[Mother of Learning is out on Amazon! Consider buying it to support an amazing (finished!) web serial! The link is here!]
If you didn’t know that sad story, you were hardly to be blamed. It did not matter to most people. It just was one personal life that affected a family—a bit more given their station. It was a simple tale too, and old history.
[Like a Lion, He Leapt]. The [Prince] of Isphel, Ziwar Isphel fought during the succession wars for Nerrhavia Fallen’s throne.
He died alone. With pride and little else.
With pride and no allies. Yes, like a lion. They told stories of that last minute.
Perhaps it would be a story remembered more often, now. However, what fewer people remembered was that Ziwar Isphel was succeeded by his son, who would one day inherit the very Skill of his father. Prince Zenol grew up alone. Now, the King of Destruction awoke. A companion from a single raid was prisoner of his very nation, and, for a single friendship made in combat over three short days, he put the name of Isphel against mighty Quarein.
It would have been easier, if someone had been able to teach him. All the rest of his life? If he had a true mentor besides [Tutors] and teachers—someone to guide him. But the time in the hour glass was out. These were dramatic days, and running faster.
From Nerrhavia’s Fallen to the Meeting of Tribes, they roamed about, entering the limelight for the first time. Sometimes they were completely alone. But what if someone could teach them? Even if it was just one thing?
“Yes, Your Majesty. We have found her. It is most certainly Her Highness, Princess Lyonette du Marquin. She is hale of heart and body, and, I feel, grown since last I laid eyes on her.”
Ser Lormel of the Order of the Thronebearers of Calanfer spoke cautiously—but rapidly—into the speaking stone. He kept checking it every two seconds, holding another artifact near it, which remained clear, but he was prepared to snatch the little stone away in a moment.
Dame Ushar was doing that with both hands, albeit with different artifacts, as Ser Sest and Dalimont kept watch. All of them could hear Lormel—although Ushar only faintly. The [Knight] paused.
“…No, Your Majesty. My Queen, if I may be so bold, it was, ah, not mete to inquire about that at the, er—the moment. I am sure Dame Ushar could…yes, Your Majesty. Quite for later.”
He wiped a bead of sweat off his face.
“Yes, sire? Her Hi—Princess du Marquin could speak w—she is quite, ah, composed, Your Majesty. If you would care to…”
He hesitated. Listened for nearly three minutes. The other [Knights] heard him reply now and then.
“…Yes, Your Majesty…if I may suggest, there are extenuating—of course not. I merely mention Her Highness has expressed to us on the authority of—naturally. By the Eternal Throne itself? …Yes. Yes. Securing safe passage will be—with utmost discretion and safety towards her—I will light a candle for success, Your Majesty. Glory to Calanfer and victory in battle against Ailendamus! We shall faithf—”
He hesitated, checked the speaking stone, and lowered it. Dame Ushar saw Lormel wipe at the sweat that had been growing on his brow with a handkerchief. Without a word, he put the speaking stone down, reached for a cup of water, and took a drink.
“What did their Majesties say, Ser Lormel? It was both of them?”
“Yes—yes, Ushar. Sest! Dalimont, you’d better come in. We have orders.”
The two Thronebearers entered at once. Sest closed the door as Dalimont eyed Lormel’s face. The man had served the crown faithfully, rather than one of the [Princesses] or the Order as a whole, but he appeared troubled by his conversation.
“We have orders to take Her Highness to Calanfer immediately, without risking her capture or revealing our route.”
Lormel carefully spoke, dabbing at his brow. The Thronebearers exchanged a glance. Dalimont bit his lip, and even Ser Sest looked dismayed.
“…That would seem to be a rather difficult task, Lormel.”
“Yes, well…I did try to explain to His Majesty Princess Lyonette’s particular—but His Majesty was quite busy. The war is not going well.”
Lormel said it so quietly and plainly that Dalimont knew it was truly dire. Thronebearers could put a good face on a pig covered in muck.
“Surely if it is not well, then perhaps Her Highness is placed to affect some measure of aid? We have seen her capability.”
Dame Ushar ventured. Ser Lormel exhaled.
“His Majesty was—unable to hear my comments, Dame Ushar. I gather that it was a stressful moment. It seems a Great General of Ailendamus has just put three of the [Princesses] under siege. No less than Princess Aielef’s own fortress is now in the face of a tremendous force moving faster than anyone could credit. This is breaking news and not to leave this room.”
The Thronebearers paled. Instantly, though, all three other [Knights] demanded to know which [Princesses]. Each was pledged to one, and Dalimont…he saw Lormel look at him.
“Princess Seraphel is one of them. Princesses Aielef, Seraphel, and Vernoue…I am sorry to tender the news so poorly, Dalimont.”
The Thronebearer stood there in silence for a moment. He raised his head slowly, exhaling.
“It—it is not the first time she has survived a siege, Ser Lormel. I daresay she has practice by now, and Ailendamus honors the conduct of war. Mostly. I will do what I can here to protect her sister, as she bade.”
The other [Knights] nodded solemnly. Ser Sest looked from Dalimont to Lormel, then burst out.
“But Her Highness is not about to leave. And I don’t feel enough of a blackguard to knock her about the head and drag her off—even if that were an option! And to be clear, Ser Lormel, that is the only situation I feel as though we could convey Her Highness out of Oteslia. She will not leave without her self-declared daughter, Mrsha.”
“No, Ser Sest. I am aware, but His Majesty entrusted us with the task, and the particulars were not necessary for him at that time.”
Lormel sighed. He stroked at the tip of his chin and the thin beard there, frustrated. He hesitated, and then looked sideways at Dame Ushar. Lormel licked his lips and his forehead grew shiny again.
“That…would not be the only reason their Majesties are so keen Princess Lyonette return. I—I believe I shall leave the next conversation to you, Dame Ushar. Her Majesty expressed a, ah, realization that—well, it was quite—”
Dame Ushar raised her brows. Lormel looked at Sest and Dalimont, and leaned over to whisper something. Her eyes widened.
“Her Majesty could tell? That—”
“I say, Lormel! This is all pressing business. Don’t hold anything back.”
Ser Sest blustered. Dalimont eyed Lormel’s clamped lips and the look Ushar gave Sest, and came to the conclusion fast. Ser Sest hesitated and his eyes rapidly moved left and right. He was a fool in some ways to Dalimont, but a Thronebearer and politics? He bit his lip, then turned bright red.
“—unless that information were to somehow be of a nature unbefitting our ears?”
“I believe the latter, Ser Sest. Her Majesty expressed a…conviction which I will not bring up to Her Highness. Dame Ushar may.”
“Thank you, Ser Lormel. I look forwards to that conversation. How did Her Majesty know, pray? I am aware of many Skills in this world. That one seems like a [Mother]’s Skill…? I did not know Her Majesty had that class.”
Dalimont raised his brows. [Mother] could be a class? Lormel was in danger of severe dehydration. He patted furiously with his handkerchief.
“All I will say. All I will say is this: Princess Lyonette’s bridal price—her estimated dowry? It, ah, seems to have undergone rapid changes in value, and Her Majesty took particular note of the reasons why. Now, I would like to drop the line of conversation, please. Where is Her Highness right now?”
Under guard, or else they would have never let all four stay away from her. Dalimont didn’t envy the coming conversation. Nor…he sighed.
“With Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Downstairs. Did their Majesties say anything about that…?”
“Yes. I believe it was, ‘get her away from Magnolia Reinhart as quickly as possible’. Ah…adjusting for language.”
Of the many things that could happen to a [Princess], from ransoming to kidnapping via enemies of the crown, Magnolia Reinhart apparently ranked up there with those threats. Dalimont glanced towards the doors and stairs of the mansion in which they had conducted their rapid report.
Bring Lyonette home. With a city under siege, in a continent of Drakes and Gnolls, and with Ailendamus at war. Oh—and the [Princess] being completely unwilling to do so and having bodyguards and allies that included Magnolia Reinhart, a Named Adventurer, and two men with hats.
Ser Sest’s lips moved as he calculated all that.
“So, at best speed, Ser Lormel?”
“As fast as can be managed safely and securely.”
Ser Sest nodded. He looked around, surprisingly calmly given the other Thronebearers’ expressions. Dalimont raised his brows in inquiry, and Ser Sest shrugged.
“I believe I shall rent a lot in one of the public gardens tomorrow. We may have time for a few harvests at best speed.”
Ser Sest was a funny man in the end. You had to appreciate wit like that.
“Ressa, are you alright?”
The [Maid] stopped stifling laughter. She coughed, stood straight, and her face returned to something like her usual implacable demeanor.
“Simply a coughing fit, milady.”
Magnolia Reinhart eyed Ressa over her brunch, fork resting against the delicate slice of cake. Lyonette du Marquin took that moment to lower her fork for good. She sat with Magnolia Reinhart, [Lady] to [Princess].
“I see. Well then…Lyonette, will you not have any more cake? Do forgive me, it’s Your Highness now, isn’t it? The Creler is out of the bag.”
“So it seems. Please, Lyonette or Miss Marquin is eminently preferable, Lady Reinhart.”
The [Lady] nodded, then sighed delicately. She took another bite of cake.
“Yet you don’t call me ‘Magnolia’. Quite distressing—but excellent manners. I can see you are well-equipped for high society in any nation you would find yourself in. Do you know more than Terandrian protocol, by any chance? Do help yourself to more cake. Such lovely cake. It was one of the few things I insisted the young people teach my [Cooks] before they left, well, that powder that makes it happen. So useful.”
Lyonette hesitated. She eyed the cake, and Magnolia Reinhart’s customary cup of tea.
“Baking powder? It is, quite, Lady Magnolia…although, I am quite fine, thank you. Yes, I do know other nations’ customs. I believe I could pass fairly well in most Chandrarian courts, and I know Centaur, Lizardfolk, and Dullahan customs. Minos is more difficult—”
“Isn’t it, though?”
“—And Drath I could manage a single greeting.”
Magnolia Reinhart tapped her lips.
“You are fairly well-schooled. Some [Princesses] retain nothing at all, you know.”
“I…lost much. But my [Tutors] and mother drilled it into me, and I’ve actually begun practicing some of my addresses. So they aren’t lost.”
“Self-practice! You have changed! Are you sure you’re not hungry? You’ve barely touched your cake.”
Lyonette looked at her generous, frosted slice.
“Ah…to that, Lady Magnolia? I must ask—do you eat only sweets and drink your tea? I have seen you eat no food that is not sugary.”
Magnolia paused, fork in her mouth. She thought about it as she chewed delicately.
“I eat a rather complete meal, Lyonette. Ressa, tell her.”
“She does not.”
The [Head Maid] informed Lyonette. The [Lady]’s brows snapped together.
“Ressa, you wound me. Just the other day, I had a delightful salad.”
“Yes. You did.”
“And my credit?”
Ressa looked over Magnolia’s head as she replied. Lyonette glanced around at the servants, one of whom would now and then pass by, sweeping, carrying something on an urgent task, re-arming a trap…
“I will give you credit for healthy eating if you can last a day without something sugary in at least one meal. It was a fruit salad.”
“You see? Tyranny. But excellent help. Which is something you may need to cultivate, along with the many problems now facing you…”
Magnolia sighed delicately, but motioned to Ressa.
“Please bring Miss Marquin something more savory and allegedly ‘healthy’, Ressa. I could eat cake every day of the year.”
“You have been, almost.”
Lyonette watched the interplay. Ressa did not move herself, but briefly spoke into the speaking stone she held. Magnolia Reinhart took another bite of cake before going on.
“…And so, I gather your Thronebearers have orders to bring you to Calanfer. Was that the conversation, Ressa, or something else? And I shall be very surprised if they received anything like nuance from His Majesty, Reclis. Ielane is more subtle, but neither likes playing abroad.”
Lyonette blinked. Magnolia casually mentioned her father, King Reclis du Marquin, and Queen Ielane in the same moment as—Ressa glanced up as a [Maid] strode over with a small selection of vegetable cuts and a dip that Lyonette smiled at.
“Exactly so, Lady Reinhart.”
“You listened in on the Thronebearers?”
“They did make the mistake of requesting a room here. I suppose they thought, correctly, that the odds of it being warded were low.”
Lyonette was impressed and a bit appalled. Thronebearers were nigh impossible to spy on, and they were quite good at being bodyguards. Ressa smirked in a self-satisfied manner.
“They’re good. No listening Skills, no magic, of course, no observers, even at remote distance, no lip-reading or standing near windows, and I’m fairly certain they deployed two eavesdropping counter-Skills.”
“And you heard them?”
Ressa nodded. She didn’t elaborate how—Lyonette shot Magnolia Reinhart a quick glance. The lady tapped her lips.
“Hm…I don’t think counterintelligence is something to teach, but do tell Miss Lyonette or she’ll die of impatience, Ressa. We must get to the meat of the conversation soon.”
Ressa sighed and shot Magnolia a glare, but turned and bowed slightly to Lyonette.
“Their room was infiltrated. The Thronebearers are quite adept, but they made a simple mistake. There is no hole in the walls or they’d sense it, or any false-partition, but there is a thread tap in one of the carpets. The right Skill can pick up the vibrations if it is pulled taut.”
Lyonette blinked. Someone listened through a thread? That was a level of spycraft beyond her. Yet…she looked at the duo.
That famous duo. Magnolia Reinhart, who apparently knew Lyonette’s own parents well enough to guess how they’d order their [Knights]. Deadly Flower of the North. And Ressa, one of the most dangerous [Maids] and bodyguards in existence.
“So, Lady Reinhart. Why did you summon me again? I—I must thank you for including me in your presentation of your plans. Much has changed.”
Lady Magnolia looked at Lyonette. A day had passed since the ball where she had proposed her joint effort between north and south. A day since Lyonette du Marquin had survived a flagrant assassination attempt by Oteslia’s biggest gang, and been revealed as a [Princess] by the Thronebearers.
A day. And much had indeed changed.
[Worldly Princess Level 26!]
[Skill – Royal Contract obtained!]
[Skill – Trifling Incentive obtained!]
The level ups still echoed in Lyonette’s head. She had gained them from one of the many things that had occurred yesterday, and she wondered if even the Gentlemen Callers had levelled too. She would ask, later, but the crowd waiting to get a piece of her would make that difficult.
Lionette Solstice of Liscor, who had the Faerie Flowers. Lyonette du Marquin of Calanfer, a kingdom a continent away, under siege. And, possibly, Lyonette Gemscale, if the rumors had it, fiancée of Wall Lord Ilvriss.
“So. You do quite well in encouraging chaos, Miss Marquin, and I think dear Erin Solstice taught you well in that. As for striking the correct bargains and moving Oteslia—well, what were your plans before being revealed as a [Princess]? Now?”
Lyonette stirred. She had a long piece of celery in one hand and looked at Magnolia, baffled.
“My plans, Lady Reinhart? I didn’t mean to inconvenience…”
Magnolia waved that away. She looked at Lyonette, a bit impatiently, but with some…reserve? A kind of off-kindness in her eyes.
“My dear Lyonette. The time is long past for recriminations and regrets. I know only too well how much trouble a Thronebearer can be. If I had known they would show up and cause that mess…? There is more to worry about. This gang is targeting you for reasons I can guess at, but do not know for certain. Yet. Ressa has begun countering them, but my staff are not as well-entrenched in Drake lands, nor as plentiful as I would like.”
Lyonette stirred, looking at Ressa, who nodded.
“We can only spare a dozen from security. It should be enough; Bekia, Reynold, and I will lead them on rotation. We can wipe out a safehouse every few days if all goes well.”
Magnolia waved that away.
“The gangs love their hideaways, Lyonette. Ressa will be careful and, to be honest, I do not think you will want to stay long enough to continue a war. Nor is it your concern, in truth. If you were a Pryde or, dead gods forbid, a Bethal, you’d most likely need more combat training or strategy tutelage. I hope you’ve seen that you do best in your element—negotiating. Charming people. Quite well, in fact. Better than me.”
She gave Lyonette a rueful smile, then went on.
“But you don’t strike deals as well. Give and take, Miss Marquin. So. Did you have a plan?”
Lyonette du Marquin sat back and observed Magnolia for a moment. Her eyes moved from the oddly forthright Magnolia to Ressa. At length, she spoke up, hesitantly.
“I simply can’t quite fathom it, Lady Reinhart. I am grateful for any advice, but given your busy schedule, why are you rendering me with it?”
Magnolia sighed as she looked at Lyonette. She shook her head slowly.
“Miss Marquin. If you see a young puppy drowning in a lake, you might fish it out and hope it is never so foolish again. But if it is raining and the tide is coming in with nowhere to climb—wouldn’t you try to teach it to swim? I would like to help. So—I learned much, from experience and observation, but I had excellent tutors. Lady Zanthia, among others…”
Her eyes glinted. Lyonette saw Ressa produce something. She placed it before Lyonette and the [Princess] saw it was a file. A file…as she flipped through it…of every individual, family, and person of note in Oteslia, including those simply over Level 40 or a monetary or influence threshold. She gulped as she pulled a piece of paper out and it unfolded to show her notes on their backgrounds, ties, and enemies. Magnolia smiled.
“When you want something done, Miss Marquin, you should likely know which strings to pull. Or bridges to burn.”
She was trying to be helpful. No, they were all trying to be helpful. To do the right thing and impart…something.
Ilvriss knew only too well how quickly time ran out. So that was why he’d agreed to this. Well, that and Lyonette was busy, as was Magnolia. So he coughed, and sat up.
He did not have a cup of tea in his hand. Ilvriss was not that kind of Drake. A cup of water would do just fine, thank-you. Sage’s Water was a customary drink served that spoke to a certain cut of refinement, and instead of cake or a platter of vegetables and dip, the table in front of him was as utilitarian as the Wall Lord was known to be.
Claw snacks—a catchall term for finger-foods you’d pick up instead of utensils. In this case? Layered bites. A simple trick where you layered various elements together, using a strong paste or other method. For instance—meat, dried, but still soft and chewy rather than tough, a flavorful paste that allowed some kind of bready center to mix with a spicy topping—flounder?—and a more mellow sweet bottom, perhaps even a stable custard all in a square, or a more artistic design.
Fast, mini-meals with every bite. A working Drake’s meal as one might have if, say, he were discussing something with Alrric over lunch. Even Ilvriss’ study was like that; he’d rented a rich mansion, but the painting of a verdant garden on the far wall, grown-wood architecture with a very full foyer of plant-themed woodwork, and natural colors were not his element.
He did his best, too. But the fidgeting young Drake only picked at his food. Ilvriss coughed into one fist.
“So…Cirediel. Your m…the First Gardener asked me to discuss the role of leadership with you. Perhaps in the sense of taking charge of your own retinue. I imagine you’re pleased with the authority.”
Cirediel glanced up at Ilvriss. He was a striking young Drake, Ilvriss had to admit. Young, handsome, and full of a vitality that made Ilvriss feel a decade older. He’d been told he had been one of those dashing young men once, but Cirediel was an Oldblood Drake and Ilvriss quite understood why the First Gardener was so worried about her son.
A young, troublemaking man, running about Oteslia and causing havoc. Well cared for, though—Ilvriss had never heard anyone truly say a bad word about him, only express concern for him.
He was actually amazed—it seemed even Oteslia’s famed Named Adventurer, one of them, Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers, was a family friend of the First Gardener and just as keen to watch out for Cire.
Then again, that might be the problem. Ilvriss sighed mentally, sitting back as he waited to see if Cire would take a snack. No maids or servants here; they were Drakes. Awkward Drakes. He had more important things to do, but one didn’t refuse a request from the First Gardener lightly, and it seemed Cire’s close call with all the fighting yesterday had rattled his mother.
Talk to Cire. Ilvriss waited, wondering if there wasn’t anyone else better for this job. Cire’s father…? Ah, but the First Gardener had never brought him up, and that would answer some questions. It had to be hard to guide him, given his rank.
At last, Cire looked up and stared at Ilvriss. He snagged a layered bite, chomped on it, and muttered.
“I don’t want command. That’s totally Creler. They’re just going to stick me with a bunch of bodyguards. And only the First Gardener calls me ‘Cirediel’. I’m Cire. Uh, Wall Lord.”
He stared at Ilvriss and opened his mouth, hesitating in a way that Ilvriss knew perfectly well, that meant Cire had forgotten his name.
“Ilvriss. Wall Lord of the Gemscale family.”
Ilvriss stared at Cire. Cire stared back, then shifted his gaze and sighed.
“I don’t know what the First Gardener wanted you to say, Wall Lord, but can we pretend you said it? She’s gotten, like, everyone to try to talk to me. The [Generals], the [Druids]…I don’t want a bodyguard.”
“The First Gardener seemed to me to suggest it was more of taking on a leadership role. You might earn a class?”
“Yeah, that’ll happen.”
Ilvriss resisted the urge to let his tail curl up. He saw the problem. Cire didn’t even seem interested by the prospect of a class.
Ancestors, was I like this when I was young? No…but then I never appreciated my father trying to teach me. I wanted to learn it myself. I would have appreciated…
Ilvriss sat up.
“I only suggested we spend an hour or two discussing what it might be like to lead a group of people, Cire. You may not replace the First Gardener in time, but—I believe she’s concerned for you. Perhaps overly so?”
It was the right question. Cire sat up and grumbled instantly.
“She’s always complaining I’m in danger and I need guards. Like I’m a piece of glass. I can handle myself!”
Cire blinked. He eyed Ilvriss and the Wall Lord smiled tightly.
“I was a young man too, once, Cire. If you can believe that. I can understand growing up in the shadow of my elders.”
“Really? But you’re so o—I mean, yeah. That’s exactly how it is.”
Cire took a drink of Sage’s Water and nearly spat it out.
“Gah! What is this?”
“It tastes like dirt!”
Ilvriss eyed Cire. He couldn’t taste anything wrong with his drink and it had been poured of the same bottle. He ignored that one and gestured to Cire.
“Why don’t we head outside, Cire? Your mother’s worried about your safety, but there are more ways to solve a problem than one. She did ask me to talk to you about accepting a guard, I will admit. Perhaps she hoped you might be impressed with Captain Shieldscale.”
“Her? She’s got awesome scales and she breathes acid. Pretty Archmage.”
Cire shot to his feet as Ilvriss walked forwards. The Wall Lord hesitated.
“…Yes? Well, why don’t we head to the practice court? This place has one. Do you use a weapon? We could do a bit of sparring.”
Then maybe he’d ease Cire into discussing a bodyguard—one his age? It was a fair concern. Ilvriss nodded to four of Oteslia’s own [Pegasus Riders] as they stood to attention, surprised by the sudden exit.
“We are simply relocating.”
“Yeah. Hey, you’re not so bad, Wall Lord! That sounds sort of fun—I mean, totally football. It beats sitting around here all day.”
“Football? Er—I meant, do you use any weapons?”
Cire picked at his neck spines, proud at slipping in that new bit of lingo.
“I can use a sword. I used to take lessons. And a spear.”
“Really. Well then—”
Ilvriss smiled politely as the [Guards] and Osthia fell into step behind him. He waved at Nerul, who took one look at Cire and retreated into his rooms, muttering about ‘kids’. It was still early morning, and it seemed his uncle had come out to grab a bottle of wine. Ilvriss had to admit, it was a good way to kill time until he could meet with Lyonette.
Also…he’d do a bit more investigating, but if this was one of the Necromancer’s pawns, everyone was suspect. Ancestors.
She needed more lessons. Rafaema had thought she was in control. That she was ready for anything. One look at the puffy face of Ferris and the bones, set but mending, even with a healing potion, and she blamed herself all over again.
Rafaema placed the yellow flowers next to his bed. Ferris didn’t move; he was asleep.
“A day of rest, that’s all. He’ll be on his feet after his body recovers from the mended bones. Within a week he’ll be in fighting shape. He did his duty.”
“His face. I—I don’t even remember hitting him. I lost control.”
Rafaema turned her head as Hunt Commander Makhir materialized. The Gnoll looked tired. Worried, and trying to hide it from her. But then, he had a lot to worry about. Manus, his city. The Meeting of Tribes, for he was a Gnoll and disturbed by the news from there, for reasons on both Manus’ and the Gnoll people’s sides, and her. Rafaema hung her head.
“Control is difficult for Oldbloods. Much less you. We will practice again. Bow training—focus. The Dragonspeaker is already sending for an expert in the field.”
Rafaema nodded dully. She reached down to touch Ferris’ paw, and hesitated. He was sleeping and she—
In her panic, trying to help Lyonette, she’d broken at least eight of Ferris’ bones before nearly frying everyone in a thousand feet with her lightning breath. Only a chance encounter with Magnolia Reinhart had saved her—and Rafaema didn’t know what to make of that.
She didn’t know what to make of Lyonette—well, she had known the Human was a [Princess], but was she really Wall Lord Ilvriss’ fiancée? That was beyond odd. How had Magnolia Reinhart known what ailed Rafaema so perfectly?
And where was that Dragon she and Cire sensed? Makhir didn’t know all of it. She hadn’t even told him Magnolia Reinhart’s exact words.
“Rafaema. You can’t blame yourself too long. When Ferris wakes, he won’t hold a grudge.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but then switched subjects.
“…What do you mean, specialists? To help me manage my temper?”
“Not so much temper as control over your entire being. An Oldblood specialist—we have them already. But we are also hoping to find a [Monk]. Perhaps a Drake one, but Chandrar has them in number. I also suggested Berr the Berserker, but I don’t think it will be taken given the situation.”
With the Gnolls. Makhir stood stiffly, not bringing it up. But Rafaema hadn’t missed the fact that the Drake [Soldiers] from Manus now walked with her, instead of just Makhir.
It depressed her, but she pretended not to notice.
“He is an excellent teacher—one of the few [Berserkers] who can control his rage perfectly. I thought…”
“I wish I could learn. I’ll—I’ll take those lessons, Makhir.”
She had to work harder. Harder still. Rafaema bent down suddenly as Ferris stirred.
He muttered up at her through puffed lips. Makhir bent down too.
“Report, Ferris. How are you doing?”
“I’m swollen up. What’s…is everyone well? What’s the situation?”
That was Ferris. Too loyal. Too competent. Makhir assured him all was well, and Rafaema opened and closed her mouth.
I’m sorry. I’ll behave. Ferris touched at his puffy face and looked at the flowers placed around him. He groaned.
“Rafaema, I’m touched by the flowers and concern. I don’t blame you at all. It’s just—I am grateful. But I’m allergic to marigolds.”
Rafaema and Makhir stared at the flowers, puffy and vibrantly yellow, not quite in their full orange bloom. The Lightning Dragon slowly moved the flowers away from Ferris. Do you see? Do you see how I hurt my people with every move I make?
How would she ever lead her people? Woe! Woe and failure and marigolds! Rafaema tossed them out the window and heard a scream and a crash of breaking glass. She covered her face.
Children were allowed to make mistakes. Well, actually, no, they weren’t. There were plenty of mistakes even a child got to make only once. Like walking in front of a wagon. Adults did their best, but they could not save children from everything.
It shouldn’t be that way. No one liked to think of it. Sometimes—you saw too much. So he drew a distinction. A line in the sand.
Lyonette was still in the land of children. It didn’t matter that she was past her majority, as every species but half-Elves counted it, and she had gone through quite a lot. There was a difference.
Saliss of Lights had seen everything. Yet, as he calmly regarded the vial sitting on the table in front of him, he had to admit it.
“This is a joke I haven’t seen before. This—this is old stuff. Erin Solstice got these flowers from the grave of an Old One. That’s what’s down in Liscor’s dungeon. That—or there’s something more that even the old man doesn’t know.”
Mirn hesitated, a claw on a morning cup of tea. His scales prickled faintly.
“Old One? I thought those were just legends.”
Saliss glanced up. He didn’t smile; nor was he his normal, ebullient to the point of incredibly annoying self. Those were fake selves.
“You’ve never told me about meeting one.”
“Meet one? I’d never get the chance to tell you about it. People ‘meet’ Old Ones. A decade later, a nation vanishes. Old monsters, down there…that’s the only thing I can think to explain this, though.”
He flicked the vial with a claw and it chimed once.
“It makes no sense, Mirn. You understand that, don’t you?”
“The flowers are worth more than they should be.”
“For something that grows from the ground like they do? Sage’s Grass is about as potent as a dandelion compared to this. Still. Every effect is twisted a bit. Pranks. Everything still has a cost. And that’s what scares me. Do you know, ‘Old Ones’ is a generic term for all kinds of things we find buried deep?”
“Mm. Now that you say it—and?”
Mirn sat back. The light coming through the window made the vial of Saliss’ potion glow faintly. The [Alchemist] studied it.
“If we’re lucky, they’re already dead. If we’re lucky, all we have to deal with is what they leave behind. That’s how I know they exist. I cleared a nest one time. Do you get it? Monsters, scavengers drawn to their corpse or what they left behind. I was Level 46. I jumped two levels and nearly lost both legs.”
Mirn shook his head. That was Saliss of Lights. A Named-rank adventurer. He shuddered, imagining what it could be, and was glad this was a conversation for early morning.
“So you think Erin Solstice got it from…? How would she even do that? Pure luck?”
“Not with her. But I’m telling you, Mirn. There’s something about these flowers that unsettles me. They’re not just magic. Or at least—not magic I understand. It reminds me of something we do. The most idiotic thing. The thing that pushes alchemy into the stuff of legends. Sometimes, the Old Ones die and we find their corpse or something comes over The Last Tide. Like A’ctelios Salash. Do you know…what we do to those things?”
Mirn waited. Saliss raised his head.
“That’s right. We use them as alchemical ingredients. There was a chapter of alchemy I once read in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, of [Alchemists] that used A’ctelios Salash’s flesh. Completely banned. They burned every single [Alchemist] involved they could find afterwards, and I can’t blame them. Some people still remember it, though. Some people still do it and they’re the monsters of alchemy. I know one exists.”
“How are they even alive? And what does this have to do with the flowers, Saliss?”
The Drake gave his friend a mirthless smile.
“Power. He can make things I can’t even dream of, at great cost. With the kind of morality that means he has a bounty of over hundred thousand gold on his head. Shifthold. If you ever hear of that ship, get out of the port. I’m just wondering if I’m headed down that path. Because this?”
He lifted the vial and stared at it. So longingly. So…nervously. Fear. Fear and desire.
“I couldn’t remember Saliss. I had my levels. I had my past, but I didn’t think hard on it. I was happy. Everything was right, but I forgot Saliss ever had been.”
Mirn stared at Saliss and remembered how carefree Onieva had seemed. He hesitated. The [Protector] of Turnscales, one of the only friends of Saliss and Onieva both, hesitated. Because Onieva was the truth, but Saliss was the one everyone knew. This was almost everything Saliss had ever worked for. A cheap, more potent reflection of the shape-shifting potion he had created.
“So you remember her? Everything that happened?”
Saliss turned a blank face towards Mirn.
“Everything. Perfect detail; we’ve cross-referenced it. She can’t remember. I can once I’m here. And what I remember was: everything was like I wanted it to be. Now that’s cruelty.”
He tossed the vial down with a laugh. Mirn and Saliss stared at it for a long time. At last, the Named Adventurer spoke.
“It’s such a wonderful gift. If it lasted longer—we could give it to the few who…”
“Yes. But what about you?”
The [Alchemist] sat there.
“Some days I wonder if the world needs Saliss of Lights. If Onieva could replace him—no. Never replace. There’s no room in Izril for her, just because she’s her. I almost like it. Saliss is the Named Adventurer. Onieva can be Onieva.”
Mirn reached out.
“Saliss…it’s not your job to hold up the Walled Cities on your own.”
The Named Adventurer looked up, startled. He laughed in surprise.
“Hold them up? Mirn. Mirn, Mirn. Haven’t you been watching the news? Saliss isn’t holding them up. He has to hold them back. But Onieva…these idiots going after Lyonette? And this. This twisted gift.”
He lifted it up. Breathed. Mirn watched nervously as Saliss removed the cork with a single flick of the thumb.
“Yes. Onieva will not do the things that belong to Saliss. But Saliss? Saliss can’t be seen doing the truly ‘evil’ things. Depraved things like going to a bar or…that’s a good excuse.”
The Drake smiled. He took a single draft of the vial, and rasped as he sat back.
“These are better days, Mirn. Better than they were. Remind Onieva to search for those damned ethereal reagents. And…Saliss.”
He sat there. Mirn waited.
“How do I explain it?”
The [Alchemist] shrugged.
“Just tell her. How could she understand it? It’s good she won’t be able to. Just tell her. I’ll remember when I wake up.”
The smile lingered as Mirn looked away. The [Protector] took a deep breath, heart pounding, scales tingling. It was too painful to think of, his friend’s decisions and sacrifices. Many stories were like that. Yet—he turned as a Drake, an [Alchemist], stretched and laughed. That smile was so different, for all it had many of the same qualities.
Wilovan and Ratici woke up at dawn. It was reflex, though they might sleep into evening. The Gnoll checked himself, reaching for his side. Ratici felt a pain that refused to go away. They started—Ratici half-rolled, a dagger in his claw.
Memories from yesterday faded. Wilovan opened one eye. He looked around the room in Mivifa’s estate. Ratici gave him a slow nod. Wilovan touched his tender healed flesh. He lay back—and went back to sleep. Ratici did the same, after a circumspect check of the room.
They had work to do. But later. They slept the sleep of goodfellows with another day, and that was a reward of its own. Pure and simple.
We are alive.
When they stood, life was simple and uncomplicated. Ratici rolled out of bed and found Wilovan already dressing himself. Or rather, trying to. He ruefully brushed at what looked like a bunch of rags.
“That was my best suit.”
“Indeed it was, Wilovan. I always thought it was rather too fine for you given how much you paid for it.”
The Gnoll looked askance at Ratici, who was selecting his own wardrobe from his bag of holding. He sighed long.
“I will admit, it was a special arrangement with the [Tailor]. A fine woman. Magnificent, really. Yet but for it—”
He felt at his side, his chest, perplexed. He should be dead. He was not. In fact, Wilovan felt better than he had been in…a long time. It still lingered on him, like a haze of goodwill. A distant light he could reach for in the dark hours he walked. A…blessing. A boon.
[Boon of the Princess]. And with it, the Skill that glowed with that same light in his head.
[He Scratched Only Thread].
Wilovan smiled. Ratici watched him standing there, only wearing his undergarments. The Drake [Thief] coughed.
“I must admit, Wilovan, unseemly as it is—I am beyond jealous of you.”
Wilovan turned. The [Gentleman Thug] nodded, going to tip his hat before he remembered it was sitting on the table. He went to fetch it.
“Ratici, I daresay your jealousy is beyond warranted. I could toss a hundred winning rolls on the feeling alone. The feeling of being…”
He paused, inhaling as Ratici went to the window. The Drake checked his corners, opened it. No poisoned dart sped through towards him, so it was a fine day. Morning air, fresh. He turned to Wilovan as the Gnoll finished his sentence.
“…a fine fellow.”
The two Gentlemen Callers stood there. Ratici nodded slowly.
“A fine fellow. That’s a feeling and a half, Wilovan.”
“Indeed it is, Ratici. And I think—we should repay the feeling. Too many close calls. Too much slow business. Miss Lyonette’s well attended with those [Knights], fine looking fellows, and that lady. It’s a bit of a relief, Ratici. I don’t think we’ll take another bodyguard job, do you?”
“Not at all, Wilovan. Us sorts are more direct. We forgot that—the Tall Man meant well, but it was a rare misplay.”
Wilovan pulled out a plain vest and breeches.
“Indeed it was, Ratici. To work?”
They nodded at each other. The two men adjusted their clothing in the handy full-length wall mirror, with pocket mirrors to check their backs and sides. Wilovan pointed out a ruffled sleeve; Ratici brushed Wilovan’s shoulder free of a bit of lint. Clothes straightened, they strolled out the door, smiling.
It was a fine day. There was a certain air to it. The day after you nearly died helped, but it was a smell in the air, a lovely lady to look at—
“Good morning, Miss Onieva. You are a dashing sight, if I may be so bold.”
“Well, well. Look who it is! Come on over—Xif, stop sleeping in breakfast. The heroes of yesterday are here.”
Onieva waved, a huge smile on her face as Mirn turned and Xif raised his head from a fat stack of various…pancakes? Ratici tipped his hat and sat down with alacrity as Wilovan smiled and shook his head.
“A wonderful morning to you too, Alchemist Xif, sir. Mister Mirn. Is Miss Lyonette already out?”
“Headed to visit Magnolia Reinhart, I think. You two are up fast. Did you heal all up?”
“Nothing worth mentioning, sir. What have we here? A sight for sore eyes.”
Xif stared at Wilovan as the Gnoll rubbed his paws together.
“You were stabbed two dozen times! Even the best healing potion doesn’t just put you together.”
Wilovan gave a huge wink to the [Alchemist].
“Ah, nothing a night’s rest won’t solve, Alchemist Xif. A fellow knows how to roll with a few punches and any day you don’t lose a digit is a net positive, eh?”
“Er…yes? That’s a very [Alchemist] concept too. Even so. Please, help yourself! Someone bought breakfast and—we have pancakes.”
“Pancakes? Are they that, sir? I’ve never seen them so…colorful.”
Ratici eyed the various colors. Onieva laughed.
“Mirn ran out to get them. He’s good at finding food to buy—not that any of us are good [Cooks]. You’d think an [Alchemist] would know how, but Xif is completely incapable.”
The Gnoll grumbled as she nudged him.
“I’m not as bad as Saliss. I just have no patience for it. Kneading and taste being the objective. No proper safety measures either. Flour explodes, you know.”
Onieva rolled her eyes. She began pointing as Wilovan began loading his plate high and Ratici did the same.
“Different pancakes. Yellat-pancake, obviously. Potato, carrot, wheats—I think there’s four different kinds of flour. The black one’s made of Ashwheat. Some kind of meat pancake, flower pancake. I mean…flower. As in the bright little things bees like, not wheat-based. Four vegetable-pancakes—and we’ve got honey, syrups, jam…”
The Gentlemen Callers sighed. Now there was a filling breakfast. Enough butter to stop a heart, a slathering of syrup, and each pancake was a different bite. They began putting away a tremendous amount of food as Mirn eyed the dapper pair with clear appreciation. Excellent table-manners. Onieva and Xif were completely unrepentant slobs anywhere but the alchemy station.
“So what’s your plan for the day? Onieva and I might be going for a walk. Xif?”
“Someone has to keep working at the Faerie Flowers now we know what’s up. Saliss is off doing Saliss things, damn him—I’m going to make a run for two more sets of alchemy-ware. Not enough test tubes. Fortunately, I know a good [Glassblower].”
“Mm. Unless Miss Lyonette said she’d need us, we may also head out on the town.”
Xif looked from Mirn and Onieva to the two casual Gentlemen Callers.
“Aren’t you worried about an attack? Those criminals attacked Lyonette in broad daylight. I’m safe…I think, but I’ll be sticking to the main streets until the Watch sorts it all out.”
Onieva snorted and the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings smiled politely. Wilovan nodded at Xif.
“I believe we’ll be just fine, sir. We know how to keep our noses out of trouble, as it were. Miss Onieva, we must have a meal at some point.”
“Oh, you. I might take you up on it.”
Onieva grinned with all her teeth. Mirn rolled his eyes. She had all the luck. Wilovan and Ratici stood, fortified and ready to face the world. They strolled out the door. Yes, life was good.
“Not even a watcher. I suspect they’re all on Miss Lyonette—oh, no. I see one.”
Ratici eyed the small figure lurking in the crowd. Wilovan brushed at his hair with a comb.
“No older fellows or ladies? Sensible.”
“A bit off from how they’d do it in the north, though. Too much downtime. I was ready for a night move—but they’re less afraid of the Watch. It’s rare to see a daylight go at it, wasn’t it?”
“Too right. Let’s not think the Watch will turn their noses up at us.”
The two nodded at each other. They still had yet to fully understand Oteslia’s intricacies, let alone the underworlds of any Walled City, but they knew the business, and this was a matter of nuance, not reinventing the wheel. They strolled forwards, planning out their day. Normally, they’d be on the job so to speak first off, but Wilovan raised a paw as Ratici made to walk left.
“Hold on, Ratici. I’d like to vouchsafe a change in plans before we get moving.”
“Hm? What’s that, then?”
Ratici was watching the Gnoll boy trying to tail them with a decent amount of stealth—for anyone but Ratici. He really didn’t see any other tails.
The Second Gardener. The Earthtenders, the biggest gang in Oteslia, with at least three Faces. Well, they’d certainly been dangerous, but Ratici and Wilovan had escaped against all odds thanks to that young man, Rickel. As for the miraculous stand with Lyonette in the open?
It had to have been a blow. Either the Earthtenders were regrouping or wary of a second costly attack—Ratici didn’t know. But it was a mistake however they did it. Because…
“I have a fancy this might be worth the investment. Give me an hour?”
“Oh, very well. I suppose we can see how they move, then.”
Ratici followed Wilovan, not so much following the Gnoll who went off searching for something, but watching the response.
Ah, there it is. The lad called in no less than eight fellows who appeared in less than ten minutes and began tailing Ratici and Wilovan. Respectable, Ratici supposed. He nudged Wilovan.
“Second street after we turn? Crosswalk?”
“Hm. If you like.”
The two turned left down a street. Wilovan paused to ask someone for directions, and was assured he was on the right trail. The Earthtenders following the duo saw Ratici and Wilovan step left hurriedly as a group of bulls hauling huge wagons of produce lumbered down the street, a [Beast Tamer] managing them. The eight plus the tail watched the wagons roll past…
And the two Gentlemen Callers were gone. Flummoxed, the eight hurried forwards, then snapped at the young Gnoll boy. He sniffed the air, but…the trail was gone! What had just—?
Ratici and Wilovan walked down the street in a casual saunter. The [Beast Tamer] managing the Aqua Bulls, the actually fairly docile, water-based bovines, frowned and did a double-take as he saw the two strolling along. He looked over his shoulder. Hadn’t he just seen them down that other street…?
“Sloppy. It seems they’re not as used to it the same way as the lads and ladies up north, Wilovan.”
“No indeed, Ratici. Different tricks, one supposes. Speaking of tricks—that fine young man, Rickel. Did he say how to get in touch?”
Ratici shook his head.
“I suspect we might run into him. He knows where to call on us. What was the pressing need, Wilovan? And if it was buying flowers for Miss Onieva…”
Wilovan looked offended.
“I wouldn’t waste our time when it counts, Ratici.”
The [Thief] harrumphed.
“I wouldn’t reproach you, Wilovan. A fine lady. Lovely scales.”
“Aren’t they? Not that a fellow should stare.”
“Indeed not. But I was going to say that it would be a competition, as it were.”
Wilovan gave Ratici a look of bemusement—it was rarer for Ratici to vouch an interest. He frowned, scratched at his head, then tipped his hat.
“In that case, Ratici, as a friend should, I will bow out and let you purchase a suitable bouquet or gift.”
“I should hardly want to take away honest competition, Wilovan. The lady will decide.”
Ratici replied, somewhat stiffly. He was a shorter Drake, and Wilovan, the tall, dashing Gnoll with broad shoulders and his easier manner tended to win ‘competitions’ where both professed admiration for a single person. Wilovan hastened to assure Ratici he wasn’t just being kind.
“She’s a fine woman, Ratici. But I confess—I don’t know her, and you know me. I have to say, my eye was caught already, and it might be the challenge of a lifetime, but I feel as though I’ve been lucky enough to push it to the brink.”
“Oh? And who might this beautiful woman be this time?”
Wilovan removed his hat briefly to smooth his hair.
“…That striking figure of a woman. Simply magnificent. A fellow would never have the chance to even say a word, of course, but a man can dream. Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”
Ratici nearly tripped over his feet. That was pure Wilovan. The Gnoll sighed—then replaced his top hat.
“But for later. Our current errand, Ratici, is to purchase armor as it were. Let us leave the amour for later.”
He pointed ahead and Ratici was sincerely flummoxed for a moment. Armor? Then he saw where Wilovan was pointing and his eyes lit up.
“Wilovan, if I might say so, you’re a half-man fellow in regards to Lady Reinhart. The Flower Lady herself? But a genius, I say. I didn’t consider it.”
“No indeed, Ratici, but we must count our advantages while they last. And Miss Lyonette has given us one…if I can gain it forever, or the Brothers can develop it as a whole? We might be onto something that changes the entire affair. Now…excuse me! I hope we’re not too early? I was hoping to look around and make a quick purchase.”
The two Gentlemen Callers walked in, and a suspicious [Attendant] turned into an appraising one as soon as she saw the way they dressed.
The Drake hurried forwards with a huge smile, welcoming the Drake and Gnoll into one of Oteslia’s finest clothing boutiques.
“Welcome, sirs! Are you here for a party? Urgent purchases, or something more long-term?”
She signaled the apprentice [Tailor] who was helping the front of the shop. He was another Drake, and looked up from the counter with a frown. Since he was an apprentice, he’d also managed the counter and had gained a [Salesman] class. He activated a Skill, eying the two Gentlemen Callers. They dressed well, but were they really the sorts you wanted in Canopies of Cloth?
Ratici and Wilovan felt the Skill incoming and let it happen. The [Tailor] blinked. He sat up, leapt off his stool, and came around the counter, adjusting the deep magenta vest and snappy leggings. The [Attendant] took the cue that these were real clients and beamed harder as Wilovan tipped his cap to her.
“I’m hoping to do both, Miss. An order, but something rather stylish for now if it can be arranged. I had a bit of an incident with my last best dress, you see…”
“Well, we can certainly help with that! Is it casual formalwear? Exclusively for events?”
Wilovan replied solemnly.
“Miss, I believe every day is an occasion for a fellow’s best dress.”
He was rewarded with an approving smile from the younger Drake and one of the customers window-shopping clothes. Someone understood how to live properly.
Ratici declined to have the [Tailor] measure him and let Wilovan be the focus while he inspected the clothing on racks. He did buy a suit in blue on a whim, but Wilovan was the star of the show.
“I am thinking—a full tuxedo suits your hat perfectly, Mister Wilovan. Our best [Tailor] can certainly amend it with perhaps an Oteslian motif? For today, what about this shirt to begin with? The silk comes from Oteslia itself, you see. I think it would accentuate—”
Wilovan’s chest and arms were broad, and the silk shirt on offer would highlight that. The Gnoll was a bit bashful as he entered the dressing room, but the [Attendant] and [Tailor] sighed as he came out.
“I fear it might be a tad bit too small, Miss. A fine suggestion, but I’d hate to burst it—”
Which Wilovan could certainly do if he had to move fast or started swinging. There was a component to this that was practical, but the [Attendant] hastened to assure Wilovan it would not be a problem.
“This is actually a custom line, Mister Wilovan. Does the shirt feel…uncomfortable? Tight?”
“No…but I am a bit wary of, ah, flexing.”
Wilovan admitted after a moment. It was rather nice and didn’t pull at his fur, which was always a consideration. The [Attendant] smiled and whispered.
“It has basic enchantments in that regard. The complete set. Stains, smoothness, and stretching. It isn’t our cheapest shirt, but I assure you, it will complement your physique. It actually comes from a new line of clothing inspired by a visitor our [Tailor] once had. The ‘Grimalkin’ look—won’t you try, ah, straining the shirt?”
Wilovan, quite embarrassed, did so, and the shirt strained across his chest and shoulders. One of the customers shopping was so impressed she came over to introduce herself and ask if he had plans for that evening.
He did, sadly, so the Gnoll turned the disappointed member of Oteslia’s upper crust down. That might have been forward, but one did not simply let a man in perfect shape who paid attention to his dress simply walk out of their day.
For that matter, the shirt itself was inspired by a previous encounter the [Tailor] who owned the shop had once had in her brilliant youth. There was a legend among clothes boutiques of a certain [Sinew Magus], who had once walked in, and, by the simple virtue of flexing, exploded a number of tight-fitting apparel. Which, while a sacrilege to ruin good cloth, had a certain kind of appeal to anyone who loved to see it happen.
Wilovan was not quite that muscular, but he approved the shirt and found himself replacing everything but his hat, which he refused to change despite the rest of his garments becoming as fine as could be.
The price tag made even Ratici wince, but Wilovan paid it with a straight face and put down money for the tuxedo. After all—
This was his armor. And a Skill that let a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings take cuts against his clothing? He strolled out of the tailor’s in enchanted plate armor. Then he nodded to Ratici.
“I think we’re ready, don’t you?”
The [Thief] smiled.
“Let’s scope out a few places first. Miss Marquin will be back by lunch, or so I heard. Plenty of time.”
They began to amble into the city. Fine dress, fine food, fine things to look forward to. Nothing better. Everyone else they ran into might have a really bad day, mind you.
Things were going a bit wrong. It was all going well.
Then Ilvriss hit the ground, three of Oteslia’s elite guard on top of him. Cirediel backed up, a scratch on his arm.
“It’s just a scratch! Ow, that’s totally—ow.”
The Wall Lord wheezed. He felt like he’d cracked a rib. It was just a cut—Cirediel was strong and quick, but he clearly had lied about keeping up with practice. Also?
Oteslia was far too overprotective of Cire.
“I am so sorry, Wall Lord, but I cannot imagine the First Gardener would approve of any harm to Cirediel.”
“I can keep practicing! I’m no lamb! Come on! I’ve got it!”
“Perhaps with less lethal weapons?”
Ilvriss had been using plain metal blades. He looked at the [Pegasus Rider].
“I am quite able to control myself, officer…”
“Of course, Wall Lord. But for the First Gardener’s peace of mind?”
“Very well. I suppose I could use a practice blade. Cirediel could use…”
“Just in case, Wall Lord, perhaps practice blades for both of you?”
Ilvriss gave the Drake officer such a look that anyone of his rank would have recoiled. Amazingly though, the [Officer] never blinked. Ilvriss did.
Ancestors. No wonder Cirediel resented a bodyguard, however necessary. Ilvriss turned to Cire and saw the young Drake was…not protesting the shackles on his freedoms, but chatting up Captain Osthia. She gave him a long look as he asked if she wanted to go flying after this. Ilvriss rubbed at his face and gave up.
The problem was exactly opposite for Magnolia Reinhart and Lyonette du Marquin. The [Princess] was a good listener, motivated, attentive, and intelligent. Moreover, she had a grounding in politics that any [Lady] would envy. The problem was…Lyonette smiled over a cup at Magnolia and received a charming smile in return.
They just didn’t see eye-to-eye. Like the last time they’d spoken and Lyonette had charged Magnolia with not doing enough…
“I quite understand, Magnolia. And—thank you for explaining my Skill. To me.”
“Only the nuances of it, Miss Lyonette. I know you are entirely intelligent, but there are things even a [Princess] would miss without anyone to inform her of the particulars.”
This was true and Lyonette flushed a bit, but she studied her feet before replying.
“Yet you would have me begin networking. My [Royal Contract] has only one possible bargain at a time. I know I could make less Skill-based pacts, but…I have reservations.”
“Which would be?”
Magnolia watched Lyonette carefully. The [Princess]’ face twisted.
“You would like me to meet and encourage relationships, however simple, with all of Oteslia’s elite. Wall Lords and Ladies of other cities—even a simple deal such as trading a Faerie Flower.”
“Relationships. Calanfer is the prince—or princess—among the Terandrian kingdoms of exactly that fashion, are they not?”
Lyonette bit her lip.
“Yes, but…I quite accept small relationships where I make no large, costly deals.”
“They can quite backfire. A multitude of pacts ensures a relationship where one does not lack on favors to call in, in theory. Better to give now to be owed.”
Yes, it was the Magnolia Reinhart ethos and her crash course in Izrilian politics was easy to grasp—quite adept in how it was implemented. And yet. Lyonette didn’t like it. She toyed with her cup for a second then burst out.
“I just find it so…cynical, Lady Reinhart. You would have me focus exclusively on the aristocracy, or those with financial or political power. It is as if anyone without those qualifications doesn’t matter.”
Magnolia’s brows rose.
“My dear, it is entirely cynical, as you say. Nor do I think you should like the people you work with, although they have appreciable qualities, sometimes buried deep. With a shovel. However, these are the people who can raise armies and fund wars. They are, practically, the only people who can make a difference.”
And that was it. Lyonette bit her tongue because she wanted to say, ‘you’re wrong’. She was thus surprised when Magnolia Reinhart gently scoffed.
“Am I, my dear? I am sorry, I [Read Your Lips].”
Lyonette had heard that Skill could do what it said, but never that it could read what she didn’t say. High-level [Ladies]. She frowned deeper.
“You are not wrong, Lady Magnolia. This is how I was raised to understand the world as well. It is even correct, but—I have changed. I do not want to live like that. I wish to trust…honest people.”
She looked past Magnolia, at something. Of all the people, Lyonette thought of Ishkr. Loyal, hardworking Ishkr.
“I prefer people who are honest, and whose word I can trust at face-value. I would rather not make connections with those with power and false pretense.”
Magnolia Reinhart sighed.
“Lyonette, I quite understand that point of view. I even feel so myself, but I will tell you this: such honest people make the world better, by and large. They do well, and some rise to deserving stations. Then they run into the people whose influence you must cultivate. Because they eat honest people. Honesty is a dangerous weakness when the stakes rise so high. It makes you a target.”
“I would just prefer not to live like that.”
Lyonette knew Magnolia was right, but she disliked this lesson. She shifted her gaze to the steps leading to the second floor and saw the Thronebearers bowing to one of the [Maids], at a remove from the conversation. Her expression turned further maudlin.
“I can see…these are difficult truths to swallow.”
Magnolia Reinhart tapped her lips, looking a bit vexed, but sympathetic. She glanced towards the window and saw the sun was rising. She sighed.
“I must continue my appeal for support for my project, Miss Lyonette. But I must warn you—I entirely understand the allure of your current course, but it cannot give you what you need.”
She stressed that last bit. Lyonette frowned.
“Can’t it? I stayed at an inn, Lady Reinhart, whose entire way of life ran opposite to what you espouse. When she called for help, Erin Solstice, it came, from her friends, from people who came and gave everything they could. Every time. That—to me—is far better than a network of fairweather friends and enemies.”
Magnolia Reinhart pursed her lips as Ressa glanced at her. She sat there, then put her cup down and stood with a long sigh.
“…It is a beautiful idea. Yet—Lyonette. The problem with that glorious dream is that the brave and good people you call on? They will not last to old age. They will die there, because they come whenever they are called. Far better to have wider acquaintances and let them bleed in the face of those you love. You are not wrong, but be very careful, especially should you return home. Honesty that breaks from every mold is dangerous. [Princesses] have suffered for it. Calanfer is no stranger to stepping on those that rise the wrong way, any more than Izril.”
Lyonette frowned. Her brows snapped together.
“Do you mean it has happened…? Wait, who? Shardele? It can’t be—M-Menisi? Seraphel? which…?”
Magnolia’s face was colorful. She had clearly not meant to let that slip. She lifted a hand.
“That—is a conversation for later, and a delicate one, Miss Marquin. Perhaps we shall let it lie until later?”
Lyonette couldn’t force her, so she rose and curtsied quite elegantly. Magnolia Reinhart thanked her, smiling, and Lyonette nodded.
“I do so appreciate your help, Lady Reinhart.”
“I hope it can be of some small use, Lyonette. Tomorrow then? Say, brunch?”
The two women smiled at each other. Lyonette had the distinct impression Magnolia somewhat disliked her, and she knew that Magnolia knew the exact same feeling in her.
It was a relief, all things considered, to let the Thronebearers escort her back to Mivifa’s estates where everyone else was. Mind you, it was still different.
“Your carriage, milady? Permit us one moment.”
Dame Ushar stopped Lyonette as Ser Sest and Dalimont searched it. A small crowd watched Lyonette as she walked towards it and a little stair was lowered so she could avoid making a big step into the carriage. Ser Lormel held the door open.
Dame Ushar held a parasol over Lyonette’s head to protect her from the terrible sunlight. Lyonette’s bright smile which she had given Magnolia turned up a notch.
Yes, this was familiar.
“I do apologize, Your Highness.”
Dalimont sat in the coach itself, a security precaution. Lyonette deliberately looked out the window…just in time to see the curtains close. She glared at Dame Ushar, who gave her an apologetic look.
“Back to the estate, Your Highness?”
“Yes. You needn’t coddle me, Ser Lormel. Nor am I some wilting flower, Ser Dalimont.”
“It never crossed my mind, Your Highness. But we must insist on doing our jobs.”
“Protecting me from sunlight?”
Dalimont paused. He glanced towards the driver’s seat. Lormel had hired a [Driver] and Ser Sest rode next to her. Ushar and Lormel were mounted and riding with them.
“…From arrows, Your Highness. It is an enchanted umbrella. Do you have your tiara? It may be wise to wear it at all times. I note you have your Ring of Conflagration on—may I ask if you intend to use your Cloak of Balshadow or have it on you at any given moment?”
Lyonette blinked. She looked at Dalimont and half-reached for her bag of holding.
“I—the tiara is quite too flagrant, Ser Dalimont.”
“It does have a protection spell we cannot match, Your Highness. As to our behavior, I regret that as your life is under threat, we must take certain precautions. Lady Reinhart’s staff is immensely adept. Elsewhere?”
Lyonette frowned as she felt the carriage turn abruptly.
“Where are we going? Why are we going up? The estate is downhill.”
Dalimont glanced out the window.
“I believe we are now deviating from our route that we posted at the Carriage Driver’s Guild, Princess. We asked for traffic to be cleared for our fast travel so I believe others took note of it. Oteslia’s Watch will be observing our correct route, and any would-be attackers on the false route, but we cannot rely on them completely.”
Lyonette blinked. She kept forgetting—the Thronebearers were good at their job. Some of their peacockness wasn’t feigned, but Dalimont was more realistic than the others. She sat back with a deep sigh.
“You have orders to take me to Calanfer, don’t you?”
Dalimont didn’t blink. He inclined his head.
“They come from the Eternal Throne itself, Your Highness. But we are realistic; we know full well we cannot spirit you off, much less in a siege. I suggest you consider us an asset and I hope you will at least inform us of your plans geographically so we can protect you. As for myself—I have sworn to serve Princess Seraphel, and she bade me protect you.”
He stressed that. Lyonette looked at Dalimont thoughtfully. She exhaled.
“Well then…I will use you all as best I can. I only wish I could do more, Ser Dalimont. I must…”
She trailed off. She had to leave Oteslia and find Mrsha. Even if she was ‘safe’, as her last letter indicated. Lyonette knew Magnolia’s grand plan for peace mattered. That Ilvriss’ hunt for…dead gods, that mattered. It all mattered, including the Faerie Flowers and Erin’s cure.
But she felt so helpless. She knew one step was to start making pacts and forging alliances. Lyonette exhaled, hard.
“…Can you procure a list of people who might be interested in meeting with me, Ser Dalimont? I should imagine there are a few.”
“Quite a number, Princess. Should I make arrangements to meet with the most important at their convenience today?”
Lyonette imagined herself sitting with a cup of tea and cake in front of her, lecturing a younger woman—Mrsha?—in the arts of making deals with that world-weary air. She pulled an appalled face, but then mumbled.
It seemed the others had had a terrible day as well. All but Onieva, who was smiling, Wilovan and Ratici, who had a rather dapper outfit and a green rose for Onieva from Ratici, and…
No, that was it. Even the extra guests looked miserable. Ilvriss was rubbing at his back, Cirediel was muttering about Crelers, and Xif had half a dozen cuts and a black eye.
“I am so sorry. I didn’t think anyone was outside—”
Onieva was laughing so hard she was holding onto Mirn. A familiar-looking Oldblood Drake was apologizing to Xif, her sky-blue scales turned purple with embarrassment. Rafaema of Manus watched as Makhir wrote a note for the Merchant’s Guild.
“An accident involving marigolds.”
Lyonette gave Mirn the blankest look in existence. Xif elaborated.
“I was just coming back with all my alchemy supplies when I ran into these flowers—those damned slopes. Someone should install handrails!”
“I think you hit one. With your face.”
Onieva wheezed. Xif glared at her. Rafaema turned even redder as Cire whistled.
“You mean Raef got you and you rolled down the hill, hit a handrail—and what happened to the glass? It broke all over you? That’s a totally Archmage wipeout. I wish I saw it!”
Rafaema glared at Cire. He pretended not to notice, saw Lyonette, and bounded over.
“Lyonette! I mean, Princess Lyonette. Hey—”
Dame Ushar nearly checked him with an arm. Cire recoiled and Oteslia’s [Pegasus Riders] stiffened. Dame Ushar bowed to Cire, and the guards.
“I beg your pardon, Lord Cirediel, but Her Highness is in imminent danger. I hope you understand.”
“Dame Ushar, please. Cirediel is a friend.”
The Drake brightened up as Lyonette brushed past Ushar. He swiped at his neck spines, grinning at her and looking her over.
“I knew you were important the moment I met you. I said that, didn’t I, Raef? You know Rafaema, right Lyonette?”
The nickname was…familiar. Lyonette frowned and Rafaema broke away from apologizing to glare at Cire.
“I believe we met. At Lady Reinhart’s party. Excuse me, Your Highness.”
She bowed quite politely, and Lyonette nodded. What a group. Ilvriss was studying Rafaema and Cire casually from the side, but nodded to her.
“Miss Marquin. How are you today?”
“Quite well, Ilvriss. Thank you.”
Cire eyed Lyonette, Ilvriss, then the plain copper ring on her finger. Lyonette crossed her arms to hide it and smiled. Ilvriss ignored the look every person in the room gave him. Then he hesitated, stood there, looked around, and…
Wilovan and Ratici were standing far clear of all the bodyguards, but they’d dropped by for lunch—and to see if Lyonette needed anything. She was clearly busy, so they were debating stepping out.
In the same vein, Ilvriss wanted to speak to Lyonette, privately, about Magnolia or other issues. Rafaema would have dearly loved to speak to Lyonette candidly were it not for the danger, or talk to Cire about things they could not bring up here. Presumably, Onieva just wanted lunch.
The awkward silence was broken by Cire turning to Wilovan, recognizing him, and pointing.
“You’re that Gnoll with the club! That was totally Archmage. You beat, like, fifty people down!”
Wilovan started as everyone turned to look at him. He touched his hat.
“Er, thank you, sir. Just doing a bit of fighting as it needed to be done.”
He smiled unconvincingly, and it didn’t escape anyone’s notice that Ser Sest and the Oteslian Watch were both in between their charges and Wilovan. Lyonette glanced at Wilovan, deliberately pushed past Ser Sest, and clapped her hands.
“There are a number of people I know and am acquainted with. Why don’t we have lunch? Do we have any food…?”
“I bought pancakes, but I didn’t know if we were eating here. Sorry. We do have food in the pantries.”
Mirn raised a claw and tried to hide something behind his back. Everyone stared at the sandwich he’d made. Xif rubbed at his forehead.
“I could eat something. Perhaps a restaurant?”
“We can reserve one privately, Your Highness. In, say, thirty minutes?”
Ser Lormel vouched at once. Cire made a face.
“Thirty minutes? Why do we have to monk around that long? I can find us a spot at a pub I know in three minutes from here.”
“I believe they mean securely, Cire. To prevent attacks?”
Rafaema coughed, nodding at the Thronebearers. Cire frowned.
“It’s only monking about to no purpose, Cire. It’s more wave-surfin’ to hop over to a restaurant and pull an order. Sometimes the food might be Crelered over, but we can check. Know of any football places nearby where we can order for a group?”
Lyonette’s head turned. Her mouth opened, and so did Cire’s, because, finally, someone spoke the language. But it wasn’t one of Cire’s friends. The two finger-guns he’d somehow picked up, the hip-hopping talk came from Ser Sest. Cire blinked.
“Wow. You’re pretty up to date for a [Knight].”
Social chameleons. Rafaema edged away from Ser Sest in case it was catching, and Makhir rubbed his ears. Lyonette raised a hand.
“We don’t need food, Ser Sest, and I will not take a poison taste tester. We have ingredients? I’ll just make something.”
“Make something? Your Highness!”
Dame Ushar was scandalized. Everyone turned to see Lyonette march into the kitchens, open a pantry, and begin pulling out preserved foods.
“There’s quite enough food to make something simple for everyone. Um…”
Lyonette poked her head out of the kitchen, saw the Oteslian guards, Thronebearers, Ilvriss’ own group, and made a quick decision.
“A what? Your Highness, we can send for a [Chef]—we’ve been vetting them, but—”
“Dame Ushar, stand over there please. Be silent. Thank you.”
Lyonette began assembling ingredients. Oteslia had a multitude of plants, so even a casual pantry had a stronger variety than Liscor. A healthy, tasty wrap with—she could fry some meat, she supposed. Add a few dipping sauces, some snacks…the [Princess] realized Ushar looked horrified and glanced around.
“Cooking? I employ some servants. I could ask one of them to…”
Ilvriss watched Lyonette, but he was least-shocked of the rest. Rafaema was staring at Lyonette, Onieva looked amused, and even Cire was nonplussed. Lyonette looked at their clear surprise—and smiled.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss. You know full well I worked at an inn. I may not be—be Erin, but I know my way around a meal. We’ll have wraps.”
“What’s a wrap?”
“It’s very simple. I just take this flatbread, wrap it around a meal. I think—chickpeas, beans, sliced tomatoes, other elements. We have chicken here, and we can dip it. It’s very tasty.”
She thought Imani had actually introduced it one time. It was the kind of thing Erin didn’t think of, but knew full well. Lyonette frowned at the bread on hand.
They could even make a basic dough and just put it on a pan without leavening it. She rolled up the sleeves of her dress as Dame Ushar looked appalled.
“Your Highness, please! We can do this. There is no need to—”
“Dame Ushar, I know how to cook. Excuse me? I’ll take requests. If anyone has an allergy, speak up. Hmm…Xif, you first. You liked meat-dishes, didn’t you, the last time you came to the inn? But I recall you liking parsley.”
The Gnoll glanced up in surprise, and lowered the healing potion he was using a dropper to put on his bruised eye.
“I do like the stuff. Lots of meat for me. Do you have pork?”
“Pork sausage and chicken, parsley, and…will you take beans?”
“Beans make me fart. Er, I mean, Your Highness—”
Xif floundered as Onieva collapsed with giggles. Cire started laughing too, until Rafaema kicked him. Lyonette coolly amended the order.
“Tomato, perhaps. Let me check sauces…can someone run to get us more sauces? Anything in the market. And something for the table.”
“I can do that. Some kind of snack? Silkap?”
Mirn got up. Lyonette nodded, smiling.
“Thank you. Now, Wall Lord?”
He blinked at her, but then shrugged.
“I hate chickpeas, but I will take something standard. Chicken over pork for me, but if there’s any beef…”
“I’ll grab some.”
Lyonette began taking orders like the [Server] she was. Bemused, the other guests watched as she marched about. Dame Ushar kept looking horrified, but Dalimont and Sest were pointed to the table to clear it of breakfast while Lormel kept watch. Even the Oteslian Watch got an order, and Lyonette was giving people cups of things to drink and—enjoying herself.
It was a measure of control. No—she enjoyed the looks the Thronebearers gave her. She gave Ushar a glance as she passed.
You see? It wasn’t what Magnolia Reinhart would have her do. This did nothing but fill someone’s stomach, and you could pay for that. But it was a practical skill.
“Alright. I need to make a flatdough for a proper wrap and, Ser Lormel, the ingredients are not poisoned! Begone!”
The Thronebearer jumped. He had traded with Ushar to enter the kitchen. He turned as Lyonette marched over to him; he was slicing up some of the vegetables to look for, what, hidden needles? Attack Fraerlings? There weren’t even any on Izril!
“Your Highness, I wasn’t simply checking for poison…it is quite unbecoming for a [Princess] to cook! Please, allow us to at least handle the menial tasks!”
“You? I’d trust you to cook as much as I’d trust Relc to—”
Lyonette paused as she stared at the tomato that Ser Lormel had been handling. She eyed it, then gingerly poked it—
And it fell sideways into perfectly symmetrical slices. Lyonette blinked. Then she saw Lormel had diced the washed vegetables into small bits for adding into a wrap. She looked sideways and saw a deboned chicken.
“How did you…?”
“A Thronebearer is skilled at all arts. Isn’t that so, Ser Dalimont?”
The man looked up from pulling flour out of the cupboards.
“Some more than others, Ser Lormel. He has [Advanced Cooking], Princess. I believe you even made snacks in the night for Princess Ellet.”
Lormel stroked his thin beard modestly. Lyonette, who had never been impressed by the martial prowess of the Thronebearers…felt no need to change her appraisal on that account. But their other abilities? She hesitated.
“Well…you can chop up the vegetables. I need to make the dough properly, and I don’t quite remember how. So—it will be a [Flawless Attempt].”
Lormel blinked as he saw Lyonette march over with perfect confidence and begin rapidly mixing the dough. He turned to Dalimont, and then the doorway. Half of those in the rapidly-filling estate stared inside the kitchen. A larger Drake with purple scales who wasn’t Ilvriss rubbed his claws together.
“She can cook too? First the Winebreath Blaster, now the art of cooking your guests a meal. You, Your Highness, would be an excellent [Diplomat].”
Nerul Gemscale smiled as Lyonette du Marquin turned, greatly surprised. He waved a claw.
“I don’t suppose I could put in an order for something filled with pork? My companion, Miss Xesci, is partial to beans. If you need a hand in the kitchen, I have been known to impress when called upon.”
What a strange, familiar sight. And only like this could you get meetings that would never have occurred naturally. For instance, Wilovan stopped as he was handed the first wrap and offered it very politely to Hunt Commander Makhir.
“For you, sir? Unless you’re waiting on one special.”
“Ah—not for me, thank you. I’m just esc—”
Makhir caught himself as Rafaema turned and glared. He hesitated, then took the wrap and eyed it. He sniffed, found it smelled quite good, and then looked at Wilovan.
“Er, a pleasure. Makhir of Manus.”
“Wilovan. A pleasure it is, sir.”
The two Gnolls cautiously shook hands, Makhir recognized a northern accent and Wilovan cautiously identified a commander of a foreign city. He tipped his hat, Makhir threw a salute.
“So…you’re acquainted with Miss—Her Highness?”
“In a sort of escort role, yes. And you’re escorting…”
“Er, I’m a fellow officer of Manus. Wall Lady Rafaema was visiting Oteslia when the siege occurred.”
Makhir nodded to Rafaema. She was cautiously speaking to Nerul and Xesci; the [Diplomat] was boisterously leading her around, doing introductions. Wilovan nodded.
“Strange business, but I’m not one for the south.”
“Really? A northern Gnoll? Our people are rarer up there, or so I’m told.”
“There are a few Gnolls, sir.”
Makhir paused. There was a clear distinction between ‘our people’ and the way Wilovan spoke, but the Gentlemen Caller wasn’t hostile in the way he said it. The two stood there a second, as Wilovan accepted another wrap being passed out by Ser Sest…on a platter, as if it were a high-class restaurant. He took a cautious bite and Makhir did the same.
“Mm. Hot. Quite good.”
A second. Wilovan glanced towards Ratici, who was speaking with Onieva, and decided not to trouble his friend. Makhir stared at Cire, who was slowly following the blue Drake bodyguard of Wall Lord Ilvriss about. It could have ended there, but Wilovan was in Lyonette’s company. And, after a second, Makhir spoke.
“You’re a mace-fighter? Or just club? You could give lessons on it. Economical form.”
Wilovan glanced up. Makhir indicated the longbow on his back.
“Bows for me.”
“I see. Not for me, sir. A bit cumbersome in close quarters as it were. A fellow gets within arms-reach and a bow’s a danger.”
“It is a problem in a scrum, but have you ever heard about close-quarter bow techniques? It requires an enchanted bow, but you whip someone across the face or use the string to garrote them like…”
Lyonette found the two in deep discussion as she passed by Xif, talking with Ilvriss and, of all people, Rafaema as Nerul moved onto the others.
“…rising prices on Sage’s Grass for a long time until that [Farmer] came long. But you know what I’m talking about. Adamantium is sky-high for nothing until that vein in Salazsar opened up. The Gemscale family must be celebrating nightly.”
“As a matter of fact—not so much. There was an, ah, issue with the mining rights.”
“Oh dear me, I’m sorry.”
The Wall Lord shook his head.
“Not at all. House Gemscale will not want for funds. But on that note, there’s always a shortage of some goods, even if we hit a surplus. I can’t imagine Adamantium will go that much lower. You know, opals are the rarest gems; your ordinary rubies, even diamonds to some degree, are common given Salazsar’s gem deposits. Opals? Never a problem selling even during a boom.”
“You know, Eir Gel’s the exact same. Always a bit costly, given how you need it in healing potions. But I’m glad it’s steady.”
Rafaema glanced from Xif to Ilvriss.
“…What do you mean? It’s fluctuated hard.”
Xif gave Rafaema a blank look.
“Not recently, Miss Rafaema. Er—Wall Lady?”
“Rafaema is fine, Alchemist. Eir Gel’s completely dependent on one island, by and large. Hesheit, I think it’s called, and whenever there’s a shipping delay or problem the supply runs dry in months at most. There was a huge shortage and panic—don’t you remember?”
Ilvriss and Xif exchanged a look, then Xif snapped his paws together.
“That’s right! That must have been, Ancestors, fifty years back! I was barely an apprentice but I remember how much the potions went for. You’re quite up-to-date on alchemy history, Rafaema.”
“I—study the economics of Walled Cities.”
Ilvriss gave her an approving look.
“Commendable. You should meet my [Administrator]. He’s as well-read. Then do you all think this new bicycle craze and the door in Liscor will change the trading dynamic? I already know that Salazsar’s goods are making a huge profit in the north, but we haven’t established formal trade routes, so it’s all independent.”
“All I know is that everything I have is selling faster, and I can get Sage’s Grass marginally cheaper from that literal [Pirate]…and other goods too! The only ones complaining are the Runner’s Guilds and Merchant’s Guilds—and the runners stopped once they realized they could head north and south for new jobs.”
“Wrap for anyone? Lady Rafaema?”
“Thank you, Your Highness…?”
Rafaema turned to Lyonette and blinked. With her hair tied up, an apron on, and changed out of her formal dress, Lyonette looked like, well, a [Barmaid], albeit with striking features. Ilvriss smiled at her and Xif sighed.
“Ah. It feels like we’re back at…the inn.”
Rafaema was confused, but Ilvriss just nodded. Lyonette smiled sadly. But before she could wallow, she moved on.
It was engineered and spontaneous. Just a moment for lunch, but it was moments like these Lyonette cared for. Not a grand pact. She was handing out wraps to the Oteslian Watch when there was a commotion. Instantly, one of the Gnoll [Pegasus Riders] grabbed his spear.
Ilvriss put a hand on his sword but found nowhere to draw it. Wilovan and Ratici were already sliding forwards, but they stopped as the door opened.
“Really! I know Wilovan and Ratici! I’m just—”
“What’s the matter?”
“Someone was attempting to climb in through one of the windows, Your Highness.”
Dame Ushar had caught the perpetrator, although his approach hadn’t exactly been stealthy. Lyonette du Marquin blinked as she saw a young man, hands held halfway up, with a curiously well-made hoodie, nondescript pants, and a cautious smile as he turned to face her. Wilovan blinked.
“Is that you, Mister Rickel?”
“Hey! It’s the Callers! I know them. I’d just like to say something. I promise I’m just here for a social call…”
He kept glancing over his shoulder, clearly nervous. Ushar eyed the street, which had curious watchers along with…Ratici saw two tails duck back—they might not have been from the Earthtenders, but they were there. The better tails didn’t even move and pretended to be ordinary passersby.
Lyonette saw Wilovan look at Rickel and remembered—they had said they had help. And hadn’t they said…?
She frowned at Rickel. Something about him instantly rang a few bells, but Lyonette was distracted. However, he was looking at her.
A [Princess]. So…not the person he wanted. Rickel sighed, but smiled.
Ushar’s gauntleted arm blocked him, but Lyonette lifted a hand.
“Let him by, Ushar. Search him if you must, but he did help Wilovan and Ratici. I am Lyonette. You must be Rickel.”
He sketched a bow.
“Yes, Your Highness. I’m honored to meet you.”
Lyonette frowned. She eyed his hoodie.
“…Yes. Where are you from, Rickel? Not Oteslia. Perhaps you’re from other lands?”
His eyes flickered as she held out a hand. Rickel took it and stared at Lyonette.
“Uh—I’m from another continent, yes.”
“Ah, of course. I think I recognize your accent—but we should talk later. I think I know someone from the same clime, or thereabouts. Joseph? But won’t you come in and have a…wrap?”
Rickel nearly tripped as she indicated. He stared at Lyonette, then a huge smile appeared and vanished from his face. He saw Lyonette eye him.
Well now! Rickel saw Ratici smile briefly, and reached into his jacket. Ushar eyed him, but she had already checked him. The young man followed Lyonette in and blinked at the crowd and food.
“Wraps? Burrito wraps?”
“Won’t you have one? Ser Lormel! One more!”
Lyonette called out with a ringing voice, like someone in an inn. Rickel looked at her. He looked at Wilovan, and then Ilvriss, Cire, Rafaema—he exhaled hard.
“Wow. Talk about upping the ante.”
The [Gambler] paused, then drew something out of his jacket. He looked quite carefully at Lyonette, then proffered it as she turned.
“Looks like an amazing lunch. Mind if I add something to drink? I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of…coffee?”
Lyonette stopped dead in her tracks. Just as Rickel had hoped. She looked back and recalled the ravings of the desperate, the withdrawn. The likes of Rose, Galina, Kevin, and even Ryoka, now and then. A list of things Erin Solstice had named once, and while they’d found chocolate…she blinked at Rickel.
“What did you say?”
He grinned. It was definitely worth the risk.
“A [Princess] served me a sandwich. I mean, a wrap. This…this is strange. Is she on the list? I feel as though that qualifies. I know I excluded her, but…”
Xesci needed to sit down. Osthia clearly felt the same way, but Ilvriss didn’t even blink.
“Lyonette is a special case and she is trustworthy, Xesci. Nerul, what about the rest?”
“I didn’t get much. Other than that Cire has more bodyguards than I do, even visiting hostile cities. Oh, and Rafaema had a [Hunt Commander] obviously on bodyguard. And who’s that lad?”
Nerul was munching on his third wrap, watching as Rickel and Lyonette conferred in the kitchen. Ilvriss glanced out the window.
“We should be going. Didn’t you want to catch Magnolia Reinhart?”
Nerul asked pointedly, but Ilvriss lifted a claw.
“Uncle, that is important. But I have to tell you—wait. On instinct.”
The [Diplomat] eyed his nephew. Ilvriss nodded, almost smiling. He looked into the kitchen where Lyonette was studying some odd beans that Makhir and Wilovan could smell.
And yet, not. It was so familiar that Lyonette instantly dropped everything she was doing, and Ilvriss postponed leaving. Xif had sidled into the kitchen and been ejected hard, and Onieva was pointing it out to Mirn. They knew.
Lyonette du Marquin looked at the beans. Which were actually the inner extract from a red cherry-like fruit like grapes that grew from a plant that did not resemble these shrivelled husks at all.
No wonder Erin had never found them. She kept describing beans, forgetting they had to be removed of flesh and dried. She would have gotten there, of course, once she found a plant or the beans. Then she’d have to organize getting a source, experimenting with drying them, grinding, finding the right mixture…
It would have been an adventure. A small one, but a worthy entry into The Wandering Inn’s hall of fame in fiscal inventions. However…the journey was already at an end. And that was strange because Lyonette hadn’t even taken one step in the process.
This young man, Rickel, had jogged down the journey of finding the plant, paying someone to cultivate more, and figuring out the rest. He had come here with the end result. Because he was from Earth.
“So, uh, you know Joseph of Pallass?”
“Mm. By acquaintance. I would love to introduce you.”
Rickel smiled, but both had an eye on Ser Lormel, boiling hot water.
“I’d…love to meet him. Okay, you filter hot water through the grounds. Slowly…there’s a better contraption, but…”
It was messy, but he knew what to do. Lyonette stared at the end result, which had a bit of grounds Rickel carefully scooped out. She knew better than to judge a book by its cover, especially around stuff like this, but she had to admit.
Wonderful. We’ve made mud water.
That was her first instinct, as Rickel offered her a cup.
“It’s pretty bitter, and a lot of people like sugar or milk for taste.”
“Let me try it, ah, raw? Do I need anything else?”
“Nope. The real benefit is the caffeine, though. The…stuff that makes you wake up?”
“Oh, like tea.”
“Yeah. But stronger. Way stronger.”
Rickel grinned as Lyonette took an experimental sip. She didn’t make a face or retch—but Mrsha would. It was certainly bitter, and did have what she would have called an earthy component. But it wasn’t poor.
“Sugar and milk would help. Lormel? More hot water. Sugar, milk.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
He watched, curiously, as Rickel ground up more beans. It wasn’t poisoned, but it was new. Lyonette didn’t see the point at first. Then, as she was helping make more, she blinked.
She hadn’t had much sleep last night, what with being revealed to be the [Princess] of Calanfer and everything else. Of course, Lyonette had learned to adapt, and she had even taken a sip of stamina potion, but that wasn’t the same as a cup of tea. This? She turned to Rickel and he raised his brows.
“So, I’m Rickel. You’re in a bit of trouble with the Earthtenders? I’d like to help if I can, but I’m only a [Gambler]. Not a [Fighter]. But I’d love to…meet people from home. Consider that my contribution to whatever’s going on. But I haven’t been able to convince many people to try it.”
“I think…I might know a few people who would be interested.”
Lyonette glanced towards the door and saw Xif, Onieva, and Ilvriss all glancing her way. She looked at the cups of coffee, then loaded a tray up for Ser Sest with sugar and milk. She had a project for the day, and smiled at Rickel. She saw him smile back, then blink at something.
Lyonette turned. She had planted something and put it by the windowsill where the light could strike a few little, yellow flowers. She looked at Rickel and smiled at his dumbstruck expression.
“You’ve heard of Faerie Flowers? That would be our contribution.”
She winked and was rewarded with his jaw dropping. He had come with something amazing, but there was more than one fish in the pond. Even if one of them was currently on ice.
Most of the audience for the first mass-trial of coffee didn’t see the point. Nerul did, as soon as he put in enough sugar and milk.
“Ah—that’s not bad. And it’s like a stamina potion or tea, you said? But stronger? Every person in my field drinks stamina shots with their morning tea, and it’s appalling, disgusting behavior. I’m glad there’s a substitute that’s a tiny bit more socially acceptable.”
“I just like the taste.”
Cire commented. Ilvriss raised his brows.
“So do I. I’ve never been for tea in the morning…huh.”
He felt something kick him even halfway through the cup after only about ten minutes of sipping and asking questions. Lyonette had felt it too, and it was completely normal to her since she had never experienced coffee before.
Rickel, on the other hand?
“I asked someone to use growing Skills on it. I paid a bit—and this is better than any other batch.”
“Coffee. Hm. So…could you grow more from those beans? How much for a handful?”
Xif looked keenly at the bag Rickel had produced, but his face fell when he learned those seeds were dead. Lyonette, on the other hand, scented commerce, and so did Rickel.
“I’ll pay you for a handful. What do the berries look like?”
“I’m sorry, but they’re not for sale. Unless there was a market. Then I’d want to corner it, right?”
Xif nodded agreeably as Rickel peeked at Lyonette. Wilovan was hmming over the coffee. He leaned towards Ratici.
“An interesting young man, like Miss Erin, I’ll say, Ratici. Quite a bit of fortune.”
The Drake nodded.
“Indeed, Wilovan. How do you like this coffee stuff?”
The Gnoll frowned.
“It’s fine, but I prefer a refined cup of tea to start my day, and I can’t say as I’d let this replace it.”
“You astonish me, Wilovan. This is more the stuff I’d take. I even like the taste.”
The two Gentlemen Callers gave each other a long look of mutual confusion. They turned—and saw Cire down his fourth cup.
A vibrating Dragon began to speak rapidly, much to their handler’s concern.
Cirediel paused, and looked sideways at Rafaema. He took another gulp of coffee.
“Whoa, you’re all over the place, Rafaema. What’s wrong with you?”
The Lightning Dragon, who was on only two cups, was practically bouncing off the walls as Makhir watched. The Gnoll looked at Cire, who calmly finished his fourth cup.
“I like it! Tea’s good too, though, but will it sell?”
He looked around vaguely, with no appreciation for being the top competitor in an emerging market that might be as profitable as tea. Xif could see it, though, and he was beaming at Rickel.
“No worries. I’ll, ah, just step out, then. Coffee, you said?”
Lyonette glared at him. This was his worst trait he somehow shared with Octavia, only he was more successful than she was. Rickel smiled blandly.
Xif headed for the door. Rickel called out at his back.
“I mean, that’s what I call it.”
“…Does it have another name?”
The young man put his hands in his pockets.
“I might have used a pseudonym. But it’s definitely growing somewhere in Oteslia.”
Oteslia, the City of Growth. Home to probably over a million individual plots of garden space. Lyonette whistled. Instantly, she placed Rickel over Erin for ‘common-sense cunning’. Xif came back.
“Er, you wouldn’t happen to want to strike a deal?”
“You’d need investment money. [Merchants] to sell it, advertise it, and a backer.”
“Yep. It’s not something I can figure out—I don’t know how these things work.”
Rickel spread his hands with a bit of frustration. He scratched at his head.
“…It’s about being known and knowing the right people. Influence, as much as having the right idea. Hecking frustrating, you get me?”
He looked at Lyonette, and she thought she heard Magnolia’s words echo for a second. Then she nodded.
“As it happens…I do know someone who might be interested in backing a project like this.”
“Me! Xif the [Alchemist]. I’m actually quite well known in Pallass, and, if it wakes you up, every [Alchemist] would love to buy. I’d be happy to vouch for it and put in—”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss? Can I introduce you to someone? Rickel, this is Ilvriss.”
“A Wall Lord?”
Rickel blinked as Ilvriss walked over, cup in hand. The Drake shook Rickel’s hand.
“Are you thinking of something akin to The Wandering Inn, Miss Lyonette?”
“A bit, but with actual planning rather than spontaneity and half the city stealing it instantly.”
“I think that sounds acceptable. I could contact my [Administrator]—and my uncle here knows [Merchants] he could drop by with today.”
“It wasn’t in my books—now it is. I walk in, talk them up, they feed me, and we have a liquid lunch—coffee and drinks. Does this pair with anything alcoholic, young man?”
Nerul brightened up when Rickel explained that, yes, some people did consider it a way of life. Rafaema vibrated over.
“Can you get more of this? I’ll invest.”
“And me as well! Xif…I’ve got money!”
Rickel was a bit overwhelmed, blinking around, but he shook hands, and agreed to give the location of the plot of land to someone willing to organize mass-replanting and collect more for processing so it could be trialed.
Which turned out to be Xif, who realized he had to put his paws where his mouth was. The [Alchemist] didn’t seem to mind, rubbing his paws together.
“This time I’m on the top floor of it. Top floor!”
Which made no sense until you remembered Pallass valued the higher floors more. At any rate, there it was. Low-key drama, something new.
The Gentlemen Callers watched it all with faint smiles. But it only reminded them—it wasn’t the inn. It was a bit off. So they excused themselves. Wall Lord Ilvriss broke off from Rickel handing over four entire bags of coffee beans to Nerul. The young man was remarkably prepared. Ilvriss frowned.
The Gentlemen Callers. Amazingly high-level for a simple duo. He hesitated, and set his cup down. Xesci hadn’t marked them as unusual, so that wasn’t the issue. They were just—quite high-level.
As for Lyonette, she was called to her first meeting by Ser Dalimont, who reminded her she’d asked for that. She cursed, but had to speak to Rickel.
“I need to head out. I am so sorry, but…”
“No, it’s fine. Great to meet you. Let’s talk again, yeah? There’s a lot…a lot to think about.”
He gave her a huge grin, eying Wilovan and Ratici as a few people began to leave the lunch session. Lyonette smiled gratefully and hurried upstairs to change. It was then that one of the Oteslian Watch did a count of the room, looked around, trotted over to check the restroom, and cursed.
“Cirediel is gone!”
The Watch looked about, realized the young Dragon had given them the slip as some of the other guests made their exodus, and went for the doors.
Amateurs. The Thronebearers and Makhir knew where their charges were. As Lyonette left, Hunt Commander Makhir shook his head at Oteslia’s security—and then eyed his charge.
“Rafaema, don’t you think you’ve had too much coffee?”
“I’m fine, Makhir. This is great. This is amazing! I need this in my life!”
Rafaema turned to him, eyes bright, smiling. She felt wonderful. She reached for another coffee cup, knocked it over, and grabbed for the drink.
She snatched as the cup tumbled. Her reflexes were good, but she was on the first caffeine rush of her life. Jittering, she missed the coffee, cursed.
“Damn! Damn, damn, d—”
Her mouth opened and Makhir saw a streak of blue energy crackle. His eyes widened.
The only other people left in Lyonette’s temporary home were Xif and Mirn, one taking a nap, the other preparing to head out and get coffee into the world. Xif, humming, heard a crackle turn into a roar of thunder and then something kicked him into a wall.
Lightly. He came stumbling out of the bedroom to see Rafaema staring at a smoking hole in the wall. Crumbling masonry fell around her as Makhir picked himself up, every hair on his body standing up on end from the static charge. Rafaema stared in horror at the opening.
“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t—”
She covered her mouth, eyes wide. Xif took one look at her and ran for it. Rafaema swallowed the lightning building in her. Then her cheeks bulged and she ran over to a bucket and threw up. Coughing, she stared up as Makhir looked at her.
“I—something’s wrong. What’s happening to me?”
He didn’t know. The Hunt Commander stood there, unsure of what to say. What was wrong? Rafaema didn’t know. And the one person who could tell her—she looked around for Lyonette du Marquin. But how…?
Only one person. She was older than Cire and only one person could…Rafaema hesitated.
There was anger on the streets. No, a fury. Why?
Not for the siege. Sieges were a part of life, and this was a bloodless siege—at least on their side. Not for the attack of a gang on a Human [Princess] in the city or her revelation or Magnolia Reinhart.
The Meeting of Tribes. Magic stolen across half a continent. Gnolls were angry. They were furious, and it was not just Plains Gnolls.
However, many did not act on it. Some were, like Makhir, part of a Drake city. Or simply not willing to shout and lose their jobs.
The gangs had no such problems. Angry Gnolls took to the streets. However, as it happened, they were not actually united but disparate. And, because they were the most vocal and ready to fight, they began quarreling not over whether the Drakes had done it, but whether or not the tribes were idiots for trusting them at all and it should be war or conflict, or whether it was just Fissival.
Two groups with larger Gnoll memberships were facing each other down over that very issue, while the majority Drake gangs decided not to go out for the next week and let their rivals hit each other.
There was a commentary there, although it might have been ‘when you’re angry, you tend to hit people’.
This particular fight was going south. Two gangs of mostly young men, not [Thugs], but [Street Brawlers], [Toughs], and even, rarely, ordinary [City Folk], were watching two fighters beat each other until one was unconscious or gave up. And since giving up wasn’t really an option, it was until one was unconscious or it turned into a full-on melee.
…It was going one way. They had a [Bruiser] in one corner who outweighed all his opponents by about thirty pounds. As much fat as muscle, and there was blood on the ground as his opponent tried to shield his face. He was about to bring both fists down over his opponent’s head as the other, smaller gang watched with that kind of terrible certainty of what would come next.
“Pardon me, gents. I think that poor fellow’s had enough.”
The [Bruiser] stopped, and the Gnolls and Drakes turned to see…a Gnoll and a Drake. But a dapper pair. Especially the Gnoll. They looked around for the Watch, but seeing no one, the [Bruiser] shouted.
The Gnoll with the top hat looked disapprovingly at the blood on the other’s fur. He looked at the other fellow who was collapsing over—and the Drake stepped forwards and caught him. He transferred the fighter to his friends, and suddenly the larger gang—nicknamed Furfangs, perhaps unwisely—eyed the unexpected intruders.
They were strangely calm for a duo that looked like easy…Wilovan smiled, and his tight-fitting shirt flexed—somewhat easy targets. There were only two, and the Furfangs alone numbered nearly thirty.
“You, sir, seem to have been winning quite a lot.”
The [Bruiser] grunted as Wilovan addressed him. He’d beaten down six people in a row. Wilovan looked at them—some were back up thanks to low-grade healing potions, but the other gang was on the wrong foot.
“Enough’s enough. When a fellow’s winning, he doesn’t need to push it. Mercy, as it were, is a fine thing when it’s all lighthearted.”
“I don’t need to hear that from some rich…get lost unless you want to be next.”
Wilovan raised his brows.
“If you insist, sir. But I warn you, that would be a mistake.”
The Furfangs hesitated. Their competitors, who were sometimes their friends until today, Streetrage, also watched Wilovan. The [Bruiser] eyed Wilovan and hesitated.
Wilovan was as tall as he was and despite being older…he had a sudden sinking feeling that wasn’t [Dangersense] but pure street intuition. He looked around and spotted Ratici, strolling back to square up with Wilovan. The far-shorter and slimmer Drake blinked once as the [Bruiser] pointed at him.
“Ah, and what about him? One’s all muscle? I’ll take him on.”
He blustered. Ratici and Wilovan exchanged a look. The Drake shrugged. Wilovan nodded.
“Just as you like, sir. Fair rules? Fists only? No knives, no low blows?”
Now it was a circus. Even the badly-beaten Gnoll who came to stared blearily as Ratici rolled up his sleeves, adjusted his vest, and squared up with a Gnoll a foot taller and arguably at least fifty…maybe it was a hundred pounds difference. The [Bruiser] raised his fists.
“Go ahead and dodge as long as you can.”
Ratici glanced at Wilovan. The [Gentleman Thug] was tapping an hourglass he’d pulled out of his vest. Ratici nodded. He turned to the younger Gnoll and smiled purely politely.
“I don’t think I need to, sir.”
“On your marks…now!”
The first punch the [Bruiser] threw was a [Heavyweight Punch] that was far faster than anyone who saw him usually credited. It had put a [Guardsman] down with a single punch. Ratici saw it coming—
And punched the Gnoll in the stomach. Which was a perfectly above-belt blow under the rules described, a textbook punch to the gut. It had all of Ratici’s weight and muscle behind it.
It did not exactly throw the Gnoll down. He grunted in pain mid-punch and would have clocked Ratici across the street if that were it. Until he felt three more punches land in the span of a heartbeat.
He never connected with Ratici. His arm jerked and the [Bruiser] staggered back. The jeering Furfangs and Streetrage gangs stared as Ratici hit the [Bruiser] with an uppercut to the solar plexus, then watched as his opponent staggered back, clutching at his gut.
“What was—fucking Skill?”
Ratici saw the [Bruiser] look up, a bit of spittle hanging from his mouth. The younger Gnoll realized he’d made a mistake. Wilovan was huge, strong as an elephant, and an expert in fighting. But he traded punches. Ratici was too fast to trade; he gave you everything first.
[Tough’s Duel]! [It Hurts Less]! [Hook Punch]!
The [Bruiser]’s best three Skills came out as he went in, swinging hard, hoping to tag Ratici. And he did.
Twice. The Drake didn’t dodge and he ate a punch twice, but once on the shoulder and once on the cheek, and not the full-force blows that would have knocked him flat. He could have dodged.
He didn’t need to. Ratici was too short to hit his opponent in the face, so he started hitting the [Bruiser] in the stomach. Even when the young man tried to guard, he threw hooks, hitting him in the sides.
“Gamith, he’s a runt! Get him! Stop shielding and punch him!”
One of the Gnolls shouted in frustration. He didn’t understand why the [Bruiser] was folding up and retreating. He was used to height and weight winning most fights and he had no idea how hard Ratici was hitting him. Until he saw Gamith’s body begin to move with each punch.
The two gangs went abruptly quiet as Ratici’s pace changed. He started hitting the [Bruiser] methodically, and the heavy impacts were suddenly very loud in the street. Wilovan watched, checking the hourglass. About…one minute.
The [Bruiser]’s head came down as he doubled over. Now—there was that feeling again, when you saw someone take a punch that not only shattered bone, but went far further. The Drake had his opponent at head-to-fist height and he was going to break every…
Ratici eyed Gamith’s face, checked his next punch, and stepped back. He adjusted his cap.
“I think he’s had enough. Unless you want to go on, sir?”
The [Bruiser] didn’t respond. He staggered, swung his fists a few times, reflexively still fighting—then saw Ratici and backed up into his friends. They stared at Ratici and Wilovan. The Drake adjusted his cap; it hadn’t even moved during the fight.
“It’s a young man’s game, sirs. I can’t say I haven’t done the same, growing up. But there’s no sport in beating another fellow’s face in. Not over pride alone.”
Wilovan remarked calmly. He looked around.
“What say we leave it there? Unless anyone else would like to stand up? Ratici and I would make it a point to take you on.”
There were no volunteers. Ratici nodded, dabbed a bit of potion on his shoulder and cheek, and the two Gentlemen Callers walked on. The gangs stood wide as Gamith stared at Ratici.
It wasn’t even a fight. The Drake hadn’t dodged, thrown any kicks—the [Bruiser] stared as Ratici tipped his hat at him.
“Better put some potion on that stomach, sir.”
Gamith backed up again. If he ever ran into a short Drake with a cap in a street brawl—he’d run the other way. He had the distinct impression he’d survived something.
In truth, he’d never been in danger. The hats were on.
Wall Lord Ilvriss had watched the entire thing. He didn’t know the Gentlemen Callers or their gang, these ‘Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings’, but Xesci and Nerul did, and they’d clued him in to the basic facts.
Honorable thugs. Well, that Drake had been able to take that young man apart and he hadn’t. If he had…Ilvriss might have stepped in.
Why was he shadowing the two? Curiosity. Wariness. They had left Lyonette’s place to do…what? Just walk about the streets and buy fancy clothing?
No. The two gangs broke up in the wake of the duo, and Ilvriss slipped around a corner, jogging to intercept them and see them turn into one of the more maze-like warrens in Oteslia. Not the lower city so much as the poorer city. Places less occupied, less well-patrolled.
He did not have to follow them long. They clearly knew where they were going. Wilovan paused by a brick wall running into an alleyway with no exit—between two buildings, both closed and boarded up. Odd, in a huge city like Oteslia, but even in Salazsar businesses failed.
Wilovan leaned against the wall for a second. Ratici whispered to him, and Ilvriss stared as the Gnoll nodded. Then…Ratici removed his cap. Wilovan did likewise, and tucked it into his bag of holding.
Ilvriss watched, his adrenaline beginning to pump in his veins.
“What are they doing?”
The Wall Lord jumped. He hadn’t said that! Who had—Ilvriss turned and saw the Furfangs, Gamith, and the Streetrage gang all staring at the Gentlemen Callers from various hiding places.
The safe house was, by definition, safe. Even if the Watch came calling, there were bolt-holes even if they could break down the door, which they wouldn’t, because it was a waste of time and energy. Also, if there was huge trouble, you could rally the forces—if you were in a good gang.
Well, the Earthtenders were the biggest gang and so this safehouse was doubly safe. But it relied on one thing. And that was simply that you didn’t open the door.
“Hey, open up! Open up!”
The ratatattat of furious knocking made the group inside look up. It was definitely not a code knock.
“Passcode? Who sent you?”
There was a panicked breath.
“I don’t—I don’t have one! Listen, I just got—they’re right behind me! It’s a huge score, I’ll give you half!”
The leader of the group hanging around inside, playing cards and eating while they patched themselves up from the disastrous attack, peered through the spyhole as one of the others motioned him over. He saw someone run back to the alleyway, then come running back. A panicked Drake with a huge scar over his face. He sounded young—and he was holding something.
“Clear off! This is Earthtender’s property.”
“They’re after me! Please!”
The [Marauder] eyed something that flashed in the light from the spyhole. Wait a second. Was that a bag of holding? Yes, it was!
A [Pickpocket] who’d just nabbed a bag of holding. And—from the looks of it—with the Watch or bodyguards in hot pursuit. The [Marauder] licked his lips. He made a quick decision.
“Let him in.”
“But the Second Gardener said—”
“Let him in. He’s got a bag of holding.”
The other members of the gang perked up. Free income? There was only a moment of hesitation, then one of them called out.
“Alright, one second. How fast are they on your tail?”
“I don’t—I think I lost them, but one of them has a sword! An enchanted—hurry the hell up!”
“We’re going, we’re going…there. Come on in and—”
The door opened and the [Marauder] stepped back, smiling happily at the free bag of holding delivery. They’d let the Drake have something—once they extracted a tax for the emergency use of the safehouse.
What he got, instead of a terrified Drake, was an empty doorway. The [Marauder] hesitated. The other members of the Earthtenders gang looked up.
“My [Dangersense] just went off.”
A Drake whispered. Her scales went white. The [Marauder] whirled.
The thing about [Dangersense] is that it often went off when you were in danger. Of course, sometimes it was very helpful and said ‘do not open that door’. But the right fellows knew how to beat that Skill. After all, you could get it as low as before Level 10. It, like truth spells, was not infallible.
The room exploded into chaos as people surged to their feet. Hands reached for the door to push it shut.
A figure rammed into the closing door, throwing three bodies back. A huge Gnoll in an expensive suit, with a plain, wooden club in hand. Huge. With a face like—
He brought the club down and the [Marauder] stopped thinking forever. The wet thud and snap of a neck echoed in the room. The [Thug] pivoted and slammed the club left. Then he shoulder-rushed another Drake into the table and raised the club again.
There was no art there. It rose and fell. Behind him, a Drake with the fake scar now peeled off leapt into the room. He threw a dagger straight into an open mouth, then his two claws were moving. All he did was stab, so fast that a slow-moving arm failed to block it. Neck, side—
“Help! Help! We’re—”
That was the only thing that came through the speaking stone. It went dead a second later, the other end smashed.
A Gnoll stood in a room amid bodies and people. The people kept vanishing, the bodies kept growing as they touched the floor. He turned, dodging a jet of fire shot from a wand. A Drake leapt into the wand-holder, daggers stabbing, and there was one less person in the world. The Gnoll brought down a club through a guard.
Someone tried to run him through the back, but they cut only cloth. A slash against his coat. He turned, and the club came back.
Never did they say a word. Nor did their opponents. They fought in near-silence. A scream, a cry. A shout of rage…
Growing silent. You could hear them, then. And the rest were trying to get out the door, fleeing. They didn’t waste time begging. The Gnoll’s club rose and fell and as the silence grew, it was a bit louder.
He was humming. A nursery rhyme.
It took fifteen minutes. Not for the fighting, but for the aftermath. The Drake policed bodies, checking them not so much for coin but clues, artifacts—the Gnoll calmly poured something on the walls, smashed the other artifacts he didn’t decide to pocket. Blood hung in the air, so he dabbed a scent-killer on his fur as the Drake did likewise. Then he reached for something.
“Curio. Let me.”
Ratici backed up. Wilovan concentrated, lifted a small piece of wood—and struck a match. It lit satisfactorily, and he tossed it on the alchemist’s oil. The two watched the flames catch across the far wall. Then—Ratici closed the door, leaving only a crack for air.
They walked into the street, blood on their clothing, into a second fight. The backup skidded to a halt as Ratici and Wilovan looked at them. The Gentlemen Callers took a breath.
The Earthtenders were not prepared for the Gnoll to charge. This was not an ambush; there were thirty on the street, experienced members of the gang. But they were not prepared. This was a gang from the north and they did things a different way.
When the hats came off, everyone died. Everyone. Brothers and foes. That was why the hats never, ever came off. Even the biggest Oteslian gang had never seen the—
Two men fought to the death in a nowhere street. Two versus thirty, and it was a deadly fight for them despite their levels. They could have run. They did not run.
That magnificent shirt was in tatters. The Gnoll was in the thick of it and he began to bleed. The Drake tore an arrow out of the air, but took a splintering hail of needles that embedded themselves in his scales. He said not a word but threw a dagger back. Now, he was humming…
Someone was bearing Wilovan down. A [Rogue] had grabbed onto his back and was stabbing. The first two daggers struck cloth—the rest flesh. He tried to throw the figure off, but more were clinging to his arms to halt that lethal club. The dagger went for his neck—
Wilovan felt the kiss of metal. He jerked—and the figure slid off him. He threw an arm off, swung the club, and broke an arm. There was a scream—then more.
A Drake charged into the fight, sword drawn and slashing. He had only hesitated a moment then angled himself for the best entry—that was how fast it was. Ilvriss swung his sword, lopping off a sword-arm and then running his opponent through in the same motion. Ratici paused in his own dagger throw—not because of Ilvriss, but the others.
The Earthtenders turned as dozens of young men charged from the sides into the melee. The [Rogues] began to retreat instantly. With more bodies in the fight, Wilovan and Ratici were no longer in danger—
This time, the Gentlemen Callers didn’t pursue. Wilovan grabbed a potion and downed it; Ratici tore needles out of his scales, cursing.
Ilvriss turned just in time for Ratici to point at a fleeing Gnoll woman.
Wilovan grunted. He looked around, saw a Gnoll struggling with another Earthtender, and charged over. The last Earthtender fell dead and Ilvriss and the others on the street stared at the Gentlemen Callers.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
Wilovan recognized Ilvriss after a moment. The Wall Lord nodded, but he didn’t sheathe his sword. He appraised Wilovan; the Gnoll was panting. After a few gulps of air, his breathing slowed. He stared at Ilvriss—then abruptly reached for his side. He put on his cap, and his air of calm returned.
“Good of you to intervene, sir. But I hope you won’t make a habit of it. It’s a nasty business we’re about, I’m afraid. No hats.”
“I…can see that. What are you doing?”
“Best not said outright, sir.”
Wilovan returned. Ilvriss looked at him. He was under no illusions what had gone down in the safehouse; nor were the other young men in the gang. They stared at the Gentlemen Callers, wide-eyed.
Violence like he had never seen. In war? Yes, of course! But there was something else to this. This was no [Fireball] or area of attack spell hitting an enemy formation, or Oldblood Drakes exacting terrible deaths. The two Gentlemen Callers with club and daggers…
Ilvriss’ scales prickled, but Wilovan and Ratici just glanced at each other, then began walking on.
“Where are you going?”
“To find where they went. Rats fleeing a nest leave a trail if you know how to follow it. I’d say not follow, sir, but it’s a free city, or so I’m told. I can’t promise you won’t fall afoul of blade or Watch, though.”
Wilovan answered curtly. He and Ratici moved into a striding stroll as Ilvriss hesitated. Half the group who’d seen the bloodbath was done and just ran; they’d been swept into the fighting, but not to kill. The other half—stared at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord hesitated, then sheathed his sword and followed.
Cirediel had been following Onieva, mainly because Rafaema had been glaring daggers at her but refused to say why. For her part, the Drake had been having a grand time with genuinely no attention paid towards Rafaema—which stung the most.
The Dragon knew he should probably talk to Rafaema about what would happen next since Lyonette was a [Princess]. Did that mean there was a Dragon in Terandria? What should they do next?
He flew up a bit, frowning, and cast about. Left, right…now where had she gone? She was quick! That Mirn person had stayed behind, but Onieva was just a Drake. And, no offense, but Cire was a Dragon, not even an Oldblood Drake. He was fast, strong…
And he had lost her. Cire flew about, then dove as he saw [Pegasus Riders] taking to the skies after him. So he lost Onieva, and his minders lost him.
Shriekblade, no, Tessa, no, Shriekblade didn’t lose Onieva. No one had seen her. No one had given her a wrap.
She was hungry. Still, Ilvriss had given her targets, and Cire, Rafaema, and Onieva were all highly suspicious—Onieva arguably the most since she was the cousin of two famous Drakes…and had a lot of holes in her personal life.
So who was she? Shriekblade kept silent. Her heartbeat was muffled. For once, she felt good. Clear.
The flowers. The glorious [Princess] had a cure! Tessa smiled—but she didn’t privately even whoop or whisper.
That was how hard it was. Onieva was…as good as Saliss? Even with artifacts and Skills, Shriekblade felt like she’d be spotted if she was unwary. So she watched. She would have rather watched the [Princess]. Asked her about the flowers. A cure, a cure!
But she had to admit—this was not boring either.
A safehouse had vanished. News was already spreading—do not open the damn door, and keep low.
The Watch was angry, and they had an enemy gang in the city. Not good times, but there was a truism, which was that you had to find your opponents to get them.
This apartment was completely innocuous. You’d have to know there were Earthtenders inside, carefully letting an [Alchemist] prepare Selphid’s Dust and Dreamleaf and other marketable items. There was no way for anyone to find them unless they had some kind of information or they were a high-level Watch officer, and the Watch and Earthtenders generally stayed away from each other.
Otherwise? There was no way any Gentlemen Caller would find out; even one of Reinhart’s famous [Maids] would need to trace clues to get here. You’d have to have supernatural hearing, eyes that saw through walls, or a nose like a scent-dog, and the know-how of an expert in alchemy to put together the clues to identify this as a narcotics workshop.
A scaled hand knocked on the front door. The [Rogue Leader], who had just heard about a safehouse going down, froze. He motioned to the duo nearest the doors, and they grabbed for crossbows and wands, swearing.
“Excuse me! Is this den run by the Earthtenders, or just a random gang? You know what? It really doesn’t matter.”
A female voice spoke up from outside the door. The [Rogue Leader] swore. He was brighter than the [Marauder] in the safehouse. He swung his own enchanted crossbow up and pulled the trigger.
Two bolts and a ray of light blasted through the door as the rest of the gang shot to their feet. The [Rogue Leader] backed up, unconvinced he’d killed anyone. He was indeed smart, and waited for the door to bow inwards. He reached for some Selphid’s Dust. It would mess you up, perhaps forever, but…these idiots coming to pick a fight were about to see what happened when a Drake rampaged.
The door never opened.
Onieva had a specialty-made jar with a curious curved opening on one end stoppered by a simple cork—like a vase. But unlike a vase, it had a wax seal on the back, which kept the sloshing liquid inside contained. The reason why was obvious for an [Alchemist].
She held the jar of nearly-colorless liquid at an angle as she leaned against the door. The crossbow bolts and ray spell had missed her, and no more were coming. She only needed a second.
She jammed the fluted opening of the first container into one of the holes made by the crossbow bolts after rapidly uncorking it. The liquid inside…began to expand rapidly, turning into a gas.
Onieva ignored the surprise. She had something in her other hand. A minor artifact. It was called, in colloquial terms by adventurers, a Jar of Air. A catchall term for the equivalent of a bag of holding but for air. You could dive with it, survive poison—but there were variations.
For instance, this one didn’t just supply air, but emitted a whoosh of it when opened. A nice blast; more like a kids’ toy. Even most adventurers didn’t use it.
Onieva had a use. Which was to jab the jar of air into the first jar, breaking the wax seal. The air blasted out, hit the liquid, which shot through the funnel into the room and underwent a fast metamorphosis from liquid to gas as it left the contained environment.
She held the jar in place as she heard shouts, a scream—then grimaced.
She kept the jar steady as she tried to block the other two holes made by the second crossbow bolt and ray with her other arm. It was cumbersome, but you didn’t want what was inside leaking out.
She heard coughing, cries of pain—someone discharged a crossbow again. Onieva waited, counting.
Ten seconds…twenty…thirty…a minute passed. She listened, and heard a rasping voice.
Someone was alive in there. Someone with a high-level poison resistance Skill. It was already neutralizing itself, and she heard coughing. A weak voice.
“I surrender. Let’s talk this out. Please. I surrender. You hear me?”
The [Alchemist] put both objects away in her bag of holding. She reached for her side. She’d bought a sword. Saliss was still low on potions. One minute…she kicked the door open and walked inside, not that the poison would have bothered her.
“You hear me?”
She didn’t answer. Outside, Shriekblade—or was it Tessa?—watched in silent admiration. That was exactly like how Saliss fought. Who was she?
The Earthtenders were under siege. A lab and safehouse vanished, and that was only the beginning. Two Faces were on a rampage.
Two Faces and a Wall Lord, but Ilvriss didn’t count. At first, he felt he should have, but he didn’t.
“You might want to stow that, sir. This is really not a good business for you.”
“I am as invested in Lyonette’s safety as you are, Mister Ratici.”
The Drake walked along, slowly removing his cap. He glanced meaningfully at a group loitering outside some kind of club building. They were agitated; their friends had just run in, talking about a bloodbath.
“Suit yourself, sir. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Ilvriss frowned—and then saw Wilovan and Ratici accelerate. Hats off again. They were the most economical fighters he’d ever seen. No warmup—they went from calm to violence in seconds, and Ilvriss felt it jarring himself.
Still, he followed them in as they began fighting. He was no stranger to combat, at least. He swung a sword up, slashing at an opponent with a knife and was rewarded with a deep cut. Few of the Earthtenders had anything nearly as long as a shortsword, much less Ilvriss’ longsword. He was fighting, driving them back to their base, when someone screamed.
“Ancestors! Help! Help! Murder on the streets! Call the Watch!”
Ilvriss whirled. He saw a distant figure pointing, and Ratici cursed, breaking off from the door. Wilovan turned to Ilvriss.
The Wall Lord followed Ratici and Wilovan—and a number of young men—as someone blew a whistle, and the Watch on foot and a [Pegasus Rider] flew overhead towards the scene of the crime. Ilvriss stopped after two streets, panting, and thanking his stars he’d worn something less visible.
Purple-scaled Drakes were one thing, but if he was caught…he decided he needed a disguise. Just a hood or something.
“Hold on. I’m with you. I just need to buy a piece of cloth to hide my face. Or is there a Skill for that? Scale-dye?”
Ratici and Wilovan looked at each other as Ilvriss cast around. Ratici shook his head and raised his brows. Wilovan held his paws out, helplessly.
“Wall Lord, sir. This really isn’t your forte.”
“Isn’t it? Don’t you need another claw?”
Ratici frowned. Ilvriss seemed genuine, but…Wilovan was replacing his torn clothes again. With a sigh, he offered Ilvriss something.
“Try this scarf, sir.”
Ilvriss blinked at the embroidered scarf with rather fine green and grey woven together with a little message on the end—‘thinking of you’. He gingerly took it and wound it around his face.
“Er, I don’t look too noticeable, do I?”
Wilovan and Ratici exchanged colorful glances as they eyed the Drake with a scarf around his face so only his eyes showed, like some child-bandit. Wilovan coughed.
“Maybe only wear that when we’re in the thick of it, sir. The problem isn’t that.”
The two Gentlemen Callers realized they had to spell it out for him.
“It’s your sword.”
Ilvriss blinked at his sword. Ratici tried to explain as they continued to make tracks.
“You can’t pull out a full sword on the streets and expect no one to notice, Wall Lord. Daggers’re one thing. Clubs, knuckles, spiked or not, garroting wire, stilettos, all fair game, even blowpipes, a cosh with poisoned needles—”
Ratici grinned briefly.
“Them too, if we had any around. Swords and bows are too noticeable. Folks’ll watch someone with a club fight and hope it’s just a toss-up or fists, at least where they’re used to it, but a sword? That’s blood and death, and they’ll call the Watch no matter where you are.”
“I would have thought they’d call the Watch regardless. This is a Walled City, even if it’s poorer—”
He saw the two men smile and stopped because he had the feeling he was making a fool of himself. Wilovan leaned against a wall as Ratici consulted a notepad.
“There’s a place that looks unsecured—we’ll hit it next. As you say, Wall Lord. As you say. I don’t know Drake cities well myself, being a fellow from the north. Perhaps it’s different here.”
Ilvriss jogged after them. He glanced over his shoulder as he heard a puffing sound; several young men were tagging along. Ratici and Wilovan glanced at them, but they forbade comment. They didn’t seem to care.
“You’re implying I’m wrong about that. Salazsar has no organized crime like this, to my knowledge. Oh, there’s corporate theft all the time, and gem trading blackmarkets, I suppose—”
“Just as you say, sir.”
“I would know. Surely. I’m amazed there are so many Earthtenders in the city. That’s the gang, isn’t it? You must have wiped out a hundredth of them alone in…”
Ratici and Wilovan started laughing. They tried not to, but Ilvriss felt his scales grow crimson. He’d thought he was exaggerating. A hundredth? He couldn’t imagine the scope of a gang.
“Sir, there are probably thousands of safe houses like that in the entire Walled City. Maybe over ten thousand easy that the Earthtenders might have. We’re hitting them—but they’ll hit back. And soon the Faces will be back for blood. Then it’ll be a real fight. You know Faces?”
Ilvriss bit his tongue.
“High-level fighters in gangs?”
“Just like me and Ratici. Just so you know—of our level. Which means over Level 40, some of ‘em. And there won’t be one, or three—we know the Earthtenders have three at their headquarters alone. We might have to fight…what, for a Walled City, Ratici?”
“Dozens. Not all of the same level. Take them on one at a time. Hit and away. So long as they’re on us, Miss Lyonette’s safe. They won’t try her if they think we’re at their backs.”
This was a strategy, Ilvriss realized. A strategy that was actually thought-out, but he was the fool who couldn’t even see the battlefield. He slowed as they approached their next location.
“You’re telling me there are dozens of high-level members of gangs in Oteslia and every city? Including my own?”
Wilovan smiled at him, politely. It was like his mother patting his hand and telling him he’d done a ‘good job’. It wounded Ilvriss to the quick.
“There’s worlds beyond the one you know, sir. A fellow or lady has to level a bit faster if things are tough. Fair warning. Let us go in first this time.”
“Absolutely not. I am still a Wall Lord, and I have artifacts and the levels to match.”
“Just as you like, sir.”
Ilvriss nearly died. In many ways, he was like Tyrion Veltras. He wasn’t that old, he was a prominent member of aristocracy, and he was good in a fight. He was not as martially famous as Tyrion, but he had artifacts and training and he nearly died.
Wilovan and Ratici went in like fire and fury and, Ilvriss had to admit, they were better fighters than he was, at least in the close-quarters fighting down another hideaway. This one was all corridors; an actual house turned into a base. Wilovan’s club and Ratici’s blades were perfect for these close conditions, but Ilvriss was still trained by the best.
Not only his old [Weapons Trainer], but Tessa and experience. He was adept at fighting, even without room to fully swing his sword. What he was not prepared for was how they fought.
The gangs. He took down three Drakes and Gnolls in quick succession, feeling like he was on a battlefield. The blood. Yet he didn’t waver. He turned as a Drake, a huge Drake with scars all over his scales, charged down the corridor.
Idiot. Ilvriss went to run him through and his strike bounced off the other’s scales. No—the enchanted blade clearly cut and drained the Drake, but he’d used a Skill! Ilvriss backed up, ready for a strike and—
The Drake grabbed his sword-arm. Ilvriss cursed, striking him with a fist, but the scarred Drake just grabbed him and refused to let go.
It wasn’t even an arm-breaking grip, just implacable. Ilvriss could not wrest his arm free! He bashed the other over the face, drew a dagger, and stabbed at him, and it bounced off the other Drake’s scales as the Skill deflected it—then Ilvriss began stabbing the arm. The Drake grunted, but did not let go.
And then his buddy tried to stab Ilvriss. One-handed, the Wall Lord fought back, striking with his other hand. He survived only because one of his rings activated and formed a barrier over his scales. He remembered the ruby ring on his sword-arm and twisted it—the other Drake just held on—and his scales were set ablaze.
Still, the [Lockdown Grappler] didn’t budge. Ilvriss kept the other one off him with [Flurry Strikes], burning his Skills away, and then felt a cut that went through his enchanted cloth armor and glanced off a rib. He stared at his death—a Level 21 [Rogue] with a single, low-grade, enchanted dagger—
And Wilovan seized the Drake and smashed him into a wall, one-handed. The [Grappler] finally let go of Ilvriss, backing up—and Wilovan hit him. Three times, before the [Grappler] fell.
Ilvriss, panting, shaken, realized the fighting was over. He gasped for air.
“What was—what was—”
“Grabber. He gets you and his buddies run you through. You’re lucky he didn’t get both arms behind you.”
Wilovan commented succinctly. He looked around. There was a cry, and he raised his club, but a Gnoll came stumbling towards him. Gamith? The [Bruiser] was cut deep across his belly. Wilovan stared at him and then snatched a potion and threw it at him.
“That’s not—I have never seen that before. It’s suicidal.”
Ilvriss stared at what remained of the [Lockdown Grappler]. Wilovan nodded.
“See his scars? It’s not a class most fellows take long. Takes a big man who isn’t afraid of getting cut. But his Skills…I’ve seen Gold-ranks go down to that.”
“And that’s how you fight?”
Ilvriss looked at Wilovan. The Gnoll turned to face him, exasperation written over his face.
“Yes, sir. That’s how we fight and kill Wall Lords and even adventurers. The street isn’t fair. You mean well, but they know better than you what they’re getting into. We won’t stop you from dying.”
He jerked his head at Gamith and the Furfangs. The young Gnolls and Drakes stared as Ratici emerged, wiping his blades. Ilvriss just stood there.
Skills like that. Fighting that—he was a Wall Lord armed with Gold-rank grade artifacts, and he’d nearly died to two people ten levels lower than he was. He looked at Wilovan and Ratici and came to a realization.
High-level experts in fighting he’d never dreamed of. And…he looked around.
“You’re right. I’m only getting in your way, aren’t I?”
“You’re handling yourself well. We might have perished in that fight before, frankly, sir. But, I won’t lie, that it’s a risk.”
Ilvriss nodded, meeting Wilovan’s gaze.
“They nearly got you the same way, didn’t they?”
The Gnoll never blinked.
“It’s a good trick. The fellows die for certain if it fails, but they don’t lack for courage when they think they’ll win. Two more places vanish? They’ll think twice. They have to, or they’ll attack until we’re all dead. That’s how it works. The other Faces have to think twice. They’re afraid of dying, that’s the ticket, sir. None of us are death or glory.”
“Except you are. You…Brothers.”
Wilovan smiled. He reached up for his hat that wasn’t there, and nodded. Ratici did too.
“There are rules, sir. The Brothers don’t fight more than other gangs. We fight less, actually. Because when we fight…there are rules in the north, and that’s how we survive. Down here? We’ll teach them.”
Ilvriss looked from face to face. He shook his head, sheathed his blade, and reached for his claws.
“I won’t get in your way. Here.”
He tossed something at Wilovan. The Gnoll blinked and caught it.
A huge ruby set in a ring winked at him. Ilvriss gestured at it.
“Flamecoat Ring. Touch it when it’s twisted down—never twist it down unless you want it primed. Perhaps it will help. And…”
He bit his tongue, but handed Ratici the other ring, a dark onyx one.
He could always replace them from his armory. The Gentlemen Callers blinked at him. Ilvriss nodded.
“Keep yourselves alive. I’ll put someone on Miss Marquin with her Thronebearers. A…face.”
“Er…thank you, Wall Lord. Will you be wanting these back?”
Ilvriss turned, briefly.
“I’ll consider them…a favor. We’ll talk later, I hope.”
The Gentlemen Callers exchanged a glance. Their opinion of the odd Wall Lord changed somewhat. He might not know, but he was learning. Wilovan grinned.
As the Wall Lord left, the two Gentlemen Callers took stock. They put their hats on, counted their injuries, and Wilovan went for another set of clothing. The Gnoll was buttoning up another coat when he looked sideways.
“You lads have a grudge against the Earthtenders or something?”
“Earthtenders? No one likes ‘em. You…you from another city?”
Gamith spat. He touched at his stomach, gingerly, but he’d seen fighting before, if not this. He stared at Wilovan. The Gnoll considered the question.
“Something like that. We’re not replacing them. This isn’t a feud. This is to the death. Hats off. You get me?”
Gamith nodded slowly. He gulped.
“Wh-why? What did they do?”
“They tried to kill someone who wasn’t part of it.”
The [Bruiser] waited. The other Furfangs looked at each other.
“And…how far is it going?”
Wilovan finished buttoning his coat.
“Until it ends. If you want to come with us, help yourself.”
He looked sideways, pointedly. His new ring was on his finger, but he quite clearly saw why the Furfangs had followed the Brothers on their deadly battles. Not just the fascination of the two men. Not just seeing the sheer violence and death.
They’d armed themselves with the goods of the dead Earthtenders. Money, weapons—more than they could earn in months. Gamith himself had picked up the enchanted dagger. He stared at it. He could sell this and feed himself and his family for…
All you had to do was look death straight in the eye. The two Gentlemen Callers began to walk off. The Furfangs had all the money they could want from two battles—three including the aborted one at the club—in the streets.
Sure enough, the Furfangs gang remained to loot the place and then run and tell everyone what they’d seen. Ratici nodded to Wilovan and they walked on. That was what Wall Lord Ilvriss would never understand. The sheer money in a jacket, even bloodstained, a bag of coins.
They turned as they heard pounding footsteps behind them. Gamith, the [Bruiser], and a pair of Drakes and three other Gnolls had caught up. They stared at the Gentlemen Callers in silence.
Something…Wilovan felt blood drying on his fur. He reached for his scent-killing potion. And wondered if he would level again. He would. And his next Skill would be…
[He Scratched Only Thread].
Yet in the now, in the moment, he looked at Gamith, right at the uncertain young man. Ratici glanced at Wilovan, then he snapped. The younger men jumped as Ratici gestured.
“Keep up, then. Listen and don’t move until we say so. And—find yourselves some damn hats.”
They had to at least look the part, if they wanted to walk with the Gentlemen Callers.
It was completely, eminently difficult. Because the problem was that you never had one problem at a time. When it rained, it poured. When it rained, it poured, and you discovered there were Crelers in the water and the Krakens were waking up.
At the moment of her greatest ambition, possible triumph or failure, there was unexpected war with the Gnolls. Erin Solstice, that dear girl, was dead, and she truly believed it was only a dream she could return.
Perhaps, though. Perhaps. She was equal to that—even to the news Tyrion Veltras was making war on Ailendamus for reasons only his addled brain could conceive. A younger woman might have struggled to hold it all. That poor little child, Mrsha…
Yet she could handle it all. Gangs and scandal and intrigue, because it was not the first time Magnolia Reinhart had been here. Cruel as it might be to say, not all of it was her true affair, and if she failed…
She could balance it all, do it all. Because there was a truth that Magnolia Reinhart knew in her heart of hearts.
In the end, come triumph or tragedy, she would do her best. She would do all she could to leave this world better, to build that which lasted.
In the end, she would die. But that would not be the end. While her name was yet spoken or even remembered, she would live. And…he would live.
This was the truth of the world. A foundation.
It shook. Ryoka Griffin had told Magnolia Reinhart to…she listened. The voice was incredibly clear; as if he stood in the room with her. Ressa was frozen. Implaccable Ressa…
“My dear girl, you were right. Don’t rub it in; we don’t have time for it. You were right. I have been abed, metaphorically speaking, far too long. I blame the condition of my people.”
His people. Magnolia whispered.
“Half-Elves and their patterns. You know, the Archmage of Izril was in the exact same predicament. That is the fundamental quality of—of those seeking the core of magic, I suspect. Well, enough. Wistram is ashambles. There is no time, but I am preparing it for the future. As for Ryoka…leave her to me.”
He sounded right. In intonation, in some aspects, and completely the stranger. Magnolia held the stone away from her ear.
He chuckled. Fondly. He remembered that. He remembered everything.
“Such a girl, even now. I will see you soon, Magnolia. Just trust in your old mentor. Tell that ghost to watch himself. We have been quiet too long—no, I have. Even my lifespan is not infinite. We have this one chance. So…so wait. Don’t get caught up in the Drakes’ damned pettiness. I have had enough of it with Zelkyr—but I will see you sooner if need be. For now? Watch the news, dear girl.”
He ended the call. Magnolia lowered the stone, sat down, and nearly fell over. Ressa reached out and poured herself a cup of tea. She took a deep drink, looked at the cup, and muttered.
“Someone get me a cup of wine or something. That wasn’t him.”
“No. Ressa. Did you hear him talk about—”
Magnolia Reinhart was as white as a sheet, but she collected herself and began counting.
“His lifespan? He never plays coy about being—never. You know that. He wouldn’t even suggest it. As for the Drakes—he knows them. Everything he is doing. What happened?”
Ressa paced around—then went to sit where Lyonette had been. It had been a longer conversation, but she was used to standing forever. Right now? She put her head back as someone ran a wine bottle over.
“Something’s wrong for certain. Magic. He’s said things can take even him out.”
“Then we must check on him.”
“Yes? I can do it. Drop me off at Liscor or Celum and I’ll head there myself.”
Ressa sat up, inhaling hard. Magnolia hesitated.
“He warned us he trapped his ‘laboratory’. That’s still him, Ressa.”
“I know. Who else could you send, though? I have a shot.”
“Not one in a thousand. Not if he truly prepared any spells.”
“…But this is beyond dangerous. If he’s truly arming Wistram with what he knows? Either he’s gone mad or his mind—”
“Do not continue that thought. That is an order.”
Magnolia Reinhart saw her [Maid] raise her head to snap, but Ressa hesitated. Magnolia sat there. She could suffer the skies opening up and flooding everything, but she hadn’t been ready for the ground to vanish beneath her feet.
The two looked at each other. And into that moment came a crash, a shout, and a commotion. Ressa was on her feet. Magnolia sat there, staring ahead, until Ressa came back.
“We have an intruder. Someone went through the second floor window.”
“Just once, I would like it to be a bat or bird that flies into the glass, Ressa. I take it this is more important than your average [Assassin]?”
Ressa pursed her lips. She looked upwards as Reynold and five [Butlers] and [Maids] marched a figure forwards who hadn’t been prepared for an ambush.
“…You could say that. What timing.”
Magnolia Reinhart looked up and saw Rafaema of Manus coming down the stairs. She closed her eyes.
Rafaema had known it was risky, but Makhir couldn’t follow her and—after nearly vaporizing him, she had to take a risk.
She’d known it was dangerous, but the instant she went through the enchanted glass someone had kicked her into a wall. That [Butler]—
Then a [Maid] with two wands had appeared, and Rafaema had surrendered. She was getting tired of being beaten up! She probably could have taken both of them…but Magnolia Reinhart had a mansion full of servants and…
Onieva. So many questions, so many things to ask.
But she only cared about one thing. Rafaema looked up as she was halted in front of Magnolia Reinhart.
“Lady Reinhart, I’m sorry for the abrupt entry, but I needed to speak with you in secret.”
“Wall Lady Rafaema, you have either terrible timing or excellent, and I truly cannot tell which.”
Magnolia Reinhart looked…tired. Unusually wan, and Rafaema didn’t know why. She sagged in her chair, but sat up a bit as she eyed Rafaema. The Dragon opened her mouth, and saw a figure sitting opposite Magnolia fill a cup.
…Was that [Maid], Ressa, drinking wine? Well, Rafaema had heard Ressa was more than just a [Maid], but still.
“I’m sorry to be blunt, Lady Reinhart. But I have questions and you have answers.”
She didn’t know what she was doing. But that was the thing—no one did. Makhir, Luciva, no one in Manus had anything more than books and old legends to help them, and there were precious few of those. Yet Magnolia had spotted Rafaema about to explode and told her exactly what to do.
Either it was pure coincidence or…no, Rafaema knew there was one more. She knew. And perhaps that meant Magnolia knew too.
Rafaema inhaled, heart beating fast.
“I would like to speak with you. Privately.”
Magnolia Reinhart glanced around.
“There is hardly more of a private setting than this, my staff aside, and they are all trustworthy. But…speak? Let me think.”
She put her fingers together as she eyed Rafaema.
“Speak to a Wall Lady of Manus…hm. No, I do not believe that is wise. Reynold?”
“Escort Lady Rafaema back up to her window of entry, please. And toss her back out.”
The [Butler] bowed. Rafaema began to protest as they dragged her back.
“You can’t do that! I need to speak to you! I am a Wall Lady of Manus!”
“I know, my dear. And I am [Lady] Reinhart. Chalk it up to Human incivility, mm? But now is not appropriate.”
Ressa was eying Magnolia, more unsure, but she didn’t object. Rafaema struggled, but five servants had a hold on her—they struggled to keep her moving. They were strong!
“You know something, don’t you? You know about me!”
She shouted and Magnolia Reinhart looked up. Instantly Rafaema’s heart froze in her chest. She had been told every day since being small never, ever—and the Reinharts were one of the gravest enemies in her nightmares!
And yet—something prompted Rafaema. She dug her claws into the carpet and the five servants lurched. Reynold eyed Rafaema as she dragged all five, pulling herself forwards.
Magnolia Reinhart looked up as Rafaema slowed, panting. Reynold carefully lifted a cosh, and Magnolia lifted a hand.
“One moment, Reynold.”
They faced each other. Magnolia Reinhart peered at Rafaema, almost as unsure—no, more unsure than Rafaema. The Dragon drew a little closer and saw Ressa shift.
But she didn’t want to hurt Magnolia. Rafaema inhaled again. Yes…yes. It was faint, but she had never been this close to Magnolia before. Far fainter for some reason. Because of perfume? But she was attuned to it now, because of Lyonette.
It was the same smell. Rafaema’s eyes went round and Magnolia gave her a blank look.
“Ressa. Why is she sniffing m—”
Her brows drew together. Ressa sat up. Slowly, Rafaema breathed.
“You know…you knew I was in danger. You spoke to me. You knew. You know—”
“Reynold, the kosh to the back of the head, thank you. Toss her out.”
Suddenly, Rafaema threw all five servants off her. She pointed at Magnolia and Ressa was there, wine cup in hand, sipping it. Not with dagger in hand, but even so!
And she smelled like…and it was even on the butler! How hadn’t she noticed? Well, simple. One didn’t get close to any of them that much.
Magnolia Reinhart looked at Rafaema’s stunned face. She sighed, then looked about.
“I suspect the Hunt Commander is on his way, and I will not have it said that I accosted Lady Rafaema. Reynold? Intercept him and explain the situation should he arrive too early.”
“At once, Lady Reinhart.”
The [Butler] strode away, his artificial legs moving rapidly across the carpet. Rafaema sat down.
Since no one put a chair behind her, she sat on the carpet. Magnolia Reinhart pursed her lips. She looked like she was thinking hard.
“Where are they? How many? How do you know? You knew about me. Do you know…?”
The word danced on Rafaema’s lips, unspoken, but Magnolia Reinhart read words that weren’t there. They didn’t need to say it. Perhaps it was dangerous, even here.
Certainly, the other five servants were instantly ordered away. Ressa poured a deep cup of wine and began sipping. After a second, she produced a snack and began crunching in the background as she watched.
“I’m afraid I have no idea as to what you’re speaking of, Wall Lady Rafaema. And I suggest, for the benefit of all, we leave it there after this is said and done.”
“Leave it—are you insane?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes narrowed slightly.
The Lightning Dragon looked at her. Magnolia Reinhart pointed a finger at Rafaema’s chest.
“Whatever you may suspect, my dear, and I deeply regret not knowing that part of biology—it must be magical. Ressa?”
“Already on it. Magical skunks, the lot of ‘em.”
Rafaema jerked. They were so casual about it.
“So it’s true?”
Magnolia Reinhart rolled her eyes skywards.
“My dear, I know it is an earth shattering revelation and no doubt greatly joyous and hopeful and all of the following, but keep up. And understand—this will do you no good.”
“You are Lady Rafaema, ward of Manus. I am Magnolia Reinhart. I trust Manus as far as I can throw the entire city, and Manus trusts me as much as they can throw all of Izril. You will, regretfully, keep whatever you suspect to yourself or it will be complicated for all of us.”
Magnolia sighed, rubbing at her forehead.
“…Besides. It will do you little good. So consider this meeting a moment of hope, nothing more. Hope…but my dear. I know. You know. It will not be more than that.”
“Why not? You could take me to him—her?”
For some reason, him was Rafaema’s instinct. Magnolia smiled at Rafaema as Ressa shifted, eyes widening. Magnolia saw it, but shook her head at both of them.
“My dear Rafaema. I cannot imagine a world in which that does not include your…guardians. Your minders. And believe me, that is unacceptable.”
Makhir. Rafaema heard a bang from the door and a loud voice followed by muffled conversation. He’d already followed her? Well, she had flown into the window—Ressa stood up.
“I’ll talk to them. Reynold—let him see her.”
A fighting Gnoll at the gates—Makhir. He saw Rafaema, then was pulled back.
“I’m fine, Makhir! Leave me be!”
She shouted back, furious. Then turned to Magnolia.
“Who is it? Are they—are they young? Did they send you here to meet me? Could I send a message? How is it possible? Why doesn’t Manus know?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s face looked more and more pained as Rafaema begged for answers. She folded her hands in her lap.
“Not young. Wall Lady, truly. The more you know, the more painful it will be. Leave it be. Our meeting was not by design, I assure you. As for how I know? It is completely my news sources, which, I must say, have elements even Manus cannot safeguard against. He…may know. I suspect he does. But you will not meet with him, I think.”
Magnolia searched for some tea. But there was none, so she reached for the wine bottle, and sighed as she put it back.
“…Because he has no interest in you.”
“Not me? We are the last ones in the world! Unless—there are more?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s face wasn’t blank, it was just nothing. No clue to Rafaema. The Lightning Dragon focused.
“Why not? I have so many questions. We could be—you know about…?”
Cire? She was afraid she was giving something away, but Magnolia just sighed.
“My dear. The reason he does not care—no, let me put it another way. He may genuinely not know. I suspected he did, but sometimes I overestimate his intelligence. Either way—if he did not seek you out, even if he did not know, I do not think he would meet with you. And, to be clear, he would find you. You could never find him.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
Magnolia gave her a long look. A sad look. She glanced towards the door.
“Rafaema of Manus. What would you have to offer him? Nothing. Nothing but youth and, I think, grief. What could you do but entangle him in petty affairs? He may wish to meet one of his kin. That is true. That has always been true. But one of his kin. Not a child surrounded by minders. He has met too many of you, I think. Too many of us. Too many children.”
Rafaema sat there, vibrating. She felt something rising in her chest—she was hyperventilating and Magnolia saw it. The [Lady] reached out.
“Control your breathing. Calm. Calm yourself, Rafaema.”
Her aura was like an added link of chain in a wall. Rafaema stabilized. Then she cried out.
“I don’t know what is happening. I can’t control myself!”
“You are growing up. That’s all. It is never pleasant, Humans, Drakes, or otherwise. Find someone with aura training. Or go sit cross-legged and meditate for a year. [Monks] and whatnot.”
Magnolia sat back, sighing. Rafaema saw Makhir arguing his way forwards. She leaned towards Magnolia, desperately.
“Tell me. Tell me and…I’ll seek him out.”
Magnolia Reinhart decided to pour herself a cup of wine. Rafaema’s fists clenched.
“Tell me! Or it will be a matter for Manus!”
“That is exactly why I will not. I know something. Manus does. If you are unwise enough to bring it to your Dragonspeaker, I trust it will be just her and we shall understand we both have much to lose. Her arguably more than I. I will advise you to go with your Hunt Commander, Rafaema.”
Magnolia waved as the Gnoll advanced. She looked at Rafaema. The Lightning Dragon sat there, vibrating with—Magnolia Reinhart murmured.
“It won’t be forever, Rafaema. Wait until you are an adult and I will make a provision to tell you. He will be there, waiting.”
Rafaema stared at her. The [Lady] rose to greet Makhir. She looked at Rafaema again.
“Either that—or prove to me that when you find him, it will not be Rafaema of Manus, but Rafaema alone. That is my promise.”
Grow up. Grow up, but it was so difficult. How were you supposed to do that, exactly? Most people were lucky. All they had to do was grow older.
“Cire! There you are!”
The Earth Dragon looked up. Mivifa, the Oldblood of Feathers, dove out of the sky with Feathi, her pegasus. Unlike normally, she wasn’t ‘Mivi’, but the Named Adventurer.
She looked old. She hesitated, but she called down to Cire.
“It’s been nearly eight hours! Oteslia’s in a panic! The First Gardener thought you’d flown over the walls and Zeres got you—where have you been?”
She’d found Cire on the ground, walking the streets of Oteslia. It was amazing she’d found him, really. He’d tossed his tracking spells, and in a city of millions, it was nigh impossible to find Cire, even with all the people in-the-know searching for him.
Especially since he wasn’t at any one of his customary hangouts, not even the place where he had hatched. Cirediel had his hands in his pockets. Mivifa swooped lower.
“I—I’ll call the Watch. Wait here.”
“So you’re not going to hang out anymore, huh?”
Mivifa stopped. Her wings were feathered. Feathers. Not snow-white, but a subtler blonde-grey, bordering silver with speckled dots, like Feathi’s own hide.
She floated downwards. Cire stared up at her. How had she…? They must have used a substitute when he met ‘Mivifa’.
This was right. This was who Mivi was. Named Adventurer. Now he looked at her, he felt stupid. Of course she wore makeup. He felt like a fool and turned away.
“Get lost, Mivi. You found me. Congratulations. I’m not dead—you can get someone and go back to doing important things instead of having to follow me around. It must’ve really sucked, huh? Listening to me, having to pretend to be Silver-rank. Mom’s got a Named Adventurer to guard me because I’m that good at Crelering things up, huh?”
“It’s not like that at all, Cire. You don’t Creler much—it’s just—”
He spun back, shouting.
“Don’t pretend, Mivifa! You—how many of them are there? Do I have any friends?”
Cire had tears in his eyes, which he hated. He wiped at them, and furiously swung at her, but it went wide. Mivifa watched him, anguished.
“Cire—I wanted to be your friend. I was. All the time, growing up. I just…”
Her lips moved. Cire was preparing to run away from her, when Mivifa whispered.
“I got old, Cire. I tried, but I couldn’t stay young forever.”
He looked back at her and saw she had grown up. She had always been…he remembered a short Drake girl, running about. Then she got taller, but slowly. Slowly. Then he realized she was grown and then…
“How old are you?”
She looked at him. And Cire realized he didn’t want to know. He was the boy who was young forever. He shook his head.
“Don’t—don’t tell me. I—”
He looked around. He had been walking down the street, to a playground. It was an old haunt, so old only Mivifa had found it from earlier routes. Cire muttered.
“Everyone else is doing important things. I’m the one who…”
“What were you doing, Cire?”
He stared about. The street was empty, more worn than he remembered it.
“It feels like yesterday. I feel like you two knew each other, but he’s older’n even you, Mivifa. Poruniv. Porun. Do you remember…?”
She stiffened. Cire looked at her. He saw a young Drake, sometimes with cuts from scuffles, grinning at him.
“He runs a gang, doesn’t he? That was him. Just like you. I met a guy—we were friends and he was old. He was dying. Do you have to keep lying?”
“I…Cire. I didn’t want to at first. First it was just me hiding a few years. Then—we know how it hurts you.”
Cire’s voice rose.
“Yeah, well, it hurts more when I feel like the biggest idiot in the world! Every time! Mom—”
He stopped and gulped.
“I know Shaerrha isn’t my…I know the other First Gardeners retired. I know they have to be…”
He couldn’t say it. Cire looked away.
“I know they get old. I know that! I can handle it. It’s just—you can’t run around with people who’re thirty. That’s uncool.”
“I know. I wanted to hang out with you, Cire.”
“Did you even enjoy it?”
The Dragon scuffed along, heading towards the playground of swings and balance-beams built into the trees planted there. Ah, they were overgrown. When had that happened? Trees grew so fast.
Mivifa and Cire sat on swings there as evening set. Mivifa tried to smile.
“I did. Really.”
“Liar. I know I’m a child when you get older. Everyone tells me that.”
The Named-rank adventurer’s smile flickered.
Cire avoided her gaze.
“People. I can’t help it. I can’t be old. Rafaema tries—but she’s miserable. Just look at her and that Makhir guy.”
Mivifa nodded. Manus sounded like military training camp to Cire.
“We don’t want to hurt you, Cire. It’s just—”
“Then let me leave. Just let me leave and—and go exploring!”
“We can’t do that. Cire, you’re the hope of Oteslia.”
The Dragon stared at the ground. He kicked at it savagely, unearthing a colony of actual ants. They began to swarm at him—then decided to go rebuild their colony instead. Uncool kick, guy, but what are you gonna do? Bite him? Nah.
“Yeah. The hope of the Walled Cities and the biggest joke. I can’t even wipe my butt without someone holding my hand.”
“That’s not true—”
Cire leapt to his feet, carefully avoiding the anthill. He pointed at Mivifa, suddenly furious again.
“It always happens! You—you and Mom and everyone tell me it’s the last time, but I’m not stupid! You keep doing it! You told me I was going to Zeres and put me on a lake! I thought it was the ocean for three decades! And that wasn’t enough—you know what they did to Rafaema? When she blew up half of Manus?”
Mivifa bit her tongue and avoided his gaze. Cire threw his hands up.
“Her boyfriend was an agent of Manus! She can’t even date someone without them being, like, a super-secret [Soldier] or officer! And—and I know you put tracking spells on us. And that you read our letters! Want to know why we don’t write any? Because I don’t want to write to Dragonspeaker Luciva!”
He stomped his feet and cracked the earth. Mivifa couldn’t meet his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Cire. I’ve tried to give you more space. But everyone worries about you. Everyone does love you, and you two are the last ones ever. You’re the hope of Oteslia. Look.”
Cire looked down. A vast ant colony stretched under his feet, unearthed by his stomping. But rather than swarm over him, the ants bustled around him. Jeez, look at this guy.
They refused to attack. Plants grew faster when Cire planted them. Animals did love him. Feathi was a friend.
The last. It wasn’t true, but Cire refused to tell Mivifa. He might have, a month ago. Now? He looked at Mivifa, the Oldblood of Feathers, and knew they would never be friends again. That was how it worked. He turned away.
“Loved? That’s what everyone tells me. I don’t feel loved. I feel…needed.”
Mivifa stirred. She tried to speak, but Cire held up a claw.
“Just leave me alone, Mivifa. Go do important things. I won’t run away. I’ll just be here. Everyone tells me they’re doing things for my sake. You, the First Gardener, even Poruniv said that. You all sound the same.”
He turned. His wings opened wide, and the Earth Dragon’s scales, brown and green and purple, shimmered in the fading light. He looked up—then hesitated, and raised a claw.
The earth moved together, and the ant colony vanished as it melded. Cire stared down at the ground. One day—Mivifa looked at him. One day, he would guide them all like that. Kindly.
If he didn’t break of sadness before that. Cire spread his wings and flew.
He wanted to be alone. No—he was alone. He saw a streak of blue in the air and flew towards it. He saw Rafaema, fleeing as well. And there were tears in her eyes.
Cire flew at her and caught her arm. He embraced her, and hated the way they watched and celebrated it. The certainty grew in his chest, the little secret he had never told anyone, not even Rafaema.
One day, I will run away from this place and never return.
He wanted to run. But the Second Gardener, the nickname for the Earthtenders’ boss, Poruniv, had orders.
Multiple safe houses and havens. Labs, somehow. Workshops—vanished.
Earthtenders was indeed a massive gang, but the amount of damage done in a single day? There were two Faces smashing places up street-to-street, reports of places being found with dead gang members with no wounds—and [Maids].
Maids. It was like some kind of sick joke. But Poruniv was furious. The gloves were off and there would be a reckoning.
So he sent Faces. On the attack. Neverwhine, Zanzeil, and nearly a dozen more were called in. Favors pulled, arms twisted. Threats made.
“Ecleeif. You’re on killing those damn Callers. I want them dead.”
Poruniv’s face was still puffy from nearly getting sucked into a void. He pointed at the [Sorcerer] and the Drake gulped.
“M-me? Why me? Send Zanzeil and Neverwhine!”
The Gnoll with the Creler-poison on claws and the huge, double-headed dog [Beast Master] both glared at him. Poruniv shouted.
“Don’t argue! You’re a [Mage]—they’re warriors. Blast them! I’m sending you with a full combat group. Just hang back, hit them, and if you somehow miss—”
There were threats laden with his orders, but Poruniv just had to wound them or keep them from attacking. The [Sorcerer] knew he could do it. His [Airless Box] spell hadn’t killed either Caller, but it was swords versus sorcery.
But if they get me, I’m dead. I’m dead! Ecleeif was under no illusions. There were Faces and Faces. Some qualified because they were famous more than deadly. He’d even heard a child was a Face in Invrisil, which went to say something something something.
But those two? They were death walking. They had walked into the Earthtenders’ hideout, nearly done in Poruniv but for sheer luck, and killed dozens of the main crew before getting away. Even a broad-daylight attack had failed.
They scared Ecleeif shitless, and he stopped in a public outhouse to lose a few pounds. The [Sorcerer] hurried to get to his meeting place, sweating as he washed his claws with a quick [Flame Jet] spell. He stepped outside, cutting through a park, and a gold coin was lying on the ground.
Ecleeif stopped and looked around. Now here was a find! He reached down for it, and heard a voice.
“Want to bet on it?”
The [Sorcerer] spun. He pointed a finger, hesitated, as the young man threw his hands up.
“Ancestors. Rickel? Do you want to die?”
The [Gambler] grinned.
“Hey, Ecleeif. Sorry, but I thought you’d do something if I didn’t get your attention. Mind not blasting me?”
The [Sorcerer] thought about it.
“You’re in over your head, Rickel. Poruniv wants you dead. First the mistake with the flowers, now this…you’d better find a way to make it up.”
Rickel put his hands in his pockets.
“I didn’t make a mistake with the flowers. They’re worth everything, right? Not my fault.”
Ecleeif chewed his lip. He knew he was late, judging by the position of the sun, but he lingered…glancing at a sun-dial.
“Yeah, well. That’s not what the boss thinks. What, you want me to put in a good word?”
He vaguely liked Rickel. The young man was a mediocre [Gambler], but he knew his way around places, and Ecleeif would have sworn he was smart…until his stunt the other day. Rickel shrugged.
“I don’t think it matters. Listen, Ecleeif, let’s be honest. The Earthtenders are going to war, right? Against the Gentlemen Callers?”
“Those two? Yeah. Two Faces from up north. Crazy bastards.”
Ecleeif shuddered. Rickel smiled crookedly.
“School? We don’t go to school. They’re insane. Either they die or…no, we’ll get them. But I don’t want to be one of the ones who dies taking ‘em out, you understand? If you hadn’t saved them—hey, that’s right!”
Ecleeif was getting angry. He pointed a finger at Rickel.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t drag you back to the boss!”
“Because I wouldn’t appear in front of you without a backup plan, Ecleeif. For all you know, the Gentlemen Callers are waiting around that tree.”
Rickel nodded, looking calm as could be. Ecleeif’s scales prickled. He lowered his finger, glancing around.
“Hold on. Why are you here?”
“It’s been a weird day, Ecleeif. First I meet a room full of real people. Like, genuine movers and shakers. The Gentlemen Callers—it’s all connected. Oteslia’s moving. Can’t you feel it? And Poruniv’s making bad plays if he wants to get in front of them.”
His eyes glittered. He grinned. Ecleeif gave him a nervous laugh.
“That all sounds…terrible for business.”
Rickel nodded reasonably. He gestured, and the [Sorcerer] walked slowly with him.
“Doesn’t it? I know you’re like me, Ecleeif.”
“In what way? We both appreciate a good chest over a tail?”
They had bonded over similar tastes. Rickel nearly tripped. He laughed.
“No! We’re sensible. You don’t think fighting the Gentlemen Callers is smart, do you?”
Ecleeif bit his tongue. He did not, but even saying that was a bad idea. Just let the two do what they wanted! Ancestors, why was it all personal? They had so little to gain from making Magnolia Reinhart an enemy, but Poruniv was a patriot.
“I bet a lot of people, even Faces, see it that way. Tell me—are Neverwhine and Zanzeil really that dedicated? I don’t think Zanzeil is, but Poruniv pays him well.”
“More than me.”
The [Sorcerer] scowled. Rickel eyed him, smiling again.
“And now he’s sent you to go after…who? Wilovan and Ratici?”
“I can’t say. Look, Rickel, whatever you’re trying to do, I’m an Earthtender. You have no idea how dangerous Poruniv is.”
Ecleeif turned away. Rickel called out.
“He’s only dangerous until he starts losing power, Ecleeif. And there’s a [Princess], two top Faces, and Magnolia Reinhart on the other side. And me. What if I told you it was a safer bet not to go and get killed?”
The [Sorcerer] turned. He saw Rickel produce something, swear, and drop it.
“I nearly broke my hand! That’s heavy!”
A thunk. It should have been a clink, but that much metal in one place was more like a solid object. Rickel had pulled something out of his bag of holding. Ecleeif stared at it. He approached, opened it, then closed it fast and stared up at Rickel.
“Where did you get that? You’re not that rich! Did those two give you…?”
He stared down at the huge, simple bag filled with…gold coins. Ecleeif’s tail began to wag, but then he wondered why Rickel had pulled it out. The young man squatted down.
“Believe it or not, that’s not even a thousand gold coins. You can’t even lug around a thousand gold coins. My bag of holding feels lighter. Whew!”
He wiped his brow. Ecleeif eyed it. That was a lot of weight to just…Rickel grinned at him.
“So. What if we said…six thousand gold coins. All together. You never show up. I know there are independent safe houses; I even have a few rented.”
“To begin with. I know you earn a lot. How about earning more? And if you can find people who think the same way—”
Rickel squatted there. Ecleeif stared at him. The [Sorcerer]’s lips moved.
“What’s stopping me from blasting you and taking the rest?”
“Ecleeif! What kind of an idiot would I be if I didn’t have plans for that? And I can’t carry how much money I have. Stick with me, Ecleeif, and let’s not do dangerous things. How about it?”
He held out a hand, grinning. The [Sorcerer] stared at the bag of gold, and Rickel.
“Who…you’re not a [Gambler], are you? Who are you?”
The young man winked at him.
“I don’t gamble about important things. Call me Mr. Opportunity. I see it, I go. I think it’s time to play for keeps, don’t you?”
He waited. Slowly, Ecleeif made up his mind. The [Sorcerer] reached out and took Rickel’s hand, and the young man beamed. The two stood up as Ecleeif levitated the bag of gold up. He was still uncertain.
“You think we can actually take out Earthtenders, Rickel? Or replace Poruniv?”
The young man walked forwards. He turned to Ecleeif and spread his arms.
“Ecleeif, I can do anything.”
He stood there, radiating confidence. The gold he promised Ecleeif was there. No [Gambler], not Rickel, if that was even his real name. He was on the trail of something huge, and coffee was the sideshow act compared to this. It was going to be tough, but the Gentlemen Callers and Lyonette had an ace in the hole, and Rickel didn’t gamble.
He was an orchestrator, a planner, a trickster. He had been a [Con Man]. But that was before the Golden Triangle. If he had to buy the Earthtenders? Earth’s [Trickster of Fortunes] grinned. Time to make a play for his side.
Two children held hands.
Weren’t they all children, in the end? Did they ever grow up?
Yes. There was a day when you were probably older. It had nothing to do with age. Age was just the correlation, not the causation.
Older was something else. It was in a smile or a sigh. It was in what you did—or how you had lived. A little girl could be older than an elderly man in some ways.
It was in her. In her smile. A pure age that Maviola El had never achieved. In some ways, never needed. Had she wanted it?
Lyonette du Marquin grew older in a second and a moment. Older—yet she smiled. She smiled and relaxed, despite the news and short lines of text doing the opposite for her minders.
Ser Lormel broke out into a cold sweat. Dame Ushar and Ser Sest watched Lyonette like hawks. Dalimont? He just looked thoughtfully at her and saw the 6th Princess of Calanfer change.
It came after a day of introducing herself once more to Oteslia’s great and powerful. Meaningless, meaningful. A chance stop at the Mage’s Guild to see if there was any news.
There was, for Erin’s cure. There was news from abroad and home. And a lot of spam mail.
Among it, one letter. Just a short letter, three sentences so short you could write them on a single slip. That was why she had noticed it.
It said everything.
I’m here. Find me with everyone, Mother. I miss you.
Lyonette du Marquin smiled. Despite knowing what it meant. She was able to understand where it had to surely come from. She understood the danger, both heightened and lessened.
How had she gotten there? Why? What was happening? She didn’t know. And—that last line.
I miss you.
It spoke to a silent cry. She was needed and she was not there. She had been helpless when her daughter went missing, and she still was.
Even now, Lyonette knew, Zeres’ army was moving. Portions turning on the Meeting of Tribes. Drake armies were crossing the water line. The hunters were out there.
Yet she smiled. It was not a happy smile. Relieved? It was a bit that, but it was not any of those words at the heart of it. Determined—perhaps.
Something stronger. It was the smile of someone who had waited in uncertainty and grief. Despair and fear. Waited, lost, adrift, helpless, unable to do everything that she had to do.
This was the relief: the call had come. A location, a place. Now—she could throw everything towards that goal. Neither hell nor high water nor Thronebearers nor armies would stop her.
“Your Highness. You have a visitor.”
Ser Dalimont spoke as Lyonette retired to her rooms. She looked up. It was not Wilovan and Ratici, nor Ilvriss, nor even Xif or Rickel. This was a time of action. And time…time was running out.
Even for people who had forever. They could not wait any more.
“Wall Lady Rafaema. And…Cire. Lord Cirediel.”
The two stopped in the room as Ser Dalimont stood to attention. Lyonette addressed him.
“Ser Dalimont, you may leave us.”
He eyed the two. Rafaema offered him her sword. The Thronebearer hesitated.
“As you will, Princess.”
He shut the door, despite the argument with Dame Ushar. Lyonette did not fear danger. And perhaps Dalimont had seen their expressions.
“How can I help you, Wall Lady Rafaema? ‘Raef’?”
Her eyes narrowed. Rafaema started and glared at Cire, whose face said it all in extra-large type. Lyonette nodded to herself.
“I—apologize, Your Highness. I—was hoping to speak with you privately, and I thank you for making the time. I have a delicate issue I would like to bring up, but the matter is touchy. Exceedingly touchy.”
Lyonette raised her brows. Cire looked vaguely alarmed.
“Raef, are you sure?”
“Absolutely. This is highly confidential, Your Highness. I don’t believe I need to spell things out. I would like to ask some questions, if I may. And if we understand each other, perhaps we can elucidate.”
The [Princess] saw the cautious way Rafaema eyed her. She wondered what Rafaema saw, because she was drawing a blank. So she smiled.
My daughter is in the Meeting of Tribes.
“My daughter is in the Meeting of Tribes, Wall Lady Rafaema. I would appreciate if you can spit out what you want. I will answer you candidly, you have my word.”
The Lightning Dragon blinked. She looked at Lyonette. Cire blinked.
“You…you do have a daughter?”
Lyonette shifted her gaze to him and he flinched, though she was still smiling politely.
“Yes. I did not give birth to her, but she is mine. If that is what you are asking. What do you want?”
“It—is a matter of great secrecy. I can’t divulge it unless you were as informed as…someone who knows.”
Rafaema grimaced. She was dancing with a secret and unsure of how to do it. Just blurt it out? Not to a [Princess], not to Calanfer’s heir, Terandrian might.
A continent of [Knights]. Owners of a Dragonthrone. Why was it so hard? Rafaema hesitated and saw Lyonette narrow her eyes. The [Princess] tapped her lips, then half-rose and fetched a tea set. She offered some cold tea around and only Cire took it. She sipped from a cup, eyed Rafaema, then spoke.
“So? Which is it? It’s not coffee or my identity. Then…are you two some species in disguise? Do I have some kind of object in my possession you need? Wait—are you V—”
She hesitated. Rafaema and Cire jumped and gaped at her. Lyonette stared at them.
“Are you Goblins in disguise?”
The two goggled at Lyonette. She searched their faces.
“You are! You’re something. Not Goblins?”
“We’re not—you don’t know! That’s totally whacked in the head, that’s Lizard-brain thinking.”
Cire blustered. Lyonette looked at him. She looked at him in a way Rafaema had seldom seen, even in over a century of life.
“Yes. I do.”
Rafaema put a claw out. It was shaking. No, Lyonette didn’t know or she would have guessed. But she looked at them and…the [Princess] breathed.
“It’s so obvious. I was distracted, but it’s obvious. You. Onieva. Even that Nerul and Xesci are for something. I don’t care. I wish I did but—yes, I know. I know you’re special, or on some kind of mission.”
“How? A Skill?”
Lyonette du Marquin laughed. She threw her head back and laughed, not like a [Princess], because they were taught not to laugh like that. Like a [Barmaid] at an inn. She laughed, giggling at the mirth and their uncomprehending faces and burst out.
“Because I have known people like you! I serve them drinks and food! I met the greatest [General] in Izril—the world! He stayed at my inn! I knew people who became Gold-rank adventurers. I know a Courier and—”
Her face stopped shining bright and fell sad.
“I know. So tell me. Ask me, and I’ll answer. I must leave Oteslia.”
“You cannot. Not through a siege. Zeres may be slouches in some ways, but they’ve been tweaked twice. To where, the Meeting of Tribes to find your daughter? You will never make it without an army.”
“Or a magical carriage.”
Lyonette nodded to Rafaema. She was so calm. She studied their wings, scales, mismatched eyes, and frowned. As if she recognized something.
The scent was fading. The trail grew colder. And could they trust her? Cire burst out.
“We’re looking for someone. You might not even know who it is. I bet you don’t, not really. But they were at your inn or crossed paths with you. And we want to find—”
“It’s secret. But we need your help. But we can’t trust you. So, uh—checkmate.”
Rafaema and Lyonette stared at him. Had he just checkmated himself? Erin Solstice he was not. Yet Lyonette looked at Rafaema.
“Trust is a difficult thing, especially when you have something truly valuable to hide. I know that full well. I was a [Princess] in hiding. I have other secrets.”
“Mine are like that, Princess Lyonette. But they involve more than just me.”
Rafaema looked at Cire and Lyonette. She seemed tired and old in her own way.
“I cannot give them lightly.”
“I know that.”
Lyonette studied her, then Cire. Then she had an idea.
“We can do nothing without trust, though. Am I right in thinking that you two are more than you look? [Hunt Commander] Makhir seems to guard you, Rafaema, and I have seen no less than Mivifa, a Named-Rank adventurer, protecting you, Cire. This—this involves your Walled Cities. Doesn’t it?”
The two Dragons glanced uneasily at each other. This young woman was a bit too smart. This was exactly what they had been taught to fear. Yet Lyonette looked to them, then went to a drawer for something she had just been gifted. She sorted through it, pulling out a stick of something. Wax? She unveiled a scroll, and then turned to them.
“I…think there’s a simple way to go around the problem. If you don’t mind making a deal.”
Rafaema stared warily at the scroll Lyonette offered. The [Princess] shook it out.
“We could write something more official. But since you do know I am a [Princess], I have a Skill. [Royal Contract]. I am assured it is as powerful as my class, but we could use magic and binding as well.”
“Secrecy. Whatever you want to keep secret, swear me to secrecy. We can bind it with magic and Skills—that is the very foundation of trust. To some people’s minds.”
Little pacts and connections. But Lyonette did not want a little pact or connection. No deal about trade amnesties and so on. Lyonette took a deep breath.
“Tell me what you want and who you’re looking for. Someone like you? If it is a guest—I know all the important ones. I was there in the inn—I surely would know their faces.”
Rafaema licked her lips. Someone who both Magnolia Reinhart and Lyonette knew.
The [Princess] urged them. Her eyes flickered as she looked from one to the other. She couldn’t imagine what it was, but the way they jumped at the mention of other species was distinctly…Fierre-ish. Yet they weren’t Vampires; she was almost certain since she’d seen Cire positively bathing in sunlight.
Nor Goblins. Not enough poking. Her eyes narrowed. What else did that leave? Drakes. Guarded by two very powerful cities…
With very powerful, anxious bodyguards…
…Drakes who had Oldblood wings and scales…
Somehow connected to The Wandering Inn. Someone she had met.
Or someone else had met? Lyonette recalled a rumor. One of the most outlandish ones, and that went hand-in-hand with the [Innkeeper] who could spit blood and slew armies with frying pans and acid.
But then, that [Innkeeper] herself kept bringing it up, no matter how people laughed at her. Which was one thing. She wasn’t exactly the most reliable source.
Klbkch the Slayer now…
A Christmas party. Lyonette du Marquin stared at the eyes. The eyes…which were somehow familiar. Not in color, but the way they didn’t match. That was a rare, rare thing, even in this world.
Her own eyes widened. Her brain—no. It refused the answer. Cire and Rafaema looked at each other. Rafaema spoke, slowly.
“If we tell you, Princess Lyonette. I would have you swear never to reveal it, in a way that cannot be broken. I would have you find…the person we are looking for. We would be beyond grateful.”
“No, that’s not enough.”
Rafaema and Cire looked at Lyonette. Not again. The [Princess] was rising. She turned her head from one to the other.
“I need something.”
“We can’t give you anything. Money? A few artifacts, maybe—”
“No, no. What I need is…help. My daughter is in the Meeting of Tribes. She is in danger. Idiotic Drake armies are attacking there. I need—I must claim her and get her to safety. I cannot do it alone. I need to protect her and get to her. Both things I cannot do, trapped here. But…”
Lyonette looked at Cire. Cirediel, who was beloved and protected by no less than Mivifa of Feathers, Named-rank Adventurer.
With a flying pegasus. And Rafaema, who thought of the surprisingly capable [Infiltrator] of Manus. Ferris.
The two sides looked at each other. Lyonette took a deep breath.
“I could help you both. Find whoever you’re looking for. Track them down, perhaps. If you helped me. I would keep your secret and tell no one, if you swore to help me by the same oath. By Calanfer, the Eternal Throne, House Marquin, and my daughter Mrsha, I objure you to aid me as I keep your secrets, and render you all aid I can to locate the one you seek. In return, you must help me reach and protect my daughter at the Meeting of Tribes.”
She blinked. Something was tracing itself on the back of her hand. It looked like…Calanfer’s sigil. A glowing tattoo of light, radiating outwards and forming a longer design up her arm. Rafaema eyed it.
A Royal Skill. She was uncertain.
“Help you find your daughter. Find and protect her. What are we swearing by?”
Lyonette looked at the two. Magnolia Reinhart had so many deals. Lyonette cared little for them, with people she could not trust. Someone you could trust? Who would be there?
That. That was everything. So she smiled, not entirely carefree, but relaxed. She offered the hand to the two.
“You will help me get my daughter back. Or die trying. And if she dies first, so will we. I shall perish before I reveal your secret.”
The sigil was tracing itself up her arm. The two Dragons hesitated, staring at that clear, blue gaze. Rafaema’s claw twitched. Yet that pact. She saw Lyonette, desperate, smiling, and couldn’t take her hand. She lowered her claw, and turned away.
Cirediel of Oteslia reached out and took Lyonette’s hand. Rafaema spun back. She saw the light trace up his arm and he yelped, but he didn’t let go.
He looked at her, trying to grin.
“Let’s find the last of us together, Rafaema. And if we don’t save Lyonette’s kid—you can find them. How’s that?”
The [Princess]’ eyes opened wide. The light grew, and she looked at him.
She was leveling. Cire grinned, and whispered in her ear.
Author’s Note: I had to cut a tiny bit. And I am tired…but we got it done.
We always get it done. And be ‘we’, I mean, ‘me’. But I hope you enjoy being along for the ride.
I tire. It will be a long month. We are only two chapters in and we cannot sustain this energy, especially if I push hard early.
But that’s why we do these things! I push for quality and if I need to break or take rest, I do. Better that than coast. You put mugs on coasters. Let’s not be mugs, people.
I’m a bit loopy, so I will rest and eat. Hope you enjoyed the chapter, and see you next time! This was your side story vote by I think literally 4 people. Do you think it was worth it? Let me know and thanks for reading!
Dancing under moonlight, Reunions, sewer Pisces and more by LeChatDemon!
‘Yandere’ Gazi by pkay!
The Death of Magic being mocked by The Healer of Tenbault drawn by Brack, Commissioned by Dado!