The life of an average citizen in Terandria was said to be better than most Izrilians, Balerosians, Chandrarians, and especially Blighted Kingdom citizens. Not because their levels were higher or any nation was more magically or technologically advanced, but because Terandria, as a continent, was safer.
As a Human-dominated continent, the interspecies wars, such as the Drake and Gnoll conflicts, had been replaced by, uh…intraspecies war. But civilized war, such that the average member of the common folk’s slaughter by invading armies was frowned upon and largely condemned. Even Baleros with its mercenary armies had less of a genteel approach to warfare.
Similarly—Terandria’s systems of organization were completely different from city-states in Izril, for instance. Unlike how, in Izril, you might be subject to a Walled City or noble’s authority or simply be a largely free agent only bound to whatever local city laws there were, Terandria was about identity.
Almost no farm or village was independent. They fell under the authority of a local noble who reported to and was overseen—in theory—by a larger noble, who reported to the biggest noble still. This was all under the aegis of the crown, and every kingdom in Terandria had, well, a [King] or [Queen]. Or both.
All this meant that you got interesting scenarios about responsibility and duty. If a plague or natural disaster or monster were not addressed, the blame lay, in part, on the person governing the area. Whether or not they were held accountable was one thing…but it meant that, in theory, the ‘common folk’—again, a term that Rabbiteater kept hearing more and more often—grew to depend on their rulers.
He looked at it as similar to Goblin tribes, where you had a lot of Chieftains…but in this case, the Chieftains were not necessarily reliable. They were appointed by a super-Chieftain and…
Well, at that point his head began to hurt, and the [Knight of the Dawn] would try to get Meisa, Talia, or whomever it was to change the subject. He had no problem with the concept because he didn’t think hard about it.
If it was a good system, it was good. If it was bad, someone should do something about it. What he didn’t appreciate were all the attempts to…rationalize it to him. As if, somehow, he should be taking notes and making all the Goblins or Izrilians copy this method of governance.
“You have [Lords]. I have [Chieftains]. If things are good, one is like the other. Doesn’t matter, does it?”
The Hobgoblin muttered, and instantly, no less than four people began arguing.
“Rabbit! We have been trying to tell you—”
“A [Lord] is not a [Chieftain]—”
“I say, Rabbiteater, I understand your logic, but it’s somewhat insulting to—”
“—the historical [Chieftains] came out of barbarous tribes, it’s true, but Terandria distinguished itself with the right of kings and—”
Four outraged [Knights] all began nattering at Rabbiteater as he put his fingers in his ears. He got to do this because they were in a carriage with curtains, so he’d taken off his helmet to relax. He was regretting it.
Dame Meisa, Dame Talia, Ser Ilm, and Ser Markus were all defending their beloved Terandria. However, they fell silent as the last member of the carriage spoke.
“Yep. That’s what I think, too.”
Ser Greysten grinned as he wedged a travel pillow behind his back and put his feet up on the far seats. The carriage was very spacious, a twelve-seater, so the five [Knights] were being well-accommodated with Rabbiteater. Not that the Summer’s Champion was so indecorous with the junior members of the Order of Seasons.
He was just copying Rabbiteater, who was enjoying lying stretched out, bridged across both seats. It took some core strength to keep himself level, but Talia’s look of mild outrage was worth it. Greysten chortled as the [Knights] chose their words carefully.
“Ser Greysten. Surely you can’t be serious.”
Dame Talia, was, predictably, the first one to speak. For a response, the Summer’s Champion, Greysten, still nursing several bandaged wounds and healing from his duel with Ailendamus’ champion, Ser Uzine, just shrugged. He scratched irritably at the visible gauze under a tunic emblazoned with orange and yellow, like a sunburst itself.
“You are lecturing a Goblin, Dame Talia, about [Kings] and nobility. I remind you, Goblins have their Kings and Lords…I don’t know if encouraging Ser Solstice to monarchy is wise.”
The other [Knights] fell silent, and Rabbiteater grinned at this mention of his species’ most objectionable trait to non-Goblins. He looked across at Ser Markus, who eyed Rabbiteater’s gauntleted feet resting on his seat. Ser Ilm cleared his throat.
“…It is that very issue we hope to resolve in some manner, Summer’s Champion. Hence the ethical dilemma the Fall’s Sentinel has proposed: [Knight] or not, it would be wrong to help create a Goblin King. But that danger is remote indeed, and countered by injecting…”
He hesitated, and Dame Meisa spoke snippily.
“What? Civilization, to Goblins?”
“Say, rather, alternate viewpoints Ser Solstice might carry to his people.”
Ser Ilm was quick on his verbal feet. Not as much on the training field, but he was still one of the better Autumn Knights in a fight. Rabbiteater grinned wider as he peeked out the window. He was fiddling with the doorknob, but Ser Markus deftly handed him a helmet before the Goblin could go out. Rabbiteater glanced over his shoulder.
“Goblins know lots of viewpoints. We just don’t do any of ‘em.”
“…Because you believe you have a better way of doing things? Because you refuse to accept some ideal of the presented modes of organizing?”
Ser Ilm had a quill at the ready; he was writing notes, which would be private, about Rabbiteater and his culture. It would join scant writings on Goblins, so everything Rabbiteater said was valuable indeed. It was flattering and why Rabbiteater didn’t really get mad at Ilm. The Hobgoblin’s grin widened.
“Nope. No one lives long enough to do anything fancy. [Farmer]? Most Goblins die in five years or less. No time to swing a hoe.”
Then he shoved the helmet on his head and popped out of the carriage. The other five [Knights] sat there in an uncomfortable silence. Ser Solstice, or Rabbiteater, could generate it quite often when discussing his home, and the [Knights] really only had themselves to blame. Ser Ilm, for his part, just scribbled Rabbiteater’s reply down with a sigh.
“…I’m beginning to realize most of Goblins’ issues boil down to that reply.”
Dame Talia’s lips compressed. Perhaps she’d been about to say something to the effect of, ‘when they have freedom to grow, they become Goblin Lords’ or something like that. Which would have started a fight with Meisa. However, Ser Markus just looked thoughtful, and Ser Greysten cracked one eye open.
“Then don’t try and solve a species. Just watch our Ser Solstice, Ilm.”
The Fall Knight ducked his head, abashed. Everyone looked out the window, and Markus rolled up the blinds now that Rabbiteater was jogging alongside the rolling wagon. They had to admit—part of this discussion and trying to show Rabbiteater all these Terandrian ideas?
It was because they liked him and wanted him to stay. After all, even if the war wasn’t officially over, the Order of Seasons, like the Dawn Concordat, was celebrating their great victory. The advent of many other nations into the battle against the previously-indomitable Ailendamus meant everyone could breathe and peace might follow soon, or at least, a less dire war. The problem was…
Rabbiteater seemed to be growing less happy and more restless by the day. So they had to show him reasons to stay. Unfortunately, what the Goblin saw and listened to was less the philosophy of state. He was more interested in…
Actual [Peasants]. Rabbiteater stopped jogging alongside the carriage and peered at them almost as hard as they gawked at him. He had never seen one before.
Peons. Peasants. Rabbiteater knew the first term from, well, Lyonette. It was a catchphrase of hers, and peasant was…a word. Yep. One that he heard very rarely, and probably only Numbtongue would use it in common dialogue.
But as a class? [Peasant] was so…so…
Think about it. A class was who you were, even if it were an aspect. Within everyone was the—the potential to become a [Fisher]. Or a [Warrior]. Some people could become things others couldn’t; not everyone had the magic to become a [Mage] or the birthright of a [Lord], for instance, but you could obtain these classes.
But…[Peasant]? The Goblin stared at them. How did one [Peasant]? What was [Peasant] as a class?
The answer was: it was Terandrian. Not just Terandrian, but the first [Peasants] he met were part of the Eternal, Glorious, something, something nation of Calanfer. The carriage was passing down a road headed straight for the capital, and even close to the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, the largest and most famous city in the nation where their famous throne resided—
The farms and peasant-ish lifestyles continued. Rabbiteater supposed that made sense. You wanted farms near where you ate. But not too close! Or you got chickens in the throne room, and his observations of the [Princesses] were that they had never seen a chicken uncooked. Every nation needed farms. Every nation needed artisans who could make basic goods. Herd sheep for wool, grow food, cut wood, mine ore…very stereotypical things.
However—it seemed like Terandria didn’t have specialist classes. Or rather, instead of starting as a [Miner], some people started as a [Peasant]. And they got weird Skills.
“Ser Knight! Ser Knight! Thank you for fighting at the Archmage’s Pass! Are you bound for the capital? Bless you!”
Some of the people in the fields were cheering as Rabbiteater jogged past. They had been calling out all this while to the Thronebearers and other riding [Knights] along with members of Pheislant’s army. Rabbiteater saw two dozen people working in a vast field that grew, of all things, turnips.
They were harvesting a fall crop, and by the looks of it, doing fairly well. It was not a hugely productive field.
Rabbiteater had seen—or rather, raided—the best farms around the High Passes. If the Redfangs had descended on Calanfer, they would have passed this field up unless pickings were slim. It wasn’t poor—but Rabbiteater had seen Level 30 [Farmers] and what they could produce.
Turnips as big as your head. These ones? Regular-sized. However, it seemed like this farm fed an attached field of cows, another of pigs, and an entire herd of sheep. The most classic farmstead he could imagine. There were some horses grazing and resting from pulling plows, and a pair of dogs had been racing up and down, barking at the passing warriors.
Right now, they had stopped, smelled Rabbiteater, and were staring at him warily. He kept wearing anti-scent charms, but dogs sometimes recognized Goblins anyways. One growled—and a [Peasant] in his mid-thirties quickly shooed the animal off. He tipped a wide-brimmed hat at Rabbiteater.
“Apologies, Ser Knight! Calanfer’s Eternal Throne protect you!”
He bowed, and Rabbiteater was amazed to see all two dozen other people do the same. It was a single bow, but it looked like a lot of work to bother doing.
“No problem. Uh…nice dog.”
At this, the [Peasant] seemed amazed by the response. He beamed and, emboldened, stared at the coach that Calanfer had sent for the Order of Seasons.
“Thank you, sir! Are you Pheislant’s [Knights]? Or…Noelictus’?”
He didn’t know, and Rabbiteater had no heraldry, so the Goblin shrugged and pointed to the [Knights] nodding and waving to some of the very young workers in the field. Ser Markus seemed most at home—he came from the common folk, while everyone else did not. His eyes were knowledgeable as he scanned the field and farm.
“We’re Order of Seasons. They are. I’m from Izril.”
Instantly, the [Peasants] focused on him. The first man’s eyes widened. Rabbiteater got a chance to look him up and down now they were close, and he began to understand what a [Peasant] was.
Peasants were poor. And that wasn’t even bias. Rabbiteater had visited a few cities in his time living around Liscor, and he had observed a few basic facts that Erin took for granted.
For instance, she had found Liscor pretty close to her actual home in terms of dress, sanitation, and whatnot. The clothing, if different, was not notably worse.
Calanfer’s [Peasants] were hardly raggedly people bathing in mud; they looked rather clean, and Rabbiteater saw only a tiny, artful seam hiding a tear. They seemed fed enough, but the difference between them and, say, someone from Celum or Liscor was this:
They wore wool, not cotton. It looked like nice wool, but it wasn’t cotton. The man wiped his brow, with, yes, a handkerchief that had embroidery on it, a blue stitch around the faded and washed linen.
That was all. They carried steel-tipped hoes, their hand-carts looked well-made, and Rabbiteater didn’t see any notable injuries or malnourishment that Goblins were all too familiar with. But their clothing budget was definitely not, say, the same as the Order of Seasons’.
At any rate, the man seemed in awe of Rabbiteater’s attire, which was full-steel, rich by any citizen’s standards no matter where you went, let alone the magical cloak hanging from his shoulders and his enchanted axe. He took it all in and came to a quick conclusion.
“Then—could you be—Ser Solstice? The Goblin Slayer?”
Now, the Hobgoblin was getting embarrassed. They stared at his armor and seemed shocked it didn’t glow. But since he was bad at lying, Rabbiteater shrugged.
Instantly, all twenty-one of them tossed down their tools and flocked towards him.
“Ser Solstice! We saw a recording of your duel with the Dame of the Hills!”
“Ser, you rode with Princess Seraphel the Dutiful! Please, Ser, will you take some water?”
“May I shake your hand, Ser?”
The carriage halted as the Hobgoblin was suddenly surrounded by an odd group of…fawning people? It wasn’t like a Goblin mob where they’d tackle you and cover you with affection or Erin’s friendliness. They were both around him and not pressing in, as if afraid they’d upset him.
Ironically, that made Rabbiteater’s skin crawl harder. But the looks of enraptured admiration were real. Someone ran for a well, and more kept bowing.
“Uh oh. You alright, Rabbit?”
Dame Meisa called out, which made the [Peasants] hesitate, but Rabbiteater nodded. He shook a few hands, which delighted the [Peasants]. He declined water, but the head of this farm was insistent.
“For the Lightherald’s successor—”
“—I’m not. I just, uh, got some light temporarily.”
“—then for the champion who helped fight for Calanfer! Anything you need, Ser! I am sure the capital will want for nothing—it is a glorious place. But if you wish for food, drink—anything our humble farm can provide—”
He was almost insistent. Which was weird. Rabbiteater began to wonder if something was up. Talia was giving him an encouraging look, and even Markus gave Rabbit a covert nod. All the [Peasants] looked ready to run for a cup of water or…
Why? Because he was Ser Solstice, the [Knight] who had fought with Seraphel? Rabbiteater wasn’t shiny—Lyonette’s boon had worn off, and he was really unhappy because it had been so useful. Even so…he gave in out of sheer desperation.
“Turnips, Ser Solstice?”
“Yep. Can I have one?”
Rabbiteater hadn’t eaten a turnip in a long time. He had a vague image of roasting one over the fire with a stick—or if you wanted to be decadent, putting some with oil in a pan, some salt or something for flavor, and giving it a good fry.
That was a Goblin meal. He only really wanted one, but at this, the [Peasants] ran towards their carts and promptly began hunting for the best turnip. Only the best! Dozens of misshapen ones were tossed aside, and they came back with nearly fifteen turnips.
“I, uh—only want one.”
“As many as you need, Ser Solstice! It’s not the finest fare, but I do have [Pestless Crops]! For you, sir! Someone wash it off—”
Eventually, he had three turnips, and the beaming people had bowed so many times Rabbiteater was afraid the older ones would snap their spines. He backed away to the carriage, feeling…vaguely unnerved by all of it.
“Turnips? Of all the things to ask for, Rabbiteater…”
Dame Meisa was patently amused as the Hobgoblin retreated into the carriage. Rabbiteater waved at the [Peasants], who were cheering the Goblin Slayer, and he muttered.
“Let’s go. Now.”
The [Driver] urged the horses, and Rabbiteater waved a bit and stared at the people in the field. He looked around.
“Is Calanfer all like that? Like—friendly but because I’m a [Knight]? What’s the word for…”
Ser Ilm suggested. Rabbiteater shrugged.
“I don’t know what that is. Sick?”
“No, ah, flattering. Flattering to the point where it’s not quite real. Especially to the nobles and those of higher station?”
“Ah. Yes. Do they do that for everyone?”
Ser Markus snorted.
“If a local noble or—perish the thought—one of the [Princesses] had gotten out of their carriages, it would have drawn everyone in twenty miles to bow and kiss their hands. Good thing you didn’t ask for a slice of beef. They might have slaughtered a cow on the spot.”
Rabbiteater shifted and felt a crawl down his spine.
“Because you’re a [Knight]. Thronebearers are treated like that, and while Pheislant has far less of the peasantry…Calanfer does well to make its citizens love the Eternal Throne. Especially so close to the capital.”
Ser Greysten seemed to understand Rabbiteater’s uneasiness. So did Markus; Talia looked slightly miffed that Rabbiteater found the experience unpleasant. As for Ser Ilm…he was watching the farmers. Rabbiteater looked at Markus.
“Why do all that? Markus?”
“Well, a noble could be quite unpleasant if he didn’t get that response. Not that my family was in fear of our local [Lady]. But you hear stories.”
The Spring Knight spoke cheerfully, and instantly, Talia grew patently uncomfortable.
“Not in Pheislant.”
Markus ignored that pointedly.
“Nor were my family [Peasants]. But every class and kingdom does it differently. Just look back at the folks who gave you turnips, Rabbit.”
The Hobgoblin did. They were rolling away at a good pace, but—the Goblin’s eyes suddenly narrowed. He peered through his visor, wishing the slits of metal weren’t in the way. Wait a second.
Ser Ilm commented, jotting a few notes down.
“That would be the reason why you have a generalist class like [Peasant]. They’re not as adept as [Farmers], but they are good at one thing: tithing and supporting higher classes. What Skill would you call that, Markus?”
“I don’t know. My family didn’t get those Skills. But I’d guess it’s a [Tribute]. What are they holding, Rabbiteater?”
The Goblin was…goggling. He pointed out the window at the man who’d given him a turnip.
“That’s a—but that’s—that’s a blue fruit!”
A fat blue fruit was sitting in the palm of the delighted [Peasant], and another was yanking turnips out of the ground with amazing vigor. The last one was just beaming about, still waving. Ser Ilm categorized all three.
“Let’s see. One seems to be a strength boost. The smiling woman? I daresay a mood-based Skill. But the last fellow might be high-enough level to gain something. [Tribute: Hometown Gift] or some such. If he was warier of us, he wouldn’t be so open about it. Or he might fear you’ll steal the—Rabbiteater, no!”
Ser Ilm grabbed for Rabbiteater, but the [Knight] had kicked the door open. Talia, Markus, and even Greysten tried to stop him, but the Goblin was running back down the field.
The [Peasants] looked terrified, and Talia groaned.
“Don’t let him steal the fruit back! Markus, come on—”
Meisa barred the others from stopping Rabbiteater; he was pounding towards the man in front, who looked like he was going to faint in fear. She peered at Rabbiteater and remembered something he had said once. All five [Knights] saw Rabbiteater skid to a halt. They couldn’t hear him, but he didn’t snatch the blue fruit proffered by the terrified man.
Rather, he pointed at it emphatically and gestured, and the looks on the [Peasants]’ faces changed from fear to relief—straight back to horror. The man nearly dropped the fruit, and Talia hesitated.
“Wait, what’s he saying?”
Ser Ilm slapped his forehead.
“Bright blue…wait a second. That must be an Amentus Fruit! Dead gods! He’s saving them from dying of poison!”
Talia was horrified. Ilm explained the deadly nature of the blue fruits, and sure enough, Rabbiteater himself produced a knife and cut up the fruit carefully, before giving pieces out to the cautious people. He showed them the core and handed it to the man, who gingerly pointed at a plot of land. By the time Rabbiteater came jogging back, Greysten was sitting up.
“Never a dull moment with you, eh, Rabbit? Was that an Amentus fruit?”
“What? No. It’s a blue fruit. Super poisonous. I showed them how to eat it—and told them to plant it if they wanted.”
Rabbiteater hauled himself back into the carriage. Ilm opened his mouth and shrugged. Rabbiteater wiped at his forehead as he yanked off his helmet.
“That Skill is dangerous.”
“Not usually. But as you can see—it’s a [Peasant]’s reward. Normally.”
“Huh. Weird class.”
Talia Kallinad shook her head, exasperated, but pleased at this object-demonstration.
“But that’s how it works, Rabbiteater. You see? The common folk support the [Knights]. And some can be [Knights]—”
“Not in Calanfer.”
Markus muttered, cutting Talia off. She sighed, but carried on.
“—but in return, they fear neither monsters nor bandits! Not everyone must work in the fields, but there is a place for everyone in a fair kingdom.”
Rabbiteater sighed. They were back to this again. He stared at the ceiling, and Ser Greysten murmured.
“A fair kingdom, indeed. And an unfair one…well. The Order of Seasons rights what wrongs it can, but not every battle can be won with a sword. That is the Season of Fall’s prerogative, to fight with words and tools.”
Talia nodded grudgingly, and the other [Knights] waited. Rabbiteater could have pointed out this was one system that assumed, no, demanded a large group of people ‘willing’ to support a small group of higher-class people. He could have pointed out the way a [Peasant]’s class rewarded them for subservience. Or he could have simply contrasted this with his understanding of Izrilian cities and customs.
But the Goblin was, alas, no great ponderer like Headscratcher or even a surreptitious nerd like Numbtongue with all his words and his books he refused to use as kindling. Rabbiteater just stretched back in his seat and thought for a while.
“Hm. Well. It’s your way of doing things.”
The [Knights] waited. After a bit, Rabbiteater went on.
“It’s okay. I guess. Reminds me of Antinium. Lots of Workers and a Queen.”
The outrage began anew, and only Ser Greysten saw the Goblin’s subtle grin.
Whether or not you agreed with any philosophical takes on the efficacy of how it operated—the [Peasants], the classic ideals of Terandria—
That was Calanfer. And perhaps no other city in the south of Terandria exemplified the idea of countless lives, millions, all devoting their time, effort, products, gold, and their very existences towards one thing.
One place. The Eternal Throne, the city that literally shone by day.
Even at night, in places. Calanfer was one of Terandria’s wonders. Even the ancient half-Elven cities of old were said to be only a match for its marvels.
And that was because Calanfer was made of ancient stone, of metals and magic so wonderful it could only have come from a time far before the modern day. Never mind that it was only six thousand years old, having been formed after the Creler Wars—the heart of Terandria was a secret only a few people knew about:
A Dragonthrone. And it was that material which lined the streets, which provided the foundations and inner city, and made it so wondrous to visit. And frankly, live in.
For instance, think of it like this: a native Calanferian citizen who spent all their life in the capital might never appreciate this, but…other cities, even capital cities, did not have litter laws.
Oh, tossing something on the ground might be frowned upon, but it was not a finable offense. Calanfer? Any citizen would instantly take offense at seeing a piece of litter discarded. And why not? Their streets were beautiful. No cobblestones, but flat, smooth ground, tiles of semi-lustrous stone in various colors, such that some citizens could tell which street they were on just by looking.
The inner city and many streets of the outer city were built of this material. Which—fine? It was a nice street. A walkway like an ocean current, even cooler than normal on the hottest days, was a fine street to live on. But was it really the bee’s knees?
Seraphel had seen bees since leaving home. She had even been stung by them. She had also observed that other streets…broke.
Cobblestones were ripped up. The street got muddy. Entire sections just vanished because they were dirtied or flooded. Regular streets did not have a surface so fine that even the heaviest carts couldn’t dent them—and so easy to clean that the [Sweepers] could literally scrape off any substance and leave them lustrous once more.
The quality of a street mattered. Calanfer’s capital had streets that would never break, that were pleasant to walk on, and always beautiful. And that analogy extended to the rest of the architecture.
Buildings did not break in the inner city. Those founded on magical materials barely flexed during earthquakes. Even the ones built later were held to a higher standard, and the same went for the limited sewer system. Calanfer did not rot, corrode, or break. Therefore, it built ever higher and ever better.
You could walk into the Chelinese Tower and go up eight floors, each one to a different restaurant, pub, or eatery, each in a different style, and dine in the commonwealth tavern, or ascend to the top and stare out of crystal windows at the city below as you ate ingredients imported directly from Baleros.
Or, if it took your fancy, you could tour the Gardens of Twilight, a publicly-accessible garden that had plants growing from many different biomes, selected for beauty. Or walk across the Sunbreak Bridge over a lake within the city or rent a boat to ride across it. Calanfer had a lot of light-based names.
It was also the most-visited city in all of southern Terandria, and both tourists and citizens came for a chance to experience the delights of the Eternal Throne—and see the majesty of Calanfer’s seat of power, which was a life-changing experience.
It meant that you could get trinkets or the latest fashions from overseas here, that a lot of trade came to Calanfer via Nadel or Pheislant, and that the service industry was exceptionally good.
…All of it bored Seraphel, and she grew more and more gloomy, apprehensive, and oddly happy to be back by turns as she rolled through the streets of Calanfer.
She had lived here for sixteen years before her first marriage. Sixteen years spoiled anyone, especially when a [Princess] could visit the finest establishments and had the run of the city. It might surprise Rabbiteater to have even farmers wave at him, but Seraphel was so used to the experience she barely did more than wave back as she rode with Vernoue and Aielef back to the capital.
Oh—there was a parade. But there was always a parade whenever three [Princesses] were together, and this was to celebrate their victory, so Seraphel barely noticed. She smiled, waved, blew kisses, but she was on complete autopilot.
That was the boredom. The gloominess was seeing how Calanfer hadn’t changed. The fashion changed, they had new advertisements for ‘plays’, ‘song shops’ that sold the Singer’s crystals, encouragements to enlist in the army, support the war—
But the city hadn’t changed. Her family hadn’t changed. Seraphel was apprehensive about that. About her new Skills—her disobedience—especially her class. Her mother…would have words. Her father? She didn’t know what would come next.
Yet—the odd elation was because the people were cheering for her. They always did; the [Bards] and Thronebearers could make even Lyonette beloved. But this time, there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm in their voices. They cheered her, and it was the [Princess] who realized the words had changed!
“Seraphel the Daring! Seraphel the General! Your Highness, I saw you ride!”
“Princess, I love you!”
“Princess Seraphel, I fear no curse! I’ll marry—”
Seraphel actually saw one of the Thronebearers tackle someone out of the crowd. She turned back to Aielef, who was waving as her daughters rode behind her.
“Yes, well, someone is the dashing hero of the hour. They’ll quiet down—but let the Order of Seasons have their moment. We are all triumphant victors in the Dawn Concordat’s finest hour.”
Aielef replied, and Seraphel tried not to snipe back. Her older sister was simultaneously jubilant, petty, and full of herself. But Seraphel let it be.
They had won. She had ridden out and…done something. Fought—not that she’d swung a sword, but even Ser Greysten had assured her that her contribution might have swung the battle at Krawlnmak’s Pass. Then they had marched on Ailendamus and…seen strange sights. Whether that was a victory or not—Seraphel had experienced another revelation, then.
Even now, she couldn’t quite tell if it had been real. It was so vivid, she couldn’t doubt it, and yet—had that really been Marquin the Radiant, the actual founder of Calanfer, speaking to her? The whispers, the voices…
If she had not been seen on the scrying orb, Seraphel would have doubted her very mind. But the ghosts had been there. So Seraphel believed.
But oh—ghosts did not say easy things. There were no polite nothings from the ghosts who had surrounded her and given her blessings, warnings, and advice. As for Marquin—
What a strange woman to have founded this place! Calanfer shone like a polished gem sitting in a jeweler’s cloth. It was, uh…in contrast to Marquin herself.
Seraphel had never realized that, in contrast to all of the images of Marquin—and she had statues and tributes everywhere, including a copy of the famous mural of her battle against the Crelers that Wistram had a duplicate of—that the woman had only had one breast.
Or that she had been taller than the former Lightherald and could have probably beaten an Ogre in an armwrestling competition. She had been a warrior, a leader. Seraphel wondered when Calanfer had changed.
At any rate, her homecoming was the best it had been since…it was the best homecoming ever, even with her reservations. But Seraphel had to own—it was still a boring, slow ride through the city. She kept turning her head when she could, pretending to be smiling at the people behind her.
As the three [Princesses] rode to the first square, the Midday Plaza, Seraphel saw no less than Shardele, a [General], and several dignitaries waited to give a speech.
Fifteen minutes. Calanfer was good at speeches. Fifteen minutes at most was what Seraphel knew was a rule for public addresses, and they would be repeating the speech and having [Bards] circulate pre-written copies of what was to be said. It would probably even be a good speech—but all three [Princesses] simply lined up with the army of Calanfer, Pheislant, and the other people being lauded and talked about in loud whispers.
Aielef produced a fan, and the three [Princesses] spoke while Shardele beamed down at them with a subtle glower that said she knew they were not paying attention nor did they have to stand and look proud for an hour straight. Vernoue sniggered up at her.
“Look, they even hauled Shardele down to the Midday Plaza. She must be higher than the Starlight Peak’s tower.”
Her sisters snorted. Aielef glanced up.
“Not if that stare she’s giving us is any indication. Father must really want to show how grateful he is.”
The Midday Plaza was a bad place for a [Princess] to be—it meant you were receiving each wave of visitors with speeches, and you had to smile in the company of other officials, not get up for one meeting at the palace or show your face for a bit. Shardele, as the oldest, was probably furious at having to stand for hours.
It was a perspective only Seraphel could have. A [Princess], ignoring all the awe and grandeur. She glanced over her shoulder.
“It looks like another half hour till the palace. More like forty minutes. Anyone got a snack?”
“If they see you eating it…”
“Oh, hush. I know you have some frozen blackberries. Give some here.”
Aielef and Seraphel bullied Vernoue until she covertly gave them some blackberries, which they popped into their mouths. They had some honey, and they were a wonderful sweet. Aielef glowered at Vernoue as she fanned herself.
“You little rat. Where did you get these?”
“The last inn we stayed at had some.”
“So that’s why the [Innkeeper] claimed she had some and was out! You thieving…you’re worse than Lyonette.”
“Ah, you can’t say that anymore. She’s the darling [Princess] married to our Drake allies, remember?”
Vernoue’s eyes flashed with mirth, and Seraphel nearly choked on her snack. Aielef sighed.
“Dead gods. I wonder what Father is doing. I imagine there will be a huge reception now that we’re no longer backed against the wall. I shall be having a bath before then. Oh, look. Shardele is speaking now. Wonderful.”
Aielef made a gesture with her fan, a ‘get on with it’ motion that Shardele probably saw. The [Princess] spoke with a compassionate gaze for the crowd, clasping her hands and staring upwards as she used a Skill—and she gave Aielef a single blink of annoyance.
Boring and boredom. Except for…Seraphel finally saw one of the last people to enter the square, accompanied by huge cheers. Vernoue turned, and even Aielef smiled genuinely.
“If only we could have ridden with him. Now there’s someone interesting. Will he be staying at the palace?”
“I can’t imagine Father and Mother would have it any other way.”
Who, exactly, Vernoue meant was obvious. Ser Solstice’s head was swiveling around as he stared about the cheering square, and radiant lights were being cast by the [Wizards]. He looked amazed and overwhelmed, but Seraphel…
She had things she wanted to talk to him about. She found him interesting. But most of all—the [Princesses] had gotten to know the enigmatic [Knight] of Izril, and not only was his worth even higher with the Order of Solstice in Izril—
He was just interesting. Seraphel stopped chewing her snack, and Aielef hesitated. Even some of the common folk had—well, not stopped cheering, but begun to point. Shardele stumbled over her speech, and all three [Princesses] craned their necks to see. Seraphel’s lips moved.
“…Is that a turnip? Why is he carrying a turnip? Why is the Summer’s Champion eating a turnip?”
He was just fascinating.
Ser Solstice. A name and idea fascinating enough to attract acclaim even now. On par with the Summer’s Champion as a name to meet ere they left.
Even now. Calanfer’s palace included more than Pheislant’s army. More than [Knights] and Noelictus’ [Hunters] who had fought in the war. Instead, to their vague displeasure, they were quartered, gratis, in richer parts of the inner city.
No palace rooms? Only a few of the Order of Seasons were afforded that luxury. Ser Solstice being one of them, obviously, because Calanfer’s diplomats were very good at their job. But Calanfer’s palace that housed the Eternal Throne itself was vast. It could hold literally thousands of guests. Something had swelled beyond even the regular pale of influential guests.
In fact, a Naga was being evicted from his rooms that very moment, and he was not happy.
“I represent the Roving Fireball company, a very prominent group serving on Rhir!”
The Naga was protesting loudly, craning his neck back and forth as a very apologetic [Negotiator] effected the transfer with a bevy of servants cleaning up. He was hoping someone in power heard him. However—like everything in Calanfer, he had the suspicion that this was a calculated insult.
“I am extremely sorry, [Emissary] Xorespe, but circumstances outside of the crown’s control have necessitated this state of affairs. The [Chamberlain] himself has been held to account by His Majesty—a new set of guests of extremely high rank have required more rooms than the palace has.”
“And they all outrank an [Emissary] of Baleros’ mercenary companies?”
The Naga was furious. And curious—he had come to see if Calanfer needed Balerosian steel for their war. Sadly, it seemed like they had received last-minute reinforcements, but his commander had thought it was worth the risk. Establishing friendly ties was not a bad idea. Even so, one had to have dignity. The Humans here weren’t as bad as Drakes, but even so!
The Naga was about to press the poor [Negotiator] when he heard a strange sound. It sounded like clicking on the hallway tiles.
Pale white framed along black here, such that the center of every hallway was an ongoing line that a visitor could use to find their way around the wing of the hallway. Each wall held dignitaries of note, some portraits, Xorespe understood, commissioned after a visit.
A reminder of Calanfer’s friends and an incentive for a bit of immortality, here. The Naga turned at that strange sound, and he saw something odd indeed.
A lion walked through the halls of Calanfer’s palace. She scattered the lesser Humans and servants before her with an imperious stare, stalking like the great predator of the plains. Walking side-by-side with her was a Human like a lion. A huge mane of hair made the Naga think—for a moment—that it was a Beastkin.
But no, the coat was trimmed with an actual lion’s mane, and the pair of green eyes in the dark-skinned face were framed, once again, by a coat like fire that hung around a tight, tucked-in shirt with a strange emblem that the Naga vaguely recognized from his memorization of Terandrian heraldry.
It looked like…a kind of castle underground? And above were hundreds of swords, hanging above the emblem. Like stars in a kind of flag. But the Naga wasn’t able to focus on that.
The lion. All the Calanferians backed away. It was an actual lion, just walking about, staring at the Humans with curiosity. As for the Human—
He grinned and came to a stop. His coat, hanging loosely around his shoulders, shifted and exposed a longsword.
Longsword and cutlass. [Duelist] equipment. The Naga was a member of a [Mercenary] group. He twisted around and realized instantly that if this were a battle, he was outgeared. Whomever this person was, they were rich—and clearly noble.
“Hundredlord Cortese! I apologize, sire, your rooms—”
The [Negotiator] turned pale instantly and began bowing, leaving Xorespe practically ignored. But the ‘Hundredlord’ ignored the man completely and gazed at the Naga.
“Baeris smelled something. So these are the rooms she’ll sleep in? It’s fine. She’s not picky about creatures. Perfume—otherwise. Go on, Baeris. Does it sort with you?”
And with that, the lion padded by the Naga, entered the room, and eight screaming [Servants] fled. She emerged after a few seconds and rumbled.
Xorespe had never heard a lion make any sound. He had thought—lions? This one bared her teeth, and the Hundredlord nodded.
“We’ll send the rest of the pride after.”
“Wh—yes, my lord! At once! Can Calanfer oblige the kingdom of Kaaz any further?”
The Hundredlord turned around. Then he seemed to think of something and swung back. He glanced at Xorespe again, but the Naga was still processing what had happened.
Had he just been kicked out of his rooms for a pet? Yes! But that name—the Hundredlord addressed the [Negotiator] without looking at him.
“The…Ser Solstice. The Goblinslayer of Izril. Is that [Knight] here?”
“Yes, Lord Cortese, but they have not been settled—”
“Then, later. Good that they’re staying here. I wondered if the palace would run out of room with all our dignitaries.”
With that, the Human stalked off, and the lion hurried after him. The two strode down the corridor as the Naga’s scales prickled. He unclenched his hands.
He was a tall being, even curled up, and Xorespe had a level of spear-fighting that made him need no bodyguards. Even if the shortspear wasn’t on him, he had a pair of long, long daggers.
And yet—the [Negotiator] hurried to clear the [Servants] out and calm them down.
“Leave the rooms. Attend to the Order of Seasons next. Emissary Xorespe—your inn will accommodate your every need. Please accept my personal apologies.”
He might have feared the Naga would object more upon learning who was taking his place, but the Naga just shook his head.
“Kaaz. The Kingdom of Kaaz has sent its nobility? Here? Kaaz Dorem Laegriser, the Kingdom of the Infinite Dungeon?”
The man nodded without a word. The [Negotiator]’s face was pale, and he stepped over to murmur.
“Emissary Xorespe, thank you for remaining cordial.”
The Naga’s eyes narrowed. He could think on his tail, and he glanced at the nervous Human’s face.
“As opposed to objecting to a [Lord] of the Restful Three? Perish the thought. Why did that Hundredlord come himself? Not to check on his pet. Was he hoping I’d make a fuss?”
The [Negotiator] hesitated. He weighed a polite lie with the truth both of them probably had a handle on and nodded covertly. He glanced the way the man had gone and whispered.
“Yes. He probably hoped you would object. So he could duel you.”
The Naga had noticed the way that Hundredlord had stood. A practiced [Duelist], then. But he hadn’t missed the hungry look in the man’s eyes. Xorespe shook his head. Suddenly, he thought some distance between him and the palace was the most diplomatic thing of all.
“I believe I’ll find my inn. Just one question. If the entire palace is full—how many dignitaries are attending?”
Again, the man hesitated, but it wasn’t secret, so he nodded carefully to the rooms.
“As I understand it, at least twenty nations have come upon the Eternal Throne’s hospitality.”
Xorespe whistled. So this was more than celebrating the war. He nodded and began to slither off to tell his commander that opportunity had come knocking. No matter which nation it was…everyone needed an army.
Then again—if the Restful Three were getting up, perhaps the Roving Fireball company should weigh who they were fighting against.
Of the nations of Terandria, Rabbiteater knew precious few. His head was still spinning from the crowds and the speech one of the [Princesses]—another one, besides Aielef, Vernoue, and Seraphel—had given that he almost didn’t notice what was going on.
He kept looking over his shoulder, back towards the plaza. What was that? Rabbiteater had grown up staring at rocks to try and tell if an Eater Goat was hiding behind one or if it was actually a Gargoyle.
He was no Antinium to gawk at the sky and admire grass, but that? He looked down as the procession headed up the hill towards the inner city and palace. To get there, they crossed the lake fed by a river. It separated the old part of the city from the new. A huge bridge spanned the gulf over placid waters that had their own throngs of little boats where people waved, colorful sails blowing in a crisp breeze. Even directly below his nervous horse, they stared up—though no one was allowed to sail directly underneath the bridge.
…Because the entire walkway was glass. Or some kind of transparent crystal. It wasn’t precisely glass, or those below might have been baked by the refracted light. Rabbiteater saw the people below, fuzzily, through a warm radiance that captured the sun’s rays.
“At night, the bridge lights up like a ray of moonlight. We must see it, Ser Solstice! I say, they’ve gone all-out for us!”
Ser Markus called back, and Talia, Meisa, and Rabbiteater’s friends agreed. The Goblin had to admit—that was true.
Colorful petals were still falling from the balconies, and if he gazed backwards, he saw Shardele du Marquin still waving. He hadn’t really paid attention to her speech; like the [Generals], it had been welcoming the heroes and something something.
He’d been admiring the clouds. She stood, head uplifted, and seemed to be standing amidst the sky’s distant, fluffy clouds. Only, hers were of every color, chartreuse pink and lime green, swirling around her like some…vision.
Wild. And the citizens had cheered her, then continued to throng the streets, following the heroic [Soldiers] and [Knights]. Not just because it was fun; [Bards] were singing, composing verse on the fly, and there were stands of food being passed out to anyone for free.
Not just to the citizens; more than one tired soldier was more than gratified to receive a treat—or a kiss—from an admiring passerby. Rabbiteater just wanted the snacks, but all he got were some snappy verses.
“Ser Solstice, Ser Solstice entered the fray, and Ailendamus’ [Generals] all ran away! The Kingdom of Glass and Glory’s champions shat their pants and the Goblin Slayer saved the day!”
“No, I cut off their heads—”
Markus laughed, and Talia looked scandalized as Rabbiteater shouted at a [Troubadour] who twisted around, looking astonished. But the Goblin was quite pleased.
They even had [Jesters]. It was a concept Rabbiteater hadn’t ever seen before, and a class somewhat unique to Terandria. Right now, people dressed up as Ailendamus’ famous [Knights] were letting children beat them with sticks, pretending to ‘fight’. Calanfer was a riot of entertainment on the streets, but the Order of Seasons were accorded their dignified passage to the palace that housed the Eternal Throne.
Which was too bad, because the [Soldiers] looked like they were having fun. And—as they began to enter another plaza leading up to the palace, a few hurrying [Diplomats] intercepted the [Knights] and began to direct some away from the palace to the best inns and places to rest. That was when Rabbiteater began to realize there was more going on. Not that he cared where he slept, but the [Knights] did.
“Dignitaries? How many? Are we to be displaced by travelling [Negotiators]? We fought for the Dawn Concordat and shed blood and broke bones!”
Dame Talia was upset. On behalf of her fellow [Knights]. Apparently, only she, Dame Voost, Ser Greysten, and a handful of others had been given rooms in the palace. A huge insult or something—except that there was a good reason. Dame Voost herself held up a hand and Talia instantly fell silent.
“Peace, Talia. Our choice of where to sleep is hardly important. Six of our own will have rooms in the palace. Which is as many as they can afford. Nor are we being snubbed; Calanfer has called for a summit in light of what it is calling the great victory against Ailendamus. An unofficial one; the pretext is a banquet. But we have representation not just from the southern kingdoms but further north. These are not [Negotiators] but nobility and their escorts. Even royalty. Twenty kingdoms have sent emissaries.”
“Which twenty kingdoms?”
Ser Greysten, normally amiably uncaring of politics, glanced up suddenly. Ser Ilm had been chatting with the woman who had informed the Order of Seasons about the inconvenience. He actually took a second to re-confirm, then his brows rose all the way.
“…Cenidau of the northernmost kingdoms. Noelictus, Desonis, Nadel, Pheislant—as we are all united by common enmity, Summer’s Champion. But—I am told Taimaguros and Ailendamus have their own diplomats here.”
Meisa was outraged, but Ser Ilm shook his head.
“Calanfer would be in negotiations. What is outstanding is—the Kingdoms of Tourvecall, Samal, and Avel have all sent diplomats and representatives. And the Restful Three.”
Greysten’s brows had been rising, but at the mention of the ‘Restful Three’, he actually jerked in surprise. Talia was no less amazed.
“What? Tourvecall is notoriously reclusive! So is the Kingdom of Keys!”
“No doubt they felt it was too important to miss.”
“The Restful Three? Are you sure?”
The Summer’s Champion looked at Ilm, then shook his head.
“Well, if it’s true, we’ll see them soon enough. And all this with Ser Solstice here! Of all our number who shouldn’t be in the palace…”
He gave Rabbiteater a meaningful look. The Goblin had already been talking with his friends about the risks of being uncovered in the center of a Terandrian kingdom. Calanfer was unlikely to spy on him as he slept, but…there was a lot more danger here than at the Order of Seasons.
However, he had to admit, he was powerfully curious about these kingdoms. As Greysten conferred with Ilm and his senior [Knights], Rabbiteater poked two people.
Meisa and Markus didn’t know Goblin language, but both had picked up the ubiquitous Goblin sign. They stepped back, and Rabbiteater whispered.
“All those kingdoms. Who is they?”
“Who are they, Rabbiteater.”
Meisa corrected and got a poke in the side. She promptly slapped his hand. Ser Markus looked as amazed as Talia. He swept a hand through his hair.
“I’m sure we may meet them all. No, if you’ve been given a room, you will be invited to all the formal events.”
“Which is dangerous, because if someone flips up his visor or casts a spell out of curiosity—”
Meisa looked worried, but Rabbiteater tapped his visor.
“I have taken great precautions.”
The two Spring Knights looked at him, and the Hobgoblin raised a thumb.
“I glued my visor shut.”
Meisa stared at Rabbiteater. He pointed at Ilm.
“He also enchanted my armor against spying. It sounds like fun.”
“Fun? I daresay there are as many trap spells…no, the Restful Three aren’t prone to war. But they are a touchy lot. Especially Kaaz. No wonder Ser Greysten is concerned. We’ll bleed more than on a battlefield if we’re not careful.”
Ser Markus shook his head. Rabbiteater stared at him.
“Who are they?”
For answer, Meisa grabbed his arm—the servants were waiting to show him to the palace.
“Let’s explain as we see them, Rabbit. It’s easier just to show you. Just know one thing. If you want a tour of some of Terandria’s most powerful kingdoms—a lot of them are here. But the Restful Three are the most powerful kingdoms in the center of Terandria. If Ailendamus is the power in the south—they would be the reason why Ailendamus hasn’t expanded north and why Taimaguros holds rather than make too many wars.”
“So they’re powerful?”
“…Yes, Rabbit. They’re powerful.”
“Just say that next time.”
It turned out that Rabbiteater did know more Terandrian kingdoms than he thought. As he strode through the palace of Calanfer, he found it was a chaos of servants, nobles, and the aforementioned dignitaries and their escorts, so that Meisa and Markus could point out each nation to him.
The chaos was due to the foreign kingdoms’ servants, not Calanfer’s staff. And the fact that the dignitaries were all-too-happy to talk to each other and ignore the people hoping to get them settled into their rooms. Also, there was a pecking order, and navigating a touchy [Baron] not getting his luggage in before a more powerful nation’s lesser [Lady] was—tricky.
Calanfer was managing it. Rabbiteater saw more [Diplomats] and related classes than he had ever seen in his life in the first ten minutes of being in the palace. Men and women, even, to his surprise, non-Humans like Gnolls, Drakes, and a Falcon Beastkin, all of whom were very good at being personable.
Not softly spoken necessarily; they had talents. For instance, one of the Gnolls had a grip like steel when he shook Rabbiteater’s hand, gave him a single look up and down, and growled.
“If you need an escort, we can find you one, Goblin Slayer, [Knights]. Otherwise, your room is numbered as 277. East Wing, Mercuous Suites.”
Rabbiteater appreciated the lack of fuss. And the Gnoll singled out another target for his straightforward approach. A [Lord] who looked both seasick and sick of being fawned over was standing, arms folded, with a group of four. The Gnoll’s conversation caught Rabbiteater’s ear as he saw someone wearing a velvet gown sewn with pearls…and a helmet almost like his, decorated with gemstones, pass by. He pointed at the Human wearing a helmet, and she turned to him.
She had gloves, high boots, and revealed none of her skin. But the helmet did not fit the elegant dress. Rabbiteater pointed at her.
Markus stomped on his foot, and Dame Meisa bowed hurriedly.
“Milady of Tourvecall, please accept our deepest apologies—”
The [Lady]—if that was what she was—halted. Her servants looked oddly pale, not in skin tone necessarily, but…pale, as if they were about to faint. She was part of a group of eight, all of whom wore some kind of strange helmet. Each one was complete, and—unlike their servants who were bareheaded, they were all clearly noble.
One had a completely round…sphere over his head, as polished as a mirror, with two fake ruby eyes that were just cut gems roughly placed where his eyes would be. He also had, to Rabbiteater’s great hilarity, some kind of easily-wipeable ink, and he’d drawn a curved line like a smile under the eyes.
The laughing Goblin was pointing at the figure, and the [Lord] turned, wiped out the smile, and drew an unhappy line in its place. The [Lady] just offered a muted chuckle behind the helm.
“We take no offense. The famous Goblin Slayer is known to be quite—interesting. As we mask ourselves, so, likewise. We shall speak later, but our travels have exhausted us. Excuse us, [Knights].”
At this point, Markus was punching Rabbiteater in the side, but since that was how Redfangs expressed affection, Rabbiteater kept laughing. Meisa just stared at him, and Rabbiteater stopped laughing.
No sex. He coughed into his hand.
“Who are they?”
“Tourvecall. Kingdom of Incantations. They all wear helmets and seldom show their faces. They’re small…but unique. Rabbiteater, you could offend foreign powers! This will be a disaster if you cause an uproar—we would all be in danger of our lives!”
Markus was sweating. Unfortunately, he could swear Rabbiteater was grinning behind his helm.
“So? Nothing’s changed for me.”
Ser Markus whispered a prayer to valor as he considered Rabbiteater in a diplomatic setting. He had already seen how he did with the [Princesses]. Worse—Rabbiteater was not only desired, but if he stayed at the palace, it would be rude not to attend a gathering!
Meisa shot Markus a look that said they’d have to talk to Greysten, but they kept moving. As they did, the Gnoll [Diplomat] came back into focus, talking with the annoyed [Lord] dressed all in greens, a huge recurve bow on his back, and a familiar-looking crest. He was accompanied by four others, one of whom was being served by a porcelain…Golem.
“Milord Veltras. I can give you a personal escort to your rooms, and the Five Families have all been placed in the Beiten Suites. If you would prefer to find your own way…”
“At last, someone who isn’t trying to hold my hand. As for together—we could be apart.”
The other four nobles looked at the representative of House Veltras, who was none other than one of Lady Buscrei’s sons who had drawn the losing straw and had to play politics. Terland, Wellfar, El—even Reinhart—had sent a noble son or daughter, each.
“Yes, I’ve quite tired of my cousins’ infighting. But then again, we Izrilians will be the odd ducks out here. Tell us our rooms, and we will be off.”
A [Lady] with a not-quite-a-smile flicked open a lacquered fan, and a black serpent cast on lurid green stared at Rabbiteater on the fan’s back. He eyed the [Lady] and guessed at once she represented the Reinharts. As for Buscrei’s son—he frowned, then raised a hand.
“Is that the Goblin Slayer and the Order of Seasons? Some friendly faces! Hail! I’m Lady Buscrei’s son, Lord Palec of Oswen! Greetings, although if you’re going to try to hit me, Ser Solstice, I’d rather us keep our distance.”
It was probably his cloak. The red, billowing cloak—or his battered armor without a crest that made him stand out. Or his gold-jade axe or…Rabbiteater glanced at Lord Palec and grinned. He raised a gauntleted hand, and the other members of the Five Families peered at him.
“Ah, the redoubtable Ser Solstice. And the Order of Seasons, whom we—at least Wellfar and Veltras—are allies with in the war. The House of El salutes you.”
A sprightly [Lord] stepped forwards, the oldest of the lot, with white hair and a rather interesting vest festooned with pockets. He unbuttoned one, and the gold clasp fell away even as he shook Meisa and Markus’ hands. He was personable—even for a member of the nobility—but the reason became clear the instant he shook Rabbiteater’s hand.
“For you, Ser Slayer. And I hope to meet Ser Greysten at least, of the Order of Seasons. This is a little pamphlet, which shows in some delightful illustration our kaalblades and a few upcoming projects which include the Archmage of Izril’s own handiwork. For funding or private purchase.”
“Er—thank you, Lord…?”
“Heye. I will be speaking to all the groups present, and I encourage you to leave a note with my servants. I will speak to anyone as time permits.”
The man raised two white brows, and Rabbiteater unfolded his piece of parchment and whistled.
“Ooh. Nice magic. Expensive?”
He showed Markus the price tag, and the [Knight] paled.
“Eight hundred gold per blade? And that’s on orders of ten or more?”
“Perhaps a conversation for the heads of your Season, Ser Knight?”
Lord Heye spoke tactfully. Meisa thanked him, and the Lady of House Wellfar rolled her eyes and stamped a bare foot. She jerked a thumb.
“Shall we find our rooms and agree when to meet, cousins? I have a fleet of my family hounding Ailendamus at sea, and I have no time for El’s advertising. As for you, Ser Solstice—hello. Goodbye.”
She stomped off. Rabbiteater stared after the Five Families. On Izril, they were, he knew, the most important members of any political group in the north. Here?
They were practically lost amidst the other nations. Meisa folded up her paper as Ser Markus speculated on how many years of pay he’d have to save up for to buy some of the items the House of El were advertising.
“Well, that settles it. This is a huge event, Rabbiteater. Tourvecall—you just saw them. The Five Families? Calanfer is either trying for a lot of allies to join them fighting Ailendamus or something even bigger. Come on—let’s not stand in the way. I’ll point out more groups as we go. Though you do know them.”
Rabbiteater followed her as Meisa gestured far more covertly than his finger-pointing.
“No I don’t. I don’t know Terandrian Kingdoms.”
Markus hurried after them, trying to fold the colorful paper.
“Come now, Rabbit. Even you know some by reputation. The names likely trip you up. For instance. The Kingdom of Samal, over there? They are the Kingdom of Keys.”
Rabbiteater peered at a group of people and brightened.
His voice was too loud. A woman swung around, and her dress swirled. Several items clicked on her wrists, and Rabbiteater saw that Samal’s representatives were, uh…
The dress was patterned with keys. Camouflaged keys against folded green and blue, such that you had to sort of stare and they’d appear, subtly woven into the fabric. But less-subtle were the bracelet…and the lock dangling from one wrist. In fact, the woman had a locked choker and even an earring in the shape of a key.
One of the warriors standing next to her was one of their [Knights]. He had…a key-shaped sword hilt. Rabbiteater scratched his head, but the [Lady] simply lifted a hand.
“Goblin Slayer. Hello.”
“Does everyone know me?”
He waved back, and the [Lady] laughed lightly. She called back.
“How not, in Samal’s paradise? As you aptly said, we have scrying orbs aplenty, and I found a key the day I saw you duel the Dame of Hills! If you have an appreciation for Samal, perhaps you will be a welcome guest!”
“Highly gracious of you, milady!”
Meisa bowed, and the [Lady] waved her off. Rabbiteater stared at the rest of her escort.
“Keys and locks. Paradise nation, right.”
“Famously gracious abroad. Both in errantry and their…interest in the world. For a paradise, they have a number of their own who decide to leave. Then again, I have heard it has something to do with their culture of locks and keys.”
Markus murmured. Rabbiteater nodded. Meisa pointed as they strode past a group unloading their wagons.
“One guess which group that is, Rabbit.”
He turned his head and frowned. He was about to say ‘not fair’, but then he noticed that every single member of the group, from the warriors in light leather armor to the nobility waiting patiently for a pair of hunting hawks to stop screeching—all carried bows.
“See? You do know some. The Kingdom of Bows.”
Rabbiteater raised a hand.
“Is it stupid they all look like their names? Kingdom of Keys. Kingdom of Bows…seems obvious.”
Markus laughed, but Meisa just sighed.
“We are seeing their representatives, Rabbit. I think they…play into their image a bit when it befits them. Not everyone in Samal wears so many key-themed items. Although it is part of their day-to-day lives.”
“Yeah, like the choker. Does she have a lock on her underwear?”
Ser Markus choked as Meisa gave Rabbiteater another look. The Spring Knight fanned himself.
“One does not speculate, Ser Rabbiteater!”
The Goblin poked him playfully.
“Yeah, but I’m not blushing. You’re the one who thought Aielef was—”
Markus ahemed and ahemed louder as Rabbiteater tried to go on. The Goblin whispered.
“Ser Markus the Sexually Indiscreet!”
The nickname he had come up with with Meisa made Markus turn purple. A passing [Servant] gave Markus a wide-eyed stare and moved slightly away, across the hallway. Markus gave them a pained look.
“Ser Rabbit. How about that group?”
He pointed to a pair of cordial men speaking to each other in a hallway. They were both dressed in what Rabbiteater would call ‘generic’ clothing without anything as amazing as the other guests. However, one did have a nice pair of shoes. Aside from that? He squinted at their crests and saw a wavy pattern over a rearing…Hydra head? And the other was just some anchor crossed with a complex filigree bird. Markus nodded at the duo.
“Which two kingdoms are they, Ser Solstice? Here’s your hint. They’re neighbors, and both are southern kingdoms. Traditionally friendly.”
“One specializes in…dancing…or at least one member is known for that. And the other is specialized in—well, it’s marshy—”
The Goblin snapped his fingers.
He felt proud about that and recognized the two smaller nations, both arguably known for individuals as much as their cultures. The Kingdom of Nadel—who possessed the Lord of the Dance. And Desonis—the Kingdom of the Bedtime Queen. Also, the Earl of the Rains, Altestiel, but Rabbiteater did not know the connection between Altestiel and The Wandering Inn.
Onwards, then, to find Rabbiteater’s rooms! The Mercuous Suites were, interestingly, based off the strange alchemical metal ‘mercury’. Not that there was actual mercury lying about, but Rabbiteater saw a lot of silver designs dominating this area of the hallway.
“Spring’s growth! What an amazing display!”
Here, another wonder of the Eternal Throne was on show, just as part of the guest rooms. Rabbiteater slowed and saw himself, a figure in slightly-battered armor with a magnificent, flowing crimson cloak, as tall as the slightly green-blonde haired man with a long stride walking next to the brown-haired [Spring Knight], a woman who had a marigold blooming amidst her hair. Rabbiteater glanced at Meisa and saw a second marigold blooming across the cuirass of her armor.
Her aura of spring was growing if flowers were appearing around her. But the reason Rabbiteater could see Meisa, Markus, and himself without looking at them was…the forty-foot mirror-wall.
A perfect reflection of everyone walking past it. Forty feet, an entire mirror hallway that blended seamlessly with the floor. Rabbiteater waved at himself, delighted by the trick of the light like a child. Markus and Meisa were more impressed by the…cost.
“Seamless. Beautiful. Why, this would cost tens of thousands of gold pieces! And the silver!”
Markus touched the mirror and was astonished when his ungauntleted hand failed to leave a smudge. Someone spoke lightly ahead of the [Knights].
“Not just silver, Ser Knight. A compound of mercury, silver, and other potent materials. Though if you knew alchemy, you would be relieved to hear that the mercury is not poisonous.”
Markus jerked his hand back, but the newcomer just laughed. He came walking forwards, a crutch in hand, as a pair of figures strode next to him.
“No longer. And this hallway has no purpose. In times past, mercury and silver and other powerful elements were a deterrent to a kind of monster—but that is old knowledge. Still, this hallway being so faithfully reproduced is a sign of Calanfer’s culture. And memory. We of Terandria respect memory. But as Ser Solstice of Izril will note—we also quite like what is new, in appropriate doses.”
Rabbiteater turned and saw the oldest Human he’d met yet. Even Venoriat wasn’t as old as the fellow dressed in huge, heavy robes. Some deeply warm fur and pale blue, like a far lighter sky in winter.
Winter being appropriate, because the armored figures also had fleece-lined armor and looked hot as hell, even indoors. It was probably why they were in the Mercuous Suite; it was slightly cooler despite the mirrors everywhere as fewer windows let in light.
“Warmth be yours, though we are far from frozen Cenidau.”
The old man nodded, and the warriors of Cenidau, one of the coldest and northern-most kingdoms of Terandria, nodded slightly as well. They carried axes and shields, and—Rabbiteater realized—they were both akin to nobility.
Strange. They were as war-ready as House Veltras and almost as casual. The man introduced himself.
“Here stand our Hearthlords, Voloke and Iyr. I am the [Wisdom] Hellei of Cenidau; a wise man, or so my class says. Consultant to our Frost Queen. Here for a great banquet of Calanfer’s hospitality. And you are Ser Solstice, of the Order of Solstice of Izril. Also, Dame Meisa and Ser Markus.”
He knew their names! Ser Markus redoubled his bows to the Hearthlords, but Voloke, who had an impressive beard and a pair of hatchets, spoke with a surprisingly soft voice.
“We’ve come to eat and drink ourselves sick. Seeing so many famous faces is the pleasant surprise to southern ‘hospitality’. Ser Solstice—I saw your duel.”
“You and everyone else.”
Rabbiteater was getting sick of the mentions of the duel. It wasn’t even a good one. Not against the Dame of the Hills or when he’d cheated against the other [Knights]. But there was also him parrying the Greatbow bolts…
As his friends had observed, Rabbiteater was actually less enamored with this visit to Calanfer than most people would be. Aside from seeing all these new kingdoms, he was halfway towards riding back to the warfront with Ailendamus…or going to the Order of Seasons…
Or persuading Meisa to go back to Izril with him. Which was what he wanted to do because Erin was alive.
Erin was alive—and it felt like his battles here were, if not over, then even less important than they had been. He’d had an adventure.
He wanted to go home and tell Erin about it.
—Yet this was important, and there were interesting things here. Such as Hearthlord Voloke drawing his axes.
“I could not let this moment go, especially if we don’t have another chance. Will you give me a few minutes of your time, Ser Solstice?”
“Hearthlord! This is hardly the place, surely!”
Markus looked uneasy, but when he turned to the Wisdom—and the other Hearthlord—they just looked amused.
“They’re both wearing armor. Voloke is more in danger unless Ser Solstice has no Skills or enchantments.”
Wisdom Hellei pointed out. Meisa looked resigned as Rabbiteater brightened up. It was true; Voloke had no full-guard helmet, so there was a face-gap and a tiny gap across his neck when he put a helmet on, but he even had a flat noseguard and enchanted armor.
“You sure? I hit pretty hard.”
“Cenidau’s [Lords] aren’t made of the same stuff as Calanfer’s. Cenidau is a cold place. We have gigantic bears. Have you seen black bears, brown bears, Ser Solstice?”
“I’ve eaten Mothbears.”
The Hobgoblin accepted an axe. Voloke grinned through slightly yellowed teeth. Iyr laughed.
“Ours are bigger. Though if you came north and hunted one of our polar bears, we’d gladly feed you a stew! Come, just so Voloke can brag he fought with a [Knight] of Izril!”
He turned to Markus, and the Spring Knight looked worried as Voloke let Rabbiteater appreciate the balanced waraxe. The Hob frowned at the back.
“Ooh. Nice back spike. Why does it look…”
He thought it should have less spike; it was too long for a close-quarters fight to be strictly efficient even if it was balanced well. But that was because it had a double purpose. Voloke gestured at the little serrated teeth on the bottom.
“It doubles as a climbing pick. There are walls of stone and ice we climb. Not that I’d truly use it for that, but Cenidau has mighty cliffs, larger than any of Avel’s or Pheislant’s coasts could dream of! We live in a world of tundra; ice and snow and rock.”
“And enough hotheads to keep a kingdom running.”
Hellei commented, and Voloke grinned. Meisa gave a sniff in defense of Pheislant, but that description warmed Rabbiteater’s heart, and he gave Voloke a nod.
“I lived on a mountain, too. The High Passes. It got pretty cold the higher you went. No one I knew ever survived climbing too high.”
“Ah, a mountain man! So this will be twice the fight. Will you use that axe or yours?”
“Yours. Do we hit each other?”
“However you wish. I’ll see what one of the best [Knights] in this war can do!”
Voloke grinned. The servants in the hallway had seen the impending fight, and some had gone to seek authority—the others had just put down their burdens and were watching, along with some of the guests. Rabbiteater stared at the axe in his hand.
“Agreed. Then shall—”
Rabbiteater punched Voloke in the chest, and the man stumbled back as his heavy armor caught most of the force of the blow. Nevertheless, the surprise attack had him mid-word, and he was catching himself when Rabbiteater jumped up and kicked him in the chest.
“I say, Rabbit! Unsporting!”
Ser Markus shouted anxiously, as if he hadn’t personally seen Rabbiteater unchivalrously fight his way across half of Kaliv. Still, Voloke was as good as his words, and he blocked Rabbiteater’s first swing as he rolled over, and the two went for it.
Cenidau’s [Hearthlords]—at least Voloke—were no graceful dancers like Dame Voost. They fought much like Greysten; powerful blows, solid guards, and practical, battle-honed moves. Rabbiteater followed suit. His armor shook as he slammed the axe into Voloke’s, finding the man intensely strong!
However, Rabbiteater had used his [Champion] Skill to give himself [Enhanced Speed]. Voloke was careful and held his hatchet two-handed, repelling Rabbiteater’s one-handed assault—but Rabbiteater held his axe in only one hand for a reason. As Voloke swung and missed, the [Knight] grabbed his hand and began slamming the axe into Voloke’s side like he was trying to cut Voloke in half.
“All right, Rabbit—enough! Enough!”
Markus was worried by the intense fight, but Voloke just grabbed Rabbiteater’s own axe arm, and the two struggled—until Rabbiteater felt a freezing cold running down his arm. He jerked back and saw his arm was covered in frost!
Voloke murmured. Rabbiteater grinned.
“Ooh. My turn. [Lightsoaked Armaments]!”
His borrowed axe began to glow. Instantly, Voloke raised his guard, but the first swing of Rabbiteater’s axe was easily repelled. The engraved blade was light, fast—but no more powerful, just glowing with some light, like it was dipped in a ray of summer’s light. Voloke was still careful, but after eight blows, he performed a two-handed block above his head as Rabbiteater swung the axe down.
Only then did the light coating the axe flash. Voloke went blind. Rabbiteater stepped back and inhaled.
“[Body: Solar Storage]! Unleash!”
He charged forwards, and the [Hearthlord] shouted.
“[Glacial Wall of Ice]!”
The man swung his axe wildly, and a wall of ice rose in a flash, hit Rabbiteater, and sent him tumbling past Meisa and Markus. Voloke backed up, swinging at random, and then blinked the spots out of his eyes.
Rabbiteater sat, sulking, with the axe on the ground as Meisa teased him.
“You can’t use your Skill! Unleash? I told you, shouting the Skill doesn’t work!”
The Hearthlord rubbed at his eyes and then saw Iyr and Hellei chuckling. However, after only a second, Voloke lowered his axe, then strode over to clasp Rabbiteater’s gauntlet. He laughed, gripped Rabbiteater’s forearm as the Hobgoblin returned the gesture, and accepted his axe back.
Rabbiteater offered the comment honestly, and Voloke’s smile was knowing.
“I can say I fought the Goblin Slayer of Izril—but if I were a Goblin or a foe, I think you’d have been more cunning, eh?”
For a second, Rabbiteater felt his heart skip a beat at a reminder of his name. But he forced a chuckle out.
“Yeah. I don’t fight fair. Probably would have fought you in a hot tub.”
“And I would have fought you in a blizzard—and thrown javelins at you from behind! So tell me, now we’ve shed some of each other’s blood, even under the armor—just what is this Order of Solstice?”
Iyr and Hellei stepped back, but Markus and Meisa suddenly looked worried. Rabbiteater hesitated.
I’d love to know that too! He had seen Erin make the Order. It had made him miss home intensely.
“It’s…my Order. I took my name from it.”
“Ah, a pseudonym for [Knights]?”
“Yeah, pseudo-whatever-that-is. Fake name. It’s a nice order. Has an inn. Free drinks.”
Iyr and Voloke found that hilarious. Iyr grinned behind a huge mustache and beard of his own.
“Now there’s a [Knight] order half of Cenidau’s warriors could get behind! We have fewer [Knights] than the southlands—but what did you say about the inn?”
Before they could continue, a servant was striding forwards, leading a very upset [Diplomat].
“Hearthlords! Ser Solstice, members of the Order of Seasons—I must ask on behalf of the Eternal Throne not to conduct any matches in the hallways. The crown has prohibited them, aside from dueling courts, out of courtesy to all guests—”
“Yes, yes. Apologies.”
Voloke groaned, and the Cenidau guests stepped back. He looked…less pleased to speak with Calanfer’s people, and when the [Diplomat] left, he rubbed at his side where Rabbiteater had given his armor a thrashing.
“I might need a small drop of potion if I’m going hunting or whatever this week entails! Or not—I’ll consider the bruises a gift.”
“I’m taking healing potion. I don’t want your gifts.”
Another laugh. Voloke nodded at the servants.
“They reminded us—politely—that we are first honored by visiting the Eternal Throne. I confess, I’m curious to see it, but I hope to see you and the Order of Seasons at length. Calanfer’s welcome is…”
He paused and glanced at Hellei and Iyr, but neither one stopped him, so Voloke went on.
“…Conditional upon our value as allies. They do a good job of hiding it, but Cenidau has known them six thousand years. Still, our fellow guests are reason enough to come, but I take their point. Beware the Kingdom of Kaaz, Ser Solstice. If you think we’re a rough lot, the lion-lords and their duels almost always end in blood. I’m sure they all want a piece of you, literally.”
With that, he bid them farewell, and Rabbiteater decided Cenidau was probably nice. As for Kaaz…he leaned over to Meisa.
“What’s that about Kaaz?”
“One of the Restful Three, the mid-northern powers. The Hearthlord isn’t wrong; they’re known, among other things, for having duels to the death. The nobility are as good [Duelists] as they come; many Gold-bell fencers, there.”
“Oh. Like the King of Duels?”
“I think he studied there.”
Markus put in. Rabbiteater felt that only added to Kaaz’s value, but he took their point about overzealous opponents. He nodded as Meisa warned him.
“I will be careful. I never underestimate my opponents. Besides. I realize they’re dangerous. Nobles are crazy. So are most [Knights].”
Meisa looked aghast. Markus tapped his chest.
“Wait, what makes us crazy, Rabbiteater? I daresay I’m fairly level-headed, at least among my order.”
To that, the Hobgoblin just gave them a huge grin as he walked on to find their rooms, though they couldn’t see it.
“Easy. You’re friends with me.”
The Restful Three were a hard concept for Meisa and Markus to explain to Rabbiteater over their walk to his rooms and even afterwards. Not just because it involved talking about their culture, heritage, and so on, but because it took him a while to get around the idea of a ‘sleeping giant’.
“Giants are dead.”
“Yes, Rabbiteater, it’s a phrase from antiquity. Sleeping Giants are dangerous if they wake.”
“So don’t wake them up. Easy.”
“It’s an expression. Based on history!”
“Yeah, because you killed all the Giants. Couldn’t you let them sleep?”
The point—past Rabbiteater teasing Meisa—was this.
The Restful Three were powerful kingdoms who did not make endless wars like Ailendamus. They certainly had the capacity to, but they preferred to, well, enjoy life at the top. Not going to war earned you some concessions, and reminding your enemies and allies why you should be humored every few hundred years wasn’t hard.
They were three nations, and their status as the ‘Restful Three’ was also due to the fact that all three nations tended not to fight each other. Like the Dawn Concordat, but more casually—it meant they could focus on opponents.
They had watched Ailendamus expand without doing much. Whether that was arrogance or a disinterest in meddling in the southern section of Terandria…well, their presence in Calanfer now did not make Ailendamus happy.
Three nations. Kaaz, Golaen, and Erribathe. Respectively, they were better known by their nicknames.
Kaaz, the Kingdom of the Infinite Dungeon. Because it had…the world’s largest dungeon.
Golaen, the Half-Giant’s Kingdom. Notable for a lack of half-Giants…or rather, an odd take on them.
Erribathe, the Kingdom of Myth, one of the few nations that was still traceable back to the first Hundred Families of old who had settled Terandria.
Two of the representative kingdoms were already settling themselves in, and Rabbiteater saw Kaaz’s nobles first.
They had lions. And tigers. And other big cats. Apparently one was called a ‘puma’, and the thing looked extremely dangerous as it prowled behind a noblewoman with a serrated dueling sword who strutted along, practically inviting a duel.
“They’re touchy—as touchy as Taimaguros nobles, and both Taimaguros and Kaaz have fought entire wars—or killed each other over petty insults. They have only one Knight-Order—and it’s the strongest in the world. They have a lot of Named-rank adventurers because of the Infinite Dungeon.”
“Is it really infinite?”
To that, Markus could only shrug. Rabbiteater was amazed that the Spring Knight would call one other Knight Order definitively the ‘best’, but he supposed there were reasons.
“No one’s found the end. Like Medain of Chandrar, it has sustained their nation for a long time. As for Golaen’s folk…well. You can tell who they are.”
“How can I—whoa.”
Rabbiteater turned and blinked. Striding through the Humans gathered in the hallways came…taller Humans.
Just that. They weren’t half-Giants. Not exactly. Moore was notably taller than everyone, and he was…giant-ish. In the sense that you felt like no one could be that tall normally.
These? These were Humans who got as tall as eight feet. Not really nine like Moore; some were six feet tall. Six, seven, eight.
Tall Humans. Strong Humans, too; one of their leaders wore huge, tailored breeches of Wyvernhide, and he looked like he had seen a few battles from the way he walked, confidently patting people he met on the shoulder. That was it. Confidence from Golaen, and why not?
Their entire population was bigger than average. But again, they had apparently come from meeting with half-Giants so long ago that they were more like just…taller Humans.
Oh—and their kingdom? They had taken one spot as their home:
The last and only city Giants had ever built. That was Golaen, who, in their way, were as brazenly arrogant as Kaaz. Indeed, whoever the [Lord] leading the group of nobles was, he was clearly talking down to a number of other dignitaries in multiple senses of the word.
Politics were weird. When the [Lord] spotted Rabbiteater, he strode over, engulfed Rabbiteater’s hand in a strong grip that Rabbiteater returned mildly—he was wearing a gauntlet, so he didn’t really feel it—and then tried to flip up the [Knight]’s visor.
Meisa instantly snapped as Rabbiteater batted away the hand. The [Lord] laughed hugely and patted Rabbiteater on the shoulder before turning to Meisa and snatching a hand to kiss it.
“Ah, forgive me, Dame Knight! I had to try. So you are Ser Solstice! I heard you dueled our distant cousin, the Dame of Hills!”
“Mm. She was pretty big. You’re tall yourself. Who’re you?”
“Lord Etrogaer, a Duchal title. My class is [Titanguard] of Golaen. One of the sworn protectors of our lands—not that most monsters trouble Golaen’s folk. I’ve wondered how many [Knights] I would have a chance to spar! Would you be interested?”
Rabbiteater gave Etrogaer a blandly calm reply.
“I don’t think it’s wise. I cut off fingers.”
The [Titanguard]’s eyes flashed as he bared all his teeth.
“If you’re concerned for me, I’ll wear gauntlets! Come now, are you nervous?”
Rabbiteater rolled his shoulders in a shrug.
“Nah. But I won’t duel you.”
“I heard you took on one of Cenidau’s Hearthlords not twenty minutes ago. Have you lost your nerve suddenly?”
The [Titanguard] teased him as people turned and regarded the two. Rabbiteater saw some of Kaaz’s nobles watching him, and he replied steadily.
The Goblin turned and gave Lord Etrogaer a long look. He replied in a carrying tone as Meisa and Markus watched, tense. Well, Markus was wondering if the two came to blows—how in the hell would he pull Etrogaer off Rabbiteater? Even with Meisa’s help? Yet Rabbiteater’s stare through his visor was level and perhaps—unsettling.
What did the man see? A blank visor? A hint of…something hidden, cloaked by magic such that you couldn’t even see with light shining on the visor? But you imagined it. A disfigured face? A Drake? A Gnoll? And that voice was so calm, even with the [Titanguard]’s Aura of Might bearing down on him. His felt like…to the nobles…
Home. Rabbiteater replied simply.
“If I lose, you’ll try to take my helmet off. Especially if I’m unconscious.”
Etrogaer laughed. He threw his head back and laughed, then clutched Rabbiteater’s shoulder.
“You have me, Ser Knight! It was my intention from the start. I suppose that’s a ‘no’?”
He turned, chuckling, and Rabbiteater called out after him.
“If you want to wager your life, I’ll do it. But I don’t fight fair.”
The [Titanguard] turned, and a silence fell as Markus’ hand meeting his face was the only audible sound for a second. Then Etrogaer strode back over, clapped Rabbiteater on the shoulder, and turned.
“Now there’s a [Knight] with some proper bravery! I rather like you, Ser Solstice!”
Then he nodded to them and left. When he was out of earshot, Rabbiteater leaned over to the tensed Meisa and Markus.
“…I don’t think he actually likes me. Which is good. Because I don’t like him.”
Meisa exhaled slowly and nearly punched Ser Greysten when the Summer’s Champion clapped her and Rabbiteater on the shoulder. The older [Knight] watched the Golaen lord leave and murmured.
“He might not care for someone he can’t intimidate, but he respects Rabbiteater enough that he won’t try that trick again. How powerful is that glue, Ser Solstice?”
Rabbiteater felt at his helmet.
“…I might have made it impossible to get off.”
Ser Greysten laughed and then turned to the other two. He nodded around the bustling palace of Calanfer.
“Banquets, toasts in our honor, sports like hunting—Calanfer is putting on a grand reception. I don’t know if it’s wise, but Ser Solstice is invited to everything I am—including tonight’s banquet in honor of our victory against Ailendamus. We even have the chance to approach the Eternal Throne, and of all the experiences, I would say that one is the only one we must go to. Dame Meisa, Markus, Ser Solstice, any thoughts?”
The two [Knights] murmured that they too would like to see Calanfer’s wonders, if cautiously. As for Rabbiteater? He looked around at the fascinating nobility, the palace full of architectural marvels, and the city that people flocked to in luxury, and he raised his hand.
“I think I’m done. I’ll go to Nadel or Pheislant and get on a ship back home. Anyone want to go now?”
Ser Greysten’s jaw opened, and a passing servant of Calanfer slipped and nearly toweled one of Cenidau’s Hearthlords. Even some of the other eavesdroppers turned to stare.
“Did you just say Ser Solstice is leaving?”
When Princess Seraphel heard that, she was surprised. Not because she didn’t see why—but because she had never heard someone who hadn’t spent at least two weeks in Calanfer say that! And he had, by all accounts, been here one hour and decided to go.
“He must be having another joke. Like how, on the campaign, he kept inviting Vernoue to send a wedding invitation to Ser Venoriat on the basis that his name started with a ‘V’ as well. Or to the Small Queen because ‘she would probably accept’.”
Aielef laughed it off. She was having Seraphel over in a rare display of sisterly affection—and because both of them were avoiding Shardele. Vernoue had even come by, although she was reading from her spellbook as usual.
Surviving a siege had made them—closer. But even so, they were still wary allies at most. Which was a sad thing to have in a family, wasn’t it?
Seraphel had never realized that until she’d seen a few families up close actually loving and caring for each other. In Noelictus. Here—it was just the politics of court.
However, in this case, Aielef was on the same page as Seraphel and Vernoue. The [Deathtouch Princess] nodded along with her younger sister—until one of the [Court Servants] whispered the rest of the story.
“Actually, everyone thought so, Your Highnesses, and that he was making a statement. No one said any more, even when he went to the stables for a horse. It turns out he was sixteen miles south of here when he ran into more of the nobility heading up from Nadel! Ser Greysten himself rode out to bring him back!”
“He actually left? Why?”
Aielef’s fanning slowed in disbelief. The [Court Servant] said something unbelievable.
“He said he found the Eternal Throne…boring.”
All three [Princesses] stared at each other. Then they stared out across the city of the Eternal Throne’s seat, where, as a sign of hospitality and entertainment, [Bakers] were making loaves of bread in the style of every single nation represented by dignitaries and passing them out for free as a festival ran through the streets. A Grand Elephant from Chandrar was slowly marching towards the menagerie, followed by a [Carpet Rider] doing tricks. Seraphel shook her head in amazement.
The odd thing was—she didn’t doubt that Ser Solstice, or ‘Rabbiteater’ as she had heard his friends nickname him, was telling the truth. She was actually curious. Why boring?
Meisa scolded Rabbiteater for an hour on the ride back. Despite Rabbiteater pointing out reasonably that he’d said he was leaving now.
“How is all this boring, Rabbit? Really?”
His reply was simple.
“I’m tired of people telling me I won a battle. I know I won a battle. I’m tired of eating stupid food and saying ‘we won, good job’. It’s boring.”
Meisa gave him an astounded look, but Ser Greysten’s was almost admiring. Because—that was what he meant.
Rabbiteater liked celebrating victories. After they’d leveled up and beaten the Great General, Dionamella, he had mourned the dead and celebrated levels and the incredible victory. In between trying to hit Tyrion Veltras, he’d drunk himself silly.
After Ailendamus, despite not taking the capital or ending the war, he had engaged in a lot of victory sex, a very important Goblin—and Human—tradition. On the way back, he’d gladly toasted their victory with the Dawn Concordat’s [Generals], even shaken hands with the Griffin Queen, talked with the Griffin Prince…
A week after the victory at Ailendamus, Rabbiteater had stopped chiming in every time someone raised a mug celebrating their win. He had started staring at soft brie cheese and caviar and begun sneaking out raw potatoes and other ingredients to make snacks.
Two weeks after the ‘glorious victory of the Dawn Concordat and Ser Solstice’s famous duel at the keep’, Rabbiteater had begun avoiding parties. He had, twice, taken a look at charcuterie boards being set up and ‘accidentally’ let some of the warhounds in to eat their pick. Or grabbed a bunch of regular ants and dumped them on the board.
This was week three. Three weeks of celebrating, being cheered everywhere he went, and told what a glorious battle—if underhanded—he’d won. Fighting with the Archmage of Memory! Riding with the Princess Seraphel!
Enough! The Goblin found it insulting. He liked celebrating wins. Goblins loved that. But there was something…repulsive about how the Humans were doing it.
Redfangs? Redfangs celebrated a huge battle. They’d do up to four days straight of enjoying themselves depending on how much leisure they’d had. Talk about it for the week—then bring it up reminiscing around fires or on the march.
But they didn’t glorify like this. If Rabbiteater had gone back to The Wandering Inn right this second, Erin’s Minotaur Punch might be a drink he ordered once a year as opposed to what felt like every day.
“If this is how much you celebrate two battles, how are you going to win the war? You’re still at war.”
“Yes, but the Order of Seasons is pressing the attack. And Wellfar’s ships have engaged Ailendamus’ fleets—without Taimaguros, they are being harried in smaller engagements by multiple armies! We have earned a break to let other [Knights] win a fair share of the glory and do their part, Rabbit.”
Meisa pointed out in what she clearly thought was a reasonable tone. Rabbiteater just gave her a blank look. He flexed one arm.
“I’m still healthy. I’m not hurt. Either I fight—or I go home. I don’t want to celebrate. I don’t want to talk to dignitaries. I don’t want to eat your stupid food!”
He almost shouted the last part. And of all the fair complaints…that last one was apparently the line in the sand that everyone started arguing with him about.
“Our food isn’t bad, Rabbiteater.”
“Yes it is.”
“You have been feasting on the best dishes we can imagine! I myself haven’t eaten so well in…well, ages! Every kind of delicacy!”
Rabbiteater clutched his stomach and made a vomiting sound in his helmet as Greysten and Meisa argued with him.
“Too many cheeses. Brie. Camembert. Blue cheese. ‘Gruyère’. ‘Chervrot’. It’s rotten milk. It has mold. And you eat guts!”
“Guts? Oh—is this about the tripe again? I told you—”
“It’s guts. Goblins don’t eat guts if they can avoid it!”
Tripe offended Rabbiteater to his very bowels, and it was his bowels that he feared when he saw the dishes that nobles thought were good.
Tripe! He hadn’t known what it was, but—get this—it was stomach lining, internal organs which the nobility ate because it was apparently expensive and high-class. They ate it in sauce. They ate it in sausages. They ate it in soup.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. Rabbiteater folded his arms.
“You eat stupid meat, too.”
“Rabbit…how is our meat stupid?”
“It’s got no bones. It’s all ‘prime’ this, ‘fatty tenderloin’ that. But you don’t even like the fat!”
“Well, no, we like the actual meat, not the fat—”
“Unless you drizzle it over a roast and eat it with all that other stuff! And your vegetables suck!”
“We have plenty of rare—”
“Yellats! Where are Yellats?”
The Goblin was throwing a fit on his horse. His horse got to eat Yellats, but not one for the Goblin in the last three weeks! Meisa replied faintly.
“Well—they’re a cheap vegetable, by and large.”
“Cheap is good! My butt leaks every time I eat your mushy, stupid food! The [Princesses] don’t even eat potatoes! Aielef didn’t even know what it was when I showed her one! I want to go home. I’ll eat Yellats and salad. I want a burger. I want…”
He felt a catch in his throat as they rode through the city’s gates. Rabbiteater looked around, and it came to him in a word. This glorious city filled with wonders…he would have been a thousand times happier if he were home, riding into Liscor’s gates, being turned away by the guard, and going to that inn on a hill. Then he’d sit down, and someone would offer him some, perhaps, unspiced, unsauced spaghetti, it was true. But it came with a smile. And he would be…
He had never felt homesick. Not even when he and the other Goblins had gone on their dangerous mission to slay an [Innkeeper]. That was because…his tribe had been home, and in another sense, he’d never had a home. But now, the feeling engulfed him, and it was the one foe, the one battle that Ser Solstice could never win.
Meisa looked at him, and it was Greysten who clapped Rabbiteater on the shoulder.
“You’ve said it plain enough for it to even get into our helmets, Ser Solstice. One day. One day and we have an audience with the Eternal Throne. Regardless, it would look poorly on us if you left. And I assure you—one day and you will see a wondrous sight. I would not want you to miss it. As for home? We can find you passage, despite the war at sea.”
Rabbiteater relaxed slightly. He nodded gratefully, but he didn’t miss how Meisa failed to chime in. He looked at her and then wondered.
In all his talk of going home, of seeing Erin alive and showing her Izril, finding the Redfangs and seeing Rags and…doing what he could do, Meisa had listened and talked with him. But she had never promised him she would be there, not exactly. Meisa was a [Knight], and she did not make promises she didn’t know if she could keep.
Princess Seraphel du Marquin was home. And it wasn’t home. She wanted to go home as well, but home…
Home was not here. Home was, perhaps, a small, quiet keep in a village in Noelictus. Home was walking with a singing girl and a ghost of a [Knight] under clouded skies.
Home was gone, and it was an idea. But even if she had a home—
It was not here.
Oh, how quickly she fell back into being in the castle. It never left you. Once you had become a [Princess] and experienced what it was to be a [Princess]—you would never forget, even if you thought it was for the best.
For instance. Seraphel could cough, touch her throat. This was by herself without being in the company of her personal servants. She’d never had many, and they hadn’t been ‘hers’, not in any loyal, meaningful sense. The rest had left after her marriage. But even so, while standing in the hallway of the palace, she could touch her throat, cough, and say, ‘I’m thirsty’.
Two minutes later, a servant raced forwards with a cup of cherry juice, her favorite.
“For you, Your Highness. Apologies for the delay!”
Seraphel accepted the cup. She sipped from the straw, finished a quarter, decided she wasn’t that thirsty, and held out the glass. Instantly, she let go, and someone took it such that it didn’t shatter on the floor.
Now, this was not an unheard-of maneuver. People handed each other things all the time. But that was not what Seraphel did. She stopped drinking from the straw, then, in the same motion, pulled the glass of cherry juice away from her body and released it.
She did not perform the mental calculation of making sure someone else had a hold of the glass. She let go with the certainty that someone would catch it or they would lose their job. And in the same breath, a cup of water was offered that she might ensure her teeth weren’t stained red and a napkin for her mouth.
Only after Seraphel had absently partaken in a sip of water and napkin pat did she catch herself and feel—well, ashamed. She looked back and saw a [Servant] stepping away with the cup of cherry juice and water.
“More, Your Highness? Another beverage?”
Instantly, the servant halted and came back, and Seraphel looked at some mousey hair, neatly combed and glistening, a young girl’s face of fourteen, wearing Calanfer’s bright livery. She looked—not apprehensive, just ready. Ready to get whatever Seraphel asked.
“No. I—I shall finish the drink. What do you all do, if I don’t finish it?”
The [Servant] blinked at being addressed. It was, perhaps, the first time any member of the royal family had ever spoken to her. Some [Princesses] and the [Princes] had their favorite servants, but this wasn’t usual. She stuttered.
“I—we dispose of the contents, Your Majesty.”
“Not drink it or use it?”
“No, absolutely not!”
The response was a bit too quick that time, and Seraphel wondered if one of the few perks of waiting on a [Princess] was sneaking a bit of unwanted cake. She thought of how many times she had left a meal unfinished.
It had never occurred to her that there was a finite limit of food until she’d been in a siege and been…hungry. Nor to look at servant’s faces except to see if they were badmouthing her or malicious. Seraphel looked at the cup and shook her head.
“I shouldn’t mind either way. Thank you…?”
She waited, and the girl realized Seraphel was waiting for her name.
“Beacle, Your Highness.”
“Beacle. Thank you.”
Seraphel nodded, and the [Servant] bowed.
“We are honored to serve, Your Highness. Your bravery in Calanfer’s name was an inspiration to us all.”
Did she add that in the hopes that it made Seraphel look kindly on her? Perhaps she thought Seraphel had taken an interest in her as a personal servant? Or was it because she thought that the conversation warranted it?
These thoughts ran through Seraphel’s mind at once until a simpler one presented itself. She looked into the girl’s eyes and saw a shining admiration so genuine it didn’t belong in Calanfer. Perhaps the poor girl just meant it. Of her.
“Thank you, Miss Beacle.”
Seraphel whispered. And then—as the [Servant] retreated, bowing—Seraphel looked around.
“Oh, I shouldn’t have come back.”
Even if her name were brighter in the books of the palace staff—even if she had leveled, and found more of herself—Seraphel du Marquin sighed and walked on, head heavy.
Home was a wonderful idea. But you could never go home exactly how you wanted. And worst, in another sense—
‘Home’ never changed.
“Seraphel. We understand you’ve consolidated your class into a rather unfitting advancement for a [Princess] of Calanfer. Your luck in interfering in the battle at Krawlnmak’s Pass notwithstanding, we would have hoped for something more…universally tolerable. Alas, Noelictus’ affairs may have rubbed off on you. But we are pleased to note your value as a bride has restored itself somewhat.”
The unfortunate class was [Deathtouch Princess]. And the point, while delivered bluntly—even in private, even between the royal family—wasn’t wrong.
It was hard to find a Terandrian who wouldn’t associate that class with necromancy, and that was hated the continent over. It was also not wrong to say that Seraphel had endangered the battlefield by riding to inspire Calanfer’s forces.
Just…it was also true that Seraphel had leveled up, a difficult feat for a [Princess]. She’d just passed Aielef. And she had helped win a pivotal battle in the war?
Seraphel thought of saying these things. And pointing out her value as a bride was diminished by three marriages…was there a stopping point? But she said none of these things. She said…
To which Queen Ielane du Marquin, one of the two rulers of Calanfer, sitting in repose in her drawing room, studying a catalog of dishes for tomorrow’s breakfast—finally looked up. She was, as always, flawless in both her fashion and posture. Her dress had brilliant overtones like exploding spells across a more somber hem, tinged with blood and flowers, to commemorate the dead. Her hair was fashioned into braids that ran around her head and became a bun at the back, and the crown was perfectly placed, shining with protective spells and a soft golden light.
Her skin? Perfect, and not even Shardele could best her for makeup. But then, the Eternal Queen and the Eternal King should look the part, and Ielane was the model which her daughters emulated, not surpassed.
Not yet. Perhaps one would when she died, but she had perfect diction, perfect poise, and she did not forget names or make mistakes.
In public. In private, she pursed her lips.
“Yes, ‘hello’, Seraphel. We are extremely pleased to see you if that was not implicit. Sit.”
She said it in the way that hinted that it was uncouth of Seraphel to intimate that any of this had been up for debate, hellos or not. She gestured, and Seraphel sat.
Even in private, it was all of Calanfer, politics and power-plays. For instance, the chair that Ielane indicated was not comfortable. It was not backed with anything soft, and it hurt your bottom the instant you sat in it. It looked quite expensive and regal, but it was a nightmare to relax in.
Her children had learned it was both a test and power-play of its own. When they were good, they sat in comfortable chairs. But even if they were sitting here, they should never look uncomfortable. If they were clever, they might arrange for another chair to be there.
It was the same trick Calanfer’s rulers and diplomats played on their opponents, even allies. Seraphel had forgotten about the damn chair. Even if she’d remembered…she just sat there. Her face wasn’t as carefully polite-blank as she had been taught. She rubbed at her back, and Ielane frowned at her.
“Are you some kind of invalid or have you pulled every muscle after riding into battle?”
Seraphel sat up silently.
“It was a long ride into the city.”
The excuse didn’t really pass water, but Ielane nodded as she tapped an item on the catalog. Her personal [Handmaiden] took a note, and Ielane flipped a page, searching for more dishes.
“So we note. Shardele has already retired to her sanctum and, to judge from reports, has consumed eighteen grams of Dreamleaf.”
Seraphel kept her face straight.
“She’s leveled up her hobby.”
Ielane flicked her off-hand, which was holding a long, thin puffer of its own and drifting with smoke. It was a sign of approval, like a smile, but a quirk of the lips was the real good stuff. She inhaled and exhaled from the cigar softly.
None of the commonfolk—or even the court—knew that she smoked anything. That was a weakness, and Ielane’s own children had mostly passed their majorities before they found out.
“That wit, Seraphel, is exactly why I hoped you would do well in Avel. Alas, war ends all dreams. Ailendamus, once again. And your sharp tongue becomes an asset. A battle-capable [Princess], with unique…insights. That is how we shall frame it. Who knows? If you reach Level 30, we may have a considerable increase in the quality of suitor.”
She tapped another item from the menu, and Seraphel sat there. Her mother, Ielane, was one of the most impressive people Seraphel knew. She personally dictated some banquets, and she knew what dishes contained allergic or undesirable foods for her guests. She played politics so well that Reclis, her husband, Seraphel’s father, often turned to her when he needed the steadiest hand at the negotiating table, and people took the Queen of Calanfer for granted all the time.
Still—even before leaving home for some many years, Seraphel had never aspired to be her mother. Ielane was…what Seraphel had once told Cara O’Sullivan her vision of a ruler was.
She was a tool to fit Calanfer’s needs. She hid her hobbies, did what she needed to keep the kingdom running and prosperous. She had her wants, her desires, and she used her power to get them—but if she molded the kingdom, the kingdom molded back.
Ielane had taught her sons and daughters, but her daughters especially, that they would one day be married. It was a fact, and it would serve Calanfer, and that was not the end of their service to Calanfer. She spoke of Seraphel’s failed marriage to Noelictus and future ones not as…chores, or burdens, but opportunities.
It shall help Calanfer. So why worry about anything else? Seraphel remembered the blank stare she had received when she had protested her second marriage to Ielane’s face.
“Nothing you can do will matter more, my dear. Anything you wish to do can come after.”
“What is your exact class and Skills? I have the transcript, but if you would care to add anything to the royal archive?”
She knew Seraphel’s new levels and class and Skills. She had probably known before Seraphel woke up and heard the announcement. Not that Ielane’s Skills told her exactly what her daughters had—it told her their relative value in terms of dowry or connection.
“I have several new Skills. One reputation-related. The other was…purple.”
Seraphel hesitated, and Ielane’s brows rose. She took another puff from her cigar.
It hadn’t used to feel so—raw. Sharing her private levels and accomplishments. Ielane jotted down notes, like she jotted down secrets of state, carefully, asking questions.
Seraphel’s Skills. They were numerous, and even for a class consolidation for a [Princess]—rather impressive, if somewhat controversial.
[Hearts of Courage].
[Reputation: Infamy, Now My Fame].
[Royal Bodyguard: Two of Life, Two of Death].
[Induction: Royal Bodyguard].
“…[Ghost’s Hand] is unknown in our lexicon. The exact nuances of your version of [Royal Bodyguard] are unknown, but seem straightforward, sadly. At best, we could make it some kind of themed…death-type Golem? At least the [Bards] will have an easier time with your reputation, indeed. Battle and protection-theme. It may play well in Kaliv, or elsewhere. Do you know what [Ghost’s Hand] does?”
And here, Seraphel rebelled. For the first time since she was seventeen, she truly pushed back in a small way.
Ielane waved away a bit of smoke.
“We will have a tutor investigate. Do you have two favorite Thronebearers to pick?”
Seraphel didn’t need to think.
“Ser Dalimont and…Dame Neranthei.”
She named the Thronebearer who still served her and had gone to participate in Cara’s music video. Ielane’s brows rose only slightly.
“Good. Let us hope you can name the two without some undead. If not? Perhaps the Skill will function if the two undead are seperated. If not, we must play the Noelictus angle. Does anyone know of the Skill?”
She was going to tell Seraphel to keep it quiet. Ielane didn’t think her daughter would ever give away secret knowledge of Calanfer—and her levels were that—but again, Seraphel rebelled.
“I…the Order of Seasons and the Goblin Slayer know about my Skills.”
Seraphel didn’t know why she said that. It was just petty. And somehow, a joy to see her mother’s face as those two level eyes rose and a note of exasperation entered Ielane’s voice.
“Because they were present, and Ser Ilm, a [Mage Knight], accidentally cast [Appraisal] on me. My tiara was out of protective power.”
Seraphel lied to her mother’s face. Which she could do because she was wearing wards against truth spells. Her tiara. But it could run out of power. Ielane stared at Seraphel over the catalog and then resumed smoking.
“They took it normally?”
“They were aware of the Noelictus connection, and Ser Solstice is—unique.”
“So Aielef reported. And Vernoue, who wishes to marry Archmage Eldavin, the Fall’s Sentinel, and Magus Grimalkin of Pallass. If she had a chance of the first in any real way, we would extend the invitation. As for the second—more interesting, but doubtful. Possible, depending on the outcome of our unofficial summit. For the last? Aha. No. We think she would marry Ser Solstice as well, but she was wise enough not to say that. Your sister’s antics have put nonsense in some of your younger siblings’ heads.”
Lyonette. Even now, Ielane didn’t mention her outright, which showed how angry she probably was. Seraphel saw none of it behind the perfect mask. More perfect than their guests from the Kingdom of Incantations, Tourvecall. Seraphel wondered how Ielane would do in the rumored Court of Masks in Ailendamus.
“Alive. Promiscuous. Rebellious as usual, but she has leveled outstandingly. Dame Ushar did not gain a complete picture of how much, but—significantly. Perhaps in a rare class. She is refusing to return home, and we have allowed it given the circumstances. Your man, Dalimont, has apparently proven himself quite well numerous times.”
Promiscuous? Had Lyonette broken the cardinal rule of a [Princess]? Well…Seraphel hoped she’d made it worth it. But Ielane didn’t want to talk about Lyonette.
“Ser Solstice. Do you know what lies behind the helmet?”
“Mm. Good. Whatever it is, we would prefer it to remain a secret. Instinct tells us we would prefer not to know.”
Now that was fascinating. Ielane seldom did things without a good reason, but the fact that she wanted Ser Solstice to remain masked…she tapped the cigar, and some ash fell into a tray expertly held out at the right moment.
“Extremely helpful, that one. Potentially troublesome, but cannier than Golaen’s bullies or Kaaz’s troublemakers. A consummate warrior. If he can be persuaded to stay…no, I would rather not deal with whatever lies under that mask. An honorable guest.”
More and more fascinating. Ielane had a kind of sixth sense around trouble. If she wanted Ser Solstice gone…Seraphel was more curious still. But the Queen dwelled on him, a rarity. She frowned at her catalog, snapped her fingers, and spoke.
Another catalog was placed in front of her. This should have already been set, but Ielane went over it again. She spoke out of the corner of her mouth.
“What kind of eating habits does this Ser Solstice have?”
“…Does not remove his helmet. Of course.”
“No, but I have seen him sip drinks, and he’s made plates of food. He eats mostly anything, I think. Including bugs. He’s lived in the wilderness.”
“Intriguing. Odd. We have…no delicate insects? No, we do have fried crickets for Drathians. So why…”
Ielane paged through the catalog, frowning. Then she closed it.
“Strange. However, not worth the effort.”
“What is, Mother?”
The [Queen] glanced up at Seraphel.
“We cannot locate a satisfactory dish among the catalogs of our [Chefs]. Perhaps he is indisposed; his mood being contrary to any dish would do that.”
She could sense whatever made her guests happy. So Ser Solstice wasn’t going to love tonight’s dinner? Seraphel was nodding as Ielane glanced at one of the traditional sun-clocks. She stood.
“I must greet Cenidau’s representatives with His Majesty. He sends you his congratulations. Please select a present for yourself, but be mindful that we are at war. I expect we shall see each other at tonight’s banquet and other events. We shall speak after all the greetings to our diplomats and heroes of war are concluded.”
And like that, she was rising, moving behind a privacy screen to change into appropriate attire, a five-minute process with her experienced staff—and out the room before the next five minute interval. Seraphel sat there.
The meeting with her mother was over. Fifteen whole minutes. She coughed, and someone offered her a cup of tea instantly.
Naturally, if she had wanted something to drink, Ielane expected Seraphel would have requested it. Naturally, she had to go. Ielane’s day was cut up into fifteen minute chunks, and while her younger daughter, Ellet, still needed good portions of the day, her elder daughters could take care of themselves.
It was the most approving that Ielane had been in a while. Probably because Seraphel hadn’t objected or protested, but just gotten down to business. The [Princess] wouldn’t see her mother outside of public events—which were obviously staged—for at least a day or two, and they didn’t need to meet.
It was done. Her father was even more abrupt, but he sometimes talked about philosophy, so you could sit there an hour or two while he grilled you for your perspective on things. Seraphel sat in the dressing room as servants cleared up. It was only after a while that one of them, the very same Beacle from earlier, glanced up.
Seraphel du Marquin sat in the uncomfortable chair, perfect posture, her face perfectly composed—which was to say, engaged, attentive, not just a blank mask—her lips almost parted as if waiting for someone to finish their thought before she replied. She stared ahead, and it was a perfect act worthy of any [Princess] of Calanfer.
The only change, the change in Seraphel, in home and how she lived in it—were the two streaks of tears running down her cheeks and her chin. They dripped into her lap as she wept.
The only people having less of a pleasant time in Calanfer than Ser Solstice and Princess Seraphel were the representatives from Ailendamus.
Noble nations of Terandria understood that while war was war, in many cases, there was still room for diplomacy right until the enemy soldiers were battering the door down. Obviously, the lives of [Diplomats] sometimes were tossed into the mix as hostages—but Ailendamus was currently on the back foot.
They were facing multiple hostile nations raiding and attacking from various sides, and while the Kingdom of Glass and Glory was a powerhouse, their [Diplomat] had orders to throw a wrench into Calanfer’s pact making, lest they form a coalition. Oh, and also to report back on any clandestine affairs and endear Ailendamus to any potential allies abroad. Find a chink in the unified hostility.
All this for four poor [Diplomats]. They might as well have been asked to fly. Calanfer might be something of a laughingstock on the battlefield—at least until recently—but the Thronebearers were famously dangerous off the practice courts.
And they were mean.
Woolen sheets misplaced for your silks. Soup that was never hot. While you were walking over to shake hands with Nadel’s [Coastwarden] top [Ambassadors], you tripped and tossed half your plate of food into their hair.
Let alone the actual Skills. [Distracting Cough] didn’t sound bad—until, in the middle of an earnest speech, you and you alone heard the loudest, wettest cough in your ear and lost your train of thought.
Needless to say, the diplomatic wing in Calanfer was miserable, and they were relieved that they were rotated out monthly. Although it had been a lot more fun when Ailendamus was pressing in through Kaliv and they were treated like horned Demons—but treated very well, mind you.
Their [Diplomat of Envy] hadn’t been prepared for this. He was a man used to touring Taimaguros, fifty years old, and his Skills included showing off Ailendamus’ largesse. After his first night of running into hostile house cats during a midnight stroll, the man practically begged to be let go to the capital.
He had a personal connection to the crown, obviously. He could call up Ailendamus’ [Generals] at need, and the Kingdom of Glass and Glory was not blind; their [Ambassadors] sometimes weighed in on military affairs with a loud enough voice to rein in [Generals] if they thought the political battle would outweigh the military one.
However, it was the Duke, Rhisveri himself, who told the [Diplomat] he would be staying.
“Your Grace, there is no chance we will call an end to the war without the Dawn Concordat feeling as though it is pressed back! I am well aware of our military capabilities. Our foes are viewing this as a decade-long war. They may well change their minds in a year.”
The [Diplomat of Envy] knew full well that the Dawn Concordat was bleeding from the bloody war. Ailendamus was too—they had lost Dionamella. However, there was a difference between the size and economy of both nations. Ailendamus could replace their lost armies. In time, Calanfer would stop preening its feathers and look up to see more legions of [Knights].
He felt, strongly, that he didn’t need to suffer in the interim. Especially because of how damn hard it was to make friends with all these nations enjoying Ailendamus’ moment of weakness. However—Rhisveri’s reply was curious.
“I do not expect you to work wonders, Diplomat Corek. I never do.”
“Slightly rude, Your Grace?”
Corek’s impishness and his backsass sometimes won him points in Taimaguros, where the people, including Queen Oesca, appreciated a feisty retort no matter who you were. Rhisveri’s voice just turned from ice to ever-frozen tundra.
“You are not there to cease the war. Even if they nibble at our borders, time will overturn this setback. Rather, I want you to investigate why the Restful Three are moving.”
Kaaz, Golaen, and Erribathe. Corek assumed that was obvious; they had come for the spectacle. If nothing else, Calanfer were excellent hosts for their friends, and this was tweaking Ailendamus’ nose. But Rhisveri’s opinion was different.
“They have sent their Hundredlords and Golaen’s [Titanguard]. This is no mere entertainment. Do you know who is coming from Erribathe?”
“That’s a tightly-guarded secret, Your Grace. I would assume only Calanfer’s crown has any inkling—”
“The Heir Apparent, Prince Iradoren, is set to appear tonight or tomorrow.”
Corek fell quiet. His eyes flickered, and his heartbeat picked up. He knew the speaking spells were top-quality and never had been broken by hostile mages, but he checked his connection and ward spells anyways.
“—Are you certain, Your Grace?”
“My intelligence is not ever in error. This is no charade or worthless pageantry. Something has caused the Restful Three to move. If they are—foolishly—considering war, I want to know. Now. I don’t believe they are. If so, I would have noticed their forces moving. Something else is up. Find out. I will replace you the instant you do.”
Was that a threat or an incentive? Corek decided it was an incentive. He wondered what it could be. Perhaps the ghosts that had come across Terandria? If so…
He wondered what they’d said. Corek stared at his speaking stone. Then, groaning, he prepared himself for a terrible banquet in isolation. His only consolation was that at least he could enjoy some good food. He was, after all, a social, charming man if given the chance.
And that was the difference between a consummate [Diplomat] and, say, a Goblin. Or even Seraphel du Marquin. One person lived to talk, make connections, and, frankly, wanted to be friendly.
Seraphel…was all too aware how mercantile most relationships were. She, like every single [Princess] and [Prince], had gone through an experience growing up where she made friends with someone, only to find out that friendship was highly conditional.
In Seraphel’s case, she’d had a ‘best friend’, a certain Lady Erreta du Havrington, whom she had positively adored. They had gossiped, visited each other nonstop despite the distance between Calanfer and Pheislant—and Seraphel had refused to believe Erreta was actually just cozying up to her.
Even when her mother had told her to her face that Erreta was stealing secrets and badmouthing Seraphel behind her back, the young [Princess] had stood by her friend.
So, Ielane had arranged for Erreta to accidentally make some pointed comments with her true friends in the walls of Calanfer’s palace. Seraphel had listened behind a fake wall and—
Well. Ielane had let her stay away from court for two weeks. She had sympathy for her daughters when they experienced this lesson. It was a vital lesson in trust. Sometimes you had to learn it as many as four times.
But after that, ah, let’s just say that even the most charming [Courtier] didn’t exactly sweep Seraphel off her feet. She knew anything she said would be used against her and any promises would come back to bite her.
That was why [Princesses] enjoyed the company of people they knew. Or—people who were simply too honest to really exist in Calanfer’s reality.
Ser Greysten was one such. The fiery Summer’s Champion was like a breath of fresh summer’s air at times. The entire Order of Seasons were straightforward by and large; even their Autumn Knights only played the game of intrigue as obligation demanded.
Ser Solstice was another. Seraphel might have been long from home, but she knew how to tug on Calanfer’s rumor-nets. So she’d heard that, already, Princess Aielef had invited Ser Solstice, Ser Markus, and a host of other [Knights] to her chambers.
The odds of this being another affair were low. Aielef disappeared for her not-so-secret encounters. She was likely pursuing her other hobby and commemorating the victorious siege of her keep.
However, even the servants didn’t know that, and so the act just bolstered Ser Solstice and his friends’ reputations. Already, people were reminding themselves that Dame Talia was related both to the Games at Daquin and thus the Titan of Baleros and her brother, Wil Kallinad, of great note! Not much was known, scandalous or otherwise, about Dame Meisa and Ser Ilm. Fine, stalwart warriors.
Ser Markus, on the other hand, was apparently something of a ladies’ man. The rumor was that you shouldn’t get behind a closed door with him.
Seraphel supposed that was a Spring Knight for you. Always…libidinous. Did that go against his knightly vows? She’d heard of promiscuous [Monks], so anything was possible.
Anyways, Seraphel wasn’t looking forwards to the banquet. She would not be talking with the Order of Seasons; even the redoubtable Summer’s Champion and Ser Solstice would be sitting far back from the true nobility. She’d be talking with Golaen’s giants and have a crick in her neck all evening. Or trying not to start an honor-duel with one of Kaaz’s maniacs.
“Let it not be Taimaguros. I heard one of their [Ladies] bit the nose off someone who offended her. At a tea party!”
Maybe Noelictus’ envoys. Yes, that would just be like Ielane to sit Seraphel with people she could at least talk to. The [Princess] brightened up. Then she finally found what she was looking for.
She had been walking through the palace’s rich corridors, each one unique and so on and so forth. But they were all filled with servants, and servants watched and gossiped. There were few places you could find that were totally private.
However, a [Princess] who had lived here forever knew some. Ironically, the Eternal Throneroom itself was a great hiding spot since it was so vast. But there were a few other places.
Like the third kitchens. The third set of kitchens, each one capable of holding countless [Chefs], which only began churning out food when the first two were being used.
This one wasn’t active—yet. It would be in about an hour, for the desserts to come out fresh. However—the trick was that until then, aside from people restocking or checking the pantries, no one would be here. And there were a lot of hallways and servants’ corridors.
So—any good [Princess] knew that if she wanted a snack that Ielane wouldn’t approve of, she came here. All the sweets were here because this was where desserts were made.
—Thus, Seraphel found herself a prepared cone of gelato, the rich ‘iced cream’ that had taken Terandria by storm. Someone had decorated this one with a glaze of cherry and covered the top with little, brilliantly glowing bits of sugar mixed with something that shone like a little, magical yellow firefly in the dim kitchen.
A glowing ice cream cone, a red-glazed swirl shining with little stars. Seraphel admired it for a full eight seconds before she greedily took a bite of the tip.
Alright, there were a few perks of being home. She knew that some poor [Chef] had probably prepared these as one of the star treats. And yes, even a [Princess] could get in trouble for eating ice cream—especially the royal desserts.
That was why, when Seraphel heard the quiet clack of heels on stone, she froze. She whirled, put the cone behind her back as she stood against the back of one of the enchanted iceboxes—and someone walked into the kitchens, shedding their Cloak of Balshadow.
Vernoue, the 5th Princess, froze when she saw Seraphel. She and two younger, magically-inclined [Ladies] of Calanfer had been giggling and tiptoeing into the kitchens—until they saw Seraphel.
“Vernoue, you sneak! You nearly gave me a heart-attack!”
“Me? What are you here for?”
The two hissed at each other as the younger [Ladies] bowed hurriedly. But Seraphel didn’t care about them. She glanced at Vernoue’s Cloak.
“You idiot, Vernoue! You don’t take guests here! You’ll get all of us caught! You always get in trouble, and I refuse to go down with you!”
“What? I’m not the one going around unenchanted! I use magic!”
Vernoue hissed back, cheeks reddening. Seraphel rolled her eyes and snapped back.
“That’s why you get caught, you fool!”
There was nothing more obvious than an ‘invisible’ cloak and three not-so-subtle young women trying to share it. Seraphel whirled and tried to yank the fridge door open, but she heard the next footfalls before she got the thick door open. Ice cream cone in hand, she whirled as Vernoue squeaked and tried to put the cloak back on—
Here came a third [Princess]. And it was none other than…Seraphel groaned, and Vernoue glared defiantly.
“Here we are, Mother. As I said, your mysterious dessert thieves are up to their tricks.”
“Shardele, you bitch!”
Vernoue shouted. Or tried to, because that last word vanished into the air. No one swore around Her Majesty.
Queen Ielane du Marquin seemed displeased to see her daughter again. Especially here. Ielane and several of her servants stared at Seraphel and Vernoue as a triumphant Shardele led her into the hiding spot of [Princesses].
“Well, you seem to be correct, Shardele. Vernoue. Seraphel. Your explanation?”
Ielane was not pleased to find her daughters were responsible for more than a few expensive desserts vanishing before their time. However, that was nothing to the 4th and 5th [Princesses]’ glares of hatred towards Shardele.
Shardele the Radiant. If Seraphel’s red hair, like Lyonette’s, was naturally fiery, and Aielef had to dye hers, Shardele was more like an orange sunburst. She wore hers straight behind her, the ends decorated with glowing crystals, and her dresses were always dreamy and light, often enchanted to float around her.
All to play up her image of the wonders of the Eternal Throne. Sometimes you could even see beautiful light or feel as though you stood on a vast horizon made of clouds. Of course—that was because her Skills let you see some of the visions she had while smoking dreamleaf.
—However, she was also the eldest sister. And never a pettier tyrant existed. She must have been so angry about the other [Princesses] laughing at her that she had gone to the most drastic option!
You craven traitor. I’ll see you dead for this. Seraphel mouthed the words. Every [Princess], from Aielef to—well, not Ellet, she was so young she got treats whenever she asked—every [Princess] had the third kitchens as a sanctuary!
But Shardele’s vacuous look of triumph was still earned because Seraphel’s ice cream cone was slowly melting behind her. And Ielane glanced pointedly at Vernoue’s friends.
“We were just going for a walk, Mother.”
“Yes. I enjoy my privacy.”
“We do not have time for lies. Vernoue, you are holding your Cloak of Balshadow. A servant saw and heard you talking about ‘sampling the desserts’ on your way here. We would believe Seraphel’s words—what is behind your back, Seraphel?”
Shardele’s eyes flickered with triumph. Seraphel exhaled, raised her hands—and showed her mother two bare hands.
Vernoue’s eyes bulged almost as much as Shardele’s. Hadn’t Seraphel just been holding…? But Ielane nodded.
She did not exactly seem convinced of Seraphel’s innocence, but she turned her wrath on Vernoue instead. Seraphel kept her face straight, wincing, as Vernoue’s allowance for spellbooks and magical items was revoked for two months. As for Shardele…Ielane did not stay long.
“If any more desserts are found missing, we will have each of our daughters report to us without their tiaras. Shardele—come. Cenidau is waiting.”
“I’ll hex you in your sleep!”
Vernoue hissed as Shardele waved at them. Seraphel just locked eyes with her eldest sister, and Shardele gave her a vaguely miffed look. Her lips moved, and she swept out with Ielane.
The magical [Memo] appeared in front of Seraphel moments thereafter.
I thought we’d find you with a face buried in a meal, as always. Love, Shardele.
Seraphel calmly tore up the note. She turned to Vernoue, who was red-faced and looked ready to cry.
“Shardele. Have you done anything to her recently, Vernoue?”
“No! I may have pointed out how much she spends on her ‘hobby’, and father and mother cut her allowance because we’re at war—”
“Ah. You idiot.”
Seraphel sighed. Vernoue glowered—then turned abruptly. Her two friends were practically in tears and didn’t see Seraphel stepping back over to the fridge—or hear their conversation behind privacy spells.
“How did you hide that gelato? You don’t have a bag of holding!”
For answer, Seraphel simply walked over to the closed, and now locked, fridge. She eyed the magical padlock. Then she stuck her hand through the door and pulled out the almost untouched ice-cream cone.
Vernoue’s eyes went round. Seraphel winked at her.
“New Skill. Mother doesn’t know how it works. [Ghostly Hand].”
“Ghostly—that’s incredible, Seraphel! Does it hurt? Can you make anything larger intangible?”
“Nothing as big as a chair. Only something I can hold comfortably. And before you ask, I need a hole behind the wall—I can’t just insert a rock into a solid brick wall. But I won’t be halted from having desserts. Just so long as they store them close to the front.”
“Lucky you. No one else will be getting snacks.”
Vernoue’s face turned dark with anger. Shardele had poisoned the communal well of sweets—which was like her because she had the smallest sweet-tooth. It would come back to bite her, though; her sisters would not let this go unpunished. If people knew Seraphel as having a ‘sharp tongue’, well, Menisi and Aielef were vicious.
At any rate, her mood was ruined, and so Seraphel handed Vernoue the ice cream.
“Here. A bribe. You might as well get something after this debacle. I will see you—elsewhere.”
Vernoue brightened up. She took the cone, gave Seraphel a kiss on the cheek, and hurried off with her friends. As for Seraphel—her stomach rumbled, and she sighed. Then she reached back into the fridge.
“What’s this? Oh. Oh. Is this tapioca pudding? Custard tapioca pudding!”
Don’t mind if she did. Especially now that she had complete plausible deniability. Even Ielane made mistakes. And hers was not knowing how many desserts had been pilfered before she’d put a lock on the fridge. This might be Seraphel’s last free run on gelato.
So, if you could eat one pudding, why not two? And another ice cream cone. This one was peppermint.
Rabbiteater was upset. He hated the stupid food. He hated the banquet. But most of all—
He hated the food.
In fact, Ser Markus found Meisa loitering outside of one of the restrooms in Calanfer, calling out to Rabbiteater.
“Rabbit—how long is it going to be? It’s not even the third course!”
“Go away. This is your fault.”
It was definitely Rabbiteater in there. Ser Markus hesitated since it was, well, the toilets.
A word on lavatories in Terandria. Of all the aspects of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, the one area where they might fall behind another city was…plumbing. The Eternal Throne had plumbing in its capital, but nowhere near the level of a Drake city.
A lot of households outside the capital just used traditional outhouses. While the nobility had toilets, some were, uh—manually emptied.
Not the ones in the capital! Nossir. However—if you understood how hard pipelines were to lay—especially amidst enchanted stone, which could not be replaced or easily altered—you might understand why there was a toilet problem.
Some of the guestrooms had personal toilets, but there were also communal ones. Why did this matter? Well, Pallass could afford and create internal plumbing for all. Calanfer?
Calanfer had toilet stalls for its many servants and guests. Quite a lot…and one Goblin was currently sitting in one having a bad time.
They were nice toilets. Porcelain, not wood where you risked a splinter. There was the scent of something in the air, an orchid, probably, and even washing basins with gold-plated knobs. Not that Rabbiteater was going to see them any time soon.
“Something wrong with our Ser Solstice, Meisa?”
“He’s protesting. He made it through two courses before he hid himself here.”
“No I’m not. I told you. Your food is bad.”
Ser Markus hesitated. A toilet was not a place for knightly…anything. Everyone had to do their business, but most preferred to act as though no one ever performed a bowel movement. He had never read a story where the [Hero] stopped behind a bush before fighting a Dragon.
Unfortunately, Rabbiteater had a tendency to bring reality into a lot of situations. Meisa opened her mouth to demand he come out of there—when a terrible sound made both her and Markus recoil.
Markus promptly put his fingers in his ears and wished he had a nose plug. Meisa hesitated.
“…Was that you, Rabbiteater?”
“Yes. Your food is bad!”
“Oh dear, I think he’s not actually lying, Meisa. What did he, uh—eat?”
Markus muttered. Meisa hesitated.
The problem was…Rabbiteater had been enjoying Terandrian hospitality. Which, as he had observed, declined to eat ‘poor fare’. Which included Yellats, potatoes, and a lot of cheap food. In its place?
He got tripe, pudding, blood pudding—which the Hobgoblin had thought was properly cool—and Calanfer, in its richness, could afford a whole host of what some of the kingdoms considered exotic food.
Like oysters. The northern countries that were landlocked didn’t get lots of oysters, and even Cenidau held them in high regard. Steaks prime cut, cheese—all the cheese—and their liquid diet was wine and various alcohols.
Now, there was a bit more variety than some notably bad diets, but there was one more compounding factor in this mix, and it was this:
Rabbiteater was a Goblin. Goblins did not eat this kind of rich food. They would happily eat anything, but a prolonged diet like this was unheard of for Redfangs. Even Garen Redfang.
So—when you understood he was having a bad time on the toilet—
He was having a bad time. Dame Meisa pinched her nose. Something was overpowering the lilac scent. At this point, Markus was backing away.
“Should I, ah, tell Ser Greysten that Ser Solstice will not be coming back?”
Meisa tried to reassure him, but Rabbiteater croaked back.
“It’s all passing. Someone give me a sword.”
“Rabbiteater, don’t be dramatic.”
Meisa almost stepped inside—the bathrooms were mixed gender and mixed species; there were even some in the castle that could accommodate Centaurs and half-Giants. But she stopped and hesitated.
She had faced down Mothbears in their cave lairs with less trepidation than one step into that porcelain chamber. Meisa remembered her first battle alone, when she had heard the whoofing, growling sounds of the monster within.
She heard much the same noises, but more…gaseous. And what sounded like hubwigh. The sound of a Goblin Knight in agony.
Meisa asked one question.
“Rabbiteater? Are you…ah…urinating?”
Ser Markus fled. Meisa backed away. Rabbiteater sat, clutching his stomach and praying for death. He hadn’t felt this bad fighting the Dame of the Hills. He had taken lesser wounds fighting Eater Goats.
“I, ah—I will check on you in a bit. Alright, Rabbit? Can I get you anything?”
“No. Go away. You did this to me.”
Rabbiteater heard Meisa retreat. The door closed, and he immediately regretted it. In his hour of need—had he thrust away the one person who could help him through his pain?
“Meisa? Come back. Meisa.”
He croaked, but he had not the strength—nor the confidence—to stand up. His…unpleasant experiences…were coming in waves. Every time he thought he was done, his stomach decided it was in fact, a bag of holding.
And the toilet paper! Calanfer had the good stuff. Rabbiteater had, as a Redfang, grabbed every leaf he could on a raid, even collected Carn Wolf fur. Calanfer had soft stuff.
It was going by fast. He got up, flushed the toilet a fifth time, and shuffled out of the stall. It was the most dangerous move he’d ever made. But he had to do it and risk his identity—
Mostly to loot all the other stalls of their rolls of toilet paper. He came back with an armful, sat back down, and groaned.
How long was he captive in the Dungeon of Porcelain? The prisoner did not know. He sat, held hostage by the seat.
Outside, a banquet was going on and people were eating the damned food that had sent him here. He heard laughter, cries of enjoyment—there was a play! Speeches about the war, sights and wonders beyond compare.
Rabbiteater’s experience of Calanfer’s hospitality was staring at the decorated toilet stall door. Even the toilets were decorated. This one had an engraving of Calanfer’s laws of the kingdom.
Rabbiteater familiarized himself with them. One by one. It was a crime to rob both a [Peasant] and a nobleman, but there were different penalties for both? You couldn’t spit on the street in the capital?
Nothing stopped his pain. He wished a Goblin Shaman were here. Meisa had thought he was joking when he asked her to find one. Goblin [Shamans] knew how to deal with bad poos. In that way, Rabbiteater realized they were superior to every [Healer] and [Sage] known to the rest of the world.
The world disappeared. There was only him. The drop below. Backsplash. Sound and pain and—unfortunately—sensation. Not much interrupted Rabbiteater’s silent war against the sewers.
Not to say people didn’t try to use the restroom. They did. Rabbiteater had run to the first one adjacent to the banquet hall, so the door opened quite often. Nobles, servants—technically this was not for the common citizen, but Rabbiteater couldn’t see more than the very bottom of the floor from his stall, so he imagined a brave servant would use this in their hour of need.
However—no one joined him. The first time the door opened, Rabbiteater heard a female voice.
“Oh. Eternal Thr—”
Then the door shut. Fast. The next time, a man walked in, made a choked sound, and removed himself. Rabbiteater suspected it was the smell. One brave soul actually got into a toilet, heard the sounds, and excused themselves. Rabbiteater didn’t blame them. It was one thing to fight side-by-side against a foe. Another to see a slaughter. Or at least…hear and smell one in the works.
Orangepoo was the bravest of us all. Rabbiteater’s misery had probably gone on for at least twenty minutes. Possibly forty. He was wondering if Erin had somehow, maliciously, used [Immortal Moment] on him. If someone had kicked open the door to his stall with a crossbow in hand, Rabbiteater would have smiled.
Then someone opened the door to the toilets. Rabbiteater heard a voice.
A gagging sound. A moment of hesitation, and he expected whomever it was to run. Meisa hadn’t come back. He was going to die here. Of dehydration, if nothing else. He wondered if he was losing body mass.
But then he heard the clack of something on the tiles—and a figure rushed past him into the furthest stall. Rabbiteater was impressed. He could smell this place, and it was getting to him. A Goblin.
Someone was desperate. And as it turned out—he heard rustling, then someone sat down and—
Oooh. Rabbiteater listened. Then he winced. Then he closed his eyes. Then—like Ser Markus, he wadded up some toilet paper and stuffed it into his ears.
This was a level of intimacy that he didn’t want. And—now they were really cooking with the brown sauce.
Because here was a real situation that the Goblin had never encountered. And it was this:
Two people sharing a toilet. Not three. But two. So that each person could—unfortunately—hear. There wasn’t any guessing who was making that sound. And both would prefer that the other one didn’t exist.
But they could not turn off their minds. So Rabbiteater concluded after some sounds reached him through his makeshift earplugs—someone was having a time as bad as his.
Which was incredible, really. It just kept on going. And yet—unlike Rabbiteater, whomever was in that far stall had a will stronger than his own.
For no matter the torture, the second prisoner of the Porcelain Throne of Calanfer uttered no sound. Rabbiteater had, unashamedly, cried out for agony. This person was silent. Well—vocally silent.
But how long could they endure? The breaking point was a gasp, a cough—and then, as the sounds intensified as Rabbiteater cannibalized his earplugs for their intended use—the other occupant clearly realized they were stuck with Rabbiteater.
And that he could hear. And in a kind of desperation, a fugue state brought on by dehydration and an embarrassment that knew no end, they did something truly horrible.
They began to hum.
Hum. A loud sound, trying to drown out the noises that were both unmelodic and arrhythmic. Rabbiteater’s head rose in amazement.
That was a female voice. Her humming grew louder, and Rabbiteater winced as something else grew more hurried. He flushed the toilet again, and she did likewise.
The humming stopped. Now, they were engaging in repeated flushing. As fast as the toilets would allow. Rabbiteater began to feel embarrassed for whomever was in that stall because they were practically giving off an Aura of Embarrassment.
…Actually, they were giving off an aura. A familiar aura. Rabbiteater paused in unrolling more toilet paper. No.
“I—am extremely sorry for this. Let’s never speak of this again.”
A woman spoke, at length, sounding like she wished she was dead. She was trying to mask her voice, possibly by deepening it and pinching her nose. She likely had hoped to reach a more private venue, but it had been this or nothing. Rabbiteater supposed he should say something like, ‘me too’ and leave it at that.
Instead—the Hobgoblin spoke.
Dead silence. He thought he heard someone’s heart stop in the far stall.
“Yeah. It’s you.”
“No it’s—Ser Solstice?”
More silence. Well…‘silence’. Then Rabbiteater heard the sounds of a muffled scream, and Seraphel tried to exit the stall and make a break for it. He saw a faint swish of a dark dress, shoes—
She made it halfway out the stall and the water was running from a tap when he heard a gurgle.
“Eternal Throne protect me. No, no—”
She tried to go for the door. Rabbiteater called out.
“Don’t do it. You’ll never make it.”
Three more steps. Then an ominous mgrgl sound—and he heard a slam as she threw herself back into a stall. Right next to his.
She barely made it.
“Ser Solstice, I hope you will forget everything—”
“I can’t forget this. This day is the worst. Ever.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Damn auras! Damn gelato and pudding and—”
“I shall find whomever made the desserts and have them fired! Or was it—do—do you have earplugs? Cover your ears!”
“I’m trying! Be less loud!”
Their shared embarrassment was resulting in a screaming match. When the two realized it—they fell silent. Seraphel, in the stall over, covered her face with her hands and tried to pretend she didn’t exist. Rabbiteater just sat there.
The door opened. A servant stepped in.
“Cleaning serv…Hundred Families protect us. Is any—anyone here?”
Seraphel and Rabbiteater shouted. The servant fled. Now, they were existing in a state between embarrassment and—well. Mutual sympathy. Rabbiteater suspected Seraphel was still dying, but he almost felt better.
Misery loved company.
“Haven’t seen you in a bit.”
“Ser Solstice! Please! Now is not the time!”
“Okay. Let’s sit here and listen to each other. Silently.”
Seraphel paused. Then she hurried on.
“Indeed! I haven’t seen you! How is the Eternal Throne of Calanfer?”
“I hate it.”
“Current experiences notwithstanding, truly?”
“This is the only experience. Your stupid food, your endless parties—”
“In fairness, this is for the diplomats, Ser Solstice.”
“Don’t care. Your kingdom sucks.”
“I beg your pardon! I do not go to your…abode and insult it!”
“Yeah, well. My abode sucks too. Lots of rocks and goats.”
“Er—there is such a thing as decorum, Ser Solstice.”
He was rather enjoying this banter. Seraphel was practically blushing through the bathroom stall.
“I wish you had not—heard this side of me, Ser Solstice! I shall never live this down!”
“Swear to me you will repeat none of this.”
“If I survive—sure.”
Seraphel sounded relieved about that. She spoke with a strained tone of patience and probably just strain.
“You understand—a [Princess], much less any lady, does not discuss this kind of issue. You are, by your own account, slightly indecorous, Ser Solstice.”
“That means rude, right? I say obvious things, and people call that rude. Everyone. Poos. Call me…Rabbiteater.”
“Rabbiteater. Is that a—a nickname? I never asked.”
“Nope. Well. Yes.”
“Do—do you like to consume rabbits? Is that the, ah—significance of the name?”
“Not very hard to get.”
“No, quite. I understand that. I, er—you were heading to Nadel? Are you planning on leaving Terandria…?”
Before he could reply, someone opened the door. Again. This time, Seraphel and Rabbiteater expected sounds of disgust and for someone to run—but they heard what sounded like—
“—the Thousand Lances shall never fail. Never fail—”
Rabbiteater heard it all come out in a rush. He saw and heard fancy boots striking the ground—then someone struck the far wall so hard he and Seraphel jumped. Then whomever it was crashed into the far stall.
That was an amazing entrance into the bathroom. Rabbiteater had never seen someone charge into the toilet like that, but after a flurry of dropping clothing—he heard a familiar horror replay itself.
Seraphel whispered. Someone made a terrible sound as they came to their senses in—relative—safety.
“Lion’s teeth! This disgusting privy—and this is the glorious kingdom of Calanfer?”
Rabbiteater realized he had entered Seraphel’s previous toilet. Which—might not have been flushed. It had certainly been used. Seraphel seemed to be trying to not exist.
Rabbiteater? He started laughing. The outraged voice in the far stall stopped—and then someone spoke.
“You…whomever you are…I warn you to be silent. Or as soon as I leave here, you will answer to me by blood, sir or madam.”
It was a low, dangerous tone—undercut by the note of pain and sounds of splashing. Rabbiteater called back.
“Not going to be any time soon.”
“Silence. I am in the mood to kill someone—”
“Oh yeah? You’re stuck in there.”
“Who are you?”
The enraged voice was followed by shuffling, and Rabbiteater suspected someone was trying to bend over and see under the low stalls. He could only get a view of boots and what looked like a lion’s mane, along with a male voice.
“Armored boots! Who are you? A [Knight]? And yonder—oh.”
The other person realized there was someone else and fell abruptly silent. Seraphel, at this point, spoke in a tremulous voice.
“I, ah, think I might be going.”
She tried to get up and once again failed to exit. And unfortunately—Rabbiteater’s observations were echoed a second later.
“Your Highness. Er—”
The nobleman fell silent. Seraphel made a sound like a dying frog. Rabbiteater started laughing harder.
“Who are you, you scoundrel? Answer me! I can sense—two auras? Wait a second. Are you…?”
“Ser Solstice. The Goblin Slayer.”
“The Goblin S—”
The angry voice mollified itself slightly. As if Rabbiteater’s reputation alone extended to these circumstances. Rabbiteater felt compelled to throw this newcomer a bone.
“We’re all stuck here. Bad poos.”
“The less said the better, sir! I suggest we forget we ever heard or saw each other. Agreed?”
Seraphel repeated. Whereupon amiable silence fell. For five seconds. Then a torrent of sound came from the far stall followed by some rather exquisite cursing. Rabbiteater spoke up, feeling better than ever—mentally, at least. A river still ran through him, and it was turgid. At times. At other times, it was like whitewater. But not white. Or entirely water.
“So anyways. I was going back to Izril, Seraphel. I want to go home. No more fighting in the war for me.”
She was silent. Possibly unwilling to continue the conversation now there were three people, but Rabbiteater knew silence would kill them all. So he went on.
“What about you? Going to stay here?”
“I, um…I don’t know if this is an appropriate venue, Ser Solstice.”
“Silence or talking. You pick.”
A groan from the far stall. Seraphel spoke up hurriedly as sloshing began.
“I think I will stay! Not that it is my decision—I may tour our allies, although not near the front lines, but I have no marriage arranged for me.”
“So I have no engagement as of yet.”
“Right. I remember. You only do what you’re told. Stupid. Not going to practice swinging a sword? You suck at it.”
The far occupant of the toilets broke in.
“I heard you were a direct fellow, but you are rather unscrupulously rude, Ser Solstice. Her Highness is…a member of the royal family.”
“Yeah, and we fought together. Shut up.”
Rabbiteater kicked the wall of the stall to his left. The figure bristled once more.
“I may reconsider my oath of vengeance, Ser Knight!”
“Who are you, anyways?”
Rabbiteater was curious who this angry fellow was. To which the man finally replied.
“Hundredlord Cortese of Kaaz! And if I had not eaten—something—I would be glad to both take you to the dueling court, Ser Solstice, and never spend another moment in this hell of tiled privies. A public toilet!”
“Urgent poos wait for no class.”
Rabbiteater observed sagely. Lord Cortese groaned.
“I…I fear that’s the only thing you’ve said so far I can agree on. I—”
The door slammed open. Someone rushed in, and this time, Seraphel groaned along with Rabbiteater as she heard the urgency. This time, the person shot into the stall next to Seraphel’s, and Rabbiteater heard her make a faint sound. A torrent of noise followed.
Someone croaked. But before Rabbiteater could toss his axe over the stalls, a fifth person entered. And the occupants of the stalls realized—
It was a plague.
Disaster in the halls of Calanfer. A quiet one that Queen Ielane was fighting. She had found the dish which had caused all this and consigned it to hell, where it belonged.
A fiery hell—but it was too late. Even with all the [Chefs] and [Cooks] and, yes, taste-testers, sometimes something slipped through all the Skills.
Not in the preparation or ingredients—but afterwards. That was the irony; it had been cooked to perfection, and no soiled ingredients were let in. But if it sat out in the open for two hours while cooking…or if the hands were not entirely sanitary when carving it up?
Mistakes happened. Possibly sabotage. Fortunately, only a few people had been struck down. And doubly unfortunately—the rich dish had resulted in a certain privy of hell. Normally, they would be attended to instantly—but Calanfer’s staff had a larger problem to deal with. So the sufferers were left to their pain for a while as there were only a relative few affected.
A few—but the closest one to the banquet was full. Six stalls, a normally pleasant, nay, elegant chamber. Now slowly being remodeled into a scene of nightmares. Only five occupants were in here so far…but five was more than enough to chase any but the desperate far, far away.
What was unique about this one was that they were talking. At least, Rabbiteater was. The other occupants, once the pain had subsided somewhat, were aghast, but the Hobgoblin was, at least, cheerful.
“This is the second-worst poo I ever had.”
“Ser Solstice, please!”
Seraphel cried out. But the Hundredlord Cortese leaned over, sweat beading on his brows.
“Impossible, Ser Knight. What could be worse than this?”
“When the poo fights back. Ever pooed worms? I don’t see any in mine. How about you, Princess?”
A male voice interrupted, urgently, from Seraphel’s right.
“Dead gods! Who is speaking?”
Someone else chimed in on the furthest stall to the right. Female, breathy, and for some reason, slightly muffled and echoing. But nevertheless, quite insistent.
“Please, enough! Of all the misfortunes—am I sharing space with Izrilians?”
The other two newcomers cried out in outrage at this point with Seraphel, but Rabbiteater heard more than one surreptitious rustling and sighs of covert relief. Then the new male voice spoke again.
“…Did someone say ‘Ser Solstice’? What a coincidence. Is that ‘Ser Solstice’ the Goblin Slayer of the Order of Solstice?”
“Yes, yes. Hi.”
The speaker next to Seraphel paused. He was quite eloquent, his words precise and flowing, an excellent conversationalist. Also, laced with undertones of splashing so the refined effect was rather lost. He spoke louder.
“Well met. I had hoped to meet with you, Ser Knight. Just not like this.”
“I as well.”
A quiet voice, the second female occupant, spoke. So there was the Hundredlord Cortese, Princess Seraphel, the Goblin Slayer, and…Rabbiteater craned his neck happily, trying to stare at their boots. Oh, interesting. One had some sensible metal boots, and he thought he saw another dress.
“Who is you two?”
“I’d prefer not to say.”
The female voice retorted, and the other fellow muttered an agreement. But now, Seraphel and Cortese seemed prone to vengeance. If their identities were public…Cortese called out.
“I can sense an aura from one of you, sir and madam. A wet one. It reminds me of rain. I daresay I know which country you hail from. If not your identity.”
Seraphel was trying to see if her tiara could ameliorate her pain. She called out.
“Magic in the stall on the far wall. Would that be from Tourvecall? The Kingdom of Incantations?”
Both parties were silent. At length, the woman responded.
“Lady Menrise of Tourvecall. And I believe I am adjacent to…”
“Earl Altestiel of the Rains.”
“You mean the mudslides.”
Rabbiteater shot back. Cortese began laughing.
Even Seraphel chuckled, but Altestiel was not amused.
“This is no laughing matter…Ser Solstice. I have half a mind to conjure a storm to engulf this entire city. Who allowed this travesty of—whatever is upon us?”
Seraphel stopped laughing abruptly and spoke hurriedly.
“I can assure you, Lord Altestiel—this has to be the most incredible of accidents. Or perhaps…something else. I have never, ever heard of someone encountering—this at a banquet.”
“First time for everything?”
The three other non-Calanferian guests muttered dark agreement. Seraphel bit her lip. Then Altestiel spoke.
“I suppose…‘Ser Solstice’…it’s fortuitous we meet. You have a very interesting name. One so fascinating, I cannot help but equate it with a young woman I happen to know personally. And the Order she established. An [Innkeeper] of some renown.”
Rabbiteater sat up in his stall. He turned to his right.
“Wait. You know…Erin?”
Seraphel and the others had no idea who that was, but they blinked as Altestiel sighed.
“The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn. I do indeed. She is a great friend of mine.”
Seraphel’s eyes lit up. But Cortese broke in, sounding fascinated. His tone became sly.
“Oh, the [Innkeeper]? And that odd scene with the Order? Ser Solstice—is that where you come from?”
A knowing silence enveloped them until Altestiel responded.
“I, uh—take it you are a mutual acquaintance of hers? She did not mention you outright, ‘Ser Solstice’.”
He said it like he knew quite patently it was not Rabbiteater’s real name. Rabbiteater just wondered if this was a friend or foe. If he liked Erin…probably a friend?
How did she know a Terandrian Lord? He decided to ask just that.
“She’s a friend. I stayed at her inn. How do you know her?”
“I, ah, encountered her on my visit to Izril. A quite striking young woman. A magnificent chess player. Whom I propositioned to marry.”
Seraphel nearly fell off her toilet seat in shock.
Cortese stared blankly at the ground.
“Does anyone have any more toilet paper?”
Rabbiteater kicked the door of his stall and almost tried to climb over the side to see Altestiel.
“You did what?”
“Ser Solstice! Please!”
Seraphel remonstrated with him. Altestiel sounded amused.
“She rejected me. Is that so inconceivable?”
“Yes! I don’t know you! I’ll fight you.”
Altestiel bristled in his stall.
“Why? Are you one of Miss Erin’s suitors?”
“No! She saved my life! Cortese, give me your glove. I’ll slap him with it.”
The Hundredlord broke in with a note of growing urgency in his voice.
“I might trade my glove for a…a roll of toilet paper? I appear to be out.”
The other four occupants fell silent. Rabbiteater had been sparing—and he’d stolen half the paper from every other stall. But he was careful about his supply. Cortese was not.
“Does anyone have anything to spare?”
A chorus of voices answered him.
“I fear not.”
“Er…I think my own supply might not exceed my demand, whomever you are.”
Cortese shouted back.
“Dead gods! I am Hundredlord Cortese! Just send me a scrap or two, would you?”
His identity established, the man waited…and no one came to his rescue. After a second, Rabbiteater called out.
“The stall next to us is empty. Maybe it has something.”
The Hundredlord’s lips moved silently as he calculated the maneuver. Then he whispered.
“I cannot stand up, sir. Not without attending to my distress! Nor do I fear I will make it.”
“Then crawl under? Maybe get a long stick?”
“Sir! Just throw a bit of yours to me!”
Earl Altestiel sat there and counted the squares he had left. He made a quick, strategic assessment.
“I would not do that if I were you, friends. We’re all going to run out of paper. Lord Cortese is simply the first casualty.”
That was too much for the [Lady] from Tourvecall. She tried tossing something over the stalls, and it landed on Seraphel’s lap, causing the [Princess] to gasp.
“Dead gods! At least give him some help! Here—toss it to him.”
Seraphel slipped it under the stall, and Rabbiteater gamely tried to toss a three-square length over the stalls. In silence, all five occupants realized…
“…It’s landed in the empty stall, hasn’t it?”
Cortese sounded like he might cry. Rabbiteater grunted.
The Hundredlord was rapidly losing sanity. His voice almost broke with desperation.
“Can anyone spare anything else? A handkerchief?”
Lord Altestiel shuddered darkly.
“That’s a handkerchief that will never be used again.”
“I have already forfeited mine.”
The Hundredlord was losing his sanity rapidly. Seraphel shuddered in her stall. She rummaged in her bag of holding, and everyone did the same. At length, Altestiel made a sound. He had found something.
Seraphel looked up, wishing she had a flyer or something. But [Princesses] didn’t carry much if everything appeared when they called.
Altestiel was silent for a long moment.
“I…have a backup. But I don’t know if I want to try it. I have a scroll of [Barkskin]. Very coarse. I might have to hold onto it.”
“I have some spellpaper.”
The Lady Menrise volunteered. Hundredlord Cortese grunted.
“And I…am increasingly desperate. I will take both. What else?”
All the Humans fell silent, and Seraphel spoke quietly.
“That would be a dire strait indeed, Ser Solstice.”
“Well, you have socks. I have a hand.”
Everyone contemplated this. Cortese replied softly.
“I would rather die. But I will take the scrolls.”
Altestiel was just about to pass his over when—the door opened. And Seraphel heard the voice of a saint.
Was that—Seraphel called out suddenly.
“Miss Beacle? Is that you?”
The servant had somehow found her! She pushed open the door to the privy, speaking cautiously.
“Your Highness? I—uh—”
The realization that the lavatory was occupied and the smell hit the girl, but she had found Seraphel despite the rapid exit the [Princess] had made. And even more—
“Your Highness, can I get you anyth—”
Five voices shouted at her. The [Servant] shut the door, fled—and within two minutes, she was back. She tossed rolls of paper over the stalls, and Cortese cried out.
“Who is that servant? I shall commend her to the Eternal Throne!”
Altestiel nodded rapidly.
“A credit to her entire class. A [Saint], if ever the class existed.”
“Dead gods. I can put my shoes back on.”
That came from the [Lady], much to Seraphel’s mild horror—and she had to admit—hilarity. Everyone fell silent—and then they all started laughing. Seraphel spoke.
“Please—I know this is all highly embarrassing, but we’ve all been revealed. You are Lady Menrise, yes?”
“You speak to the [Spellbound Lady] Menrise. Magic run through you. And nothing else.”
Rabbiteater craned his head.
Altestiel industriously tore strips off his roll of toilet paper.
“Endemic to Tourvecall. This may be the most…unguarded we have ever met the reclusive nobility of Tourvecall. I have always wondered what lay under their helmets. No offense, Lady Menrise.”
“None taken. It is hardly as if we are half-Elves. I fear our appearance would be more distressing than…alluring. I may oblige you all.”
Hundredlord Cortese was as surprised as Seraphel, who understood the same thing. Though he blurted it out, which was typical of Kaaz’s folk.
“Truly? I thought it was entirely intimate.”
The Lady chuckled darkly.
“It is embarrassing more than anything. But I can hardly imagine anything worse than this.”
Cortese hesitated before barking a pained laugh.
The Goblin, sitting in the middle stall, nodded. Rabbiteater found himself imagining the woman as she explained.
“It would appear—to preface the issue—as though my skin were too pale. Regardless of color. The sheer magic in Tourvecall has changed our very skin. The helmet is not to hide our appearance, either; unguarded, our skin leaks mana.”
“It does? That—is not something I’ve heard of.”
Altestiel was astonished. The [Lady] sighed.
“A side effect of our magical blood. Not a single Spellbound of Tourvecall is born without the ability to cast spells. But we are exposed to too much of it, perhaps. The mana is so dense in the air…well, the common folk are not nearly as surrounded by it.”
“Huh. Sounds cool. I like magic.”
Rabbiteater offered. He was the common folk in the room, and the others chuckled at that. Hundredlord Cortese interrupted.
“If you think that is a sight, visit the Infinite Dungeon of Kaaz, Goblin Slayer. If your axe is half as sharp as your wit, you might clear a number of rooms.”
“Or lose a hand in the interminable duels.”
“That is an exaggeration of Kaaz, Earl Altestiel.”
The Earl of Rains’ reply was to toss one of the spare rolls into Cortese’s stall.
“Is it? I have three scars from visiting Kaaz. Dueling is ‘optional’, but you lot like to press your point, pun intended!”
“We pursue excellence in combat, and we settle matters with blades as well as words!”
Cortese hurled two rolls back. Seraphel shouted as one landed on her head.
“Would you two stop throwing toilet paper?”
“…Apologies, Your Highness.”
“Yes, Earl Altestiel quite forgot himself.”
Before either man could bristle, Rabbiteater broke in.
“So. One of you likes duels. One of you is super-magical. One of you is responsible for this stupid kingdom.”
“And what’s Desonis known for?”
Altestiel began to speak, but the other three cut him off.
“Hydras? And a sleeping [Queen].”
The [Earl] spluttered as he raised his voice in outrage.
“Oh come now. Desonis is a proud nation!”
“A wet nation, more like.”
“It rained my entire three-week visit.”
“Lovely hot tubs, though.”
Rabbiteater rubbed his hands together, grinning as the other guests roasted the Earl of Rains.
“Hot tubs, huh? And you wanted to marry Erin? Earl of Hot Tubs? No wonder she said no.”
Altestiel made a choking sound.
“I should like to get a good look at you, Ser Solstice.”
“Yeah, me too.”
A moment of silence as the two men bristled. Then…Rabbiteater poked at his stomach.
“We’re going to die in here.”
The other four people fell silent. Seraphel spoke up after a moment.
“I am sure Beacle is fetching us a potion for our stomachs.”
Lady Menrise almost sobbed aloud.
“What a relief! But what caused this?”
Rabbiteater frowned and poked at his gurgling stomach.
“Uh—what did you all eat?”
The other four compared notes as Altestiel decided to track down the dish, lest it offend anyone else. Lady Menrise passed him a quill and inkpot, and he used the toilet paper to take notes.
“Let’s see. I bet it was the oysters. Who had that?”
Seraphel shuddered politely. She knew the dangers of undercooked oysters.
“I hate the foul things. I fed them to my lion.”
Menrise’s voice rose in disbelief; she had clearly not seen Kaaz’s folk.
“You have a lion?”
“Yes, and if it was the tripe…I fear to see the banquet hall because half our cats partook. And they have quite the appetite.”
Seraphel shuddered in horror as Cortese spoke, but Rabbiteater objected.
“I hate tripe. I didn’t have any.”
The Princess scratched at her head.
“Then…what about the pudding? The gelato?”
Altestiel brightened up.
“There’s gelato for dessert? I don’t recall seeing it served, yet.”
Seraphel bit her lip and hoped that revelation didn’t reach her mother.
“Not that, then. Pudding?”
The Goblin smacked his lips.
“I had blood pudding. Anyone like it?”
Everyone else disagreed with Rabbiteater. They were talking further when Lady Menrise spoke.
“Pray—could it have been Golaen’s gift to the occasion? That new dish?”
Seraphel hesitated. Now that sounded…
“Which one? Wait…the ‘do-nots’?”
The Hundredlord instantly disagreed.
“Donuts. Surely not! They were just a frosted piece of…baked goods. But I did have one, come to think of it. The novelty. Anyone else?”
Altestiel spoke up and felt a stir on the back of his neck. It had been a strange food. But he’d been taken to the restroom so fast—
The Hundredlord Cortese grunted.
“But that would mean—I did recall sampling a delightfully frosted one right before I—those giant-blooded bastards. I repent all my accusations, Your Highness. If anyone would have made the mistake—”
Seraphel buried her face in her hands.
“I had one too. Rabbiteater?”
Altestiel decided it was case-closed. But it was strange. They looked like fried goods. Indeed, Cortese was now throwing a fit.
“You have to boil those damned things in hot oil! How can Golaen mess up a simple treat? It had none of those bacteriums or whatever they’re called! I’ll stab that [Titanguard] myself!”
“What’s a bacterium?”
Rabbiteater held his stomach. Seraphel tried to calm Cortese down.
“Lord Cortese, I would not do that. The [Titanguard], Lord Etrogaer, is a dangerous foe.”
“Do you think I fear that? A [Duelist] fears no foe. I may not be a Gold-bell fencer, but I earned my silver bell when I was seventeen.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Rabbiteater cautioned him, and Cortese turned his wrath on him.
“Oh, and you think I haven’t seen combat, Ser Solstice? Should I duel you first?”
The Goblin decided he might be done. He tapped his empty stomach and shrugged.
“If you like. But that [Titanguard] will still stomp you flat. He’s over Level 40.”
Altestiel muttered an agreement.
“That squares with Desonis’ intelligence. How can you tell, Ser Solstice?”
“I recognized his Skill when he patted me on the shoulder. Something super-heavy. He can probably crush your bones to dust.”
Cortese muttered in his stall.
“…That is more concerning. Well, our neighbors in Golaen produce mighty warriors. I should like to see if our Lance of Kaazaldrin, Gorethem, would duel Lord Etrogaer in my stead. That would be…amusing. He was a Named-rank adventurer before he was accepted into the Thousand Lances.”
“One of the Thousand Lances is here?”
Rabbiteater sat up, worried. His stomach decided it had more to expel—out of worry. Named-rank?
“What’s a Thousand Lance?”
Seraphel was gingerly debating leaving the restroom herself.
“The greatest knight-order in the world. The Thousand Lances of Kaazaldrin are just that—a thousand [Knights] who are inducted into the greatest knight-order. Even the Order of Seasons or Ailendamus’ [Knights] may be invited. Named-rank adventurers are also sometimes admitted.”
“…Only a thousand?”
“A thousand is all you need. Each noble family ensures a member of our Thousand Lances want for nothing. As a Hundredlord, I have more members of the Lances in my house than all but the crown.”
Hundredlord Cortese picked up the explanation. Rabbiteater sat there.
He didn’t like the idea of that. Or at least, fighting that. A thousand armored enemies wielding artifacts sounded like a really unfair time. But Cortese assured the other people they had nothing to worry about. Beacle stepped back in, issuing huge apologies, and relief finally arrived in the form of a tonic. It was, ironically, brown.
“Kaaz has no designs on conquest. Unlike Ailendamus. We do have a history of answering grudge for grudge—but once settled, friendships bloom from a bit of strife.”
Rabbiteater brightened up. He flushed the toilet one last time and stood up. His stomach finally stabilized.
“Hey, that’s true. I feel better.”
Menrise was industriously flushing the toilet as she sighed in relief.
“Praise be to all [Healers]. I think…our ordeal is at an end. Ladies, gentlemen…I think this has been a positive experience. Discounting the pain. I should like to leave now.”
Lady Menrise agreed as she delicately opened the stall door.
“And I will shake all your hands. After we have washed them. Thoroughly.”
And so they did. There was something bonding about mutual suffering. As any good [Diplomat] knew. This was such the case that as the door to the condemned lavatory opened, five people emerged all at once, not independently.
Rather than pretend they didn’t know each other, they came out, shaking washed, cleaned hands. Ser Solstice, eying Earl Altestiel, who nodded to the Hundredlord as he peered at Lady Menrise and she flipped her own visor up. She bowed to Princess Seraphel and exchanged the smile of a survivor.
A friendship forged in troubled waters. It was so notable that a passing [Diplomat of Envy], Corek of Ailendamus, halted on his rush to the restroom. He’d just had a bite of a treat he’d been saving on his plate, and none of the Thronebearers or servants had seen fit to save him from his fate.
He felt the terrible pain in his intestines, looked at the group of five, and realized what had happened in a flash. Corek shook his head.
“Dead gods. Is it—the legendary Umbral Throne diplomacy?”
Even more famous than the Winebreath Blaster. If he didn’t know better, he might have guessed Calanfer had set this up! But even they weren’t this dramatic. Corek rushed into the toilet, inhaled once, and paled as he opened a stall.
“Kingdom of Glass and Glory preserve me.”
What a day, eh? Ser Solstice actually sounded more cheerful after his harrowing journey. Perhaps because he’d found a more entertaining group of people than the food or celebrations.
Or perhaps because, as he emerged from the restrooms, he came face-to-face with a silver-and-purple haired man, who did indeed feel like a rainstorm, both in temperament and aura. Prone to moods, the Earl Altestiel of Rains.
He paused, drying his hands with a cloth, and the Goblin Slayer looked him up and down as the Earl adjusted his violet coat, flashing with golden epaulets. For a second, Rabbiteater debated punching him—then the Earl of Rains held out a gloved hand.
“—I was exceptionally relieved to hear Erin was returned to life. My [Strategist] and most trusted right hand, Kiish, made sure of it. I like to think I helped, in some small way.”
Rabbiteater forgot his anger in a second. He took the hand, and the two looked at each other. Perhaps the Earl saw a crimson flash behind that visor. Or expected to. He gave Rabbiteater a knowing look, and the Hobgoblin waited. But all the [Earl] did was smile.
“You’re far from home, Ser Solstice.”
“Yeah. I was having an adventure. This part sucked, but the rest was…something.”
The two stood there, and a man with dark brown skin and a flash of red running through his disheveled locks practically kicked his way out of the lavatory. Hundredlord Cortese looked around, saw his pet lion prowling around him anxiously, and bent down to pet her. But she took one sniff of him and backed away.
“So this is Ser Solstice and the Earl of Rains. Amazing. That wasn’t all a hallucination.”
He wiped at his brow as his handkerchief was no longer…and turned. The three men saw a woman push open the door and freeze. Seraphel flushed, but Lady Menrise stepped out into the hallway, her visor shut, her hands folded demurely in a star-lavender dress.
“Needless to say, gentlemen, Your Highness, I shall deny this event ever took place under torture or truth spell.”
A laugh escaped Seraphel’s mouth despite herself. She looked around, and Beacle was waiting, along with some very apologetic Thronebearers who had been alerted to the—distressing incident.
“It looks like a bit of chaos. Food poisoning and Golaen in the spotlight. Earl Altestiel, are you interested in taking these fools to account?”
The Hundredlord Cortese went for his rapier as he looked around, spotting Thronebearers interposing themselves between offended guests and the defensive Golaen group. Altestiel raised one brow.
“I think that would be fair. Ser Solstice?”
Rabbiteater was just about to join in the fun of punching someone when Seraphel objected.
“Guests, I must insist on civility. Can we not pretend this incident never occurred altogether, as we just promised? Allow me to make it up to you.”
Rabbiteater was as skeptical as the others, but Seraphel turned, saw the sun fading in the distance, and clicked her fingers.
“Beacle, alchemical dawn cider. A tray, and something—cooked. We shall all retire out of the palace to the Skybridge.”
Cortese hesitated, a hand on the hilt of his sword. He looked at Altestiel, then Ser Solstice. And then, the Goblin bent down and pulled out a huge, practically uncooked leg of mutton out of his bag of holding. Altestiel actually stepped back in amazement as he offered it to the lion.
“Do you just…walk around with meat in your bag of holding, Ser Solstice?”
Lady Menrise was patently disbelieving. Rabbiteater shrugged. He patted his bag of holding as the lion sniffed the un-spiced, frankly bloody meat. Far better than everything else! She padded over, and he patted her on the head like a Carn Wolf. The Goblin answered the [Lady].
“I’m storing toilet paper in there too. Lots of it. Important gear anywhere you go. Like food. Good cat.”
“Incredible. Impossible. Baeris takes to almost no one. You’re not the least afraid?”
Cortese looked astonished—and approving. Rabbiteater eyed the huge lion; she was not the maned kind, being female, but she was a huge predator and on Earth, an apex killer. Here? He thought she was sort of cute.
“I used to grow up with Carn Wolves. They’re bigger. Roll over.”
Baeris bared all her teeth in a warning snarl that made Seraphel step back. The lion was far too intelligent for her liking, doubtless the product of Skills. Rabbiteater instantly stuck his gauntleted hand in her mouth. The lion backed up as Cortese’s eyes widened in shock. Altestiel began chuckling.
“Go on and bite me. Dare you. I’ve got metal hands.”
Baeris growled—then licked his gauntlets. Rabbiteater ruffled her head, and Cortese exhaled. He let go of his hilt and guffawed so loudly everyone in earshot looked at him.
“You! You must come to Kaaz! I’ve decided—Ser Solstice is no rogue but a friend! So sayeth the Hundredlord of House Withred! What is your name, Ser Solstice?”
He proclaimed it like a royal announcement—which it almost was. Seraphel herself was amazed, but Ser Solstice just rose and shook Cortese’s hand.
“You can call me Rabbiteater. Some of my friends do. Did someone say drinks? What’s alchemical dawn cider?”
You might think a Goblin could make no friends in Calanfer, with all the Humans and their views on Goblins. But a masked Goblin [Knight] had a lot in common with a Lady of Tourvecall. Lady Menrise even had her own glass straw she brought everywhere.
“So, how do you eat with your helmet on?”
Rabbiteater found out that alchemical dawn cider was a kind of cider brewed in Calanfer. It glowed, like everything else in the Eternal Throne, but the alchemical part was something that made it fizz in a lovely way as he took a sip from his own straw.
And he stood on the Skybridge, the crystal bridge now glowing softly, a cherry red as the sun fell. As the moon rose, Seraphel assured them, it would be like standing on a moonbeam.
Menrise answered with a low chuckle.
“I am allowed to take my helmet off if not in the company of outsiders, so it is a far less strenuous obligation than yours, Ser Solstice. But as to your question? Either a privacy screen or—how large is your helmet?”
“Eh. Not very.”
“Mm. I have a very small pouch of holding. So I would transfer in an acceptable bite of food—something handheld—and then, inside my helmet, levitate the food out—”
“Amazing. I just drink soup.”
Altestiel nearly snorted his own drink out his nose. He looked around as the bridge began to change, taking on a glow from the blue moon above, the only one out as the green moon waned in the sky to a sliver.
He kept looking down, despite knowing he stood on solid ground, because it did feel like standing on pure light. It was a magnificent sight—and even for a visitor to Calanfer, he had to admit it was unique.
Mainly because no one else was on the bridge but Beacle, a few Thronebearers keeping people from walking on from both sides, and the five guests.
Princess Seraphel du Marquin could reserve the Skybridge to herself. In fact, for a royal family member, that was the default; no pedestrian would cross while she stood there. They’d use the other, lesser bridges.
The [Princess] was almost completely ignorant to the changing Skybridge, which amazed her other newfound friends. And they were…friends? They were something.
“A fine drink. A fine view, I will admit.”
Hundredlord Cortese himself admitted to being slightly satisfied by the occasion. Seraphel looked up. She was hesitantly petting the huge lion, Baeris, on the head as the lion began chomping the bone from the mutton leg Rabbiteater had given her.
“Here’s to ordeals never spoken of and to Calanfer. To the Dawn Concordat’s victory in battle and Ser Solstice and the Princess of Calanfer!”
Altestiel proposed a toast, and Rabbiteater glanced up.
“Bah. I was starting to like you. Let’s toast getting drunk.”
Chuckles from Lady Menrise and a scandalized sound from Seraphel—until she realized she was the only one. Menrise was pithy, and Cortese, once he decided he liked you, minded no coarse language or poking. Seraphel took another cup off a tray, and Rabbiteater poked her. She jumped, and he laughed.
She stared at him, then tried to poke him back but found poking an armored [Knight] was impossible. The Hobgoblin chortled—until a finger poked him.
He stared at Seraphel’s translucent hand, felt a finger jab him in the side, icy-cold—and leapt so high and back that he hit the railing.
Cortese and Altestiel grabbed for his legs as the Goblin nearly toppled over the edge of the bridge. The Thronebearers went running as Seraphel clapped a hand to her mouth—then hurried to try and pull him up! Lady Menrise saved the three struggling figures from hauling the heavy Goblin by pointing a wand.
“[Featherweight]. Heave him up!”
“Ser Solstice, Rabbiteater, I am deeply sorry—”
Rabbiteater was laughing. He felt at his side, delighted, then pointed at Seraphel.
“Great poke! Great trick!”
Seraphel exhaled, and then the Hobgoblin was asking her if that were her new Skill, and Lady Menrise was offering Baeris a drink, much to the lion’s delight. Cortese gave Princess Seraphel an admiring look and then drew his sword.
“Well, if we’re displaying Skills—Earl of Rains, I know you have a few interesting ones. Between friends, let’s show some off. Ser Solstice, surely you have something new from your victories.”
Rabbiteater thought about it as he smiled behind his helmet.
“I’m a plant.”
They spent hours on the bridge. Seraphel was sure Ielane was putting out fires and avoiding feuds in the palace, but as expected, by the time the slightly drunk group parted ways in the corridor, there was little sign of the disaster in the banquet hall.
“Tomorrow, anon! Tomorrow!”
Cortese blew a kiss, and Menrise performed the same gesture. Rabbiteater was walking off to talk to Altestiel a moment longer about their shared acquaintance. But both stopped and waved at Seraphel, and she bowed.
She had scarcely felt so—ebullient in her life. As if time had flown past, rather than dragged in smalltalk. Not that they had been discussing the affairs of the realm! Half the time had just been showing off Skills or daring each other to silly things like getting Baeris to roll over and beg for a treat. Or Rabbiteater jumping off the bridge for a dare, followed by Cortese and Lady Menrise. Somehow, Altestiel was the hesitant one with Seraphel!
Remembering it was almost as delightful—but she was so exhausted, Seraphel would have liked nothing more than to lie down. And see her newfound friends tomorrow.
Of course, the banquet and politics awaited and her mother would probably wish to ensure that Seraphel could leverage her new connections and that the friendships were not too friendly.
Doubtless, the others thought that way, too, and were aware of their obligations to their countries.
And yet the [Princess] had to admit—it was a rather fine thing to meet some of the dignitaries in such an…unguarded situation. She actually thought she might genuinely like them, and the reverse might hold true.
As for the rest of the gathering, well, the stomach-churning dish was a footnote in the discussions to come. Seraphel was just heading to her room, wondering if ‘Ser Solstice’ played chess as well as the famed Earl of Rains. Perhaps they could have a second—carefully vetted—breakfast? She was just about to look into it when someone burst into her rooms.
“Aielef, get out!”
Seraphel reached for something to hurl at her elder sister. She had no time for any courtly intrigue—but she stopped when she saw Aielef.
Her dress was bunched around her, and she was wild-eyed, her hair a mess, the dyed red tangling around her face.
But that was what made Seraphel stop. A [Princess] of Calanfer should never look that way. Ielane had drilled that into her daughters. But even more than that…
“Where’s your tiara? Aielef?”
The [Princess] stumbled forwards, still clutching her stomach.
“I—I ate something horrible, Seraphel. I rushed to my rooms, and when I came out—my tiara was gone! And someone’s stolen two crossbows from Noelictus’ [Hunters] and burgled half of Golaen’s guests!”
Seraphel shot up, and her eyes widened. A thief had come in the night. It was almost as significant as…
Author’s Note: Shorter chapter! Shorter chapter, and a two-part story for Rabbiteater! I’m taking it easy and not pushing for everything!
Wait…why is it still 30,000 words?
Where did I go wrong?
I know, energy. I have too much energy. Too little ability to condense and I suppose, expedite affairs. But every scene has its place. Even the toilet scene. No one ever talks about Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. I bet there was a bad poo at least one time, especially with all them Hobbits. Unless Legolas eats air or something.
The point is, I hope you enjoyed. Some of the Twitch stream-readers found it funny, but maybe they’re all children at heart. I probably am. Thanks for reading and see you later!
Palass, The City of Inventions by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!