[Firebrand is a new story by a friend of mine, Quill! It’s about elemental spells, a magic school, and a journey to become the Firebrand. Consider giving it a read here! https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/56176/firebrand]
“Let me in.”
A Drake stood like a [Beggar] in front of a [King]’s treasury. In every sense of the word, because the gates were open. A rich paradise of…content lay beyond. A trove, if not in exactly gold, then information, knowledge, and spectacle.
Yet the unjust, uncaring tyrant couldn’t part with a single gold coin in this analogy. Not a copper penny. The Drake pressed his hands up against the blank air, as inviting as the open doorway it was—
As solid as stone. He pleaded again.
“Let me in. Please.”
“No. Go away.”
The voice from the owner of the inn was slightly vexed. She had figured out that if she tossed something out of her [Garden of Sanctuary], it could hurt. The Drake had to duck out of the way. His dusky red scales, flushed darker with embarrassment and anger, were already covered with a bit of muck.
It did not go well with the cream-colored suit, highlighted by yellow. And yes—it was a look. He’d tried it on, and it was not flying with his audience. But being disliked was almost part of Noass’ appeal. And this moment was television gold.
“Let me in! Let me in! The world deserves to see!”
Noass howled as he clawed at the opening to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Erin Solstice’s aggrieved sigh was her only reply, but she stayed well out of sight; even the [Cameraman] couldn’t get a view of her.
“Go away! This is private property!”
“Miss Solstice, you cannot deny the entire world the right to see inside—”
Noass’ refrain was cut off by an [Unerring Throw]…of a mudball to his mouth. He gagged and spat as Erin high-fived a delighted Mrsha.
“Go away! No one gets in here! Drassi’s already in here, anyways.”
“Then let her report on—”
Here was the thing. The [Honest Reporter] was having a moment of journalistic struggle. She was part of the audience watching Noass try to talk his way into Erin’s garden. That wasn’t the struggle; Drassi was all too pleased to watch him eat dirt, and she’d let him eat shit if Erin could find some lying around and were willing to throw it.
Yet—she had to admit, Noass had a point. He often did. It was just that he and Sir Relz could find a way to package that point in a quintessentially Drake and often elitist tone. However, the scowling [Innkeeper] throwing mudballs from the side was Drassi’s friend.
More than that—she was Drassi’s former employer, and she’d helped Drassi get this very job. The Drake felt…an odd compulsion to mention that. Should she say it if she ever covered a story with Erin? Or just let Noass do that?
Then again—Erin would never let Noass in her garden. But she wasn’t keen on Drassi reporting on it either. However, Drassi wasn’t an idiot. The Drake coughed and then whispered loudly to Erin as the [Innkeeper] called to Mrsha.
“Mrsha, get a really yucky mudball. No, a snowball! No, a snow-mudball! With worms! Are there worms in…?”
“Erin, maybe you should let me take a look around the [Garden of Sanctuary]?”
The [Innkeeper] looked astonished. She was washing the muck off her hands as she stood in her garden after all the excitement of yesterday. It was early morning, and the excitement was still palpable. However—even Drassi didn’t know where the staff of the inn had disappeared to, and Erin had ejected everyone out of her frozen garden soon after they’d identified it.
The [Strategists], the crowds, and yes, even Wistram News Network were here after word had spread. Yet Erin wasn’t having it.
Mind you, she looked better than she had for the last three weeks. No more wheelchair, and the blotchy skin, coughing, and her weakness had faded. Thanks to magic, she could now walk and dress herself, so she’d actually put on some comfy pants that Drassi and Selys had bought for her.
Erin talked a lot about jeans and the fashion of her world. There weren’t always the same fabrics, but Drassi had found some wonderfully matte, dyed black pants made out of a thin leather layer and cotton composite. The leather she thought might actually be Wyvern, from the raid on Pallass. It was apparently ‘jean’-like, and Erin had put on one of the light Silverfang shirts that had some silver hemming. Just a fairly light green cotton, aside from that with Liscor’s logo of a city over water, but it looked good.
Interview-ready. Drassi herself had clothing to fit a possible [Reporter] job—unlike the tracksuit she’d been gifted to interview and keep up with Joseph and athletic people in, she had on a dress that looked simply austere, a deep rose-red to compliment her sun-yellow scales. However, if she moved or whirled, you could see that the folds were actually yellow—it looked like a flower opening.
If you did it right. Which Drassi had practiced in front of a mirror and Selys for nearly two weeks before debuting it today.
Intention. The reason why Erin had clothing that nice was because Selys had bankrolled a shopping spree. Drassi was far more deliberate. So was Selys, at least, lately. But Erin was in the camp that Mrsha, Bird, and a few others occupied.
Then again—Mrsha was a child. Octavia was closer to Erin, because the [Alchemist] would forget to change her clothes, and neither one would like that comparison. Mrsha might be pleased to run around with no clothing, but she was growing up.
She wore that kilt more often than not when going into the city, and she was now fairly nimble on her two legs. She was…growing up. And whether it was Visma, age, or anything else—Drassi saw the Gnoll girl notice her dress. She was getting an appreciation for clothing, even if she didn’t bother.
Erin—didn’t notice. She scowled and pointed at Noass, who was out of dirtball range.
“Drassi! I’m not even letting Niers’ students into the garden right now. I don’t even trust them—let alone Noass or Chaldion!”
“Hah! You hear that, old man?”
A naked Drake danced through the garden’s door and waved at a scowling old Drake outside. Drassi sighed. There were magic censors since Wistram’s broadcast was on a ten minute delay, but the [Mages] complained about having to censor Saliss since someone had to stare at the image.
That was someone else who didn’t think about clothing. And if Erin had thought in clothes-language, she would have realized Drassi’s intention. That was the point; the Thronebearers and Lyonette surely had.
At any rate, the [Innkeeper] gnawed on one lip as she turned to Drassi.
“The Gardens are…sort of secret, Drassi. I don’t want to show everyone, like, everything, you know?”
And there it was again. Some kind of—instinct? Or just her conscience? The talks she had with Rémi Canada? Journalistic conflict. Drassi hesitated, but she stepped forwards and lowered her voice.
“That’s true, Erin. But if we show everyone a look—just a quick look at the new [Garden of Sanctuary], they’ll be satisfied. It’s mostly buried, anyways. Just give us…forty-five minutes? It won’t even be full coverage. You can let a few Drakes in with shovels or Jewel or someone else. They’ll probably waste time.”
Erin hesitated, and there it was. The [Honest Reporter] watched her expression carefully.
Drassi. Not an idiot. Unlike Noass, she knew how to talk to people. And she had realized something after listening to the inn’s family. Even if Mrsha couldn’t speak, she had a big, big mouth. Drassi wondered how many other people had noticed—
There was more than one [Garden]. Drassi was a resident of Liscor. Unlike Chaldion or Altestiel, she knew what kind of flowering trees surrounded Liscor or were in the garden—and none of them had pink petals.
However, Drassi didn’t need to report on this. She was an [Honest Reporter], and that cut two ways, she was realizing. Erin’s gaze flickered as she thought of the same thing Drassi did.
“The new garden? The other one?”
“Just one look, Erin. It’s not even the biggest piece. You’re famous because of the <Quests>. [Innkeeper] has two gardens in a famous Skill. The Dullahans will have commentary—it’s a one-day piece.”
“I guess. Because yeah, it’s my new garden—and the one I want to explore first. But a quick peek, this once—I guess I can let you in. Forty-five minutes?”
It was actually amazing. When Erin lied, it was usually obvious. Unless she was lying. And she was concealing the other gardens quite well.
Drassi was curious, but she instantly agreed, and she held out a clawed hand. Erin shook on it and, sighing, went over to the doorway.
“Alright, Noass. You win. Come on in.”
The beaming Drake strode towards the door and face-planted into the wall as Drassi watched. Erin cackled as the [Reporter] snorted. The [Innkeeper] pointed to Drassi as the Drake grabbed the magical microphone.
“Drassi Tewing, taking over for an exclusive look into a famous Skill. I believe we have commentary from the Iron Vanguard and Archmage Blackwood waiting. I’ll leave that to you, Sir Relz. Now—let’s just wait for Erin to open her garden and we’ll see what’s happening. Erin, by the way, actually employed me as a [Bartender]. I’m—disclosing that? And she helped me get this very job, so let me just say, I’m very biased in her favor. And a friend. And we’ll be respectfully entering the garden—”
Some days, it really did seem like it was all about Erin Solstice. But then, if you watched the news or just listened to the town crier, you got a very small snapshot of the world.
To listen to the streets of Liscor, the war with Hectval had been the only thing happening in the world for a long time. The north was still buzzing with the fallout from the Circle of Thorns being unveiled, although they’d moved onto the war with Ailendamus and Magnolia’s scandalous proposal.
Narrow views—slices, really—of reality were how you learned about the rest of the world. The trick was…knowing it was a snapshot, a single point on a grid.
And when it was done right, that moment was indeed magical. The reason Erin had a presence on the news was because she could provide that.
That was why every eye was on Drassi. In the scrying orb, the hilarity of Noass’ antics faded away. The [Honest Reporter] checked herself. She accepted a heating spell since it would be cold and she was wearing a dress, but the audience got to see the camera-crew for once.
“No, no makeup—we’re going in. No one kill any Snow Golems if you can…who’s coming in? Adventurer Jewel?”
“On bodyguard duty. And excavation work for Miss Solstice. I’m Captain Jewel of Glitterblade—”
The Human woman was trying to get some camera-time, but Drassi stared at the closed door. Erin had shut it, yet some cold air was leaking around the frozen handle.
Stone. The door had changed. It now looked out of place. It would have fit…somewhere else. A frozen fortress. Perhaps a door set into the side of a keep, and it was larger. Fit for a [General]. Drassi’s words were quieter now, and a Gnoll backed up as she turned to the camera.
“I—to give you all some clarity, I believe we are about to enter the [Garden of Sanctuary]. A legacy Skill inherited from person to person. This is not Erin—the [Innkeeper]’s. She has apparently gained access to an older garden. This was the domain of the leader of the Iron Vanguard over seven thousand years ago. Before the Creler wars, Dolost the Adamantine was said to have this Skill.”
A visible shiver ran down Drassi’s scales. She breathed out.
“They called that age the Wars of Complacency—before the Crelers emerged, Rhir was left mostly barren. There were no Demons. [Archmages] were common, and if my research is right—so were even Dragons, although the times of Dragon-empires were long gone. Think on that. The Iron Vanguard was there. And their leader wore Adamantium armor—he had this Skill. We cannot confirm this is the very same garden, but the stone and design matches that of Invictel, the capital of the Iron Vanguard. We may be walking a place untouched for seven thousand years.”
Her voice trembled, and her eyes were locked on her audience. That was magic. And—whether Erin liked it or not, that was the value of The Wandering Inn.
It was so gripping that no one was speaking. Even people in Liscor were watching the scrying orb—or hurrying to crowd the inn. The Dullahan audiences were just as rapt. Maughin had abandoned his love—the block of Adamantium he was trying to learn to forge—although he’d taken his other love, Jelaqua, to join the crowds in the inn.
However, even though he could have been there—even though he had every right, and more than most—one person watching the scrying orb was not fighting to get a peek.
He had no doubt it was magical. He wanted to see it all.
But Garry the [Baker]-[Chef] had a stall to run. And Garry’s Antinium Edibles was open every day of the week. Count on it.
His audience wasn’t purchasing his goods. They were all staring at the scrying orb. None of them could afford one, Garry guessed. He based this on the fact that they were here for his deals on bread—and they were regulars.
And that half were children. Children were not fiscally wealthy in his observations. Except for Mrsha.
But they were not children like Mrsha. So as he watched and listened, Garry got their orders ready.
“Look at the door. She’s opening it! Look at the snow! It’s at that inn. The one that kills people.”
The children were whispering. Garry interrupted them gently as he pushed a loaf of bread over the counter.
“It does not kill people directly. Here you are, Hisnis. One loaf of bread. I have included a new idea this time.”
One of the Drakes might have been fourteen. He was at that stage where they shot up, or so Garry had been told, but he was shorter, yet to really climb.
He was also not going to purchase anything like Garry’s scrying orb any time soon. Which was why he often came to watch. He had on cheap hide clothing.
Cheap clothes here weren’t cotton—cotton was imported. Corusdeer hide was one of the most common commodities from [Hunters], so if you were strapped for coins, that was what you had. His was old and handed down. And it didn’t fit properly.
The Drake boy stared at Garry’s loaf with great apprehension. He knew what that usually meant.
“Does it have…maggots? Live maggots?”
Garry saw the Drake boy poke the loaf as the others stared at it. One Gnoll girl stood on her tiptoes and sniffed it very suspiciously.
She informed Hisnis. The Drake hesitated. He wouldn’t have associated with the young Silverfang girl a few months ago, but she was a regular like him. Even so, he didn’t take it.
“Does it have anything alive in it?”
“No. Maybe yeast, but it is fresh and baked. It has no bugs.”
“Does it have bug parts in it?”
“…Dirt? Slime? Monster organs or anything they make?”
“No, no, no, and no.”
The Antinium [Baker] was being very patient. The young Drake was almost convinced.
“So what does it have?”
“That is a secret. You must eat it and see. Please tell me if your family likes it. Oh, and here is the rest of your order.”
Garry added a pie he’d been keeping warm and a small box of his newest project. Erin had shown him how to make dumplings, and he’d finally managed to make them stick together. The Drake repeated his questions, but his stomach growled, and he almost snatched the food.
More than enough for a hungry young man. And enough for a family of three. Garry politely indicated his jar where he held coins.
“That will be three copper coins, please.”
Hisnis fumbled with his pouch, but he had three copper coins. One for each item. He put them in the jar, embarrassed, but Garry smiled, and they knew him enough to recognize an Antinium smile.
“Thank you for your business. Would you like to buy anything else?”
“No. Thanks…wait, we missed the door!”
Hisnis pointed, and everyone spun around to Drassi ducking an angry Snow Golem hurling snowballs at her team. They crowded around, but Hisnis grabbed the food and hesitated.
“I’ll—get this home. I’ll be back. Don’t let her do anything interesting!”
He shouted at the others as if they could stop Drassi. Garry nodded and watched the Drake run for it. He had to bring the food back to his mother and his younger brother. It might be breakfast.
It probably was breakfast. And the other guests of Garry’s stall, reminded of their stomachs, began asking for their orders. He delivered them, and his prices were fairly consistent.
One copper coin. One copper coin bought you a canteen of soup—so long as you brought back the canteen to refill—a loaf of bread filled with jam—that was what Garry’s secret ingredient was, Prelon jam—or half a duck roasted in fat.
The older Drake lady looked dismayed when Garry offered it to her.
“That’s my special today? Duck? Wherever did you buy that?”
“Invrisil, Miss Biscale. They had a sale on ducks. I had to use half for a project, but the other half is quite tasty.”
The other half of the project was a duck fat glaze and cuts for some potatoes au gratin. Mind you, that was just for taste and a bit of variety—Garry had made a huge, huge tub, and his helpers, Pisca and Runel, the Flying Antinium, had peeled two hundred potatoes.
Half a duck wasn’t much. But it was all he could save from the seventeen he’d used. Add in to that some tasteful Shield Spider cuts, pan-fried, a lot, a lot of goat’s butter, all the cooking in the six ovens he had—
Well, it had been a project. Miss Biscale tried to offer Garry a silver coin, but he politely asked for his copper.
“It is a copper for good customers, Miss Biscale. Thank you.”
She gave him such a…strange look. A familiar look. Garry felt like he looked at Erin the same way.
“Thank you very much, Chef Garry. I will bring you some recipes tomorrow. I’ll write them down.”
“That would be most welcome, Miss Biscale. I will see you tomorrow. Have a good day.”
She had no family, but he hoped that would be a lot of food, and she did have friends. That duck might be part of a potluck.
Drassi was exclaiming over the keep as Garry handed a young girl a box of meatballs—big ones for eating while you worked.
“Does your family have that mining job now?”
“Yep. They’re all making the new district. We can pay you more, Father said. There are lots of Silverfangs in the city, and they say we’re a tribe now, Mister Garry.”
“Well, I would prefer to be paid the same because it is easy to count. Why don’t you take one of my experimental candy-sticks? See? It is strawberry flavored, and there is an acid fly inside. Miss Imani and I have been making them.”
“Ew! Okay, I’ll take them. Do I tell you how it tasted?”
“Yes, please. There is no need to pay for them. They are experimental.”
Four red, slightly gelatinous lollipops went with the meatballs for breakfast. That was received…less well by some of Garry’s patrons.
Mind you, they ate it. When he’d first run Garry’s Antinium Edibles, the Worker had been very surprised to see people buying his food even with bugs.
Given his prices, it had made sense. But Garry, as a new stall owner, hadn’t realized why until a month later. Then he’d begun offering his specials and taking the bugs out of them.
It occurred to Garry, as he watched Drassi navigate the [Garden of Sanctuary], that he didn’t visit as much as he should. He had been far too sad when Erin was dead, but he and she hadn’t had a lot of time to cook together.
Why, she might not know how successful Garry was. He believed he sometimes, on a good day, broke even with his shop. Which was far better than the gold it tended to bleed week-to-week.
The Free Queen didn’t care. Neither did Garry. He leveled up, which the Free Queen told him was infinitely better than the gold that the Free Antinium had little use for. Moreover—Garry thought that his food was feeding a lot of people for very little.
And this…this was a good thing. Because Hisnis, without Garry’s food, might have to spend a lot of the money he managed to make—or steal, as when Garry had first met him—on worse food.
It was a strange thing. Garry had never set out to do this, but he knew most of the customers who came for his special deals at one copper each, and he listened to them and sometimes gave them more food.
He could not help them with their large troubles. Which concerned Garry greatly, like how Miss Biscale had been about to be evicted due to the soaring rent prices until the rent had been cut by the Council. Or how Comrei, the Gnoll girl, had been worried about her family’s situation, and Hisnis being arrested by the Watch for theft.
All he could do was give them food. Which he did. And sometimes food made it so you didn’t have to worry about coins. A fresh pie—without bugs—made a [Landlord] forgo the rent for a month. Or make a [Guardswoman] more inclined to let Hisnis off with a warning.
That was Garry’s Antinium Edibles, and it had a very select customer base. It did business with the occasional passerby who was often dared to eat something he made, but those who had his food were often surprised by the lack of bugs and quality on display.
Garry quite enjoyed taking orders. He had begun offering birthday cakes to his regulars, which mystified some people, because the rare confectionary, even in Liscor, was something Garry had no problem making. Nor did he count the cost in sugar, and again, his budget was backed by the Free Queen.
He thought of his stall, in fact, like Erin’s inn. Garry hadn’t realized it at first, but Hisnis was like…Garry had been to Erin. Sometimes you needed somewhere to eat food and not be worried about Mister Soot’s minions or whomever was in charge now.
Garry’s shop was right outside the Free Antinium’s Hive. He didn’t have a problem with crime. Crime had a problem with eighteen Soldiers who would charge out of their Hive. Garry had begun adding seats, and the scrying orb kept his crowd busy.
“Does anyone have a special order for tomorrow? I am going to order from Miss Krshia, and if she is to send a Street Runner to Invrisil, I must know now.”
The new cities had really opened up Garry’s markets. He listened as a Drake boy shyly asked if Garry could make something special for a Level 10 celebration and decided he’d make a variation on Erin’s bisque, perhaps. He ran it past the Drake boy and sighed.
“…Lobster bisque? They are very socially acceptable water-borne insects. No? A cake? A lobster cake? No? Just a sweet cake. Very well.”
He wrote down the order and happily went to order some food. Garry was glad Erin was having so much fun on the scrying orb. What he didn’t realize was that if she had knowledge of his humble stall, she would have been quite, quite proud of him.
But that was the city of Liscor. It was changing, and Garry, more than Erin or Lyonette or even Relc and Klbkch, could see how much it was changing.
The Antinium Worker trundling around the city with a basket and a list of groceries for Krshia’s shop, dubbed the Silverfang Emporium since she was so busy she could seldom run it—and hadn’t been in Liscor for months—was not an unfamiliar sight to Liscor.
Antinium had been in the city for over a decade now, but their role was changing.
Selys’ grandmother, Tekshia Shivertail, often sat with some veterans and old Drakes and sipped spicy tea in the morning. It was a bunch of grousing old scaleheads who complained and argued.
Funny. When they’d first started getting together, they didn’t play chess, but cards. And whenever one of them saw Antinium, they’d spit or argue about the decision to let them in. In those days, Workers moved around in a group and often out of sight, at night.
After that, Senior Guardsman Klbkch had started his routine, and people would stop him just to hear an Antinium—the Slayer—talk. But after he’d captured a [Killer] on the streets and slain several monsters on patrols, and after years, he’d actually been a welcome sight, especially if you wanted a competent [Guardsman].
Later…the patrols had started, and everyone would clear the streets when they came by. Tekshia was just one of the Drakes staring at the Antinium show of force…until she noticed one with Yellow Splatters and saw more colors day by day.
Then Hectval. Then the siege and so much more.
These days, the Antinium marching by the Drakes sipping tea was how they started their day, and if they didn’t march by exactly at half-past six, the group would be off-kilter for the rest of the morning.
“Where’s the gemstone fellow? I told you to bring that one. The one with the gemstone on his forehead.”
One of the Drakes harangued the patrol leader as they passed. He was being crotchety, but the Worker turned and actually spoke.
“I apologize, sir. I am Archer E41, and I was not present yesterday. Gemhead is likely on guard-duty. I will report this failure to Strategist Belgrade upon my return.”
“Oh—I didn’t mean you had to. Just so long as I see him sometime this week.”
Tekshia snorted as the Drake tried to clear things up. Antinium were entirely literal. They were also getting more and more interesting.
First paint. Then some decided accessories were as much their personality as paint, like the one which had no paint—save for a gemstone they wore like a kind of tiara between their antennae.
That was just as much an indication of Liscor changing: the fact that people spoke to Antinium and didn’t seem as mistrustful. However—it was still a huge change in one year.
Erin Solstice or not, there was more at play to how fast Liscor was changing. One reason was the Antinium themselves, but another was a power even Tekshia realized most were beholden to. From her Guild to Liscor’s Council—
It was the power of economics. Specifically?
Antinium economics. The patrol of Antinium often took this route, and, as a result, they were not halfway down the street when a panting stall owner wheeled up, smoke and a meaty scent wafting from the stall.
“I’m late! I’m—oh, Ancestors. Good! Hello! Can I interest your patrol in some hamburgers? Antinium-friendly cornmeal buns! See? Hot and very reasonable! Only one silver and two copper per!”
Tekshia’s snort made the Gnoll hesitate, but the Antinium leading the patrol twitched his antennae and then counted the Antinium present.
“The inn is very busy. How many here have had a hamburger?”
He counted the five hands raised out of the entire patrol and decided that it was a good purchase. The Gnoll stared at the gold coins avariciously as another stall owner hurried down the street—too late.
Antinium economics. The Free Hive had a lot of gold, and until now, The Wandering Inn had been getting most of it. It had taken a bit for the restaurants and other sellers of food to realize what they were missing. Only when Pawn had approached a few and bought huge amounts of food at their prices did they realize the Antinium were a literal goldmine.
You might not like them at first, but if you sold to them…none of the Antinium seemed to care that they were being overcharged. They ate happily—and it was good food they wanted. They would not ever say if it were bad food—but Tekshia noticed they were getting pickier and pickier with whose food they bought. Before, anyone offering food would get a sale, no questions asked. Now? You had better know the Antinium were intolerant to gluten or you’d be passed by.
She wondered if she should tell the patrol leaders not to pay so much. Then again—Tekshia also knew about Garry’s stall, and she considered that a boon for everyone in no small way. With the Humans and new parts of the city under development, Liscor really was feeling…new.
For instance, an older Silverfang Gnoll was pondering his next chess move, a tentative addition to the Drake group. Tekshia wondered if she’d get along with some Humans. She sipped at her tea cup and decided they had to try this ‘boba’ thing that Imani’s kitchen was offering via Timbor’s inn.
It was hard to get Imani’s new treats, but Tekshia had a granddaughter, and Selys was going to get it for her.
What even the canny Guildmistress, Spearmaster Tekshia, didn’t know was that the Antinium’s over-expenditures were being noticed by the one authority who could make it her concern. Yet the Free Queen didn’t care.
The Antinium Queen had a giant…cup. It was more like a vat, and she had tea to start her morning too and a huge amount of potatoes for food. Garry’s ‘boba’ were more like chunks in the giant wooden straw he’d had to commission, but the effect was mostly the same.
“The patrols are doing well.”
That was the Free Queen’s comment to Klbkch as he watched the scrying orb. He glanced up.
“What? Yes…indeed. The Hive is doing exceptionally well. I believe there is nothing more to discuss. I shall take my leave.”
“As far as I am aware, you have no [Guardsman] duties at the moment. We are reviewing the Hive’s performance, Klbkchhezeim. Unless something takes priority?”
The way Klbkch hesitated for just a second. And his response.
“No—not at all, my Queen.”
If Antinium could smirk…she saw him glancing at the scrying orb. The Free Queen, Xevccha, took a long sip of her tea.
“How much do we expend on the Antinium—activities, then, my Queen? Perhaps we can curtail their budget.”
Klbkch fidgeted, so unlike him, but he tried to direct their meeting to business. The Free Queen nodded to him.
“You are in possession of our written ledgers. We accumulate more gold via our construction work.”
She had a very…simplistic view of currency. The Free Queen, upon moving to Liscor, had realized that her Hive needed gold for some expenditures. She had obtained it over a decade of Antinium working menial tasks for literally no expense to themselves. Now, she was spending it. She had a fortune in gold and often let Klbkch buy artifacts—but she didn’t really care if it was all gone.
The benefit of people selling to Antinium, or Garry levelling for his work, was all she needed. She wanted gold only so he could buy more food for her. And as long as more money came in than went out, everything was well.
That was about how much the Free Queen thought about finances. She was far more deliberate when she had an accumulation she wanted—and she had broken into Liscor’s market very, very deliberately.
The Free Queen had made her Workers act as laborers and shown Liscor how cheap it was to have Antinium-made goods. She even dabbled in imports these days.
“Klbkchhezeim, I am meeting with the Armored Queen later today. She is sending me two hundred trees of wood. Do you have anything else the Free Hive needs?”
“Two hundred trees of wood? May I ask…why we require that, my Queen?”
Xevccha waved an idle feeler.
“We will sell it to Liscor for building materials. The Armored Queen agreed to locate suitable trees and has even begun an attempt at a forest of her own.”
“Why would she go to this amount of effort in her own Hive, my Queen?”
Klbkch actually looked away from the scrying orb. The Free Queen raised her mandibles.
“Because I offered her two hundred pounds of Garry’s cooking.”
The Free Antinium Hive was in a wonderful position. It could sell many things it could acquire cheaply that Liscor wanted thanks to its route to the Hivelands and Antinium labor. And it could also give the other Hives what they wanted. Food, resources you could only buy from an [Alchemist], magic, and so on.
Everything was wonderful. Save for one thing. The Free Queen actually turned her head, but somehow—the other Centenium in her Hive had cut her off. Then again, one of her antennae was gone.
“Klbkchhezeim. How is Xrn?”
The Slayer hesitated, and he rested his hands on his swords. He was far more mobile, more at home in his new body, but that just made his old form shine more brightly in his memory. Three left—and one was now wounded.
“—I do not believe the Grand Queen will be satisfied if Xrn returns to her Hive. Despite her repeated requests. Xrn is—focused.”
And that was the most evasive answer Klbkch had ever given her. The Free Queen had no skin to crawl, but she sucked down the last tea, and the loud rasping, bubbling noise filled the room.
“I believe I will have a refill of tea. Continue informing me of her condition, Klbkchhezeim. Whatever she wishes…you may go.”
He was halfway out the room as the Free Queen sighed and let one of the Flying Antinium hurry over with a team of Workers to fill her cup. It was all going well. So well…she wondered if she had spare time.
To work on the project the Grand Queen had abandoned? If she had so much time—a part of her longed to do what the Grand Queen had confessed to and create her own statues. But that—that was a luxury. The Free Queen did have work.
“Keep my drink chilled. I will return in two hours.”
She moved herself over to the work rooms, and the Antinium backed away. The Free Queen stared ahead.
If only they had the knowledge of old. They had levelling even the True Antinium had lacked for in such abundance. If only…she brushed the thought aside. It was better than it had ever been. But oh, the dead did weigh on her. A hundred heroes.
They all deserved statues. Yet no matter how hard he looked…she whispered to Klbkchhezeim.
“They will not be in that garden. They deserve to be. But who will remember them save us?”
It was about memory. It was always about memory. The [Gardens of Sanctuary] were on the nose, but everything that made Liscor better, all the gloriousness of now was built on what was lost or would never return.
Even—no, especially immortals knew that.
Ryoka Griffin tried not to stare. She didn’t have a fetish. But even so—she leaned on the railing, then sprang into the air to show off. Just so the [Sailors] looked up and waved and laughed. She gazed down at a sea of faces as she flew overhead.
Half-Elves. Two ships were sailing the treacherously unknown seas to Izril’s north. Ryoka flew around them only for a few minutes, calling out greetings—but she couldn’t stay.
The Pride of the Wellfar was that fast. It didn’t rely on natural wind or currents—it cut the waves like a shooting star. And besides, they were almost back from Terandria.
It was quite amazing how fast they’d returned, actually. Nevermind Tyrion Veltras being able to ride at speeds unmatched—House Veltras had headed south from Ailendamus’ borders, embarked on the greatest ship of House Wellfar, and sped to Izril.
Yes, they had a Citadel-class ship that could scare the Illuminary if it came to a pursuit at sea. Yes, Tyrion was the famous [Lord] of speed. And yes, they wanted to be home.
But mainly they had gotten back to First Landing so fast because Tyrion had conveniently ignored every diplomatic overture from Calanfer and the other nations trying to host and celebrate him. Or at least pin a damn medal to his back.
Ryoka hadn’t realized how many offers he’d snubbed until Jericha had brought it up—delicately. The [Lord]’s response was simple:
“We have been away from home too long. Sammial is waiting for us in First Landing. Hethon is with Buscrei’s family. We shall return with no delays.”
And that was that. Honestly, from watching Jericha’s face, Ryoka thought even the rowdy and irreverent Veltras’ would have made Tyrion at least greet Calanfer’s [King]. Even Lord Swey and Buscrei, let alone the others, were conscientious of diplomacy.
However—Ryoka also guessed that Tyrion’s loss of levels was a reason his House wanted him away from nosy appraisal Skills. He was warded with the best magic they had, but that couldn’t hide the fact that he’d lost countless levels—even his old class.
That Tyrion had told her was shocking. And another sign of his bad judgment abilities. Ryoka was on deck as First Landing came into sight. There she stood, as Buscrei waved a final time and loosed a magical arrow into the air in the half-Elves’ direction. The faint explosion and glittering colors made Ryoka start.
“Courier Griffin. Do you have need of…?”
Someone appeared like magic and offered her a towel in case the ocean air and spray had gotten her wet. Ryoka glanced at the livery of someone from House Veltras and looked around.
“Oh. I, uh—thank you.”
She scrubbed at her hair and the seawater. She was going to drape the towel around her neck until she realized that she could hand the towel back. The servant bowed and backed away, and Ryoka almost went flying after the half-Elves to beg them to take her with them, slower journey or not.
Here she was again. House Veltras surrounded her, and the servants treated her like a guest or worse—as a member of the nobility. She had almost forgotten what she’d been so worried about.
This time, do it better, Ryoka. Just—a bit better? Please?
If she went two months without killing someone, she’d call it a win. Ryoka leaned on the railing and tried to exhale. But no sooner had she leaned there than someone strode up.
Tyrion Veltras was not a man who had a casual stroll. He strode like someone who did not want to waste a second getting from point A to point B. He came to a halt at the railing, and Lord Pellmia Quellae covered his face.
Tyrion had no tactical approach. But he was doing his best, and amazingly, Ryoka didn’t jump into the sea to avoid him. She owed him far more than that.
“I almost feared you would land on the half-Elves’ ships and sail to Baleros. Or the new lands of Izril. I would have had to spend another month in pursuit.”
Ryoka almost choked as she began to take a sip of water. She looked at Tyrion.
“I wouldn’t do that! I was just saying hello to them.”
As mentioned—as he was famously depicted in most images or even verbal accounts—Lord Tyrion Veltras was like a statue. Straight-faced, his beard usually trimmed to exacting fineness, and almost always wearing armor, or, as now, the green and whites of House Veltras. ‘Casual’ clothing looked like old military-style attire on him.
Ryoka, by contrast, had the Runner’s loose clothing, bare feet like a lot of House Wellfar on deck, actually, and a belt festooned with pouches and tools of the trade, not least of which was the Faeblade.
They cut an odd duo, especially given their personalities. Well, they were closer in height, which was one similarity. Their ability to insert their own feet into their mouths was another striking commonality. Tyrion Veltras hesitated with Ryoka’s reply. He glanced at her and then stared at the city coming into view, a massive harbor flanked by two gigantic gates emblazoned with five seals of each noble house.
First Landing. Tyrion had seen it—Ryoka had not. She stared at the massive city, the largest in the north, as he responded.
“…That was a joke. My attempt to be humorous.”
“I can see it has failed. Comedy is not my forte.”
Ryoka heard a snorting sound from the side. You wouldn’t know that to see Buscrei’s red face as she laughed into her arm.
Now, Ryoka was not immune to embarrassing situations. She was positively an infinity-generator of them. However, she was exceptionally grateful when someone else moved in—smoothly—to join the conversation.
“Miss Griffin, it never fails to astonish me to see you fly like that. I’d caution you to beware doing it in First Landing, though.”
Lord Pellmia Quellae, the [Lord of Love and Wine], was the kind of person you liked. He was, in the world of social parlance, a net positive to most situations, be they formal or simply casual. Both Tyrion and Ryoka relaxed around him.
“Why’s that, Lord Pellmia? Anti-air spells? Something else?”
The [Lord] waved that off.
“We’re not at war, and there are a few domesticated Griffins about there. Hawking is a very noble sport—not at all. Simply that if you fly once, every noble from here to Invrisil will demand to see you do it and try your glider. Which is entirely its own problem.”
Ryoka winced at the idea of a panicking member of the nobility doing a nose-dive by accident a hundred feet up.
“Very well advised, Pellmia. I’ll try to—lower expectations.”
“I’m sure we could ride together. It would be pleasant conversation, I trust.”
Lord Tyrion interjected, and Buscrei, Swey, and a few of his cousins oohed in the background. That had to be Pellmia’s influence. Buscrei held up a piece of parchment.
Pellmia glared in their direction, but for some reason, that made Ryoka feel vaguely better.
“I—wouldn’t actually mind that. I really want to see my friends—”
“Of course. We can arrange your transport southwards as fast as—”
Tyrion shut up as Pellmia pointed a finger behind his back at him. Ryoka wasn’t done.
“—but I, uh, wouldn’t mind staying in First Landing a few days. If you and Sammial don’t need to get to House Veltras right away. It’s the biggest city in the north. I’d love to just—see what it has.”
Were pigs flying? Buscrei was staring up at the sky in awe, but Pellmia leapt on the suggestion.
“A wonderful idea! Lord Hethon may be travelling north already—and it’s true, how many chances does one have to see First Landing? There are countless wonders there.”
“Really? Like what?”
Ryoka knew more about the Walled Cities’ fame than First Landing’s. It was so remote that, frankly, she felt like Drake customs and attractions were more familiar to her. For instance, public bath houses were a very Drake thing.
Not so in First Landing. But Lord Pellmia instantly began counting off attractions.
“Aside from your usual run of pursuits—you could do hawking or anything of that kind in House Veltras, who arguably have finer animals and better wilds. However, there is famously a racing course for horses. Griffins—domesticated Griffins, Miss Ryoka—are available to ride. For buildings, perhaps the House of Altreidva would be a stop? That is the gallery of some of Izril’s greatest [Artists]—Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans. You know, I wonder if the Players of Celum are there? But you’d know them. Let’s see. Colousa’s Relics is up there. Izril’s best [Enchanter].”
“Really? The best [Enchanter]?”
Ryoka was surprised, but Pellmia instantly nodded. He raised his brows.
“Save for a Walled City or another major city—why would the best and most high-level individuals not be present? I believe First Landing can lay claim to the highest-level [Enchanter], [Sculptor]—never the [Bard] with Barelle so mobile—oh!”
He snapped his fingers.
“The Adventurer’s Haven! We must pay a visit to the highest-level [Innkeeper] on the continent. She’s moving her inn, and if you have not visited already…”
Even Lord Tyrion raised his brows at that. Pellmia nodded seriously.
“I heard from home. It must be a huge scandal.”
“Why? I had no idea an inn could move.”
Ryoka had heard of that inn in the vague way she knew of First Landing and famous Archmages, but Pellmia elaborated.
“It has always been…mm, fairly mobile. It often changes crossroads, but it is a famously attractive inn. Couriers and the nobility flock to it. They must be in uproar—as entertainment goes, The Adventurer’s Haven is one of the best, Miss Griffin. Someone of the owner’s level has so many—fascinating abilities. She was a Named-rank adventurer before she retired, you see. A famous [Mage].”
The only [Innkeepers] of note that Ryoka had met besides Erin were, er, Agnes, Mad Medain, and the [Reader]. She wanted to know what a Level 50 retired Named-rank [Innkeeper] could do.
“If you’re going, we’ll join in! It’s pricey at times, but I love to visit the inn. Something for everyone—although I’m no longer a young woman, so I can’t have all the experiences. Quite a lot of lucky nights can be had there. It’s a feature.”
Buscrei winked at Ryoka. The other nobles from each family knew the inn too and, apparently, all thought well of it and wouldn’t mind another visit.
“It is certainly a spectacle, but I don’t care for the Adventurer’s Haven.”
…And there came in Tyrion, with such blunt honesty that even Pellmia’s new class couldn’t stop it like a mallet to the face. He amended his statement after a second.
“…But I’m sure it would be excellent for Hethon and Sammial to see it, as well as you, Miss Griffin. Before it leaves.”
“I shall take it upon myself to show you all around. And celebrate our survival of this war! First Landing awaits!”
Pellmia rescued the situation as he pointed to the harbor. The gates were open, and as The Pride of the Wellfar came in, even the harbor slowed to see the greatest ship on the seas come into port.
Frankly, Ryoka thought that the people in the city got a better show than she did. Even the ships inbound and outbound stopped as the Pride signaled the docks. Amazingly, there were berths for even her class, and she slowed to maneuver into port.
Etril Wellfar, the [Captain] of the vessel, only emerged as they were heading straight in. He looked around, and his eyes fixed on Ryoka’s. She started—because here was someone else with a claim on her time.
He was Gresaria Wellfar’s son. They hadn’t been able to speak long—he’d wanted to get away from Ailendamus because they were still technically at war until peace was declared. But here was someone else she had a debt to.
Him and the rest of the world. He bowed slightly to the other nobles waving at the crowds gathering on the docks. As Ryoka had been told, there was a high population of the nobility in the city. She wondered if there were even Reinharts, the most reclusive of the Five Families.
She wanted to explore this city, but she was also in the eye of the storm. Etril spoke.
“Lord Tyrion, House Wellfar has taken you to Terandria and back. The war isn’t at an end, and it may be Ailendamus will damn the seas with blood if they refuse to make peace.”
Ryoka had thought they would sign a deal, but Rhisveri hadn’t officially made peace—perhaps because he couldn’t. The other nations saw this as Ailendamus’ moment of weakness, and despite the ghosts, were pushing on the borders. Etril continued briskly.
“—But we’ve succeeded at the task you swore to me. Veltras and Wellfar ever stand together, forest and sea. I hope I can call on you if ever we need to.”
Tyrion reached out and took Etril’s hand.
“By House Veltras, we will. Whenever and whatever the odds. I will not forget this, Lord Etril.”
From another man, the short address might have sounded cheap given all that had passed. From Tyrion…he meant it. Etril almost smiled, but he glanced towards the people on the docks.
“—And it’ll be Krakens at sea once we dock. The things we’ve seen beggar belief. I must report to my House, but I hope I can speak with you before you fly off, Wind Runner?”
“A-absolutely, Lord Wellfar. Should I call on you here or…?”
Ryoka didn’t know where he’d be going, but the [Captain] smiled wryly.
“I don’t doubt I’ll find you. If I need to, I’ll just sail towards the nearest war.”
Her expression was so colorful that Buscrei began guffawing with Swey. But to Ryoka’s surprise, Etril threw his head back and laughed.
“Peace! Don’t glare at me so, Lord Tyrion!”
He had a sense of humor. She really didn’t know him. But he was Gresaria’s son and…Ryoka didn’t know her much at all either. Only that she was one of the people who’d died when she challenged the Assassin’s Guild. But as First Landing came closer…she realized something.
The city remembered Gresaria Wellfar. It had not been long since the Circle of Thorns was unveiled. And if—
If the theme of the day was television, or a changing city, or just the Free Queen’s wish—this moment would be the catalyst for all of it. For as they landed, Ryoka saw the first signs of how much her reputation—or everything that had happened had changed abroad.
Because fighting for position at the front of the crowd were a bunch of [Mages] wearing those damned robes with Wistram’s admittedly splendid insignia. A television crew, and a Human man was speaking excitedly into the camera.
“—going to have to break in, Miss Drassi! The Pride of the Wellfar has landed, and the victorious House Veltras is disembarking with the famous, nay infamous Wind Runner!”
And while Ryoka Griffin had not seen Erin Solstice’s antics, what with travel and the rest—it was an [Innkeeper] hucking snowballs at Noass from her garden who looked up and saw Ryoka.
First Landing was founded in a time before even General Dolost. Not that much farther back, actually, in the grand chronology of this world’s history—which admittedly had gaps.
Humans were ‘new’ to Izril. New enough that they hadn’t spread across all of Izril’s wilds.
Then again, the reason there were more wilds was because the wars of invasion had scorched Drake and Gnoll lands already fractured from their long war that had seen Walled Cities burn. However, the Five Families dealt the final blow to Drake superiority in the north. The first scions of Veltras, El, Wellfar, Reinhart, and Terland destroyed the last northern Walled Cities.
First Landing was the product of the same hands that had razed the greatest cities of Drakes. And the Five Families had been at least as good at building as destroying.
The harbor should have still been, well, a harbor. No matter the achievement, harbors were inherently messy, busy places where [Sailors] and crew would be fuelling the lifeblood of a port city.
…It was just that this harbor had some, um, differences. For instance, First Landing was flanked by two gates bearing the crests of all five families. Wellfar’s sigil was split in half and would only be centered when the two metal gates closed. And when they closed, the tides themselves would change, because the gates were fifty feet tall over the waves.
They had some kind of greenish tinge to pale silver, which was apparently what happened to mithril-alloy over thousands of years. However, the details were barely faded; mithril didn’t age much.
The docks themselves could hold fleets of ships. The Wellfar’s berth was one of five—fittingly. And that was for the largest ships in the sea. Ryoka had to rotate just to see the rest of the harbor, and that was when the irregularities began cropping up.
Firstly? No bilge water or filth on the docks. No barnacles, no understandable wear from constant water. The stone—the docks were stone—looked fresh, rather like sandstone, and tiled with brighter walkways. She put it down to enchantments to block that kind of thing, but then she saw the real cause.
Ryoka Griffin had never been to Wistram Academy in truth. If she had—this would have been a slightly familiar scene. As it was, her skin chilled a second as she saw House Terland’s great gift to the north.
Golems. They were uncannily humanoid, many of them. Some were the giant, bulky laborer-types slowly dragging cargo from their ships, but others looked like, well, servants.
To Ryoka, Magnolia Reinhart’s servants had seemed uncannily familiar to a certain era in Earth’s history. Now she realized Magnolia had based the dress and style of her servants off of Terland’s Golems.
They had been carved into their clothing, and they tirelessly pushed mops or maintained the docks. In fact—all of First Landing was more magical than any city Ryoka had seen save Pallass.
She watched as an experienced crew of [Sailors] stepped back from unloading their cargo ship. They’d piled a lot of crates up high on what looked like a dais of stone, a rectangle with a glowing gem in the center. As Ryoka watched, it levitated slowly, and a regular-sized Golem began to pull it on a short tether.
“Mage lifts. It must be priority cargo like Reinhart’s damned sugar. We don’t have as many—mostly the unloading is manual these days. Or simpler.”
The comment came from Etril Wellfar. He nodded to another ship, and Ryoka saw a giant clay Golem being tethered to a unique harness. It had to pull a wheeled cargo container towards a warehouse. In fact, Ryoka saw a primitive rail system to make sure that the wheeled lift wouldn’t slip into the ocean.
“How far we’ve fallen. But this is House Terland’s efficiency at work. With Wellfar’s help. I hope you will visit our lands where you might see the true potential of Golems unleashed.”
A [Lady] with a fan idly spoke, and Ryoka jumped—one of Terland’s representatives was watching the docks with a slight frown.
As if a semi-automated dock were something to scoff at. But then—she had grown up here. And the floating archer-Golem capable of miles-distant bombardment was calmly waiting to return to House Terland’s custody.
So Ryoka understood. She understood this city was going to be wild.
Already, she could see landmarks across First Landing. What was notable—well, aside from the docks—were a few elements Ryoka quickly chronicled for later questions.
Firstly—the city was not all old buildings. Some was mundane stone and wood, which fit a city constantly expanding. It had that old inner city with sturdy walls and had progressively gotten more sprawling as it had grown.
Ryoka saw the largest and most impressive towers and buildings were mostly in the center, near the docks, but a few outliers appeared later on. Each one tended to belong to one of the Five Families.
House Reinhart’s sigil was the only one that Ryoka knew by heart along with Veltras’, but they weren’t exactly hard to guess.
Reinhart’s was twisting vines and a single flower—but the vines sometimes looked like snakes. More ornate versions of the sigil included falling petals. House Veltras, by contrast, was of a tree that a bow and lance had been placed against, leaning across the trunk. Like Reinhart, sometimes there were variations.
One of the sigils that Ryoka had seen in the keep had a tiny, tree-like figure half-hidden behind the tree and a Unicorn resting on the grass.
At any rate, she picked out House Reinhart’s sigil from one of the towers. It was…er…glowing. A hazy blue-grey light leaking from the crystalline heart of the tower. She pointed it out to Etril and Tyrion.
“Ah—is that a magical tower?”
Both men glanced over, and Tyrion grimaced.
“Tower Tuell. Reinhart. I believe it was first home to an [Archmage]. I don’t believe it is open for general visitation. I could petition House Reinhart to visit. However, not all their structures are…”
He looked at Etril for the right descriptor. The [Lord] raised one brow.
Lord Pellmia frowned.
“Pleasant. Most of the greatest structures are ruled in some way by one of the Five Families, Ryoka. They were funded or claimed after their owners passed. Tower Tuell was a famous laboratory of magic. Now, I believe it fulfills many of Reinhart’s wants magically.”
Everyone in earshot chorused at once. Ryoka actually saw House Terland’s [Lady] smile, before hiding it behind the fan.
It seemed that the Five Families got along much like, well, an extended family. Grudges and prejudices. Ryoka turned back to the city—there was a huge crowd at the docks. And someone with a scrying orb. But they had moments to look while the shouting and swearing [Helmsman] brought them in and anchored.
The second thing Ryoka noticed was that the outer walls looked…odd. She pointed them out and saw that entire sections had been—vaporized. Blown in. An eighty-foot gap was visible from the harbor—but someone had erected a hazy barrier of light magic there. Other sections were covered with blooming vines and flowers.
“Was that from—?”
“The Second Antinium Wars. The Goblin King broke First Landing’s walls in many places. Those are the repairs. We have not commissioned finer.”
Tyrion’s face froze up again, and all the nobility fell silent. And again—Ryoka remembered that the Sacrifice of Roses had taken place here.
Classic Ryoka. However, Pellmia shook himself with a slight laugh.
“—We might as well replace all the walls, then! Those ‘repairs’ are stronger than the original, Ryoka. See the vines and plants? That was from the Crown of Flowers. They bloom with each season, flowers even in the winter. [Alchemists] love them.”
“People with pollen allergies hate them. Like me.”
Lord Swey announced, pinching his nose. Ryoka nodded slowly.
So even First Landing had seen foes to bring it to its knees in the modern era. And as if that thought heralded something else, Lord Tyrion calmly pointed to something close to the harbor. A black patch of street, a blasted building and rubble.
“There is the Assassin’s Guild. What remains of it. No more of them. No more rot within First Landing.”
Etril’s head rose, and his teeth bared. Ryoka looked at him, and then she saw that rubble and her skin crawled. The scars on her back itched.
There it was. No one had built over it. The Five Families had dug up the very firmament, ensuring no hidden passages or secret tunnels remained. Like a rat’s den, they had purged First Landing of the Assassin’s Guild.
But that had come at a great cost. Ryoka hadn’t been here. But she knew the tale. Her eyes slowly travelled from the Assassin’s Guild to an edifice along the harbor’s docks. A bell stood high above the ships, silent despite the wind that tried to move it.
The Bell of First Landing. It waited, never rung except for war or the death of one of the leaders of the Five Families.
It was right there, on these docks while Maviola El, Saliss of Lights, and the Wind Runner were racing for Tyrion Veltras, that someone had rallied the Five Families. Maviola El had flown the banner, but it was her great friend and rival who ignited those flames in First Landing.
Gresaria Wellfar. The [Harbormistress] had charged the Assassin’s Guild and paid for it with her life. That had been the catalyst that had doomed the Assassin’s Guild here and across Izril, as the nobility broke their fear of them.
“…it wasn’t the Five Families who charged over those docks and killed the [Assassins]. I was there, Tyrion Veltras. I watched my mother and father die like tempests at sea.”
Etril Wellfar spoke, and Ryoka turned and saw his strained expression. He stood on the docks of the ship from where Regein Wellfar had launched every magical spell at the Assassin’s Guild. He pointed, and Ryoka’s shivering grew worse.
Gresaria Wellfar stood there, spear in hand, atop her chariot. She called down to the frightened nobility, challenging an army of faceless figures waiting down the street.
She charged them, alone. They watched as she surged into the [Assassins] and fell, never striking a blow.
Then—it wasn’t the nobility who came to her defense. Not at first. It was a [Captain] from Cenidau, then the crews of the ships.
[Pirates] and [Sailors] avenging the [Harbormistress] of First Landing.
Only then did the Five Families move. Then came the reckoning. But what Etril remembered, what the seafolk remembered, was that it had been them. Not for a noble house, but for the [Harbormistress].
Ryoka’s eyes stung as she listened to the retelling of that story. She hadn’t known.
She had…known the [Harbormistress] was one of the people who’d died, but never met anyone who had known her. Etril was her son. Now Ryoka understood why he wanted to meet her. She searched for something to say as he looked at her. His ruffled clothing was like an older ship’s captain, practical and ornate. But he seemed more like a [Sailor] than [Lord], sometimes.
“Harbormistress. She was a Duchess, for whatever it was worth. The Duchess of Salt, they called her. But she liked being called Harbormistress.”
Ryoka hesitated. She looked at Etril, and eyes like the salt-grey skies waited.
She died because of my arrogance. I’m sorry.
No. Those were entirely the wrong words. She died because of me? Ryoka had said something like it before and been reminded of her arrogance. What else?
I wish I could avenge her? I won’t forget this?
No, and no. At last, the Wind Runner gulped. She looked Lord Etril in the eyes and nodded.
“…I wish I could have met her. She sounds like she was a hell of a woman.”
Tyrion blinked, but Etril’s eyes widened slightly, and he threw his head back. He laughed once, almost in relief.
“She was! A hellion worse than her children. She always told us we were too calm and mild. She tore up Izril with Maviola El. A hell of a woman. I like that.”
Ryoka exhaled, and Etril shook his head, chuckling. She had gotten it right this time. And Etril…he turned and pointed, and Ryoka’s breath caught again as the gangplanks were being lowered.
“Don’t worry. You can still see her. Look there. It went up two months ago. I’ve sailed so constantly after the Circle of Thorns I barely saw it myself. But there she is. Our famous [Sculptor], Haeis of Marble, did it.”
And there she was. Ryoka Griffin saw, next to the Bell of First Landing, a smaller statue.
Still life-sized. That was how big the bell was. Someone—a true master—had taken a block of marble and carved…
Gresaria Wellfar. She stood there, spear in hand, pointing outwards, head thrown back, white hair tinged the faintest green blowing in the wind. Even her skin seemed weathered by the sea, but her eyes were flashing as she stood atop that chariot.
It was so lifelike that, but for the right color, Ryoka expected the woman to move at any second. In fact…Ryoka’s heart raced as Lady Buscrei spoke softly.
“Has she changed postures since last I saw her?”
“She has. That’s Haeis for you. His works change posture—like how some paintings change. Do you know, he put it up in secret?”
“House Wellfar didn’t commission it?”
Even Tyrion was interested. Etril’s eyes lingered on his mother as he sailed home.
“No. We didn’t pay him a thing, and I would have—he put it up in the middle of the night. I think it caused a stir. It—damn. Are they still arguing over the statue limit?”
His smile became a frown as they pulled into harbor. Ryoka saw a commotion at the docks. And—she noticed something else—there was another crowd around the statue of Gresaria Wellfar. They had ropes, tools to winch something heavy, a number of horses, and two Golems.
But the [Laborers] took one look at the oncoming Pride of the Wellfar and Lord Etril and backed up fast. He strode towards the gangplank as Ryoka heard the shouting begin. Cheering from the people at the docks, calls to Lord Tyrion, the news crew—she stared around and felt hundreds, thousands of eyes on her.
She hoped this wouldn’t be a scene. But then Ryoka realized her first mistake. Even without the Ryoka special—everyone else here was quite adept at causing a mess themselves.
Erin Solstice had no understanding of First Landing’s cultural heritage or even most of the people with Ryoka. But she didn’t need to know that right now.
“She’s alive! She’s alive, and she hasn’t lost any fingers. Mrsha, see? See?”
Drassi wasn’t being broadcast at the moment. She was still digging towards the keep in the frozen garden, but the fickle news had switched over to The Pride of the Wellfar coming into port for a bit.
They hadn’t really figured out that they could delay broadcasting the news for later yet. So this live event was showing the gigantic ship as it came in, and there was a familiar head of raven-black hair. Of course, she was so far away it could have been a number of people, especially since you couldn’t see the bare feet.
The real clue was the way she kept shifting awkwardly and the wind that was furiously blowing around her despite the more placid breeze elsewhere. Mrsha stared at Ryoka and smiled. Well, well, well. You made it again.
Everyone else in the inn was less happy to see Ryoka, or her company. Noass was waiting to get back to Pallass, but he spat.
“Tyrion Veltras. The hound of the Five Families himself.”
Erin stared at the spit on her floorboards. She pointed at Noass accusingly.
“Clean that up.”
Then she went back to watching. Ryoka was keeping bad company, but what else was new? Well, apparently a lot of things.
Whoever this reporter on the ground was, he was fairly energetic and a good speaker. Candidate for an actual [Reporter] class and employment by the Five Families.
“—this is the triumphant return of The Pride of the Wellfar, Sir Relz. One of two Citadel-class ships out at sea. As you well know, House Veltras fought against Ailendamus alongside the Dawn Concordat, and Tyrion Veltras himself is returning, covered in glory—and far younger! I would be, of course, remiss to not mention that House El, House Wellfar, and House Terland also contributed to the war effort. House Reinhart is typically absent, but the others will no doubt be claiming some of the glory, and I expect the celebrations will shake First Landing!”
Sir Relz was on the splitscreen broadcast. As Drassi had said, he really could be clever, but right now he had the bemused expression of a foreigner trying to show mild interest in something he really didn’t care about. The Drake adjusted his monocle.
“I, ah, see, Mister Wetiole. I assume there’s a custom of celebrations? You do seem to give the Five Families a lot of credit.”
The Human man didn’t seem deterred by Relz’s attitude, which endeared himself to his viewers, Erin included. He beamed as he gestured towards the gangplank being lowered.
“One has to, in First Landing, Sir Relz! The Five Families or nobility in general take offense, and their fighting is to the north as the Walled Cities squabbling is to the south!”
“I don’t think that’s an entirely appropriate analogy. Can you get an interview with this Wind Runner or Lord Tyrion?”
“We will try! Although Lord Tyrion is infamously aloof—oh, but there’s Lord Etril Wellfar, the [Captain]-appointed head of The Pride of the Wellfar. A very prestigious position after the passing of the late, irreplaceable Gresaria Wellfar, who died challenging the Assassin’s Guild. In this very spot—I think there might be some trouble. It looks like they were trying to remove her statue again, and Etril Wellfar is not going to take that well. Oh dear.”
The camera swung back to the statue, and Erin’s head jerked up.
The name reminded her of someone. Her eyes locked on…that old woman who’d come after Maviola! But Erin remembered someone else. Someone she had met in the lands of the dead, who had helped save her.
Gresaria Wellfar. And then she saw the crews about to do something to the statue, and Erin felt a pulse of anger in her chest. That was nothing to the look on Etril’s face as he stormed down the ramps.
The cheering and the crowd of nobles prepared for some kind of ceremony stopped as his voice began to sound off in the background. The wincing Wetiole gave commentary.
“It’s, uh—a First Landing problem, Sir Relz. You see, the greatest [Sculptor] in Izril, Haeis of Marble, pulled a Sellme the other day. I think that’s a Drake analogy you can understand? It’s a wonderful tribute to the [Harbormistress] and a work of art—she moves and changes posture, you know. But it’s interfered with First Landing’s statue-limitations law, and it is a problem.”
“I don’t know if ‘greatest [Sculptor] in Izril’ is an appropriate claim to make. Have we compared his levels with Drake—or Gnoll artisans? But do go on about this statue argument? I wonder if we could check in with Drassi again? I don’t think we need to delve into civic details, Wetiole. You are live.”
Sir Relz inspected his claws. At this, the energetic man’s smile faltered.
“I think it’s a bit relevant, Sir Relz. I, uh, could I talk to Drassi? I feel like there’s a bit of hostility here, and she is my inspiration.”
The monocled Drake’s brows drew together in outrage.
“Drassi’s busy. And I think we can all appreciate some unbiased coverage from another species who understands that, from an outsider’s perspective, the minutiae of another nation’s customs are not—”
Erin was about to chase after Noass and shout at him. She was just turning when Sir Relz’s viewpoint disappeared and Drassi appeared in his place. She was pointing at the ramparts of a keep buried in snow; the garden was so filled that the top of the keep was being excavated by Jewel and some others.
“—I think I see a door. See if—what the heck?”
She jumped, looked around, and then listened to something in a speaking stone in her earpiece.
“That idiot did—ahem. Hello! Who am I speaking to? What’s going on? Oh, Ryoka Griffin! Personal acquaintance of mine. Distant friend. Friend is, uh, putting it generously, but I’ve met her. And is this First Landing?”
“Reporter Drassi! Wetiole here—”
The man beamed and introduced himself as Drassi found herself acting as news-anchor from the garden. She nodded rapidly as he did a recap.
“I see—so what is the statue-limitation law? I’m interested. Petty people are tons of fun.”
The people in the background of Wetiole’s feed laughed. He smiled and went on.
“Well, this is as petty as it gets—in a sense, Reporter Drassi. Basically, there is an old law on the books in First Landing that none of the Five Families are allowed to have more statues of each other than any other. This unauthorized statue of Gresaria Wellfar has put House Wellfar ahead, and the other Five Families want it gone—or to all have another statue of themselves. And between you and me, no one wants more of the nobility enshrined!”
“Ancestors, that is petty! So they’re trying to remove it? And Lord Etril…uh oh. Bad taste?”
“And bad timing!”
Lord Etril was having a heated argument with House Wellfar’s leadership, an affronted [Lord Admiral], as the other members of the Five Families watched. A [Lady] of the Reinharts was watching with a delighted smile as House El looked resigned and House Terland horrified at this breach of decorum.
“—not going to take down her statue.”
“The law of statues, Lord Etril—this is not the moment. Lord Veltras is waiting to disembark.”
“Then move your work teams back, or I’ll toss them into the surf myself!”
Etril barked. Erin saw the camera moving slowly towards him. In the background, she saw a telltale pair of bare feet.
“Ryoka! Ryoka—oh, wait. That’s not Ryoka. There are more people with bare feet? Oh no. It’s spreading!”
Erin pointed at the second-in-command of the ship, another of House Wellfar’s folk, a [Lady Navigator]. House Wellfar apparently had its nobility serve as actual members of their ships, hence their…down to earth or down-to-sea natures.
However, there were clearly differences, like the [Lord Admiral] who really did not want this argument right now.
“Her statue will be removed to a private space. Perhaps to Wellfar lands. It will not be destroyed. Nothing can be done right now, Lord Etril. You know the laws on statue-limitations. We already have three statues in radius of the harbor. Lord Shellac, for instance.”
He pointed at another statue standing proudly on a huge park looking down over the docks. It was one of those plazas you could walk around. Etril’s eyes narrowed as he stared up at it.
“Indeed we do. One moment.”
He turned and stormed back up the gangplank. The nobles muttered, looking offended, and Erin felt like Etril’s political stock was probably dropping. However, that wasn’t what drew her attention.
“Hey, did he look weird to you just now?”
She turned to the others watching with her. Mrsha scribbled furiously, but Lyonette beat her to the punch. She gave the image a wary look and then turned to Erin.
“I fear he’s going to do something stupid, Erin. He did indeed look off to me. Rather like you do whenever you lose your temper.”
“Me? What does—”
Then everyone saw Lord Etril Wellfar appear on the railings of The Pride of the Wellfar. He called down—calmly—to the nobles on the docks.
“Lord Admiral Deinol, I hear and understand the issue of statue limitations. Allow me to rectify the issue.”
The mustachioed man caught on a second too late. He began waving his hands as Lord Etril turned and pointed.
“Don’t you dare! Krakens damn you, Etril! Don’t you—”
And then Erin went blind for a second. The person holding the camera actually had the wherewithal to aim it at the distant statue on the plaza.
Erin didn’t know what it was made of or which [Sculptor] of antiquity had created it—but whatever it was, it wasn’t proof against a bolt of lightning as large as the statue blowing it to pieces.
The Pride of the Wellfar was a magical ship. It had magical artillery that had forced Ailendamus to flee it on land as well as sea. The first bolt blew half of poor Lord Shellac’s head off and sent an arm spinning into the sea. Two more lanced the statue with pinpoint accuracy, and then a pair of legs and a ruined pedestal were all that was left. Right until the molten fire landed on it and clung, burning, to the base.
When the ringing finally stopped, Etril Wellfar turned back to the stunned crowd.
“There. Problem solved.”
Ryoka’s mouth was open as wide as everyone else’s in the background. Erin gazed at Lord Etril, and Mrsha applauded her new favorite [Lord] ever. The [Innkeeper] heard Lyonette exhale loudly.
“Well, that has put the cat in the royal coop. Of course Ryoka associates with people like him.”
Then the shouting really started.
Ryoka had seen Etril snap. She was familiar with snapping. He had the opposite of chill. However, he was not blind with fury, either.
He had a list of targets he could have erased with the Pride’s firepower. Any statue, really. But he had chosen a Wellfar statue, because he wasn’t stupid.
Exploding another House’s statue seemed like a really good way to start a feud. This? This only got him in trouble with his own House.
Mind you—it was a lot of trouble. Lord Admiral Deinol. Ryoka didn’t know his exact rank, but she had to assume he outranked Etril and was probably one of the leaders of House Wellfar. As she recalled, they had a kind of shared authority unlike the other Five Families.
“Etril Wellfar, you fool! You’ve destroyed Lord Shellac’s legacy!”
“He only invented the sailor’s telescope! And he got that from Drowned Folk! He was a damned landsman politician, not a hero of House Wellfar! He commissioned his own statue!”
Etril bellowed back. Another [Lady] of House Wellfar sporting a noble dress, delicate brocade—and a huge tattoo that Erin was pretty sure Mrsha shouldn’t be seeing—howled up at him.
“And he’s been standing there for three thousand years, you salt-headed fool! Come down here, and I’ll spank you like I used to, you brat!”
Wellfar…was fairly casual. Which was hilarious, because the other noble families were watching this spat with horror or amusement. Erin saw a [Lady] and [Lord] laughing so hard on the ship they could barely stand upright.
This was definitely good televised content. Drassi was chortling—until Wetiole spoke.
“Oh dear. Can we move the camera crew back? I think this might get ugly.”
He was more prescient, knowing what the Five Families were like. The purpling Lord Admiral Deinol had had enough. He shouted, and Erin thought she saw his aura manifest for a second, like the roar of a crashing wave silencing the humor.
“Enough! Lord Etril Wellfar, you are stripped of command! Remove him from The Pride—he has no right to captain her!”
He pointed at the ship’s crew as Etril folded his arms, grimly satisfied. The [Sailors] on board stirred—and then that barefooted woman came striding along the deck. And it got weirder.
[Lady Navigator] Heis was not someone Ryoka knew. She was just one of the crew, but she was a member of House Wellfar and placed highly enough to navigate and essentially run second-in-command to the entire ship.
If anything, she was arguably more competent than Etril; captaining this ship was supposed to be mostly ornamental since Wellfar did not risk their Citadel-class ship and Etril had already been in trouble for taking it into a warzone.
However, Heis barked down the length of the ship at the [Sailors], [Soldiers], and at the people on dock alike.
“Lord Admiral Deinol! I must respectfully decline your order! Circumstances have arisen that require a full Conclave of Ships! Lord Etril Wellfar is to be [Captain] of this vessel!”
“What? What? I gave you an order!”
The man looked incredulous. As well he should—Ryoka saw even Pellmia raise his brows in surprise. Noble families might squabble, but Wellfar had a hierarchy. But Deinol didn’t wait for an explanation.
“[Sailors]! Remove both the [Navigator] and [Captain]!”
He pointed at Wellfar’s people. They knew the score and who was in charge, at least, locally. The [Sailors] looked at each other—and leaned on the railings. One of them, a wild-looking ship’s officer with a half-shrimp face, called back.
“Ship’s spoken, Lord Admiral. No can do. The first man or woman who tries to remove Captain Etril I’ll throw into the waters myself.”
Deinol’s eyes bugged out. Ryoka looked around wildly, and she heard a murmur from the crew.
“The ship spoke.”
“Will of the Wellfar.”
“Shh—keep it quiet ‘till they convene.”
Then she realized—something had happened on this ship. Ryoka could not know that this ship had been visited by one of the ghosts—but it wasn’t a hard realization to make for a certain [Innkeeper].
It was definitely not the way that either side wanted this to be revealed, though. Etril glanced around, surprised by the defiance, but Lord Deinol was currently freaking out. He whirled.
“Take the entire crew into custody!”
The noble escorts were quite plentiful. Wellfar soldiers looked up at the giant ship and exchanged glances, but Deinol howled.
“Summon the Watch! Anyone who resists will be mutinying before the entire House! Tell them to lay down their arms, Etril!”
“Deinol! Give us a chance to tell you what we saw and heard! Don’t be mad—”
Exasperated, Etril called back, but the first Wellfar [Soldiers] were coming up the ramp. They’d almost reached the deck when an arrow sprouted in front of their [Captain]. The man leapt backwards, hit two more, and went sprawling into the waters of the harbor.
The shouts and screams were followed by a second flight of arrows. The nobles shouted in alarm—and then looked up.
Deinol had reached for a sword, but he froze as he saw a man pointing a finger down at the ramp. Lady Buscrei lowered her bow and swore softly, but Lord Tyrion Veltras spoke.
“House Veltras. Draw arms. The moment to remember our debt to Lord Etril is now.”
Lest you forget—House Veltras had sent thousands of their finest soldiers to follow Tyrion Veltras to war. They were all ready to disembark. Instantly, Ryoka saw Jericha draw a sword and lift a wand.
Oh shit. The Five Families looked up as Lord Deinol turned white.
“Lord Tyrion, have you taken leave of your senses?”
Tyrion ignored him. He glanced at Etril Wellfar, who looked as astonished as everyone else.
“Lord Etril Wellfar will not be taken into custody. Anyone attempting to do so will face House Veltras. Withdraw your forces, Deinol.”
Now, the nobility were in full retreat and fighting with the common folk who weren’t giving them an escape route. Deinol hesitated—there was an army of guards at the docks.
But there was a real army on that ship.
“If you raise a blade against us—”
And again, Tyrion cut him off. His cousins were looking uneasily at him, and Pellmia had a grip on his arm.
“—dead god’s sake, Tyrion! Don’t—”
But the [Lord] just called out in a ringing voice.
“House Veltras. Sortie and clear the docks of hostile forces on my signal.”
He lifted his hand, and at that, everyone began running. Because it was Tyrion Veltras. And standing here, watching the train wreck—no, the train going off the rails, hitting the schoolbus and setting a gas station on fire—was Ryoka Griffin.
And she hadn’t done anything! She hadn’t said a word! This was—Ryoka was hyperventilating. How were other people so good at causing trouble?
They could not have a bloodbath. Not in Wellfar. Not between Wellfar and Veltras—not in general! She had to do something.
Ryoka was halfway towards Tyrion before she realized what was happening. Then she lunged and grabbed him as he half-turned. She grabbed his arms and put both in a bear-hug.
“Tyrion—stop! Just pull your forces back, please!”
He stared at her as Pellmia exhaled in relief. The [Lord] took Tyrion’s other side.
“I was just—”
“Stand down! Just tell them to stand down and everyone relax! You won a war—you came back! Etril, do something!”
The [Lord] blinked at Ryoka, then raised one hand.
“Wellfar, stand down! We’ll disembark in peace, Lord Deinol. Let’s settle this at the Conclave of Ships.”
“A-agreed! Peace! Veltras—”
But House Veltras was already standing down. Jericha signaled them as she eyed Ryoka. Tyrion wasn’t resisting much. He just blinked at her as she spoke rapidly.
“Tyrion, Sammial is somewhere in First Landing! You can’t start a war! Just—let Etril sort it out and help him later!”
He nodded fractionally. The nobility turned back, and everyone looked at Ryoka as Etril came striding down the gangplank, looking slightly…amused? He glanced up at Ryoka, and she held onto Tyrion—just in case.
“You may release me, Ryoka.”
“You’re not going to start a battle?”
The [Lord] exhaled slowly as Pellmia eyed him on his other side. He looked from one to the other and raised his brow. Quietly, very quietly, he averted his head and lifted a hand to whisper to them.
“I was not intending to from the start. That was a bluff. I am aware of the fallout.”
Ryoka’s mouth dropped. Pellmia copied her. They stared at Tyrion. Straightlaced Tyrion who—could indeed pull off a feint. It was just that no one expected him to deceive—
In fairness, it had fooled a lot of people on the docks. And in fairness—Ryoka had just watched a Dragon and Wyrm nearly fight to the death, so she was understandably jumpy about confrontations.
Then Ryoka looked down and saw the eyes of the Five Families on her. She saw a shining scrying orb and realized how it looked.
There she was, arms thrown around Lord Tyrion as she stopped him from launching an attack into First Landing itself. The Courier of the hour, who had perhaps been the very reason he went to war. Ryoka let go of Tyrion as if he were made of molten metal, but there it was.
Chaos on the docks. Infighting in the House of Wellfar. A statue burning, another under debate, and they’d barely set foot onto First Landing. A voice sounded in Ryoka’s ears, accusatory.
“This is all your fault. I don’t know how, but it’s all your fault.”
For a moment, she looked around to see if sock-Rhisveri had followed her across the sea. She didn’t put it past the Wyrm to have cursed her with it. But no. It wasn’t a sock puppet.
It was a young boy with pale blonde hair, staring up at Ryoka. His hands were on his hips, and he looked delighted. A familiar man with tattoos was grinning as an orangutan, which had swung them both onto the ship, happily patted the deck.
Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, and Sammial Veltras looked at Ryoka Griffin as Tyrion whirled. Then Sammial launched himself forwards and hugged Ryoka’s leg.
“You survived! And you’re causing trouble! I missed you!”
He beamed as Tyrion froze up. Ryoka blinked and then bent down and hugged Sammial fiercely.
“You’re okay! Sammial! Did the voyage go well? And—”
She turned to the Hundredfriends Courier, and he lifted a hand.
“From sea to land, Couriers all. Greetings, Wind Runner.”
The orangutan, Erek, waved as Ryoka, flustered, tried to bow, hug Sammial, and speak at the same time.
“You’re—the Hundredfriends Courier! Thank you. Is the Waterbear, I mean, Courier Worroar of Cerun…?”
“She’s alive and on her next assignment. I agreed to wait here—Lord Sammial Veltras refused to leave once he heard you were all inbound. I believe Worroar had to leave. For her own sake.”
Seve’s eyes twinkled with good humor, and Ryoka finally prised Sammial loose.
“Sammial—Tyrion. Lord Tyrion…”
The two looked at each other, son and father. Tyrion was still frozen up, but as Sammial turned to him, he cleared his throat, knelt down, and looked Sammial in the eyes.
“Sammial. You look healthy.”
Sammial’s beaming smile turned wary. Ryoka looked at Tyrion and then at Sammial. Tyrion searched for words—you could see it on his face.
“I trust Ailendamus treated you with all due respect while you were a hostage? I am sure you conducted yourself as a member of House Veltras.”
The young [Lord]’s face screwed up, and Ryoka kicked Tyrion. She didn’t mean to, but she just—kicked him in the side. He blinked at her, and everyone stared at Ryoka.
“What I think you mean is—hug him? You fought a war for Sammial.”
She stared Tyrion in the face, more amazed by this than anything else. He blinked at her, and the [Lord] looked at Sammial. Awkwardly. Then he nodded.
“…Of course I did. Why would I not?”
Sammial blinked at his father and then rushed forwards. He hugged Tyrion, and the [Lord] actually hugged him back and picked him up. Awkwardly, but Tyrion was carrying Sammial.
It wasn’t just Buscrei who sighed, or Jericha. Ryoka saw Tyrion holding Sammial, checking him, and in that moment…
Well, it was all well. She turned to Seve, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I’m so grateful—”
“Couriers help each other. Seve-Alrelious. I know it’s a mouthful. And you are Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. I wanted to meet you.”
Ryoka took his hand and felt a strong grip, callused, and smiled. She looked at Seve and then felt someone take her other hand.
“Erek! Sorry, that’s my companion.”
Erek held Ryoka’s hand and tugged her down the gangplank. Seve scolded him, but Ryoka’s smile was actually genuine. Sammial called out.
“Ryoka! Ryoka, I want to fly! I’ve been telling everyone here you can make them fly, and all the other kids want to do it! And you should see all of Seve’s friends! The Waterbear was boring. Courier Worroar didn’t want to fight an orca whale we saw, and she said I talked too much. Lord Etril, can I melt a statue with the ship?”
That was how they entered First Landing and high society. House Veltras, Ryoka Griffin, and scandal. But the key was—she wasn’t running away. Ryoka Griffin walked down the docks, hand in hand with a monkey and Sammial. Somehow, she looked better than before.
The Wandering Inn was in uproar. Hilarity, disbelief, resignation…Mrsha was demanding to know what Erek was. She had never seen a monkey before! She was confused why Ryoka was friends with the evil Lord Tyrion and who that annoying boy was!
Lyonette just scowled at Ryoka. Meanwhile, some of the other people who knew Ryoka were talking.
“House Veltras? Ryoka? That is the least—I mean, of all the Houses, she would choose them. But Lord Veltras? They looked—familiar, don’t you think?”
Yvlon was whispering with Ceria. The half-Elf was laughing.
“I think this is great. Let’s consider doing some work for House Veltras! Pisces, do you remember First Landing? Did you visit? I was too poor to do anything but walk the streets…”
“Me? First Landing? Hardly, Ceria. I too was mostly impoverished. I…imagine it’s something of a sight. Ryoka is looking well.”
The Horns were talking at their table. A Drake slid into their conversation.
“Ryoka? She’s looking good. What’s this about that [Lord]? She saved his kids, right? I guess that’s why they’re hanging around each other.”
Relc Grasstongue glanced at Ryoka’s image a bit too long. Then he sighed. Yvlon hesitated, but Ceria patted his arm.
“Better not listen to any rumors, Relc. But you know Ryoka.”
The Drake sighed.
“I do. She has a soft spot for weird fellows. Huge flaw. But I’m glad she’s alive.”
Even Ceria decided not to add to the rumor mill around Ryoka. For the moment. However, the consensus seemed to be that. It was good Ryoka was alive.
However, the news had hit at least one person in the inn harder than anyone could have guessed. And that person was—Erin Solstice.
She was peering at Wetiole covering the news, trying to interview Ryoka but being kept back by the [Soldiers]. And surprisingly, Erin’s attention was not all on Ryoka.
“Hey, what did they say about that statue? They’re gonna take it down? They can’t do that. That—that was Gresaria. She’s a hero. She—she saved my life.”
The words popped out of her mouth, and Lyonette turned.
“She did? We only met her once, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“She—I met her again. She saved my life. That’s not right. They can’t take that statue down. Will they? That Etril guy blew one up.”
Everyone looked around for someone who might know. That turned out to be Yvlon Byres. She chewed the question over.
“…They might. Wellfar will throw a huge fuss—they might relocate Gresaria’s statue, just because it caused the issue. But the [Sailors] and [Captains] might protest. She was beloved. But it’s about pride, and you know how that is.”
She looked around and realized her audience might not. Erin clenched one hand.
“No! Gresaria deserves more than one statue! She deserves, like, hundreds! If they don’t want it, I’ll take it. Liscor can put it in its plaza or—she deserves a statue.”
“Doesn’t she have one?”
The question dropped into the back of Erin’s mind like a splash of cold water. She looked around, and a figure leaned against the door to the original [Garden of Sanctuary]. He looked…bulkier, not leaner, actually. The armor had something to do with that, but he looked far older. His scales were still light blue, but he had changed from being bookish to being—
Well. A [Strategist]. A [Commander]. A [Strategos].
Olesm Swifttail raised one claw as Erin whirled about.
She ran towards him and threw her arms around him. He blinked as she squeezed.
“Erin. You can walk? I heard—I’m back. Sorry it took so long. I can’t leave command so—Erin?”
“Olesm! You look bigger! What happened? I heard there was a war and—it’s so good to see you!”
He gave her a weak smile.
“Yayde re~. A lot’s changed.”
“What? What? Yayde to you too! Do you have a fever?”
“No, that’s how the Yoldenites—”
Relc groaned loudly. He put his claws over his earholes and raised his voice, suddenly distracted from Ryoka.
“No! No, no, no, no, no! Please tell me it’s not them! Not those yodeling idiots with their ponies! They walk around asking what everything is. And they sing at the crack of dawn, and their stupid helmets—”
Erin was laughing in confusion as Olesm grinned. She let go and beamed up at him. And noticed he was different. Olesm would have definitely been blushing and stammering, but this Drake looked—well, tired but smiling.
And reserved. And he’d been in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. As Mrsha raced up to get a low-five and Lyonette came forwards for a drink and a hug, Erin peered past Olesm.
“What do you mean, there’s a statue of…oh.”
Olesm jerked his claw-thumb over his shoulder.
“I came to say hi to Maviola. I was surprised because I didn’t recognize Gresaria for a moment. How do you…? No, why don’t you take a look yourself?”
Even if they were gone beyond being ghosts, Erin remembered them. And she wasn’t the only one. They were in her <Quests>. Something remembered them too, though they were erased. Eaten.
But someone…something had decided they still mattered. Even if their classes and identities were gone. When had they begun reappearing? Erin thought she knew the answer—days before she had been worthy of the Key of Reprieve.
It was as if what was lost was being restored. But there was no record. Yet stubbornly, piece by piece, the statues were reappearing. Because Erin had been there. So the gap was being filled from her. And that…that change in how things were done, had always been done, out of necessity, out of outrage perhaps at a flaw, an unfair lack—
Well, nothing else would come of that. Just statues. And quests. And…
The statues were there. Everyone that Erin had ever met and lost.
Not Olesm’s soldiers. He had walked the hill and seen so few of them, even the Antinium [Crusaders]. But a few were there.
The statue he had come to see should have had fiery hair. It trailed around her shoulders, loose and wild, like flames from a fire. Maviola El’s head was turned, and she looked exasperated, caught in the middle of an argument. A brief spark of exasperation and fondness in her gaze.
The young Maviola El. The one she’d always been. Her body had aged, but this was how she had always burned. The garden had chosen that, not the older woman. And…Erin came to a stop as she saw the plain wooden bench in the grass where the [Lady Firestarter] sat.
Apista was napping on the bench, between two statues. She fanned her wings lightly as Erin laid her eyes on the second statue and gasped. For there was a second young woman. Lyonette paused in confusion, and even Yvlon was dumbfounded.
There was barely a soul alive who could even tell if this statue was accurate. That it was here was proof—but only Erin knew for certain who this was.
Gresaria Wellfar looked like she had in the lands of the dead. The younger woman who had lived well, with her husband. Her hair was bright green and brown in Erin’s memory, though the statue only had grey, and Gresaria looked like a [Sailor] as much as a [Lady]. She was mid-laugh, in some kind of argument with the exasperated Maviola.
Two eternal friends and rivals sharing a bench. Erin covered her mouth as her eyes stung.
“Gresaria. And there’s Regein.”
She pointed, and everyone saw a fellow leaning against a tree, hands in his pockets, glancing at the two arguing young women from a respectful distance as he stared into the distance, at peace with the moment. Olesm’s brows rose.
“That’s Regein Wellfar? He’s…young.”
“It’s him. I didn’t realize they were here. Of course they were. There are just…so many.”
Lyonette looked sharply at Erin, and Mrsha stopped bawling long enough to look around. But Erin Solstice’s head turned, and she whispered.
“They’re here. They must all be here.”
Not just the Antinium. Not just the adventurers she had known or Goblins. But if there were so many statues…Erin glanced at Olesm, and he slowly sat down next to Maviola.
“This is the greatest Skill I’ve ever known, Erin. No wonder the world is talking about it. But it’s a painful one to have. I don’t know how any [General] could bear to have it if this is what it did. I’m glad you’re alive. So much has changed since you were dead.”
Slowly, Erin sat down. Olesm rested there in the grass, next to Maviola’s statue.
“What happened, Olesm? I heard you led an army…”
The Drake plucked some grass from the hill top and tossed it into the wind. He shook his head bitterly.
“I led one. And it was a stupid mistake. I got a lot of good people killed because I was a fool. Then Hectval came after us again and again. So I went to war. That was the difference. We’re still at war, Erin. Liscor has a second army, and I intend to take them to Hectval’s gates if we must. Ancestors, I’ll buy trebuchets and bombard the city for a month. If they want peace, they’ll pay for it. Then we’ll see what happens after that. But we’re advancing—slowly. The soldiers are getting a lot of time off. I think they deserve it before we get back to fighting.”
Erin heard him, but she didn’t quite understand. She looked at Olesm.
“But I’m—alive, Olesm. You don’t have to attack their city, right? Didn’t you win?”
He glanced at her.
“We won a few battles, but Manus intervened. They killed a lot of Antinium, Erin. And Drakes and Gnolls and Humans. Manus withdrew, but Hectval’s stupid alliance won’t quit. They’ll just attack or raid us. I will have a magical contract enforcing peace or I’ll ruin Hectval.”
“It’s not about you, it’s about everyone. They killed Maviola.”
Olesm gently touched the statue. Then Erin looked at him and saw a familiar look in his eyes. Not cold decisiveness. Not the impartiality of some kind of monster. Even Chaldion didn’t really look like that.
What made a [Soldier] a [Soldier], or a commander, was the way Olesm talked about it. Not a lack of emotion, not some vague hardness of the soul—you could have all these things. It was just in his eyes. The way he didn’t stammer or trip over his words or re-clarify.
He talked about the war with certainty. It would be done. Erin opened her mouth, and he looked at her.
“Let’s not argue about Hectval here, Erin. I’m glad you’re here. And if you wanted a tribute to Gresaria Wellfar—there’s none more fitting. This will last a lifetime.”
He nodded to the perfect statue of Gresaria, even more perfect in its way than the one in First Landing. Erin glanced up at it as she closed her mouth and had a thought. She shook her head and whispered.
“…No. I mean—yes.”
Olesm raised his brows. Erin pointed at Gresaria’s statue.
“It—it will last a lifetime. Mine. But I don’t know—no, I’m sure. It won’t be here if this [Garden of Sanctuary] passes from my hands to another’s. That [General] has no hill.”
Mrsha looked up from rolling around in the grass with Apista. Olesm nodded slowly.
“…I guess that’s how it is. This is a Skill. Unless you did something, it wouldn’t stick. At least we can come here to see…”
He gestured at the statues. Erin turned her head again. She stared into the mists around the hill, and Wil Kallinad, standing at a respectful distance, peered at what she was looking at.
He saw nothing. Nor did the Drake. The [Strategos] glanced his way, and Wil felt a slight shock.
Strange. Was he, the Titan’s student, intimidated by…?
Someone who had the class. Who’d led armies in battle himself. He nodded at Olesm, and the Drake dipped his head in reply. Olesm looked at what Erin was staring at and saw nothing.
She had to show him. One could not simply walk into this garden and find statues that didn’t belong to you. That was the…limitation of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was a weak one, but it suddenly bothered Erin.
She stood up slowly and took Olesm’s claw.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Olesm. I have a lot to say—and there are a bunch of chess-heads. I bet you want to play them.”
He smiled ruefully.
“I don’t think I can keep up Chess Weekly anymore. But I’d love that. Is there something you wanted to show me?”
“Maybe…I dunno. There’s a lot of secret stuff.”
Erin was thinking hard. Olesm watched her and spoke carefully.
“If you want to take it to the grave, go ahead, Erin. But that comes sooner than you think.”
She turned and gave him another look. He ducked his head after a second.
“Sorry, that really was insensitive.”
He had changed. But there was still some old Olesm left. Erin exhaled slowly.
“You’re right. I guess it’s just a balancing act. Here. Take my hand. Mrsha, do you want to see too? I need to find someone. Not just Gresaria. I wonder if I can show you…”
Mrsha raced over and grabbed Erin’s hand. Olesm took her other hand, and everyone drifted after Erin. But she just began walking into the mists. And suddenly—they seemed thicker, obscuring everything. Lyonette called out as she hurried after Mrsha.
“Wait, Erin, I’ll come with—”
She lost sight of them in a swirl of mists and then stumbled through right where they should have been. Lyonette whirled and looked around.
“Where are they?”
No one knew, nor could they find whatever Erin was heading towards. It was just Olesm, Erin, and Mrsha. They really had changed. And that was bittersweet but—
“Ancestors! ANCESTORS! Dragon! Draa—”
Olesm came screaming out of the mists, slashing with his unignited Kaalblade as Mrsha went tumbling backwards, fur poofing out in fright. He whirled, looked around, and Erin threw up her hands as she stomped out after him.
—not that much. The Drake sheepishly lowered his Kaalblade as Wil’s eyes bulged out of his head. Erin seized Mrsha’s paw, scolding Olesm.
“It’s a statue. Alright, he does look like he’s gonna bite you. No questions! Follow me. Who’s—oh. Hi.”
Olesm had a hand over his chest and was panting with a near heart-attack. He went for Erin’s hand with Wil, Peki, and half a dozen others, but Numbtongue elbowed him aside. Lyonette gripped Mrsha’s other paw as the Hob grinned at Erin.
“Can I see?”
She nodded and winked at him. Olesm saw Numbtongue offer him a claw, but hesitated a second too long. Bird happily grabbed his hand, and more people tried to form a living chain as Erin looked around, amused. She walked forwards and…
Thought of who she wanted to see.
“Who are we going to see? Erin? Erin? Who are—”
Lyonette felt something happen as they walked into the mists. She walked forwards, and the feeling of holding a little paw changed into—
Bird walked out of the mists with Lyonette in hand. Wil cursed as he realized he was holding onto Lyonette’s other hand. Mrsha, Erin, and Numbtongue were gone. Bird stared at Lyonette’s hand. He clacked his mandibles accusatorially.
“What have you done with Numbtongue?”
Erin walked onto the same hill, just with fewer people. Figures stood in the mists, which cleared away, revealing them as she passed through…
Perhaps even the [Garden of Sanctuary] had never had so many statues to hold. It seemed to be struggling to contain them all. Numbtongue and Mrsha looked around, wide-eyed, as they passed by statues.
The first one made Numbtongue flinch, and he nearly let go of Erin’s hand to draw a sword himself. But, forewarned, he didn’t blink as she pointed up.
“That’s the Silver Dragon-Knight, Yg—Yderigrisel. I think I got it right.”
“Yg-what? Dragons can become [Knights] too? Who can’t?”
Numbtongue’s jaw dropped. Erin laughed and tried to explain. She let go of Mrsha’s hand to gesture, and the Gnoll threw her arms around Erin’s legs.
“Don’t leave me in the mists to die alone, meanie! I’ll starve!”
“Mrsha! It’s safe. It’s just—hard to find the statue I want. Okay, stay close, you two. And be—respectful.”
It was so rare for Erin to say something like that, both Gnoll and Goblin nodded. So she led them forwards.
There were only a few statues Erin wanted to see. There were so many…but she passed by a few on her way to the one she sought.
The first was Zel Shivertail. He was standing next to a slimmer Drake, in the shelter of the tree. Very close. Intimately close, as if they had slunk away from some kind of official party and were having some quiet words. Mrsha saw Sserys of Liscor glancing over Zel’s shoulder as he stood, hidden by the Tidebreaker.
Erin passed by them with a sad smile for Sserys.
“He really messed up my body, right?”
“Um. In one way of saying that, yes.”
Erin gave Numbtongue a blank frown and a pointed look at Mrsha. He shrugged, grinning slightly.
“They would have laughed.”
“Yeah, probably. Because they’re guys. Come on.”
Erin walked around the tree as Mrsha clung to her pant leg. Next, they came across a strange figure. She was sitting cross-legged, fingers dancing as a beautiful crown of bone sat atop her head. Her cheeks and eyes had a kind of paint on them, highlighting her features. She was…a [Necromancer]?
“I’ve got to introduce Pisces to her. This is…Khelta.”
Mrsha’s jaw dropped as she met Fetohep’s forebear. She was so pretty! Nothing like Fetohep, who could have used some of that makeup. For his entire face. Erin stared for a long time at Khelta.
“She really was amazing. There are so many…you should meet Serept. And His-Xe. And…I’ll show you them all.”
One by one, they walked past the rulers of Khelt. And then a coven of [Witches]. Numbtongue’s eyes widened as he saw one shaped like a tree—and another quite fetching [Witch] who was half-Shark.
“Numbtongue! She’s the most powerful [Witch] ever to walk the sea floor!”
“Yeah. And she has nice teeth. They would like the compliments, I hope.”
Barsoijou grinned at Numbtongue, and Erin wiped at her eyes.
“Yeah. I bet she would. Come on. I don’t see…I don’t see Xarkouth. I hope I never do. He was the bravest—”
Who? The Goblin and Gnoll looked at each other. But Erin took something from this walk. Her back straightened. She looked around and called out.
“This is the statue I wanted to see. The statues, I mean. They’re all the ones I want to see. But not the one I’m thinking of. Show it to me. They deserve a place, or do they predate…you? They deserve a spot. Show me.”
The mists gathered so thickly around her that the [Bard] was afraid he’d be cast out of whatever was happening, despite everything. Mrsha was hugging Erin’s leg, no longer as excited.
“I can’t see them. Where are they? Light. I need…”
Since she had one free, Erin raised a hand. She conjured a glowing ball of fire. It was blue. Blue like depression and sadness and this garden. It didn’t illuminate very far until a pink glow flickered through it. Numbtongue stared as the fire of depression and glory mixed, twin flames pink and blue.
“I should have brought that lantern. I need better fire. I need…this might do for now. Two flames beat one.”
Erin held the two flames aloft, and they burned fiercer. The mists began to part. But they still—struggled. So Erin hesitated. Then she lifted her burning palm to her lips. She closed her eyes and blew.
The flames burned outwards from her palm, impossibly far. Not like Dragonbreath—more like a billowing cloud of gentle fire, piercing the mists. They blew past a [Witch], a stern woman with spectacles that Mrsha was sure would pull her ear and teach her things. But Califor was half-smiling. With rare approval. The flames licked past her and illuminated a shape in the far distance.
Numbtongue’s breath caught. He didn’t know why. He just saw—for a second—something in the far distance that made his heart stop in his chest. Not figuratively. Literally. He clutched at his chest and let go of Erin’s hand, but he wasn’t ejected. Not yet.
The flames of nostalgia burned around a short statue. No—a lot of short statues. And one tall one. Numbtongue’s crimson eyes widened. He averted his gaze. Erin didn’t notice the way he held his chest. Confused—Mrsha peered into the distance.
Was it…a bunch of Mrsha-sized people? It looked like it. They even had facial hair. But Erin just sighed and smiled.
For the flames revealed a huge grin. A jester’s laugh. They chuckled, waiting for her, knowing she could do it. She’d tricked even the garden. So there they were. She pointed.
“Look, Mrsha. Gnomes.”
Gnomes? Mrsha peeked wide-eyed at a Gnome with flight goggles and an astronaut’s vest. Zineryr waved at her. Erin’s gaze was locked on him.
But that was not who Numbtongue stared at. He had stopped as Erin took Mrsha forwards, explaining who they were and what a Bongcloud attack was. She didn’t even realize he had stopped until he spoke.
The Goblin was clawing at his throat and chest. Actually clawing—Erin saw him tearing at his shirt. He was trying not to see, but his eyes were locked on the tallest figure. She looked back in alarm.
“Numbtongue? What’s wrong?”
“Who is—who is that?”
His voice cracked. The mists were still obscuring her—that was the only thing keeping him sane. He didn’t want to see. Something was screaming at him—a roar of so many voices, so deep down he feared it. Like the background noise of his soul. Erin turned. Then she saw what he was staring at.
“Sprigaena. The last Elf—”
The people in the inn not allowed into the [Garden] were trying to see the hill, but they couldn’t look into the mists. Those in the statue-area were waiting for Erin, but they couldn’t follow her.
It was a lot of standing around hoping to be let in on the mystery. Which was all very well if you craved it, but some people had their priorities straight.
Ulvama had taken three blankets into the rec room. She also had eight snack dishes, four drinks, and pillows on the couch. She could watch the enchanted scrying mirror at her leisure.
Because the [Shaman] had such a nice setup, a few others had decided to join her. Since they were still eating for free, Rasktooth and Infinitypear were chomping down. Ulvama hadn’t chased them off, just grumbled, but she did keep nudging Gothica for space. The [Goth] just poked back, and the [Shaman] was grumpily happy.
—Right until she heard the howl coming through the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was like something primal, something deep in Ulvama’s core. She shot up, spilling popcorn everywhere as Rasktooth drew his dagger in a flash and Gothica leapt up with a shriek.
Every Goblin felt it. Numbtongue came hurtling out of the [Garden of Sanctuary], screaming murder. Ulvama raced out of the rec room after him. It sounded like—the [Shaman of the Old Ways] reached for memory and felt a chill.
It almost sounded like the way Velan the Kind had screamed when he became a Goblin King.
She was ready to cast a spell to knock Numbtongue into oblivion. But he did the job for her. He couldn’t harm anyone—including himself—in the [Garden]. He came crashing out into the common room and hit the far wall. Then he fell over backwards.
He—cracked Erin’s wall. Ulvama came skidding to a stop and stared as Erin came panting after him.
“Numbtongue! What happened?”
“What you do? What did you do?”
Ulvama put Erin in a headlock and was screaming at her when Relc got Erin free. Then she checked on the [Bard].
He was lucky he had a hard head—he hadn’t broken a bone. She was worried he’d concussed himself, but he woke up after a few minutes.
“Bad statue. I don’t want to see it.”
That was all he said. Erin looked just as shaken by what had just gone down.
“I swear, I had no idea that would happen. I was just showing him a statue—”
“Which statue, exactly?”
Chaldion called out from his table. One of his [Bodyguards] threw himself forwards as Erin actually tossed a drink at him. Erin panted.
“I’d show you, but you’re not allowed in. Anyone else got a smartass question? Because I’ll ban you. Bring it!”
She stared around, and Venaz lowered his hand. Erin was shaken herself, that was obvious. She gestured at the garden.
“I just wanted to…show people a statue. But I can’t even do that without nearly killing someone! And they won’t stay, and not everyone can see them. I have to let people into the garden just to…”
She sat down as Numbtongue got up and let Ulvama check him over. He didn’t remember what he saw. He didn’t—want to remember.
He wasn’t ready. Ulvama listened to Erin, more furious than ever because the [Innkeeper] kept surprising her. Did she know what she had nearly…?
Numbtongue wouldn’t have become a Goblin King. Ulvama was sure he had no capacity to do that. But Erin had triggered something. Something only Goblin [Shamans] were supposed to know, like the trick she’d taught Palt to wake Numbtongue up from his depression. How much did she know about…Goblins?
Erin bent down, feeling at Numbtongue’s forehead. She helped him up as he rubbed at his skull.
“Numbtongue? Are you alright? I’m so sorry—”
“What did he see?”
Ulvama seized Erin’s shoulder with one claw. The [Innkeeper] looked at her, glanced around the room at all the keen eyes, and hesitated only a second.
“…A clue to one of the world’s biggest mysteries. I think. But I didn’t realize they were part of it. Of course you are. I need—”
She bit her tongue.
“I need to speak to Rags. She can’t get here fast enough. Numbtongue, when she comes back…”
“Yeah. Let her. Not—not me. What was—who was—? Later.”
There was genuine fear in the [Bard]’s eyes. Ulvama looked at Numbtongue, then Erin.
“What was it? Tell me.”
She wanted to know. Wanted more than any jewel or artifact Tremborag’s people had fought over. Erin glanced at Ulvama.
“I could. But…are you part of the inn or a guest or what? Rags’ Goblin?”
Ulvama blinked at the keen look. The [Shaman] realized she was dropping her act and smiled widely.
“Me? Just [Shaman]. Very curious.”
“Uh huh. Well, when you want to choose—let me know. Or wait for Rags. Numbtongue, you don’t remember exactly?”
He shook his head. He was pushing away the memories. Erin bit her lip as she helped him into a chair. She turned and looked around.
“So what did he see?”
Menolit looked very curious. Erin threw up her hands in exasperation.
“I wish I could show them. Mrsha, you remember what you saw, unlike Numbtongue, right?”
The Gnoll nodded. She began to write, saw Peki and Merrik staring over her shoulder, and put down her quill and began to fire off middle fingers until Lyonette scolded her. Erin sat down.
“…I want a statue of them to last. I want—hey, who did that statue of Gresaria in First Landing? Could I, like, hire them to do some for me? I’d put them up in the inn. In the actual inn, or in Liscor if they’d let me. Can I donate statues to the city?”
Every head swung towards her, and Lyonette rolled her eyes.
“Hire the most high-level [Sculptor] in Izril? I don’t believe we can afford that, Erin. Do you know how much a sculpture costs? A good one? And you do need an expert.”
“Well, I—I know that! How much does it cost? But I want one. I’ll save up. Heck—if there was ever a favor I’d ask—it would be for a statue.”
Chaldion had no ears to perk up, but at least one other [Strategist] did. However, Erin was thinking. Lyonette pointed out the obvious again, too-patiently. She knew statues; Calanfer had lots.
“A [Sculptor] can’t design something they can’t see, Erin. Gresaria Wellfar is easy enough because there were paintings of her, but an [Artist] has to use their imagination or a reference.”
“I know. Does anyone have a [Sculptor] class in Liscor?”
Someone slithered forwards and cleared his throat.
“There are few experts in Liscor. There is a [Silversmith] among the Silverfangs who does excellent work, but that’s not exactly what you want. I’ve dabbled in sculpting, but only as a hobby. If you want an expert, Invrisil or Esthelm would be your best bets. And that will strain any budget, believe me. But I can certainly redesign your inn with that in mind. Am I late for my meeting?”
Hexel, the [Architect], looked at the stunned Numbtongue, the crowds in the inn, and then at Erin. He raised one brow as Erin turned to him.
“Of course, you remembered we had a meeting now? I’ll take that as a yes if you need a moment. For some food.”
Erin had forgotten all about her appointed visit with Hexel. However, it was almost as well she had gone into the [Garden] today; it had refreshed her memory.
She had a lot of foolscap blueprints, which surprised everyone, including Hexel. He stared around the inner Earther-rooms that Erin had rushed him into. Lyonette and Ishkr carried out a blackboard with some diagrams he eyed, but his attention was mostly on the blueprints. The [Architect] murmured as he delicately ate some roasted pheasant bites.
“I knew you had secret interior rooms. Quite sensible and mostly [Rogue]-proof, although the higher-level ones will just teleport or phase through your walls, you know.”
“They can do that?”
The [Architect] smiled politely. The Lamia was curled up with a workman’s vest—no lower garments. Not that he needed them, scales glittering bright, yellow flecked with browns and reds. His scar that Drakes had given him shifted when he smiled, but he seemed more at ease after being in Liscor for a while.
“Countering [Rogues] is an entire game for certain specialists, Miss Erin. I’m not one of them, but it’s quite difficult to create something totally impenetrable. And of course, if you have a delicate system with a hundred subtle counters, it might not stop a battering ram. Design to the client’s needs. And it seems like you have—an amazingly ambitious inn. What is…who made this?”
His interested look turned to one of confusion. Erin was hardly good at laying out blueprints, nor was she trained, but she had captured most of the ideas, by dint of someone repeating the instructions a few thousand times.
The [Innkeeper] smiled sheepishly as Lyonette hovered behind her with some tea. Ostensibly to facilitate the discussions, but also because she was intensely curious.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Hexel.”
The Lamia glanced up, and his slitted eyes narrowed on Erin for a moment. He looked down, sorting through a complex layer of blueprints, and spoke.
“…Drevish the Architect?”
Erin’s spray of tea nearly hit the blueprints until Hexel swept them away. Erin gagged as Lyonette nearly dropped her teapot.
“I’ve studied Drevish’s work. There’s not an [Architect] alive who hasn’t. This—fastidiousness. This obscene backward-design and complexity? Even the way he lays out the ideas is quintessentially him. Did you get this from some project he had? Khelt—I’d assume. But this…this is tailored to your inn. How did you do it?”
Hexel was shaken. But he was also intelligent enough to wait for Erin’s response. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then she remembered what Olesm had told her earlier. She took a deep breath. Could she trust…?
She looked the Lamia in the eye and thought about how long he’d been here. Also, Elirr liked him, and Mrsha said Hexel was good. She had to trust someone, so Erin leaned forwards.
“Keep it a secret, Hexel?”
He nodded. Erin whispered.
A one-word explanation. Lyonette rubbed at her forehead. But the Lamia? He looked at her with disbelief, uncertainty, sat back—thought about what everyone had seen—and then exhaled. He took a long sip of tea.
“—Please tell me he can’t haunt the living. Or he’ll drive half the [Architects] to their deaths.”
Erin laughed then bit back a sob.
“No. He’s not coming back. No one is.”
“Oh. I see.”
Hexel stared at Erin and then shook himself. He opened his mouth, shook himself again, and then grabbed the foolscap.
“I’ll scream about that later. Let me just focus on—he wants four floors. Inner courtyard. He’s designing around your [Garden of Sanctuary]. Dead gods, reinforced magic stone? Fire magicore for heating in the wall insulation. Is that—is that a ballista on top?”
Lyonette’s head snapped around to glare at Erin.
Erin was nodding, a huge smile on her face. She watched Hexel sort through the foolscap.
“Mhm. Oh yes, this is by the late Drevish. None of his earlier-stage experimentation. He’s refined all his old processes and done more experimentation. Which he always does, to be fair. It generally works. If I do it right—and he’s laid it out as if I’m an idiot—I love how there are actually ingredient lists for the versions of mortar he wants.”
“He was really insistent about that. He said people often cut corners or get it wrong.”
“To be fair, they do. But I wouldn’t make that mistake. How complex. He’s even included a lot of magical inlays to enhance your inn, assuming you’re going to need them. Okay. If I did this, your inn would have walls most castles would envy. It would have a guest-occupancy of one hundred and twenty, which assumes you’re not piling people into rooms. I’ve seen bigger inns, but this one would be a complex mostly self-contained for defensive reasons. It would have an entire alchemy suite, indoor bathing, a proper cellar complex—warded from Antinium sapping—”
He flipped through the notes.
“…And specific designs incorporating your Skills. Including hidden areas only you can enter via your garden door. It’s wonderfully overdesigned.”
“Can you build it?”
Erin and Lyonette exchanged a glance. Hexel took a moment to sip from his tea cup.
“Oh, absolutely. I can even add a few places for a statue. Although he has one in the inner courtyard, and I think the note says to have him there.”
“He did that? That—that—okay! You can build it?”
Hexel smiled. The Lamia flicked his tail at the blueprints.
“Absolutely. I would do it for the levels alone! We can source a lot of the materials on the market, and despite Drevish’s objections, Demas Metal and the Dwarves coming to the north will really help with the prices.”
“We’ve got Dwarves on Izril?”
Erin hadn’t heard of that. But Lyonette was watching Hexel’s placid face. She coughed.
“Um. Architect Hexel, I notice you haven’t brought up any fees. We have a consulting fee, though you didn’t mention that. Do you want to discuss installments or…?”
Hexel laughed lightly and shook his head.
“For Miss Solstice, I will gladly waive the consultation fee. If I level up from reading these notes, I will pay you. But I don’t believe an installment plan is necessary. You cannot afford this. Frankly, until I see even a—no, half of the budget, I won’t even consider beginning work. There would be no point.”
Erin gulped. She looked at the plans and thought of Drevish. Great guy. Grumpy, but great…and used to designing things for Fetohep, the King of Destruction, and monarchs.
“H-how much do you think this would cost?”
Hexel stared up at the ceiling. His lips moved for a while.
“Let’s assume I have Antinium labor. And that costs on some of the rare materials go down. Oh, and I can prevail on Master Pelt and Master Hedault and other mages in the area.”
“I will also assume I’m trying to get this done quickly, not in four years.”
“Well then, advance me roughly three hundred thousand gold pieces, and we’ll see how fast it runs out.”
It was Lyonette’s turn to begin choking, but Hexel just indicated the designs.
“I’m not being facetious before either of you two object. Drevish wants magicore insulation. As in, magicore? That substance that [Mages] love? He wants enough to fill the lining in entire rooms. Entire pipes of the damn stuff. Oh, and he wants a plumbing system in copper throughout the inn. He seems to think you can have dedicated toilets in each room.”
Erin had told him about modern hotels, and she saw that Drevish, up to the challenge, had designed a lot of guest rooms with an inbuilt toilet and shower or bath. Hexel tapped the blueprints.
“Let’s say I take that out. Make everything out of wood and stone. I don’t know if some of the building would collapse, even with reinforcement Skills. Drevish was a picky bastard. He used to make plans such that if you cut corners, you’d watch the entire building implode under the weight of inferior materials. You do know he’s calling for mithril-alloy in some of his metals?”
Erin covered her face. Lyonette’s smile was waxy. Hexel glanced at both of them and shuffled the foolscap together.
“So. Once you advance me the gold, I’ll begin work. We’ll have to find a foundation if you don’t want me redesigning the inn over your heads, but then again, I could easily just have the Antinium raise the hills next to this inn. By the time this inn is done, no one will be able to dig it out or use [Earthquake] to ruin it. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
Erin’s head rose.
“What, in ten years? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t get that money, Hexel!”
The Lamia gave Erin a polite smile.
“I am not going to disparage your claims, Miss Erin. But I do have eyes. Chaldion of Pallass, Earl Altestiel, and Niers Astoragon are all sitting in or around your inn. I also hear that delightfully precocious Mrsha is penpals with Fetohep of Khelt. Whenever you have my budget, let me know and I will make time for you. Now, did you want to talk about statues?”
A statue cost anywhere from a few hundred gold pieces to tens of thousands. On average. That precluded exceptionally expensive ones made with Skills or with the artisan or materials jacking up the price.
The reason was that a few hundred gold coins paid for a good [Woodworker] to sculpt a statue for a few weeks to a few months. Depending on how cheap you wanted it, the majority of the price could be just finding enough wood of the right material.
But a whole damn statue quarried out of the right marble or granite? Thousands. Start at thousands and move up—just for the effort of finding a block of stone in that condition and transporting it. Even with chests of holding, few devices could hold something of that size.
Obviously, you could get someone else to finance it. And depending on the size, the price scaled down a lot. But if you wanted larger-than-life, the kind that could adorn a plaza—tens of thousands.
That was the simple economics that Orreh, the [Silversmith] of the Silverfang Tribe, knew off the back of his paw, and he wasn’t even a [Sculptor]. He said as much to Krshia Silverfang as he followed her out of the gates.
Somewhat nervously. Everything was strange to Orreh. He had not been at the Meeting of Tribes. He’d worked hard, sent some of his best pieces out to fetch good coin or be gifts for the other tribes, begged for news of their great gift…
And then heard Shaman Cetrule was dead. Heard that Plain’s Eye were ruined, Drakes were marching on the tribes, Doombringers were Doombearers…
It was hard for him to take in. Liscor—just heading to Liscor was enough to make his head swim, but the Drakes were friendly here.
The Wandering Inn scared him. Krshia Silverfang had come calling, though, and [Architect] Hexel himself was paying social calls?
Orreh had been finding work not smithing silver but doing clay models for the Lamia, who liked them because they could demonstrate his work so his teams understood. His Skills let him model in three dimensions, but [Builders] liked a permanent frame of reference if the [Architect] wasn’t personally overseeing them.
“Why me, Honored Krshia?”
The Gnoll [Councilwoman] looked tired, but she spoke respectfully enough to Orreh, who had some standing of his own.
“Because, Honored Orreh, you are an expert in sculpting silver. You have done wonderful little sculptures.”
“Foxes, yes. Even adventurers—custom work. Vanity projects. A [Sculptor] does the same before making their piece in large. But I’m no [Sculptor]. I don’t enjoy stone or clay.”
He protested, but Krshia just grinned.
“Perhaps that’s enough. Erin is a bit—”
—Depressed. The first sight of the [Innkeeper] that Orreh got was a young woman lying on the floor. It could have been a murder scene with a bit of ketchup. As it was, a white Gnoll cub was poking her repeatedly in the side, and Orreh had to restrain himself from shouting ‘Doombringer’.
“Eh. Eh. Ow. Urgh. Oooh. Stop poking me, Mrsha.”
Erin was contemplating the realities of money as Krshia ushered Orreh in. The [Silversmith] wanted to make a good impression, but the first thing he blurted was completely accidental.
“Tribes of old! Is that silverflesh? Men—women of metal?”
He saw Yvlon Byres and did a double-take. She blushed and almost tried to hide her arms, but Krshia stopped the blushing woman.
“Apologies. This is Orreh, Yvlon. A [Silversmith]. Orreh, you know her arms?”
“Silverflesh? It’s just a rumor. Metal like skin that moves and has feeling…Silverfangs used to replace their missing teeth or cap them with silver. I heard Iraz Steelfur had a Skill similar to that, but I’ve only met a few Steelfur Gnolls. True Men of Metal had bodies of metal that could change shape.”
Ceria smiled and gestured to the embarrassed [Armsmistress] as the Gnoll tried to apologize.
“That’s Yvlon alright. What, was there something special about silverflesh?”
“It’s—useful in combat. I don’t take offense, Smith Orreh. I’m used to it.”
She waved his apology off, and Orreh hesitated.
“Only that it was immune to most diseases and could…regenerate? Oh, and there was some great weakness it had to extreme heat and cold—but that could be said of regular skin. Flesh like metal. I don’t remember. Does yours change from silver to iron or…?”
“No, not at all.”
“Ah, then I’m mixing memories. I could ask those I talked with, but my master only brought it up as legend. One arm gold, the other brass, a [Smith] who forged his body piece by piece. Stories like that.”
Yvlon raised her brows.
“If I, um—start losing more body parts or getting golden arms, I’ll ask you. Thank you, Master Smith.”
Flustered, Orreh turned to Krshia and back to Erin. The [Innkeeper] had sat up and was talking to Krshia.
“I’m just depressed. I know I can’t even afford a statue—Lyonette says ‘we can’t use all our money on a statue right now, Erin’. And even a small one would be super expensive.”
“We already have statues in the garden, Erin!”
“Yeah, but I can’t take them—you see?”
Erin gestured as Lyonette called out of the kitchen. Krshia pulled up a chair, produced a comb, and began running it through Mrsha’s hair as the Gnoll leapt into her lap. Orreh sat, trying not to stare at anyone too long.
“I am well aware, Erin. But I thought to offer you a [Shopkeeper]’s answer, yes? If the size is the issue—Orreh is a [Silversmith]. He does figurines. He could at the very least do a small version, hand-sized, and you could have that to show, yes? And if you make a larger statue, these could be the basis for those.”
Erin’s eyes lit up.
“Figurines? Like chess pieces?”
“Or tabletop games.”
Someone muttered from the side. It was, in fact, Troy, putting in a rare appearance from Pallass, his new home. Mostly because a certain Chaldion had wanted to see if he could enter the garden and report back.
Joseph punched his shoulder.
Troy punched back, and the squabble passed completely over Orreh’s head. He had a sample for Erin to see, and she gasped as he showed her a beautiful little Shockwoolie sheep. It was done in such wonderful detail you could see minute curves on the wool.
“I do the fine work with an actual needle. And an enchanted glass to see better. They are made of silver-alloy, but they are quite affordable compared to even a small statue. Architect Hexel has my time, but for a friend of Honored Krshia, I can do a few statues.”
“Would you? I—I’d want a few. Gresaria Wellfar, Maviola, even Khelta and…”
Everyone was listening in, and Erin clamped her mouth shut, but Orreh shifted uncomfortably.
“I, er—could do my best, Miss Solstice. But I am no [Artist]. If you give me a picture, I will try, but I often work based on my mind as well as what I see. It is hard to take a single picture and create a person.”
Especially because a picture had few references of how large their head was and so on, and the artists took their own liberties. However, Krshia’s eyes danced as she turned to Erin.
“I don’t think that’s a problem, yes? Erin can give you a wonderful reference, Honored Orreh.”
Erin’s eyes lit up with delight. She laughed, clapped her hands, and took Orreh’s paw.
“That’s right! Come with me!”
Orreh stared at a life-sized statue of Gresaria Wellfar. From every angle. He touched the stone and pulled his paw away—it felt irreverent. You needed reverence here. This—this wasn’t a statue. This felt like a person encased in stone.
“Can you use that?”
He looked up and remembered to breathe.
“I—yes. I could copy this. This is far, far easier than any picture. I could copy this far more easily than coming up with—it is just copying, yes? What—what is this place? Why do you need a figurine if you have…?”
He gestured around the garden, which was a far more fitting tribute than he could even dream of. Krshia answered softly as she looked around. There was no Cetrule. There was no…
“Because even Skills fade. And she cannot show this to everyone.”
Erin nodded solemnly. She walked over and showed Orreh another famous Drake, and his knees went weak.
“I’d like a lot of them. Sserys, Gresaria…even Kishkeria.”
Krshia and Orreh’s heads snapped around so fast Krshia clapped a paw to her tendons and howled in pain. But she was howling louder at Erin.
“There is a statue of Kishkeria, the Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands, here? Show me! Did you think that was not important, you—you—”
Of all Erin’s friends, Krshia was one of the few who’d grab Erin’s ear and pinch it. Not hard since they were in the garden, but the yelping [Innkeeper] showed them more statues. She leaned into Orreh as he stared in awe at Kishkeria and Seru’nial.
“I think I have a lot of statues if you want the work, Orreh. But there’s one I want more than all of them, and I’m willing to pay you for priority work. And I’d like it to be big. Like—big enough to be placed on a table, maybe. You’ll need to use your imagination, but I’ll pay top coin and help you do it.”
He looked at her with a frown. So did Krshia. Because Erin’s eyes had a kind of gleam, a kind of half-twinkle they recognized.
She had an idea. Which had been building on her since seeing Gresaria’s statue. It was, perhaps, the same thing all owners of every [Garden of Sanctuary] came to. The garden was finite.
But…Orreh followed Erin through the mists. It was not as long or as hard as before, but when he saw the single, short statue waiting for him, his heart pounded so hard he feared he was having an episode like older Gnolls were. He pointed with a shaking paw.
“Is that…a Gnome? It cannot be a Dwarf. Is it…”
“Yep. This is Zineryr. I want you to make a perfect replica of him. A bigger figurine than that little lamb. Silver doesn’t cost that much, right?”
That was a hilarious question, but Orreh was willing to cut her some slack. To carve the likeness of this Gnome…he shook his head absently.
“I can do it. But where…where is the part you wanted me to do myself? This is no harder than any other statue. Less than some, in fact.”
He turned, and Erin Solstice’s eyes twinkled. They sparkled. They danced and laughed almost as hard as the Gnomes. Even dead. Even in memory, she looked at Zineryr and spoke. It wasn’t a prank. A prank was harmless.
This was a trick, a jest, and a move on a chessboard as crazy as the Bongcloud attack. But it was also effective. So Erin Solstice showed him a crude sketch that really, really sucked. But Orreh got the picture as she described it.
“Okay. I want Zineryr standing here on a pedestal. Like this, you see? But he has one hand raised. And—you don’t need to draw many details, just make it up—have a Human man right here. He’s holding him by one hand, and the guy’s all beat up. He has a beard. And then he’ll be standing on top of this stupid guy in robes. There are six of them. You can have one, like, running away in fear.”
“…He’s beaten all six? What does this Human look like?”
Orreh pointed at the one being choked out by a four-foot Gnome, already a difficult scene to envision. It’d have to be a high pedestal. Erin beamed.
“It doesn’t matter. Make him, uh—bald. With a beard! He has to have a beard. Don’t worry, I’ll give you descriptions for each one. Only a few details matter. You’re gonna have a really hard time with one of the women and this—shadow thing, but we’ll make it work.”
She was invested in this project, and even Krshia noticed how fast Erin was gesturing.
“We’re gonna have to have an insignia too. So it has to be big. A plaque. ‘Zineryr’s victory over hair loss, bad dancing, um…’ I’ll figure out the rest. Or maybe names. Tammyroon, Emmerwho, and so on.”
“Erin, why so much effort?”
Krshia was bewildered. She recognized a vendetta when she saw one, but Erin Solstice just smiled. And there was a flinty look in her eyes that few had ever seen before. Few people, even monsters, were her enemy.
“I want it done, Krshia. And I’ll pay to put it up all over the place if I ever get lots of money.”
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes glittered.
“Because it matters. Because even if the memory isn’t one I can show Orreh exactly—that’s how I’m going to remember Zineryr. Holding down six idiots with one hand tied behind his back.”
Orreh gulped and nodded, and after receiving an appropriate downpayment, he began to work out some prototypes for The Wandering Inn’s first actual piece of art aside from Mrsha’s drawings.
When it was done, Erin promised it would be shown in the common room, for all to see. And if they asked, she’d gladly tell them a story about the tale of the last Gnome.
That was how you remembered them. In any city, however they changed, there were still memorials like that.
Often, only for the rich or influential. The people like the [Baker] named Garry would not get a statue that lasted whereas a rich noble who stole designs from Drowned Folk might have a statue that lasted three thousand years until someone blew it up.
However—the unfairness of who got a statue was not the point. It missed the mark that everyone should have one.
If they mattered to you, and you would die, perhaps the true way to remember them was to make sure they’d last forever in words or stone. The [Garden of Sanctuary] was a gift, but it was also painful and heavy.
It would only last as long as you, and then another garden would come to the person who needed it. Who was worthy.
One last city was having an unusual day. And that was Invictel. The largest capital of the frozen north, the Iron Vanguard’s stronghold.
Dullahans living in this city sometimes claimed that the smoke from the foundries could keep the city warm alone. However, the founders of this city hadn’t wanted to risk it.
In Baleros’ north, the snap-freezes could make trees explode with the cold. And blizzards could rain down so much snow that they’d bury a building in dozens of feet of it over weeks.
It was a harsh place. However, that was why Invictel was built the way it was—that was to say, enclosed.
Unlike the Drowned Cities, it had no bubble-shield which would have protected it against snow. Nor did Invictel fear armies climbing its walls, so it was no Walled City. Dullahans were distinctly against copying Drake culture.
Invictel was like a giant shell of metal and stone, from which the only openings jettisoned steam or smoke or were windows into the white landscape. Only during the brief summers would the city open much.
Bleak iron and grey stone from the soot against the landscape. Invictel looked like a misshapen piece of metal in the distance. A city as armored as the folk inside.
However, inside Invictel, the Dullahan city was as bright and extraordinary as any city—just like Dullahans could be so reserved to strangers and outsiders.
Right now, Invictel, never booming with wild and raucous sounds, was quiet. Quiet…with that kind of held breath. Many Dullahan cities probably were like this at this time, but this city was especially silent.
For they were still watching a lone Drake slowly opening the door to a keep in a [Garden of Sanctuary].
The [Honest Reporter] had forgotten her promise to Erin. It was long past forty-five minutes. But to be fair to Drassi—she had almost forgotten she was reporting at all.
“I think…I think the door is open enough for us to enter. Jewel? Jewel, do you want to…?”
The Drake looked around and saw a Gold-rank adventurer stumbling towards safety. Jewel’s hands were red with cold, and she was shivering nonstop—they must have been digging for two hours. The snow had turned to ice. Jokingly, Jewel had called for Keldrass.
…After twenty minutes of blowing fire, the Flamewardens had to retire, and the melted ice water froze almost as fast. The only reason the team had gotten the door to the keep excavated, some rooftop exit, was because of Maughin. The Dullahan had volunteered to help crack and shovel the ice, and he had worked tirelessly for two hours. Drassi herself was so cold her voice quavered.
“This might be dangerous—but I think we’re close to Erin’s limit. I—I think we have to take a look. Master Maughin?”
The Dullahan had frozen the moment he cracked the keep’s door open. He stood there, his personally-forged armor complementing his huge frame, but every Dullahan could see his expression change to naked apprehension. He turned to Drassi.
“I—dare not. I cede the first steps to you, [Reporter] Drassi. Please.”
The Drake was so cold she didn’t notice the way he spoke, just motioned the cameraperson after her. If she did…
Dullahans had such a complex culture of meaning and gestures. Even Kenjiro had trouble keeping up, but they didn’t expect as much from him. If you read into Maughin’s words, you’d see how embarrassing it was for him to countermand her offer. It was rude, especially since he had asked to be part of this. It was rude to General Dolost, perhaps, to let a Drake walk his keep first.
And yet—the entire garden was a kind of scandal. No—not quite a scandal. This was a complicated feeling.
It was like looking at a Dullahan without their armor on. Intimate. Embarrassing because of that. This was his personal Skill. A place so sacrosanct no one had seen it, possibly not even his closest companions.
But every Dullahan wanted to see what a legend of their people had created. They also feared it. Tulm the Mithril, the Seer of Steel—
The very existence of a [Garden of Sanctuary] for a [General] of their people implied…secrets. It implied there was something that was shameful that he couldn’t share with his people. At the very least, it implied he couldn’t trust the Iron Vanguard of that era with it.
So attention? Drassi might not have known it, but an entire species was watching her slowly trail through the keep. No wonder Maughin feared what he might find here.
“It’s…warmer inside. I don’t know how to describe this if you’re watching, but the air is just—warmer. I can’t even feel the cold from outside. I guess this is controlled magically somehow.”
Drassi’s shivering stopped. Her footsteps trailed through stone corridors. Not poor, lumpy stone, but there were no rugs. This really was like a hermitage; even for Dullahans, it was austere.
Everyone in Invictel watched as Drassi walked forwards. What had Dolost wanted to hide?
You see—it wasn’t going to be a flower garden. It wasn’t going to be his passion for woodworking. If you had something like that, you would show your lover, a friend—the most significant act for a Dullahan was to show the inner beauty or passion they had. The value was in the trust of that.
This was something never meant to be seen. Or if it was—it was something Dolost would never reveal to anyone but the closest people in his life. Drassi trailed past rooms, shining a wand into them.
“…I think we’re passing by a library. You see?”
She stopped, and the camera caught Maughin as his breath inhaled sharply. He raised his head and gazed into a ruined library. Books, frosted over, and snow. Drassi exclaimed.
“Oh no. The window—”
It was open or the snow had burst through. Despite the temperature inside the keep—no, because of it, the snow had frozen and melted, ruining most of the books. The ones that looked intact were covered by a sheet of ice.
“Books from before the Creler Wars.”
Maughin whispered. Tulm the Mithril and half the [Librarians] in the world began sending [Messages] demanding someone—carefully—inspect the library.
But the [Innkeeper] might never let them in again. To this garden. Of which there was only one other. Drassi knew the truth, but even this garden…
There was a simple staircase, so wide that Maughin could navigate it with ease. Dolost must have been closer to a War Walker himself or this place was meant to let them in. Down, Drassi went, and the camera, following her, heard a voice.
“The keep’s not that complex. I think it’s three floors. Four if there’s a base—oh. Oh…oh my Ancestors. Um—I don’t know what—M-Maughin?”
She came up the stairs, and countless hearts skipped as everyone craned their necks to see. Drassi whispered to Maughin, and the [Smith]’s face was apprehensive—then confused. Then he put his head on his shoulders.
“Let me see. I think I…excuse me.”
He navigated around her. Drassi stood back against one wall, and the camera captured the slow movement of Maughin’s metal form.
Tromp. Tromp. Tromp…
Footsteps in the dark hallway. The faint, pale blue glow across cold stone. Melting ice. Maughin’s voice echoed from below as he reached the second floor, the one where Dolost’s secrets lay.
Everyone heard an intake of breath—then a cry. What emotion was in his voice? It was sharp—then there was a thump. Metal on stone.
“Maughin? Come on—”
Drassi hurried down, and the cameraperson hesitated. Was there danger down there? In a dead garden?
Down the steps. Twenty-eight, in the winding staircase. Then they saw a hall faintly illuminated—each window set into the keep packed with snow.
Despite that—Drassi’s wand was not the only thing illuminating the room. It had fallen next to Maughin. He was on his knees. The Dullahan’s head lay on the ground.
But the candles still burned. Everburning candles, spaced around the room, their faint light giving the room a quiet ambiance. Illuminating each and every…head perfectly.
For a heart-stopping moment, those watching thought they were real heads. Then, as the candlelight flickered and Drassi exclaimed, they realized what they were seeing.
“Carved heads. What does it…Maughin, are you alright?”
He tried to speak. Then they saw it. And more than one watcher collapsed or made an unseemly display of emotion. Tulm the Mithril blinked, relaxing as he took his hand off the spell to cut off Wistram’s scrying spell to the city.
The Seer of Steel was shaking. He was having a far more emotional reaction to…Drassi pointed at something sitting at the far end of the room.
It was just a pillow, where you could sit with clay, stone, or wood in hand. There were simple tools for each. And upon that pillow you’d sit and with a table—carve.
Carve the details of a face into being. Not the rest of the bodies. Because they were Dullahans. Your armor was something you showed off, but you couldn’t change a head. So the heads, thousands of them lining the walls, were the people Dolost had known.
Soldiers. Officers, perhaps family or civilians. There were no names. He might not have known all the names. But the Dullahan knew one thing:
He knew the statues he saw in the falling snow. So he carved them. Each and every head, and placed them here.
They stared down at Drassi and Maughin and the audience, smiling, frowning, weeping—silent in judgment. So this was what the great [General] of the Iron Vanguard had done.
Tulm the Mithril wondered if Maughin said it. That was what the [Strategist] thought. The perfect example of a hero. Tulm had been…afraid. Very afraid of what they might find. A [General]’s confession. Some sin to make the Iron Vanguard tremble.
Maughin was overcome with emotion as he knelt there. He understood, like Drassi’s audience, what this meant. The effort of a Dullahan who had so little time to himself.
Drassi broke the silence after a long time. Her voice echoed slightly in the vast chamber.
“I think…I think I don’t have the words for this. Nor do I feel like we should intrude any further. I will ask Maughin what he would like to say—but this was the [Garden of Sanctuary] the great General Dolost resided in. Now, it is a memorial.”
“It should be seen by my people.”
Maughin whispered. Drassi tried to help him up, and he rose mostly of his own power. She shook her head slightly.
“It was bequeathed to the current owner for a reason. I’m sure—she’ll be respectful, Maughin. But it is hers.”
Erin Solstice’s. Tulm had not missed those books. Maughin shook his head.
“One more moment. Please…”
He looked at the walls of heads. Now that the camera swung around, you could see the way the room was laid out. The heads looking down from each side—the far wall had a banner, tattered by battle. A kind of altar to make the heads at. A workshop.
It would scare a little Gnoll or most species to death. Which was why Drassi had been so unnerved at first. But it was a Dullahan place, and it meant something to them.
This…let no one touch this, at least. Maughin looked back one last time, and they turned. Dolost’s memorial kept burning in the darkness as, quietly, Drassi led the group back out of the keep and gave a little speech with Maughin before leaving the [Garden of Sanctuary].
She closed the door behind her, and the snow was already piling back up. Not that anyone could get into the garden without Erin’s permission. That was their one look into the garden.
When the keep’s door was closed, there was a finite amount of air in the keep. And darkness—oh, lots of darkness. But it beat letting more snow in like the poor library.
A hand slowly closed the window at last. The falling snow reburied the keep, but a footstep echoed overloud in the keep.
From the inside. A figure turned to the closed door. It was well that Drassi and Maughin hadn’t tried to go to the first floor. Or else something would have to be done.
The other hand lifted something, and a light illuminated the dark keep. It glowed pink and blue, the flames twining together in the lantern the [Innkeeper] held. She exhaled, then returned to the door leading to her inn. She inhaled; the fresh air was welcome in the keep.
Slowly, the [Innkeeper] descended to the second floor. She shivered, as she had the first time she had seen Dolost’s memorial. She understood—but it was not how she had done it.
Her door followed her down.
It led out of her room, and no one knew she was using it. It was late, and she had gone for a lie down. Nor did they realize that she could make the door appear wherever she wanted, wherever there was a wall.
She had the Key of Reprieve. She had hoped Drassi would give up, but she’d let them get to the second floor.
Erin wondered if she should have turned the snow off. However, that was how it worked, wasn’t it? She wandered down to the first floor of the keep and sighed. Erin raised her lantern higher, and the twin colors illuminated Dolost’s home. His private place. Tulm was wrong to fear something scandalous from Dolost in an—intimate or untoward sense.
However, everyone had secrets and failures, and the Dullahan had put his on display. Erin walked from room to room, but not for long. She heard a faint chiming sound in her room in the inn and hobbled over to the nearest wall. She collapsed into a chair and scowled faintly at the pile of objects on her desk.
Chessboard, Go board, a speaking stone inscribed with ancient magical encryption runes on loan from Kevin, letters from the Runner’s Guild—and [Messages] transcribed. Oh, and the thing that had made a sound, like it was copying home—
Her [Message] scroll from Niers Astoragon. Had he added that feature? The little quasi-ding sound?
“You damn Fraerling. You’ve doomed the world.”
Erin grumbled, but she moved a piece on the chessboard, slapped a Go stone down, then exchanged a few moves with Niers as her mood—and extremities—warmed up a bit. Only then did she read his [Message]. Erin snorted and rolled her eyes.
If Niers could have seen her face…Erin glanced around suspiciously. Scrying spells. The inn wasn’t warded, even if she was. Another, longer sigh as she picked up a quill and wrote a response to the question. Just like Drassi—Niers was smart. It was just that one of them kept needing to prove it. He had written:
N: So how many Relic-class items did Dolost have in his keep? Spare sets of armor? Asking for Foliana and all the Dullahans in my command.
The [Innkeeper]’s response was slower, and she noticed a few telltale dots of ink—he was definitely about to write, and so the conversation was slower on her end as she took her time replying.
E: That’s not the point, you know.
N: Of course…until you need to arm your [Knights]. Even if he left armor and weapons fully sized for your friend, Normen, you need potions, amulets, gear. I also wonder how much Architect Hexel asked to redesign your inn? We’ve got gold. Can we trade? As I keep saying, I really would like to help.
E: I believe you. There’s not as much as you think. But again, that’s not the point.
N: I don’t follow. You press your opponent and solidify your advantage in chess. I don’t know if anyone could lecture you in sound strategy there. But leaving an item in a vault is just Drake-like. Treasures, gold, works for you only when utilized unless you have a [Hoarder] class.
E: Who’s worthy of wielding a magic sword that shoots thunderbolts? No one in my inn is ready for Adamantium armor. They won’t level. I don’t want gold for my inn, either. It’s something I have to earn myself. It’s super hard, but I’m going to do it. Because I have to do it.
N: Ah, I see.
But you don’t have to refuse help. I’m sorry, it feels strange to talk to someone who isn’t looking for something. My students have the opposite opinion.
E: Probably. They’re your students.
E: We all have our tasks, Niers. I need to do more, I know. This is part of that. I’m answering my debts. You helped so much—do you want a <Quest>? There’s so much to do. Should you be wasting so much time talking to me?
N: Now that you mention it, I’ve only been following along the last few days. Things are picking up here. I’d actually confess I have no time for a <Quest> unless you have one relating to The Dyed Lands…?
E: Nope. Too new. Sorry. That’s good. I’ll let you know if I need a favor, but it’s like that. Let’s catch up tomorrow? Good game.
N: I see, now. Just one more thing. Have you seen Paeth on the news?
E: Yes! They were so cute and cool! If I ever get to Baleros or if I can meet those Fraerlings—I’ll have something to give them. I was working on it today.
N: What is it?
E: A great joke.
Then she put aside the message scroll, but kept up the sporadic, quiet clicking of pieces on the chess board. Erin played for a long while before she picked up the second object on her desk. Her heart pounded harder, but when she triggered the activation rune and spoke, it was easier. And she smiled almost instantly, after the heart-wrenching moment of…
“Um. Hey. Is this thing on? It’s me.”
“Erin Solstice. I trust the vultures have not unduly troubled you of late? I have made subtle intimations to keep them away, but the most arrogant of the lot are baying dogs, some too close to remove, such as Grand Strategist Chaldion.”
Fetohep of Khelt spoke so casually, it was as if they were back in his palace and she was just a voice in his ears, a floating ghost. Erin stopped to wipe at her eyes.
“I—it’s just like we’re talking again, Fetohep. How are you?”
His voice was soft. Kind. Tired, she thought.
“Khelt trembles with all that has come to pass, Erin. I have spent half a month restabilizing it. I grieve. I work. It gladdens me to hear tidings of your inn. A certain Gnoll child pesters me from time to time.”
“She is—more precocious than most of the Gnolls who have come to Khelt.”
“You took them in? Of course you did. That’s…I think Khelta would be proud. All of them would. Serept especially.”
“I believe…you are correct. Queen Xierca was the one I thought of. You knew her as much as I. This is something she would have done, I think. Stood upon the borders and welcomed them with open arms. For the deeds and what they have done, nevermind the friction.”
Erin’s eyes stung, but she was nodding even though he couldn’t see it.
“Yes. Absolutely. Fetohep, it’s so hard here. But I’m levelling, and I remember—can I help you? Do you need a quest?”
And again, the ruler hesitated as much as Niers had.
“—Khelt is not ready for such tasks. Khelta has left me with her own designs. We have been weakened by the battles and losses of this world. All have, but I will say no more, even between us. You surely understand. In time—yes. I merely hoped to exchange words with you.”
“Anytime. Do you—do you really talk to Kevin regularly?”
“I…had exacting designs for my bicycles. He is something of a conversationalist. This was when Khelt was largely untroubled.”
“You don’t hafta explain it to me, Fetohep. Kevin’s great.”
“I-indeed. On that topic, I have one thing to ask you, Erin Solstice. And it is pressing. I believe I know your answer given your class has not changed…”
A slight sound that made him stop. Erin clutched at her desk.
“—They all vanished, Fetohep. All of them. There was no one to give the classes.”
He was silent so long that Erin knew he understood as much as she did. Fetohep’s voice was level, without tremble or variation. But it did still change.
“Then that shall be factored into the reckoning due. I will ask you in fullness, then, Erin Solstice. I have appointed my successor, a child who is of Khelt, but has seen the world. Brave and wise in her youth. She knows as well as I that I may choose another. Would you be Khelt’s heir apparent? If so—I will grant you that class.”
Would you be Khelt’s [Queen]? Erin thought of Khelta and her vow when she had just woken up. Her response was softer, but she did hesitate.
“…No. And not because I don’t think it’s an honor, Fetohep. I’m too far. I’m not as good at ruling as this. The [Witches] and the rulers of Khelt knew I was an [Innkeeper]. I’ve gotten nearly to Level 50 this way. I don’t…I don’t have time to do it another way.”
“Fairly stated. Then let us talk of more pleasant things a moment. I have oft-described the Quarass of Germina to you, though she is one of the few individuals you have never met, only heard tales of, I am sure.”
“The Quarass? Ooh. That scary lady. Or guy? She’s got a lot of enemies. Had—what’s she up to? I mean, she’s a possible ally. If you don’t mind checking your food for poison.”
“This one is more responsible. I had the strange privilege of watching her act as an [Innkeeper] for a day to obtain the class.”
The [Innkeeper] laughed so hard she knocked a few chess pieces over. It was okay; she was fairly certain someone else, another Fraerling perhaps, was challenging her, so she was wiping the floor with them with one hand.
“No. Way. That’s so—what was it like?”
“I believe the mortals were slightly nervous of poison. I myself considered the option. How is the Mrsha-child behaving?”
“Um…let me tell you about Ceria’s breakfast challenge. You know Ceria, right?”
“I have met her. Is she—well?”
They talked—gossiped, rather—for another thirty minutes. But Fetohep left Erin as soon as she began yawning. Reluctantly, she put his stone down.
He didn’t offer her Khelt’s riches. He got it. But Erin wasn’t done. Now that she had begun, it was easier.
The next missive she pulled out was a bit florid, mostly because it was transcribed. It had to be, but the gist of it was that the sender was extremely apologetic and hadn’t read her request until now. Erin skipped down the page until the ending.
…His Majesty, Laken Godart, wishes you to know that your missives will immediately reach his presence at earliest convenience. Once again, he extends his relief for your recovery on behalf of the Unseen Empire. A personal note from the Gold-rank team, Griffon Hunt, also add their congratulations and desire to visit your inn at earliest convenience.
His Majesty dictates verbatim: ‘This missive will only be read by myself and my most trusted advisors, Erin. Lady Rie Valerund is transcribing my words. I hold her in my closest confidence. May I ask why you’re inquiring into Nanette’s whereabouts? It is agitating some of the [Witches] here. They seemed quite curious of you when they saw you on the scrying orb, but they weren’t certain. What is your plan, and can the Unseen Empire help you or Ryoka?’
His Majesty’s confidence in the sanctity of the words exchanged with Miss Erin Solstice and the Mage’s Guild are tempered by his knowledge of such methods. On behalf of the Unseen Empire, please consider any responses…
Whomever Lady Rie Valerund was, she had a style of writing that Lyonette would appreciate. Erin just stuck to Laken’s words. Her quill stayed dry a long time before she penned her response.
Hey, Emperor Laken, I know you were one of the people who helped save my life. I am in your debt. And in debt to more people than I can count.
I am going to repay all debts. At your earliest convenience, if you would like to tell me when is acceptable—I will come to Riverfarm. I would like to meet and speak to Nanette—that’s all I can say right now, and the rest should be left for her.
It seems like it’s been a long time since I was going to go to the Summer Solstice party. However, if you are willing, I will visit you in earnest with my friends and family. I know you have…friends of mine. Not just Griffon Hunt.
Let’s meet in person. I would like to greet you and thank you. We’ll reckon with the consequences of our actions in full. But I’d like to meet and leave as friends. Best, let me know,
Her hands trembled a bit as she put the letter aside for Alcaz to bring to the Mage’s Guild tomorrow. But so it went. Erin Solstice kept glancing at the wall, where the garden showed her more rooms. More gardens. In a bit, perhaps she’d sit in the flower garden to relax.
But she forced herself to keep writing, pausing to think. However difficult…the next letter she pulled out made her think for a long time. Then she wrote her response.
From: [Innkeeper] Erin Solstice, The Wandering Inn, Liscor.
To: Archmage Feor, class unknown, Centrists Faction, Wistram Academy.
Dear Archmage Feor. Thank you for your letter and offer. It is exceedingly generous, but I have to decline. I don’t believe I can help you yet. I do have <Quests>, but I would like to tell you this:
Everything you want lies above. You may not be ready. Zelkyr was a petty guy from everything I’ve heard. However, you will never get there by staying in Wistram.
[Archmage] Kishkeria roamed Chandrar from her home in Izril. [Archmagus] Tolleve-beis, the Archmage of Dragonfire, another legend of old Chandrar, roamed the world as an adventurer. They did not become [Archmages] in Wistram.
I would invite you to leave Wistram Academy. Maybe go to the new lands? Maybe elsewhere. They said of [Archmages], once, that a true [Archmage] had gone to a hundred different nations and cast a different spell in each one.
Come to my inn and I’ll give you a free meal and we can talk about magic. Not that I’m an expert, but as it is now, even with Archmage Eldavin, there’s more to learn outside Wistram’s walls.
She was getting a bit grumpy. Erin debated trying to write the letter again, but she decided against it. She had to roll her wheelchair over to the garden’s door.
“Excuse me? Can I get a snack from—? Silveran…why are you still working here? Okay, pass me something munchy.”
She came back with a bowl of lovely crackers and some dips including the silkap dish. Silveran himself offered Erin a lovely Prelon juice. She sipped at it suspiciously, then sighed, smiled, and put the letter aside.
What next…? She picked up another letter, read it, and began to write.
To King Itreimedes of Avel, I apologize, but I’m not giving out <Quests> upon request. If I can say so, though, the royal line of Avel never became the finest archers in the world by sitting in their palace.
Princess De-ra, the greatest archer of Avel, even more than King Avel himself, famously went from nation to nation challenging every archer in the world. Which really annoyed them, but she became the world’s most renowned archer without even becoming the [Queen] of Avel.
Have you considered going on a trip? Did you know that there are a lot of dungeons and secret places left to explore? The Crossroads of Izril let people travel across the continent far faster than normal. Terandria has no fewer secrets I’d guess, but I don’t know many of them.
We have delicious food in Izril. But even if Your Majesty—sorry, I forget titles and such—doesn’t want to go exploring on his own, maybe consider sending your subjects or expertise abroad. Even Gnolls love your bows. Could I ask about buying something from Avel, maybe? The Bow of Avel is famous. By the way, have you been upgrading it?
Shooting respect your way…
Nah. Probably leave the last part out. Erin wavered, but Avel’s people had a sense of humor. She sat there, smiling, and thought of the statues. Tears dripped onto the desk now and then, but she kept writing.
Ghosts. Glorious ghosts. She knew their names and wrote them down and sent their legacies scorching across the world like fiery comets. So long as someone remembered them.
In statue, in word, in deed—
That was something.
Author’s Note: I’m tired. It occurs to me you hear this every time and as stated in the AMA, I’m realizing I need to vary things up a bit.
But what was supposed to be 18,000 words, a lighter break after a 16,000 word AMA has turned into this…
I made this an interlude because I wasn’t ready for the Volume 1 rewrite I had scheduled. Well, I’ll try to do the rewrite next chapter and a short half-chapter on Saturday.
This is because I’m taking my August break earlier and longer. I think I mentioned it but I’m going on a family vacation and I’ll be back around the 16th. I’ll have the dates up but I hope you understand it’s a hectic week with a lot of demands in that dreaded real world for me.
Despite it…I somehow wrote a longer-than-average chapter. So there’s that. I hope you liked the AMA, and whatever I come up with. We do have obligations, but meeting them shouldn’t always be a chore. If Erin can write a letter, I can sit in an airplane who loses my luggage and cancels my tickets. Something like that. Thanks for reading!
Dragon by Lanrae!
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