarded her older sister. They had a fairly good relationship as it went; some of the [Princesses] could not stand each other. Menisi and Shardele were a classic, hence why they were never paired together if possible.
“Even I can’t ignore her harrumphing. I almost wanted to ride, but I can’t imagine sitting in a saddle for hours. You need a healing potion.”
“I’m…fine, Vernoue. It builds—”
“No, tough skin. Which one needs if they want to ride.”
Vernoue raised an expressive eyebrow as she shook her red hair. Hers was deeper, like ruby. Aielef dyed hers, while Seraphel had a lighter cast. Why would you want to ride?
Of course, that was the question. But Seraphel was not about to elaborate as the nervous household fussed around her.
“Your Highnesses, I am Ithe, Princess Aielef’s head of the household. If there is anything we can do, you have but to ask.”
A nervous woman bowed. Seraphel tsked quietly and Vernoue nodded, losing interest. Now here was a staff ruled by fear.
“Will we be dining with the Duke or the family?”
“The Duke has departed to join the war front, Your Highnesses. I believe Her Highness would like you to attend a dinner in four hours, with her daughters…?”
“That is acceptable, thank you. I believe Princess Vernoue and I would like to see our rooms. It has been a long journey.”
“Of course, Your Highness…”
They were escorted to their rooms, which were rather decent. Vernoue disappeared into hers, and Seraphel inquired as to Aielef and the family. She knew Aielef had a son, but he was probably in training or even serving as a [Squire] or some such.
[Squire]? [Trainee], perhaps. It was a fact that Kaliv did not have a standing [Knight] order like many nations. Rather, it was folded into their mighty Griffin Rider forces and they had, of all things, a goat cavalry. But they didn’t discriminate on the basis of royal entry.
You had to bond with a Griffin or one of the giant, mountainous goats. If you just took from noble families, the odds were you wouldn’t have enough riders.
“Which probably makes Aielef as happy as a crab in boiling water every time she has to host Kaliv’s warriors.”
Seraphel smirked at the thought of Aielef baring her teeth and having to be polite. She really felt as though royal blood conferred a kind of gentility, thought, and elegance unobtainable in other ways. She even had a Skill to bring that quality out in her chosen circle.
Well, Seraphel had been here only once before. So the fortress was distantly familiar to her at best.
A sprawling, vertical compound set into the rocky passes of Kaliv, which was a small nation, but a hugely vertical one. It was hard, even as Ailendamus’ armies poured in, for them to easily take Kaliv. They could win the lowland fights, and they had with distressing ease. But they had to climb to assail the major cities on plateaus and higher up the mountain. Taking the capital meant scaling small passes as Griffins dropped rocks on them or entire sections suffered landslides.
…On the other hand, they’ve de-winged even Kaliv’s Griffin Riders with their Greatbows, and I haven’t heard good news aside from the Order of Seasons joining.
Seraphel did not like being so close to the front, even if it was Kaliv’s rear. She knew the crown was sending three [Princesses] to this fortress as a gesture of faith. Kaliv had to stay in the Dawn Concordat. If they folded, Gaiil-Drome and Calanfer were on the chopping block.
Anyways, Seraphel could think on politics all day. She could wander Aielef’s home all day. She did neither, because both were eminently boring. She could only do so much.
She wished she could do more. She wished the war were over so perhaps she could go to Izril, see what that continent of Drakes and Gnolls was like, and find Lyonette and give her a good yank on the ears. She wanted…
Something else. Seraphel was aware her parents had been trying to make another match for her, without much success. She didn’t blame anyone interested; even the most desperate [Merchant] wanting to be partly royal had heard of Seraphel the Cursed. The woman who murdered husbands with bad luck.
“It was only two. Technically that brat died after he broke the engagement.”
Seraphel kicked down the corridor. Yet even she wondered. No…she knew why each one had died. One was truly an accident. The other had been old age. The last, and most recent…?
Ah. That was why her sisters thought she was so changed. Why Seraphel was different. She imagined that, before this, she would have ridden with Aielef, sniping with her sisters, then sat in her room as bored and miserable as could be.
…She honestly wasn’t better off now, since she was still bored and had to do what Calanfer’s crown bid. But perhaps the difference was hope. She had been through a lot. And so, as Seraphel dismissed the servants, she walked Kaliv’s fortress.
Not the higher levels, which were quite nice. Aielef had an ‘observatory’, with an actual glass roof to the stars and very un-fortress-like viewing platforms, that she might have some elegance in her life. Seraphel understood she didn’t actually stay here as much if she could help it.
Rather, Seraphel headed down. Down, alone, not waited on by anyone. Even Vernoue was probably ordering her special mana-infused tea, some snacks before dinner…a [Princess] was used to being surrounded by servants, not going as far as to pick up anything that they didn’t need to.
Seraphel had been roughing it, as they understood it, of late. So she could at least ride and walk about, even survive on something not prepared by a [Chef]. She was well aware that was not a [Warrior]’s ability to rough it, but that wasn’t what she wanted.
If she wanted anything…the [Princess] began to hum as she descended, going to a place she knew probably existed.
The 4th Princess of Calanfer had developed a few interesting hobbies of late. The first was that she sang, not that anyone had ever known her to be particularly enamoured with singing. But as she walked down increasingly narrow corridors that even the servants didn’t bother using, past the wine cellar, she sang a simple song.
“Do, a deer, a Corusdeer. Rei, a ray of magic light…”
It was a cute song. A child’s song, adapted. Taught to her not just because it was fun, but as training. Hold the note properly.
A friend had taught it to her. Seraphel sang as she came to her destination.
The second hobby of Princess Seraphel, that concerned everyone who heard of it because it sounded distinctly like something the 2nd Princess might do, was this.
She would seek out the deepest part of many fortresses, palaces, or so on. The place where more than armor or treasure or wine was stored.
The crypt. The mausoleum. The…resting place of honored dead. And she would walk it. She would pass by remains, carefully interred such that no [Necromancer] might awaken them, and look around.
As if searching for something. She would not linger long. But she might say something, when no one watched her. A simple…question.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Of course, no one answered her. What was strange was why she expected it.
Aielef’s family joined them at dinner. Two shy daughters, both in their teens. One was older than Ellet by four years.
They were rather meek, perhaps counting themselves as inferior in terms of rank, being divorced from the royal family. Maybe it was how Aielef raised them; they were certainly no strident Lyonettes, but dutiful daughters.
Nor did Aielef put on any pretense, not here.
“You’ll be here for a week, two at most. Then you can begone, and I shall either be forced to sojourn with Kaliv’s aristocracy somewhere else as part of the war, or go on tour. Azole, don’t fidget. And don’t copy your aunts. Vernoue, must you read at the table?”
The 5th Princess didn’t look up from the food she was eating while reading her spell tome.
“You’re not my mother, Aielef.”
“Aielef, I don’t believe I was ever introduced to your youngest daughter. Will you tell us how your family is doing?”
Seraphel smiled at a shy girl with dark purple hair. Purple, not the fiery red. Aielef had to dye her hair, but Seraphel guessed that one bloodline removed was enough to let her daughter keep her hair natural.
Aielef gave her younger sister a long look.
“This is Ayuse. Ayuse, greet your Aunt Seraphel. Aumerth isn’t here; he’s apprenticed, safely away from the front.”
Seraphel smiled at the timid girl. She received a murmur in reply, which grew louder as Aielef stared at her daughter. It was the elder daughter, Azole, who kept staring at Seraphel as Aielef dined with the Princesses. They didn’t talk politics. Nor, Seraphel suspected, would Aielef insist they dined together.
“You’ll find the manor equipped for some of your needs. Just don’t burn anything, Vernoue. Seraphel, there’s not much to do here. We certainly can’t ride or visit the city, but I shall have some of my friends over and I suppose you must attend.”
“I may take you up on that, Aielef. But I’ll find something to do. We are at war.”
“Yes, and it’s dreadfully boring.”
“Not worried for your husband, the Duke? Ronnel?”
They all had perfect memories for such things. Aielef flapped her hand, chewing an inferior cut of meat that had the servants sweating as she glared.
“I am sure he will be fine.”
No love in that statement. Vernoue raised expressive eyebrows at Seraphel from her book, proving she did listen in now and then. It was not missed on Aielef.
“You will do your part soon enough, Vernoue. I can only hope you manage to find a match!”
Do your part. By which she meant, get married, bear children, and forge a powerful alliance. Seraphel had done her part multiple times, with increasingly less value. She wondered if her family would marry her off. Surely…even to one of the Thronebearers. She didn’t want that. After the war ended…perhaps Cara could…?
Vernoue’s response was to close her book shut. She glared at Aielef. Yes, here was a less-than-ideal pairing of the [Princesses], but she’d been the only one besides Seraphel that could be spared.
“If I have to marry someone, Aielef. I’m a [Mage].”
“You’re half-decent at best. If you were gifted, you’d be at Wistram.”
Vernoue’s cheeks flared. Seraphel bit her tongue.
“I’m supposed to be the one with the barbed comments, Aielef. What has you bothered?”
“That damned baby Griffin scratched me on our last tour and it hasn’t healed! A minor infection! Me!”
Aielef snapped and showed them a red, faintly irritated line on her arm. Seraphel had seen far worse, although she was glad the [Healer] had told Aielef to leave off healing potions.
“It’s almost gone down. The poultice will take it away in a day, two at most. Leave off Vernoue. She could have gone to Wistram, but they never let go of their [Mages].”
Vernoue gave Seraphel a grateful nod and turned back to her elder sister.
“That’s right, Aielef. If I must get married, I’d rather marry…an Archmage! Yes, I’ll marry a famous [Mage] from Wistram. Don’t take me to task for applying myself. I’m adding value to my marriage. What do you do, besides sip wine in your ‘observatory’ and complain about all the peasants below? And don’t try to say Seraphel’s done less either; she’s ‘done her part’ more times than you!”
Aielef scowled at the unexpected team up. She pleated her napkin, eyes flicking between the two. It was then that her elder daughter interrupted.
“Your Highness, Aunt Seraphel?”
“You don’t need to use her formal title, Azole.”
Azole nodded. She looked at Seraphel, every bit the daughter Calanfer wanted. Hair red, skin flawless, no noticeable quirks.
“Is it…I don’t mean to be rude, but mother says you’ve married multiple men and have lots of experience. Is it—difficult? I might be wed soon.”
Seraphel’s eyes opened wide and she glanced at Aielef. Azole’s mother went crimson, and Seraphel suspected that she had never thought Azole would repeat her comments verbatim. Nor did Azole quite know what Seraphel took from the statement.
The 4th Princess took her time in replying.
“I…am sure Aielef refers to my familiarity with matrimony. I can’t say I know married life well. You are to be wed, Azole?”
“I am of age to be engaged.”
She was seventeen. Seraphel gave Aielef a bleak look. Her mother scowled.
“Don’t give me that, Seraphel. Ronnel and I have agreed on some fine, eligible bachelors. Not out of her age, with promising classes and backgrounds. Nothing like what you went through.”
Vernoue’s head slowly rose from her book, then ducked down behind it. Azole and her younger sister looked at Seraphel as the 4th Princess spoke, slowly.
“I would have thought you’d give her more time.”
“To do what, lose the best matches?”
“Your daughters need not marry as a necessity of state, Aielef.”
“Better that she has time to set up now than wait. You’ll have a difficult time, bearing children and starting a family, Seraphel. Believe me. I’m not saying any of it is your fault. It’s bad luck. War, age, hunting accidents, and a divorce. None of it is your fault.”
“But…you have a point, Aielef. Make it.”
Seraphel tapped her ring finger on the table in a way her sisters knew was a sign she was losing her patience. And thus control of her tongue. Aielef hesitated, but they were in the weeds now.
“—I only mean that you don’t get to complain from having simple bad luck. Every one of us is to be married, even that runaway, Lyonette. Take what you’re given and make the best of it, I say.”
Azole looked at her mother, not nodding, but listening. Seraphel glanced at her.
“And what if the marriage isn’t…ideal? As mine were certainly not. Death aside, divorce aside?”
“You make it work. Do you think I’m not aware of complications? Dead gods and eternal steps, Seraphel, you hold yourself like you’re the martyr of all [Princesses]. You’re one of four of us. We’ve all been married. We make it work. Shardele? Do you think she smokes Dreamleaf just because it’s fun?”
Vernoue muttered quietly. Her older sisters looked at her and she fell quiet. Seraphel knew what Aielef meant and her older sister went on.
“Menisi—well, she’s the only lucky one of the lot! She has someone who fits her damned personality.”
Seraphel caught something Aielef had let slip. But that meant…
“Then what about you, Aielef?”
Vernoue peeked around a page. Aielef sat still, and Seraphel looked at her daughters and cursed. She shouldn’t have said it here, but in private.
Incidentally, the serving staff were calm automatons this entire time, like Golems. They took plates, filled glasses, and scurried out of the way. All of the diners ignored them; they were used to being watched.
Seraphel was about to take it back, but Aielef replied in a calm voice.
“I have borne three children for Kaliv and Calanfer, Seraphel. I quite love them. Ronnel is a perfectly fine husband and we understand each other. It took a few years, but I do not lack for my enjoyments. And I understand he has his.”
Vernoue sat bolt upright and Seraphel hoped her daughters didn’t understand that last part. She feared they did.
“Is this how you talk about marriage to your daughters?”
“What, realistically? You do not need to love the man you wed. Or do you disagree, Seraphel? Can you honestly say you even liked any of the three you were betrothed to?”
Azole and Ayuse turned to Seraphel. She saw the elder daughter staring at her. This was, perhaps, the only moment Seraphel would see her before she was married. They did not often visit, and Seraphel could say any number of things.
Most of them useless. Their fates were nearly written in stone. And yet…Seraphel’s head rose, and Vernoue edged back from the table.
She prepared a small barrier spell. Even Aielef hesitated, because she knew her younger sister.
“Seraphel, don’t make a scene…”
“No, you’re right, Aielef. I suppose I do seem rather dramatic to you. I didn’t realize how you saw it. You have a very pragmatic approach to your situation. And I have not had the luxury of finding out how I would behave. And you are right.”
Seraphel looked past Aielef. Her eyes flickered, and she shook her head.
“No man I have ever married has loved me. That is eminently true.”
Her sisters, her nieces, even the staff were all looking at her. Seraphel spoke, seeing faces, places…
A dead man grinning up at her from a bed. A child hand-in-hand with a [Shepherd]’s daughter…each one, sometimes in intimacy. The things she did for her kingdom. The last one, smiling up at her through eyes that were glassy, face covered in blood.
“They call me Seraphel the Cursed. But I think…no man has ever loved me for being me. They have loved my body, loved aspects they saw in me—never me. Nor did I have a choice. If that is a curse, I think it is not one women find rare.”
She looked pointedly at Aielef. The 3rd Princess’ mouth was a hard line. Seraphel went on.
“I have never been pleased by the matches made to me. But perhaps, then, I have never met someone I could truly love, because I am a [Princess] and they see my class, or see my past. Besides, the good ones are all dead.”
She stopped and closed her eyes.
“…I need not be jaded and complacent about it. If I am to be married off again, Aielef, it should be the one I choose. I will keep searching for happiness, even though my value is long spent. And I encourage your daughters to fight, to find something more than value for their kingdom. Because it matters.”
“You’d throw over your kingdom for your pettiness, Seraphel?”
The 4th Princess smiled like a viper.
“If it is that, or turn into someone as miserable as you, Aielef? Of course.”
Vernoue cast her spell just in time. Good old Seraphel. Words like arrows. She watched the first tureen sail over the table as Seraphel ducked.
Well, that was an eventful dinner. Seraphel had her dress cleaned, and thought she wouldn’t see Aielef all week. Her daughters?
She spent that night watching the scrying orb, which had the fascinating recap of the Meeting of Tribes on. At least someone was as miserable as she.
Oh, and there was the Singer of Terandria, one of her concerts. Seraphel smiled.
“Once this is over, I will find a way to meet you, if I have to hire you personally to tour Calanfer.”
Once this was over…she fell asleep, remembering the past.
The next day, Seraphel du Marquin was prepared to find her own way to keep entertained when something happened.
A flier came hurtling down from the skies as Seraphel was going on a morning ride. The Thronebearers cried out and hurried her back as they raised bows and shields, but it was a lone [Griffin Rider].
Nevertheless, they kept their guards up, but the flier was headed for the fortress. Shouts arose and the defenders swarmed out as the Griffin landed.
Wounded. Seraphel rode back and heard the commotion.
“Absolutely not. Turn them away! I will not have it.”
Aielef was speaking to her head of the guard as the weary, wounded Griffin closed its wings and the rider held their hands up. To her vague surprise, Seraphel saw it was a young woman. And she called out, outraged.
“You bitch! We’ve been dying for months and you won’t even give us a place to rest?”
Aielef turned white and the Thronebearers drew their blades. Seraphel held up a hand. Well now, she liked this young woman already.
“Aielef, who is this?”
“A criminal. This swine came here, demanding shelter for her group.”
Seraphel was mystified. Griffin Riders were held in great esteem in Kaliv. She couldn’t imagine anyone turning them away, especially in times of war.
Unless…she thought of the one group that would not be welcome. She turned and saw the crest on the light armor the Griffin wore, emblazoned on its sides. Not an official crest, mind you. They couldn’t afford embroidery, but the black streaks of soot, marred with blood and damage to the armor, was plain.
“Kaliv’s Wing of Shame.”
Vernoue muttered. Lillian Woods glared at the three [Princesses], but had her hands up and was eying Kaliv’s warriors warily.
“They’re not to land. Begone! You will find no respite here!”
Aielef snapped. Seraphel held up a hand.
“Aielef. I know they’re disgraced criminals, but the Griffin Prince fights with them, doesn’t he?”
“Yes! And all the brigands and murderers and waste! No one in Kaliv will give them welcome.”
Well, some did, or else how had they existed for over a decade? Seraphel didn’t know the Griffin Prince well, but everyone knew his story.
If she was ‘cursed’, he was cursed. He had made a pact with dark, dark magic as a boy. They said he was immortal, but had paid such a price that his mother, the [Queen], had exiled him, and his name was never to be spoken aloud. Yet still, he flew Kaliv’s skies, redeeming criminals, clashing with brigands and monsters.
And…fighting Ailendamus’ armies. Seraphel pointed to the young woman.
“I’ve seen the Griffin Prince fighting, Aielef. So have you. He’s killed more [Generals] and high-ranking warriors of Ailendamus than anyone else! He’s half the reason why they haven’t taken more ground!”
“Seraphel, I am the ruler of this manor in the Duke’s absence! I will not argue with you!”
Aielef’s eyes flashed fury from yesterday as well as the public altercation. Seraphel looked at the young woman and saw something familiar. She was probably a criminal, but her Griffin was wounded and she had a desperately furious look in her eyes. Outraged, not just angry.
“Very well, Princess Aielef du Marquin. You are the liege-lady of this land, my elder sister, and have every right to refuse them.”
Aielef blinked. So did Vernoue. Seraphel the Reasonable was not any Seraphel they knew. Aielef almost relaxed, but Seraphel was famous for her backswing. And here it came…
“I am 4th Princess of Calanfer. By my authority, I demand the Thronebearers of Calanfer render aid! Set up outside of the fortress. Bring food, potions, supplies. They can camp.”
“You can’t do that!”
Aielef exploded, but Seraphel pointed at one of the Thronebearers. The unlucky [Knight-Captain] hesitated.
“Do not bother to sequester any supplies from Aielef’s domain, Knight-Captain Doniff. But I do demand you unload all of the Thronebearers’s supplies, potions, and whatnot.”
“Then how will they protect us?”
Seraphel gave Aielef a beaming smile.
“Why, I suppose they will have to prevail upon you. But that is not my concern. Do it, Knight-Captain.”
The Thronebearer hesitated. He looked between the two [Princesses]. He could spoil Seraphel’s designs easily by refusing and it was the 3rd vs the 4th Princess.
However, he was still a warrior, as much as he was a Thronebearer, and he knew exactly what Seraphel did. If anything, the man was impressed that Seraphel saw it.
“I beg your pardon, Princess Aielef, but we cannot disobey the 4th Princess’ orders. We are technically assigned to ward Her Highness, Seraphel, and Princess Vernoue…”
“You are here to protect me!”
Aielef raged. Doniff stepped back hurriedly, and pretended to have gone deaf. Aielef went after him. Seraphel stuck her foot out.
The wounded [Griffin Rider] was surprised to get aid. But she didn’t waste time. She was clearly desperate, and shot into the skies as the Thronebearers indicated a place to land. Seraphel hurried away before Aielef could seek vengeance, and hid behind a tree until the screaming stopped.
In that way, she was able to see Kaliv’s Wing of Shame in person for the first time.
They were…not an inspiring sight. Three dozen Griffins landed, all wounded, and their riders were filthy, travel-worn, and exhausted. Some just lay down. Griffins snapped as Thronebearers approached with supplies.
Gleaming [Knights] versus the rag-tag brigands. But one group had become Ailendamus’ nightmare and racked up a kill count beyond belief.
All thanks to one man. Seraphel spotted him as the young Human woman who had come to beg for aid dismounted.
He was still a [Prince], after all. But…oh, such a strange one.
Seraphel was no aura-expert, but she could tell the power of royalty and bloodline. He was like…a child. A [Prince], but for a second, Seraphel swore he was a child as young as Aielef’s younger daughter.
Then she saw the tall man with his curled, short-cut hair, a weary expression, a warrior’s physique—but devoid of any scars. Yet the way he walked and the wary respect Doniff gave him told Seraphel that here was a veteran of more battles than any ten warriors combined.
Because he did not die. For proof? She stared at his right arm. It was…steaming as a terrible acid ate away at it. So terribly he’d kept his arm free from his fierce Royal Griffin, who lay panting. Yet though the acid ate away skin, bone, tendon, it regrew in moments. For a second she saw black thread, knitting itself out of the air…then it turned to flesh and bone.
Seraphel shuddered as the Thronebearers moved back. The young woman threw a healing potion on the acid and finally it stopped. The Griffin Prince had been grimacing mildly. Now he relaxed as his arm reappeared in seconds.
Not even a Potion of Regeneration could do that, surely. The man was younger than Seraphel, and his shoulders were broad. He was actually shorter than she expected, but a stocky [Prince] of Kaliv. But for the curse.
He bowed as she approached.
“Your Highness, Seraphel du Marquin. You do me a great kindness by allowing us to rest here. I…am the Griffin Prince.”
He gave her no name. He needed no introduction. He just stood there, with a kind of shamed dignity. He obviously knew all the stories about him.
Seraphel gave him the slight bow of royalty to royalty, casual, but she was fascinated. Indeed, she saw Vernoue approaching, warily, drawn in by the strange story of Kaliv.
“I am sorry that we cannot give you more aid, Griffin Prince. But take whatever you need. You have been fighting.”
A silly statement, and the young woman next to him snorted. The Griffin Prince just laid a hand on her arm.
“Lillian. Forgive my companion, Your Highness.”
Seraphel supposed someone else might have been offended, but there was a kind of familiarity with him. She had met warriors like him, and in situations like this. The Griffin Prince studied her, and then she saw recognition in his eyes.
“Princess Seraphel. The…4th Princess. Do they call you…? Forgive me again, but—”
“Yes. Seraphel the Cursed. I think we are kin, you and I. Though your curse is rather more dramatic than mine.”
The Griffin Prince stared at Seraphel, then he did laugh, ruefully. And oh, if Seraphel thought her face had lines, if she looked in the mirror and saw sadness there?
It was nothing compared to how weary he sounded. She had known women and men three times his age who had borne and lost children, lived through war and disease, who did not sound that sad. But he had nothing. Even Seraphel was still a [Princess]. His title was just a name.
“Well met indeed. I bear warning, if Her Highness will hear it. At least to the [Captain of the Guard], and the Thronebearers. To Kaliv’s command and Calanfer’s throne itself, though we are bound for the capital next.”
He nodded upwards, towards the distant misty peaks. Seraphel’s heart beat faster and Vernoue and Captain Doniff came forwards.
“What is this news?”
The Griffin Prince looked bleakly at them.
“Kaliv’s lowlands are lost. Our combined forces are routed and Ailendamus is sending three armies to march upwards. The Wing of Shame flies now in defense of the throne itself. You should brace yourselves. Fleeing [Soldiers] will be coming soon, with Ailendamus’ armies hot on their heels.”
For a second, Seraphel was speechless. She turned to Vernoue, and the 5th Princess exclaimed.
“But we’ve not heard of any battle on scrying orb! The last we’ve heard, the Order of Seasons was trapped in a valley and they’re fighting today!”
The Griffin Prince nodded slowly.
“I have no doubt. Perhaps the Dawn Concordat will want to keep it silent. Ailendamus may, even. But it would not have been on the scrying orb, because they attacked under cover of night. They sent waves of stealthed fighters forwards, their own Griffins—even damned Hydras. Then the rest of their army. It wasn’t even a battle.”
Seraphel looked in horror at the Knight-Captain, who was pale.
“I cannot imagine they would have attacked and won so easily, Griffin Prince. I do not doubt your words, but…how? Surely there were fortifications?”
The Griffin Prince shook his head.
“There were. I was there, and Calanfer, Gaiil-Drome, Kaliv’s own…I took to the air the moment I heard the horns. By then it was too late. Knight-Captain, Your Highnesses—they struck like lightning. It is the Great General who took the field who did it. He is…he has some kind of Skill or magic that tore through every formation. Overran us, as if we were children caught unawares by professional [Mercenaries]. We barely escaped, and only then because…”
He gestured at his bare arm, ruefully.
Seraphel was lost for words. This was a disaster. What would Calanfer do now? That army was the one which had held the ground so far. That it had lost in a single battle, even a sneak-attack?
“How long will you stay? Can you speak, sir Griffin Prince, or will you fly onwards?”
The Griffin Prince grimaced.
“Only a few hours. Less. We will take as much as we can carry. Eat. Lillian, get everyone fed. But then we must fly. Your Highness, I must advise you to retreat.”
“Flee the pass? We have held armies here before…and with the fortress, if the [Soldiers] rally here?”
Seraphel knew she was no [Strategist], but she repeated what she’d heard, dumb with shock. The Griffin Prince shook his head.
“Were any other army coming your way, I would say there was a chance, Your Highness. This one? No. No, it’s the same army we’ve fought. No more unique soldiers aside from the ones in stealth. We’ve beaten worse forces back. It’s that [General].”
A Great General of Ailendamus. To her knowledge, there were exactly two of the unique title of Ailendamus’ finest on the field. The Dame of the Hills, and this Great General. It seemed the titles were not for show.
“I will inform my sister and the [Captain of the Guard], of course, sir Griffin Prince. I thank you for the warning.”
He nodded, and Seraphel realized he was probably starved for drink and food too. She bowed, so that he might partake, and hurried over to Vernoue.
“Did you hear?”
“We’re in trouble. We might be leaving after all. Aielef and her daughters shouldn’t stay, right?”
“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine what this Great General is capable of, but the crown won’t risk it. You tell Aielef. She won’t want to turn away the Griffin Prince, not after this. Send a [Message] to the capital.”
“And what will you do?”
Seraphel needed to talk to the Griffin Prince. This was as dire as she’d ever known it. She had seen Ailendamus make war before. But this was a scale above the fighting, then. Although the Great Knight, the Dame of the Hills had been there. And she was a terrible, terrifying foe.
Not one without honor, though. Seraphel was hurrying back to the Griffin Prince, but in truth, she didn’t have the levels or Skills to change things. She had some, from what she’d witnessed, but it sounded like they needed a miracle.
And here was Kaliv’s miracle, their immortal protector, bested and wounded, flying to the last battles high above. Seraphel hadn’t believed in miracles. Things that could turn a battle around.
Noelictus has one. Perhaps. But it’s gone now and—far from here. The only other person she could think of was…
Cara. The Singer of Terandria. Yet neither was here. Neither was here. So Seraphel would have to do what she could. She had seen brave men, too, fighting against all odds. But they…died.
She was walking towards the Griffin Prince, set to ask if he might perhaps know what could be done, had some insight—perhaps to fly to the Order of Seasons instead and beg their full might? They were not far! Or Pheislant or—
She never got to speak to him. The young man had been eating ravenously as his Wing of Shame tended to their wounds. Yet he raised his head incredulously and turned to the north.
He cried out. Seraphel saw him sprint towards his Griffin, calling its name. The fierce beast spread its wings, shrieking, as everyone, Thronebearers, [Princesses], and the Wing of Shame themselves looked north. The Griffin Prince took to the air, rising, then he cried out, a note of incredulity—and horror. He pointed, and it took those on the ground a moment to see.
Then they saw it. Princess Seraphel du Marquin knew the fighting was days to the north. Even if the combined army were smashed, the Griffin Prince’s flight was far faster than any rider could hope to achieve. And yet.
And yet—something came out of the hills in the distance. Figures. Riders, rather. Even a few people on foot. Seraphel’s eyes opened wide. She saw them blur across the ground, so fast—then suddenly jump. Not physically, but jump across the landscape, mid-flight.
She didn’t understand what she was seeing. They were moving so fast. What kind of movement Skill was this? And yet, it wasn’t just them. She saw the air change. Were those…birds? Why was the sky rippling in color, from blue to cloudy to orange then black? As if it was going through the cycle of day and night in a moment.
Then the first wave of riders crashed forwards, within less than a mile and, suddenly, Seraphel heard distant, blaring horns. Shouts. The Griffin Prince jerked in the air and she saw a foremost rider, a [Knight], no, an armored half-Elf, riding towards her, armor battered.
“Can you not hear? Damn you all! What’s going on? They’re behind us! Our [Message] spells—”
He was roaring in a hoarse, hopeless voice, as if he’d been shouting for nigh on an hour. His voice was magnified by a spell, and Seraphel flinched as it bounced off the canyon walls. She recoiled, and Vernoue stumbled.
“[Message] spells! N—so many! They sent it at—there are hundreds—”
A wave of birds screamed past the Griffin Prince, then saw him in the air and banked, flying in every direction. His fierce mount snapped and had a mouthful of one of them. Seraphel felt something snap around her, and the reverberation of whatever it was stunned her.
As the half-Elf slowed, seeing the statues of people finally move, Seraphel looked down. Not at the first wave of fleeing soldiers, so close, already reaching them at last, the Dawn Concordat’s shattered army.
Not at the animals, or at Vernoue, who finally got the desperate [Messages] that had gone unanswered, piled up and coming in all at once. Not even at the Griffin Prince, hanging in the air, staring at the land-forces who had caught up, against all logic, to his faster force.
She stared down at…the grass. The grass that the half-Elf rode over. It was nothing that should be too obvious, unless you had just seen it. Then—well, it had rained. It was still fading summer. So she saw a noticeable change over however long it had been.
The grass? It was nearly twice as high. It had been shorter a moment ago. Yet all had grown, the [Soldiers] fled, an army been routed due to strange laws. A dire rule.
A Great General of Ailendamus’ power. The Griffin Prince, circling overhead, had it at the same time as Seraphel, as the fortress suddenly came to arms, and war swept closer. After all, you could have a fast army. One that could increase in power. One with skin like stone, or that killed magic.
You could have many things, but what did every [General], [Strategist], and warlord love? What was the key to a hundred battles, if only you could clutch it in your hands? Seraphel looked past the [Soldiers].
How did it go? Something about turning mountains to dust? The final warrior that killed all? Could bring nations down? What was…the one thing Ailendamus had? Though Seraphel could not know that. What they ruled, or at least, did not fear like mortals did?
Author’s Note: So quick. Not my break. That’s long-awaited and I am…deeply in need of it.
Huge writing is taking its toll on me, and I need the break. But as I noted at the top, the edited chapter is due for the 16th, as I get off the break. Actually, I might need one more chapter to set it all up…well, I’ll figure it out.
I’m not sure if I’ll release the ‘first draft’, or wait for the edited version, in which case The Wandering Inn is on break until the 19th for Patrons, and you get a ‘free’ extra chapter at random. I will let you know, but I am sure it will improve quality immensely!
I will not say much now. I have pushed quite hard this month, and we are moving at well, an on-target pace. But like lightning! Like I have a time machine! Which I don’t, and really want!
If there are any aliens or extra-dimensional people, please consider giving me a time-thingy so I can deliver more quality at my leisure. No? Damn. Well, then, you all get to wait. And if they had a time-thingy, they’d just skip to whenever the entire story is done rather than give one to me…
Sigh. Anyways, see you in a bit! Look forwards to another edited chapter and give me your energy as I rest! Thanks for reading!
Lyonette by Zanic!
Erin, Horns Battle, and more by MrMomo!
Rabbiteater and Casino Fight by Brack!