8.50

Chaldion of Pallass was a bastard. Not in the original meaning of the word, which had everything to do with genealogy and was such a Terandrian word.

Simply in the pure force of what it meant. There were other words that could be used. Chalk-assed, coal-hearted tunnel weasel were milder epithets. The really bad ones could literally singe your ears if someone with the right Skills said them.

However. Sometimes you needed the bastard around. The monster who saw the defenses overrun, heard something coming up—twenty thousand Crelers, maybe. He still had nightmares, and they weren’t about the Crelers.

Sometimes you needed someone who shut the gates in front of the people screaming to open them. Regardless, it had little to do with him.

Oh, perhaps he was a Chaldion-expert, in the sense that Chaldion had been one of the people to persuade him to move to Pallass. You could argue his longer lifespan meant he’d chronicled the Grand Strategist’s rise, and he remembered stories about that Drake when he was in his prime. And even then…Pelt had been old.

He was only half-watching the scrying orb, and he was annoyed at his apprentices for begging to watch it. But they were…getting decent, which meant they would rather miss anything than take their eyes off the steel. But they did listen.

Pelt, the Master Smith. Pelt, formerly of Deríthal-Vel, one of the greatest names alive to wield a hammer—well, among mortal smiths. A boast that only meant something if you forgot you would always be inferior, and rightly so.

But it had gotten to his head, once. Pelt. [Hammer of a Hundred Metals]. He looked old, now. His hair hadn’t turned white, only developed more grey than pepper. He was short, ‘only’ five feet tall; you could get shorter, so Dwarves were not exactly as diminutive as their names suggested.

Not anymore. He wore thick clothing, an apron over cloth. Plain colors darkened by soot, which was what he smelled of at all times. He didn’t care about his appearance, but the forge kept him at least smelling of that.

Mostly, though, Pelt sometimes saw himself in a mirror and saw what nigh on two and a half decades of drinking did. Even so—he remembered Chaldion, and that Drake had aged more poorly than he.

“Turn it off, apprentice.”

He barked at Emessa, his Drake apprentice. Pelt was no longer in the mood to listen. She hesitated.

“Something wrong, Master?”

One of the Gnolls glanced at Emessa and she avoided meeting the other woman’s eye. Pelt just grunted.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Drakes had done a terrible thing to Gnolls. Or perhaps there had been traitors. Even now, the Arbitration Council was meeting for a second day, but the dramatic footage with Chaldion was playing again.

“It’s the same story. Damned treachery. Schemes. That Drake’s at the heart of it. You—girl. Stop swinging on the metal that hard.”

The Gnoll woman ducked her head, but for once Pelt didn’t threaten to kick her out and never let her take a turn in his forge again. The other apprentices went back to their stations as Pelt looked them over.

Some were masters of their own craft, over Level 30. They had begun coming from further north and south now. To meet Pelt and apprentice themselves for a time.

That was…unfamiliar. Pelt had never had apprentices like this. Which might surprise someone until you realized—he had been the best smith. The one who struck Adamantium and forged the greatest pieces, alongside the [Forgemaster]. Apprentices? They should have been so lucky.

Even now, he didn’t teach them what he could. He could have told them every secret of metal he had ever learned; no one would stop him. But pride did.

They were not worthy. Their steel wasn’t fine enough; they would disgrace greater metals, even if they copied the basic techniques.

Pelt though…he glanced at Emessa. Nevermore would he forge with his kind. Never would he retire in fame and fortune and glory in Deríthal-Vel. So, then…he had taught one apprentice the secret of Dwarfsteel, which one young man called ‘Titanium’ and Pelt had a different word for.

Kevin. Pelt glanced around and his mood soured abruptly. He stalked over to forge after forge, and began pointing fingers.

“Your hammer hold is weak. That finger. Move it. You with the idiot hat. You’re cooking the metal by a degree or two.”

“I—I’m sorry, Master Pelt. I can’t tell. It looks—”

Don’t look. Feel the heat. Your eyes? I knew blind smiths who could tell when the metal was ready to strike!”

Pelt roared. The apprentices hunched over as he walked around. Pelt stomped left, right, and then grew tired.

Kevin was gone. Solar Cycles was running…but Kevin’s helpers were frantically taking over and Hedault had to help manage it. No word from him, only cryptic notes. Everyone in the forge dearly wished he would show up—if only because Pelt was less grumpy with Kevin’s ability to soothe him, and in his absence, he was taking it out on them.

Still. Pelt went back to the orb which Emessa had yet to actually turn off. She was staring at a map of possible sites for more of Fissival’s crystal network. Pelt snorted.

Apprentice.

“I’m sorry, Master—”

“It’s the same story. Turn that…volume thing lower, and put it in another room if you idiots have to watch. I’ve seen it.”

The other apprentices looked at Pelt as he stomped back to his station, where he was forging identical gears. It wasn’t hard; he waited for the rough shape, then cut perfect teeth into the gear. Kevin had said it was amazing that Pelt didn’t bother to use a mold, and he could work to the level of a machine’s precision despite hand-forging everything.

The Dwarf had told Kevin it wasn’t special. Just Skills. He was so fast, though, that his hammer would sing for mere minutes, then he’d put the gear in oil to cool and for finish-work, and continue watching his apprentices.

Now, he leaned against his anvil. At length, Emessa did dare to ask.

“You’ve seen the broadcast, Master Pelt? Or has this happened before?”

Pelt looked up. He glared…but glanced at the scrying orb and grunted.

“How old do you think I am? I haven’t seen that. But I’ve seen the same thing. Drakes and Gnolls. Humans and half-Elves. It’s not new.”

That was when he did feel tired. It was too nostalgic. Pelt scratched at his beard. He saw some of the others—Human, Drake, Gnoll, even a few Dullahans—all watching him. It was an odd mood that had taken him, but the Dwarf went on after a second.

“That bastard—”

“Chaldion?”

“—that’s what I said. He knows something. There’ll be blood before the month’s out, one way or another. I don’t have to watch to know what’s coming next.”

“But the Arbitration Council is coming to a ruling…”

Phaw. They’re not Gnolls. They make a big show. They don’t speak for either species. It’s a waste of time. Nothing changes. The Meeting of Tribes…that’s where change’ll come. War or revelations. Not that.”

He pointed at the scrying orb. Some of his apprentices listened with keen ears. After all, Pelt was very high-level, and that apparently meant he was wise in all things.

What a joke. All Pelt knew was metal. But you had to give it to him…he frowned down at a side project.

“Hrmh. So what’s the auction at, apprentice? Are they done or am I still waiting?”

Emessa blinked at the change of subject, but hurried over to the ledger with the [Messages] she kept.

“…Two more days, Master. It’s narrowing down, but I can’t tell who’ll win.”

“And no one’s even damn well telling me what it’s going to be? Halberd? Sword? How many weapon masters are in it?”

Pelt had pulled out something that made the rest of the apprentices nearly miss their swings. They couldn’t help it. They stared at…a small amount of metal. Very small, really. You didn’t need much to make a sword if you didn’t burn or waste it; a blade should be light, not a block. However, this was no crucible of steel, even steel as pure as Pelt could make it. It was not Mithril, which in and of itself would be remarkable. Not even a rarer alloy like Truegold or Dwarfsteel or…

It was a deep red with fiery orange. It was, in fact, rather dull unless you polished it up, and even then, heavier than steel, and frankly less beautiful than many magical metals. The raw stuff was so plain people took it for cheap clay. But that was because regular people didn’t have an eye for metal.

To any one of Pelt’s apprentices, the metal he placed on his anvil and glared at was the stuff of stories. Rarer than diamonds. Tougher than almost any other substance in this world when forged right. The sign of true mastery.

Adamantium.

Most of that rare metal was used for relics, objects forged centuries or thousands of years ago that circulated very rarely. It was so rare that few ingots of the stuff ever appeared.

Yet due to a sudden discovery in Salazsar, Adamantium was back on the market and every famous [Smith] was buying it up. Whether they could forge it was a different matter. In fact, there were only two blocks of the stuff ready for the hammer in all of Izril.

One sat on that very anvil, a small block. The other? The other was in the possession of Maughin of Pallass, the famous [Armorer], and best smith in the city now that Pelt was gone. It was a challenge. A stepping stone to greatness.

“…I count at least one Named Adventurer famous for being a [Swordmaster], but the Iron Vanguard is arguing over it. The Seer of Steel or maybe one of their generals? And there are still several nobles from many nations who have a bid—and Rhir—and a dozen nations…”

“Not the Seer of Steel. That giant uses a hammer. I couldn’t make one out of this. Damn. Just outbid the others, already!

Pelt had this piece up for auction, and he’d make a fortune on the commission when it got to him. In the meantime, though, he was unable to start working on it. In his pique, he took the Adamantium and tossed it across the forge.

Master!

Emessa and the other apprentices were horrified. Pelt snorted.

“It’s Adamantium. Stop looking horrified. If I could break it by tossing it, better it broke then!”

To prove his point, he kicked it into a corner. Then he turned. The scrying orb was still shining at him and his glare made Emessa watch his hand warily; Pelt could throw his hammer with pinpoint accuracy.

However, Pelt stopped as he caught sight of another Gnoll chieftain talking. He tugged at his beard.

“The Meeting of Tribes. Wait. Apprentice?”

“…Yes, Master?”

“Did that sample arrive yet? The one you managed to get in secret?”

Heads rose once more, and this time with more knowing. Emessa nodded eagerly.

“I did, Master. Do you want to see it?”

“Sure.”

Another part of smithing was…corporate espionage. And if you laughed, it was because you had never seen [Smiths] stealing each other’s techniques, metallurgical achievements, and so on.

Pelt normally didn’t bother, since everyone tried to steal from him. Yet he had let Emessa purchase one new metal he’d heard about. She brought him a wrapped bundle, and he weighed it in his palm without unwrapping it, critically.

“So this is Demas Metal, eh? From the…”

“Demas Metal tribe, Master.”

“Stupid name. They think they’ve come up with a new alloy. Well…Demas. Damned name. Feels lighter than steel. Balance is…a bit off.”

It was a dagger, but Pelt just lifted it, muttering, making an assessment by holding it. He was already angry.

“Damned name.”

“What’s wrong with it, Master? Is it a metal that’s existed before?”

“Demas Metal? No. Never heard of it!”

Pelt snapped, and Emessa nodded, not sure why it annoyed him so. Nor was Pelt willing to explain. He just held the dagger, already pre-disposed to disliking it.

If this is some mithril alloy with cobalt or something like that instead of an actual discovery…he was going to ruin that tribe. The Dwarf yanked the cloth off, took one look at the metal, and blinked.

“—the name of hairy hammers is—?”

His apprentices peeked up and saw him flipping the dagger. Running his fingers along it, sniffing it, even tasting it gingerly. It was a blue blade, set into a simple steel handle with a common guard. But the metal was a cloud-blue that shifted depending on the position of the moons. It was clearly magical, and Pelt’s look of pure ire instantly changed the moment he laid his eyes on it.

“Master?”

After ten minutes of scrutiny, Pelt looked up.

“…Orichalcum.”

“Just an alloy?”

“No. Orichalcum’s in it. Color-changing. Clearly magical. Did they say what this stuff does that’s special?”

His apprentices looked at each other. Never had one of them, even Emessa, heard Pelt ask what a metal did. She fumbled for her notes.

“It—it’s apparently able to take liquid if you dip it. Maybe even magic.”

“Huh.”

Pelt had to see it for himself. He dipped the dagger into the oil, stared at the second ‘layer’ of liquid running down the blade. He flicked his hand and saw it spray out, practically a razor of liquid that turned into a miniature arc of fire. His apprentices ducked, but Pelt just stared at the Demas Metal dagger.

“It’s like a Liquidtouch Enchantment. But it’s not enchanted. That’s for the alloy. Can’t tell what else is in here, but I’d bet Emessa it’s got…yeah. It has to have some kind of sea-stone in it. Coral? What’s the strength and flexibility like? I can snap it…”

He began testing the dagger, flexing it with his bare fingers, which was a sign of how strong he actually was. Emessa just watched him.

She had to ask.

“…Master. You don’t know what it is?”

Pelt looked at her. He looked at the metal on his anvil. At his apprentices. The [Master Smith] blinked once. Then shook his head.

“I don’t. It’s new to me.”

A current of shock and excitement ran through the smithy at that. New metal? Pelt hadn’t even pretended to know; nor would he. Yet Emessa was amazed.

“Then this is the discovery of a lifetime!”

“If it’s not got any flaws, and if it can be made…it is. Not sure how that liquid effect works in battle. Don’t know, don’t care. That’s for adventurers. We could make a small profit if we sold it to rich idiots who want a mantle piece, though. No—they’d want to show it off. Good money. What’s in this?”

He held it up, fascinated, now a puzzle-solver. It was actually fun, and Emessa saw him smile. But she was still at ‘Pelt the Smith doesn’t know what this is’.

Master! It’s extraordinary, then! Do you want to meet the Chieftain who made this metal? He apparently invented it!”

Pelt glanced up. He looked at Emessa.

“Who’s that?”

“Mrell of Demas Metal.”

Again there was that name. Pelt frowned.

“Demas Metal. It’s a stupid damn name, but this Gnoll’s got some talent if he made it. Demas. Demas. Why did he call it Demas? If he ever comes by Esthelm or Pallass, I’ll think about it. But I don’t need to beg to learn from him.”

“But it’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Pelt did not look like a man who had seen the advent of a new metal. He glanced up.

“It’s an achievement of a lifetime. Fine blade. Poor balance, but a fine discovery. I’ll wager he could improve the composition…I’m seeing flecks here…”

Master! Please! Give him some credit for inventing a new metal!”

Emessa was dismayed. It wasn’t like Pelt to be that stingy with praise. Pelt glanced at her, eyebrows raised. And then put the dagger down.

“That Gnoll or whoever he is didn’t invent a new metal. He rediscovered one. And for some reason, he named it strangely. Where did you say he learned from?”

“Uh…he was a wanderer, and he apparently roamed a lot of Izril. He ended up along the coast, I think. I don’t know who he learned from, but people say he had a great master who helped him make the stuff.”

Pelt’s hand slipped. He nearly cut his palm open. Slowly, his head rose.

“…Anyone say who the Master was?”

Emessa was frowning. She was offended on Mrell’s behalf that Pelt was ignoring his abilities, but the Dwarf suddenly looked…very interested.

“No, Master. Let me check to see if anything I have says the name…”

“—Was it a Demastel? Demastel the [Smelter]?”

Emessa scanned the parchment. She shook her head. But suddenly, Pelt was staring at the blade like he suddenly saw something. He knew something.

“It has to be. Demas. Dem…he probably did stay there. That idiot liked seafood. Unlike Taxus. It makes too much sense. App—Emessa! Where’s that master now?”

The Drake was looking at Pelt, keenly. She was picking up too much from hints about Pelt’s past. She knew the name Taxus, of course. You’d have to have been living with your head in the sand to be a [Smith] and not know that name, even if it was beginning to be forgotten.

“I think he’s dead, Master. Chieftain Mrell’s never said…”

Pelt’s face became as bleak as could be. He sat down, abruptly.

“Master Pelt? Do you want me to…?”

“No. That would make sense too.”

The Dwarf sat there, looking even older. He held the dagger up to the light and stared at it as his apprentices abandoned their work—those that could do it safely. He looked at the blade. Like a letter from home, and sharp as a razor—it hit him in the heart.

 

——

 

“Demastel was a [Smelter]. Knew more about perfecting alloys than anyone. He’s dead.”

“He might not be—”

“He’s dead. He was dying twenty years ago. I don’t know how that Gnoll found him, but Demastel isn’t the kind of—wasn’t the kind of Dwarf you could pull out of a stupor with a stupid magic flame and some kind words. His crime weighed so heavily—he’s dead.”

Yet he had taken an apprentice of sorts, just like Pelt. And the product was here. Emessa looked at Pelt; she had sent someone to run and get a hot meal and drink—non-alcoholic—but the Dwarf was just staring at the blade.

“Could he have invented the metal? Is this Mrell taking credit?”

“Doubt it. It’s new to me, so it was new to Demastel. I don’t think he tried to improve his craft. Probably, the Gnoll learned a few tricks and came up with it. Rediscovered the metal and called it Demas. After Demastel.”

It was the kind of thing a [Smith] would do in honor of another. Yet Pelt kept saying it like that.

“But Master, if even you don’t know what kind of metal it is, surely that’s invention.”

“That means no one forged this metal before, Emessa.”

“Yes, Master. It sounds like it, doesn’t it? If you don’t know…”

The gentle logic from his Drake apprentice made Pelt laugh. He saw Emessa start, along with one of the other smiths bringing food over.

“Ah. I see what you mean. You’re right. I don’t know what this is. Never seen it before in my life. It’s an alloy of some things, and I can probably figure out how to make it in a month or two. But I don’t know it.”

“So…?”

“So it’s been made before. If it was a metal like Naq-Alrama steel. If it was a metal made out of meteorites and Adamantium. If an [Archmage] helped discover it, and it came shooting out of legends, rare ores never seen under the light of the sun—whenever a [Smith] makes it, they’re geniuses and damned lucky and it’ll be a grand thing. But they always, always rediscovered it. Understand?”

Pelt waved the blade at the apprentices. He turned, smelling a huge brisket, and found he had an appetite. He glared at the goat’s milk as Emessa followed him to his table.

“Then who made all the metals? Surely not every…?

“Every. Single. One. If it was ever metal, even fusions of stone, it was made.”

“By who? Dragons?

Hah! You think they’re good at anything besides cooking things? Well, apparently a few were good once they shape-changed, or so the story goes. No, Emessa.”

Pelt sighed as he sat down in his small office. He spread the meal out and stared at the dagger, then pushed it away.

“No. The greatest smiths to ever walk this world made every metal conceivable. And you can laugh. You can think I’m talking on forge-fumes. But I am not wrong. I could take this dagger, and if I went to…I would be able to come back and tell you exactly what it does, how it’s made, and why it’s a piece of worthless metal because it was forged so poorly, and smelted with no understanding of it.”

Pelt lifted the dagger. He looked at Emessa and the apprentice saw it in his gaze. The Dwarf turned away.

“Don’t ask me. Just know, apprentice. You’re young.”

“…I’m nearly twenty eight, Master.”

“Huh. Then—two more decades. Three. Maybe four. Damn. You live shorter than Dwarves. How long until you’re at least capable?

The Drake’s heart sank as Pelt gave a rough count on his fingers. She was about to slink off before he began to rant, but the Dwarf looked up.

“I might be dead, then. Probably.”

Master.

She turned around, horrified. She knew Dwarves could live longer. But Pelt was just looking at her, distantly.

“Yes. It’ll take longer, even after I die. Make it twenty years if you aren’t already…fifty. At least ten. Work harder, then, since I won’t be able to keep on after you. Then, someday, you’ll go on a trip. With your best pieces of work—which you’ll toss into the sea afterwards, or sell because you’ll be ashamed. But you’ll go. Then you can tell the one you meet that you were my apprentice. I can already imagine how embarrassing it’ll be, but I’ll be dead.”

The brisket cooled in front of him, but the Dwarf and Drake were just looking at each other, her with wide eyes. And Pelt did smile then.

“You will know everything I’ve said is true, then. Look forwards to that, you untalented apprentice. And be worthy of that day.”

Decades in the future. Emessa took a step back, because it was so fatalistic, so sad that she wished Kevin or that [Innkeeper] were here. At the same time…the Dwarf began to eat, munching on the food without another word. He wouldn’t bring it up, probably because he was embarrassed.

Yet Emessa had never heard him say anything like that before. Not to any other [Smith]. Pelt’s apprentice looked at him—then fled. Pelt watched her go, then grunted at the dagger he’d planted in the table.

“You had a good apprentice, Demastel. You knew, didn’t you? You found it…”

His hands trembled.

Redemption.

 

——

 

Legends of the old world. Of the last generation. Someday, they would forget every name. The old stars were already being eclipsed. Yet even the most famous names would one day fade.

That was truth. One day, someone would say ‘King of Destruction’, and even [Historians] would have to fetch a book to figure out what was meant.

Even those for whom time did not touch died. So, then, a thoughtful person might ask: what was the point? It was a question that had driven immortals to despair. Everyone had to come up with their own answer. Why do you live and work and struggle?

Or else that question would find them on their deathbeds, in their last moments. What a terrifying way to die.

Naturally, he had his answer. The Viscount paused a moment, to check his appearance in the mirror of one of the restrooms.

‘Restroom’ was, of course, such a poor term. Dressing room was still too un-posh. Boudoir…was generally only thought to apply to women, which was ridiculous, of course.

Rather than a mirror, the man stood in front of a vanity. Just to make sure he hadn’t grown dishevelled from the journey or walking through the palace. He carefully adjusted his hair, his suit, the cuffs on his slightly dark skin. Almost…greyish. Although you’d only notice that cast if you looked at him in the right light.

With the right eyes. One of his earrings was askew, so he fixed it with a tap of the finger. He was meticulous, but the impression was rather disinterested. As if to say, I am not doing this for me, but for you.

The effect was completely opposite the man next to him, who had also entered the semi-public space reserved for the nobility or those of sufficient rank. It wasn’t guarded per se, but it was elite. He dressed himself with clear delight. Fashion was a choice that benefited everyone.

The wind was stronger these days, and an unseasonable cold patch had entered the air, heralding fall. Summer was over.

Thus, the man standing next to the Viscount had donned a beautiful purple-and-green scarf, a long piece that added to his usually vivid red clothing style.

He was combing his hair, and turned to nod as the first man finished his inspection.

“Viscount Visophecin, if I may be so bold, you are an inspiration of class.”

The Viscount of Ailendamus, a seldom-seen visitor at court, but a good friend of some members of the palace, including even the infamously touchy Duke Rhisveri, turned his head. He gave Baron Regalius a polite smile.

“You, Baron Regalius, are more fittingly fashionable than I, I believe. You have enthusiasm towards the subject.”

“And you do not, Viscount?”

The Baron looked Visophecin up and down. The man had a suit and high-necked collar that flew in the face of the doublet-and-ruff fashion of the present, but there was a kind of timeless elegance to his dark clothing, embellished with just the barest hint of lighter colors. Magical cloth, obviously; they called it sadun-prei patterning. Such that the effect in one color was to show you other colors as the cloth moved together; variations of shadow in this case.

Very nuanced, very stylish; the previous Viscount had apparently worn much the same style in the few paintings of him. Visophecin smiled thinly.

“I do not find it tiring per se. Dignity must be maintained. Yet I envy your enthusiasm, Baron. Let us put it like that.”

“Of course, my lord.”

Regalius nodded and went back to his own mirror as Visophecin left the dressing rooms. He hadn’t lied; truth was easy. Yet he had to admit, it was rare for him to conduct a self-inspection in the middle of his day. He began walking through the palace once more. It just went to show he cared about tiny things. When you went about important errands, you left nothing to chance, even as minor as dress.

After all, if you heard a whisper at your shoulder in your darkest hour and turned to see someone like Visophecin standing there, he had better look the part. His shoes had a high cuff around them—no boots like any military commander wore—and clicked as he walked through Ailendamus’ palace.

Still—Visophecin did not stride along. His walk was not, to look at him, the fast, speedy pace you expected. In fact, Baron Regalius passed him, having finished his ablutions shortly thereafter. Visophecin did not exactly amble, but he walked with an unhurried pace such that you lost sight of him in the crowd. And when you turned your head?

He was gone.

 

——

 

It was not a good day in Ailendamus for King Itorin II. He woke up to ships burning.

Dozens of them. Their charred carcasses sunk to the ocean floor—then lodged, potential hazards as they drew closer to shore. They’d done their best to flee. If he could, a second armada of Ailendamus and Taimaguros’ ships could have joined them. But even with countless miles on their side, they were far too slow, and the [Admiral] couldn’t speed them north along the coast fast enough.

Faced with that choice, the [Admiral] had made a desperate stand. After losing half his fleet in two hours without even being able to break the enemy vessel’s magical shields, he’d changed strategies.

Ship after ship had grounded themselves onto the shoreline, some exploding as magical artillery blew wood and metal to bits. It was a suicidal move for the vessels; some would never return to sea, not with their keels smashed against the shore from the speed they ran aground. But it did mean thousands of [Sailors] and crew had disembarked. They were climbing to higher ground, but The Pride of the Wellfar was sailing in…

It was not the end of the world, as the diplomats and courtiers hastened to assure everyone. But you couldn’t hide that it was a blow.

And one Ailendamus need not have taken at all. King Itorin II himself spoke with a member of the Five Families that morning, before breakfast. Nothing else would do; the Five Families were a touchy lot and escalation was not to be desired.

“Your Majesty. House Veltras is the only member of the Five Families to declare war. Wellfar, Terland, and El stand with them, but we have not declared war.”

The Pride of the Wellfar’s deployment would then count as assistance?

King Itorin spoke with Ulva Terland. He could not help but inject the note of skepticism in his voice. His lead [Diplomat], who listened in on the calls, winced, but Itorin II was in no mood to sugarcoat anything.

“I quite understand how it must look. But I must remind Your Exalted Majesty that the Five Families render aid to one another whenever another House asks.”

Your Exalted Majesty was flattering. The woman’s tone…was not. Itorin was aware she was famously reclusive and paranoid, but she did not sound meek. Nor did he buy the line about the happy cooperation between the Five Families. So…why, then?

“We must regard this act of war with all due hostility, Lady Terland. I would not wish to make war on Izril’s north.”

Itorin remarked calmly. He scratched at his trimmed beard, imagining, calculating the cost of an offensive. They would have to win the sea, then invade; great kingdoms had failed. Yet it could be done. It was a frank warning and Ulva Terland…

“The Five Families are content to let House Veltras wage its battles alone, save for the aid we have given them, Your Majesty of Ailendamus. That may change, and I am gratified you have taken this moment to talk with House Terland. Your answer, I hope, will not aggravate this delicate situation.”

King Itorin had, among other things, a personal team who trimmed stray hairs, applied light makeup, checked his physical condition, and so on. They all stopped and withdrew instantly as Itorin lifted a hand and his [Diplomat] paled. King Itorin himself had to sit up slightly.

“That is a bold statement to make, Lady Ulva.”

Her voice lost any pretense of honey. It was not quite a snap, but now the edge was out.

“It is no less than the accusations levelled against Ailendamus. I ask you, on behalf of House Terland and the other Five Families who will hear your reply. Is Sammial Veltras in Ailendamus’ custody?”

That name again. Itorin’s fingers were doing a desperate tap-dance on the table. His [Diplomat] closed her eyes. And once again, it all went back to…

“I do not believe I understand the question, Lady Ulva.”

Itorin replied after a moment of desperate thinking, because truth spells and Skills worked many ways. Unfortunately, what you learned was that Skills and magic were all very well, but an incisive mind was more dangerous still.

“Your reply is my answer, Your Majesty. House Veltras lacked for proof, but we stand together in such matters. Is Sammial Veltras in your care?”

Itorin was silent. And of course—that was an answer. So Ulva Terland went on.

“The Five Families shall stay out of this war, King Itorin, upon one condition.”

Condition and answer. Terlands loved their logic-gated theories and ways of making contracts and alliances. It was an absolute with them, so Itorin listened.

“Is Sammial Veltras alive and unharmed?”

The [Diplomat] had three answers prepared. Itorin II took the one circled, underlined, and marked with exclamation marks.

“Yes. I can personally assure you of that, Ulva Terland.”

“Then, King Itorin, we will abide. You may view this as House Veltras’ war. However, I shall ask again.”

She did not immediately end the call, of course. They exchanged a few more lines, and King Itorin II dropped the speaking stone. Then he uttered a quiet oath and leaned his full weight onto his chin and thumbs. After a second, he opened his eyes and turned.

“Something sumptuous for breakfast. Add a pudding option for dessert. Lemon.”

There were many things he had to do. But the one thing he had control of…was lemon pudding. King Itorin II looked forwards to it as one servant raced off to amend the breakfast already waiting for him. Burning ships, Rhisveri’s damned problems, and no one had invited him to the Arbitration Council and somehow Ailendamus was not finding a way onto it, despite all the pressure they were trying to put on other groups.

It was one of those days. Think of the pudding.

 

——

 

King Itorin II stared at a light, yellow piece of custard, topped with a darker rind. Of course, you couldn’t have just pudding if it was fancy. It had delicate sprinkles of what might be some kind of candy-alchemical treat. Someone had added a perfectly cut flower on top—made of a strawberry.

He carefully flicked the flower off and was sure it would never reappear again. The [King] had a small spoon and removed a piece near the side. He took a bite.

Pudding. What a delicious thing. And someone had injected a bit of bitter along the top. But the sweetness—that was a wondrous thing.

“Is all well, dear?”

Oiena looked at Itorin II. He had been silent this morning after his call, and the [Queen] of Ailendamus knew very well that if he ordered pudding, he was expecting a difficult day.

And it was an interesting thing, because if Itorin II so much as said so, he could have a bath of pudding. He could fill an entire hallway with pudding, and drown his enemies in a vat of the stuff, which was a waste, but very stylistic.

He never did. In fact, Itorin II only ate pudding once in a blue moon, or in times like this. Which mystified anyone who didn’t understand what it meant to be a [King] who could send for armies with a single word.

Oiena understood. Their children—at least, the two sitting at the table, Prince Ivenius and his younger sister, Princess Oesca—did not. Itorin II had been born a [Prince] of the realm and he had learned the lessons they would. Oh—how would he teach them this?

They had lessons in riding, etiquette, swordplay, magic, politics, geography, mathematics, reasoning, history, military strategy, and every subject a ruler might need to know—which was almost anything. But how to explain this?

In the past, Itorin II had not loved pudding. A young man or boy had different tastes. He had trended towards a favorite food, which was Stelbore pork. An odd thing, but it was something about the tough boar’s equally tough meat that he just loved to sink his teeth into. Then, it had been a kind of half-Elven pastry called heidas bread that used very magical, natural ingredients. Amazingly good.

Stelbore pork, heidas bread, glowberries, a kind of fondue with six cheeses, various substances and drinks…any of the above were now never served to Itorin II. He had ruined each one for himself, possibly forever. When you could have your favorite meal every day you wanted, any time you wanted, it quickly stopped being your favorite.

To love something, you couldn’t have it. Hence the rule about eating it. In fact, the knowledge that King Itorin II liked pudding was close to a royal secret. The [Chef] was sworn to silence, in order to prevent people wishing to play to his interests from serving it to excess.

That was how you kept something special…special. King Itorin II suspected his advisors would be following the battle with the remnants of the fleet on land and speculating on how dangerous the Five Families might be if they went on the attack. They’d rightly want him to cede Sammial Veltras to the wrathful Tyrion to prevent his entry into the war, and order the Duke to cease his actions. And he’d have to deal with that because Rhisveri was a Wyrm, not a mere Duke, and no one commanded him.

Things a [King] could and could not do. He was happy, at least, to listen to his children, who had seemed far more energetic of late.

“Father. May we be excused from our morning lessons?”

“Why?”

Oesca hesitated and her mother sighed. Exasperated. Itorin II suspected they’d gone to her first, but Ivenius explained.

“The Wind Runner is showing everyone tricking.

“Tricking? Tricking people?”

“No—”

“It’s a ridiculous [Tumbler]’s trick and you two will not disgrace yourselves in public.”

“…What about in private? Father, may we summon her to show us?”

King Itorin II stared at his half of a pudding. Careful now. You didn’t want to rush such things. He frowned.

The Wind Runner. That young woman who’d pulled the stunt on the roof and could fly about like a high-level [Mage]. Rhisveri hated her and wouldn’t say why.

“Hmm.”

“Dear!”

Queen Oiena had been Itorin’s wife for a long time, and was as much Ailendamus’ daughter as her home country’s—Taimaguros, another great power and Ailendamus’ strongest ally. She was canny, quite liked not having to manage the realm but only the pocket she chose to occupy herself with—a lot of it politics from home which she could influence with her husband’s blessing—and she did not hesitate to surround herself with what she loved. Although she understood the same lesson Itorin II knew about excess.

However, Oiena was also aware there was something—odd—about Itorin’s uncle, the only high-ranking member of court who was both genius and aggravating and got away with things. Slights, actions that no one else could. She was not blind. The Wind Runner was part of Rhisveri’s schemes and, therefore, she didn’t want her son or daughter fraternizing with the Courier.

Itorin II, reverse-sculpting the pudding piece by piece, completely missed all of that in the look she shot him. He murmured.

“Why not? Is she very entertaining, this Wind Runner? I thought you would have gotten tired of flying. Didn’t we send for a [Mage] capable of casting [Fly]?”

“Yes, Father, but she uses the wind. It’s different!”

“Really?”

“Yes. She knows all kinds of fun things. She can ask the wind to do whatever she wants, and she saved Sammial Veltras’ life. Would you like my pudding, Father?”

Oesca carefully offered him her dish. Of course, the servants hastened to offer as much pudding as Itorin wanted, which was the problem…he waved away the bribes and looked at Oesca. Suddenly, Itorin was worried again.

“Sammial Veltras? What do you mean by that?”

Oesca gave her father a blank look.

“Sammial Veltras? I see him in the palace, Father. He eats luncheon with us. Sometimes.”

“He has an aura. I thought I had to be sixteen before I started my aura training!”

Ivenius was on his second pudding. Itorin II bit his lip.

“—He just walks around the palace?”

“I think he escapes. He says he’s a prisoner. Father, are we keeping him prisoner?”

King Itorin II saw the way Oesca looked at him, with that too-careful look of someone who ‘understood’ when things happened. He looked at Oiena, who frowned, but had probably taught their daughter about ‘acceptable actions’ like that. Taimaguros…did not play nice. Itorin II felt a headache coming on. So he turned.

“Headache tonic. And a second helping of pudding. Make it something bitter.”

Then he amended his plans.

 

——

 

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt stood, her dark hair whipping around her despite the ponytail as the wind blew in a way it should never have: in a circular motion, a miniature tornado, and she stood in the center of it. Her audience watched as she put one bare foot down, callused, but wrapped in a bit of linen, then leapt upwards.

She rotated her body, spinning, and children pointed and shouted in awe. It was a good trick. She performed a complete rotation, then another, defying gravity, before landing in a spinning move that carried one foot around in a circle.

Wind plus athleticism. King Itorin II had seen better. But he understood why the Wind Runner was famous. She was a striking figure and had the power of wind on her side, but he didn’t see why the children loved her, aside from the wind, which was quite good. Her letting them fly about was a lure, but why this?

There were [Acrobats] who could leap twenty feet up or balance on one finger, or do such tricks with objects in the air that you were left breathless—and those were the ones without magic. Illusions could make anything real, and Oesca and Ivenius had seen both. So why the fascination?

“Alright. Who wants to try that? Or just that cartwheel? Not here! A mat, something soft…”

The Wind Runner was a surprisingly anxious person as children surged forwards to show her the results of their practice. Somehow she’d requisitioned a mattress and let a boy who might be a [Servant] climb onto it. Then Itorin figured it out. He saw the grinning boy test the mattress, ask Ryoka Griffin if it would be easier on the ground, and then, despite the added difficulty, do a standing backflip.

He nearly missed the landing and stumbled, but Ryoka caught him and he was cheered by the other children.

“You can do that without a Skill?”

He hadn’t used one and Itorin twisted one of his rings and saw no [Tumbler] class. Itorin saw Ryoka turn to another girl. A [Squire].

“Courier Griffin! I can do a cartwheel! All the instructors and the older [Squires] can even do it. Look!”

She broke into a running start, then did a perfect cartwheel across the ground six times. Ryoka and Itorin stared.

There was a lot of natural talent in Ailendamus, and the best were put into places where their natural talents shone even brighter. Someone with outstanding physical abilities was a natural candidate to become a [Knight] or superior class, so it wasn’t surprising they had that kind of coordination.

Even so. Itorin understood why his daughter and son were bouncing and looking at him to request a private lesson. And why Oiena didn’t want them to.

“Where is Scholar Jsse? Summon her.”

Itorin II went back to watching as a servant and bodyguard rushed off. Ah, this made sense. These tricks, from handstands to cartwheels to flips and the fascinating aerial tricks, were all things you could do without Skills. It was something that, in theory, any person in the world could do.

Fascinating. Itorin II had assumed Ryoka Griffin was some kind of Courier-[Thief]. Rhisveri had explained a bit of why he was so obsessed. But this…Itorin II kept twisting his ring and frowning.

Scholar Jsse was with him in less than five minutes. You didn’t keep the King of Ailendamus waiting, after all.

“Your Majesty? You have a question for me?”

She was part of the intelligence of Ailendamus. Not the ‘spymaster’ intelligence, but the literal intellect cultivated here. Another of Rhisveri’s initiatives. He wanted [Sages]; thus far they had [Scholars], [Historians], [Librarians], [Teachers], [Philosophers], and those were just the ones who were specialized, unlike say, a [Mage].

She was a bit absent-minded with her address and manners, but she had royal dispensation to be that way, and Itorin regarded her as his go-to expert on a lot of matters.

“Scholar Jsse. What would be the…danger of allowing the [Prince] and [Princess] to learn this tumbling? These acrobatic tricks? If they gained a class, what would it be?”

The [Scholar] instantly turned to regard Ryoka Griffin as Oesca and Ivenius looked up excitedly. She frowned at Ryoka, and poked two fingers into her eyes.

That wasn’t intentional. She kept forgetting they’d corrected her near-sightedness and that she no longer wore glasses.

“Interesting. It looks like tumbling, but it might be more utilitarian. This is the Courier who races about and jumps over all the hedges, isn’t she? They were placing bets on her this morning.”

“…She does what?”

“The hedge maze. She runs all over the gardens, Your Majesty. Sometimes with the…Thirsting Veil [Knights], I believe. And others. She has an amazing ability to navigate obstacles. I think there’s a request to incorporate that kind of movement into our training regimes. We need to hire a Courier or [Acrobat], and it would be for irregulars…”

She broke off outlining the experimentation. Itorin II was sure they’d look into it, hire experts, consult them and develop a training plan, and then field-test the [Knights] or whatever group who learned it and see how practical it was in field operations. He couldn’t imagine how useful it would be in battlefields, but maybe they’d put it into training [Guards]? Urban-city chases had a lot of that.

If it worked, he’d probably see a plan to add it to general training in two years’ time. That was Ailendamus for you. Rhisveri and some of his…people had set up this system and Itorin II appreciated that.

Just not kidnapping children of foreign powers, thank you. He stared at his ring, at Ryoka, pulled it off, and handed it to one of his [Mage] bodyguards.

“Fetch me another Ring of Appraisal and have this one tested.”

Jsse had her analysis done within two minutes.

“Your Majesty. I believe the classes most likely to be obtained if Their Highnesses will it would be [Tumbler], [Performer], [Martial Artist], [Lightfoot], [Trickster]—that one would be a low chance, but I am throwing it in there as a possibility—and [Dancer]. Of the lot, I would say that [Tumbler], [Martial Artist], and [Lightfoot] are undesirable. The other three are actually beneficial if Their Highnesses reach Level 10.”

“Even [Trickster]?”

Itorin II saw she’d done a little diagram. Jsse held it up. Oesca and Ivenius were listening keenly.

“Yes, your Majesty. You’d have to, um, consult with their full plan, as it would change things. But a [Trickster Prince] is an established class. I can pull up nearly two dozen records; it’s quite versatile. [Dancer] and [Performer] combine with standard royal classes with no notable consolidation unless it overpowers the main class, so there’s little issue by Level 20 and if they are talented in either regard, that is quite a good option too. [Tumbler], [Martial Artist], and [Lightfoot] are simply harder to combine.”

“What’s [Lightfoot]?”

There were classes that Itorin had never heard of, many cultural or dependent on the society in which they existed. Jsse knew all of them.

“Criminal-class. Well, not criminal, but it often combines into that. A child-age class, mainly. It can be combined, but I don’t believe a [Prince of Rogues] or a [Princess of the Streets] is desirable.”

“Most certainly not.”

“Father, we won’t take those three classes. But may we learn the other classes? I could become a [Performer]! Or a [Dancer]! Mother wants me to become a [Dancer] anyways!”

Oesca begged. Itorin considered it.

“I will allow it. Prepare a room for training, and if you do gain a class, you must reach Level 10, agreed?”

“Yes!”

Ivenius and Oesca danced about happily. Which was fine. Oiena had thrown ten kinds of fits when their first son was found playing with servants. Itorin had been forced to explain that’s how he’d grown up and that Ailendamus allowed fraternization and indeed, displays of overt emotion. That was what he agreed with too. Rhisveri hadn’t put that into place, obviously. He had all the empathy and child-rearing ability of a sock. With needles in it.

That was the initiative of Lady Paterghost, a…personality. One of Rhisveri’s lot, but who had sought out Itorin personally a few times. Unlike the others, she actually mingled with Itorin’s people now and then, and not merely as a military force like Gilaw, but a kind of advisor to very few.

She had told Itorin stories about how badly it went with monarchs not letting children be children, or forcing them to do things that cropped up later in life as odd fetishes, personality quirks, or terrible deeds. And she would know; she’d seen countless generations of monarchs.

“Very well. Have it arranged. Inform Her Majesty that I believe it is harmless.”

He’d hear from Oiena about it later, but Oesca and Ivenius hugging him and their looks of delight as they ran over to the Wind Runner were worth it. Itorin II saw Jsse peering at Ryoka and frowning.

“Something wrong, Scholar Jsse?”

The woman was fumbling with her earring.

“I think—either my enchantment is not working on only her—or she has a magical safeguard. Or Skill? But it would register that.”

Itorin II glanced over, interested.

“Are you referring to your appraisal earring?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“I thought my ring had failed as well. Does she lack a class?”

The two looked at each other and one of the [Royal Bodyguards] stirred. Itorin turned.

“Bodswen. Can you…?”

One of his elite guard was already casting the [Appraisal] spell. She took one look at Ryoka Griffin and shook her head.

“No class.”

Really? How extraordinary! I’ve heard there are a few people like that, but I have never met one!”

Jsse whirled, eyes lighting up. Itorin II blinked. He saw the wind lifting a girl into the air with a little cloth parachute, and his eyes swiveled to Jsse.

“How is she controlling the wind?”

“Magic.”

“But if she has no classes…”

Jsse was frowning at Ryoka.

“She can learn magic without. It’s well-documented. In the few case-studies there are. I think she can even learn an aura, which is what this might be. It’s such an interesting choice. We had an initiative to have a thousand children live without levels to study the effects on a wide scale, but it was turned down; it was a waste of resources, the children would have to agree, and so on…”

“Is there a benefit?”

“Some. I would have to look this up, Your Majesty. [Summon Book]. Ah, here’s one of the tomes. A Life Without Levels…but it’s an autobiography. Alas.”

Jsse’s hand suddenly held a book. Itorin II saw her leafing through it, murmuring. Some people had the most useless Skills…except if you loved to read.

And still, he was more and more fascinated by the Wind Runner. Enough so that when the Courier looked up and saw Oesca and Ivenius standing there, Itorin II of Ailendamus approached.

“Your Majesty. I hope I’m not disturbing the peace? Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were here.”

She looked warily at his bodyguards as four of the Thirsting Veil [Knights] dropped their invisibility spells to briefly salute him, before returning to guard duty. Itorin II hated that; he’d forgotten they were attached to her.

Heart attacks, every time.

“Courier Griffin. You need not stand on formality with us. Nor have we been disturbed. Rather, we thank you for your entertainment.”

Itorin spoke for the benefit of his bodyguard, since Ryoka had not actually knelt. She tilted her head, recognizing the royal ‘we’ that Itorin applied while in public.

“I am grateful, Your Majesty. Did I…understand your children, I mean, Their Highnesses want to learn how to do a backflip? I…could teach them.”

Her voice revealed how odd she thought that was. Itorin smiled.

“Is it so unnatural that a monarch might wish to learn an interesting…trick, Courier Griffin? We have requested tutors in other subjects, from chess to even the new sport of football. Whatever invokes a passion in our children is to be pursued. All things have value.”

It felt a bit pretentious saying it like that, and Itorin regretted the public setting that required him to speak like this. Ryoka Griffin nodded, slowly. She looked…well, interested.

“I haven’t heard many monarchs saying that—not that I know many monarchs, er, Your Majesty. I’ve never met any. Er—one, but not in the same context—technically two—”

She began to turn red, and Itorin II smiled a bland courtier’s smile. Inwardly, he was surprised. He knew she was a new Courier, but meeting monarchs face-to-face? Still rare.

“Fascinating. You have a charmed life, as we have observed. We understand our royal uncle, the Duke, has his…quarrels with you. However, we are pleased by your actions. They enliven the times we live in, although our guard may object to any more dramatic actions.”

He nodded at Bodswen, who had nearly shot Ryoka when she appeared on the tower. Ryoka nodded, still flushing.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Father. May we go and try to learn the tricks? And be excused from our lessons?”

Itorin sighed.

“Very well, Oesca. You shall be excused.”

He was moving off when one of the many people waiting caught his eye. Itorin II grimaced, and beckoned forwards someone who had watched from the crowd around him this entire time. Never interrupted, only waited to see if he was called on. Now, the [Mage] came forwards with a scrying orb.

“Report.”

The [Court Mage] ducked his head, looking apprehensive.

“…Your Majesty, Wistram has declined to add your royal personage to the Arbitration Council as they meet today. They claim the event is organized by a Feshi and the Meeting of Tribes at large.”

“We see.”

Itorin’s voice was frosty. Also, his feelings were hurt. Queen Geilouna and Pheislant’s [King] had both been on the scrying orb. But Ailendamus couldn’t get an invitation while the Bedtime Queen was the darling of everyone watching.

Itorin II had to admit, the allure of being on a scrying orb called to him and this was a point of annoyance. Ailendamus had had its time in the sun, but being part of that group? His diplomats worried about how he might appear, but Itorin II wanted it, and it was a rare selfish desire.

Ryoka glanced up as the scrying orb changed. Itorin peered down at it and recoiled.

“What is that?

He pointed at a giant bug, riding on a camel of all things. Oesca and Ivenius’ heads snapped around along with all those in eyesight at the television. The [Court Mage] grimaced.

“The documentary has just aired its third segment. ‘Ksmvr of Chandrar’, I believe.”

“Ksmvr of…?”

Itorin vaguely recalled some stir in his [Strategists] and [Generals] about the Antinium, but it wasn’t a threat and only tangentially related to Ailendamus’ activities.

“I know him! Father, the third part is out? Oesca, we have to watch with the others tonight!”

The [Princess] was nodding eagerly. Itorin II eyed them, and was about to ask just what this documentary was about when he heard a sound. It sounded like ‘eep’.

He turned his head and saw Ryoka Griffin about to be bisected, vivisected, and otherwise stabbed by no less than eight different blades lying across her neck, thrust to her chest, back, and sides from his bodyguard and the Thirsting Veil Knights. She had moved too close to him and if she sneezed, she’d turn into jelly.

“Release her.”

Itorin ordered at once, mindful of Rhisveri’s unpredictable wrath. The swords withdrew, but two hands yanked Ryoka back.

“Apologies, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sorry—can I see that?”

Ryoka struggled as one of the bodyguards blocked her. Oesca glared at Bodswen, but knew the woman would not relent for anything if she thought there was a hint of danger. Itorin II glanced at Bodswen.

“The Wind Runner is a guest, unhand her. You are interested in this…?”

He waved forwards the [Court Mage]. Ryoka made a choking sound as it grew larger and she saw the Antinium balancing a cat on his head.

Ksmvr? That’s Ksmvr! You said he’s there? In Chandrar?

She demanded, looking wildly at the [Court Mage]. The man backed up, glanced at Itorin, and replied succinctly.

“Yes, er, Miss Courier. This is the third part of a documentary by one Rémi Canada, I believe. He has been in Chandrar, in the company of the former Empress of Beasts.”

Th—wh—what about the other Horns of Hammerad?

Ryoka demanded. Itorin’s ears perked up. Who?

“Let me see. Gold-rank team. Part of the, um, raid on the Village of the Dead. Failed. [Transcribe Knowledge]. Oh, damn, I’m going to have to wait till tomorrow to get that report…here, Your Majesty.”

Scholar Jsse handed him a huge pamphlet about all the information in her prodigious mind about them. Itorin flipped through it with half an eye, but he was watching Ryoka.

“They’re alive? You’re sure?”

“Pisces Jealnet, Yvlon Byres, and Ksmvr the Antinium are all accounted for. One escaped the captivity of Roshal, one is in the custody of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and the last is roaming Tiqr, at present.”

Roshal?

Itorin II didn’t need to stay here. At a word he could make Ryoka go with Oesca and Ivenius, or he could just walk off and attend to the many people waiting for him. But he was tickled with interest.

“You know this Antinium, Courier Griffin?”

Her head rose.

“I—they’re my friends. I know their team. I was there when…they entered the Village of the Dead. I thought they died. No—they’re alive.

The Prince, Princess, and every other person looked at Ryoka. Itorin II just blinked at her. Now there was too many coincidences. First, she had a connection to Sammial Veltras and that unpleasant connection this morning. Next, to Ksmvr of Chandrar. His lips quirked with irony. He gestured to the [Court Mage] and the Arbitration Council came on.

Fetohep, Eldavin, a Gnoll he didn’t recognize, two more he saw were labeled Chieftain Xherw and Chieftain Torishi, Queen Yisame, Tulm the Mithril…

It was a different Arbitration Council this time. More, Itorin suspected, for the fun of being part of this discussion, the prestige of it. No Chaldion, and the Seer of Steel, Foliana, Perorn, the Minotaur King, and a number of others had declined to attend. Their seats were being filled by other personalities of note.

Not him, he noted with a sour feeling. But he was happy that the King of Pheislant had not been re-invited. Possibly because of his incredible pass at Perorn and Queen Geilouna which had resulted in two rejections. Itorin had laughed about it all night long.

In fact, not even the Bedtime Queen was present. Fetohep was remarking upon it.

I believed Desonis requested reattendance. Is Her Majesty well?

A smiling [Earl] stood there. Itorin did recognize Altestiel, the [Earl of the Rains]. He nodded politely to Fetohep.

“Your Eternal Majesty, I regret to inform you all that Queen Geilouna is…still asleep. I believe attempts are being made to rouse her, and she will join the council. By lunchtime at the latest. Most likely.”

Itorin heard a giggle from his daughter, who rather liked Geilouna. Itorin II couldn’t help but smile. He wanted to be there! To have some pithy remark! He looked at Ryoka.

“You would not happen to know anyone on this Council, would you? We have requested the…honor of joining, but it seems Ailendamus is not well-known among the Gnolls.”

Pressure them. He frowned at the [Court Mage], who had been bombarding Feshi with [Messages] all day and night. Itorin was smiling ruefully at his jest when he saw Ryoka’s face.

She…had the most twitchy smile he had ever seen in his life. Itorin stopped and Jsse nearly stabbed herself in an eye again as she regarded Ryoka.

Ryoka Griffin looked at Eldavin, Krshia Silverfang, Drassi, who had been able to get on the council, and Altestiel, and gave Itorin a smile trying to edge off her face.

“Not at all, Your Majesty…”

It was such a bad lie that even Bodswen raised her eyebrows under her helmet. Oesca’s mouth opened with delight, and Itorin blinked at Ryoka.

“You…know some of the individuals on this council?”

He didn’t. Ryoka twitched.

“No? I mean, not at all! How could I? I know one or two. Just in my job as a Courier! It’s not like I know them personally—it’s a coincidence. What are they…? Why is Kr—I don’t know them well. Or some of the rulers at all!”

“Which ones do you know?”

Prince Ivenius was looking at Ryoka with the awe he didn’t accord to Ailendamus’ [Generals] or great [Knights]. Ryoka’s lips moved.

“Well, obviously not him.

She pointed at Fetohep. Then checked his name. Wait. Hadn’t he sent her a letter…?

Itorin II slowly raised his eyebrows. He had, in his possession, among utility items like his Ring of Appraisal and protective rings, a truth-telling enchantment. Ryoka’s lie hovered over her head.

“You know Fetohep of Khelt. How many others?”

“Not that many…”

Another huge lie. She knew at least half the Arbitration Council members on screen somehow! Five! It came out as Oesca and Ivenius pestered her. The Wind Runner tried to back up and stuttered.

“Do you know Grand Magus Eldavin? What about that Gnoll? That Gnoll? Do you know Drassi?”

“Not really—I uh—n—well, I—”

It was the most amazing display of lies and half-truths flickering over Itorin’s vision he’d ever seen. Jsse was making notes, and handed him a quick list. Oesca looked up and begged for it. Itorin II was feeling better, so he gave his daughter the list. She read it.

You know Grand Magus Eldavin, Fetohep of Khelt, Krshia Silverfang, Drassi, and the Earl of the Rains!?

The power of [Scholars]. Well…the power of anyone who could take notes and tell when Ryoka was lying and make a short list.

Ryoka turned pale, red, and then looked in silence at Itorin and his children, who were all staring at her with a mixture of amusement and fascination. She opened her mouth, realized there was nothing she could say that wouldn’t reveal her, and tried to run for it.

Two Thirsting Veil Knights checked her into the ground. Ryoka lay there, staring dazedly up at the sky. Itorin II blinked down at Ryoka Griffin.

It was a quintessential Wind Runner experience. He began to see why Oesca and Ivenius were such big fans of hers.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin was interesting. So interesting that Itorin II lingered outside the room where she was distractedly teaching Oesca how to do a handstand and Ivenius how to do a backflip while watching a replay of Ksmvr of Chandrar’s first documentary. He held court, answering questions, consulting with advisors…

Thinking.

Now Rhisveri’s fascination made more sense. Somehow, this Courier had met people across the world despite being so young. She looked and acted young. She grew flustered, she made mistakes—and he rather empathized with that and found her likeable.

But then she surprised him twice when he asked if she could somehow leverage her connections to get him a place on the Arbitration Council.

“I…don’t know this Feshi.”

“But you do know various members of the Council. If you said something…”

Ryoka Griffin looked at Itorin. Her eyes flickered to the bodyguards, and back at the children; and Oesca, who was trying to figure out how you backflipped in a dress.

“I don’t believe I should talk to…any members of the council, Your Majesty. Or rather, even if I thought I could ask them, I’m not an ally of Ailendamus right now. I am a…guest of Duke Rhisveri.”

Itorin stopped. He had almost forgotten that. The King regarded Ryoka gravely.

“Ah, yes. And House Veltras is involved with that issue. Sammial Veltras…Bodswen, is the young [Lord] around here?”

“In his rooms, Your Majesty.”

“Has he escaped?”

The [Royal Bodyguard] grimaced.

“Three times, I believe. I’ve personally made sure he will not again. He is…troublesome, I understand. He has an aura.”

“Has the Duke made any arrangements around him?”

“No, Your Majesty.”

Itorin II thought. It was just like Rhisveri. He saw Ryoka watching him and smiled.

“Then, summon him here and give him a freer reign of the palace. This…conflict with the Five Families only involves him incidentally.”

Ryoka started. She looked at Itorin. The man gazed at her and wondered how much Rhisveri had told her. Nothing important, surely. Then again…the Wind Runner had once driven him into a rage by juggling some colorful stones for some reason and he’d been told Rhisveri had stormed into the Court of Masks when she wandered in there.

But she didn’t know. That was inconceivable. Itorin II thought that, of the non-immortals, less than fifty people in all of Ailendamus knew, and all of them stood at the height of the kingdom. And of those who knew everything, it was just him.

And yet. Ryoka Griffin looked at him. Itorin hesitated and made an off-hand comment.

“Unless you think my uncle would object? I do stay out of his business unless it affects the realm. He is a touchy soul.”

She hesitated. The Wind Runner looked at Itorin, and spoke, slowly.

“I don’t think he even noticed Sammial. He was only focused on me. He’s…a strange man. Very possessive. Very arrogant. If I may say so, Your Majesty. I’d bet a Dragon would be more friendly.”

Itorin nearly jumped. Bodswen casually glanced over at Ryoka, and then her [King], and seemed to decide badmouthing the Duke was a-okay, especially since Itorin was talking with the Courier. She went back to watching Oesca try to do a handstand as her minders told her she could not because she was wearing a dress.

Then I do not want a dress! Why can I not wear pants? Ivenius is! So is the Wind Runner!

Oesca began to pitch a fit, one that Itorin was never going to jump into. Oiena had views on proper attire.

“Your Highness, we’ll spell the dress. Just give us ten minutes…”

The [Princess] glowered. Itorin couldn’t focus on her, though, because he was staring at Ryoka. Had she just implied what he thought she had? No. There was no way Rhisveri would take a thief, a foreign Courier, into his confidence. Unless she’d found out? But arrogant as he was, he’d never accidentally reveal anything and let her live.

Itorin slowly focused on something that was hovering around Ryoka’s wrist. A magical band of jade. A high-class restraining object. And Ryoka was just…staring at him.

Suddenly, Itorin had a thought. He glanced at Ryoka.

“You…I believe this is somewhat intrusive, but may I ask if you lack levels altogether, Miss Griffin? I did notice.”

She jumped. Ryoka opened her mouth, and mindful of his truth spells, replied slowly.

“I—don’t have them.”

“Really. That’s exceptionally rare.”

“Not too rare, surely? There are…people who don’t need levels. I do without, but you don’t need levels to cast magic. I’m sure Your Majesty has seen examples of that?”

Itorin nodded slowly.

“From time to time, one does meet individuals of exceptional ability. I have been privileged to meet the greatest spellcasters and minds in Ailendamus. You have met the Duke Rhisveri, my uncle, who is temperamental, but gifted.”

“Yes. Very gifted. I’ve also met other people in your kingdom, Your Majesty. Only a few, but they were quite striking.”

“Ah. Like…Baron Regalius? A fine man. I heard he had made your acquaintance.”

Ryoka smiled thinly.

“Yes, but he wasn’t who I met. Are you aware of a Fithea, a, um, Gilaw, Sophridel? Menorkel? I met them all. Especially Gilaw. And, uh—a Lady Paterghost and—”

“Nube.”

Itorin breathed. He stared at Ryoka. She knew. There was no way she mentioned all of them at random—not unless Rhisveri was somehow showing her around his association and she had no idea. But her comments. Her own powers and the reason why she wasn’t a pool of steaming acid already?

“They are all outstanding individuals. Ailendamus was founded on such talent and we do not lack for it. You have seen our flag, our heraldry?”

“Oh—the Hydra?”

That was their national animal. Itorin nodded, heart thundering as Bodswen turned and grimaced. A foreign aura assailed Itorin’s own force of will and bounced off, but it was amazing in such a small boy. Ryoka smiled, hearing a familiar loud voice.

“I think it’s quite suitable. The Duke reminds me of a Hydra, actually. Although he only has one head.”

“Indeed.”

Itorin managed. He looked at Ryoka Griffin and put it all together. Of course. How was he so blind?

She knew everyone. She was able to command the wind, but she had no classes and levels. She somehow had Rhisveri’s tolerance despite being a thief…

“You—are you Rhisveri’s guest, or a thief? Perhaps you have relatives in Ailendamus, or this is part of negotiations?”

This time it was Ryoka’s turn to look surprised. Itorin’s stomach lurched. But he did recall individuals joining Ailendamus, or entire groups. His father had told him of the day Viscount Visophecin had appeared…yet the Wind Runner’s eyes widened, and she smiled. She even chuckled.

“Oh—Your Majesty. I think you’ve misunderstood one thing.”

“Ah. And that would be?”

“I’m not—related to Rhisveri or any of the others. I’m just me. Human Ryoka. I don’t have classes because—I didn’t want any. I’ve been very lucky to survive this far. But I’m afraid that doesn’t make me…immortal.”

Truth. It shone clear in his magical eyesight, and Itorin recalled that one of the things about Rhisveri and his lot was that they were all protected from such spells. He looked at Ryoka Griffin. Wind Runner. Thief and friend to so many. Courier, classless.

Mortal.

Instantly, Itorin was taken by a feeling. Ryoka Griffin looked at him warily, a touch uncertainly, as Sammial Veltras tried to make for them and demand Itorin let them both go. Bodswen directed him into the private room. Oesca turned, smiling to Sammial, who brightened up when he saw Prince Ivenius doing handstands.

“You’re learning how to flip? Ryoka was showing me. Can you do a handstand?”

“I’m waiting for my dress to be enchanted so I can. Otherwise I might…”

Princess Oesca hesitated, blushed, and whispered to Sammial.

Show my undergarments.

He gave her a blank look, which completely fit his age. He stared at Oesca’s magnificent dress, like a green lily on water, hand-picked by Queen Oiena and gifted to Oesca as a birthday present, fine even by the standards of royalty. Sammial made a rude sound.

“That’s stupid. Girls wear trousers. Look at Ryoka. Dresses are stupid in battle, you know.”

He pointed. Oesca glanced at her nursemaids, who were glaring at Sammy but already catching wind of his aura.

[Princesses] do not, nor the nobility.”

She sighed. Sammial looked at her like she was stupid.

“Yes they do. Every girl in House Veltras wears trousers when they go hunting. I’ve never seen Lady Buscrei wear a dress. Unless…no. Wait. That wasn’t a dress. That was just a bath towel.”

Oesca listened to House Veltras’ line of practical clothing options. Her head slowly turned to her nursemaids, and they braced themselves for the demand that came in the next second. However, the first chink in the armor of pleated skirts had been found and the war for pants was on.

Itorin II didn’t see it. And it was somewhat unfortunate because when his daughter demanded to be given a pair of pants, he just said, ‘yes, Oesca’, absentmindedly.

He was too busy shaking Ryoka’s hand.

“Truly?”

“I…well, yes. So you know?”

“One could not be in my position and not. Ah—don’t worry. I’ve deployed a small speaking dome.”

Even Bodswen was staring; Itorin II had activated an enchantment that he normally employed when speaking to his [Great Generals] or fellow heads of state, and he was shaking Ryoka’s hand! He almost looked like he wanted to hug the Wind Runner.

“Who do you know?”

“I—uh—Winter Sprites.”

Winter Sprites? Truly?”

“Do you know them?”

“Of course! They used to stop by—I have no idea what they are, but they would sometimes say or do something to Fithea. They positively loathe Rhisveri, I think; we get so much snow we have to use [Pyromancers] because shovels could not shift enough. Even Cenidau’s diplomats think it’s unreasonably snowy. What are they like?”

“Uh—dangerous.”

Itorin nearly laughed.

“Of course they are. I meant…do they have personality?”

“I—y—”

She hesitated, and the King leaned in.

“It is not for secrets of state. I just wish to know.”

He looked at her, a fellow mortal who knew the great secret of this world. Ryoka Griffin hesitated, wary, but then she looked at him and seemed to come to a decision.

“They’re little sprites. Little people made of ice. All female, but they’re, um, visiting. They’re pranksters and tricksters, but one time they hit me with an avalanche. Twice, actually. Three times—but the last one was to help me.”

“Really. What do they want?”

“That’s so complicated I—so you know what Rhisveri’s up to?”

Itorin’s hesitation was an explanation in itself.

“I—am aware of much of it. But as you might expect, he guards his secrets well. You may think me a…puppet.”

“N…I just wondered…how much you know.”

“He leaves the management of the state to me, except in rare cases. You would be surprised, I think, but it is a beneficial relationship most of the time. I think of it as best for Ailendamus. Your situation—will he try to kill you?”

“I don’t think so. He got Sammial by accident and things have changed. How do you…was it all your life?”

Itorin laughed.

“Not at all. Only when I took the throne. I had hints, from my father, you see, but…no. No one but I knows as much, and—I cannot believe he trusted you with it.”

“He didn’t. It was close. I nearly got, uh…”

“Melted?”

Ryoka blanched.

“He does that?”

Itorin hesitated.

“…Never that I’ve seen, but I have heard stories. You should be wary around him, if that advice is not redundant. In truth, Miss Griffin, I fear you are in dire straits.”

He meant it seriously and saw she took it as such, but to his amazement, she smiled.

“It won’t be the first time. Not that I can tell you all of it, Your Majesty. But believe me—I’ve done this before. I think I can at least survive…but whether or not I’ll get what I want is a different matter.”

He stepped back, a smile of delight crossing his features. Wonder, even.

“You…‘get what you want’? Is that even possible?”

The Wind Runner’s smile had pride and a kind of joy of her own.

“It is. You just have to know how to talk to them. Play their game and don’t. Respect them and push back. Have something they need. They’re still people.”

“They…”

Itorin hesitated. He stroked his beard.

“…They are, aren’t they? Rhisveri is one thing, and I would caution you to beware of some of the others. I don’t know…everything. But I do know some are good…people. Sophridel is fair-minded. He runs the Court of Masks, as you know. Have you met him?”

“I found him by accident.”

By accident? Then—you know Lady Fithea. She and he are two of the most reasonable, esteemed, I think. I would also say—Lady Paterghost.”

Really?

“She is a fine soul.”

“She kicked me when we met. I don’t think she likes me.”

Ryoka rubbed at her stomach. Itorin smiled.

“Ah. She’s quite kind. Even Oesca and Ivenius have met her, you know, though they only know her as one of the Great Knights in retirement. She is fond of the royal family; guarded above all others. But Rhisveri is completely beyond all the rest. You know why.”

“Yes. He is. But he’s not the biggest…snake…in the pond.”

Ryoka muttered. Itorin stepped back.

“You are extraordinary. Do you mean that?”

He grew nervous just at the idea. Ryoka looked at him. And it was a humanizing look, as well as one that had both wonder and distance to it. She had seen something, but her smile made him breathe again.

“Believe me, Your Majesty. He’s powerful and great, in his way. But believe me.”

 

——

 

Sammial Veltras met Prince Ivenius and Princess Oesca of Ailendamus and struck a blow against the patriarchy…which was actually the matriarchy in Queen Oiena…with the aid of King Itorin…

Oesca wore pants. And it was as much about family and culture as anything else, but Sammial Veltras was there, and he and Oesca, in the course of two mere hours, both learned how to do a backflip and became friends.

“We have otter-dogs.”

“What do they do?

Ivenius and Oesca both wanted to know, even though Oesca’s older brother was usually aloof from younger kids, being a [Squire]. Sammial tried to explain.

“They have webbed skin on their feet, and they’re long. But really strong; they can pull water sleds.”

“Water sleds?”

“That’s nothing. Other parts of House Veltras have weird pets. Like Lord Swey.”

“Who’s he?”

“He lives on a big cliff place. He has a pet…buddy. It’s this giant, furry thing that looks like us. It’s called a monkey. He can climb up the cliffs. And he throws poop at bandits.”

What?

Oesca began giggling. Sammial was trying to recount to her the famous tale of when the monkey had killed a [Bandit Leader] scaling the cliffs by hitting him with feces, which led to the man falling to his doom.

But that was a sideshow as Itorin and Ryoka walked out of the bubble. Ryoka had an appointment with Fithea, and Itorin had work to do. But he stopped, and, in view of his inner cabinet, took her hand again.

“It was a true pleasure, Ryoka.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Itorin. That…is something I should insist upon. I will hope for your success. But perhaps…hm. I have appointments all of today. Tomorrow? If no royal dinners are extant—or if they are, perhaps afterwards?”

“I—really?”

“It would greatly please me to continue our conversation and ask you what you are willing to share.”

Oesca, Sammial, Ivenius, and the court all saw Itorin give Ryoka a rare, genuine smile. Ryoka hesitated, then ducked her head.

“Of course. I’d be honored.”

Such a strange thing. What a strange power Ryoka Griffin had.

What a dangerous moment. Oesca’s nursemaids and several other people instantly had alarm bells go off in their heads. And not the tiny [Dangersense] ones that went dingalingaling. More like giant bells tolling across half the kingdom. Queen Oiena was going to hear about this. His Majesty had looked like he wanted to hug the Wind Runner. He’d almost gone in for it.

Why her? When he had met with foreign beauties and all kinds of…Oesca was concerned, and whispered to Sammial.

“I think father likes the Wind Runner.”

Sammial frowned at Itorin II, who’d he wanted to have words with. He folded his arms and announced, decisively.

“Well, it’s too bad because my father is Tyrion Veltras and he’s courting Ryoka. He proposed to her. Also, she’s not a slut, no matter what you hear.”

He informed Oesca, with the high-minded pride of a young boy who wanted to clear the air and make sure no one insulted Ryoka. One of the nursemaids stared at Sammial. From keeping the wretched boy away from Oesca, she now decided he should have a playdate where Sammial could tell more about this Wind Runner.

Oh yes, Oiena was going to hear about this.

 

——

 

Goddamnit.

Wait. Dead gods damnit, but that didn’t flow right. How about…

Dead-gods-with-a-pinecone-shoved-up-their-asses damnit. Why did Itorin have to do this to her? Ailendamus? In a larger, more meta sense, most of the people she’d met? Stop it.

Stop being likable. Because she had caught herself, mid-talk with Itorin about the shit you got into with immortals, laughing, wanting to pat the man on the back and say ‘it was going to be okay’, exchange stories about mishaps, trade tips.

She’d felt sorry for him. But he had looked her in the eye when she asked how bad Rhisveri was and said this:

“I won’t lie and tell you he is perfect, because he is anything but. Yet I regard him and his people as the thing my kingdom needs. It has been a trade that favors Ailendamus. I believe we are a kingdom out of kingdoms and we have just begun, Miss Griffin. So I will take him, even if you offered me a choice.”

He believed in Ailendamus. And Ryoka had seen it in Regalius, in the Court of Masks. She had seen good and bad, but she had seen good, and, in that moment, she had liked Itorin.

Only afterwards had she recalled—he was making war on the Dawn Concordat and his kingdom was known for wiping out other nations and they’d kidnapped her and Sammial and nearly killed them both.

Yet, like Tyrion, he just wasn’t one pure note of evil. And it made it hard to balance liking him and remembering why you shouldn’t. Or was that the problem? Like them, don’t like them.

But remember what they were.

…Incredibly sad.

Fithea’s gnarled hand traced the symbol on one of the obol stones. A glowing word in Ryoka’s eyes. The Stone Dryad finally spoke.

“It…it means earth, doesn’t it?”

And the word was magic. Her hand almost began to close, but it was Ryoka’s. And her look of longing…Ryoka gazed at the old woman.

Gnarled hands. And they were gnarled. They were like tree roots come to life. She herself looked like a being made out of bark and elements of a tree. Yet—she had turned to stone.

She was old. So old, Ryoka suspected she was far past a Dryad’s natural life cycle. How long did it take for wood to turn to stone? She thought the answer was millions of years.

Fithea laughed when she heard that. Her voice was cracked, rasping. Weary.

“I am not that old, Ryoka Griffin. Merely old. I…I have lost my forest. You understand what I am. You know what that means.”

Ryoka nodded slowly.

“I…I don’t know everything. But you are a Dryad, aren’t you?”

“Yes. The last of the great forests that I know of.”

“I thought there were Dryads still. I’ve heard of…people fighting them?”

Fithea shook her head. Sadly.

“They surely do. But what those who cut wood find is not…thinking. They come from young saplings. Hundreds of years old at most. Lesser trees. Not greatwood. Not from a proper tree. Only after countless years will something emerge that thinks. That…can be something. You understand? We are the oldest seeds, and grow slowest, but from every tree.”

Ryoka did see.

“And the forests that you came from, your kind…?”

She sat with Fithea in the sanctuary of wood and water, sunlight pouring in from above. In the Immortal’s Wing, as Ryoka thought of it. The old Dryad had tried to offer her food, but she was fixated on Ryoka’s stones.

On Ryoka, even on the wind that blew quietly through this place. Gently, as if it too wanted to respect Fithea.

Respect. Ryoka had that and more. The old Dryad deserved it. And she had vouched for Ryoka, such that not even Rhisveri had stopped her from coming here.

Indeed, some people were staring at Ryoka from behind a doorway. They hid when she looked up, but she saw them.

Gilaw, a mane of hair and a piercing glare from the tall woman, wordless as always, wearing armor as if it weighed nothing.

A wet face and dripping hair; ostensibly a youth she would have thought came from somewhere in South America in her world, but she had noticed he never stopped looking like he’d just come out of the water. And standing taller than both—Menorkel, a giant figure with orange skin, two heads, and four arms.

Titan. Merfolk. Griffin. Ryoka suspected there were more, and Fithea had offered to show her around later. But the Dryad was staring at the stone.

“May I hold it? Just hold it…”

“Of course.”

The old woman held the stone and closed her eyes. Her ‘eyes’ were glowing lights in her wooden sockets. Not fire; that would be nonsensical. Just…glowing magic itself. She did not weep tears, but it was in her voice.

“It feels like home! It feels like the Great Forests, before they died and the old protectors walked into the sea! It comes from a place where they have not died. It does, surely. That land. It has…does it have a forest?”

“The biggest forest I’ve ever seen.”

Ryoka answered, truthfully. Fithea looked hungrily at her.

“How tall were the trees?”

“…Beyond imagining. There was a representative who came here.”

“One of the old ones? The wood that walks?”

“Yes. He was named Silverpine.”

Fithea looked blankly at Ryoka.

“Silverpine? As in…the tree? That is not a name I would expect.”

The Wind Runner felt goosebumps on her arm even as she smiled. Because Fithea had seen mystery and came from a time of legends. But even she…

“No. That was his name. And I think—nature.

The Dryad sat there, her mouth open slightly. Silverpine. She breathed, slowly.

“Then you are a representative of them. You’ve walked in the forests of legend. Here—take something. Eat. Are you hungry? These come from the half-Elves I work with. They live in small forests, and some know how to work with trees.”

She offered Ryoka what looked like, well, snowflakes made of sap. Beautiful patterns of pure maple sap or another tree’s sugar. Ryoka took a flake and it was delicious. It did melt on the tongue.

There were other treats; Fithea either had the impression Ryoka had the sweetest of teeth, or that was simply what she thought Humans liked. Which…fair.

“Is it okay to offer me this? I mean um—I’m sure it is. But why…?”

Ryoka lifted a chunk of honeycomb the size of her hand, trimmed of larvae and the waxy bits. Fithea looked at the honeycomb—meant for bees of a regular size, not Apista-bees—and shook her head.

“All these things harm nothing. The bees know it will be taken, so they simply make honeycomb like so. Like this.”

She offered Ryoka some cheese—still sweet, a hint of it, and deliciously savory.

“Some [Druids] think never to touch animals or trees. I am only custodian of the lands in Ailendamus. But I let them cut down trees. Herd animals.”

“…And burn trees in Gaiil-Drome?”

Ryoka hesitated before she said it, but she did say it. Fithea’s face twisted.

“They tell me it is necessary for war. So I tell them to do it since no old trees remain. They will ravage that place. Shed blood. And when they take that land, they will plant a new forest, which springs up after fire. Fire does ravage forests and they regrow. They will plant more forests and that will be my legacy. Rhisveri has promised me, upon his treasures. They will last. Maybe…maybe even one day grow so tall they produce Dryads again.”

She cradled the stone, not quite looking at Ryoka.

“Cows desire milking, the ones Humans have raised. Insects and animals can work with Humans. My kind would call me a traitor, metal-minded, stonefriend. And they would be right, you see? But they are dead and I…I care for a new forest. One that has no roots. There.”

She pointed and three heads ducked back. Well, four. Ryoka saw Fithea look at her. As if…as if Ryoka was some kind of judge and Fithea had to explain herself.

“I understand.”

“Thank you. Do you come on behalf of them? You opened a door. I found it. Shattered. It never opened before. Can you…lead us there?”

Her eyes were so longing. Ryoka had to duck her head.

“…Not now. Something—something bad has happened, Fithea. So the doors are shut. That was an exception.”

“An exception made for you.

The Dryad pointed out. Ryoka nodded, hesitantly.

“I’m on a mission. I know Ailendamus has its own goals, and Rhisveri calls me a thief…rightly. But I would like to help, Fithea. I can offer you money, but I can’t promise to open a door. I just want to speak to Rhisveri.”

“He’s guarded. Wary of you. He thought you were a mere thief or an agent of…Dragons.”

Fithea hesitated, but the words spilled out of her amazingly fast. Ryoka felt like she was taking advantage of Fithea’s desires, and flushed. But the pile of obol sat in front of her, currency with inherent value.

“I’m…not able to say everything. But what are the odds I can get Rhisveri to hear me out?”

“Good. In time. He will ask you, but to get whatever it is you want? What is it you tried to steal? He would not tell us, but it must be a treasure beyond treasures.”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I don’t know.”

Fithea shot her a keen glance, looking up from the stone, but Ryoka genuinely didn’t know. The Dryad almost laughed.

“Those farthest travellers. I knew they played games. They play one with you, like days of old. When they danced under our boughs and brought strangers. You are in danger, Ryoka Griffin. Not from me—but from Rhisveri. He is a Wyrm and he killed his kin for his treasures.”

Ryoka’s skin prickled.

“He did? There were more Wyrms?”

“At least two. Now—one. He claims he is the last, at least in this world. You have this…currency. It has great power. Perhaps it is worth quite a lot. Would you…trade me for one? I have told you without lies or secrets what I know.”

Ryoka hesitated. She bit her tongue. She wanted to say ‘yes’, and earn Fithea’s goodwill. But she couldn’t.

“I’m sorry.”

The Dryad flinched. Ryoka went on.

“If you have something to offer—”

“I could teach you magic. Earth magic. I could…offer you many goods. I am rich. They gave me a royal position. Gold?”

Ryoka shook her head. She was tempted by the magic, but, in this moment, she wanted only one thing.

“I must speak to Rhisveri. And I need to have something he wants. Some way of convincing him.”

“I could arrange a meeting today!”

Fithea leapt to her feet with surprising speed, but Ryoka was convinced by her actions that it wasn’t worth a single obol. She shook her head and Fithea looked heartbroken.

“May I at least hold this? I feel…alive.”

“Of course.”

The Dryad held the stone. Ryoka felt wretched, but she pressed on.

“Can you—tell me about the other immortals here? Or is it all secret?”

“I can tell you. I will tell you, in hopes you will think kindly of me. I do not think this stone can change me, but…I will tell you everything I can. Gilaw! Gilaw, come here.”

The giant woman with dark skin stalked into the room at Fithea’s order. She looked like she was, oh, thirty, but she leaned over and sat next to Fithea, resting her weight on the Dryad’s shoulders.

Despite the size and apparent weight difference, Fithea never moved. She stroked Gilaw’s untidy hair.

“Gilaw is the newest of us. Youngest. She was wild, just a girl, when she came here. I raised her.”

“How old is she?”

“Sixty three years. Very young. She looks older because we had to change her shape. But most of that time was wild. She does not speak, either, but already they call her a ‘Great Knight’. She is strong, to them. Like half-Giants.”

Gilaw snuggled closer, reaching for the stone. Fithea stopped her, but Ryoka coughed.

“She can hold them. Just not…take them.”

Fithea nodded.

“Gilaw will give it back. She likes shiny things, though. Let her have only one. You will give it back, Gilaw.”

The woman made an odd calling sound in her throat. Ryoka stared, but she realized—Gilaw was trying to make a bird-sound with Human vocal cords. She inspected Ryoka’s pile, and plucked a single stone from it.

Air.

There was something simple about the way the two held the stones and found them out of all the others. They understood, even without Ryoka’s sight, what they held. Gilaw was more fascinated by the stone and writing. Fithea turned to her.

“Thank Ryoka Griffin. Apologize for kicking her so many times, Gilaw. She is a guest.

The Great Knight turned her head, and made a noise of protest. Fithea glared.

Apologize, Gilaw. Say, ‘thank you’.”

Like a mother and a child, Ryoka saw Gilaw abruptly turn and hop away. Fithea looked at her.

Gilaw.

About to spring away, Gilaw leapt and went splat—because a number of root-like tendrils had just snagged her. She thrashed, then twisted her head uncannily around. There was a crack and she winced. But she opened her mouth.

thANK.

It was more of a squawk than anything. Fithea didn’t wince, but Ryoka did. The Dryad released the Griffin and, sulkily, Gilaw sat cross-legged with them.

“Er…you’re welcome, Gilaw. It’s fine. You don’t have to apologize. You—”

You’re a Griffin, huh?

That was the stupidest thing Ryoka could have said, but what was immortal small-talk anyways? She thought carefully.

“Is it hard, being in a Human body?”

The Griffin looked up. She peered at Ryoka, then nodded. She squinted, screwed her face up, then opened her mouth and leaned over to Ryoka. The Wind Runner tilted her head and Gilaw screamed into it.

Taw-kii-nn! Iii-zz. Hra-di!

Each syllable sounded more like what a bird might conceivably scream. Ryoka was in no mood to appreciate the odd phonetic way Gilaw tried to speak.

Ryoka was deaf. Fithea herself patted Gilaw and offered her some honeycomb as a reward. Gilaw ate it messily.

“Gilaw is sharper than she seems to some, but she is young. I’m sorry she struck you. She did not like you.”

“Because I was a thief? I understand…”

“No. Because she thinks you’ve stolen your name.”

Ryoka Griffin hesitated until she saw Gilaw glare at her.

“Oh—I uh—I didn’t choose my family’s name, Gilaw. I’m sorry if it offended you, but we don’t have Griffins where I come from.”

Gilaw slapped her chest.

My name! It was rather like talking to Mrsha. Fithea looked exasperated. Gilaw hunted around and pulled up something. She offered it to Ryoka. Ryoka stared at…a blade of grass.

“You uh, want me to change my name to Ryoka Grass?”

Gilaw nodded. Ryoka didn’t know what to say.

“…I’m sorry, but I’ll keep my name.”

Gilaw glowered. Then you have chosen stomach-kicks. But, mindful of Fithea, she contented herself with eating.

“There are more groups in this place. Not all stay at the palace; few do, in fact. But there are not many of us. Some are found; others simply find us. Many stand out. You have met Menorkel and the Merfolk. Come here, you two.”

They did, meekly. Menorkel, nine feet tall in his shrunken form, grinned nervously at Ryoka. She recalled his singing and smiled at him.

“I did. I’m sorry about the Merfolk. Menorkel though—he has an amazing voice.”

“Thank you.”

“No, it’s—”

Two voices, both Menorkel’s, replied at the same time. Menorkel blushed as the Merboy, Nemed, introduced himself. Fithea’s look wasn’t entirely disapproving, just…warning.

“Menorkel. Rhisveri will not approve of you singing when you should have been practicing. You may do both, but you must practice.”

“I…hate learning to use a sword, Fithea. I don’t feel like becoming a Great Knight.”

Menorkel drew on the ground while his other hands picked up snacks. He was like the Antinium, but even they didn’t have his level of coordination. One of his heads looked at Fithea; the other kept looking at Ryoka, fascinated with her. Fithea was scolding him.

“You have natural talent. You must learn to defend yourself, even if you will not become a Great Knight. Menorkel is almost as young as Gilaw. Only two decades older. And unlike her, he grows far slower. He was a boy, but now he is growing.”

The Titan blushed, and Ryoka smiled at him. Then her smile faded.

“You do teach them how to fight?”

Fithea looked at Ryoka and nodded.

“If Ailendamus were to fall, or if we were uncovered—they must all learn. To defend themselves. We have seen sanctuaries die, the older of us. We are not fools. Rhisveri makes Ailendamus to find and keep us safe, but it is only one nation.”

“Then he is doing this for you all as well as for his ambitions?”

That was what Ryoka struggled with. It was so…charitable, for the Wyrm. Fithea smiled thinly.

“He is selfish. It is mainly for him. But he is no fool. Rather than fight with us, he works with us, although he must be the first among all. One last place for all of us.”

“But to do that he will make war on innocent kingdoms. Ailendamus has destroyed other kingdoms, Lady Fithea.”

Menorkel shifted and Gilaw opened one eye to glower at Ryoka. Fithea frowned.

“It…is true. But some kingdoms made war on Ailendamus. And this latest war is…”

“Ambitious. Is that a bad thing? Calanfer has a Dragonthrone. It would be a grand sanctuary for our kind, if Rhisveri thought merely in those terms. The truth is that he will one day try to take over all of Terandria. Overthrow every royal throne. Perhaps the world. Or perhaps only one continent. There is such a thing as overreaching, but Ryoka Griffin, that is merely the ambition of a tyrant. And Rhisveri is one of many. That does not mean we are without reason.”

A voice interrupted the Dryad. Ryoka Griffin, Menorkel, Nemed and Gilaw all looked up. Fithea frowned, and Gilaw hid behind Menorkel. Ryoka’s head snapped around and she saw him.

Her first impression of Viscount Visophecin was that Baron Regalius had a twin who liked dark colors. Not that they were alike in height. Visophecin was tall, even lean, and his skin had a darker cast than Regalius’.

His hair was almost jet black, but tinted the slightest bit blue. It was swept forwards, and he had a single earring on sharp features. His lips looked bloodless, but you barely noticed that because his eyes were an orange yellow, bright, both focused on Ryoka.

He was sitting with one leg hanging down from one of the boulders, long, dark clothing in that pattern based on shadows draped around him. Long-sleeved jacket and pants that covered every inch of his body, even dark gloves. He had the most modern dress Ryoka had seen, which still somehow contrived to be more reminiscent of old nobility crossed with a modern suit.

However, what struck her in that moment, as the immortal looked at her, were two things. The man was at first a handsome [Lord], some kind of reclusive eccentric, unlike Tyrion, who clearly was athletic.

…Until she saw a flicker behind the illusion. Until she smelled something odd.

Like the metal from forge-fires. Like steel, burning, crossed with a spice. A fragrance of its own, rather appealing—but only one part was from actual cologne. Ryoka stared at Visophecin and had a thought:

His pupils are square.

Of all the things to notice in that moment—that was one of the least consequential. But Ryoka had a thing about eyes. They might not be windows to the soul, but they were revealing. From Teriarch to Belavierr…she sat up and stared at him as Fithea turned.

“Visophecin. Why are you here?”

“To meet with Ryoka Griffin. It was past time I met Rhisveri’s thief. And you, Fithea, are too open with secrets.”

The man stood, straightening his coat. How long had he been here? Ryoka hadn’t even seen him come through the door. Instantly, she had Belavierr-vibes on her ‘how much trouble am I in this time’ scale. But she didn’t immediately get worried, although a subtle alarm bell had begun ringing in her head just from his appearance. It was so…clichéd.

But Ryoka didn’t get it yet. Not until Fithea stood.

“She is my guest. Make your greetings and deals later, Visophecin. Ryoka Griffin, be wary of this one. He stands second to Rhisveri in power. He is…cunning. He may not mean you harm, but you are as selfish as Rhisveri, Visophecin.”

Ryoka’s eyebrows rose. Something about the way Fithea worded that…Visophecin dipped his head.

“Is that wrong? I am upfront with my desires, Fithea. If you wish me gone, I will leave. I merely ask that Ryoka Griffin let me prevail on her later.”

He turned to her. Ryoka hesitated.

“I…of course?”

Visophecin strode over with two of his curiously languid strides. He held out a hand.

“Later, then. We have an agreement.”

She reached out, unthinking, to take his gloved hand. Then something went click in her head.

What is stereotypical in this world only looks that way because I’ve seen it in my world.

Like Fierre, who wore that Vampire-Goth aesthetic sometimes and had pointy teeth, red eyes, and whose mother could have fit into any Halloween group. But what would Visophecin…?

She focused on his odd eyes. Perfectly square. That smell was odd too. It was surprisingly nice. But who deliberately came up with a scent to remind people of a forge? Of…fire. Metal…

Then Ryoka’s eyes focused on his face. The slight grey tinge to his skin. But the kicker wasn’t that. It was that Visophecin was in the Immortal’s Wing. So he’d dropped a few of the safeguards he might normally employ. His smile was just a bit pointed, but nothing on a Vampire or Drake or Gnoll.

The real tell? The real tell was that as sunlight streamed into Fithea’s private rooms, filtering down around him and the others, Ryoka saw something. The motes of light shone down over Visophecin’s head, and they didn’t cause him to burst into flame or anything so dramatic. But she did see something; a shadow amidst the light. Ryoka stared up at Visophecin’s head. Then down. The man’s eyebrows rose.

“Well. That’s clever.”

Ryoka’s eyes jerked back up to the two small, but almost-invisible horns on his forehead. Then at the ground. And the way his shadow just completely failed to materialize.

Dark clothing. Horns on his head. Odd skin, odd eyes. Talking about ‘deals’. Smells like forgefire—which wasn’t quite brimstone, for brimstone smelled terrible. And…Ryoka eyed his posterior.

“Do you have a tail?”

Visophecin’s perfect eyebrows shot upwards.

“Incredible. Now how would you know that? I would love to talk lat—”

He reached for Ryoka’s hand. She realized she’d nearly taken his hand. His hand.

Gyaaaaah!

She snatched her hand back and did an amazing flying-sideways-leap-flop backwards. Menorkel nearly spat water out both his mouths as Ryoka landed, scrabbling backwards from Visophecin.

The Devil, the literal Devil, stopped, a fairly surprised look on his features. But…mild. As if true shock was beyond him. He blinked at Ryoka, as Fithea stared at the Wind Runner.

“Is something wrong?”

“Y-you’re—holy—you’re—”

Ryoka edged back as he walked over. The immortal-loving, immortophilliac, obsessed, #1 member in the immortal’s fanclub, Flamedaddy fan, Lichfather aficionado, Stitch-mom appreciating…

Ryoka Griffin, who had found something to respect in the Spider of Terandria, who was best friends with a Vampire, and on money-lending terms with the Faerie King, took one look at Viscount Visophecin. His hand.

His eyes and the shadow that wasn’t there. He stepped over.

“Can I offer you a hand up, Miss Griffin?”

He reached down and found only air. Ryoka Griffin was already sprinting towards the door. She hurtled out of it, finally an immortal too far.

Visophecin blinked. Even he hadn’t expected that. He recovered instantly, but Fithea, Menorkel, Nemed, all looked at Visophecin. Visophecin, who was still not Rhisveri, and Ryoka Griffin, who had repeatedly stood up to Rhisveri, even going as far as to tease and insult him.

…Now running for the hills. Even the immortals were stunned.

All except for Gilaw, who stared at Visophecin’s back. She thought Ryoka might deserve her name after all. The Human knew what was what.

 

——

 

It was hard to contextualize why Ryoka ran so hard. She knew in a world with Dragons and Liches and whatnot, it was not like she should have been surprised by anything.

Yet even she had her ‘this is too far’ moment. And that was right there. It was rooted in her mythos. Her mythos from Earth. Things as simple as…being told she had to go to church.

And there he was, in every story. Not Visophecin specifically. Maybe there were many of them.

“Not lots. But he’s their representative.”

What?

Menorkel found Ryoka hiding behind his door, demanding to know what Visophecin was. And she was really hoping it was just a coincidence. But Menorkel was not being reassuring.

“No, he’s not a Demon. He’s very specific about that. He’s one of…I don’t know. A few dozen?”

A few dozen. And they all have horns and tails and…?”

Ryoka wondered if that made it better. She relaxed a bit. If he was one of many, he wasn’t the one. Menorkel nodded.

“Yep. I don’t know what a ‘Devil’ is.”

“Oh, good.”

“They call themselves Lucifen.

Ryoka began to crawl under Menorkel’s bed. The Titan didn’t understand. Maybe they only had the appearance.

“So what does he do?”

“Well…he’s second only to Rhisveri. That’s what Fithea says. He’s a magic-user. Without levels. No one knows how old he is. He wasn’t rescued; he showed up with his people.”

The Wind Runner stared out from under the bed like the world’s lamest boogeyman.

“And Rhisveri just let him in?

“Not immediately. Visophecin’s smart. He advises Rhisveri. He struck a deal. He loves deals. He’s got contracts, too.”

Oh shit.

Menorkel went on, glancing at the door, a bit uneasy now, despite himself.

“The thing is…Fithea’s sort of right. I don’t know why you freaked out, but you don’t want to make Visophecin mad. I don’t know how you’d do that; he’s never angry. I once accidentally spilled paint all over his clothes and he just told me it was okay. He even helped me paint my room.”

What did it cost you?

“Nothing. Oh. I did a small favor for him, I think.”

The Titan scratched his head. He shrugged.

“He’s nice. But Fithea says don’t make him angry. Rhisveri did that once and apparently we had to evacuate our old hideout.”

And where was that?

“The previous palace. Um. Are you going to come out of…?”

Since Menorkel was so huge, his bed was actually quite spacious underneath. Ryoka thought she could live the rest of her life here. It wouldn’t be a bad life. He could bring her food and she could just lie here until she died.

“Okay. Okay. Listen, Menorkel. Maybe he’s not what I think he is. He just…really sounds like something I know. And that’s bad news.”

The Titan scratched at his head. But he had no context.

Okay. It was more than just religion. In fact, it was anti-religion, which was another kind of religion.

But let’s say you were Ryoka Griffin over the many years she had inflicted suffering onto her parents and the world at large before she came to this world. And that was Ryoka Griffin with a hundred different edges.

Ryoka Griffin who partied, who was a rebel, who was ‘batman’ as a little girl and scared her parents at night. She had okay phases she wasn’t completely ashamed of.

But there were other, uh…moments. Moments Ryoka would think of and spend the next hour with a pillow over her head or trying to smack the memory out of her skull. If you wanted to know who tagged walls and thought that changed the world? That was her.

If you wanted to know who stole cars and raced them? That was her. If you wanted to know who experimented with anything from the world of goths to punk?

That was her.

And let’s say there was a Ryoka at, oh, fifteen. Height of her rebellion. Who had gotten tossed out of the reform-camps. Once set a tent on fire…and you can’t pray away what she had. Her parents had tried, and gotten other people to try for them since they weren’t actually the most spiritual types.

Maybe. Maaaaybe Ryoka Griffin at 15, in response to all this well-meaning religiosity, decided she wasn’t just an atheist. God wasn’t just dead a la Nietzsche, but there was someone even better. And she just happened to…make an offering for her soul to the devil as a Satanist.

It was just a kid thing, but it was hitting her now. And the thing about ‘selling your soul’ was that you didn’t really get too bothered by it except on those days when you wondered ‘what if’, but you really thought about it when you came to a world where there were literal dead things who wanted to touch you around a fire.

When you learned that souls and ghosts existed, and you met a man with no shadow who smelled like hell and wanted to shake your hand.

Ryoka felt it was a bit understandable, even if she couldn’t convey that to Menorkel.

The Titan was rather understanding of it all. Ryoka had a view of the closed door. Menorkel went to check it.

“I can go see if Visophecin is gone.”

“Please. But close the—”

Too late. Menorkel was already outside and trotting off. Ryoka lay under the bed. She stared at the open door. But…this was stupid.

Visophecin was a Viscount, not some stupid amalgamation of all her weird childhood issues. Like Vampires, there was a nuance to how stories played out. She stared at the door, and around Menorkel’s rather plain room. But then—she happened to know he had a singing room where all his real possessions were stored.

So Ryoka climbed out from under the bed. She shook her head, sheepishly.

“I’m being an idiot. I’m just…he’s probably not the Devil. Just think of the stereotypes. Don’t shake his hand. Don’t promise anything. It’s not worse than Rhisveri, right? He’s not…necessarily…inherently evil.”

Ryoka inhaled, exhaled. She was calming down when someone spoke behind her.

“And what does ‘evil’ mean?”

The Wind Runner’s head turned.

There he sat. On Menorkel’s bed, adjusting one of his shoes. Visophecin glanced up.

“You have an interesting impression of me, Miss Ryoka Griffin. It makes me more interested in you. I don’t normally debate philosophy with people I’ve just met. But it could be a fascinating icebreaker.”

He looked at her horrified expression. Chuckled.

“I’m sorry. I tend to appear where I’m invited. I don’t bother with doors. Can we start—”

He watched as Ryoka didn’t so much as walk, or even shuffle, but slide over to the door and out of it. Visophecin blinked.

“That was incredible footwork. I have never seen someone shuffle their feet like that.”

The Viscount rubbed at his chin. He was smooth-shaven, incidentally. Not a hair to be seen, let alone stubble. Interesting. He stood up, slowly. Because there was something fascinating here.

Ryoka Griffin didn’t know it. But if he was conforming to a lot of her stereotypes by accident…she was conforming to some of his. It had been a long time…no.

“They told me once it was like this. She knows the old game. Is that what she’s playing?”

He smiled. His eyes lit up. Rarely had Visophecin ever said it. But he thought it now.

That might be fun.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin found the Knights of the Thirsting Veil waiting for her outside the Immortal’s Wing. They snapped to attention.

Two of them she knew well. Chorisa and Lacres. Their squad-leader, Chorisa, glared suspiciously at Ryoka.

“Have you caused any trouble, Miss Ryoka?”

That was a question that was entirely appropriate for anyone who knew anything about, er, Ryoka. The Wind Runner certainly looked guilty. She was wide-eyed, panting.

“I uh—no. I just left Fithea—”

“Lady Fithea.”

Whatever. I left early. It’s all fine. I um—I’d like to be put in my room, please. No—no—”

Ryoka reconsidered instantly.

“Maybe somewhere with lots of people? No, somewhere in bright light? Is there running water anywhere? A stream? Can I buy some silver? Uh…”

Would making a cross help? Ryoka knew she was panicking, but on the other hand, if she made a cross out of silver and Visophecin said it made him feel uncomfortable?

That was when she was going to flip out for real. Ryoka glanced around. She was expecting Visophecin to appear at any moment.

“You haven’t offended anyone, have you?”

Chorisa was glaring at Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated. She had a kind of truce with the Thirsting Veil Knights. They didn’t get on her back, and she was at least honest.

“Maybe?”

They groaned, but looked at the Immortal’s Wing.

“We can’t enter…who did you offend?”

“No one! I mean, I didn’t offend him in any serious way. I just—Visophecin’s his name?”

Dame Chorisa had been eying Ryoka’s stomach and clearly wondering how much trouble you got into for beating prisoners, but at his name, she stiffened.

“You mean…Viscount Visophecin? Of House Shoel?”

“Oh come on! That’s not his House!

The [Knights] exchanged a look. They conferred, quickly.

“The Viscount is…how did you offend him? We may have to issue an apology…”

“The Duke will hear of this. House Shoel? If they lodge a protest with our order…”

Ryoka was looking over her shoulder.

“What’s, uh—the Viscount’s a high rank. I just, uh—ran off from Viscount Visophecin.”

Why?

“I can’t say. What’s—what’s he like?”

“Extremely well-respected. I can’t believe he offered you a reason to be offended. He’s not impolite. Did he flirt with you?”

Dame Chorisa gave Ryoka a searching look. The Wind Runner colored.

“No! I just—look. I’m just going to walk away. It’s my problem.”

She began stalking forwards, looking back over her shoulder at the Immortal’s Wing. The Thirsting Veil Knights followed her.

“What is wrong with the Viscount?”

“I don’t know! You tell me!”

Chorisa looked at Ryoka.

“Do you have a fever, Miss Griffin?”

“Maybe? That would explain everything! I—”

The Thirsting Veil Knights tried to interrogate her, but Ryoka was being honest and it was hard for them to figure out why—the truth was she had just freaked out and refused to talk to Visophecin. They still interrogated her, but Ryoka was making tracks and they returned to crowded corridors soon enough.

Servants and guests were all looking at the Wind Runner who was the topic of this morning’s gossip. They eyed the young woman as she passed, and that only added to her paranoia.

Ryoka was picking up speed, but she saw a man striding towards her as she shot through the main palace. She relaxed, slightly, as the man raised his hand.

“Miss Ryoka! A fair day to you!”

A fixed figure in the palace’s courts, Baron Regalius, smiled, and got a weak one from the Wind Runner. Relieved, Ryoka slowed down.

“Baron Regalius.”

“Regalius to my friends. And I hope I can count to call you that.”

He flashed her a winning smile, which made Ryoka stop and follow. They strolled along a hallway with many windows as Ryoka wiped at her brow.

“Sorry. Thank you, and yes, Regalius! Um—I’m just a bit harried.”

“I can imagine, with this morning’s gossip. They say all kinds of things, but I hear His Majesty and the royal family were taken with your…what was it, tricking?”

“What? Oh, yes. That happened.”

The [Baron] smiled.

“Ah, well, children do love Couriers. I think that explains the rest. It should die down shortly; unsubstantiated rumor does that.”

Ryoka had no idea what he meant, but it seemed the Baron was supporting her…for something. He strode along proudly in a show of solidarity. She nodded.

“Thank you…?”

“And what is distressing you at this moment? An unfortunate encounter? Aforementioned rumors? You know, I think many of the Court of Masks realized who you were—you were a new mask. But they were taken with you, for all the hubbub you caused. Maybe you would like to meet them there, or even talk to some acquaintances of mine? They are fiercely interested in you…”

“I—”

This was not the time for Ryoka to consider politics. She kept looking over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Regalius. I just had a spook. I don’t know if—no, you might be the one to ask. Do you know a Viscount…Visophecin?”

Regalius’ brows snapped together.

“Viscount Visophecin? Naturally. Of one of the finest houses of Ailendamus—and I do mean that in the sense that we are a young kingdom. But he has roots that go back beyond living memory. His is an old house.”

He chuckled. Ryoka’s hair stood up on end.

“Right. I’m sure he does. Can you…tell me anything about him? I met him, but I think I, uh, offended him?”

Regalius waved that away.

“I am sure he takes no offense. Visophecin. I could tell you he is regarded as a keen mind, one of the most incisive. A threat on any floor, almost worthy of the Lord of the Dance. Finely spoken. He’s gone through the Court of Masks, but I think he doesn’t care for the anonymity. Mainly, though, he’s a famously sharp mercantile mind and—I cannot stress that this is no slight—he’s made deals to make even the best [Merchants] envious.”

“He—he has a lot of deals, huh?”

“A man of his word. Friends with Duke Rhisveri; he is not always at the palace, but I have nothing but good to say of him—though I personally am not close. I hope you are not bothered by anything he might have said or done. It’s quite a coincidence.”

“You’re telling me.”

Regalius adjusted his lapels.

“On many levels, Ryoka. I met the Viscount in a dressing room this morning—he does take care of his appearance. And then I was heading to my midday repast when he asked if I would apologize to you for any slights of his. I can’t imagine he did anything intentionally…”

Regalius stopped because Ryoka had walked right into one of the decorative pillars. She whirled around.

“He did what?

“Just now. I passed him in the hallway and he seemed to know we’d meet.”

Baron Regalius turned innocently. He saw Ryoka’s wide-eyed look, and stopped.

“It was just a passing mention. Did you just meet with him? If I can smooth things over…he asked if you had any dinner plans? But I can see it might be more serious than I…Ryoka?”

The Thirsting Veil Knights were looking at each other. Baron Regalius had come from ahead of Ryoka a few minutes after she’d left that isolated wing. Still, there were any number of reasons Visophecin had been ahead of her. Ryoka looked at Regalius.

“I—it might be a misunderstanding? I just—I’m startled. Wary of him.”

“He does have a reputation for keenness. Great friend, mortal enemy. I can understand that, Miss Griffin, but the Viscount is a man to count if he is predisposed to you—and he seems to have taken a shine to you. Why don’t we discuss the issue?”

“I…”

“As a matter of fact, there he is! Viscount! The timing! Are you perhaps—”

Ryoka whirled. No way. No damn way. But there he was. The Viscount stepped out of a dressing room, tugging a glove up. He looked up, as if he had just spotted them, and smiled.

“Baron, you found her before me. What a happy coincidence. Miss Griffin?”

“I—I—”

He walked towards her, slowly, hand raising. Now—was there a glitter in his eyes. Eyes burning orange, like the hell she’d always sort of hoped existed? Regalius beamed.

“There now, Ryoka. May I reintroduce you t—”

Ryoka turned and went sprinting down the hallway. Dame Chorisa barked.

Hey!

People who had already been watching her out of the corners of their eyes turned. They saw the Wind Runner running down the corridor, dodging around servants, pursued by four Thirsting Veil Knights.

What was going on? Ryoka rounded the corner, nearly slammed into an older woman wheeling a cart forwards. The woman recoiled and nearly fell over backwards. Ryoka reached for her—

“Excuse me, Miss.”

Visophecin caught the servant. He smiled at Ryoka. The Wind Runner recoiled.

Dame Chorisa skidded to a stop and did a double-take when she saw the Viscount. The man carefully helped the servant back to her feet as she apologized. He looked at Ryoka. She stared at him.

“Viscount. Is something the matter?”

“I believe Miss Griffin is simply wary of me, Dame Chorisa. I hope I can have a simple word? Miss Griffin. I do apologize for anything I have done or said!”

He held out his gloved hand, enunciating clearly for a breathless Regalius and the crowd. Ryoka stared at it.

Oh hell no. She looked up and saw Visophecin grin. Ryoka looked around, edged over, yanked a window open, and bailed out the third floor window. Dame Chorisa jumped for her and another Thirsting Veil Knight leapt…and shouted.

Gaa—

She dropped as she missed Ryoka, but the Wind Runner had leapt to safety and landed on the ground with the wind cushioning her fall.

Escape! She’s escaping—

Chorisa panicked. She whirled to ask Visophecin what was happening—she hadn’t thought Ryoka would escape like that, especially with the bracelet! But when she turned—

He was gone.

 

——

 

Ryoka raced with the wind behind her. She knew she couldn’t escape the palace, not without Rhisveri’s wrath or dying, but she shot towards a small forest in the palace grounds.

Please don’t be here, please don’t be here—

She stopped, panting, clutching at her chest, by a tree several dozen feet into the forest. She inhaled, and Visophecin stepped out from behind a tree.

“May I offer you a stamina draught, Miss Ryoka? Completely complimentary.”

He was there. Ryoka backed up. In the shadow of the trees, Visophecin stood. Eyes…glowing. Square pupils fixed on her. Smiling, a little glowing bottle held out.

“How are you doing that?”

“I tend to find my way around where I need to be. I’ve been told I’m impossible to outrun. But you may try. Please, Courier Griffin. A potion? You may need the energy. Absolutely free, with no obligations. What could be the harm?”

He nearly didn’t get that last part out. Ryoka turned and ran back towards the [Knights] chasing after her, glancing over her shoulder. Visophecin stood there in the shadow of the trees. Then he threw back his head and chuckled. She even got the references!

“This is too much fun.”

 

——

 

Ryoka stood in the middle of a courtyard plaza, slowly turning around. Sunlight streamed down around her and there were no hedges, ledges, statues, or anything else you could hide behind. She kept turning, not spinning, but turning in a complete circle.

Dame Chorisa looked at the other Thirsting Veil Knights standing and watching her. One of them muttered.

“…Is she alright?”

Dame Chorisa frowned.

“This is almost worse than normal.”

Ryoka relaxed after a few minutes. Okay. Okay. She had run towards this spot, after telling Dame Chorisa she was not trying to run out of the palace, just away from Visophecin. The [Knight] had debated knocking her out, and decided to humor her.

Empty plaza. Sunlight. No hiding spots. And no matter where she turned, she didn’t see him peeking out at her like some horror monster. Ryoka had heard of Facestealer and she had that thing in her nightmares, but no Visophecin.

She began to breathe. Right up until nearly four dozen people emerged from the palace and came towards her in a huge gaggle.

There she is! Just where the Viscount said! Miss Courier? Miss Courier!”

Ryoka’s heart squeezed.

“Oh no. Hey! I’m, uh, busy! Don’t come near!”

The people didn’t understand. They were nobles, guests, walking out, opening parasols, calling her name.

“The Viscount would like a word! He’s deeply apologetic! Would you hear him out?”

“No—no thank you!”

Ryoka began jogging the other way. The group picked up the pace, but Ryoka was not above just running away from this fancy lot, and she doubted they could catch her. Still in the open, Ryoka breathed out—until she saw a second group of people striding towards her.

“Excuse me—”

A wide-eyed Wind Runner ran towards the hedge maze. She vaulted over the first wall, landed, took one look at the man smoking on a cigar and offering her one, and practically climbed back over to the other side.

She was scratching herself on branches of the hedge wall and halfway up when she heard him speak.

“How do you know me? Curious. There was a time when folk like you existed. I’m told they played glorious games.”

A glowing, red cigar tip. A smile. He looked at Ryoka. She said not a word, listening to the confused voices, the thundering footsteps of the [Knights]. She just looked at him.

How did you see him? The handsome, if enigmatic, Viscount? Ryoka saw something completely different. But she was good at perspectives. For a Human.

She thought this might be a game. It was certainly less subtle than she’d imagine the genuine article could pull off. He was smiling.

However, Ryoka’s part wasn’t imaginary. On paper, it was funny. But he truly did appear every time she turned her head. That was…one thing.

Yet what made her truly uneasy was his face. His glowing eyes danced in the shadowed hedge maze. Visophecin was smiling. With a kind of delight that surprised even himself.

“You play very well, Ryoka Griffin. I wonder though—how do you dance? I shall have to try harder.”

Ryoka hesitated. Visophecin stood up and strolled around the corner of the hedge maze. She cursed, leapt down, and strode after him.

“No, wait—”

Too late. He was gone, exposing only paved pathways, huge walls of green, decorated with flowers that bloomed amid the faint light. Ryoka cursed, stopping and looking around. This was going too—she was sweating. She wiped a bead from her brow and looked down.

A hole opened up under her feet, pitch black and whispering. Something reached up and grabbed Ryoka’s leg.

She screamed once and yanked her leg. A hand like oblivion dragged her into the hole in the ground.

There. That was true terror, before she vanished.

Someone stepped around a corner. He was still smoking the cigar. One did not waste a quality product.

“I thought she would dodge that. Pity.”

It was over too quickly. A good game was like that, though. Unpredictable. Visophecin touched his face.

He was smiling? He was. What a strange thing. He had heard stories of these grand games. The hunt. Scarcely given them credence. He supposed he should let her out of the—

“—volethe!”

Visophecin whirled. He saw a light, and dodged the glowing blade that cut a hole through the air. And half the hedge wall.

The Wind Runner came stumbling out of the Asphod Maze, wild-eyed, breathing heavily. She held that glowing artifact Rhisveri was so interested in. She slashed—the hedges disappeared, falling to bits. But that—she couldn’t have just cut her way out.

She’d escaped? That fast?

She whirled, took one look at him, and ran. This time, she truly ran. Terror. And—

Visophecin stood there. Now, he felt it. Stretching across his face, from ear to ear. He couldn’t remember a time when he had smiled like this.

A delighted expression ran across his face. What surprises! Even Sophridel could not find his way out of the maze so easily. Visophecin chuckled and put out the cigar. He knew it was a distraction, but he couldn’t help it.

The hunt was on.

 

——

 

Something was afoot in Ailendamus’ palace today. Not war. Not the Five Families’ threats, or even Itorin himself. For the people, for one Wind Runner, a second event was playing.

Word was out. Viscount Visophecin had somehow offended the Wind Runner, that mysterious Courier guest. Or perhaps she had taken offense? It was hard to imagine the Viscount erring that poorly, but he wished to make amends.

So if you saw Ryoka, wouldn’t you stop her? Intercede on his behalf? Of course, to win his favor. In fact, why not make a game of it? The Viscount was in rare form. So here was something amusing…

Ryoka had stopped even seeing the potential for humor in it after the hedge maze. She looked down the staircase at some of Visophecin’s allies. Which was apparently…everyone.

Even Sophridel. Because she could not imagine how else…

“Ryoka Griffin! Will you stop a moment?”

The Viscount called up at her. He tried to climb up the staircase, but was jostled by another Visophecin. No—someone wearing a mask that looked uncannily like his face.

More of the ‘hunters’ were following her. As well as the palace’s security, who had no reason to like Ryoka. Many were amused. Most were just annoyed. Why was she making such an event of this? Was this just the Wind Runner being incapable of living a single day without drama?

Which, yes, it was. But that was not why she was breathing so hard. Ryoka ran. And it got worse.

Library. The [Librarian] was ready to throw Ryoka out on her head again. But instead, she squinted at Ryoka and handed her something.

“The Viscount asked me to recommend this to you, Miss…Griffin.”

Ryoka stared down at the book. She blanched.

 

Rain and War: An Anthology of Memoirs by Liscor’s Generals.

 

She looked at the book. Glanced up as she almost reached for it.

The Viscount held the book out. He watched her recoil.

“Poor Erin Solstice. What would you do to save her?”

“How did yo—”

His smile never changed, but he did tilt his head.

“I make it my business to know. It’s quite a simple deduction. [Messages]. Cause and effect. It seems as though not many people can see a simple line if it zigs and zags. I can.”

She turned, whirling for the door. The Viscount opened it.

“A child abducted. All over Izril’s news. Mrsha. Who could help her? Who has such resource—to cure a mortal wound? And while you search, a child might die. What would you do to help her?”

“Don’t—”

Ryoka was getting angry. Visophecin smiled. His eyes fixed on her face.

“What would you do to save them? I am known for my deals, Courier Griffin. Everything can be bartered. Why don’t we discuss the matter? I have a suitable stage for discussion set up.”

He offered her a hand. Ryoka wanted to slap it down and then jump-kick him. But she knew better than to reach out. So she whirled. She was going to blast straight out the window and—

Ryoka took three steps and felt the hand on her shoulder. Restraining her. Her head turned.

“You can’t—”

Touch you? I’m afraid, Miss Ryoka, that you don’t understand the rules. You are a criminal of Ailendamus. Have a seat.”

Now, she tried to move and felt that incredible strength, like an adult with a child. Like Fierre, only stronger. Ryoka looked at Visophecin and she was past Devils and silly pacts made as a child where they had no power.

She was not scared because of that. His smile made it worse. He was enjoying this.

“I do love a good opponent. But I never lose.”

She drew the Faeblade and slashed at his arm. He was suddenly no longer holding her. Visophecin watched as she ran for the window.

This was too fun. So he pointed as the Wind Runner looked back, aiming a finger as the wind blew ominously indoors.

“Before you leave, Miss Griffin. You might want to fetch a mirror. You have something on your face.”

She stared at him, wavered—then stared into the glass of the window, using it as a poor mirror. Her eyes opened wide. She saw the scrawl of ink on her cheek. She didn’t understand, for a second.

It was just an arch, like an upside-down smiley face. But instead of eyes, there were two little curved triangles sticking out. It was a simple, cute little design. But it looked…like…

Horns.

Visophecin stood there, laughing. Actually laughing. Glass shattered. He was enjoying this far too much. He saw her running, scrubbing at her cheek. What a glorious day. What a splendid game.

 

——

 

The palace was in uproar. By now, the nature of the pursuit had changed. Why, the Viscount had a grand game in play! He was teasing the Wind Runner.

So—if you were in the kitchens, you had new orders. Make some food like this…and if you were staffing the hallways, would you kindly put this portrait up? No, there was no telling how fast the Viscount got a portrait of himself; maybe it was in storage?

The Viscount was everywhere, or perhaps it was people posing as him. One thing was sure though—no one had ever seen him this amused.

Yet. The humor was going one way. Dame Chorisa, running around, threatened with punitive action by her superiors if she didn’t find her prisoner, saw Ryoka once. The Wind Runner bolted so fast Chorisa almost missed what she’d seen. But she didn’t miss Ryoka’s pale face.

She looked and saw Viscount Visophecin. He was so fast. He probably had a teleportation artifact or some speed spell, but Chorisa had to admit, she was astonished. Yet—when she saw him?

“Dead gods. Lance-arrows strike me, that’s going too far, Chorisa. Isn’t it?”

Knight Lacres muttered. Chorisa just heard laughter and saw people pointing. She hesitated, and didn’t disagree.

Viscount Visophecin had met Ryoka Griffin in one of the ballrooms. Mid-dance, as if she had caught him out by accident while he was engaged in completely social pursuits. As Baron Regalius had mentioned, he was a threat on the dance floor and his partner was practically off her feet. He had kissed her—that was to say—

Ryoka Griffin. Or someone who looked exactly like her. The Viscount stepped away as the actual Wind Runner fled, and the illusion faded to reveal a laughing young woman from the court. He bowed to his audience, largely to applause and laughter.

“I must say, that seems…unmannerly. The Viscount must truly find Ryoka Griffin to be quite something. I have never seen him get up to pranks.

A voice remarked. The [Knights] saw Baron Regalius panting, clutching at a stitch in his side. He hadn’t missed it either. But he didn’t really see it.

And it could get worse. A lot worse, especially since there was no bottom.

 

——

 

When Ryoka Griffin stopped, she was shaking. Visophecin walked towards her in that slow, unhurried pace. Behind him was a crowd.

At this point, Fithea had emerged from her quarters to find Ryoka. She was joined by Gilaw, Menorkel, and a few others. The old Dryad glanced at Visophecin, and then Ryoka.

“We found her, Viscount!”

Dame Chorisa was no longer panting. But she was incredibly apprehensive. She followed along in a group of her own and saw the Wind Runner standing there. Ryoka Griffin held perfectly still. Chorisa didn’t understand why—until she saw nearly two dozen [Court Mages], laughing and waving the Viscount over.

“It took some doing, to stop a Courier dead. Protective artifacts—but we found her!”

Ryoka was enmeshed in [Stasis] spells. She saw the Viscount smiling at the [Mages]. He walked forwards, eyes on her. Wondering, clearly, if she would escape.

What a glorious game. Will you surprise me, before I win?

The Devil smiled. Ryoka was shaking, although she couldn’t quite move. No one quite noticed, at least the immortals. Fithea just looked confused, and why not? She had no perspective. Many of the staff or people in the palace were laughing or applauding the [Mages].

Those that weren’t amused or merely indifferent were angry at Ryoka, who had caused this entire mess. Or angry at her for reasons beyond even that.

“There that…harlot is.”

A seething voice. Someone stormed forwards, ahead of Dame Chorisa. The Thirsting Veil [Knight] saw Ryoka right ahead of her and knew it behooved her to get close before Ryoka pulled some stunt and fled. But one did not push past the woman and her bodyguard ahead of her.

Queen Oiena of Ailendamus had heard about this morning. She did not stride at Ryoka, but she wanted to see the Courier. One did not acknowledge one’s foes because that gave them strength. But Oiena did make a point of observing…people…who might soon regret whatever they had done.

In this case, steering her children towards acting like tavern [Performers], slighting the royal presence, involving Ailendamus in a war with one of the Five Families, and attempted seduction of His Majesty.

Any one of these reasons would be enough for Oiena to consider taking matters into her own hands, since Itorin could not do anything and he could not do everything she could. But that last bit, compounded with what she had heard of this Courier—

It still hadn’t worried her when she’d heard of Itorin laughing or shaking her hand; so he’d taken to her. So what? She had not had reason to be paranoid, not since they were newly-wed, so she was confident.

…Right until she heard Itorin had made plans for a private dinner with absolutely no observers, even bodyguards, the next night. That…that was not normal.

Rhisveri’s guest or not, the [Queen] halted, watching the Wind Runner in this new debacle she had caused. Her eyes narrowed with instant dislike and she focused on Ryoka Griffin.

“Courier Griffin. I apologize for the chase. Allow me to make it up to you.”

Visophecin called out to the amusement of the hour. Queen Oiena stared at him, puzzled. He had never been one to participate in many games, only a few courtly diversions, and usually only with a specific bent. She looked at Ryoka, glaring…

Then looked twice. Ryoka Griffin was webbed in stasis spells, even light bindings, and she still had a smudge of ink on her cheek. She looked harried, and Oiena turned.

“What did you say she has been doing?”

“Running all over the palace, Your Majesty. Apparently the Viscount keeps popping up. Half the court is taken with the game. They were tossing lassos around her before they caught her.”

“Las…what?

“Loops of cloth, Your Majesty. It’s been a game of catch-as-catch-can all morning and into the evening.”

Queen Oiena blinked.

“I have never known the Viscount to play a…a game?”

Her voice sounded doubtful. She turned, and her eyes fell on Dame Chorisa, who flinched.

“You were assigned to guard the Wind Runner. Is this true?”

Chorisa knelt.

“Your Majesty, I regret to say we failed to catch Ryoka Griffin. I am ashamed—”

“Yes, yes. But is it true?”

Chorisa exchanged a quick glance with the others. She hesitated, then nodded.

“The Wind Runner has been fleeing the Viscount all day. I have never heard why, but she has had little success. He…I believe it is a game?”

“A game.”

Queen Oiena gave Chorisa a sharp look. The [Knight] nodded slowly.

“So they say. I—did find the Wind Runner in her rooms. Briefly. She attempted to rest.”

“And why does that matter…?”

“The Viscount was apparently standing in the closet.”

Two of the [Queen]’s bodyguards snorted despite themselves. However, Queen Oiena gave the [Knight] a sharp look.

“Truly?”

“Upon my honor and Order, Your Majesty.”

Oiena’s head swung around. She saw the Viscount approaching, a flower in his hand. Some dark rose, from Noelictus by the shade. He was teasingly aiming to put it in her hair. He looked far more amused than Oiena had ever seen him.

It did matter on how you saw it. Like the Viscount, a grand game with the greatest of quarries. Or maybe as Visophecin, who revelled in the same thing Oiena saw.

Which was Ryoka’s expression, even frozen. She looked…afraid. Exhausted and helpless. Bound up like…

The [Queen] of Ailendamus had a moment of justifiable pique. Then…

Gura-drat the man!”

She swore like a native of Taimaguros as she stalked forwards.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin stared up at the flower stem, as Viscount Visophecin delicately went to place it in her hair. She was almost about to cry.

This was…the Viscount was watching her, that unholy amusement in his eyes. Expectation, almost, that she was going to do something. But what? Blow him sky-high in front of Ailendamus’ courts, who thought this was a game?

Ryoka felt a bit of nausea rise. Viscount Visophecin bent down, smiling.

“I suppose that marks my victory, Ryoka Griffin. Perhaps now we can disc—”

Viscount Visophecin!

He turned, blinking. Even Ryoka didn’t see Queen Oiena coming until she strode over and slapped the Devil in his face with a glove.

Visophecin recoiled like a striking snake…that had been slapped in the face by a glove. He blinked, and his expression turned from pure enjoyment into outrage—

Until Queen Oiena shoved a finger into his face. Her bodyguard watched, half-resigned, half-appalled, mostly approving. Ryoka just gaped.

She had no background for this, but Queen Oiena was from Taimaguros. She had opinions about proper attire, proper conduct, and she had all the hallmarks of her homeland despite having left.

“I would have expected this from any rogue but you, Viscount Visophecin. Have you lost your gura-loving senses? This kind of behavior does not stand in Ailendamus. Guest of the state or not—who is restraining this young woman? Release her at once.

The binding spells evaporated on Ryoka as the [Court Mages] suddenly found the [Queen] was here, the [Queen] was angry, and the [Queen] had a glove raised like a morningstar. Of course, her bodyguards had actual weapons they were only too happy to hit you with.

“Your Majesty, I beg your—”

You beg my pardon, and this Courier’s, and you will all begone before I remember your faces.”

The [Mages] scattered. Queen Oiena turned like the wrath of Queen Oiena, and Ryoka saw her glance down. She did not look exactly friendly, but she saw Ryoka.

Ink smudged on the cheek, exhausted from running all day from someone who would not relent—she did see exactly what Ryoka was feeling. She glared at the [Mages] running for it—who were all male.

Fithea didn’t get it. She was a Dryad, and in this context, an old Dwarf woman. The other immortals? Well, Gilaw didn’t, or Menorkel. But Queen Oiena did.

She was brandishing her glove and Visophecin was staring at her, quite taken aback, when someone strode over.

What is going on here?”

And here came the last player on any scene in Ailendamus. Duke Rhisveri walked forwards, scowling. He glared at Visophecin.

“You’re late. Oh, Your Majesty. Hello.”

He barely bothered to sketch a bow to Oiena. The [Queen] turned on Rhisveri.

“Duke Rhisveri. I have just found Viscount Visophecin behaving in the most unmannerly way possible. I hope you will take him to task as much as I.”

“What? Visophecin? Doing anything unmannerly? What’s going on—it’s you again. Why is it always you?

Rhisveri saw Ryoka and pointed an accusatory finger at her. But for once, his wrath stopped as Oiena made to slap his hand with her glove. Rhisveri stared at her.

“What has gotten into you?”

Me? Would you but listen to what Visophecin has done?”

The Viscount was listening, puzzlement turning to…he looked at Ryoka’s face, at Oiena, and blinked rapidly as if coming to…but Rhisveri was listening, and Fithea and the other immortals drew forwards while everyone else was ushered back.

It was not hard for Visophecin to give a somewhat embarrassed tale of his pursuit of Ryoka. However, halfway through he grew noticeably more hesitant.

“…I did pursue her in a lighthearted manner, Your Majesty, Duke. Which…coincided with attempts to surround Courier Griffin with pranks of my choosing.”

He was in her closet. Appeared around corners! No matter where she went!”

The [Queen] was incandescent. Viscount Visophecin looked at her, then at Ryoka, and closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head back. Rhisveri just blinked his eyes at Oiena, Ryoka, and Visophecin. Then he grinned.

“You did that? That’s hilarious. I don’t see the problem. I would have joined in if I—would you stop that?

He leaned back from the wrath of gloves. Queen Oiena had two scarlet spots in her cheeks.

“It may be amusing to you, Duke Rhisveri, but His Majesty will not find it so amusing to have women pursued in such a manner! Or would you care to have your mother, your daughter, your niece followed about so?”

Rhisveri gave Oiena the blankest of looks.

“I would not particularly care. It sounds like a game. If this Th—Courier Griffin didn’t like it, she should just say so.”

The [Queen] was lost for words. She looked around, made a motion, and her bodyguards closed ranks, shielding them from view. Then she tried to stomp on Rhisveri’s foot with one of her heels.

He dodged, of course, and backed up.

“I do not see—”

“Duke Rhisveri. Her Majesty is, of course, wise. And I begin to realize just how improper I have been.”

Visophecin forestalled him with an arm. Rhisveri glared, but the Viscount abruptly bowed.

“Your Majesty, I beg your sincerest pardon, and to you as well, Courier Griffin. I will make sincere amends, but I believe the most prudent course now is…to remove myself completely. If you will allow me to withdraw?”

“There. At least one of you has sense. You may, Viscount, but I shall expect your finest behavior for the foreseeable future.”

“Absolutely, Your Majesty.”

He bowed, stepping back and tugging along Rhisveri. Ryoka saw him retreat, eyes on her. But his face no longer looked amused. It looked…well.

Guilty?

Queen Oiena was still breathing hard when she turned. Then she and Ryoka were alone, in a rapidly-emptying hallway. No one wanted to risk her wrath, but it seemed that the [Queen] was as unprepared for a face-to-face with Ryoka as the Wind Runner.

Ryoka still felt shaken. A true panic had taken over near the end there. Seeing herself in Visophecin’s arms or him just walking out of the closet when she’d begun to lie down…

The [Queen] understood.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. I, uh…thank you. I’m sorry for—for causing a scene.”

“I do believe, Courier Griffin, that this incident was not your fault. For once.”

The [Queen] stiffly added that last part, and nodded her head.

“You are pardoned, and Viscount Visophecin will make a full formal apology. Such actions…reflect poorly on Ailendamus. A rare incident, given the man has been such an exemplar. Even Rhisveri—well, he is not surprising. But the blindness! The gall!”

She fumed. Then looked at Ryoka.

“I suppose it comes with being a Courier.”

“I…what does, Your Majesty?”

“Pursuit. The way you are so…adventurous. A [Lady] is protected by her class and station, but you must have the worst of it.”

Ryoka didn’t know about that. She made a face.

“That—was unexpected, Your Majesty. I, uh, I should have said something. I just didn’t realize—thank you, again.”

Another stiff incline of the head. Queen Oiena gazed rather unfavorably at Ryoka and the Wind Runner didn’t know why. Until the [Queen] spoke next.

“I hope you will remember this in any future contexts, Courier Griffin. It would not do to be repaid with any trespasses. Of course, His Majesty is entitled to any…decisions on his own, but I trust you will remember who saved you today.”

Ryoka Griffin gave Oiena a blank look. The [Queen] frowned, then elaborated.

“I understand you are set to dine with His Majesty tomorrow.”

“I am?”

The Wind Runner recalled Itorin’s comments. Her eyes widened.

“I am! I didn’t know if…oh.”

“His Majesty has, apparently, cancelled a formal banquet with the ambassador of Noelictus.”

Queen Oiena pointedly tugged on a glove, avoiding looking at Ryoka. The Wind Runner stared at her, put the pieces together in rapid order, and then grinned.

“Oh. Oh. Your Majesty—you have nothing to fear. Believe me.”

Oiena furrowed her brows sharply. Her bodyguards, who were listening with huge ears while standing to perfect attention, saw the glove begin to come off again.

“You sound quite confident, Miss Griffin. I am told my husband found you exceptionally charming.”

“He and I—had a conversation, Your Majesty. I quite liked him. I, uh…”

Oiena twitched. Ryoka held up her hands, and then started to lower them. She gave Oiena a long look. Then just lowered her hands and spoke, a touch exasperatedly.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard, Your Majesty, but if I may be frank?”

“Why hold your tongue now?”

Ryoka ignored the acidic remark.

“I’ve…met with a number of people. But Your Majesty, I hardly go around seducing everyone I meet. Some people are interested in me for—other reasons. Including Viscount Visophecin. I think.”

She wasn’t actually sure about Visophecin. Queen Oiena narrowed her eyes again. Ryoka looked at her.

“I’m sure you know this, Queen Oiena. But…a man and a woman can have a conversation and like each other, without necessarily being attracted romantically or physically.”

Ryoka held her breath. She wasn’t sure if that direct comment was going to work or have her head rolling. Oiena searched her face, eyes roaming like a spotlight. Then, suddenly, she relaxed. She actually chuckled, a note of rueful melancholy in it, and looked at Ryoka with what almost looked like familiarity. Or even sympathy.

I know that. We know that. But do they?”

Ryoka thought of Tyrion Veltras.

“How I wish. But I swear, Queen Oiena, King Itorin is purely interested in my travels.”

“I see. You know, I actually believe you. I wish I did not. It would be so easy to dislike you.”

Oiena tapped a finger against her other hand thoughtfully.

“Do not sell yourself short either, Courier Griffin. Very well. Very well. You are quite…better than I had expected. Do tell me if the Viscount troubles you. I shall also allow Oesca to keep learning her tumbling. Perhaps you and I shall have dinner as well.”

“Thank you—what?

Queen Oiena looked around. She shook her head, and strode off, looking rather happier than before. Ryoka Griffin stood there.

She had a strange way of meeting people, but it did work.

 

——

 

Duke Rhisveri was annoyed by the whole thing. Visophecin had done nothing wrong. The Wind Runner and the Queen both got on his nerves, and he caught no less than His Majesty, Itorin II, as he came away from the war coucil.

Itorin was relieved, if not with the new developments with the war, but then in a day of hard work. He was even smiling—an expression which soured as soon as Rhisveri thrust one of the [Generals] out of the way to talk with him privately.

“Control your wife. The woman is absolutely nonsensical.”

“I shall do no such thing, Duke. You are my uncle, and she is not a fool. What did she allegedly do?”

“Interfere with Visophecin.

Itorin stopped. Visophecin? He looked around and saw the Viscount trailing them.

“I—how, exactly?”

“The Wind Runner. Do not engage with her. She is a prisoner.

Rhisveri snarled, but he was wise enough to keep his face at least blank. Itorin had a sudden premonition as Rhisveri gave the briefest of biased summaries.

He didn’t see what his wife did—not exactly—but he had an instant moment of sympathy for Ryoka Griffin. Immortals were difficult. And it seemed Rhisveri had her in his sights.

Yet—the [King] stopped as the Viscount, Duke, bodyguards, and gaggle of advisors, servants, and so on, were walking down one of the open promenades towards the war room. They looked up, and saw the subject of the hour standing there.

Ryoka Griffin. She had pulled a Visophecin, which meant she suddenly walked out from behind a statue of one of Ailendamus’ former rulers—of which there had only been four—and bowed.

“Your Majesty. Viscount Visophecin. Rhis. Might I have a moment of your time?”

All three turned, Rhisveri with sudden wrath. Itorin nodded.

“Of course, Courier Griffin. I understand there has been some…misunderstandings this morning?”

The Viscount was looking at Ryoka, puzzled. He bowed silently, and Ryoka Griffin smiled. She looked at Itorin, and they had that shared bond which Oiena had mistaken for attraction. No. Just a kinship.

I’m sorry. Itorin’s eyes flicked left to Rhisveri. Ryoka gave him a slight nod.

This is the shit you have to deal with every day? She grimaced.

Like you would never believe. His eyes betrayed an aeon of silent pain. Mostly due to Rhisveri’s shenanigans. He would have to tell her about the melted statues incident.

And yet—communal suffering was what he saw. Ryoka, though, looked at the two powerful immortals behind Itorin. She had something to show the [King].

“…I did let it get carried away. I should have directly asked Viscount Visophecin to relent, and that is my fault. Sometimes I have to be direct. Nor was I quite willing to play the Viscount’s game. Boys play silly games.”

The Devil and the Wyrm saw her pointedly glance at them. Ryoka Griffin met Itorin’s gaze. The [King], hugely amused but equally alarmed for her sake, raised an eyebrow.

“A bold claim, Wind Runner.”

“I know, Your Majesty. I just wanted to make it clear—I am a guest. I am playing by every rule of hospitality. I would rather like to be treated that way. Or else I am not a guest.”

“Is that a threat?”

Bodswen looked ready to punish it. Itorin held up a hand. Ryoka had no idea, but if she did actually threaten him, or Ailendamus, she would suffer for it. [Instant Retribution: Threat] was a terrible thing. Especially when the retribution was a spiked metal gauntlet to your face.

“Not at all, Your Majesty. Just…I hate games of hide-and-seek. If the Viscount wants to play tag, though. And if I am not a guest, I may oblige him.”

Ryoka Griffin waved an arm. Itorin saw the bangle on her wrist, the jade bracelet, gleaming. Rhisveri narrowed his eyes.

“Go to your quarters, Wind Runner. Guards, escort her there. I will—”

“Duke Rhisveri. But for this thing on my arm?”

Ryoka interrupted him. Rhisveri’s eyes bulged. She smiled at Itorin.

“—you’d never catch me. I’m quite boring when I’m cooped up. You can’t cage the wind.”

She spread her arms. And only now did Itorin II notice something. She’d changed out of her regular, guest clothing which had Ailendamus’ colors and symbols. She had something else on. A curious style of dress that was never going to catch on.

Who liked full-body…bodysuits? Not a suit, but some kind of all-covering fabric. With what looked like an odd cloth-webbing around her armpits, even between her legs. Like…a bat. Or flying squirrel.

Ryoka Griffin spread the wingsuit and the wind picked up. She met Itorin’s gaze as his eyes widened. Rhisveri blinked.

“Don’t you d—”

Visophecin felt the wind rise. But the explosion of air was more than even he was prepared for. The [Bodyguards] shielded Itorin, although the magic barriers already did that. The Devil craned his head back, blinking. He saw His Majesty of Ailendamus looking up, face delighted. Visophecin stared up at a dot in the sky.

“…She wasn’t even playing my game. I couldn’t catch that so easily.”

Itorin II just laughed in sheer amazement. He saw Rhisveri howl and leap forwards, staring up. And he understood what Ryoka meant.

They can mess around with you as much as they want. So you have to push back too. You have to have…

Something they lacked.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin flew. She flew. The wingsuit carried her up with the blast of air. But she had never flown this high before, this fast.

No, wait. During the typhoon. Once. She left her consciousness far below. Trusted to the wind to carry her up.

A hundred feet a second? Faster. 

Carry me up. Show them I won’t be scared. Far below her, the Devil was left far behind. There was nowhere to hide in the sunset sky, no corner to wait behind.

She flew. This was flying. Before, Ryoka had just flown as fast as she dared. Right now? She was playing immortal games. She had no internal speed limit.

The wind tore at her face, pulling at her skin with the speed of the ascent. Ryoka would have laughed, if she wasn’t concentrating so hard.

On her wrist, her jade bracelet was going insane. It was making sounds, flashing, trying to lock down her body and Skills and magic. But it couldn’t do that to the wind.

Go ahead. I dare you. Below her, Rhisveri could probably boil her blood in her veins, just like he said. Do it.

She called his bluff. Nothing happened. Ryoka shot upwards, until Ailendamus’ palace was a dot below her. Straight up into the sky.

She saw a figure flying after her, furious, squawking, as slower figures mounted Griffins, even a few Pegasi. [Mages] flew upwards, going after the prisoner.

Great Knight Gilaw was first into the air, riding a Griffin. Ryoka thought it must be an illusion—she saw the Griffin, magnificent black feathers streaked with silver, shriek at her. Ryoka Griffin waved.

She left Gilaw floundering in an instant. After all, the Griffin was only as fast as she could flap her wings. Ryoka was as fast as…

She saw a vast cloud high overhead. Countless miles in a stratosphere many times Earth’s. Ryoka headed straight up to it. She wondered what would happen. Would Rhisveri teleport her? Zap her? Would Itorin stop her? It didn’t matter. She had to show them…

Not bad.

A grudging voice boomed through the air. Ryoka twisted, her meteoric ascent slowing so she could see. What was that? It didn’t sound like it had come from the bracelet. Then—she saw the air ripple. She saw a giant, slitted eye appear.

Not the eye in the sky, the magical illusion. This time—it was real. Physical. Ryoka almost shot a [Flashbang] into it. But then she saw a second eye appear. She looked down and there he was.

Rhisveri. The Wyrm shot into the air. Ryoka Griffin stared down as a huge, hundreds of feet long Wyrm twisted into the sky. Like…a story. Eastern Dragons.

He flew. His coiled body undulated, striking upwards like a snake, but so fast!

He came out of the palace and blew past her in a gust of air. Circling around in the sky, so long that Ryoka saw his body flowing after the head, like a hypnotic serpent, but at lightning speed.

You are an insufferable mortal. Did you think you were the only being that could fly?

Rhisveri boomed. The Wyrm was under some kind of illusion that only she could see through, or the little fliers and people below her would be freaking out. Ryoka looked up at him as he made an infinity sign in the air, then circled her. She looked at him. Then laughed.

She went shooting straight up, then changed directions abruptly and dove in a corkscrew. Rhisveri’s head snapped after her, looking contemptuous. However he flew, it was like a giant serpent. He lunged through the air, and that momentum would slow unless he performed a second mid-air strike. He was faster than Ryoka—but he didn’t expect her to move like that.

She dove along his scales and he jerked, as if afraid he would strike her. She corkscrewed along his huge body, and performed a reverse-dive upwards. She turned and saw Rhisveri’s head snap around, then focus on her.

—huh.

He managed. The Wyrm dove after her.

“Not bad, but—you’re too slow. I could catch you like—”

The Wyrm struck. He hit only the laughing air, and did a double-take. How did she do that? He was faster! 

But she was small, agile, and the wind was her friend. More importantly, Rhisveri was a Wyrm. Every move he made had to telegraph itself as his body changed postures. Rhisveri craned his head back, forth, then twisted all the way around.

Get off my scales!

The Wind Runner was sliding down his neck! She was laughing, and leapt into the air. This time Rhisveri, infuriated, twisted, making an actual sphere around her with his constricting body. A perfect sphere.

Ryoka Griffin saw him poke his head into the capture orb at her. He looked around, swore.

Where…?

 

——

 

Gilaw was the only flier who had gotten even close to Ryoka. She saw a huge, invisible shape in the air uncurl and pursue a single figure who shot even higher. The Griffin stared up as the Wind Runner shot towards the giant cloud, with Rhisveri in hot pursuit. His curses were so loud Gilaw half heard them, even with the silencing spells.

 

——

 

That just made Ryoka laugh harder. She hit the cloud and it was wet. Also, charged. A furious Wyrm tore into it.

 

——

 

On the ground, Itorin II made a hasty decision.

“Rain. I require rain. For…proper ambiance. See it done.”

A [Weather Mage] cast a spell and rain began pouring down and more clouds gathered. Just in time, or else more people would have seen the holes appearing, or even the misty outline of something huge breaking through the nimbus cloud high overhead.

 

——

 

“Cyclops’ eyes! I think she’s evading him!”

Menorkel’s eyes were some of the best of the immortals. He and the others were staring up as the rain fell over them. Fithea stared up.

“The wind is her ally. Of course…but even Rhisveri?”

“He’s not using any spells.”

Visophecin saw the others turn to him. He sat under the rain, staring up at the sky as night fell. He couldn’t see perfectly that high, and Rhisveri had his own invisibility spells. But he thought—

 

——

 

—He was laughing. He kept trying to hide it. Glaring. But it was like when you were angry and struggling to stay angry, but you kept laughing.

Both furious and amused. And worse for Rhisveri’s temper—happy.

High above even the clouds, Ryoka stopped being able to breathe easily. She clawed at her mouth, trying to get the wind to push oxygen into her lungs. She gasped—and a bubble appeared around her head.

“You’d have to carry air from below. Amateur.”

Rhisveri appeared as Ryoka slowed. The Wyrm hovered in the air, able to sustain his position without moving. He was…panting a bit. He had been chasing Ryoka for only, say, sixteen minutes, but it had to be tiring. For once, he had to use his entire body to move like he did, and the sky was so vast even Rhisveri was small in it.

Yet he was smiling. He glared at Ryoka a second later.

“I should blast you to pieces and feed your melted remains into the sewers. Do that again and die. That bracelet tells me exactly where you are.”

He flicked a tongue at it. Ryoka raised her arm.

“I know. But a girl’s gotta fly.”

Rhisveri snorted.

“You cause trouble just by existing. I should kill you. But Visophecin has led me to believe you have some value. You’ll never get what you want, you know.”

“Can we talk it out? You’ve been avoiding me.”

I’ve—been—busy!

The Wyrm roared. He snapped through the air with each word, until he was right in front of her. His furious glare was a bit too furious, though. He looked at Ryoka, then cast around in the sky. The sight of well…everything seemed to calm him down.

Ryoka looked down too. Everything was so small. She saw huge mountains in the distance; the palace was a dot. The landscape was a darkening miniature world below her, little trees and grass like some perfect recreation, a toy.

“Is this what it means to be a Wyrm? It looks so…”

It was different than seeing it from a plane window. No—the scale in this world was off as well, such that Ryoka wondered if they were above a plane’s maximum cruising altitude. Yet still, almost able to breathe.

Rhisveri looked down.

“Small? You all take such pride in your palaces and edifices. This is what it looks like from above. So yes, this is what it means to be a Wyrm. Look. That cloud.”

He pointed with his head at the one they had gone through. It was so large that ten of Itorin’s palaces would have fit comfortably inside. Rhisveri’s look was wistful.

“There are larger clouds still. Permanent fixtures. When they gather, there are stormheads so vast you could fly through them…and there are beasts inside. Or were. You think you know Giants and Dragons? You have never seen half of it. They may all be dead. And there are other things hidden in the sky. Invisible. So high you cannot see them. Camouflaged. Hidden in clouds. Entire…”

Ryoka looked at him.

“Cities?”

Rhisveri’s head twisted around. He stared at Ryoka.

“…So you’ve heard of the same. Pah. It must be generic if you’re not surprised.”

Even so, his gaze was wistful. He looked up. Then glared at Ryoka.

“What a waste of time. Return to your quarters, Thief. If you try to do this again, I’ll fry you.”

He turned abruptly. Ryoka called out after him.

“Will you hear me out?”

A single baleful eye fixed her with a sudden force that arrested her momentum in the air. Rhisveri opened his mouth and a wisp of acrid vapor emerged…then he grunted.

“You’ll get your audience. You had better have something worthwhile to say.

He dove without a word, leaving Ryoka up there. She smiled. Then she turned and looked up. So much more sky above, and beyond that…?

The world was so vast. She floated there a moment. Wishing this was all she had to worry about. But inevitably…

She had to return to earth.

 

——

 

They looked at her differently after that. They always did. She was in trouble, of course, but His Majesty’s—and Her Majesty’s— approval meant that it was muted.

The truth was that Ryoka did break rules and get away with it. It was the kind of privilege, well, a Courier got. The power of knowing people.

She only wished she had Erin’s strength, which was to move them. Ryoka did get to know people. Erin? Erin could lean.

Obol and a meeting with Rhisveri. Ryoka did worry because she didn’t know what she was bargaining for. She knew what it did—sort of—and she had money, and the Faerie King clearly believed she had enough.

But Ryoka hated uncertainty. Still…as days went, she had gotten Rhisveri to commit to a meeting before winter. So that was something. She was limping back to her room.

Her body hurt. Not from running all day, but from the stresses the wind placed on it. Her [Knights] saw her to her quarters and took up position. Ryoka was about to enter the guest suite when she stopped.

Her hand on the doorknob, she remembered this morning. Surely he wouldn’t…?

She swung the door open, stepped into the entry room, and looked around. Ryoka hastened into the living room, checked the window, swung around—

“Phew.”

No Devil. She relaxed. If he had been here, she might have screamed and then tried to actually stab him. She was so grateful for Oiena’s help…

Ryoka walked towards the last door to her actual bedroom and stopped. She backed up.

“What the fuck.”

She stood there for a second. Then stared at the huge piece of parchment. Attached to the front of her door.

 

Viscount Visophecin’s offer within.

 

It was so big that in order to open the door she had to pull it off the wall. Ryoka Griffin stared at it. She was half-tempted to run. But she put her hand on the handle. She was prepared…

But all she saw was what looked like an office meeting presentation piece on her table. Another piece of paper.

 

Magical ring of dispelling. One charge. Use to refuse.

 

That last part was underlined. It was very clear writing, not cursive or embellished. Ryoka turned her head as another big piece of paper on one of the walls caught her eye.

 

Enchanted doorway to place to converse. Enter to accept.

 

And below it was an arrow pointing to her closet door. Ryoka opened and closed her mouth. She looked at the Ring of Dispelling, and the doorway.

“Well, that’s simple enough. Are you listening, Duke Visophecin? I’m—oh.”

She spotted the last note on her bed.

 

I have enchanted only the closet and left the following notes. You are not under surveillance of any kind, nor have I left any other spells in place. Fithea, Sophridel, or Duke Rhisveri may vouch for this fact.

 

She stared at the piece of parchment. Ryoka ran her hand through her hair. She looked at the closet. The thing was—she appreciated this a bit? But the thing was…

Her stomach growled. Ryoka closed her eyes. She hadn’t had lunch and it was past dinner.

…She was so damn hungry.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin ate dried runner’s rations and drank stale water. Then she opened the door after taking a few deep breaths and thinking about it. She had no assurances she’d be safe—but she had a gut feeling and it was a funny change of pace.

The door was a portal. Ryoka stared at it. A literal portal that did not disclose her clothing, but a strange place beyond. Clearly out in the open. No…she spotted some kind of roof, but the wind told her it was out in the open on the other side somehow. And the floor was strange and glossy, reflecting a bit of light.

“Strange. Well, what’s the worst that can happen?”

Ryoka knocked on the side of the closet, then stepped through. She walked onto a flat ground, slippery under her bare feet, and stopped.

“Whoa.”

She stood in the ruins of a huge palace. A crumbling roof over her head. It showed starlight, the two moons high above. The walls were gutted, scorched, and nothing remained but stone.

Stone, and this curious basin. Almost closer to the bottom of some pond, but perfectly circular, slanting downwards at the edges. The floor was smooth. Smooth as marble. Ryoka bent down.

“What is this?”

She frowned as she touched the smooth, familiar substance and realized abruptly—it was glass.

A glass bowl, created by some intense heat, which had burned a circle in the middle of this—

Palace. A giant palace. Ryoka blinked around and something came to her.

Former palace. Ailendamus’ former…her eyes widened. She looked around for the figure she knew was there. Where would he be, in this suitably dramatic place? With the moonlight pouring down from the broken ceiling? Wh—

Pft.

Ryoka’s snort escaped her mouth. She looked around and spotted Viscount Visophecin. He sat in a huge chair, one of two, padded, dark wood, in front of a simple table with what looked like drinks and food.

But unlike every other time, he did not appear with a question. He was just there, sitting far across the glass floor, with plenty of time to spot him.

With…a giant flaming arrow pointing down at him, hovering in the air. Even a spotlight from an invisible light source, a beam of light illuminating him and the spot.

The Devil sat there, looking supremely uncomfortable, for all he contrived to be lounging in place. Ryoka walked forwards, trying not to laugh.

“…Is this some kind of new game?”

“I wish I could find it amusing. Courier Griffin, thank you for meeting with me despite this morning’s unpleasantness. I was not sure you would accept.”

Viscount Visophecin stood at once. He offered her a chair, but the Wind Runner just stood there. He looked…awkward. Not in how he acted or carried himself, but just in how she found him. She glanced up at the flaming arrow and it winked out of existence; the spotlight did not.

“I take it that’s not normal?”

His features took on a faintest wince.

“I am unaccustomed to announcing my presence. Nor do I find it enjoyable. However, to make amends…the invitation. I hope you believe that I would have respected your privacy had you refused, and attempted to contact you in three more days.”

Ryoka tilted her head at him. She had a sudden realization and tried not to laugh.

“Were you—when you appear behind me, you’re teleporting, aren’t you? Were you just sitting here and waiting for me to come through or dispel the door?”

The Viscount said nothing. Ryoka bit her lip. He looked at her, then went to sit back down. Visophecin sat with his back perfectly straight in the comfortable chair. After a second, Ryoka went to sit too. She saw he’d placed a bottle of wine, one of those spreadable cheeses, crackers, grapes, a number of snacks, all high-quality, before them.

She regretted her dried ration snacks since this looked far better. But Ryoka didn’t touch them. Visophecin spoke, slowly, looking her up and down.

“I am glad you find levity in the situation, Ryoka Griffin. I feared I had damaged any possible chance at conversation beyond all repair. Thank you. I must apologize again for my actions. I behaved in a boorish manner unbefitting me, and I did not realize my trespasses until Her Majesty corrected me. I will make formal amends.”

Ryoka was…surprised. He bowed very sincerely and then sat down again. She didn’t quite understand.

Rhisveri would never apologize. He was a Wyrm. Here was a Devil or…

Ah, misconceptions. Ryoka rested her arms on her legs. She wasn’t cold, though there was a night wind blowing through the palace. The air felt warmer here. And there was that smell of forge fires.

She couldn’t see his horns. But that grey cast to his skin…Ryoka squinted at Visophecin.

“Is this a formal meeting, or an apology, Viscount?”

“Visophecin is acceptable. It is a combination of both. You are free to leave at any time you wish. I can teleport you back to your rooms in a moment.”

“I…see.”

She thought he was growing less uncomfortable now she had sat down. Visophecin didn’t smile. Nor did he move much. He was no fidgeter. His features were not blank—but muted.

“If you would like me to do anything to further pay amends for my actions, please let me know what I can do.”

Ryoka looked at him quizzically.

“You’re sorry? I can accept you didn’t understand how it looked. You’re…an immortal, Viscount Visophecin. Aren’t you?”

“I am.”

He never blinked. His orange-yellow eyes were fixed on her. Square pupils. Ryoka hesitated.

“May I see your true appearance?”

“If you would like to. I shall oblige. It is rare I reveal myself. I hope my actions can prove my sincerity.”

He clicked his fingers. Visophecin sat back, and Ryoka stared.

He was the same person in height and shape, unlike Fithea, Gilaw, or the other immortals. However, now she saw a pair of fairly tall horns, curving up from his forehead. His skin was grey, not pale. He wore the exact same clothing.

And he had a tail. It hung under the seat. She looked down, wondering if he had cloven hooves, but all he had were shoes…

Shoes that looked a bit different. Longer, as if they held something within. A bit…different. With an arch?

Maybe claws? Visophecin watched Ryoka inspecting him. He was still slim. Still smelled like fire and metal. When he spoke, his teeth were noticeably sharper.

“I trust you do not find me unsettling. Inform me if you do, and I will revert back. However. I believe you are used to species foreign to this world.”

Her head snapped up. Visophecin saw the movement.

“I would prefer not to waste time, Ryoka Griffin. You and I are both aware of facts about the other. But I ask you again, before that. Will you forgive my actions?”

Her face wrinkled.

“You really are sorry? It—wasn’t that big a trespass, honestly. It was very unpleasant, but I’ve seen worse from…immortals.”

It was such a strange thing to say the word out loud. Visophecin hesitated. He looked at Ryoka. Then he slowly shook his head.

“I…am not sorry, Ryoka.”

“Oh. Well—”

“I cannot be. If I could, I believe I would be. But as you know, I am Lucifen. I am…Visophecin of House Shoel. I cannot be sorry. I cannot feel sorry for what I did. I am apologizing because that is the correct thing to do. But I am not remorseful.”

At first she thought he was just being insincere. For a second. Then Ryoka focused on how he said it.

“You can’t be?”

The Devil smiled.

“If I am honest? I quite enjoyed that, Ryoka. More than enjoyed that. I have not been so delighted in fourteen years. I would have continued. I was—enjoying myself. I am grateful to Queen Oiena. For I acted as though you and I were playing a…game. Believe me, if I had not come to my senses by your actions, Oiena’s, or my own, it would have escalated.”

Ryoka felt a ripple of goosebumps run down her arms. Visophecin looked at her.

“I cannot feel sorry for you. I recognized fully what you must have felt, once I stopped to consider the actions I took. But you are Human. And I? My people do not have such capability for emotions. For better or worse.”

Now there was an answer worthy of the horns. He sat there, eyes fixed on her. Seeing if she reacted. So sharp. Ryoka slowly nodded.

“I get it. And you’re…may I ask a question?”

“Naturally.”

“Can you feel happy? Sad? No—”

He lifted a hand.

“I can feel both. Anger, sadness, happiness—perhaps I have misphrased myself. It is not often I need to explain. I can feel the range of emotions any person of sentience does. I envy your kind’s ability to feel emotions so strongly. I seldom do. Another advantage of my species. Or weakness.”

He leaned forwards, pouring a glass of wine. He offered it to Ryoka, and she took it. Visophecin saw her inspecting the dark liquid without drinking it as he sat back. He sipped from his own cup.

“I certainly can feel any emotion I believe you might. I have checked. However. I do not feel emotions like sadness towards…you. Your people. If you bleed, if you suffer. Even what I did to you this day, I understand how you must feel. I understand it is wrong under law and how it will lead to further reactions. I cannot feel sorry for you.”

Ah. Ryoka had it.

“Sympathy. You don’t have…”

“No.”

No sympathy. No shadow, either, even under the spotlight. Reflexively, Ryoka took a drink of wine. She nearly spat it out, then relaxed.

“You wouldn’t poison the wine.”

“I would not. You are someone who must be negotiated with in good faith, Ryoka Griffin. You yourself are a Courier, and, as Rhisveri points out, an enemy of Ailendamus by your actions. Yet you represent powers we are aware of. Hence—my sincere regret for my actions.”

“Because of how you jeopardize our potential relationship.”

Ryoka had him figured out. Or so she thought. A Devil in truth; no sympathy. But a terribly sharp intellect and logic. Yet she was surprised again because Visophecin shook his head.

“Not only that. My actions reflect negatively on me. They ruin my reputation.”

“You care about something like that?”

Two eyebrows rose.

“Of course. Duke Rhisveri may be the individual you are used to, but his beliefs are not mine. I deeply care about my perception and favorability in court. I do not like to besmirch my House’s name. It behooves me to be liked.”

Ryoka’s lips quirked. He was so logical. Scary, but…she couldn’t help but quote Machiavelli.

Just to see what he’d say.

“Better to be feared than loved?”

Visophecin sat there. He sipped from his cup, regarding Ryoka as she reached for a piece of brie.

“Interesting. Why would you say that?”

Ryoka shrugged, spreading it on a cracker. She waited, but all Visophecin did was drink; he never reached for food.

“Just, uh, philosophy. If you had to choose between the two, it is better to be feared than loved, surely?”

“Why would I wish to be feared?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“Well, let’s say you were a tyrant or a ruler. If you were feared, then it’s better than being loved because in times of crisis, someone who’s feared has an edge on someone who’s loved. Obviously that’s if you had to choose. So that’s, um…what’s the quote…”

The Viscount was just watching her. Not blankly, but thinking. He smiled.

“Fascinating. You are quoting someone, but I have never heard that sentiment expressed exactly in such words. I do enjoy discussions of morality. Feared. Loved. Better to be feared? I would never wish that. Only loved, and even then…only vaguely. Admired, as I am now, rather. A respected Viscount. I would rather neither, even as a ruler.”

“Really. But why not either?”

Ryoka chewed down her food. She wondered if Machiavelli could explain better—most definitely. The Viscount gave her a faint smile.

“Either assumes I desire direct power. Either assumes I am a [King] or ruler or someone in power, and assumes I must effect control through loyalty or fear. It is a simple statement. It has no bearing on me. I wish neither love nor fear. I am simply content to be largely invisible. Or have you not seen how Rhisveri and we manage Ailendamus? That is ideal, to me.”

“Ah. Right. Sorry. I was just, uh, quoting philosophy at random. Silly of me.”

Visophecin shook his head.

“Please continue to do so. Smalltalk is quite enjoyable. Yet I believe you and I have deeper matters to resolve. If you are willing to speak to me, and you understand my regret, perhaps we may discuss the reason you came here.”

Ryoka paused, a bit of wine and cheese in her mouth.

“You mean, Rhisveri’s…”

“Treasure. Yes. Which I believe somehow pertains to Erin Solstice. To Liscor. Why else would you have made attempts to heal her? With a Potion of Regeneration no less. It follows, then, that because it failed, you were made aware via your unique allies of something Rhisveri owns. His treasure, that you failed to steal and he hunted you at great cost to obtain.”

He knew. Ryoka realized she was giving everything away by her reactions, but she suspected that was inevitable. He already knew.

“Do you know what…?”

“No. Nor am I privy to Rhisveri’s thoughts. But you have come to Ailendamus on behalf of great powers. Your very presence has dragged House Veltras into this war. I am not as foolish as Rhisveri to think you should be killed. I believe that would make enemies of a number of unknown powers. And I do not make enemies lightly.”

His eyes glittered as he took another sip from his wine. Ryoka was silent. This was perfectly laid out, and made sense to her too.

“So…what is the point of this?”

He sighed.

“The reason I sought you out was to gauge your personality, your abilities. I have made a rare mistake in how I acted. Principally, I would have preferred to establish trust. A relationship of understanding which can be resolved lead to all parties’ benefit. I believe that will be—difficult.”

Ryoka had to agree.

“Aside from how we met, Visophecin. If I can be blunt—I’m not exactly safe with Rhisveri’s wrath hovering over me. I need what he, uh, has. And you’re part of Ailendamus. On the opposite side.”

“Interesting. What makes you believe we are opposed?”

Ryoka sat back.

“Well, you’ve kidnapped me and Sammial Veltras. Ailendamus is known for making war on other parties, and Rhisveri wants to kill me for trying to steal items.”

Visophecin nodded. He lifted a finger.

“It might be beneficial for all parties to release Sammial Veltras. Rhisveri’s grudge against you may well be settled. If so, neither you nor Sammial Veltras are hostages of Ailendamus. Your last point refers to Ailendamus’ national policy. Which nation do you support that places you against us?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I—well, maybe Calanfer? I’m not part of any nation. But Ailendamus makes war and costs a lot of lives!”

“Is that unique to Ailendamus? I believe Tyrion Veltras nearly launched a war between Drakes and Humans. You regard him as an ally, and he was apparently close enough to propose to you.”

Ryoka’s ears turned red. She tried to think. Damn. She shouldn’t have had any wine.

“No. That’s not untrue. But I haven’t said I’m fine with Tyrion Veltras’ actions. I just find Ailendamus to be…a threat.”

Viscount Visophecin nodded.

“An existential one.”

“Sort of. Tyrannies and vast empires lead to terrible deeds. Warcrimes, corruption, slavery…”

Ryoka Griffin hesitated. Because she said that and it was true, historically. But she hadn’t seen that in Ailendamus. Visophecin saw the hesitation.

“You are speaking in general. Tell me, Ryoka. What do you see in Ailendamus that directly, visibly conflicts with your sense of morality? You spoke of evil. What in Ailendamus is evil?”

The Courier was silent for a long time. Mulling it over.

“…Your wars of aggression. I disagree with how I’ve been treated, even as a thief. The fact that Rhisveri is eager to kill, and that he nearly killed Sammial when we first appeared in front of him. The fact that he controls the throne, and you do, has bad historical precedents.”

Visophecin nodded to each point. He looked at the table, noticing how fast Ryoka had eaten all the cheese and crackers. He reached for something, and offered it to her.

“May I present you with a hanadrid salad? From the Hanadrid region. Note the dressing, if you are so inclined. I hope you will sample at least a bite.”

Ryoka blinked, but took some of the dish. She saw what looked like a kind of chickpea, mixed with your typical greens, but apparently the big lure of hanadrid salad was a big focus away from the sweets. The only one she counted were some pieces of apple; there was tomato, yellat, fresh cucumber…

The dressing was amazing. Delicious. Ryoka thought it was one of the top 5 dressings she’d ever had, including all the fancy ones. She blinked.

“This is so good. It’s got a bit of a spice to it, it’s tangy—it goes perfectly with all the salad ingredients.”

She looked up and saw Visophecin smile.

“I am glad you think so. Hanadrid is one of the regions House Shoel has an interest in. All the ingredients come from the farms and the salad is a staple across that region of Ailendamus’ kingdom. The variance comes from Veil Tomatoes, which were imported from Noelictus, yellats from Chandrar, and native crops to the region. You see, the diversification of vegetables and sundry dishes was a focus forty years back.”

Ryoka took another bite of salad, eyebrows raised. What was this apropos of? But she listened. Visophecin went on, like some food historian.

“The previous salads and staple meals served across Ailendamus were serviceable…but with our magical supplement program, the capital received complaints about the taste. Thus, it was my initiative to create a contest to create a staple salad and dressing. Over ten thousand participants competed, and the contest of creating new dishes Ailendamus can claim as its own goes on to this day.”

“That’s…impressive.”

Ryoka had to own it was a good salad. Not the best in the world. But Visophecin read her expression.

“Ryoka, I will inform you that I did not request a palace [Chef] to prepare that dish. I requested one from a local inn and I am gratified that a Courier finds it palatable.”

Ryoka looked down at the salad.

“Oh. That is good. So this, uh, was to improve cuisine across Ailendamus?”

The Devil nodded.

“And to disguise the alchemical supplements. The dressing is comprised in part of a powder sold across the nation, subsidized by the crown. It is, I am told, very edible. We were forced to improve the taste, as apparently the alchemical ingredients, such as insect shells, were notable in previous spice mixes.”

Ryoka choked on her salad.

The what?

“Insects. Among other alchemical ingredients. Ailendamus sells national spice packets that contain mana restoratives, physical supplements, and so on. The idea comes from Drath, although we cannot afford to copy their pills and tonics. Yet.”

Ryoka stared at her salad and pushed the plate back.

“—That’s what I meant. You’re a group of immortals controlling the kingdom. Doing whatever you want.”

“And that is the crux of why you find yourself opposed to us.”

“Yes.”

Visophecin nodded. He regarded Ryoka, like a puzzle. Ryoka stared at the salad. After a while, the Devil spoke. He sat back in the spotlight, taking a drink from his goblet.

“What bothers you about the fact that Ailendamus gives its populace alchemical supplements? They have no side-effects aside from improving the quality of health among the people.”

“You don’t tell them you’re doing it. Don’t the people have a right to know what they’re eating?”

Visophecin raised his brows.

Do they have a right?”

“Surely everyone has a right to, oh, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, a right not to be attacked, shelter, food…”

“Naturally. That is the foundation of good governance. Nothing you have said contradicts Ailendamus’ own laws.”

“Yes, but—! They don’t know who’s really ruling them. They have no say in the decisions that get made.”

“The Court of Masks allows their opinions to be heard. A [Commoner] can rise to a position of office short of the crown on merit. I do not believe other kingdoms do the same. In fact, I know they do not. No nation in Terandria, and seldom elsewhere in the world, has as much opportunity to rise.”

“Except to the very top where immortals rule and never die.”

Visophecin shook his head.

“Of course not. I will not trust a mortal man or woman to make the right decisions alone. Itorin II is a capable ruler. He makes most of his decisions autonomously. However, Rhisveri is the Wyrm behind the throne. I am one of his peers, if advisor to Rhisveri. You disagree with this.”

“I’m only Human.”

The Devil laughed. He sat forwards, looking at Ryoka.

“But what else can you tell me is wrong with this nation, Ryoka? Show me what is evil besides the truth only you know. Forget that one secret. You have met Baron Regalius and the Order of the Hydra, which accepts commoners. Every nation decried that as a lessening of the authority of [Knights]. Rhisveri and I pushed for the change because we saw that it was not only equitable, it would make Ailendamus stronger.”

“I—yes. However…you crush other nations. It’s bloody and kills hundreds of thousands. At least tens of thousands. I only need to point to one action.”

Visophecin regarded her and sat back, frowning, as if he hadn’t thought of that.

“Ah. Of course. Empathy for people you have never met. That is fair.”

He shrugged.

“Alas, I do not think I can convince you Ailendamus is perfect.”

Ryoka narrowed her eyes at him.

“I know it isn’t. This nation is set up to support Rhisveri and you all. It may be…good in some ways. The people are not evil, some of the laws I like. However—it’s for you all. Rhisveri threatened to kill a child. I cannot believe he doesn’t kill more people whenever they get on his nerves.”

Visophecin sighed, vexed at the Wyrm.

“Rhisveri. Would it surprise you to learn that he rarely attacks anyone, even irate as he can be? He recognizes value in the palace’s staff, and if he detests someone, he makes a point of removing himself or them from interactions.”

Ryoka bit her lip.

“…So there’s nothing that immortals do that would bother me at all. You all just live in secret and none of you have any…unlawful activities? If you’d like to tell me that, Visophecin, I’d be happy to accept it. If you swear in the way I choose.”

The Devil sat there. He drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair. He stared at Ryoka, and his lips moved.

“I would prefer to lie. However, I have already incurred your distrust. Moreover, given Rhisveri’s penchant, I cannot trust he will support any lie I tell. The truth is a risk. I choose to give it to you, in the hopes it will resolve your distrust. And the truth, Ryoka Griffin, is that there is one objectionable group to your sensibilities. Not all immortals were made to coexist with other species. Rhisveri eats, but he may eat meat of any kind. However. The Lucifen are…specific. You have noticed I do not eat, but drink. I may enjoy foods of all kinds. But I eat one thing.”

He looked at her and Ryoka went pale. Her hand slipped to her Faeblade. Visophecin watched her.

“Not you.”

You eat people?

He frowned.

“I thought you knew. Interesting. You knew me from the start. But you did not know…what do you know of my kind?”

Ryoka saw him lean forwards with genuine interest. She shook her head.

“You eat—what do you eat? Their souls?”

“Their…”

Visophecin looked at her, blankly. He shook his head.

“I eat their flesh. Their bones. It is not pleasant, I am told. Rhisveri does not eat Humans or half-Elves or Dwarves or any other species. I, and my people, do. But, Ryoka Griffin. We only consume once a month. And we eat murderers. We eat criminals. We eat predators and killers that Ailendamus judges worthy of death.”

Ryoka was edged so far back in her chair that she was in danger of tipping over.

“Why? For strength? Because you have to? That makes no sense!”

“I believe it has something to do with the nature of people. As for strength? Do you grow stronger if you eat an entire turkey? I wish it were that simple.”

Visophecin looked a bit offended. He looked at Ryoka.

“We eat what we must. Lucifen are predators of people. We are not the only ones.”

Ryoka thought of Vampires. And yet they only took blood! Even so…she shivered.

“And I’m supposed to be okay with that?”

He stood up.

“I thought you might understand. Courier Griffin, listen to my words again. Ailendamus struck a deal with House Shoel. I was there. In exchange for my position, our aid, we are given the people who are bound for the executioner’s block. Men and women of any species who do what you find abhorrent. Last month, I ate a woman who stabbed her husband and two children to death. Would you have rather she lived?

His eyes glinted.

“There are worse people still. Such that even I felt I did the world a great service by eating them. Would you like me to list their crimes?”

He began to. Ryoka made him stop. Her stomach roiled.

“I understand that! But in any other society, they’d be locked up.”

“For the rest of their lives?”

“Yes! Or humanely executed. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they were criminals—”

Visophecin raised his eyebrows.

“…And if I could? If I personally inspected each one under my magic to ensure they were guilty, and they simply…fell asleep? If we simply disposed of the remains, would that still offend you?”

Ryoka couldn’t respond. Visophecin raised his eyebrows, and then stood. He turned to stare at the sky.

“Well. They do not fall asleep. They do not die peacefully. So you are welcome to your unease. I will not say Ailendamus is without dark deeds. And they are mine.”

He turned his head. And then he smiled, and Ryoka was reminded of the way he grinned at her terror. He spoke, seeming to revel in the look she gave him.

“They broke laws that are not difficult to abide by. Do not murder. Do not steal, or beat, or hurt each other. They did such things that I care not, but if it were done to my kind, I would hunt them down. So their victims know they die. And I feel nothing at all because I must eat. No. I relish that I end them in misery.”

He pointed at her.

“We have reached an impasse, Ryoka Griffin. You see all the secrets Ailendamus bears. I would have you accept them.”

“You, eating people? Rhisveri?”

“Yes. Because we are not perfect. But I reject the notion that we must be. I have entertained the debate—now I ask you this. If I eat the worst of this society, if Rhisveri makes war for his ambitions—what places us behind any other kingdom on this continent? Why are we your principal enemies? Are our people worse than any other? No. I take pride that they are not.”

“Pride? I thought you didn’t care about them.”

The Devil whirled around. Angry. He touched his chest and drew himself up, and he looked taller.

“I cannot feel for them. But I have made it a point of pride, as has Rhisveri and the crown, that no one will starve in Ailendamus. Not a traveller, not a child. Starvation is a sign of weakness. You asked me if I would rather be feared than loved? Happiness costs me nothing and gains me far more than fear. My people and I think of ways to improve the populace’s lives.”

“Because they benefit you and protect Ailendamus.”

Yes. Why is my motivation what matters?

His voice grew deeper. Ryoka saw Visophecin point at her.

“It is a mistake to think that we cannot both benefit, immortal and mortal. That is why I thought Rhisveri’s great ambition was a stroke of genius, and joined my people to his. We are the power behind the throne! Immortals. But I make no deals that cut those I deal with to the quick. I have given without taking. Because what I take is different. I asked you to take my hand. If you had, I would have gained something. If I traded you something you wanted, I would gain something. And that is simply this.”

He lifted his hand and Ryoka saw something open. A book. It flickered in his hands. Names and details.

“Contracts. What do they give you? A part of their…

“Connections.”

Ryoka stopped, a finger raised. Visophecin held the book lovingly. He looked at it, and closed his eyes.

“I grow by the deals I make. Grand acts and small. My power is not from what I take or give, but only the magnitude of it. So I give the generosity of Ailendamus. I build this nation piece by piece. Because it is selfish. It all benefits me.”

He turned, and looked at Ryoka.

“In the past, my people hunted yours. Just like this morning. We struck mighty deals and gained power by suffering. We walked among Dragons and made deals with Giants and great immortals. But in time, we dwindled. And the very small people, the people who cry for each other, who care and suffer and live lives like candle flames, covered every land. How I envy your people’s power.”

He closed the book.

“So yes. Ailendamus is ruled by a selfish Wyrm. By his side stands one of the Lucifen, who consumes people. We are the last of our kind. Do you think we haven’t tried to be something else? We cannot. I am your people’s predator. And that…”

He indicated his gloved hand, and Ryoka thought it was a claw for a second.

“That would bother me, if I could but care.”

He looked at her and she was reminded of what a Vampire had once said. Ryoka stared at Visophecin as he walked back into the spotlight and into the air. On steps that glowed with magic, into the moonlight. And his eyes were alive. He stood, looking at Ryoka, a showman performing. A Devil walking under moonlight. He loved the moment of it.

Visophecin stood there, silhouetted in the light.

“We are selfish. And that is why we will make a land beyond all compare. Because we can be selfish in a way that elevates us all. Petty men and women cannot be selfish as we. They only take. I will build an empire more glorious than any before so it benefits me more. So I do not wish your enmity. Will you see Ailendamus like this, or do we stand apart? You, a mortal who has met Dragons?”

Ryoka jumped. The Devil laughed at her. She stood, slowly.

He had played his cards—more than she thought. But perhaps that was genius. The truth was the only thing that could convince her, and he had told her who he was. He ate people. And yet—she wanted to almost believe him.

The young woman’s head was bowed. She stood there, very still, and the Devil watched her, not without anticipation. When she raised her head, there was something in her green eyes.

Something beyond mere moonlight or wariness.

“You do it very well, Visophecin. Tempt me to believe you. You know—that fits in with the stories I know of you. Not your people; I didn’t know they were a people. But it makes me wary.”

“Really. Who told you those legends of Lucifen?”

Visophecin saw Ryoka smile and wag a finger.

“Not Lucifen. We call you devils. And there was never Lucifen. No—perhaps there were more than one. But I knew one. We called him Lucifer. Morningstar. The Devil, Satan himself who ruled over Hell. The place where sinners went when they died. And he was feared and loved, because he rebelled against Heaven. Against angels. Against…God.”

The Devil stood there, looking down at Ryoka. She did not have magical steps, or horns. But the Wind Runner still made the world echo with that last word. His ears…

“I have…never heard that name. What did you say he fought against? Angels? Agelum? And…”

She walked left. Skipping across the glass floor. The spotlight shifted to follow her. The Wind Runner turned. And she winked at him.

“It’s just a story. They tell another one, about Faust, a man who made a pact with a devil. Who sold his soul, and made a deal that cost him everything for great power. We have so many stories about deals.”

“Who is ‘we’?

Visophecin descended the steps. Ryoka saw him hover in front of the spotlight. The word burned in his ears. He couldn’t even process it. She stepped back.

“People from another world, obviously. You know that.”

It occurred to the Lucifen. He had thought he knew the answer. Now—

Which world? But he was following Ryoka with his eyes.

“I don’t know if I can trust you, Visophecin. You’re too smart. Too dangerous.”

“Are we enemies?”

He walked along the edge of the light, eyes shining out of the shadows. The Wind Runner looked up at the false sunlight. She saw him slowly extend a hand. It hovered at the veil between light and darkness.

“I am able to speak to Rhisveri. I do not know what he hides, but I am no fool. He has always had secrets. It occurs to me that whatever you desire may be given without destabilizing Ailendamus. We both have things to gain.”

“Can I trust you? I could tell you something that would help Ailendamus. Many things. But you are a predator of Humans.”

She hesitated, looking at that hand. Visophecin shook his head. He spoke, slowly, trying to emphasize each word.

“I want you to trust me, knowing what I represent. Knowing who I am and what I do. Because that means you are willing to ally yourself with me despite knowing everything.”

“Why?”

He looked at her, and couldn’t help it.

“Because that would make you fascinating.

She wavered.

“Can I trust you? You do terrible things.”

“I do. But that does not mean I cannot do things that lift Ailendamus up. No one is without flaw, and the flaws attract me. I am not like my fair cousins, who see only the best and cannot be stained. I am Ailendamus’ shadow, more than Rhisveri. And that is why this kingdom rises. Light needs darkness to shine.”

He felt a sudden desire to win her over, more than practicality. He stepped closer, and the light shone down around him. The Viscount put it all to the wind, and offered her a sweeping bow. His gloved hand rose, palm out. The Wind Runner saw him look up.

“Can you trust I am the hero of my story? We are all sinners. But can you believe me, Ryoka Griffin? Believe even a…devil has a soul?”

For a long moment, the Wind Runner didn’t reply. Seconds passed. Then a minute. Visophecin was lowering his hand when someone caught it.

Ryoka saw Visophecin blink in astonishment. He looked at her, surprised. She drew him up. And smiled. The wind blew around the glassy floor like a strange quartet playing on a surreal dance floor.

“Strange. I didn’t think you would believe me.”

He walked with her, feet sliding across the smooth floor and it looked like they were dancing under moonlight. Until they were. He saw the Wind Runner smile at him, eyes alight.

“I’m sure you do have a soul. Or else I wouldn’t be able to tempt you.

That she-Devil, whispering of foreign worlds and Devils, laughed at his face. He was left without words for a moment. But then he snapped his fingers ruefully and an actual quartet began to play. He offered her a hand.

“Do you dance, Wind Runner?”

“A bit.”

Ryoka Griffin laughed with delight as she did the very thing that fifteen year-old Ryoka would have died for. She had forgotten that. Visophecin’s strange eyes followed her. She leaned forwards.

“You know. You’re very good at being a devil. But there’s one thing you didn’t count on.”

“And what would that be?”

Ryoka smiled.

“You talk a lot about your nature and how everything is selfish. But. If you’re actually a good man, then I think you’d hate anyone figuring that out.”

“Are you sure? I’m quite a deceiver, or so I’m told.”

She grinned.

“Yes, but when I arrived, I could tell you felt quite guilty about scaring me. You say a lot, but you know how much you lie. And the truth is, Visophecin, a bad man—a real devil—never apologizes.”

Her hand tightened on his.

“Besides. Even if you played me like a fiddle, and I’m being duped, there’s one thing I can believe.”

They stood very close together. Visophecin whispered.

“And that is…?”

The Wind Runner produced an obol. She pointed up at the stars.

“I’m your gateway to a stage you’ve never seen. With stakes you can’t even dream of, Visophecin. You know it too, so you need me. And I think we’re going to need a devil on our side.”

He looked at her, eyes wide. Then he laughed.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I feel like I’m dying. Mostly because I just finished writing, it was a lot, and I’m hungry.

But it is more taxing than…even the last few chapters. I’m reaching the end of my writing cycle. Already? One more chapter and I need my break. I can feel it. Quality might have dropped, but I got it done.

This time did feel like I dragged myself over the finish line, though. Breaks do matter for writing…and I will take one for a week, then take one early in November for Thanksgiving. I’ll let you know, but it’s an important vacation. I appreciate the understanding and hope you’re all having a good Halloween.

Which is sort of what this chapter was. I’m…going to collapse over here. No, I’m going to eat food.

I’m so hungry.

 

Amazing art of the Blighted Kingdom’s Court by Bobo Plushie!

 

Pumpkin by LeChatDemon!

 

Pumpkin by Prince_Erik!

 

Pumpkin by ECoduti! Happy Halloween, everyone!

 


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53 thoughts on “8.50

  1. I am not sure how I feel about this chapter, thought it felt like the story kinda stalled here. All that just to say, Ryoka does Ryoka things and makes a deal with a Devil like creature. I mean, Ryoka hasn’t figured out what Obol are yet, haven’t figured out why Rhisveri won’t let her leave or wants her around still or anything that truly matters in some ways. It may have been more politicking that leads us no closer to plot relevancy and every closer to meandering.

    • Dunno you just gotta enjoy the chapter instead of wanting some fast progression imo. Just exploring the wonderful characters and settings are the best part for me even if i want more Erin or Goblin chapters.

      • Ryoka doing ryoka things is very relevant.
        Ryoka deals with moral conundrums, and without Ryoka, a character like Erin would strike the shady people down.

        But the truth is that shady doesn’t equal evil.
        You can’t blame a lucifen for eating people, he doesn’t have a choice.
        You could blame a vampire – they don’t have to kill.

        But that’s not the point, there’s the likes of Roshal around. And even they might try to contribute against the things that you shan’t speak off.

        But these types of deals, the arguing and discussions, that’s a Ryoka thing, a Laken thing.
        One loves Erin for the stupid wholesome stuff she does – but one respects Ryoka for being constantly in over her head, and yet digging her own grave even deeper, if it somehow helps.
        She can’t help it, it’s who she is.
        Erin and Ryoka share one quality above all else. They care, they cannot stop to.
        Be it Goblins or Dragons that sleep semi depressed in their caves.
        They can’t stop.

        And Ryoka caring is equal to Erin caring. Just darker and more philosophical. She knows the stakes. Erin does what feels right and damn the consequences. Because she doesn’t always see the whole consequences.

        Sometimes she is the consequences though, and those moments are brilliant.

        But as the chapter says, light without darkness is lacking.

    • Huh, I thought this chapter was extremely plot-relevant. Ryoka went from having very few allies in Ailendamus to being almost-friends with the entire royal family, including the [King] allying with her against Rhisveri in some way. She gained just enough of Rhisveri’s interest or respect to convince him to actually negotiate with her—which is critical for her to get the scroll. And now she’s made an accord with possibly the second-most powerful or useful immortal in Ailendamus, whose species is known by legend for opposing God—which could potentially be useful for obvious reasons.

      • It’s not *bad* but it’s incredibly *slow.* Like, every other chapter, Ryoka pulls one of her trademark stunts to get the Duke’s attention, and he’s like “Okay, knock it off, you’ll get your audience” and then the next chapter she does it again. They both know what she wants, they both know how she’s going to pay for it, but Rhisveri continues to yank her chain because… I dunno, he’s an immortal and he feels like he needs to emphasize how insignificant she is? It’s getting tiresome.

        (200 chapters later, Ryoka defeats the Dead Gods in an epic battle that shatters the continent, and Duke Rhisveri just nods and says “Okay, I’ll meet with you tomorrow.”)

    • I think this may have been my favorite non “wrap it all together” chapter. And I don’t say that lightly. It reminded me that I originally fell in love with innworld not for the epic plot lines, but for the immersive nearly slice of life bits that truly hold the story together.

    • There are many awful template progression novels elsewhere though I’ve never read any webnovel that comes as close as even a fraction if the wandering inn in terms of quality.

    • Endless progression does not make a good story. All it does is give you that dopamine hit. After a while you’ll hate it, or start demanding faster or more action. It’s the reason no we novels are as good as a fraction of this. Ironically it just like King Itorin with his puddings.

  2. The viscount makes a comment that Itorin makes most of his decisions anonymously, I believe this is supposed to be autonomously.
    Thank you for this wonderful chapter.

  3. HOLY HELL WHAT A CHAPTER!!!! Amazing writing!! So many great moments here. I can already envision the illustrated version of this chapter… yes… it will be legendary. Or perhaps mythical would be a better term? I am absolutely blown away by the writing. I wonder if that’s a Skill for a high-level [Writer]. A story so good that any medium that contains it emits a constant airstream of awesome.

  4. Enjoy your meal. Another stellar chapter, while I’m sure you see a whole host of flaws, us non-writer only reader folk don’t.

    This was such a fun exchange, I dont know how this story has only gotten better since I started reading.

    Keep up the amazing work! Every day with a Patreon notification is a better day than one without. Always.

  5. All the devil puns and references at the end made me laugh. 😈Dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, devil playing a fiddle, devil has a soul and some more.
    ANYWAYS. Nice chapter Aba keep up the quality work. 👍

  6. Really well done chapter. Easy to imagine it being acted.

    I did find it a little surprising that Ryoka would toss out the line about not being immortal in an even semi-public place, I mean the king immediately bringing up a cone of silence and shaking her hand kinda gives the whole deal away doesn’t it?

    Either way I loved the way that Ryokas difficulties making friends are in inverse proportion to the significance of the other person.

  7. Alright, I just have to ask… did everyone just forget about the fortress beavers that are trapped in the garden? Who is taking care of them now that the inn is shuttered? We know they need a special diet (druid mentioned it in a previous chapter), and everyone moved on. Are they just starving and eating the garden? Poor beavers. I liked them.

    • I believe, that they were taken out of the garden by Selyss. In “interlude-the-pets-of-innworld/” they are shown to have caught a burglar.

      • Well then whatever happened to Apistas bee colony that was getting attacked, last we heard they re-buried themselves as they were fighting a ‘great evil’ and didn’t want it to get away??

  8. That chapter was just incredible. Especially the parts with Visophecin chasing Ryoka. That was some high quality thriller action that I’ve been missing! Very well written. I’m also really happy with the ending, the whole conversation was great, and Visophecin’s going ti make for a really important ally against the gods. Interesting that even he can’t *quite* hear that word.

    The lucifen are also really interesting from a biology perspective. My first thought was about the spiders that evolved to look like the ants they eat. Lucifen though more strike me as a race of humans that evolved a lack of empathy, among other things, to become better predators of other humans. A much closer (thankfully non-human!) example of this would be the jumping spiders that evolved to eat other spiders. Or the snakes that evolved to eat other snakes. Interesting, terrifying stuff.

  9. “and he caught no less than His Majesty, Itorin II, as he came away from the war coucil.”

    Council.

    And… probably Sheol? Or it’s intentionally written as Shoel?

  10. Amazing chapter. Loved the devil puns and references. Listening to Hiroyuki Sawano made this chapter extra epic, especially the ending.

  11. If you’re fighting against the G*ds, then sometimes you have lean on with the devils!!
    The stage is getting Bigger and Grander, i love it!!

  12. I know this may sound small and petty, but I have a problem with some of the recent characters. Simply put, their names are long and difficult to remember. I don’t know how you manage to type them correctly every time aba. But they are very odd to my limited sensibilities. I’m not asking you to change them or anything. Oh no. The story wouldnt have this grand cultural nuance if these random Garuda tribes didn’t have wierd names that seem to sound like a perfectly Garuda name to have. It’s just that I do t bother remembering them anymore. I’ll call them, wyrm, devil, shinigami garuda, Cthulhu head city etc.

  13. Pireteaba even after 8~million words you manadge to suprise me with your worldbuilding. Damn. Devils. Whats next? Simurgh coming to say hi?

  14. “Itorin breathed. He stared at Ryoka. She knew. There was no way she mentioned all of them at random—not unless Rhisveri was somehow showing her around his association and she had no idea. But her comments. Her own powers and the reason why she wasn’t a pool of steaming acid already?”

    AHAHAHAHA

    His next thought – “Ryoka’s an immortal”

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