Now, the Dragonthrone.
They called it different names, those Humans who had never looked upon a Dragon’s face except set in stone, captured in some snarling mural where their only purpose was to be a beast, mentor, or companion to Humans or other species.
That was not the fault of later generations. Every species told that kind of story; self-centered and narrow. Even, nay, especially Dragons.
What you had to know was this: the Dragonthrones were crystallizations of selfishness and nobility. They embodied everything that was best and worst of Dragons, much like the Walled Cities defined the Drakes.
The Dragonlord of Flame had not made his Dragonthrone. It had been a labor of love and pride from countless Dragons, entire elements coming together to build it. It was a haven, a great, fortified structure, even a trap.
Terrium Archelis Dorishe had been a child the first time he was allowed entrance to the Dragonthrone and saw the Seat of Flame in construction. Even a Dragon hatchling had to be on his best behavior, and he had peeked out behind a semi-translucent wing like a waterfall of copper, and seen the first blocks being laid.
Fiery stone, quarried from the heart of an active volcano by Magma Trolls and with the help of the great Giant of Ash, Rhetorisel. Or rather, with her permission.
In millennia, countless millennia later, the last of her kind would seek shelter in Khelt’s sands and breathe her last. That was how old the Dragonthrones were.
Teriarch’s had been made to rule over other creatures. So each throne empowered the very nature of the Dragons who sat upon them. They were pure vanity, however; all that time and effort capturing the very essence of flame could have been spared to light a hundred thousand fires for cold, shivering souls across the world. Seldom had the Dragonthrones ever been used directly in war. They were trophies, the greatest prizes to be taken.
And many broke.
Eight had ever been built; five had been lost or deconstructed, parts hauled off to form the foundations of Walled Cities or just destroyed. Fissival’s Grand Librarium and the base of the Walled City of Magic was made of a Dragonthrone’s broken dreams.
Three remained in any capacity. Of the three, only one was in the public ‘knowledge’, and it had been given to a Human after the end of the Creler Wars. There was no owner left to contest it.
The Eternal Throne of Calanfer was technically the entire city. Entire streets had been laid using the vast Dragonthrone as the basis for a city. Did it outrage him?
No. Not really. It was the most generous, most useful a Dragonthrone had ever been. Calanfer had been given it, and of all the things ever done—
Teriarch thought Queen Marquin the First would have approved of that. Little else of her current nation perhaps, but then, he didn’t know.
He hadn’t gotten a chance to ask her. Now, the Brass Dragon watched the Eternal Throne shift. To be precise, the single seat in the entire, endless chamber that was the true Eternal Throne of Calanfer shifted.
It was a kind of anchored reality you could step into. That was what lay at the heart of Calanfer’s famous palace. Past the walls of more mundane make—through two doubledoors etched with the likenesses and names of every [King] and [Queen] to rule Calanfer, with so much space yet left—then you would step into another world.
Teriarch’s Dragonthrone had been meant to rule. It was a conclave of Dragonthrones, arranged in a vast circle such that supplicants would step into the last conclave of Dragon, Wyvern, and Wyrm.
Not so for this one. There was only one throne. This had been built for the first Dragonlord of Dawn, who declared himself Dragonking. Well, he had died, but no one had seen fit to change the throne’s design.
Despite that—what halted the literal thousands of Humans, mortals, even the Goblin [Knight] in their tracks as they were admitted entrance today—was the nature of this throne. For all his folly, the Dragonking, Raendersolis, had chosen a unique setting.
If you looked out of Teriarch’s lonely throne, you could see a world of brilliant clouds. Pink skies; an endless vista shimmering with green and red on alien horizons. As a girl, Magnolia had once said when he first showed it to her—a truly magical world.
But that was all. The space ‘only’ extended ten miles in every direction. Pure, unfilled space. No bottom, no sides. If you flew in any direction, you would loop back on yourself. It was impossible to die of falling unless you landed on the Dragonthrone. One time, hilariously, a child had fallen for six hours straight until someone noticed him looping through the sky. That had been—
The Brass Dragon looked across the Eternal Throne and saw a difference of opinions. For this Dragonthrone had no great marble dais. Instead, as you walked through those doors, you saw a strange substance like glass underfoot.
Like a perfect circle; a dais of crystal and light. It floated in the air with neither supports nor logic. Some found it so disturbing they could not take a step forwards, but most were too busy looking at everything else.
The Eternal Throne was filled with such daises, which floated, controlled by whomever sat on the throne. Right now, they were forming a vast circle, and Calanfer’s court would speak and stand, always looking up at that throne. But if ever they should look away from that shining platform or stop climbing the stairs of light that connected platform to platform, they would see the true reason so many called the Eternal Throne a wonder.
Teriarch sighed as he bowed along with the [Knights] and courtiers of a dozen kingdoms. Even the most arrogant stopped if this were the first time seeing it.
The stars. Of all the things Rabbiteater expected, it was not stars. He walked through the doors to his audience with the rulers of Calanfer, wondering if he would hate it and why Greysten said he had to visit.
Then—he was standing among stars. The Goblin looked around as he rose and felt like he was floating in the night sky.
Markus whispered, and even sound was different here. The walls and floor were gone. Gravity felt…weaker. Rabbiteater did an experimental hop and nearly leapt off the side of the dais he was on.
A Thronebearer caught the Goblin and steadied him.
“Careful, Ser Knight. The Eternal Throne does have protective spells, but one can fall and be quite—disoriented. Pray, do not leap or run here.”
Rabbiteater nodded, then looked around again. Everyone was staring about, wide-eyed, and he could not blame them.
It was beautiful. So beautiful it hurt his heart, and he saw more than one person was misty-eyed.
There were some places in the world, like the High Passes, where, on a perfect night without clouds or above the cloud layer, you could look up and see the sky. Not just one or two stars, but countless brilliant lights. The same was true of Earth—but those places were harder to find with so many competing lights polluting the sky.
But if you did look up, you might have an inkling of what the Eternal Throne looked like. A constellation in slow motion, even comets and other celestial bodies like…wondrous fog or a stellar cloud—nebulas—slowly moving throughout this Dragonthrone.
At the speed of a universe turning. Then, you could stand there and see a comet passing, sometimes so close you could reach out and try to touch it.
That was the Dragonthrone of Calanfer. That was the Eternal Throne, and Rabbiteater had no idea how this place had been made or why. He had no idea that Void Dragons of old had captured reality here; to him, the idea of space was so abstract he could barely process it.
Nor did it matter. It was beautiful, and that was enough. He stood, inhaling the cool air, and realized why much of Calanfer’s court was bundled up more than usual. Rabbiteater was plenty warm in his armor, but he saw one of the [Princesses], Seraphel, blowing into her hands as her sister, Shardele, wore a scarf and strolled up the stairs.
After all—the Eternal Throne awaited. You could talk with other guests, but Rabbiteater had been invited here. Along with the Order of Seasons and many of Pheislant’s officers.
So, he climbed the steps as the Thronebearers bowed and saw a final dais, floating above all the rest. There sat King Reclis and Queen Ielane du Marquin.
The rulers of Calanfer. As for the thrones themselves? They were almost overshadowed by the final dais. A crystalline pair of high-backed thrones, which glowed with the strongest light in the room. Right now, they sat golden upon a dais that burned like the sun.
Solar flame, lapping at their feet, a miniature sun somehow transformed into a dais. It dazzled the eyes—but didn’t blind. Here, you could indulge in a child’s fantasy and stare at the sun without paying for it with your sight.
That was the inspiration for Calanfer’s motifs, and the dais itself almost overshadowed the thrones. As they walked up, the Order of Seasons and Rabbiteater felt like they were approaching a distant star, and it held their gazes.
—Of course, that was the true throne. The chairs upon it were for Humans. Not a Dragon, who might rest upon the entire dais of light.
Rabbiteater felt like the glow was burning through his armor and kept checking to make sure the rays of light weren’t piercing the mundane steel. He felt…like the sun was warming him up from the inside. He wanted to run, to laugh, to race from one end of Calanfer to another—but he held it in.
For the eyes of the King of Calanfer were upon him. King Reclis du Marquin sat, waiting, as [Heralds] acknowledged the noble guests of Kaaz, Gaiil-Drome, Tourvecall, and so many others. But he had already met with many, so his eyes were upon the heroes of the hour.
“Let the Order of Seasons of Pheislant and Ser Solstice of Izril approach the Eternal Throne!”
A [Thronebearer] called out. Rabbiteater saw a shimmering line of steps appear; beams of light, pure white-gold, as solid as stone, waiting to be climbed that they might stand within two dozen feet of the final dais.
“Uh oh. Don’t fall.”
Rabbiteater muttered as he eyed the steps and the plunge into the void. Markus gulped, and Talia turned her awe-struck gaze away from the Eternal Throne.
“Ser Solstice! Decorum!”
He couldn’t help it. Rabbiteater walked slowly with the other [Knights] until he was halfway up. Then he grabbed Talia’s shoulder and whispered.
She nearly leapt off the stairwell. Her face turned white then crimson with fury, and Meisa looked like she was going to kill Rabbiteater. Ser Greysten was turning purple with the effort of not laughing. Dame Voost gave both a reproving look, and Ser Zulv’s face was a mask of pain. A Thronebearer standing on the final dais before the throne looked outraged and almost spoke—
But then Rabbiteater heard a voice and realized that Calanfer’s reputation was not unearned. Poor at combat, dazzling in the courtroom, despite yesterday’s thefts and food poisoning—
Queen Ielane du Marquin chuckled. She laughed, and the voices from the Eternal Throne were magnified that, in audiences, anyone could hear them from around the entire room. Her laugh was infectious, made Rabbiteater start—
And was perfectly calculated. But it sounded so natural it fooled all but Ielane’s own daughters. Many of those watching picked up on Rabbiteater’s trick and snorted. The ‘unguarded’ amusement made the Thronebearers relax, and Rabbiteater began to like the [Queen] before she even spoke a word.
But what of King Reclis du Marquin? His eyes turned to Rabbiteater, and the Goblin saw a man much like Lyonette. His hair was a deeper red than fire, and his eyes had faded from blue to grey as lines in his face had appeared. For all that—he sat upon fire and flame, and when he spoke, his voice was slow, surprisingly low despite not being nearly as physically large as Greysten, and yes, amused.
He sounded rather like a Dragon, in fact. A trick Calanfer’s children had picked up from memory and practice from Marquin’s meetings with the last of Dragons. Reclis looked straight at Rabbiteater and said this for all to hear, and for the cameras and gossips and rumors:
“You are not the Lightherald who knelt here last. Nor do you bear that brave man’s mantle, nor carry his armor or sword and shield. Brave [Knight], Ser Solstice, I have heard many call you the Lightherald of Calanfer. But you are not him, nor who will follow after.”
Rabbiteater froze up, then nodded slowly. He wondered if he should kneel, and those watching shuffled, wondering if this were a rebuke. But Reclis’ tone did not sound hostile. It was, if anything, intimate. He went on after the smallest of pauses.
“I say this before all as my witness that there will be no confusion. Ser Solstice of Izril is not the Lightherald, nor does he represent Calanfer. He is touched by another blessing of Calanfer’s children. Dawnguard, they called the companions of Queen Marquin. A fitting title bestowed on the most valiant champions Calanfer can recognize. So I name thee. Ser Solstice of Izril, the Goblin Slayer, as many call you. Ser Greysten, the Summer’s Champion of the Order of Seasons, and Dame Talia, of proud House Kallinad of Pheislant and the Season of Summer.”
All three [Knights] hesitated, confused—then one of the Thronebearers standing before the throne opened a box. Markus made a noise, and Meisa elbowed him—and Rabbiteater saw a brilliant flash from a rising sunburst.
It was just gold. Truegold, but it captured the light of the Eternal Throne, and it was pretty enough. Reclis beckoned, and slowly, Rabbiteater ascended the steps with Talia and Ser Greysten. He knelt, and a loop of silk was draped over his neck. He felt the tiny weight of the medal chime against his armor and looked up.
Reclis du Marquin nodded to him, smiling. Before he sat and spoke onwards, thanking Pheislant and the other heroes of the war—and awarded a medal for Tyrion Veltras to his representative—the man spoke, just to Rabbiteater.
“My daughter is fortunate indeed to have met a man of such valor as yourself, Ser Solstice. I pray to speak to her someday, if it can be done.”
Rabbiteater didn’t know what to say, but Reclis just stepped back. And the Goblin thought—he wasn’t so bad. For a fellow who stood on flames, at least.
It was slightly disappointing, to Seraphel du Marquin, to see Ser Solstice had fallen for her father’s ploys.
But then—he was very good in his element, and the Eternal Throne for a newcomer was just cheating. Reclis du Marquin was a powerful speaker, and Ielane was just as good. That laugh. Seraphel had never heard her laugh like that in private, except to demonstrate how it was done.
Well, Ser Solstice was in the crown and public’s favor, and those two did not always align. Since he had both, he was a fine guest of the Eternal Throne, milling about as Thronebearers personally served food off platters.
It was all a life-changing moment, a memorable occasion to dine and speak in the Eternal Throne. Unless you’d done it before. Seraphel noted some of the noble guests were slightly immune to the grandeur. At least, the [Earl] who peered at a simple caprese salad offered to him as a refreshment.
“And is this going to give me another date with the privy?”
The Thronebearer, a woman half Altestiel’s age, gave him a perfect bow. They were graceful and adept at their jobs, the Thronebearers. Just not so good on the battlefield. This Thronebearer, despite being new to her class, was every match for Altestiel’s grace. She offered him an apologetic and reassuring smile.
“The food and drink have all been personally vetted and sampled today, Earl Altestiel. The unfortunate incident of last night will not happen again, I assure you.”
The Earl helped himself to a small bowl and nodded as Seraphel walked over.
“And has anyone found the missing items the [Thieves] took?”
“I am afraid I cannot speak of matters of state, Earl Altestiel.”
The reply was very smooth, and the Earl grunted.
“Naturally. I suppose I should ask—ah, Princess Seraphel. Your Highness.”
He gave her a bow, and Seraphel eyed the salad. She took a bowl as the Thronebearer bowed deeply.
“Earl Altestiel. I am glad you attended today’s gathering.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it, to see Ser Solstice awarded the Dawnguard medal. I imagine one only sees a sight like that once in his lifetime. And the Eternal Throne is, in and of itself, a wonder, as always.”
The [Earl]’s eyes twinkled as he took a huge bite of his salad. Seraphel kept her face polite, but she felt interested as she took a bite of some tomato and mozzarella. Not too spiced or fancy; sometimes you could just enjoy a fresh bite of food.
Why would Ser Solstice be interesting? The Earl had been to Calanfer enough that it might not be as appealing. But that moment of mischief…he was a good statesman, but a bit obvious. A quirk of the lips, a subtle shift in his aura, like a spring shower overhead as you were walking—
Then again, Ser Solstice was interesting to Seraphel too. And she smiled, because Altestiel was a friend.
…Right? Seraphel’s warnings from her mother and all her history warred with the fact that Umbral Throne diplomacy was not something even Calanfer stooped to. In fact, Altestiel seemed to be thinking the same thing.
“I wondered, when I saw you, whether it was appropriate to approach, Your Highness.”
“I should be delighted, Altestiel!”
“Ah, myself included! But it is a funny thing to, ah, be—”
“Friends bound in strife?”
The [Earl] snorted.
“I would have said, ‘companions of porcelain’.”
Seraphel had to cover her mouth to hide a laugh. She looked around for Ser Solstice, but he was being mobbed—in a refined way—by Calanfer’s court. She sighed, and Altestiel followed her gaze.
“I imagine that we shall be getting down to proper talks today. Our last guests of Erribathe are set to arrive today. You wouldn’t…be kind enough as to hint what’s going on, would you?”
Ah, there it was. The favors. Seraphel’s elation ended—until she looked up at Altestiel’s smile. He was just teasing her. Or asking without expecting her to give away crown secrets. Right? She smiled cautiously.
“The Kingdom of Myth’s representatives are arriving today. That is all I know, Earl.”
“Ah, well. I shall amuse myself until then.”
He nodded lightly, and she was left wondering whether she was wrong for thinking he was probing. Or whether he was a better actor than she thought.
She hated that. And now, she wanted to find the helmeted man with the cloak. Ser Solstice was too genuine to distrust that way. Mostly because…
He was a Goblin. Earl Altestiel kept staring at him.
The [Earl of Rains] knew that Rabbiteater was a Goblin. He had already known. Even if he hadn’t visited the inn, the name ‘Rabbiteater’ would have tipped off anyone who knew Goblin culture. Which no one did.
But he had asked Rabbiteater outright, and the Goblin had pretended like he didn’t know what Altestiel was talking about. Which was fair—and Altestiel had gotten the feeling Rabbiteater was plotting to toss him off his balcony when he called The Wandering Inn.
Kiish had left some speaking stones, and even if it wasn’t the Titan’s ostentatious chessboard of himself, Altestiel had roused the inn at the late hour and gotten…Ishkr.
Which really hadn’t helped since he wanted Erin. But between Ishkr and a sleepy Selys vouching for him, Rabbiteater had declined to try and silence Altestiel. The [Earl] knew that Erin was on vacation, but he had thought she’d be back by now. Well, maybe something had happened. Even on vacation, you got bad weather. Hadn’t a river begun to flood or something around where she was staying?
At any rate—the Hobgoblin was wary, but Altestiel assured him he was an ally. And frankly—if he trusted the Order of Seasons, he could add an earl to the list.
He was currently the center of attention. Even Princess Seraphel seemed to like him, and Altestiel understood why.
If you knew he was a Goblin, it all made sense. You see—Calanfer’s people, from nobles to the crown, were quite good at social environments.
There were expert grifters and [Diplomats] who could pretend to friendship or any range of emotions and personalities. There were crazy, genuine people from Taimaguros and Hundredlord Cortese of Kaaz. But they still fit a range of options.
No one had ever met a Goblin. Only a Goblin would begin chatting in the middle of a bathroom dilemma. Even if you had met people like him—his reactions were genuine and different enough that he was like a speckled, colorful stone in a riverbed full of grey rocks.
And that was why he was a target of interest. But the Goblin clearly wasn’t happy with a lot of the nobility. He was looking around, that helmeted head craning because he, like Seraphel, craved a certain type of person.
He’d found them. At least, four of them. They were bound by blood and toilet paper and other stuff. Whether by chance or luck or design—Rabbiteater’s new acquaintances were interesting people too.
Princess Seraphel had found Lady Menrise of Tourvecall but had hesitated over approaching her. Altestiel was one thing, but would the lady of the reclusive, masked and helmeted Kingdom of Incantations really want to associate with Seraphel afterwards?
She was the Cursed Princess, after all. And Tourvecall was a hard nation even for Calanfer to get a read on. The helmets really didn’t help.
For instance, a [Lady] who was speaking to Menrise had a fishbowl on her head. No, that wasn’t a joke. The inside was closed off, but there was a glass exterior section where several fish were swimming about. This was the largest helmet of Tourvecall’s folk to contain the entire aquarium, and by that metric, Rabbiteater assumed she was in charge. The [Lady] even fed the fish with little sprinkles of food now and then via a hatch on the top of the tank.
The [Lady] was also lecturing Menrise, who was looking at the shimmering dais below her, gloved hands held in front of her. Seraphel winced as she heard the conversation.
“—the most shameful display, Menrise. Jumping off the Skybridge? Nevermind your acquaintanceship—the decorum of Tourvecall rests on us.”
Seraphel wanted to interject, to protest, but she knew it might make things worse. The [Lady] continued haughtily.
“Much less talking about any—issues—in the bathrooms—it is not to be brought up. Calanfer is already embarrassed; do not compound the issue, is that clear?”
“Yes, Mother. I understand, Mother.”
The fishbowl [Lady] paused, and Seraphel looked at Menrise. She had seen—for a second—the woman’s face after they’d emerged from their brown caves.
A pale face, so translucent you could see her veins in detail. If she had been a [Princess] of Calanfer, Ielane would have made her wear illusion spells. Eyes a bit too wide to be natural. A crooked tooth in a smile. But her eyes flashed with magic that moved even when her pupils did not, like a nimbus of green sparks.
Another prisoner of a cage, only hers was actual enchanted metal. For all that—she had jumped off the Skybridge after Rabbiteater and Altestiel! She had something Seraphel wanted.
Something Rabbiteater had told her—then her great ancestor, Marquin.
Do something. Anything.
But had she actually seen the ghosts? Standing in the Eternal Throne was a wonder, but not of the same kind as a thousand [Kings] of Terandria taking the field. Even now, Seraphel wondered…and she had been there. It was the folly of Humans to doubt their own sanity. Or maybe that protected them from the things creeping up in their head.
That day had changed everything. Khelt had declared a war to end things. And yet…here she was, back home, waiting for her next marriage.
Seraphel supposed she had hoped, privately, that the Eternal Throne had exploded or something would have changed it all for her. Because belief was harder without constant proof and vindication.
As for Menrise—the older [Lady] went on after a moment.
“I expect you to at least mingle with your newfound acquaintances.”
She hadn’t spotted Seraphel, and the [Princess] was happy to bail Menrise out. The [Spellbound Lady] bowed lower, and a few servants, Thronebearers, and even other nobility were watching out of the corners of their eyes.
“I’ll do that, Mother. I promise.”
The second time, the [Lady] paused—and then she leaned forwards and hissed. The fish swam about, agitated, as the water in her fishbowl head turned ochre-red.
“Would you stop calling me ‘mother’? People are getting the entirely wrong impression, Menrise!”
Menrise’s helmeted head rose, and Seraphel’s jaw dropped. The [Lady] turned and—impishly—walked over to the man with the completely circular head. He was talking with a Noelictus nobleman, and Menrise touched his arm.
“Father, do excuse me. I would like to circulate among the guests, if I may?”
The man stared at her with—Seraphel realized—not outrage, but a kind of confused dismay. As for the nobleman, he blinked, then bowed.
“Ah, your daughter is Lady Menrise, Lord Ostevar?”
“She is not my—that is to say—”
Menrise strolled away as the first [Lady] tried to pursue her. She was lying! Blatantly, too! Seraphel saw Menrise appear next to a group of Kaazian nobility, which included Lord Cortese.
“Ah, Lady Menrise. This is the Tourvecall [Lady] I mentioned.”
Their cats were freaking out in the Eternal Throne, but Menrise happily took Cortese’s hand as he bowed. Even Kaaz’s nobility were clearly fascinated by Tourvecall, and they introduced themselves, eyes on Menrise’s helmet.
“You, ah, must forgive our interest, Lady Menrise. We seldom see your queer visages abroad.”
That was a Kaazian [Lady] for you. A direct insult that she clearly hoped might result in a challenge. But Menrise just chuckled behind her helmet.
“I’m quite familiar with the stares, thank you, Lady Ruusa. You are delightfully strange yourself. I have the honor of visiting Calanfer for this grand occasion—you see my mother, the Lady Ficombe, and Lord Ostevar? My father.”
“My. How interesting.”
Lady Ruusa lied, politely nodding their way. Menrise nodded happily.
“I am so glad to be here. You see—I haven’t seen my mother, Ruusa, ever since she bore me out of wedlock. It has been thirty-one years, and Lord Ostevar has finally returned to court.”
Every head swung back to Menrise. The Kaazian nobility stirred, and Seraphel choked on a lettuce piece.
“…Could you say that again, Lady Menrise?”
The [Lady] flapped a hand as the two nobles turned to stare at her. They couldn’t have heard, but she spoke quickly and airily.
“It is one of those classic Tourvecall stories. A tumble in a pigsty in a barn—disgrace, no marriage—they look lovely for sixty years of age, don’t they? Lots of preservative charms. But Lord Cortese, there’s Seraphel! Would you mind if I stole you…?”
And she was off. Leaving behind the frantic two nobles from her kingdom, who—if Seraphel’s perfect memory didn’t fail her—were almost exactly Menrise’s age.
Cortese seemed to understand Menrise was playing some kind of prank, although even he wasn’t sure how much of what she was saying was true. The [Lady] and he bowed quite gracefully before Seraphel, and the [Princess] was lost for words.
“Lady Menrise—I am sure Tourvecall is quite playful, but are you certain you don’t go a bit far?”
That was all she managed. If she had done that to Ielane…! But Menrise just giggled like a girl behind her helmet.
“They’ll live. And I am far too old to be lectured, Your Highness. Nor do I regret any part of yesterday. Which reminds me—who are all these interesting visitors, Lord Cortese, Princess Seraphel?”
She pointed discreetly, and Seraphel glanced to one side distractedly. The Eternal Throne had everyone from [Mercenary] company representatives from Baleros to dignitaries from the Five Families. And further envoys still.
“Oh, the usual run of diplomats.”
“You must have over a thousand!”
Cortese was astonished, and Seraphel recalled that most nations were not nearly as worldly as Calanfer. Kaaz was land-locked, further north, and while they got adventurers, they seldom offered much.
By contrast, Calanfer meddled, so Seraphel found herself pointing out people, not by face, but by clues like their dress or species.
“Ah—then you don’t have a diplomat from the Blighted Kingdom?”
“Never. How can you tell?”
Menrise peered at a serious nobleman, and Cortese checked his sword, but Seraphel nodded to the two serious, plain-looking [Bodyguards]. Unarmed, but highly competent.
“The Blighted Kingdom never goes without guards, even in the Eternal Throne. You can also see the Blighted Kingdom’s crest on a pin on his lapel, there. See? An iconic shape.”
Cortese squinted, but even the faint outline of the Blighted Kingdom—a bastion wall, like the rook chess piece—was a familiar symbol. Menrise nodded.
“A diplomat of…Manus. They don’t tend to fare well, especially in the current climate, but you can find a few Drakes.”
The sullen-looking Drake was scowling as someone upbraided him, possibly about the Meeting of Tribes. Fissival hadn’t even dared send a representative.
From Nerrhavia’s Fallen, when they deigned to show up, to the Great Companies of Baleros. A Centaur trotted over to shake the hand of…Seraphel frowned.
“Oh. Now, how interesting. That must be a rising star. Shardele would not be speaking to her otherwise. What kingdom is that?”
She eyed a woman who she took to be Human at first—until she spotted the telltale stitch-marks up one arm. Flaunted, not hidden. Seraphel crooked a finger, and the Thronebearer with the salads appeared.
“For our guests—which nations does yonder emissary come from?”
The Thronebearer glanced over and replied instantly.
“The Empire of Sands, Your Highness. They control trade and most of Chandrar’s northwestern ports.”
“They do? When did that happen?”
Cortese tapped his lips, looking impressed.
“I barely knew. Not that we do much more than trade goods with Chandrar—but the King of Destruction is most of what I know from Chandrar. Him, and—have you seen that, ah, documentary about the Antinium?”
“Ksmvr of Chandrar?”
Both Seraphel and Menrise were eager to talk about that video series. And yet—Cortese used an interesting word, there.
“Did you say ‘documentary’, Lord Cortese? What might that be?”
Menrise tilted her head left and right. The Hundredlord hesitated, then smiled much the same way Altestiel had and looked about.
“Oh, just a term. But while we are here—why don’t I introduce you two to some fascinating guests? I think they’re…aha! [Swordservant].”
Like Seraphel, he raised his voice, and a scarred man appeared and bowed. He had a sword—or at least, a scabbard, since no blades were allowed in here.
“Bring forth our honored guests. Show the [Princess] and [Lady] Menrise their trinkets.”
The [Swordservant] hesitated.
“My orders are…”
Cortese’s eyes flashed, and his hand strayed towards his sword, again missing.
“It will hardly do to insult Calanfer’s hosts! Besides, look at Lord Etrogaer!”
He growled, and Seraphel looked left. The [Titanguard], eight feet tall, a giant among Humans, was laughing amidst his own hangers-on and company. And then Seraphel spotted what she had taken to be three servants.
Only—if they were Golaen’s servants, they were too short. Because they were ‘only’ around regular height and looked like actual children compared to Golaen’s stock. They were covered in the Kingdom of Giants’ livery.
It marked them as…what? Inducted nobility? Seraphel thought it was like fostering children, but Cortese saw something else. So the [Swordservant] bowed.
There was an interesting contrast to the six young men and women he brought back and Golaen’s group. The Kingdom of Giants’ three looked rather overwhelmed, hanging back and quiet unless Etrogaer turned to them and asked a question.
However, the six that bowed before Seraphel were a bit bolder. And the reason was clear when Cortese introduced them.
“I have the pleasure of introducing you to Silver-rank Adventurers, Cassy, Lan, and Bronze-rank Adventurers Fabrice, Hallbera…”
Seraphel saw the most interesting group of young men and women who looked to each be from a different country from skin tone alone!
Fabrice was closer to Cortese’s skin, but tall and lanky. Hallbera could have perhaps fit in with Cenidau’s Hearthlords, and Lan was Drathian.
And yet he was not Drathian, because his accent was all wrong. As for being adventurers, Cortese looked indulgently proud.
“Of the—group of them, these six are the only ones who have gone into the dungeon and slain a few monsters. Visiting the Eternal Throne was a reward.”
Indeed, the six children seemed as amazed as any guest, but what Seraphel found fascinating was that one of them was holding up a brick.
No, wait, it was thin. Some kind of artifact? It kept flashing, and Lan kept tugging down Cassy’s arm, but when she saw Menrise, the girl spoke.
“Oh my god. You’re so cool! Is that a helmet? I have to take a picture. With my—scrying device!”
Cortese looked indulgent, but the [Swordservant] looked so nervous that Seraphel and every Thronebearer in earshot instantly noticed. Menrise peered at the device.
“That’s not magical. Oh! It’s me!”
“A new artifact recovered from the Infinite Dungeon, Lady Menrise. Nevermind how it works—look! You can take a mage-picture in fine quality! Cassy—show them a picture of Kaaz’s nobility.”
Indeed, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of mage-pictures on…Seraphel’s brows rose higher and higher.
Was this made by an [Archmage] of old? She glanced at the Thronebearer, whose blink told her this would be going to Ielane and Reclis immediately. But then she noticed the nobles of Kaaz posing.
“Oh, what’s this?”
“A peace sign. Just do this—”
And Lady Menrise was standing with her back to Calanfer’s Eternal Throne, both hands each holding two fingers up in a ‘v’. She waited, then clapped her hands in delight at how it looked.
She was so free, it disconcerted Seraphel. So much so that even in between trying to ask Cortese who these children were—she turned to Menrise.
“You don’t seem to be much shackled by your helmet, Menrise. I—I quite confess, I envy your freedom.”
The [Spellbound Lady] of Tourvecall looked at Seraphel in astonishment, then she touched the helmet on her head.
“Oh, this? It’s for safety so I don’t vent mana. It is hardly a helmet. Yes, it’s customary not to take it off, but I can if I wish. Only—I find people are more allured by wondering what lies beneath.”
Seraphel could have sworn the [Lady] winked at her beneath the helmet. Menrise touched it gently.
“It’s a choice. It’s stylish. But freedom? We are the scions of the Hundred Families. If we aren’t free, who in this world is?”
“Here’s to that!”
Hundredlord Cortese laughed, and Baeris, his lion, threw up over the edge of one of the daises and watched the vomit float away through space. Seraphel looked between the two and didn’t have the ability to join them, nor the heart to protest.
As for Altestiel—his gaze was sympathetic as he joined the company. And sharp as he glanced at the Earthers. Cortese never noticed; he was locking gazes with Lord Etrogaer.
So that was why they’d come to Calanfer. At least—part of the reason. Seraphel smiled politely in response to Menrise’s words.
Inside—she was screaming. But the person to whom she needed to truly speak to—
The words never quite came out.
Queen Ielane looked up, and Princess Seraphel froze. Her mother spoke briskly.
“Your father is waiting for you.”
“I know, but I was hoping I could—”
The [Queen] was distracted. Outside of the Eternal Throneroom, after the guest reception, she had three veteran Thronebearers and several of Calanfer’s staff, including a [Bard], gathered around a plan of the palace. Ielane was patently impatient as she replied.
“Later, Seraphel. We must investigate this [Thief].”
“The one who stole Aielef’s tiara? You haven’t gotten them yet?”
Ielane sighed, and one of the Thronebearers bowed to the [Princess].
“Not just the tiara. Golaen and several others of the nobility were burgled in the same evening during the poisoning incident, Your Highness. Please keep this information to yourself.”
“Seraphel is an adult. Although the warning is not lost. You have some…capital, Seraphel, after your actions in the war, advisable or not. Your father will speak to you, but remember, you speak with Calanfer’s authority.”
“Y-yes, Mother. But how has a [Thief] escaped our Thronebearers?”
They might not be warriors, but against [Assassins] and [Thieves]? They were practically ten levels higher! For answer, one of the [Bards] spoke.
“We are dealing with a [Thief] on the level of one of the most famous in the continent. Perhaps it is one of them; we are investigating. For instance, the ‘poison’ that passed all detection came from stale confections Golaen stored improperly. But it was also coated in an alchemical aid.”
“Not a poison?”
A Thronebearer looked embarrassed and coughed into his hand.
“It has the same effects as one, Your Highness. It, ah, provokes—”
Ielane broke in without turning her head to Seraphel.
“We believe you should be going. As for the thief, they have some ability. Thank you for mentioning Kaaz’s strange guests, Seraphel. We had quite noticed, but it is good one of our daughters picked up on it. Shardele did not, nor did Aielef, though her distress is quite understandable. As for Vernoue…she overslept. Your father?”
Seraphel had to go. Her father was someone she could speak to, in theory—but Reclis du Marquin was also hard to approach.
For different reasons than Ielane. He sat in a personal study, and like the Queen of Calanfer, his public persona and private one were—
“Seraphel. Sit down. Ielane gave me some time. I wanted to speak to you—here, take a cup of this and drink. Tell me your thoughts, then speak to me about your thoughts on Tyrion Veltras and the Goblin Slayer. In order—we have to get to your newfound authority or your mother will be upset, but I am passionate about all the underlined subjects.”
Reclis du Marquin was often as short of time as Ielane, but he made up for his lack by a few things. Firstly—in private, he spoke quickly, without the regal pauses and intonation he worked hard on.
Secondly, he had a cup of some black liquid he proffered to Seraphel, and he was watching a scrying orb on low volume while she sat. His daughter saw Reclis glance up and saw a familiar Drake she liked on the orb.
“I would like to be free of my duties as a [Princess].”
…Was what Seraphel thought. What she said was—
“You watch Drassi and Wistram News Network, Father?”
“How could I not? Have you watched this latest development…? No? Ah, you were riding. Well, to summarize—Reporter Drassi has brought up an inequity in her pay compared to Ser Relz and Noass. Literally half their fee. A lot of the coverage is finding who dictated the terms. Whether it is Wistram or Pallass—Pallass being likely.”
“And you find it interesting because…?”
Seraphel was not fooled by her father’s attention as she sipped the drink. She made a face and pushed it back. Reclis glanced up.
“Not to your taste? ‘Coffee’. These events matter, Seraphel. Each one, from the drink to the discussions of pay between men and women—matter. They will ripple out from Izril to the world, and I would be a fool not to listen.”
“Of course. But—how exactly?”
Reclis du Marquin had on a pair of spectacles. He took them off and used vision spells when he was on the throne. When he spoke, it was absently.
“…Statistically, women do not serve in Drake hierarchies on the same ranking as most male Drakes. The same can be said of [Knights] at times, and a [Lady] can lead a battle, but rarely. In my reign, I have encouraged the Thronebearers of Calanfer to induct more female applicants. In preparation for a scandal and revolution. Perhaps it will come in my time. Perhaps not. The fact of the matter is that Calanfer should be poised to lead by example as well as words. If the upheaval is great enough. I take my clues from large reforms like [Peasant] rebellions and Golem uprisings as well as the landed revolt that formed the Five Families. If an entire gender is up in arms—Calanfer should come out the better.”
Did he think that was likely? Or was this just a low-chance idea? Either way, it dovetailed with Reclis’ belief, and it was his mission: let Calanfer endure.
Seraphel was used to these conversations, and her father was used to talking. He waved his spectacles as he polished them, again, looking at the scrying orb.
“Scrying orbs. They will have a profound impact on the world. We see it already, but I have devoted our [Bards] and [Mages] to perfecting what Wistram has begun.”
“Our own scrying network, Father? I hardly think that we can make one. It is beyond complex.”
Seraphel was amused, but Reclis shook his head.
“Not the system, Seraphel. How it is used. What people see—and how we present ourselves. Observe—Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Captured in an interview with Drassi, quite unfortunately. Observe—Jecaina of Jecrass. Transformed her nation from a casualty of the King of Destruction’s war into a political powerhouse via her poise. However, I take an even longer view. The crown—this crown must be simultaneously within this view of the public and yet carefully make sure the public sees only what we want to show. Nothing ‘live’. Calanferians should not see the Eternal Throne, but the city? Yes. Scrying orbs must not overturn the mystique or dignity of monarchy.”
He leaned on his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose, like a [Scholar] trying to unravel a secret. Or a puzzle-master attempting a difficult box of tricks. Seraphel looked at Reclis.
“If we did look poorly on camera, Father?”
He glanced up, serious. With all the passion in the world.
“…Then part of what makes a monarchy a monarchy unravels. Perhaps it endures, nevertheless. But monarchy should be stronger than whatever a scrying spell can unravel, Seraphel. A kingdom must be. So. If I found scrying orbs intolerable to the rule of [Kings], I would try to unite public opinion against them, at least in Terandria. Instead, I find them a worthy tool, but one that must be mastered before holding.”
His eyes were firm, and unlike the authority he had on the throne, Seraphel believed him. Reclis du Marquin was a man who believed in ideas. And one idea he had devoted his life to. He went back to the orb, jotting notes down in a private journal.
“The peasantry will be another issue. Nothing breeds jealousy like witnessing first-hand Khelt’s largesse. No…no, Khelt’s citizens are as rich as to be foreign. Other nations at their finest—we should temper any discontent with holidays, perhaps laws to uplift.”
“Why not do it anyways?”
Reclis glanced up. Seraphel stared at Drassi, who was arguing with Noass.
“Why not announce the Thronebearers will have as many women as men or pass those laws for the peasants now, Father?”
He smiled fondly at her, indulgently, and rose.
“Ah, I can see why Ielane wanted me to speak with you. That is a fine question to ask here, Seraphel. Be cautious, from now on, when speaking of Calanfer. You are a war hero—and your opinions have too much weight. Which is good! Ielane believes she might be able to use that, but make no promises on behalf of the throne.”
Seraphel bit her tongue. Her newfound fame? Her parents approved of it, amazingly! And told her—
“What about the laws, Father?”
He turned back to her sympathetically.
“Ah, Seraphel. The answer is simple. We are not Khelt. Nor do I need to lower taxes or declaim a holiday to keep Calanfer running as it is.”
“If it would make them feel better…I was in Afiele in Noelictus, Father.”
“Yes, the siege. Ridiculous business from Ailendamus. And?”
Seraphel saw him listening, but she wondered if he heard her. She tried to place her words carefully.
“The people there were wonderful. Brave, courageous, kind—hardworking. If they did not have to struggle as hard for taxes—if the crown had given funds to the [Lord] there…the disaster might not have come about. Can Calanfer not do the same?”
Reclis nodded sympathetically. He sat back in his chair, sipped the coffee, grimaced slightly, and replied.
“Indeed we could. But if I were Noelictus’ king—I would look at the net results.”
Reclis stared at something unseen, like a man weighing the scales.
“Cast aside the events at Ovela which had different circumstances. Afiele was a tragedy—but the loss of life was localized. Levels were gained, and a single province nearly overrun by undead. It was horrific, and I wish you were not there. However. Is that commensurate with the idea of enacting a kingdom-wide reform? Even if I, as Noelictus’ [King], focused on a single province, I invite envy of other provinces. I believe I would find it unnecessary. Especially to the body that matters.”
Reclis shook his head.
“No. The kingdom. What serves the people or the nobility or even we, the royal family, the crown, does not always serve the kingdom, Seraphel. And the kingdom should—must endure. What matters is the kingdom. If serving the commonfolk serves the kingdom, then it should be done. As it stands? I don’t believe we have the time nor the will to push for some kind of…Samal-like paradise. Let alone Kheltian. Ailendamus is still at war with the Dawn Concordat, and I have not forgotten it. Fortunately, the Order of Seasons is pressing them, they have multiple raiders on several fronts, and House Wellfar has sent their ships into the war.”
He turned to Seraphel seriously.
“I convened this invitation to unite sentiment against Ailendamus as well as pursue other goals, Seraphel. The Restful Three’s presence is a huge chance—if confused by their own ambitions.”
“The young men and women. Why are they here?”
Seraphel felt like a child again. Reclis was listening to her, explaining the thoughts of a [King] in far more expansive terms than Ielane would. And yet—did he hear her? Reclis drummed his fingers on the armrest of his throne.
“Apparently, to look to the outside world which they seldom do. Those children…I have promised them nothing, nor will I push hard for an alliance. One step at a time. The throne must not move dramatically.”
“Not even when we were nearly wiped out by Ailendamus? They were a hair from taking the capital!”
Seraphel’s voice was snippish, and Reclis startled before smiling.
“Ah, there’s my sharp-tongued girl. Rest assured, I might be stoic—Ielane will not be. She is the sharp edge of the battleaxe and swings hard—I am the haft. We will try to build a new wall to hold Ailendamus in check, Seraphel. Do not fear. Calanfer has failed to keep them at bay…I do fail. The Eternal Kingdom does fail, and you are old enough to see how desperately we’ve played our cards, including you, to try and stop them.”
He stood, as the scrying orb turned off, and put the coffee down as he walked to a window. Seraphel rose and followed him. Reclis turned his head as she hesitated.
“Father. I—I don’t wish to be married again.”
She said it so hesitantly, with such a jolt through her heart. Reclis turned to her—then reached out and took her hands. Seraphel froze—and Reclis smiled sadly.
“Neither do I, my daughter. But duty calls.”
“It might not happen. Ielane will calculate—perhaps it will be a marriage of convenience. Or another role, like an ambassador to Noelictus. Yet Seraphel, we must do what we can for Calanfer. All of us.”
He stared at her. He stared right through her and thought he was looking her in the eyes. Seraphel’s cheeks went red, and she raised her voice.
“Is that why we’re an insect in the Kingdom of Glass and Glory’s way? Is that why we—I saw Marquin, Father! I thought I did! She was a hero of the Creler Wars, and look at us now! Why, if the kingdom is all that matters—is the kingdom so poor?”
For answer, Reclis du Marquin stepped back, but not in shock or fear. He looked at Seraphel gravely, then sighed.
“The answer is—sometimes we fail. My mother was the Queen of the Eternal Throne, Seraphel. A wise, canny woman, and she played against Ailendamus for her entire life as it expanded. She lost. She played very well, but Ailendamus is governed by a group as intelligent and resourceful as any I have seen. They smashed through barriers we wove out of promises and friendship with sheer force. The powers behind the throne enable their attempts at hegemony—House Shoel, to name but one. I wish we could uncover more, but all our [Spies] can only reach the Court of Masks, not whatever lies beyond.”
Seraphel had never known that. She felt a twist in her stomach, but Reclis was still not hearing her. Seraphel took his hand, and he looked at her.
“Why can’t we do that, Father?”
He laughed softly, taking both of hers and squeezing them.
“Do what? Succeed? We try. Calanfer was a border nation when we were first established, Seraphel. The other kingdoms gave us blasted lands ruined by Crelers and thought we would be the first nation to be sacked if Terandria were invaded. It has come far, far since. But not far enough, I agree.”
“No—not just that. Why can’t we all aspire to be Queen Marquin? Lyonette left for Izril. She’s leveled—many times according to Ser Dalimont! Why not do that? Be—become someone else and level? I could try. If not lead armies. Why don’t you or Mother or the [Princes]? Lothen and…”
She fell silent. King Reclis du Marquin was giving Seraphel the blankest of all looks. When he responded, his tone was puzzled.
“It is true that in adversity, we level, Seraphel. But for every [Prince] who reaches Level 30 before the age of 30, a thousand lie dead. It is the height of selfishness to abandon Calanfer like Lyonette did. If Marquin taught us one thing, it was that we should not fear sacrifice. I do not gamble with the fate of Calanfer. Would you?”
Seraphel looked into his eyes and saw there was nothing more to say. Nothing more, but a hundred ghosts whispering in her ears. They had all been there, all stood and waited and found a decade passed, a lifetime of unhappiness. Seraphel opened her mouth, saw her father looking at her, and wilted.
It was the hardest thing in the world to do, and she had tried three times before. She had raged and run away, and she knew what had happened to Menisi, the 2nd Princess of Calanfer. Or had she done that to herself, to get away forever?
At last, Seraphel whispered.
“Father. I would like to not be a [Princess] with such a heavy duty any longer. I have watched husbands and too many people die. I would like to choose my own path.”
King Reclis’ absent gaze moved away from the scrying orb. He looked at Seraphel, his distant blue gaze like a faded dream sharpening to a point of understanding. At last, he saw her. The [King] blinked, looked Seraphel up and down, and hesitated. Then he nodded to himself. He reached out, took Seraphel’s hands, and tucked them together. Reclis met Seraphel’s gaze, well and truly, and replied.
“I must forbid it, Seraphel.”
He squeezed her hands once and let go. When he looked at her again—
Now, he was watching her.
A [Princess] wept
Fleeing down the stairs
Running home without home
Realizing she had none to leave behind.
—Teriarch, Poetry in Disguise, 23 A.F.
He had seen it a hundred thousand times. So it really didn’t matter. It didn’t bother him. Not one bit.
The irony, of course, was that the Dragon had thought this very thing before many times. At Wistram, as Eldavin—but he didn’t remember that.
He had seen the same look on Seraphel’s face across every species and identity. Even his own face. But he had also known rulers like Reclis du Marquin.
So here was the irony for you. If you scorned Reclis—remember this. Though neither father nor daughter would appreciate it, Reclis’ very approach to ruling, his morality and conscience that dictated how he led Calanfer?
It was much like Fetohep of Khelt’s. Only, the mirror that reflected the two varied the outcome between life and death, and the kingdom that had been bequeathed to Fetohep was far different than the Calanfer of now.
At any rate, the Dragon was busy inspecting the rest of the palace. He stalked through the halls, still fuming enough that he tripped up the Thronebearer striding after Seraphel.
That arrogant Wyrm. Teriarch had lingered long enough in Ailendamus to have a few more deeply unpleasant meetings. But he’d done what he could, and he was on his way back home when it occurred to him that he really hadn’t seen the Eternal Throne since he’d helped give it away.
He’d been really unhappy about the donuts. Fortunately, he, at least, could cure his problems. And he was biding his time.
A Goblin in a suit of armor. That’s not going to cause a fuss. Nor will I.
This was known as irony. Also, lying. Teriarch rubbed his hands together. Then he finally found that damn [Thief].
There you are. His eyes narrowed as he saw someone slip out of a room. A very plain…oh, not so plain. The Dragon raised his brows. She was doing a good job looking like a [Maid], but the Thronebearers were on high alert.
Doubtless, she had figured out when she had an opening and somehow bypassed Calanfer’s magical locks. She might have gotten away with it, despite the Thronebearers checking the servants and each other. Wonderfully subtle shoes with the tiniest compartment of holding. And she could probably remove it and hide it if she were searched.
Yes, she might have really stuffed one of Tourvecall’s amulets into its hiding place if she hadn’t tripped, gone sprawling, and the first Thronebearer that Teriarch had tripped up then spotted her.
The [Knight] roared, and the young woman turned white. She had a commendable sprint, and Teriarch decided to let it go at that. If she got up to her tricks? Well, justice had been served. He pointed at her back.
The Dragon dusted off his claws, then decided to get back to prepping for his big moment. He had to time it carefully. There had to be…gravitas. Theming. And besides, not all the big players were there. The last of the Restful Three…he sighed, and his face soured.
He hated the Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, more than most places in this world. More than Khelt or Germina. Or even A’ctelios Salash?
…No, less than A’ctelios Salash. But there was a reason. Ah, it was like Calanfer itself. Teriarch sighed as he walked on.
Glory, faded. Memory and regret and…
Visions. Ghosts. At least, the Dragon reflected, he wasn’t the only one who had seen them.
Ser Markus and Meisa retired quickly after visiting the Eternal Throne. Which was astonishing to Talia, because she couldn’t stop shaking with excitement. Rabbiteater embarrassing her or not, it had been a wondrous time.
Not least because of all the people she had met! The rare nobility from distant kingdoms were one thing, but even Talia had felt a bit star-struck when some of the nobles started introducing themselves.
“[Duchess] Greina of Noelictus and [Key Princess] Telleis of Samal! Two of the most combat-ready of the Hundred Family’s nobility. If Princess Ozena were here, that would be the three top-leveled bachelorettes in Terandria!”
…Mind you, some people had to be odd about it. Talia glanced sideways at Ser Lorell, one of the Summer Knights who’d gone to fight against Belavierr at Riverfarm. A good man, if not a close friend of Rabbiteater or one who had taken as well to the revelation. Currently?
“Mind your drool, Ser Lorell.”
The man colored and gave Talia a reproachful look.
“You may slander me at your peril, Talia. Or did I not catch you introducing yourself to Earl Altestiel? And remarking on the Lord of the Dance?”
She turned red as well, and both of them represented the Summer in all its…fiery dignity.
“It hardly hurts to introduce oneself, Lorell.”
“And I am allowed to dream, Talia. Even if a man such as myself would not be looked twice at with all the competition…”
Lorell went back to admiring the people emerging from the Eternal Throne. The [King] and [Queen] had already left, but the other first-time guests lingered. Even they looked impressed, and in turn, failed to realize they were stars akin to, well…
Wil. Talia could not believe how many people had come up to her to tell her they’d seen his adventures at sea. Wil! The shy younger brother who’d gone off to the Titan’s school had somehow surpassed her.
She was a mix of fond affection and exasperation with him. Although, he was a credit to the family. Enough so that she could smile as a [Lord] walked out of the Eternal Throne’s chambers.
“Why, Lord Corrost du Havrington. Good day, sir! I was entirely grief-stricken to hear the marriage between our families failed to go through. How is Lady Cassicel taking the news?”
A [Lord] froze, and a man with a sharp, hawk-like face and glare like thunder sketched a bow to Talia.
“Dame Talia. It was entirely regrettable that your father broke off the marriage. I am afraid I cannot comment on Havrington affairs.”
He stormed off, and Lorell raised his brows.
“What was that in aid of? You seldom snipe at anyone, Talia.”
“Entirely deserved, Lorell. Havrington are mongrels. We were going to marry and make peace—but it turns out they were trying to embarrass the entire family. My younger brother helped discover that, actually. We owe the Titan of Baleros a favor.”
“Which would have been worse?”
Talia chuckled darkly.
“Oh, having to smile at Havrington and invite them as family? Definitely the former. Oh, look. There’s your [Duchess]. Any signs of, er, Earl Altestiel? I was hoping I could invite him to a game of chess. I did play Wil a lot, you know.”
Lorell peered with great interest at the Noelictus group. Who, as it turned out, were mingling with Samal’s Kingdom of Keys. In fact, the friendship revolved around the two young women.
Duchess Greina and Princess Telleis. Such an odd pair to see together. Well, both were famous, but Talia really didn’t see what Lorell saw in Greina.
She was as short as Telleis was tall. Also, more heavyset—it was rumored she had Dwarf blood in her immediate parentage, or perhaps it was simply her heritage. She did not appear like Telleis, who was what many [Ladies] aspired to. Tall, even lanky, and walking with the Kingdom of Keys’ distinctive type of sword with a key-like handle attached to the blade.
Nevertheless, the [Duchess] was…impressive, Talia had to own. Talia was a [Summer Knight] and a consummate warrior. Noelictus’ [Duchess], by contrast?
From that dreary land of cloudy skies and [Hunters], not [Knights], had come Greina. And she was both star-struck by the Eternal Throne and starry-eyed.
Literally. Her pupils, accentuated by the black-and-white irises that flared in an unusual pattern, gave the starburst effect until you got closer and saw how they were an illusion. But she was doubly-striking because she had a nali-stick in one hand and was chewing on it while animatedly talking with Telleis.
“Duchess Greina, an autograph? I am such a fan of your adventuring—”
Talia was so glad it wasn’t Lorell who embarrassed himself but another young [Lord]. Charles du Trevalier, a [Lord] who she understood was supposed to be a [Mage] of Wistram, was hurrying forwards, eyes on Greina. Or perhaps her chest. He seemed to be having a hard time deciding which one he wanted to focus on. In reply, Duchess Greina turned away from Telleis as the [Princess] made a face.
The Gold-rank adventurer and [Duchess] wore mostly black, a kind of ‘combat dress’ as she had scandalized the ballroom society by claiming. She had an infectious grin, no reserved smile like much of Noelictus’ people, nor did she keep her voice low.
“And I, sir, am a bit busy to sign autographs even if I cared to. But don’t let my harsh words deter you. Good day!”
Then she winked mightily. Talia and Lorell stirred, because the huge wink, as she closed one eye in an exaggerated motion, was accompanied by a stir in the air.
Her aura slapped Charles so fast the [Lord] never saw it. Talia was amazed. She had never seen someone with Greina’s control outside the Order of Seasons! A huge, grinning face in Greina’s perfect image appeared behind her, intangible, rising through the Noelictus and Samal crowd—and the wink of one eye slammed down on Charles’ face.
He stood there, completely floored and stunned as Greina walked past him. Only thirty seconds later did he look around and come back to himself.
“Dead gods, she knocked him straight out for half a minute!”
“Yes….she’s quite the storied person. A [Duchess] of wealth, acclaim, and a mastery of aura. Why do you fancy her on par with Princess Telleis?”
The [Princess] of a literal paradise seemed to be the greatest catch if Talia were keeping score. Lorell looked slightly offended at the question.
“The [Princess] is…an inspiring figure, Dame Talia. But having met the Duchess Greina, I can assure you—she makes a fellow feel alive. I felt inspired to join her on a quest of errantry. Someone with that kind of…derring-do makes me believe in adventures.”
Talia supposed it was an incomprehensible appeal to her. Speaking of which…she saw Altestiel and then blinked.
Because he had come out of the Eternal Throne talking animatedly with no less than…Rabbiteater? Unlike Meisa and Markus, he wasn’t heading abed, and three other people were in the group, including no less than Princess Seraphel.
“Now there is a sight. Yonder lies Ser Solstice. Should we weasel our own way in?”
Lorell asked merrily, and before Talia could stop him, he was hailing Rabbiteater.
“Ser Solstice! Not tired like Dame Meisa and Markus?”
“Nope. They’re weak.”
The Hobgoblin broke off from his group. Princess Seraphel smiled wanly as Talia introduced herself, and the touchy Kaazian [Lord] eyed their blades with interest, but the [Princess] looked somewhat subdued.
Nevertheless, Talia was—mixed about Rabbiteater. They hadn’t really had a chance to talk after the entire war. Meisa had made it clear she held Talia in some contempt. As for Rabbit?
He was, as always, a mix of offensive honesty and strangeness. Ser Lorell chuckled as he tried not to mention ‘Goblins’—you could practically see himself trying to hold the word in.
“What, er, could have kept them up all night?”
“I kept Meisa up. About six hours. Oh, and at dawn for four hours.”
Talia was treated to the Winebreath Blaster from none other than Earl Altestiel. The man hit the poor Hundredlord, Ser Lorell, and a Thronebearer actually threw himself between Seraphel and the spray.
Amazing. The Earl was laughing so hard that Cortese’s howl of outrage was lost for a moment.
“That is it, Earl! I will have redress for my suit in blood!”
“Ser Solstice! That is quite untoward!”
Lorell was trying to wipe himself off, and Rabbiteater grinned, knowing perfectly well what he’d said. Menrise was laughing as hard as the Earl of Rains.
“What? Markus got a workout too.”
“Dead gods, Ser Solstice, your mouth!”
Talia snapped, so crimson she felt like she was generating a second Aura of Summer. She knew [Spring Knights] were notoriously…even so, to gossip about it!
Worst of all, Princess Seraphel and a lot of Thronebearers were there! And doubly worse—the Duchess Greina and Princess Telleis turned around at the laughter and commotion. And they headed right back.
“Is that the redoubtable Ser Solstice of Izril? Quiet nights! I am Duchess Greina, and this is Princess Telleis. May we take a moment of your time, Ser?”
Charles opened his mouth but couldn’t find a way in as a group surrounded Rabbiteater. The [Princess] bowed and was surprisingly soft-spoken.
“A key for every lock. Your Highness. What a gathering of faces. Is this Talia Kallinad? Forgive me, Dame Talia? I saw you at Daquin and your brother at sea.”
It was Talia’s turn to be astonished as the [Princess] turned to her. To her mortification, she began to stutter.
“No, I—it was hardly anything to be—Wil? He is doing quite well, thank you for asking.”
Telleis had not. Duchess Greina smiled politely, and Rabbiteater came to Talia’s relief. He glanced at Greina and then Telleis.
“Nice crossbow. Nice sword.”
The two glanced at him, and Talia saw, for the first time, that Duchess Greina carried an absurdly large crossbow on her back. Practically a hand-ballista!
“You notice, Ser Solstice? Then your reputation isn’t for granted!”
“Uh. It’s on your back.”
Rabbiteater scratched his head, and Greina and Telleis laughed. Talia got what was meant. For two of the noble flowers of Terandria to bear weapons was scandalous, but the Goblin barely saw the difference.
Rabbiteater recognized their aptitude. And again—the [Princess] Telleis saw Altestiel fending off the enraged Hundredlord Cortese.
“If there is a duel to be had, would you care to demonstrate your own abilities on the field, Ser Solstice? I confess—I had hoped to duel some of those present. Even one of the Thousand Lances if I had but the nerve. I have had two honor-duels with Kaaz’s nobility, and those were pressing affairs.”
At this, Cortese turned.
“Ah, Princess Telleis! I heard you’d left two of my kin disarmed, not bleeding. One a Silver-bell at that! I would be remiss if I did not offer you my blade and blood.”
The [Princess] bowed, and Talia saw something on her wrist. It did not chime, but it was a silver bell.
A [Fencer]’s mark. Greina responded to Cortese.
“If you have an honor duel, count me out. It is simultaneously neither battle and yet bloodier than it must be for my tastes. But I’ll happily let Ser Solstice school me in combat; I am no great blademaster, but I should be honored.”
Rabbiteater gave her a thumbs-up. Talia gasped in outrage, but the casual confidence was infectious. The Goblin peered at Telleis.
“You’re pretty good with a sword?”
“Moderately, Ser Knight. Shall we find a dueling ground?”
“I as well! I wished to test myself against Ser Solstice—come, Altestiel. No backing out of it.”
“Oh dear. Well—if everyone’s going—”
Seraphel looked like she was as interested as Lady Menrise, who was delighted to see Rabbiteater fighting. And then the almost-remembered [Lord], Charles, tried to stride forwards.
“I say! If we are talking about silver bells—”
One jangled noisily as he halted. Rabbiteater, Talia, Greina, Telleis, and all the others turned back. Charles stood, posing to show off the rapier and silver bell at his side. That bell had once belonged to Pisces Jealnet.
Not that anyone here could have known it. Charles waited for something, and the Princess of Samal coughed into one hand, looking as politely reserved as her people were. Rabbiteater was more direct. He peered at Charles’ feet, the way he held himself, and nodded.
“Where’d you get that? Give it back.”
The [Lord] went white as Duchess Greina laughed, and he was still standing there minutes after they left. Then his rage knew no bounds, and Rabbiteater had made a great enemy!
Too bad Ser Solstice didn’t even know his name.
On the dueling courts, Talia Kallinad had to admit—Rabbiteater was one of the better [Knights] around. Even before he had leveled up, he had been good.
The Redfang Goblins trained their warriors as well as, well, a [Knight]-Order. A ridiculous concept that Talia would never admit, even in her mind, but Rabbiteater had carried his training through countless battles. So the Goblin that arrived at the Order of Seasons’ keep had already been far past the level of Ser Markus and the Spring Knights.
Now? He was no Named-rank Adventurer. He was not Ser Greysten’s rival when the other used his full aura in battle or even a match for Earl Altestiel’s full range of Skills.
Indeed, the [Earl] had won against Hundredlord Cortese in a duel that had carried them into five dueling pits and only beaten the charging Hundredlord with a jet of water. Cortese had a longsword and dagger and, like a lion, stalked forwards in endless, rapid attacks.
Altestiel could conjure tidal waves. As matchups went…he was [Knight Marshal of the Rains], Desonis’ great marshal of battle.
Rabbiteater stood one rung below Altestiel. He had bested the Dame of the Hills, yes, with a blessing, and yes, with her trying not to kill him. But he had also beaten Ailendamus’ [Generals] in combat.
He had leveled, had two auras—but mostly? What the renowned Princess Telleis and Duchess Greina found was—
He really didn’t fight fair.
The Princess of Samal used a keyblade to fight in the old Samallian dueling style of fencing. It had different ‘keystrokes’ and a school of locks—which was their way of categorizing styles. It was an annoyingly technical school that focused on fast heel-turns and lightning redirects, attacking from angles.
She was better than some Silver-bell duelists, and that was a category even Gold-ranks fell into. Telleis was blessed with height, reach, and natural ability.
But she had, possibly, never in all her duels and exploits, had someone throw dirt in her face. Rabbiteater even did it sneakily. He was using a practice-sword, and she had a practice rapier as well, non-bloody. His shield-hand had over-extended to try and bash her rapier down. A bad move—until he dropped the shield and flicked dust up in her face.
She deflected his thrust, and Rabbiteater blinked. She had combined the first Skill with a second one! [Disarming Parry] knocked the sword out of his hand. What a trick! He grinned, saw Telleis leap back, and jumped forwards and booted her as hard as he could in the stomach. When she recoiled, he punched her in the face.
The Goblin might have continued—although Telleis was swinging her sword in a defensive pattern—when Talia and Lorell grabbed him.
“Ser Solstice! You can’t offer bodily violence to—”
Lorell cried out until Duchess Greina’s glare and aura nearly pulled him off the Goblin. Rabbiteater looked miffed.
“Why not? Oh, right. Chivalry. You can look the other way? Dame Voost never gets hit when you duel her.”
“Even so, to strike barehanded is—”
“A novel way of fighting. Unhand Ser Solstice, please? I fear I’ve learned a valuable lesson about fighting.”
Telleis held her stomach as a horrified servant raced over with a potion. She waved it aside, looking embarrassed. Rabbiteater picked up his sword and shook his head at Samal’s horrified crowd.
“No wonder you got kicked. Tsk, tsk.”
Altestiel was laughing his head off. He was easily amused. Seraphel was horrified, but she watched as Telleis ducked her head.
“Few opponents have the gall to do that, Ser Solstice. And—I might add—few are as quick as you! I have dueled [Martial Artists].”
The Goblin shrugged. He was using his Skills and feeling fired-up after bathing in the light of the Eternal Throne. Which reminded him—his smile grew wider under his helmet.
His new Skill.
“Want to try again? This time, I’ll be not-nice.”
Telleis’ answer was to salute him and back up, wary.
“At your leisure, ser.”
Greina called out. Rabbiteater lowered himself as his shield and sword came back up. He concentrated. He had been in armor all day…but this time, he felt like the sheer amount of light in the Eternal Throneroom had done something to him.
[Body: Solar Storage].
He charged at Telleis in a blur, threw his shield out in a [Giant’s Parry], and caught air. She touched his shoulder with a clang that made half of Samal’s folk jump up.
Rabbiteater shouted at them. He whirled, slashed, and saw her cut in a [Ninety Degree Instep]. Rabbiteater’s response?
[Shield Ram]! Once again, his shield came up, and Telleis sidestepped the ram—only to see him pivot.
[Long Backstep]. He moved left, turning and backing up, but she stepped with him. They hadn’t swung their blades once that entire time. They were just angling for—
Aura of the Brave. He was pushing at her, and she was pushing back. Her aura smashed his aside, hoping to knock him off-balance, and Telleis blinked.
She ran into a second aura. And was reminded, for a moment, of sitting and turning her first key in the lock of her room. Home and hearth and—
He went for her in the middle of the backstep. The sword came along, impossibly wide, a cleaving blow that crossed the entire practice court. And she—
[School — Countless Keys: Skill-locking Slash].
She cut his Skill! The Goblin staggered, had no idea what she was doing, and went for a second slash.
He carved towards her blade, and she stepped back—and returned back as his sword missed her.
It was a whirlwind of high-level Skills. And Rabbiteater had just run out of almost all of his slashes. He had [Lightsoaked Armaments] left and [Mistreach Cut]—and she’d seen both.
He might have changed his [Aspect of the Champion] to another type and chanced a blow if this were a fight to the death, but he couldn’t do that in a fancy schmancy duel.
But the light. The light was still in him. There was no view of his face for Telleis to see, so if she had known that as she lifted her rapier for a piercing thrust—
She might have dodged.
[Body: Solar Storage].
[Raythrust of Light].
The Skill hit Princess Telleis at the same time as her rapier struck his shoulder. Rabbiteater twisted his shoulder. Telleis, though, hadn’t expected the shining blade to come at her.
It struck her light armor, and the shining, Skill-enhanced practice sword stopped, rather than run her through. Altestiel, on his feet, sighed in relief. Then he saw the [Princess] turn dead white. Rabbiteater’s blade had—nonlethally—hit her square in the stomach at full force. And Telleis was having an instinctual, bodily reaction.
She clutched at her stomach, dropped her rapier, a shame for a [Fencer]—but it was so she could cover her mouth. Unfortunately, it was too late.
First the toilet incident of yesterday. Now? The [Princess] of Samal hurled, and it spewed out between her fingers as everyone winced or closed their eyes. Rabbiteater dusted off his armor and heard a sob as Telleis stood there, frozen. He patted her on the shoulder as one eye swiveled towards him and held up a thumb.
“Great duel. You want to try again?”
Everyone wanted to challenge Ser Solstice, but duels between the various kingdoms were happening everywhere. It was what Ser Markus referred to as ‘codpiece measuring’, which made Rabbiteater laugh until he was nearly sick.
The outcomes of such duels were often loudly publicized. For instance, Lord Etrogaer had publicly stood nineteen challengers and brought them all down with his bare hands. Serious injuries were to be avoided at all costs, but a few broken bones?
The Thronebearers wisely avoided the duels. They were busy with the thief who continued to elude capture. However—
Another minor incident was occuring. Not in the palace, but on the streets.
One of the Thronebearers was smoking a pipe as he came to a stop, investigating the Watch’s report of a disturbance.
A Dragon was measuring something with a long bit of string, eying the palace, but he too had wandered over as the main street filled with people. The Watch was dispersing them, but it was too late.
“What happened, exactly?”
The Watch Captain indicated a figure slumped over. It was, surprisingly, a [Knight]. Not just any [Knight], but one of Taimaguros’ [Gura Knights].
Weird class. The Dragon peered at the fellow, but he was alive. Just unconscious. The Watch Captain was reciting witness statements.
“Apparently, Ser Thronebearer, another [Knight] challenged him.”
“No, Ser…but this [Knight] declared himself the ‘People’s Champion’. The duel was over Taimaguros’ treatment of the common folk. This [Knight] was roundly insulted, and the two dueled. Whereupon he was apparently knocked senseless in a single blow. And as you can see—”
The Thronebearer winced as he puffed on the pipe. Someone had added insult to injury. The armor of the downed [Gura Knight] was graffitied with insults against Taimaguros’ crown and monarchies in general.
‘No more tyrants.’
‘No more primae noctis and people owning people.’
‘No more arrogant [Kings].’
Someone had prepared well. It was hard to write on armor, so you probably needed a good brush and some steady hands. The Dragon heard the Thronebearer curse softly.
“Get the crowd out of here, and alert the Order if this happens again. And tell the Watch to carefully look for a [Knight] matching this description.”
“In the city now, Ser Knight?”
The Watch Captain was uncomfortable. Even with Ser Solstice, there were so many [Knights]…the Thronebearer just stowed the pipe.
“Then look for someone with impeccable swordsmanship. This is the seventh [Knight]. All taken out with a single blow.”
Now that was interesting. Teriarch finished drawing a line across the street that only he could see. The people were muttering. But the Thronebearers had them dispersing fast. Even so, Teriarch recognized the play. It might not go well in Calanfer, but if word reached Taimaguros, there would be trouble.
The twinned states of Taima and Guros, independent kingdoms joined in unhappy matrimony, suffered from all the pains of a giant nation. Their populace knew more classes than even [Peasant]. There were actual [Peons] there, and that was not an insult but a sadness. The writing on that armor would resonate loudly with more than one nation.
But who was the People’s Champion? Another interloper? The Dragon shook his head. This was a grand meeting of Terandria, and all kinds of motives were coming to light.
Seraphel du Marquin felt poorly for Princess Telleis. Fencer or not, having that happen in public had to hurt for a [Princess].
And yet—she was free. Free in a way Seraphel no longer was. Duchess Greina? The same. Lady Menrise had even begged Rabbiteater into letting her have a go at him. Which was mostly letting him block some enthusiastically poor sword swings as he yawned.
Seraphel hadn’t asked. She was conscious of the Thronebearers watching her. Then Duchess Greina had taken revenge for Telleis and managed, in the middle of an axe-and-sword duel that had gotten quite dirty, to boot Rabbiteater between the legs. Whereupon, despite the pain, he had done the exact same thing to her.
He was popular, needless to say. Cortese and five of the duel-happy nobles of Kaaz had lined up to challenge Rabbiteater, but they’d quit volunteering after Rabbiteater had decided to test everyone’s internal fortitude and will.
…In other words, during duels against all five, he’d made an opening to kick them in the groin as hard as he could, male or female. Only Cortese and the [Lady] had had the will to continue afterwards.
A maniac with the sword. The Thronebearers hadn’t even tried to challenge the other [Knights] and famous warriors on the field. It was Cortese who had promised Rabbiteater to introduce him to one of the Thousand Lances, the greatest [Knights] in the world.
Seraphel fair envied Rabbiteater. She envied all the others…and she was glad she’d told her father her will, even in such weak terms.
But she was still here. And so, the [Princess] could only rebel in small ways. Yet she did rebel.
“I am going to test my Skill. Clear a dueling court for me. Somewhere quiet. Or—if you would like, you may invite an audience.”
She informed one of her servants, and the man practically ran to evacuate a court for Seraphel. As she knew he would.
After all—she was going to use the forbidden Skill.
[Induction: Two of Life, Two of Death].
In truth, as Seraphel headed to the private training court in the evening, she didn’t know if it would even work. Dame Neranthei was here, and Seraphel would induct her if possible, but did she need to induct all four at once? If so, Ser Dalimont would need to be here. And what about…death?
The private practice courts were where you could make mistakes out of the public eye. Each one was a contained room, much like this gymnasium that her father had told her he wanted to build, a Pallassian idea. Not in the palace, or if so, only for guests, but on a national level, perhaps, and certainly for the [Knights].
At any rate, these private workout areas were perfect. And the royal family kept one door locked at all times. Seraphel waited as a servant opened the lock. Dame Neranthei was on the way, and Seraphel was about to tell the servant to find her a zombie to see how far she could push this when she and the manservant heard something.
Someone was within the practice room. Seraphel knew that Reclis sometimes practiced—and the [Princes], those…brothers of hers…had often trained here. Sometimes, a [Princess] would hide here, but this time, it wasn’t Vernoue reading a book.
Someone was actually using the training dummy and practice equipment. Seraphel fell silent, and the servant cracked the door open as a Thronebearer reached for his sword and prepared to sound an alarm. But it wasn’t a thief.
“Hah! Ha! Haaah! Take this!”
Seraphel, the [Servant], and the Thronebearer stared through the open door and saw Aielef, her hair disheveled, wearing a dress, hacking at a training dummy, which rotated when she struck it. She had—even to Seraphel’s limited knowledge of fighting—abysmal form.
Yet she was attacking with commendable vigor. In fact, from the sweat running into her dress, she might have been doing this for a while. She stepped backwards, nearly cracked her head open on the ground as she trod on the hem of her dress, and then surged back into the fight against the dummy with renewed vigor!
“For Calanfer! In the name of Marquin! Take this and this. And—”
She was tossing her head back like a [Battle Princess] of old, triumphant, high on adrenaline. Then she saw Seraphel, the servant, and the Thronebearer watching her.
Seraphel really felt bad. She had pulled worse pranks before—but this was actually unintentional. Aielef had gone still as a ghost, and the servant and Thronebearer immediately fled.
“Your Highness, excuse us.”
Seraphel began, but Aielef had turned beet red. She lowered the sword, hid it behind her back as if she could pretend nothing had happened, and glanced past Seraphel. She snapped, icily hostile at once.
“Did Shardele put you up to this? Just because I chased her out of here?”
“Shard—no, of course not! Is this where she smokes everything, now? I should have known. I was going to practice a Skill.”
Aielef’s fury at being made fun of turned to embarrassment. Then back to fury. She had tears in her eyes.
“Well—go ahead and laugh! I know it’s a foolish thing, but they called me Aielef the Fierce, and you were the one who rode out against an army. I know I was a coward, and—even I can be inspired! Even if it will never come to be.”
She sniffed and averted her face. Seraphel hid her hands behind her back and squeezed her fingers tightly as she bit her tongue. Aielef, mother of three—it was harder to see who was more ashamed.
“I wouldn’t mock you, Aielef. Throne knows, I’ve wanted to wield a sword too. And I’ve seen masters. Were you—actually intending on gaining a [Warrior] class?”
Aielef didn’t respond. Seraphel had thought she would be relieved by the end of the war and return to normalcy after Kaliv nearly being overrun. But she was astonished to see tears leaking from Aielef’s eyes. Her older sister, so—so—bossy and—
“I blame Shardele for all of this.”
Aielef’s voice wobbled. Seraphel instantly agreed.
“Shardele. Obviously. She—she revealed the third kitchen and nearly got me and Vernoue in the lobster water just yesterday.”
“That vacuous bitch.”
Aielef sniffed, wiped at her eyes, and saw Seraphel looking away. The [Princesses] exchanged another glance, and Seraphel almost thought she saw Aielef. In a way—she had known less of Aielef than Rabbiteater. But before Seraphel could say anything more—
“I say, is everyone practicing at this late hour? What’s going on—Your Highnesses.”
Seraphel’s heart sank. Aielef tried to hide behind the practice dummy, but it was too late.
More visitors had come to avail themselves of the lit indoor courts. And so Seraphel and Aielef turned to meet—Dame Talia and several [Summer Knights], including the famous Dame Voost, the great swordswoman of the Order of Seasons. Also, Ser Markus and Dame Meisa and Rabbiteater. Both groups were independent, and, in fact, joined by Princess Telleis and Hundredlord Cortese and a number of martially-minded nobles, possibly to practice in secret to defeat Rabbiteater.
All of them had come here after the banquet. And all of them saw Aielef and Seraphel and…Rabbiteater pointed at Aielef. The [Princess] of Calanfer froze as the Goblin chuckled in his visor.
“Your form sucks.”
Aielef turned pale and ducked her head. Seraphel swung around, and the Seraphel of old, the 4th Princess of Calanfer came out.
Not Seraphel the Diligent or Seraphel the Brave as some of the [Bards] wanted to rebrand her. This was Seraphel the Sharp-Tongued, sister to Calanfer’s [Princesses].
Also, Seraphel of the Right-Handed Slap.
Her ghostly hand passed straight through Rabbiteater’s visor and encountered a cheek. A—cheek? She felt skin, not scales or fur. Was he actually Human—?
The slap made Rabbiteater stagger. Then Seraphel jerked her hand back.
“Ser Solstice, I—”
Thronebearers appeared, interposing themselves between the Goblin Slayer and Seraphel as he staggered. Rabbiteater rubbed at his face as the others exclaimed. He looked up as Seraphel breathed hard.
“Don’t—don’t make fun of her.”
Aielef was looking at her younger sister, wide-eyed. Seraphel stood there and saw the Goblin Slayer raise his helmet. He looked at her as Markus, Meisa, and Talia all grabbed him in case he tried punching a [Princess]. The Goblin looked around and then, annoyed, pointed at Aielef again. Half the Thronebearers tensed, but all Rabbiteater did was crook his finger.
“Don’t hold your sword like that. Let me through, and I’ll show you how to hold it. And kick someone in the balls. Works even if they don’t have them.”
The Thronebearers stirred. Rabbiteater adjusted his helmet and gave Seraphel a long look. Then another thumbs-up.
“Nice trick. Next time, use a dagger? Powerful Skill.”
He tried to step forwards, but a Thronebearer blocked him with one arm. One of Ielane’s hand-picked guards.
Dame Vensha. A name the entire royal family knew and feared. That was to say—high-level, capable of ordering [Princesses] around, and female. A tough old woman, so there wasn’t a chance of impropriety.
She scared Seraphel almost as much as Ielane. And her voice was polite, but firm.
“Princess Aielef was amusing herself, Ser Solstice. I pray you, forget this moment for the dignity of Calanfer’s crown. She is not aiming towards any warrior class.”
It sounded like an echo of Ielane. Aielef ducked her head, and Rabbiteater peered at the arm in front of him.
“Wow. I knew Thronebearers were good, but you can even read Aielef’s mind. Your [Throw Voice] Skill sucks, though.”
He glanced up as Cortese inhaled—in delight, Seraphel thought. She felt the same way. The old [Knight] smiled coldly.
“Beg pardon, Ser Solstice. Please desist.”
She glanced over her shoulder, and like a perfect [Actor], Aielef knew her lines without even reading them. She came forwards, handing the sword to a servant as her hair was straightened and a perfume applied by a bevy of her people. None of them looked at Aielef, perhaps preparing to sell the lie that this never happened.
And yet…Seraphel saw her own servant, Beacle, helping dress Aielef. And she saw, just for a second, a flicker of something. Scorn? Or perhaps…? Aielef bowed to Ser Solstice apologetically.
“It was my fault. Let us leave it at that.”
“Fault? Were you training or playing? If you were training—I will teach you how to hold a sword. You painted a picture of me at the keep. Good trade.”
Seraphel blinked. Aielef still painted in her keep? She had thought her sister had given up that hobby long ago.
Aielef hesitated. She shook her head as the old Thronebearer motioned her sideways subtly.
“I wouldn’t want to disrupt your training, Ser Knights, guests, with my fanciful nonsense. It behooves you all to practice even as guests of Calanfer. Excuse me.”
Head bowed, she began to walk left, flanked by Calanfer’s staff. Seraphel vibrated—but she didn’t know what to say, and one look from her old nanny made her go quiet.
Until someone spoke up.
“Begging your pardon, Princess Aielef. But if you would like to hold a sword, you are never too old. I was twenty-three when I picked up a blade. Nor can I claim I am that diligent at practice and training. Say, rather, I was inspired. Inspired and humbled by the last great event of the war I participated in.”
The ranks of watchers parted, and a woman strode forth. Younger than the white-haired Thronebearer, but older than most [Summer Knights] in her company.
Dame Voost. She was the great expert of the Summer Knights—and that was about all Seraphel knew of her since she hadn’t arrived at the keep during the siege.
And yet, the woman stood there, and something caught Seraphel’s gaze. Dame Voost had hair that had no product to make it glossy. It looked like hazel turning slowly to iron. She had a scar on one cheek, and yet, she hardly seemed like an iron maiden. She blazed with a youth that was so well-remembered it still was reality.
Summer’s child. A woman for blazing days and great deeds. And she spoke to those congregated here.
“I do not know, friends, if you saw or witnessed the last great battle at Ailendamus’ gates. I was there, but few speak of it directly.”
“How could we not have seen it, Dame Knight?”
Hundredlord Cortese spoke, sounding fascinated. Dame Voost sketched a bow towards him.
“Then perhaps you saw the apparitions which came to us.”
“Naturally. [Historians] and [Bards] and the like still argue over whether or not the spirits were…accurate to form. And what it might mean, of course. Their like has not been seen again, but I would wager every kingdom had seen—something. One hears stories. A fantastical day. A mystery.”
The Hundredlord hesitated as he replied, and that great doubt entered his voice. Seraphel had met ghosts before then. Even she wondered if it had been real.
She had known great ghosts of old—but the ones who had come to the battlefield were too real. They had been the first [Kings] and [Queens] of old. So many legends that it beggared belief. If one had come and spoken omens, that would have been more believable.
In this mundane event, as Seraphel’s left buttock itched—it did not seem to be the same reality as the one Queen Marquin had inhabited. However, Dame Voost’s voice was steady as she replied.
“Do you say so, Hundredlord? For I would swear upon Summer’s heat and my very class and soul that they were those great legends. Each and every one. I locked blades with a swordmaster whose name I did not know. And while his sword cut me in naught but spirit—I have begrudged every passing moment, even visiting the Eternal Throne, that has kept me away from what I must do. Which is practice. Practice for the greatest war to ever come, for a battle my entire Order is not ready for. Like a [Squire] standing before one of the Thousand Lances, I was ashamed. And I still am. If Princess Aielef feels the need to train—with respect to the Eternal Throne, I say let her.”
The company of people fell silent. Seraphel herself caught her voice at Voost’s tone. Polite, as careful and considered as Ser Solstice was not—and because of that, even more of a brick smashing through half a dozen windows.
“Dame Knight. Your words were direct and inspirational. I shall convey them to their Majesties, but I have my orders.”
The older Thronebearer replied so fast that Seraphel wondered if she’d heard—but then, maybe it was to stop everyone from considering Dame Voost’s statement. She motioned Aielef away, and Seraphel nudged her arm.
Just a bit, and she froze when the Thronebearer looked at her. But that was enough. One of the Spring Knights, Dame Meisa, spoke.
“Dame Voost is correct. Though I do not know of Calanfer’s affairs, I was there, and I felt helpless before the battle I saw waged unseen. With respect, Dame Thronebearer.”
She bowed, and the old Thronebearer’s smile was…pained.
“This is all true, and I do not doubt what you saw. However, Princess Aielef was not at the battle. What she saw was merely on a scrying orb, and this entire matter is overblown. I believe we shall all laugh of it later. What, pray, is the concern?”
She turned and ran right into a smile. The Thronebearer bounced off Duchess Greina’s aura and stepped back before catching herself. The [Duchess] spoke calmly.
“That would be—whether or not Princess Aielef has a mind to practice swordplay. For if she does, I too have seen the great ghosts of old. I stood in Noelictus’ throneroom as a Tombwarden warned us of a terrible battle. Neither I nor any there spoke of it. We felt ashamed, as though repeating fever dreams. Now? I am twice shamed.”
There was a murmur from others. Altestiel, Cortese—Seraphel saw, even in her growing feeling of—something, that more than one person had seen something that day.
Yet the Thronebearer was good at her job. She stepped forwards, took Aielef’s shoulder, and, ignoring Greina’s aura, pushed away.
“Your pardon, guests.”
Aielef was hesitating. Until someone glanced right, glanced left, and started for Aielef.
Rabbiteater. Five Thronebearers blocked his path, and the [Champion] tried to walk through them. They had to struggle—politely—to stop him. But Aielef was being led away, right until the Thronebearer Vensha felt a hand on her shoulder.
She stopped, turned, and looked into the Summer Champion’s gaze. Ser Greysten smiled like summer’s fire.
“Ser Greysten. Will the Summer’s Champion interfere in Calanfer’s will like he did against Ailendamus? That would be a poor precedent.”
Dame Vensha spoke softly. But Ser Greysten just dipped his head without looking at her. Aielef looked back, and the Summer’s Champion called out.
“Just so long as you, Dame Knight, do not deny that Queen Marquin the Radiant stood with Princess Seraphel against Ailendamus. So long as you do not say you didn’t see Lord Veltras himself ride against his descendant of ages! Say it is not so, Dame Knight! Or I would take you and every man or woman here to a duel as bloody as any Kaaz could imagine. For I do not doubt it.”
He turned, and Seraphel remembered looking up at a giant of a woman staring down at her. She found her hands were trembling.
“I would not deny it, Ser Greysten! But perhaps only the Order of Seasons was so convinced? I thought all who were present witnessed the same thing!”
Ser Markus volunteered. The other Order of Seasons murmured agreement, and then someone spoke up. One of the Thronebearers blocking Rabbiteater abruptly stepped back. And with a shaking voice, the man spoke.
“I was there. And if that is the question asked, Summer’s Champion—I would never deny I saw Queen Marquin. I would sooner deny the Eternal Throne’s existence. It was her.”
Seraphel felt a chill in her veins. She turned, and Seraphel’s eyes sought out the young man’s. He had blonde hair and tears in his wintergreen eyes.
“I would have gone after her. If only I could. I would have followed her wherever she went. She looked at me but once. I thought I was mad and held that moment inside me, even to my sworn comrades in arms. Because I cannot reconcile that day with now. I feel the mountains should have cracked.”
“They did. But only on Izril.”
Altestiel murmured. Then someone else spoke up.
“I stood next to a boy in Pheislant’s army. A warrior wearing a stag’s helm sought him out and told him he looked like his son. He told him of a long-lost keep, buried, and I was never the more jealous of any man or woman. That was but one of the things I saw—and I witnessed Dame Voost dueling with a ghost. I wish to believe it was real—but can I? If so, why have I stayed here, admiring the Eternal Throne and hoping to court the [Duchess] Greina and Princess Telleis?”
Seraphel turned. It was Ser Lorell, who scrubbed his hands through his hair. He looked up, saw Greina and Telleis looking at him, and went on, without even really seeing them.
“I should have thrown myself off a cliff. Not to die, but to learn to fly! Journeyed to Rhir and thrown myself against Demons that I might be half the level they ask of me. But was it real?”
Ser Greysten, Voost, and the Thronebearer chorused. Seraphel looked around and then spoke in a tremulous voice, though Vensha’s eyes dared her not to.
“I saw Queen Marquin.”
The words didn’t come out. Like before, she tried to say them, but this time, it was not fear that held her tongue. It was a hand.
Vensha. The words struggled in her mouth, and, outraged, Seraphel tried to speak them. But the old Thronebearer had Skills all to one purpose. Seraphel struggled—and Aielef looked at her sister. She stared at Vensha and then glanced down.
The Thronebearer wore all armor. So Aielef gave up on stamping on her foot and pointed.
“The thief! My tiara!”
Vensha’s head swung around despite herself. Seraphel spoke.
“I saw Queen Marquin. But what—what am I supposed to do?”
Every head turned to her. Seraphel spoke her confession aloud, almost in tears.
“I was there, like you all. But if it was true—I sympathize with Ser Lorell. How is that day real if the most mundane of moments like being trapped on a privy for two hours is also real?”
Dame Talia’s mouth was open. Even Ser Greysten’s lips twitched. Yet that was the folly of Humans.
That day, even remembering that day made Seraphel’s heart race. It felt like fire, racing through your veins. A calling. It sounded like the Dragonward bells ringing a hundred times in your ears and Khelt screaming war a world across.
It was the most alive Seraphel had ever felt, like riding with the flag of Calanfer in her hands as she saw Rabbiteater fighting ahead of her. Life and death.
A hundred ghosts kneeling in repose before the Lord and Lady of Afiele and a [Singer].
But could you believe it in mundanity? How did you believe in the impossible without faith? And faith was such a hard concept in this world of dead gods.
The Goblin knew. He looked around, and Rabbiteater’s gaze found such familiar, silly faces. Doubt and wonder and disbelief, until it threatened to draw tears from your eyes. So he gave them this: a Goblin’s wisdom for those catching up to what he knew.
“It was real.”
Every head turned to him. The [Princesses], Dame Voost, Talia, and the others. The Goblin smiled and looked back at memories. More than one. It was unbelievable—that day. Oh yes, he had not expected the ghosts, nor could he reconcile the [Princess] who had knighted him. Or all the rest.
But he had gone through such days before. Days as strange as a handful of Goblins, monsters, fighting for a Human. Someone welcoming him into the inn. The sky falling.
Dueling a Goblin Lord. So he looked around and met Altestiel’s gaze, Cortese’s, and Seraphel’s.
“You’ll believe next time.”
How they stirred at that. Then they began to understand. Rabbiteater went on urgently, pointing at Aielef, hesitating.
“You’ll believe next time. But you’ll miss it. Again and again, unless you’re ready. So be ready. Someday, your time will be all out. And then what? Do something, anything. Stupid.”
He looked right at Seraphel as he said that. But like a good brawler, his swing went wide and hit everyone. From the Humans listening, the [Knights], the [Princesses], he even hit the Dragon.
Everyone fell silent as they thought of this. Aielef slowly pushed down Vensha’s arm, and it was that simple. After all—the Thronebearer could not drag her off by force. But that little gesture…
Someone spoke challengingly. Of all the people, it was Hundredlord Cortese. He gave Rabbiteater a suspicious look.
“Then—if you did believe, Ser Solstice. How has that day not changed you?”
He pointed accusatorially at Rabbiteater, who had been doing everything normally. The Goblin looked at him. Then he threw back his head.
How he laughed.
Each and every night began the same for Rabbiteater and his friends. Ser Markus and Dame Meisa stood in a practice court at midnight—like they did before dawn as well. Exhaustion was in their bones, and their bones were doubtless cracked. For no one had been drinking healing potions.
This was not because the Goblin understood how potions limited the growth of a body. Nor was it any masterful plan worked up by a master [Trainer] or [Instructor]. He was fumbling, if not in the way he carefully showed them how to exchange hand-to-hand blows in the Redfang style or took on both in a fistfight—then mentally. Spiritually.
Fumbling forwards, like a man grasping in the dark for something he thought was there. The next level. The next step in a long journey as wildly ambitious and arrogant as any dream mortals had ever conceived.
To the Dragon—who watched, unseen, among the three [Princesses], the nobility, and other [Knights]—the Goblin’s journey was, again, familiar.
Again and again, they rose. What marked Rabbiteater apart from the other [Knights] was that his fumbling, his search in the dark was urgent. Some, like Ser Lorell, barely believed in what they had seen. Others, like Dame Voost, had a goal. She practiced the same forms again and again, straining to replicate the moves of a true master.
But Rabbiteater? He let Meisa take on Duchess Greina barehanded, left the younger [Knights] of the Season of Spring to perfect fighting with different weapons against dirty tricks. Ser Markus swung wildly, then remembered to control himself, putting his back against the wall. He was blindfolded.
Even Hundredlord Cortese felt the need to take it easy on Markus as he played the role of an attacker. Rabbiteater? He walked past Markus and booted him in the back as hard as he could. No one took it easy on you when an adventurer cast [Blindness] on a Redfang.
Then he stood silent for a while. The Hobgoblin stared at something he had seen. A [Princess] with fangs longer than his, perhaps. A war unseen. The first [Queen] of Calanfer. Or perhaps just a half-Giantess’ smile. The Great General of Ailendamus.
He could take his pick. Perhaps it was Tyrion Veltras riding across the Floodplains or the Goblin Lord. Did he listen to a [General]’s voice?
Not even the Dragon could know. But…Teriarch’s heart pounded a bit painfully, and it did beat louder than it had in his cave. As if reminding him how weary it was.
But look. See there. See how he stands. Whether or not he made it, Ser Solstice stood like men and women who had followed that insane dream. A naive dream, in another reality. A dream only possible with machines and armies.
Here? A precious few like that had once gone on to challenge Giants and Dragons. Even then, they lost, facing foes as old as time with all the cunning and pride equal to their enemies.
But they kept coming. So the old Dragon thought he saw a spark. Like someone striking flint to steel. It was a burning piece of an aura, a bright flame like bravery.
It grew upon a memory of home. Hearth and bravery, and in the Goblin’s mind, one could not exist without the other. A [Knight], a [Champion], had to have a cause. And—Rabbiteater’s head rose.
If you could not protect it, you would lose that home. Someday.
His control over his aura was improving faster than anyone could imagine. Two auras, feeding off each other, began to burn brighter. Was he grinning behind that helmet? Of course he was. The Dragon didn’t have to cast a spell to see through the helmet to see that smile.
It was the same as the one mirroring him. The Summer’s Champion drew an axe, and the Goblin Slayer stepped forwards. Their auras began to clash, and the heat of summer pressed around Rabbiteater.
He knew what to do, even if he didn’t know how. Challenge himself. The two figures turned slightly, and the roaring heat of Ser Greysten’s aura ran into a storm. Rather than turn to steam or clash—it just made Earl Altestiel’s own aura into a summer tempest, like a hot, tropical monsoon at sea. He had one hand raised, and water ran down his sword arm, trickled around his boots, as if an unseen rainstorm were already falling. Soon—it would become a treacherous current.
Altestiel had put on armor for this moment. He was focused and no longer laughing, the eye of his own storm.
Pitted in the far corner, the fourth contender, the [Princess] Telleis swallowed. Her own aura, made up of impossible barriers and piercing insights—lock and key—flickered. Rabbiteater and Ser Greysten, flanking her on either side, saw the weakness. Both of them went for her as Altestiel raised an arm. A tidal wave swept across the room. Ser Greysten turned, and then there was an explosion of steam.
“Eternal Throne! Your Highness!”
A Thronebearer shielded the [Princesses], Seraphel and Aielef, and the spectators threw up their hands. However—neither [Princess] would leave. Nor did Dame Vensha have the means to compel them, not in this hour between dusk and midnight. There was something so fervent in the eyes. Even—Aielef learning how to swing a sword properly.
Perhaps it was reflected in Beacle’s gaze or even some of the Thronebearers. Beyond the adoration for their [Princesses], more than love of nation. A bit of respect for someone chasing that dream.
Still, Seraphel du Marquin sat there and watched the [Knights] charging forth. Presently, she rose and accepted a wand from Lady Menrise to show her the few spells a [Princess] learned. She looked around, triumphantly unhappy, because she had to know that Dame Vensha was speaking with her parents. This oasis of rebellion would not last.
As for Teriarch? He stood there awhile, watching. Wondering, perhaps, how long ago it had been since these emotions had run through his blood.
“I am old. And mighty. I have seen it all before and given lifespans even as my people know it, only to see it all fall apart.”
He whispered, like a confession only to himself. Only—it sounded like an excuse, even to his ears. He was reminded of the raging Wyrm, arrogant and selfish and young. The curious mix of Lucifen and Agelum, clinging together at the end of myth.
What was wrong with him? He touched his chest and felt more than a weariness from his ages of sleep. He truly was missing something. Part of Teriarch had gone out and set fire to Wistram. In contempt for what they had forgotten, in passion for a better world.
It had never come back. Though magic had restored his heart—what was left in the Dragon? Regrets and memories. But he had to fulfill his promises.
He had to fly. So, like a long-lost traveller seeking the road back, Teriarch watched the Goblin and the mortals on the start of their long road. Plotting his great journey.
That night, a figure slipped through the palace, hunting for items to be stolen. The Thief. She was flitting from balcony to balcony, performing leaps as long as thirty feet, then stealthing out of sight, waiting until no one could see her before she continued.
She had a list, and even though she had revealed herself once, her reign of terror over the rich was not over. She was just creeping over to a room in the Mercuous Suite and listening to the sound of snoring from within.
Aha. Not everything she wanted was an artifact. This was about prestige. And there was nothing more prestigious than learning who this ‘Ser Solstice’ was. Information was a type of currency in her markets, and this would net her a tidy profit.
She heard two breaths from within. But both were tired out from their training, and she made not a sound as she slowly unlatched the balcony doors. Rabbiteater’s suite looked out onto the gardens, and a pair of drapes blew as the [Thief] put her hand to the window.
She was good. A Dragon was eating chips he’d stolen from the kitchens as he peered up at her from the gardens. He shuffled sideways a bit to make room for everyone.
Good enough to have a Skill that let her remotely manipulate the door latch through the window. A low-grade telekinesis. Someone had trained this [Thief].
…But she was still in Calanfer. So what was interesting to him was not so much her theft of the Goblin’s helmet, which he might have objected to. He was really curious how she was going to get out of this one.
The [Thief] had just raised the latch when the blowing curtains on the balcony shifted. She looked sideways, and Dame Vensha swung.
The blade would have beheaded the [Thief]. She didn’t react fast enough, but even as her eyes were widening, she ducked. It was an automatic reaction. Teriarch saw the [Thief] roll out of the way as Vensha lifted the blade and prepared for a thrust, but she was already running for the balcony.
Nor was that her Skill. [Plan: Emergency Dodge].
Interesting. There were no less than six people in the gardens who’d been watching the [Thief]. Minders. Her team saw the Thronebearer appear and then a dozen others leap out of the shrubbery.
“Thronebearers! We’re made! Get to the escape route!”
A worried voice called out, muffled by a hood. Instantly, a pair of figures drew enchanted blades and began fighting with the Thronebearers coming at them. They fell back instantly; the Thronebearers weren’t the best fighters, but these were anti-criminal specialists.
[Preferred Enemy: Rogues]. But whomever this [Mastermind] or [Plotter] was, they’d hired good backup. Teriarch cast [Appraisal], and it failed.
“[Greater Appraisal]. Whoops.”
He shuffled sideways, fanning his wings, as Dame Vensha leapt from the balcony after the [Thief]. She was fleeing with her escort. Teriarch’s eyes narrowed.
“Aha. [Storm Sailors]. No, wait. What does that mean? ”
He eyed the cloaked figures holding off the Thronebearers. Then the [Thief].
“Interesting leg. Interesting Skill.”
Now it all made sense. She was good, but Dame Vensha nearly had her—until the [Thief]’s escape turned into a blaze of speed and crackling light. She blasted past the Thronebearers, who gave chase. No wonder they couldn’t catch her. She might not be on the level she needed to be—but that Skill was. He wondered how she’d gotten it.
Five minutes later, a sleepy Goblin stumbled to the balcony in full armor and looked around. He stared at the empty garden, back at Meisa, and grumbled.
He could have sworn he heard something.
The following day, Calanfer was abuzz with gossip. Not just because the Eternal Throne was going to announce a proposition for the gathered nations, but because word had spread about the passionate duels going on in secret.
“‘Duels’ is a fine word for it. I should like to see Kaaz’s nobles have a sack put over their head and be beat about with sticks!”
Ser Markus rubbed at his copious bruises as he scarfed down food. Redfang training left you with a tremendous appetite. Rabbiteater nodded as he grumpily sucked soup through a straw. He could and did ask for food in his rooms, but he missed the social aspect of it.
Altestiel just chuckled as he rubbed at one shoulder. He felt his older age and was envious of the younger men and women.
“I believe they would enjoy that.”
“Earl! I object!”
Cortese began to stand up, and Altestiel threw a breakfast bun at him. It bounced off Lady Menrise’s helmet, and the lion, Baeris, chased after it. Altestiel instantly flushed, but Lady Menrise put her hands to her helmet’s sides as if they were cheeks.
“Oh dear, Earl Altestiel. You flirt so directly. Is all of Desonis like that?”
Some of the soup came out of Rabbiteater’s visor. Greysten began choking on his own mouthful of food. The breakfast table was as merry as could be.
How Seraphel wanted to sit with them. Instead, she was dining with Aielef, Vernoue, and the rest of the [Princesses] present as well as Ielane and Reclis. The royal family was waiting for their final guests to arrive.
Also—Aielef and Seraphel were in hot water, and Ielane was speaking in the privacy spells set up while appearing to be amused, casual, and relaxed.
“—Now that you have countermanded Vensha, you will return to this nonsense of training. And if you are so insistent upon fitness—a rarity for both of you, which we wish you had pursued while you were younger—you may forgo dessert and the snacks you are so fond of, Aielef. To better guide your growth.”
Aielef was silent, chewing on her food as her two daughters looked at the matriarch of the family and poked at their plates. Seraphel chomped down on her own brioche bun, laden with more food than usual. Exercising really did produce a lot of muscle pain—everywhere.
She barely reacted to the ban on sweets and desserts. That tended to work on [Princesses] who were not close to thirty or older. Well…if Ielane banned Dreamleaf, it would probably work on Shardele.
The [Queen] seemed displeased by the lack of reaction, but then, this ‘public’ dressing down had a lot of targets as usual. An anxious voice interrupted the [Queen] on Reclis’ left side.
“Mother, sister Seraphel and Aielef are trying very hard. Shouldn’t they get one or two sweets? None at all sounds—m-mean.”
Seraphel turned, and even she and Aielef smiled at the girl sitting and nibbling on grapes. Ellet du Marquin, the 7th Princess of Calanfer, was young, cute, and earnest. Even her sisters didn’t bully her since she was in the innocent phase. Ielane, however, just turned to Ellet and smiled…ish.
“A [Princess] must perform her duties to enjoy all the luxuries of her station, Ellet. Your older sisters have been—naughty.”
The childish phrasing sounded awkward in her mouth. Shardele, Vernoue, both were silent as they ate, though Vernoue looked sympathetic, and Shardele seemed to be enjoying this. Aielef muttered to Seraphel out of the corner of her mouth, using a [Discrete Murmur] Skill.
“I believe I shall have Kaliv go after Shardele’s contraband [Smuggler].”
Seraphel lifted her cup and twitched her pinkie slightly, which made Aielef hide her own lift of the lips.
Anyways, Ellet seeing Ielane dressing down her older sisters was fairly rare. But even rarer was the straight-backed young man sitting next to Vernoue.
Prince Lothen, the 2nd Prince of Calanfer and, technically, 4th oldest just after Menisi, spoke with a curt voice.
“Do try not to emulate your older sisters, especially Lyonette, Ellet. Their affection towards the kingdom waxes and wanes unbefitting of their station.”
Reclis reproved him with a word, and the [Prince] ducked his head instantly as the nervous [Princess] looked at her rarely-seen brother. Reclis changed the subject directly. He spoke candidly since this was not a public moment.
“It is not the poorest thing to inspire a nation via valorous conduct. I’ve often regretted my failure to earn a Silver-bell or distinguish myself martially. However, the personal attributes of a ruler shapes the rule unduly…”
He was musing about the personal nuance of a class that a [King] could have. Any second, his son and daughters knew, he was going to bring up the King of Destruction. Or the Blighted King. Or the King of Duels. However, Lothen seemed to take this as a critique.
“—I have made some displays in Avel, Father. However, they value the bow more than the sword.”
“Hm? No, of course you have. How does fair Avel?”
Lothen cut another square of food away. He had excellent posture. But then, the good [Prince] often did.
Three [Princes] for the seven princesses. They were seen far more seldom than their sisters, and two were among the oldest of the siblings. That was for a good reason. You could say that, ah, Ielane’s methods of teaching her children had been a work in progress. She’d had a harder time with Shardele, Agenote, Menisi, and Lothen.
It showed. Lothen was the good son. He had four children and a tie to one of Avel’s own earldoms. He was so straight-backed that Seraphel had wondered if she pushed him too hard if he’d snap like poor Agenote.
Gaiil-Drome. The half-Elven kingdom of the forests. He seemed happy. As for Kanmis, the youngest, just older than Lyonette? Well, he’d taken the lessons better than his older brothers.
Even so, Taimaguros had eaten him. Metaphorically. Lothen replied to Reclis directly and in the most unsatisfying of manners.
“The [King] is—entertaining as always. It is hard to gain his attention, but I have made several inroads in court. I delivered a missive.”
“Yes, yes, and you are quite thorough. But how do you feel King Itreimedes views the war in Ailendamus?”
“Negatively. Avel did declare war as I successfully convinced him after the battle—”
“No, no, philosophically. He has his views on the strength of the coastline. Did, mm, Pheislant’s involvement seem to adjust his temperament or was it more of seeing…?”
Seraphel had introduced none of her siblings to Rabbiteater and her newfound friends, but she might introduce Ellet to them if she had the chance. Certainly not Lothen. Knowing him, he might try just because it would behoove him to meet Ser Solstice. Maybe he’d even make the mistake of asking for a duel, in which case Rabbiteater might oblige.
Here was all you needed to know about Lothen. As part of his class, he had gained—after his marriage to Avel’s [Countess]—the Skill called [Hints of Affection]. Which was probably the only reason why his marriage was still in good order. He could play his part well so long as someone held up cue cards.
Anyways. Seraphel saw Rabbiteater getting up and stretching, and she began to eat faster. Ielane stared at her, then Ser Solstice, and spoke.
“The emissary of Erribathe is arriving, Seraphel. We shall see you at the reception.”
There was no need to say ‘or else’ in front of Ellet. Seraphel patted her lips with a napkin and smiled. Politely. So long as Rabbiteater and the Order of Seasons were here and the banquet continued, she could have actual fun.
And when they left? What then? Marriage or being sent on tour? Perhaps Cara would come and sing her away. Or perhaps she should do something rather than wait. But that was the thing.
Lyonette had run away successfully because her servants had disliked her so much they’d covered her escape. She had also, frankly, done a great job at hiding her plans and organizing her exit.
Seraphel? She turned her head and saw Dame Vensha stepping out of the line of Thronebearers. Aielef looked at Seraphel as a red-haired ‘[Princess]’ looked up.
“Farewell, Seraphel. I trust you’ll have a fine day with Ser Solstice!”
Lyonette’s body-double smiled demurely as Seraphel rolled her eyes. But she looked back and saw Reclis and Ielane glancing her way.
No, the 4th Princess of Calanfer could not run so easily. They would bring her back if she tried. So how else? Seraphel walked, head turning as if trying to escape a cage. But this was Calanfer.
The very walls were made of ancient stone and magic. Unbreakable.
Rabbiteater was of a mind to have fun today. You had fun in the day, beat each other with sticks at night. If he must be stuck in Calanfer, he would rather see Seraphel laugh.
She was the gloomiest of the Shitty Five.
“Don’t call us that.”
Earl Altestiel looked askance at the name. Rabbiteater tried again as they walked out of the palace into the city.
“How about—the Crappy Five?”
“Do we need a name that refers to that incident, Ser Solstice?”
Cortese muttered. Rabbiteater just thought it sounded good. He had a…nostalgia for the number five. But it was also true that Seraphel was the gloomy one.
“Gloomy? I fair think the [Princess] is far more outgoing than Kaaz’s own royal family.”
Cortese was blind. He was the dupe, the innocent one. When Rabbiteater told him that, the Hundredlord reached for his longsword in outrage. But Lady Menrise stopped him.
“You’re the direct fellow, Cortese. I get that. Who am I in your list, Ser Rabbit?”
She teased him, and Rabbiteater grinned.
“You’re the funny one.”
“Aha! Well and truly spoken! So Seraphel is Miss Gloom, or at least, the one who needs most cheering. And you would be…?”
“The mysterious one.”
Altestiel grunted. He waited, smiling expectantly.
“Which would leave me as the handsome heartbreaker? The experienced leader? The romantic strategist?”
“No. You’re the emotional one. I heard you cried when Erin rejected you.”
The Earl of Rains froze up—then his face turned into a thunderhead. Rabbiteater and Menrise high-fived and skipped ahead as Cortese laughed. Then Seraphel hurried over.
“What have I missed?”
She gave him an astonished look, and the [Earl] was protesting the entire walk out of the palace. Of course, there was Ser Markus and Meisa, Talia and Greysten, and the others they knew, but the Ivory Five made it a point to meet up.
Mind you, it wasn’t five. That was just how it felt. There were people on the street bowing to Seraphel and asking for autographs—and probably no less than two dozen Thronebearers and servants, including Beacle, but Cortese and Seraphel barely noticed them.
Even Altestiel and Menrise were at home, as all of them were used to having staff around them, but it weirded Rabbiteater out. And he was a Goblin growing up in a tribe! He supposed that the difference was that he was used to being surrounded—but the Goblins had opinions and wants.
Seraphel and the other four Humans sometimes seemed to forget the security and other people existed. They only had eyes and laughter for their friends, and it was a fair obsession that drew them together.
Because—probably—they wouldn’t have this moment again, and it seemed all of them knew it.
“What is the most interesting thing in Calanfer at this moment, Your Highness? Something even the Earl would call new. I don’t often visit the ports, so I am well entertained, but Tourvecall does keep up with the curios, and Ser Solstice is widely-travelled.”
Cortese challenged Seraphel, and the [Princess] pursed her lips.
“What am I, a [Bard] tour guide, Hundredlord?”
He hesitated, and Rabbiteater nudged Menrise.
“See? She’s also the sassy one.”
Instantly, Seraphel poked him, and he jumped a good foot in the air, much to Altestiel’s delight. She was the only one who could do that and so countered his flippancy. He grumbled, wishing he were inured to poking. Goblins did it all the time, but wearing armor had made him soft. However, Seraphel did have an answer.
“There are those plays from Izril, but we have no Players of Celum—just every [Bard] and [Troubadour] in the world. Fanciful, but we could simply watch those recordings if we had a mind to it.”
She wounded the local performers airily, but Rabbiteater nodded.
“Yeah. You see the Players of Celum once and the other ones are bad.”
Altestiel didn’t look surprised, but the other three gave Rabbiteater an astonished look. He sighed. Everyone was always astonished that he’d ‘seen the Players of Celum at the start’. He wished that he’d seen them later. The start hadn’t been that great!
“Then—what about in lieu of our training, we visit an Adventure Room™?”
Seraphel pronounced the word in such a way that instantly, everyone was curious. She pointed to a rather flashy building, even by Calanfer’s standards. It had…what looked like a mural of a furious monster? Some kind of thing with lots of heads and eyeballs fighting a generic-looking warrior, impractically bare-chested, holding a greatsword while a [Mage] that looked suspiciously like Telim cast a fireball behind him. Rabbiteater stared blankly at it—then when he heard what it was about, he practically dragged everyone there.
The Adventure Room was a giant warehouse converted into, well, a magical reality zone. Like virtual reality, but you didn’t wear a headset, and it was illusion magic, not technological achievement that provided the dungeon you would enter and monsters you would vanquish.
Mind you, there was a lot of technology in it. This was a new trial, but Calanfer was one of the places Wistram thought they’d find a lot of varied clients, and they were right. There was a huge queue, and Seraphel skipped it for the five.
Rabbiteater was excited to see the Adventure Room—right up until he realized he couldn’t use his axe. He instead was given an enchanted, blunt sword, which was way too light, and an enthusiastic [Mage] told him he had 70 HP. And 50 SP for special attacks since he’d chosen a [Berserker] build.
“We could give Her Highness an unlimited class-set…”
One of the supervisors offered, but Seraphel decided to be a [Knight]. Altestiel got a bow, but no arrows—the [Mage] showed him how to fire it.
“You’ll just loose arrows by pulling the string back and releasing, Earl. This is all—illusory, so please, don’t damage the walls.”
“Fake monsters? Fake weapons? I hardly know if I shall enjoy this.”
Cortese looked offended. Menrise? She was delightedly raising a staff. She got to play as a [Mage], complete with a list of spells you could read off a scroll. Rabbiteater was about to agree with Cortese, but the five lined up.
“You are entering the Dungeon of Thorut-Vergash. The great tomb of the Horrific Thorut himself. His minions will assail you, and his traps guard bounties of treasure. Each time you descend, you will level up and gain more abilities. If you are cunning, you will find Relic-class weapons to defeat Thorut. Beware though—few have ever made it to him and triumphed. Current conquerors of Thorut: 15.”
A [Mage] was reading from a notecard, making his voice sound spooky and echoey. Then they motioned the group into the warehouse proper, and the door closed behind them. Rabbiteater sighed.
“This is stupid.”
“I daresay you’re right, Ser Solstice. They gave me less HP than Princess Seraphel!”
“You’re a [Fencer], Cortese.”
“And am I a pushover? No! How entertaining is it to swing this badly-balanced weapon around?”
He meant the actual balance of his fake, silver-painted rapier. Cortese sneered around at the blank stone walls that had appeared around him. They looked mossy, run-down, with water leaking from the ceiling—the most dungeon-like dungeon ever. It even smelled vaguely cave-like. Although, as an expert, Rabbiteater had to point out that the smells were mostly sanitized to give people the impression of a cave.
Anyways, Rabbiteater didn’t have high hopes for this whatever-it-was—until the first ‘Mothbear’ appeared in front of him.
….It looked exactly like a Mothbear. A huge, roaring monstrosity appeared, and Rabbiteater shouted in horror.
“Bear! Kill it! Kill—”
He launched into a flying kick and bounced off the illusion. Instantly, he felt a tingling ‘pain’ as the bear swiped at him, and something flashed up. It looked like a red bar that he saw at the top of his vision if he looked up.
It had just gone down by a bit. Rabbiteater tried punching the bear, and his fist bounced off something hard. He drew back his fist, and Menrise shouted.
“Ser Solstice, your weapon! Your weapon!”
She threw a ball of fire, and Rabbiteater rolled away. He lifted his ‘axe’—and saw to his astonishment it was a huge, double-handed greataxe! As light as a feather and with all kinds of ornate designs that would suck if you had to wipe blood off it all the time.
Indeed, he looked back, and Princess Seraphel, wearing a full knight’s plate armor that looked more impressive than his, charged forwards, swinging her sword wildly. The bear howled as her sword cut into its body. Rabbiteater began to grin. Hey. Maybe this would be fun after all.
Twenty minutes later, Rabbiteater kicked his way out of the Adventure Rooms, fuming mad. Seraphel, Menrise, and even Altestiel were chuckling and waving at the [Mages]. Cortese and Rabbiteater had huge scowls on their faces.
There wasn’t much pain in the simulations. Just the simulation of it. You got to feel like you were actually fighting monsters, if you didn’t account for the feedback of hitting the illusions or the weight of your weapons.
Unfortunately for Cortese and Rabbiteater—they were slow learners to the fact that this was a game, not reality. Altestiel was good enough to fight with his ‘Skills’, but Rabbiteater kept punching monsters, and forgetting to use his axe.
He also kept forgetting that his character had HP and his armor wasn’t armor. So when he thought a Goblin was sneaking up on him with a knife and tried to yank it out of the Goblin’s hand, he lost 20 HP from being repeatedly stabbed in his shins. Which had armor on them!
Only, his character did not. And even when Rabbiteater learned the rules and tried to play—he died.
When you died, you became a ghost who had to wait for the others to find a way to bring back the body. You got to do bits of damage and scout ahead…and Rabbiteater had died 5 times. In twenty minutes.
Cortese had died 3 times. Their reflexes, battle-honed senses, and own ability in combat had not availed them. Whereas Seraphel, because she could remember to shout ‘Impenetrable Guard’, got to activate what was probably a Level 50 Skill, and Menrise got to shoot chain lightning every ten seconds.
“It’s not even realistic.”
“No indeed. No balance for the proper levels one would have. Would this team of ‘Gold-rank adventurers’ really be fighting eight Trolls in twenty minutes? No!”
Cortese and Rabbiteater were complaining loudly, which proved they really weren’t the target audience. The [Lord] who had gone on actual adventures in a dungeon and Rabbiteater, the Goblin, were mad as hell.
By contrast, Altestiel was urbanely amused—mostly by their fury—and Seraphel and Menrise were delighted.
“I think it’s very entertaining, Ser Solstice. Come now. I thought you were the mysterious loner, not the emotional one.”
Menrise teased him. Rabbiteater tried to throw her off the Skybridge. They were headed back to the inner city, and the [Lady] skipped ahead, laughing as he chased after her. Seraphel was about to suggest they now visit a shop selling the Singer of Terandria’s songs when she heard it.
Her head turned as a great cheer came from the gates. It was still a festival in the capital, but Seraphel and her friends had not seen the crowds at the gates and had avoided the plazas. Yet she felt a stir in the air, and in an instant—knew what was happening. The Hundredlord Cortese himself raised his head.
“I knew Erribathe was sending someone. But him?”
Rabbiteater felt the air change. The very air changed, but not in the way of hostility or bloodlust in the air. It was an actual shift in nature. All five turned, but only his reaction was different. Then he saw it, heard it.
The Kingdom of Myth, Erribathe, had finally arrived. It began as a dignified blowing of trumpets, heralding some great visitor at the gates. Applause, cheers, manufactured by the impressive Thronebearers and [Bards] riling up the crowds.
Then—something peculiar happened. Rabbiteater could not see, from the Skybridge, who or what was coming. But he did see and hear—the silence fall at the gates.
Silence. For a good two minutes, the horns stopped and the cheers ended. He thought, possibly, someone had tripped or a horse had thrown a rider or something silly. Then there was a roar, and wild, spontaneous cheering rose from the gates once more.
Rabbiteater jumped. What was that? He looked at Cortese, and the Hundredlord was craning for a view.
“Who is Erribathe? I mean—what kingdom are they?”
“Golaen’s neighbor. Third of the Restful Three.”
Seraphel supplied, and Cortese nodded distractedly.
“That is what you southlanders call us. As if any of our kingdoms are alike! Age, perhaps. All three nations hail back to the founding of Terandria’s Kingdoms. Our Thousand Lances are an ancient tradition, and Golaen’s city was built by Giants. As for Erribathe, they are an original founding. Somewhat—unique.”
Menrise exchanged a glance with Rabbiteater. If Cortese said unique, what did that mean? Altestiel was frowning into the distance.
“I have visited Erribathe. You might like it, Rabbiteater. It is the third-largest nation in Terandria after Taimaguros and Ailendamus, now. It used to be first. It is a wild land full of old magic and disparate groups. But their leader…that’s not an aura.”
A strange phenomenon was sweeping through the city. It began with the dignified cheers—which would go silent. Then, they would explode into wild shouting and cheers in the wake of…something. Someone, moving through the city.
They were coming this way. Of course they were; the Skybridge was on a direct route to the palace. So the five waited. And again, something was changing the air.
Rabbiteater felt a nervous feeling in his stomach. He didn’t know why. He looked right and left, and Altestiel was frowning slightly, but he didn’t look afraid. Seraphel, Menrise, Cortese? They seemed the opposite of nervous. Their heads craned. And then, coming down the main street, Rabbiteater saw the representative of Erribathe.
They had sent the heir of their nation. A [Prince], but an older one. A man in his mid-thirties. That was all Seraphel knew aside from his name.
Prince Iradoren, Heir Apparent to the throne. She had a list of the royal genealogy, cities in her mind developed for courtly greetings, but she had not met him. Nor did she recall in her lessons what made the Kingdom of Myth unique. Perhaps she had thought it wasn’t interesting.
Seeing it was enough.
Pale petals like snow were still falling from the rooftops. A fanciful image that fit the splendid streets covered with magical tiles from bygone ages. The wind stirred the ground, sending a gust into the air.
Like a storm of pale pink and green, a figure emerged into view. He was not Prince Iradoren. In fact, he was so strangely garbed that Seraphel started.
She had seen, plastered on the Adventure Rooms and superimposed on Rabbiteater’s armor, the look of a [Berserker], a wild savage class from the antiquity of Terandria. But that was the imagination of people who had little grounding in reality aside from stereotypes.
A true nomad of older times did not go bare-chested. Nor was he poor in cloth; if anything, his clothing would have made him a noble as House Veltras reckoned it. There was little metal on his person, but he wore a travelling cloak of hide and footwraps of cut leather. His armor spoke of some beast’s pelt, pale silver in fur. A wolf? Or something else.
He carried a staff in one hand, to walk with, and his hair was kept from his eyes with a band across his forehead. A strange man. If he were not here, perhaps some of Calanfer’s noble would have called him a [Savage] of untamed places.
He was one of perhaps a dozen who walked down the street. Next came a woman with blue paint drawn into a sign on one cheek. A kind of cross between tattoo and face-paint that made Rabbiteater start and his heart beat faster.
Shamanic magic. He had never seen a Human [Shaman] in all his travels. Yet here came a warrior armed with what was clearly that kind of magic. Women and men, wearing the attire of nature, akin to [Druids].
They were a sight to stun Calanfer’s folk and completely unlike any other visitors from the other nations. Even Cenidau’s Hearthlords had their frozen kingdom.
But this? This was…like a tribe of Gnolls, only Humans. And they were the first. For while Seraphel then expected more of their kind and the [Prince] to look the same, the next group caught her equally off-guard.
After came a clatter of hooves, and riding after the straight-backed wild folk were soldiers, bearing proud standards and garbed in armor.
Mithril armor. They looked like [Knights], so well-armed were the [Soldiers] that rode past with a captain with his sword sheathed. Fearsomely armed; they slowly followed the folk on foot in perfect formation, their armor gleaming, passed down from generation to generation.
Yet this group was together; the nomads and soldiers had a place, and though they were distinct, it was the same procession. When the third group appeared, Seraphel began to understand.
After the soldiers came robed [Mages]. Humans and half-Elves, striding along, carrying tomes and staves. They had enough magic that Menrise murmured in astonishment. And like the soldiers—they stood apart.
Representatives of a different group. Now, Seraphel saw the subtle insignias that varied on the [Soldiers]’ armor and the [Mages]’ robes. She could not pick them out, nor did she have time to.
Another faction had emerged, unlike the other three. Here came Briganda’s folk, if Rabbiteater had known the [Shieldmaiden] and from where her class emerged. He saw helms and armor akin to Cenidau’s garb and shielded warriors on foot, carrying long axes. They were followed by giant dogs, not as large as Carn Wolves, but armored and padding along, sniffing the air.
Dogs, not wolves. Then Rabbiteater saw the heart of the procession arriving, and his heart skipped a beat. For, flanking the Humans who walked bare-headed, carrying long spears and tower shields despite the weight, were light-footed folk with pointed ears.
Half-Elves. Like the nation of Gaiil-Drome. Then—Rabbiteater looked up and saw a figure riding under a bough of leaves, held aloft to protect him from the sun. Two figures.
The [Prince], Iradoren, his hair blowing in the wind. Light, auburn brown crossed with the red that Terandria called royal. His eyes were faintly golden, but what was really golden was his companion’s hair.
The Human man rode with his wife. A half-Elven woman, staring ahead, eyes finding Seraphel and the company on the bridge. They rode on a pair of white horses, stallion and mare.
Perhaps now you saw it. Certainly, you felt it. The company of different Humans was marching through the city, and the polite cheers spurred by Thronebearers fell silent as they passed. Men and women looked up as they lined the streets. Children gazed up, and babies fell silent.
Then they knelt.
Not all of them. Some held their ground, like Seraphel, Altestiel, Menrise, and Cortese. But the urge was there. Rabbiteater did not, but he had not the feeling the Humans did. Even Thronebearers knelt—and the gaze of the [Prince] swept over the crowd like crackling energy. Only after he passed did people get up and that cheer began again, spontaneous and wild.
That was how it felt. A surge in the bones. Inspiration in the mind. And that company was vast. No wonder the palace had to be emptied!
Here came a cluster of Dwarves, walking proudly behind masked strangers armed in cloth, garb smelling faintly of mist and strange, mountainous homes. Yet beneath those masks they were Human.
On the [Prince] rode, and now—now it was a realization pressing at Rabbiteater’s mind. He alone, out of his company, felt it.
Perhaps the Naga did—and the Gnolls and Drakes and other species in the city. Of a surety, the Dragon knew.
Whether you were half-Elf or Dwarf, you would know this [Prince] and his kingdom, the Kingdom of Myth, by his sheer presence. His class was as old as the founding of his kingdom. A promise that unified the different tribes and factions behind the royal line.
Tradition, which Terandria loved. Like the marriage between half-Elf and Human. That was so old that even when half-Elves had made their kingdoms of old, Erribathe had been spared their wrath. They were Dwarf friends, and while they married half-Elves—the royal line was still Human.
Practically unheard of anywhere in this world. But that was the nature of the class. Just like their rulers shared a bit of immortality with the half-Elves by that old pact—that was why the Goblin shuddered.
He felt no great gift of courage and hope. He felt no desire to kneel. He had only experienced this horror once, and that was feeling Elia Arcsinger’s presence from afar in Tyrion Veltras’ army.
For Iradoren’s class was the unifier of allies of Terandria. Anathema and enemy to all the species his nation had ever vanquished from Terandria’s shores.
Here came Iradoren, Heir Apparent of Erribathe, leader of the unified lands which had first formed a place for Humans when the Hundred Heroes had emerged and taken Terandria piece by piece. Here was the bloodline that had spoken to and slain Dragons. Even now, he bore that class:
[Prince of Men].
A class for Humans. That gaze passed over each person, and Iradoren nodded to Princess Seraphel as she gave him the reply of state, knees trembling. Even she felt the urge, though she was the master of it. Those eyes stopped on Rabbiteater, and Iradoren recognized him.
If not the species—he recognized that Rabbiteater was no Human. And the Goblin was doing everything in his power not to reach for his axe or flee. The Dragon exhaled.
Kaaz, Golaen, and Erribathe had come with many other nations to Calanfer. Now…if there were aught to happen, it should. He watched the [Prince] ride towards the capital, followed by the adoring crowds. He did not look twice. It was a familiar sight. He was sure that if he slept, for many nights thereafter, he would dream of Dragons dying.
Prince Iradoren had some notion of state. In that way, he was no [Titanguard] like Lord Etrogaer, nor the many nobles of Kaaz like touchy Hundredlord Cortese.
He carried himself with the same dignity that Reclis du Marquin met him with. And with his arrival, the summit truly began.
Yes, it was a banquet, a meeting, a social event on paper. But Iradoren had not come just for the sight of the Eternal Throne. As Rhisveri had predicted, the Restful Three wanted something.
“This war has taxed the southlands greatly, Your Majesty. Erribathe has grieved the loss of life and sent what small tokens it could to the Dawn Concordat. My father wished to express his relief that Calanfer’s Eternal Throne continues to shine. I shall assure him it was a sight to be cherished until my dying days.”
And my dying days will be hundreds of years, not a mere hundred unaided. King Reclis du Marquin smiled and inclined his head. Just so.
Of his opponents—Iradoren was one of the better ones. He had a presence and a carefulness with words that Reclis returned as they dined at a luncheon. Formal informality; Lord Etrogaer was on his best behavior, and Hundredlord Cortese was among those lightly speaking, but mostly listening.
Even if the giant Etrogaer did not want to admit it, Iradoren outranked everyone here in influence. Likely Reclis as well given the relative strengths of their kingdoms. But Reclis was equal to Iradoren.
He did not mention how sparse that aid from Erribathe had been. Nor that Erribathe was largely aloof at most times. Instead, Reclis honed in on Iradoren’s statement.
Reclis was the statesman, not Iradoren. The [Prince of Men] was someone who could lead armies and conduct affairs of state. Reclis was the [King of Intrigue]. Any opening Iradoren gave him might well have been a door.
“The war has disrupted much of Terandria’s south, not just the Dawn Concordat. I fear that is the nature of war, Your Highness. Even now, brave Wellfar sails with Pheislant and Calanfer’s own small navy.”
He nodded to the [Lady] of House Wellfar, who looked gratified at the acknowledgement. Iradoren smiled politely.
“Perhaps Ailendamus had not considered the effects it might have on us all. I note Taimaguros has held itself in check. Which is well; given the portents all saw at the final battle, escalation is undesirable.”
He turned, and a [Lady] of Taima hesitated before answering stiffly.
“By Taimaguros united, we have not been asked by the Kingdom of Glass and Glory either way, Your Excellencies. I note Ailendamus has battled many nations alone.”
“Yet your war interferes with us all. No less than twelve nations have declared hostility towards the Kingdom of Glass and Glory. If you think your entry will shift the odds, perhaps you should remind yourselves how our wars have always gone—”
Avel was, as always, hotheaded. Their [Emissary] fell silent. Reclis hid a smile, watching the myriad folks of Erribathe eating. Many picked at the various delicacies or were exploring the palace. They seldom left the Kingdom of Myth. Reclis chuckled as the Lady of Taima bristled and reached for a dagger.
“Ah, well, Ailendamus has always done as it pleased. As befits the largest nation of Terandria. King Itorin II may well consider that Ailendamus’ state of affairs are the affairs of Terandria, at least, the south. Taimaguros, with respect to Taima’s pride, is often likewise self-absorbed. As befits the second-largest nation.”
The [Lady] smiled in response to that and sat back, practically preening. The other emissaries scowled or held their tongues; the two powers were closely allied, and that alliance had, unfortunately, helped both remain on top.
But it was also a careful sniping shot, and it hit its mark. Prince Iradoren’s own complacent smile slipped slightly.
He did not like being reminded that his kingdom was third-largest. He had some pride. Which Reclis would happily use against him; pride was a wonderful thing and a huge weakness in a [King].
“Yes, Ailendamus is large. But the rules of war demand trade be held sacrosanct. Of all their actions, the blockade which stopped all ships at sea annoyed the [Titan King]. Golaen objects. Loudly.”
Lord Etrogaer broke in, and Reclis sighed. If Iradoren were not the best person that could have been sent, he was at least good. Etrogaer was not.
Interesting. Reclis held his face straight and rubbed a hand on the inside of the table against a ring. It buzzed—and Queen Ielane smiled as her ring gently vibrated as well.
“Lord Etrogaer, it is the crown’s intent that we should come to an amicable agreement here. We are all Terandrian. This war? Unfortunate, but yes, trade should flow despite strife. You find no argument here.”
The [Titanguard] nodded, looking smugly mollified. Ielane’s gaze never wavered, but Reclis was sure she’d look into it. She was probably sending an invisible [Memo] to their Thronebearers already.
He didn’t know why, but he had heard Kaaz was seeking out Pheislant and Nadel’s representatives. They were quiet, but Calanfer had ears everywhere, and Cortese was no great master of subterfuge. Desonis and the stormy Altestiel were far better at the game of games—mostly because the Sleeping Queen’s court was hard to infiltrate if she was always napping.
It would have been easy for most people to simply see this was Golaen wanting to import brie or something. However, if you knew what to look for—it was easier still.
Wellfar oversaw a lot of trade. And while they were not always friendly, at least here, the Izrilians banded together. So, a [Lady] excused herself from the table after helping herself to all the gelato she wanted.
That was the funny thing. These arrogant kingdoms, the Restful Three, pretended to superiority. But their people gobbled down gelato like everyone else. They still hungered for the most worldly goods—including the attention of the scrying orbs denied to them.
Lady Cosoi Reinhart didn’t mind going abroad, even if her House were given the cold shoulder. It was entertaining, and she had flirted outrageously with Lord Altestiel in front of the scrying orb. The Goblin Slayer was an intriguing issue, and Calanfer entertained her.
Besides—it was always good to have Magnolia in her debt. So the [Lady] strolled back to her rooms, set up a privacy ward, and took the single-use scroll out of her bag of holding. She wrote, watched the words and scroll dissolve, and reflected that even the Thronebearers wouldn’t detect that.
Magnolia used to come to Calanfer to sharpen her wits against the Eternal Throne. A number of Reinharts had, actually. As for what she’d written—well, Cosoi had no idea why it mattered. But she was interested.
The Restful Three are all after your sulfur, my dear. At least, Kaaz is, and the other two are poking about. That’s most likely it. Inquire with your servants. Polite kisses,
As for the reason sulfur was so easy to identify as a clue, well. If Cosoi had access to Magnolia’s own logic, she might have realized that a commonality between Earthers was that they were sort of stupid.
Stupid in the sense that not a lot knew how to make gunpowder, but everyone ‘knew’ sulfur was part of it. And bat crap. Probably because they’d all heard variations on the same recipe. Whether it worked or not didn’t matter.
They asked about oil, aluminum, and other common words. All you had to do was look for which nations were suddenly, passionately interested in importing such materials. The smart ones never made a sound and never gave you a clue something had changed.
Trade was one of the things the Restful Three were angling for. But subtly. And they were still guests of the Eternal Throne. Seraphel du Marquin was present for the luncheon, and her outing with her friends had been cut short.
But then—Cortese, Menrise, and Altestiel had all begged off because they had to attend. Only Rabbiteater seemed bored by the lot. The politics reminded Seraphel they were still from different nations, and it made her sad.
Because their friendship was ending sooner than she thought. Already, her thoughts had turned maudlin. If Ielane could arrange it, there were worse things than being married to Cortese or Altestiel. Not that they were likely to accept. Altestiel would be a victory without question…
It was arrogance she saw in the Restful Three. They really weren’t a match for Calanfer’s politics. They had a good show of power, but what they lacked was, well, what the Eternal Throne lived in.
Uncertainty. The Eternal Throne survived by playing diplomacy for real stakes. The Restful Three were powerful nations that, if not utopias, had the power to be the model for Terandrian kingdoms. They were why people said Terandria was so safe; their citizens benefited from the power of the kingdoms and lack of wars.
The southlands, exposed to the sea, were often under far more threat. But what was interesting about the Restful Three now was that, even if Seraphel didn’t know of the Earthers—she could tell they were upset.
Something had rattled their complacency around and made them realize they might be the classic fish in a small pond. Or—maybe a big fish in this pond, but they’d just heard there was another pond that was close to them. And the fish there had guns.
So they had come to the table. But they were hardly going to stick out a hand to help the Dawn Concordat unless they had something they felt they could gain, even if Ailendamus were on the back foot. They would rather take pieces out of Ailendamus if they felt it were worth it.
No, Reclis and Ielane had to have a plan to force or coerce some aid from the other nations here. And Seraphel saw the plan ahead of time.
It was easy. All you had to do was look around. Like, for instance, while you were sneaking cream puffs out of the third kitchen for Aielef. And Ellet. Cultivating disobedience in her sister from an early age seemed like a worthwhile use of a cream puff.
The three [Princesses] nibbled on cream puffs under the disapproving gaze of Ellet’s Thronebearers. Seraphel didn’t care how mad Ielane was. The sight of Ellet’s round gaze as she tried to make the cream puff last was so adorable. But she’d also seen Ielane’s trick.
“Have you seen the cake they’re about to bring out, Aielef?”
“No, and I dearly hope you haven’t touched the cakes or the [Royal Baker] will behead you.”
Aielef was serious. The cakes were being made with some unique powder and a recipe from Izril. Ielane’s fury over pilfered desserts would turn into wrath and ruin if the cake for the lunch were interrupted.
“Bah. Not at all. But guess what it is?”
Aielef glanced up from the balcony where they were observing the rest of the banquet hall.
“Oh…just tell me. What’s the plan?”
Seraphel lifted a finger, and Ellet’s trusting head turned between her two big sisters, as if she were admiring their adult intelligence and foresight. It made Seraphel feel so…uncomfortable. And slightly fuzzy. So yes, maybe she was showing off.
“It is a quite lovely cake. Of a certain landmass. Not at all buttocks-shaped. Only if you look very closely.”
Aielef’s stare was blank for a second, then she snorted.
Ellet clapped her hands and stifled a giggle with delight. Even she got it. Seraphel glanced out with a knowing look as a cake was brought out to much ceremony.
It took fifteen servants to bring the damn thing out. She suspected it had been made out of many parts that were then connected by the [Royal Baker] into one huge, frosted piece. It even had frosted High Passes and an artistic version of the new lands.
The new lands. Obvious, but sometimes you had to just throw it in people’s faces. Plus, the grandeur of such a rare and expensive dessert had all the guests on their feet, admiring the Magnolia-type monstrosity. Ellet’s eyes grew round as she imagined her slice of cake.
Seraphel, knowing perfectly well that she would not get any, just watched people’s reactions. Then she saw one of the servants carrying out the cake wobble as they stepped on some drool from one of Erribathe’s dogs.
Oh no. The foot slipped, and the grand cake was in danger of falling—
Ielane’s finger twitched, and the foot amazingly, improbably, stabilized. The guests gasped, then applauded as the servant caught the falling piece of cake.
“[Elegant Save]. She can throw her Skill to any servant she wants, Ellet.”
“Mother did that?”
The applause grew louder as a knife was presented and the cake was about to be sliced. But there was Father with his trick. He took the knife from the servant—and the woman pretended to be surprised before bowing deeply.
“I should like to show you all the magnificence of this new development in Izril. Ah, but then, I believe the honor of the first slice should go to Prince Iradoren, who has journeyed far to reach us. Your Highness, do you have a preference?”
With a teasing smile, he held the knife, looking to Iradoren as to what cut he might prefer. Then, Reclis handed him the knife. And the [Prince]? Seraphel rolled her eyes.
Of course he took a piece of the new lands. And [Historians] wrote down this kind of thing as clever. It was pure ego and presentation. She didn’t miss how Lord Etrogaer was handed the knife—and now Reclis was letting people serve themselves. The [Titanguard] took a chunk out of the new lands twice as large as Iradoren’s.
Aielef broke in. The 4th Princess looked up at the 3rd, and Aielef watched the furor and murmurs rise in dismay.
“Do you ever get the feeling that we are, in our own way, as straightforwards and predictable as Ser Solstice?”
“All the time, Aielef. All the time.”
The luncheon was going to last until dinner. It was less a single banquet, more like an ongoing discussion with food.
Rabbiteater had no idea why it suddenly turned to the new lands of Izril. Suddenly, everyone was discussing attempts at colonies, the existing half-Elven and Drowned Folk cities, logistics, and an ‘agreement’.
Suddenly, the topic had come up, and it felt spontaneous. In that way, Rabbiteater was below even Ser Markus for points on politics. To be fair, he was distracted.
…Mostly with trying to slowly squeeze his cake through slits in his visor. Meisa and Lady Menrise were watching the maneuver with silent horror. But then Rabbiteater heard and saw the Eternal Throne’s real army enter the room.
Their [Diplomats] and Thronebearers. They were all on the same page, and even Lady Menrise began speaking to another woman.
“The new lands? Yes, Tourvecall is interested…but we hardly have an army to spare even if we intended to enter the land-grab. Touchy Drakes and trouble at sea. I heard a famous [Pirate] of some kind has been attacking ships. Even the half-Elves aren’t safe.”
“Of course, Lady Menrise. Calanfer is not immune to troubles at sea, and few nations have a standing armada. Not least—any convoy would either have to leave a more northern port, say Taimaguros’, or travel to one of the southern kingdoms to make exit.”
“—and that would mean paying tariffs or Taimaguros interfering or just the hassle of sending so many so far. You can’t build a new city without [Crafters]. All the while, you may be dealing with magical misfortune, monsters, and, frankly, competitors.”
Hundredlord Cortese and Altestiel were speaking to Duchess Greina, who had been talking Noelictus’ own royalty out of the maneuver. Yet one of the Princes, Lothen, spoke with a half-smile that didn’t look quite real.
“Indeed, Duchess. On the topic of competition, have we not seen enough bloodshed in Terandria?”
The question was so poorly phrased and delivered as to make Ielane close one eye in a wince, but Lothen went on.
“Calanfer has a proposition to render to however many countries are interested.”
“We will not enter your war with Ailendamus—or Taimaguros, even if Kaaz has shed enough blood with them.”
Hundredlord Cortese looked blatantly amused by the [Prince], but he was surprised by Lothen’s shake of the head.
“Not at all, Hundredlord. Rather, this would be far simpler than a sworn contract. Given the countless nations and issues of each ruler signing a magical contract, say rather an agreement between gentlemen of the same species and culture.”
Greina raised her brows, and Lothen bowed.
“Absolutely, from the Sleeping Queen to any other, Duchess. A simple agreement—not to make war on another Terandrian kingdom. To, perhaps, form a unified front and common entry point. So, perhaps, if Tourvecall wanted for laborers…”
Altestiel muttered. He glanced around, gave Queen Ielane a slight bow, and went back to listening. Not necessarily in appreciation, but he got it.
“Every nation present would agree to a ceasefire. In the interests of avoiding needless further bloodshed.”
The [Diplomat of Envy], Corek, was relaying this to Ailendamus in real-time. The Kingdom of Glass and Glory was moving to interject and stop this if it could—or at least, insert itself into this agreement.
But therein lay the problem. Every nation invited was, carefully, not at war with any of the others. They might have historical rifts, but even Taimaguros was there. And a venture overseas that could be so appealing?
New land. It was like an aphrodisiac, sweeter than cake and more tantalizing than toilet paper in a bathroom stall of agony. If they agreed to—even temporarily—a unified front abroad…were you going to jeopardize it at home?
Not for a bit. And if Taimaguros agreed…Ailendamus stood alone, now watching every side. Of course it could just stop fighting.
The only cost was getting everyone on board with the idea. The only cost was the new lands that Gnolls had raised for Gnolls.
But the Humans weren’t really considering that. Some were already visibly excited like Etrogaer and Cortese. As for the others, they were taking the temperature of the assembly and wondering quite frankly if they could afford to miss this opportunity. So if you were Altestiel, of course you bowed to Calanfer’s politics. You had to admire the play even if you hated the game.
The irony of it was that Reclis was entirely cynical about this affair. Seraphel just knew it. Her father was not a man who prized land except in how it mattered. She just bet that he didn’t care if this worked. He did not necessarily dream of Calanfer gaining a colony. Perhaps he factored it into the equation, but he might not even care if they got nothing more than this agreement.
Because this was what mattered. She wondered how much Calanfer was going to send to the new world. How many Thronebearers, experienced in how you held a teacup to check for poison, were going to try and settle land no one had explored?
Whatever the case, she was sure it would be far less than the benefits to Calanfer. And that was good politics. At least, as Reclis saw it.
It was also going to work. Probably. Etrogaer had all but committed, and once you got one voice saying that Golaen was definitely on board, you got more. By the time the banquet was in swing, Calanfer had brought out the good wine, and they were toasting and giving speeches about glory.
“Ere the last of Giants walked across the sea, they stood by Golaen’s men/the horrors of the Children and the Adults thrown back and back time now and again!”
A [Bard] was singing a song of how, in ages past, Golaen’s mighty warriors had held the line against another threat. They were reciting, very plainly, each nation’s history of military might. Why not go to Izril and prove it? Which nation could stand against Kaaz’s Golden Bells?
Or their Thousand Lances?
The famous [Knight] from the Thousand Lances, a former Named-rank Adventurer, had arrived late, like Prince Iradoren. He was currently speaking to the Kaazian nobility, perhaps the voice of reason as they argued passionately. He would represent Kaaz’s crown and the Thousand Lances itself—but he was not immune to the plays.
Soon, someone was going to challenge him to a duel. And it might just be Rabbiteater. Or Ser Greysten. Or Dame Voost or half a dozen others. It was not every day you got to see the ‘best [Knight] Order’ in the world. And everyone liked to challenge that idea.
Now, Seraphel understood why the Order of Seasons was here, as well as so many warriors. Erribathe’s folk were looking to their [Prince], who seemed patently interested, although he was harder to read.
Might and glory and nostalgia. Humanity in its multitudes, looking southwards. A single Goblin, hearing everyone talk of his home and the new part of it with eagerness. What Rabbiteater thought was impossible to tell behind his helmet, but even had he the purest inclination to stop this, he wouldn’t have made a dent in the combined ego.
Dead gods, it might have been a match for Jecaina, Raelt, Flos, and Fetohep’s combined egos. Here it was, and the [Princess]’s head lowered minute by minute as the banquet dragged on. She did not care.
It was now. Now, in this moment, that the timing was right.
You didn’t act when everything was reaching the zenith. It was when all the players were present that you made your biggest move.
So if you were waiting—now was when you arrived.
Think of the stories. If you knew stories—this was how it went. A great conflagration of noble folk, knights, all gathered together.
Then, out of nowhere, came the interloper. The foreigner. The challenger, who pushed open the double doors and set everything to chaos.
Of course—it was one thing to see that or read in storybooks, quite another to set it up.
For instance, when you pushed open the doors to the banquet hall, you really had to ask—what about the guards? They were going to stop you at the gates, and you couldn’t just walk in unless you had a really old-fashioned castle. You had to know when the moment was right, and if a servant came in right after you had made your grand entrance and announced the 5th course, well, you were done.
That was why you had a team. A team, possibly even a plant or two in the staff. Hell, you bought off a Thronebearer, and you had a bunch of plans and the willingness to wing it. Then, if you were the best in the world, you might actually burglarize even the Eternal Throne and their guests and get away with it.
The [Thief] was an interesting character. Not many people had even seen her. She went from disguise to disguise, evading even the Thronebearers and spies of Calanfer. Which was amazing, because it was hard to disguise…her.
Not her features, maybe. Brownish skin was not the most uncommon, especially with so many guests. She had a clever face, sharp eyes, but acting went a long way, and the highlights of azure in her hair were easily fixed with dye. Wigs existed.
…But the artificial leg was a trick. It was some kind of glassy sandstone, possibly a type of crystal, yet it moved and acted like the real thing. She managed to hide it with long trousers and shoes, but it was still notable.
Anyways, she was about to go for it. And by ‘it’, that meant her big entrance. Which was to head in as a serving girl, and, while waiting the tables, snatch the Prince of Erribathe’s crown straight off his head.
Also, the Goblin Slayer’s helmet. If she could wing it, the Summer Champion’s blades and a number of other valuable items she’d hand-picked. The Thronebearers at the doors were checking the servants, but there was a queue and they were slipping up. Some of the Thronebearers were investigating a lot of their number who had fallen foul of the laxatives.
Yes, the entire moment was ripe for a [Thief]. A suitable moment, and if the young woman had made any mistake as she held a serving platter at the ready, it was this:
She thought of herself like the principal actor of the scene. Everyone did. But sometimes—
Someone had the exact same idea as you.
The first sign that something was up was the shouts of surprise at the gates. But they were done with so fast that the Thronebearers hesitated before one reached for a speaking stone. However, they too realized something was up when someone began striding down the corridor.
“Banquet hall. Someone’s coming—”
A Thronebearer turned as the servants froze, and a figure walked down the hallway. A cold wind blew, and the [Thief] shivered.
What the—was that snow?
Actual snow? Yes, it was coming down the hallway, and it heralded a single figure walking forwards, fur-lined armor as ancient as the name.
The Winter’s Watcher. The Order of Seasons’ champion of Winter had come, and frozen Thronebearers were trying to block eight [Knights of Winter] who were helping set up their big moment.
The [Thief] did not like this one bit. However, she was already shrinking against a wall, plotting how to use this. The Thronebearers were talking with Queen Ielane, but they were striding forwards to stop the Winter’s Watcher. They drew swords, and the Winter’s Watcher was fast.
He—she—put a hand on their sword as four Thronebearers advanced and drew their blade so quick—
The first Thronebearer collapsed, eyes rolling up in her head. She fell to the floor, and even one of the Winter Knights murmured softly.
“A blow faster than mine eyes can see?”
Another looked around. Then the helmeted figure fell forwards, and one of Winter’s sons hit the ground. The other seven reacted in moments. They spread out, and half of them were asleep before they hit the ground.
The Winter’s Watcher and the [Thief] both paused, staring at the slumbering people. Servants, Thronebearers, [Winter Knights]. The Winter’s Watcher spun—and their sword pointed at a third figure.
He halted in place. Teriarch, Lord of Flames, in disguise, obviously, stared at the only two people his spell hadn’t worked on.
“Hm? Aren’t you the Winter’s Watcher? And that [Thief]. What are you doing?”
He pointed, and unconscious bodies began sliding to one side. He raised two claws, formed a square, checked behind him, and opened a window with a sigh.
Setup. Then he spun back and frowned as the Winter’s Watcher stared at him.
“Wait a second. Were you about to enter that banquet hall?”
Slowly, the helmeted figure nodded. The [Thief] was frozen in place, debating running for it, hitting the alarm trigger for her team in her pocket. The Dragon stared at the [Knight].
“Wh—you can’t do that. Are you, perchance, invoking the legend of the Green Knight? Or some such? I didn’t even think they told that story here.”
What story? The Winter’s Watcher folded their arms. It wasn’t like there was just one tale of the last-minute visitor. Teriarch frowned. He glanced at the [Thief].
“We can’t have this. This is my moment—clear out.”
The Winter’s Watcher and the [Thief] stared at the Dragon as he made vague shooing motions. He certainly looked the part, but—ego was a terrible thing.
The three stood outside the banquet hall, while the guests, oblivious to the standoff just outside, toasted each other and ate. Perhaps only the [Queen] realized something was wrong, but even if she was trying to fix the issue—people who just fell unconscious when they entered the [Field of Deepest Slumber] weren’t going to solve the problem anytime soon.
The real green knight, Rabbiteater, was oblivious to all of this as well. Behind the closed doors, Teriarch was arguing in loud whispers with the Winter’s Watcher.
“How about this? You can do tomorrow. I’ll do today. This is entirely fair. Why? Because I am giving you this moment to walk away, and I’ll say nothing more about it. Or you can enter, sit down, and watch, then have your moment. Listen to me. Just because your helmet is blocking a Tier 5 spell, you and I are not on the same quote-unquote ‘level’. I’m busy calculating a trajectory. But I will happily spare a moment for—oh, what now?”
He turned with the Winter’s Watcher, and the fourth person strode down the hallway. A figure in a masked visor, not unlike Teriarch—although he had a more open helm—and the Winter’s Watcher.
Someone had really gone for the Green Knight aesthetic here. Vines twisted up the legs of the armored figure—a minor green spell, and they had a cape of flowers. Their voice boomed beneath a helmet as they raised a single, plain sword.
“I am the People’s Knight. You, who feast here, face me first.”
He had made his way into the palace from another route. And the fifteen Thronebearers he’d left behind him were a testament to his abilities. Each one felled with a single strike.
He was fairly confident—right up until he saw the Winter’s Watcher. Then he hesitated.
Teriarch growled at him and then did a double-take.
“People’s Knight? What kind of a stupid name is that? Why are you invoking the Green Knight? That’s my tale.”
He cupped one claw to his earhole and frowned. The Dragon could distinctly hear a female voice asking what was going on. The People’s Knight took a moment to mutter in his helmet.
“Cara—something’s gone amiss.”
Four people, each with a grand entrance in mind, stood there in a classic standoff. Teriarch swished his fake and real tail in vexation as he looked around.
Then the [Thief] ran for it. The [Servant] leapt away from the door to the banquet hall, and all three [Knights] moved.
The two fake ones, Teriarch and the People’s Knight, as well as the Winter’s Watcher, all drew a sword. The [Thief] froze—
A sword was at her neck. The People’s Knight actually moved it as she came to a standstill, so close it kissed her throat. The Winter’s Watcher had a blade against the back of the fake leg, and Teriarch had stepped to one side and idly pointed his sword at the [Thief]’s chest.
All four stopped, then. The [Thief] because if she so much as sneezed, she was the next course. But Teriarch was glancing sideways, brows raised, and the Winter’s Watcher was turning their head left and right.
Because the way each one had moved!
Teriarch was no [Knight]. Not in class, but he had dabbled in the art of swinging sticks about. Dabbled, lost interest, forgotten—he had had a few acclaimed matches. So perhaps he had some grace.
Just a touch. The Winter’s Watcher was one of the great [Knights] of their era. They had fought alone on many battlefields. With Skills, they had eclipsed Teriarch’s draw, if not the pure form of his movements.
But the People’s Knight? He had drawn his sword and placed it at the [Thief]’s throat before the other two had even cleared their sheaths. The move had no wasted space. It was beautiful, quicksilver, and the Winter’s Watcher and Teriarch saw it. The Dragon turned his head, and his teeth bared in a pointed smile.
“Well now. That was fascinating. Are you a friend of this…Singer?”
The Winter’s Watcher’s helm turned to him. The People’s Knight froze—Teriarch had a hold of their communication spell? The [Thief] was frozen, but she was fast enough in her own way.
She saw the blade leave her throat and slash. Teriarch—or, rather, the strange [Knight]—deflected the blade.
But it almost reached his chest. The Dragon wearing a mortal’s body stepped back and waited, but the second stroke never came. The People’s Knight looked astonished, even masked by the helm.
“No one has ever done that. Not when I was rested.”
He blurted out in less ringing tones than before. Teriarch glanced at the way the other [Knight] stood.
“Indeed not? It doesn’t surprise me. But meeting a true swordmaster in this age is something. Do you not have a followup?”
The People’s Knight hesitated and ducked his head.
Teriarch patted him on the shoulder.
“You may wish to spend a few decades working on it. That was a [Blademaster]’s draw, though. Pure artistry. Unfortunately—”
He grinned, and his slitted eyes flashed. Crimson scales twisted as he adjusted his neck, and dark black spines flexed across his neck and the unique armor built for this species. The Drake’s eyes flashed, and the People’s Knight backed up.
“—I have seen it before. This is not your moment. Agreed?”
The People’s Knight had decided this was not their moment to make a grand entrance. Teriarch saw them back off and called out.
“You would have lost to some of the people within. Anyone wearing armor so fine you couldn’t kill them in a stroke. Although, if it were humiliation—well, well. That’s one sensible fellow. And you?”
He turned his gaze to the Winter’s Watcher. The figure hesitated. Ancient, frozen gauntlets tightened on the frozen blade. Teriarch eyed the figure idly.
“Believe me, young lady. You don’t know who I am. Would it be that hard to sit down? Because I will use you as an object lesson.”
The Winter’s Watcher froze, in a literal sense, and the [Thief] tensed. At last, she spoke. She knew it was a risk, but a desperate, defiant grin graced the [Thief]’s lips. She raised her hands.
“Hey—hey. Did one of the other contenders hire you? I know it’s a contest, but this feels like cheating. Don’t make me hurt you.”
She tensed, despite the sword at her leg. Then the Winter’s Watcher was stepping back, raising her blade on guard. Two of them faced Teriarch, realizing that was their only option. So that Drake opened his mouth wide, and his teeth glinted.
“I suppose it would be. Silly me. I’ve forgotten how it felt to be young and prideful. Let’s jog a few memories, shall we?”
The banquet hall was calming down as [Titanguard] Etrogaer leapt to his feet, demanding attention for another speech. Rabbiteater was just about to hurl a piece of bread at him, and Ser Greysten was getting up to challenge the Thousand Lance’s representative, Ser Gorethem.
Princess Seraphel was waiting for the final proclamation from Reclis that they had an agreement, whereupon she was going to get stinking drunk and embarrass the crown. Petty payback.
Lady Menrise was staring at a donut and wondering if she should take another chance. This one was from, funnily enough, Erribathe. And this one had sprinkles.
Then the doors to the banquet hall opened. Or rather—they were thrown open. A figure appeared in the doorway as everyone whirled.
Winter blew in. A blizzard like no other, provoking screams and cries of astonishment. But people probably assumed it was the Eternal Throne showing off something new. Only Queen Ielane’s frozen face revealed to Seraphel it was not. She kept still, though. Sometimes, the disaster was staring you in the face and all you could do was smile at the falling axe with dignity.
Ser Greysten turned with a grin of expectation on his face. Right up until he saw not the Winter’s Watcher in the doorway, but a stranger. Then—he heard the crash and the sound, the terrible screech of metal on metal. And with the influx of wind and snow came the Winter’s Watcher.
On her front. The figure threw her through the banquet hall like a frozen cannonball. With such force that the Winter’s Watcher crashed past the high table, leaving a trail of sparks drifting down through the air.
Mouths were already open in astonishment, and Earl Altestiel was on his feet, drawing his sword. He didn’t need to guess something had gone wrong.
Where were the Thronebearers? He looked for Rabbiteater, and the [Knight] was getting up with others who sensed an issue, but the figure bellowed.
One word blew through the room, and Duchess Greina’s aura winked out with all the others. Like a physical storm, wind blew, and pastries and candles went out. The figure stood, backlit by only the light from outside. Even the fireplace had gone still, and it was hard to see at first who it was.
Then someone else ran into the banquet hall, fleeing the mysterious intruder. A young woman, her dress torn, a flashing, crystal leg pumping as she ran for the balcony where Seraphel, Aielef, and Ellet sat. At this, the Thronebearers who were present, including Vensha, rose.
“The [Thief]! Catch her!”
They leapt for the young woman, and Rabbiteater threw a plate like a discus. Etrogaer reached out, and his hand closed and gravity shifted, dragging everything around into a grip. Faced with Thronebearers and guests using their Skills, the [Thief]’s eyes opened wide.
And her leg exploded into lightning. Rabbiteater barely saw her move. She blasted past him, up a wall, and across the wall. She was so fast gravity only caught up when she slowed—with Iradoren’s half-Elf consort’s circlet in one hand.
“Erribathe, to arms!”
Iradoren leapt up. A cry went up from the guests who knew their history. It was none other than Lady Menrise herself who pointed and shouted.
“The Lightning Thief! His Skill!”
Rabbiteater looked at the thief, who had stopped on a table, standing over the [Princesses] being shielded by their Thronebearers. The most famous [Thief], hero of the world-renowned book series—was not someone who Rabbiteater had ever read about.
But even Seraphel gasped, eyes wide, as the young woman turned. Yet Altestiel calmly spoke, eyes on her.
“That is not the Lightning Thief. He’s dead.”
Several fans of the series were horrified. Which was sort of besides the point, but the young woman turned. Her eyes flashed, and she pointed at Altestiel.
“He’s not. The great game begins—now.”
Then she leapt off the balcony, followed by half a dozen spells and even two Thronebearers.
Rabbiteater had no idea what was going on. But he turned, because while that was all very interesting and whatnot—
His back was exposed to the intruder. And if the [Thief] could make his skin crawl interestingly, this person was making Rabbiteater’s [Dangersense] ring louder than Greydath of Blades had.
He had waited for the [Thief] to have her moment. Once she’d taken the limelight, he acceded with some grace.
After all—you had to admire initiative like that. And it was a good warmup to his act. The balcony doors swung shut as the [Princesses] hurried away from the pursuit of the [Thief].
The room was dark, fires blown out by the Winter’s Watcher’s entrance. Now—several began to flicker back to life of their own accord.
The light from the hallway beyond illuminated the figure once more. Voices rose in confusion, for a knight stood in the doorway.
But not a knight that you would expect. No Human stood in the doorway, garbed in ancient armor that shone like bright brass and gold, but another figure.
A Drake. His scales were perfect crimson and his eyes heliotrope and cerulean. Black neck spines stood out from his armor, perfectly tailored to accommodate him.
Drake armor. Those here had never seen armor meant for a Drake to wear like a [Knight]. It didn’t look the same. Even the way the figure stood, back slightly hunched, was different than the erect posture of a Human [Knight]. His head was slightly lowered, not chin raised, and his smile was full of teeth.
That was how he looked. His presence was far more than that. The Drake [Knight] stood there, looking at them all.
Each nation, each diplomat and noble or royal figure. With knowing eyes. With a gaze that burned like fire. A distant ember, reigniting itself. After all—he was the center of attention.
Someone had to break the silence. It was Prince Iradoren, rising from his seat. The [Prince of Men] called out in a level, wary tone.
“Who are you, stranger? Why do you disturb the Eternal Throne and this company of Terandria’s Hundred Families? You were neither invited nor wanted.”
In reply, the Drake chuckled. His voice boomed, loud despite his calm tone. It filled the room as he stepped forwards, and Rabbiteater felt a nervous sweat on his brow. He looked for Meisa, Seraphel, and the others and saw Altestiel wavering. They should have been spreading out, but something was almost literally holding them in place.
“Invited? Wanted? Hail, son of Erribathe. Firstblooded, proof of pact between half-Elf and man. Hail to the Hundred Heroes and Erribathe the Peacemaker, who drove a hundred feuding blades into stone and settled the Kingdom of Myth as a bridge between countless peoples. You remember customs more than most. So why do you embarrass your history so? I have always had a seat at your tables. My invitation is older than your royal line.”
Another step, and he was into the room. Iradoren wavered, and it was uncertainty that flashed across a dozen faces, but some people were poor listeners.
Lord Etrogaer drew a hammer that could have flattened a pig’s entire skull in a single blow. He had the strength of Giants in his class. With effort, he approached the figure.
“Name yourself, Drake, or leave. This is Terandria’s soil. Which Walled City sent you?”
For answer, the stranger stopped and looked up at the eight-foot tall man. Even his neck spines didn’t reach Etrogaer’s chin, but the [Titanguard] felt uneasy looking down at the Drake. He glanced up and felt…as though he was being looked down upon in turn.
“No Walled City can command me. I have come before those gathered here to speak. To speak of the revelations of last month and the future. Stand aside, little son of the tall. You forget your place. When you were a dream of your first forefathers, they entreated the kindly Giants for safety and aid. Golaen has forgotten the vows it swore. Even so. The kindness of Giants is in your blood and bones. I would not want to hurt you.”
“And I will throw you out far less gently.”
Etrogaer’s face flushed pure red. He reached down, and the Drake caught his wrist. His clawed hand could not even encircle Etrogaer’s wrist—but the [Titanguard] froze. He strained, and Rabbiteater saw his muscled arm bulge. Then Lord Etrogaer whispered.
“—[Gravitas of the Monuments].”
The air twisted around him, and every loose object in ten feet went scattering in every direction. A fork threw itself with such force that it embedded itself in the arm that Dame Vensha threw out. Seraphel stared at the fork stabbed into the armor and swallowed hard.
And not once did the Drake’s arm move. Etrogaer lifted the hammer, and the Drake looked up. The [Titanguard]’s pouring brow was a mask of uncertainty. He froze—and the Drake let him go.
“Ah. Now that brings me back.”
As Etrogaer stumbled backwards, the scaled head turned. Left, right, and he smiled once more. Fondly.
“Here stands a knight who names himself not. He comes before a great banquet of mighty warriors on an auspicious day and lays a challenge before all and sundry. ‘Strike me. Strike me, and I shall answer your blow with mine. Let the victor be the one last to fall.’ In front of Terandria’s children, have any the courage to take up this old challenge?”
He looked right and left, and Rabbiteater felt a hand on his shoulder.
The Goblin turned his head. He looked at Dame Meisa’s worried face and whispered back.
“Do I look stupid? I don’t stick my head in a trap.”
And it was a trap. Everyone knew this kind of story. Oh yes. Even if they didn’t know the exact parable—who wanted to trade blows with someone who had just held Etrogaer’s hand like an adult held a child?
Even so. A single figure didn’t flinch when the Drake looked his way.
The Thousand Lance’s great [Knight], Ser Gorethem, a former Named Adventurer, could not run even if he wanted to. The man had a mane of hair almost as impressive as a lion’s, and it was impossible to read his face as he slowly rose and put on his helmet.
“You have the better of me, stranger. In the name of the Thousand Lances of Kaaz, you must know I cannot decline a challenge made before Terandria’s royal bloodlines. How shall it be done?”
The Drake paced forwards another few steps. Then he spread his arms. He had a single, plain sword at his side. Ser Gorethem had a wicked greatsword strapped to his back.
“By blade or spell or even teeth or claw, strike me. Then I shall return the favor if I am still standing. Tell you what. I shall give you three blows for one of mine.”
The sheer arrogance of the statement enraged some of the watchers out of their silence.
“Ser Gorethem, do not hold back on account of our sensibilities. Strike this interloper, and if they play any tricks, let us have done with this.”
Hundredlord Cortese shouted, accompanied by a dozen of Kaaz’s voices and some of Taimaguros’ and Avel’s.
Even so—Gorethem hesitated. Because he didn’t know his opponent. Whatever he expected—killing a Drake might be entirely possible. Or maybe it was a trick. He turned.
“Summer’s Champion. Offer me your blade, I pray.”
Instantly, Greysten drew his smaller axe on his right side and handed it over. The Drake watched with an air of resigned patience.
“Are you called a great warrior of men, Ser Gorethem? If you are of the Thousand Lances, you should be.”
The old man tested the blade in the air and faced the Drake with an air of resignation.
“I was known as a Named-rank Adventurer. Gorethem Krakenblood. I drove one back from Cenidau’s shores in my youth. Will you not relent?”
The Drake’s only reply was a low laugh.
“No. Strike hard and waste your first blow. There is an order to folly, after all.”
The [Knight] hesitated—but then he drew the axe back. Everyone waited and watched as he judged his blow.
The first one was indeed kind. He swung for the Drake’s shoulder, which was relaxed as the patient intruder waited.
Not lightly. Not a ‘wasted’ blow in Rabbiteater’s eyes. Gorethem had already used a Skill, and so the blow was so quick that Seraphel blinked and the crash and flash of magical light as blade met armor was still crackling through the dim banquet hall, deafening and blinding all for a moment.
Yet the Drake just stood there, dusting off his shoulder with a claw.
“Your sword, Ser Gorethem.”
Greysten offered. But the Named-rank Adventurer was still unwilling to draw it. He set himself again, glanced at the Drake, and, more sure he wouldn’t cut his opponent in twain, spoke.
“[Blade Art: Twin Curves of the Moon].”
This time, Rabbiteater saw a crescent draw itself out of the air and an exact duplicate swung the other way. This time—he thought that if he had been struck like that, he would have broken bones and the blade might have cut through his armor and flesh and bone.
The impact was like thunder, and Rabbiteater squinted through it. Ser Gorethem staggered—and the Summer’s Champion’s axe skidded across the floor until the Winter’s Watcher stopped it with one foot.
The Drake was standing there. His mismatched eyes were glowing with impatience, and Ser Gorethem backed up. A voice came from the Winter’s Watcher’s helmet.
Muffled, almost guttural. Neither immediately male nor female.
“Draw your sword, knight.”
Gorethem looked at the Winter’s Watcher, then slowly drew his greatsword. It was ivory. And Rabbiteater realized the stories about Gorethem were probably great.
Because he carried a Kraken’s tooth or claw—carved into a greatsword. The air even smelled like salt and blood, and when he held it with both his hands, Rabbiteater muttered.
He steadied Meisa—then both backed up as Rabbiteater ducked. A raging wave had engulfed the length of the greatsword. When held behind Gorethem, it was threatening to tap Rabbiteater on the helmet. And he stood fourteen feet behind the man.
For answer, the Drake spread his arms.
“Do you know how this story always ends, Ser Gorethem? Why do we repeat such stories? Why did you?”
The [Knight] paused as he raised his blade.
“I will not swing lightly.”
He refused to answer the question. So the Drake did for him as the blade drew back and Rabbiteater decided to stand behind Ser Greysten. Just in case.
“We tell these stories because we want to see them undone. Or see if they were true. Every villain meets their end. Every [Prince] rides off into a sunset. Then they forget. Again and again. Whenever I stand here, you say, you think—it cannot be true.”
The sword drew back. Ser Gorethem hesitated one last time. But the Dragon just looked at him, and the trembling blade steadied. Then the Thousand Lances’ [Knight] swung his greatsword down with a howl.
“[Sword Art: The Kraken Bleeds].”
The banquet hall quaked. Rabbiteater felt an explosion of mist and rain strike him like a slap to his face. He held his ground, tensing, as people ducked and the remnants of two tables went crashing into the far wall.
It was like a tidal wave striking a beach. When Rabbiteater saw the water stop falling, he expected to see a dead Drake. If you knew the story, like the Earthers, they expected to see a headless figure, kept alive by mysterious magic, vowing to return the blow in a month’s time.
What they saw was—a Drake. His scales were wet. His eyes were looking down at the greatsword, trembling, the edge of that krakenbone blade resting against his armguard.
It was unscratched. He looked up and with a delicate claw, pushed the greatsword down. Then his eyes began to glow.
“In another time, boy, I would have been cut. Sometimes. The story is the lesson.”
Ser Gorethem’s arms were shaking from the backlash. He stepped back, and someone—Cortese—made a strangled sound.
No one spoke as Ser Gorethem, panting, lowered his greatsword. He just dropped it. Then he stood as the Drake paced around him. This time, he faced Ser Gorethem so his back was to the audience in the banquet hall. Angling, as if choosing the exact spot.
“Strike your worst, stranger. I have taken your challenge, and I will not flinch.”
Gorethem looked pained, like a man facing…what? Perhaps he did hope this was a game, a story from out of legend now.
In reply, the Drake neither took out a sword nor spoke. He held up two claws, made a square, stepped just a hair left, and then nodded. He reached out—and poked the man in the chest with a claw.
Silence. Then, someone began laughing. Ser Markus laughed as the Drake stood back. Everyone’s head turned his way, and then a chuckle rose uncertainly. But the Drake just sighed. Ser Gorethem stared at him.
“That was surely not your blow, stranger.”
The Drake raised a brow. He looked at Markus pointedly, and the man fell silent. The Drake snapped his claws.
“Of course not. [Body of Diamond]. That was for you.”
The Drake drew back a claw and made a fist. Rabbiteater saw the windup, lazy, like the swing, but it came faster and faster, and when it hit—
He didn’t think it was the Drake who hit Ser Gorethem. There was the briefest of moments between the impact and the fist appearing to strike the chest. Almost like that was an illusion.
But Rabbiteater really didn’t think on that for a while. Because he was trying to find Ser Gorethem. He tottered forwards on unsteady legs, his ears ringing. The rest of the banquet hall was silent or picking themselves up. But Rabbiteater?
He walked out of the corridor, following the hole in the banquet doors that had swung shut behind the Drake. The enchanted wood was smashed inwards, and one hung ajar. Rabbiteater saw the unconscious servants and [Knights], neatly piled up away from the trail of—
Destruction. Smashed stone. And still—the Goblin started running—
He didn’t see a sign of…
Rabbiteater came to an open window. Well, an open section of the corridor. Bits of stone were falling out the hole in the walls. He stared out the window.
There was an almost perfect shot to the Skybridge, he realized. And down the main street of Calanfer’s city. If you went through this wall. And that building. And that ground floor.
Amazingly, all of them had been evacuated. Almost like someone had calculated the exact path a bouncing body would go flying. Rabbiteater stared across Calanfer.
The street was torn up, shredded in a line, even the magical tiles scattered against the neat [Walls of Stone] that had been placed like an exit ramp on either side to stop the debris from shredding houses or hitting pedestrians. Rabbiteater ran down the street. Halfway to the gates of the city, he found a [Knight].
Well…his armor was ruined. It looked like someone had ground the entire set of Ser Gorethem’s armor against a whetstone for hours. There was a huge dent in his chest, but the man was breathing.
Rabbiteater made sure of that. The Thousand Lances’ [Knight] stared at the sky and made not a sound even when Rabbiteater waved in his face and snapped his fingers in front of Gorethem’s helmet a few times.
He left the man there, surrounded by speechless citizens. They stared back the way Rabbiteater ran towards the Eternal Throne and the trail of destruction left in Gorethem’s wake.
When he got back to the banquet hall, the fires were relit. Thronebearers, servants, and soldiers stared through the broken doors, and a single figure stood in the room as the grand fireplace relit itself.
Perhaps no one had spoken in the entire time Rabbiteater was gone. The Restful Three—the kingdoms of Terandria—were they truly taken hostage by a single stranger? If so, they did not care for this part of the story.
Ellet was hiding behind Seraphel and Aielef. Reclis and Ielane had not moved. They were watching the Drake, assessing. But the stranger saw.
He saw it all. For all hundreds of eyes fell upon him, he gazed upon the rest and saw something else.
Fear and anger were a close-run thing in the strained voice of Prince Iradoren. A flame slowly grew brighter, eating at the logs in the fireplace against the far wall. Little light came through the shuttered curtains on the balcony.
“Stranger. You invoke stories, and you are mighty indeed. Might alone will not bend any knee here. If you come to threaten and intimidate, you will find no victims. If you have come for blood, name the power you invoke. For the Hundred Families of Terandria will answer any insult.”
A cracking sound made the last words fall silent from Iradoren’s lips. But the Drake was not making any hostile gesture. A pair of wings slowly unfurled.
Wings? Rabbiteater hadn’t seen wings on his armor. But they opened, a thin membrane flexing. And the light that had gone from this room was growing brighter. As was the voice.
“I have not come to wet this soil with more blood. Nor have I come in wrath. Insult? Do not play games with me, Prince of Erribathe. Feuds and insults are a never-ending tale, a serpent that consumes itself and leaves only more grief to continue the wheel. Kaaz Dorem Laegriser should know that. I ask, and again you forget. Look at you. Do you fear me? Me?”
He stooped slightly and peered at the little [Princess] hiding behind Seraphel’s robes. Aielef and Seraphel both moved to shield her, but the Drake gave Ellet a toothy smile. She peeked at him, for his tone was not that harsh, and he chuckled.
“Do even Calanfer’s children not know how other species smile? Come now. Terandria, you continent of kingdoms. You Humans who claim to such tradition, as if the Hundred Heroes were the first who ever set foot here. Do you not remember anything? Guess. I have many names. I have many guises. Even if it were not me—think of my brothers and sisters. Who might be here?”
No one said a word, but now, Altestiel was shivering like he was a man drenched by a sudden downpour. He wasn’t willing to say it. Nor did many believe or even understand.
Teriarch knew that well. He walked forwards, and they drew back, a vast semicircle of faces as the firelight grew ever brighter. From one side of the room, the illumination rose, and then the Drake crossed a point across the banquet hall and something rose behind him.
Just a trick of the light. The Goblin saw it rise on the far wall. Everyone saw it, spreading out from the Drake’s shadow. Only…it was no Drake which rested there, nor did that great mouth move on a Drake’s body.
The firelight revealed the truth. As it so often did with forgetful creatures who cast [Invisibility] and the like.
The shadow of the Dragon smiled and laughed as every head rose, and tongues turned to lead in mouths open like clams upon a beach. He chuckled, and one magical eye winked at Ellet, the only child in the room, staring up.
“My. Have Humans such short memories you cannot think of one name for me?”
Reclis du Marquin was choking on his words. Even he could not have expected this. Rabbiteater stared at the giant shadow. He slowly snuck over, tracing where it lay—and reached out. To what seemed like pure space behind the Drake.
A wing buffeted him in the face—gently, but with all the force of—
Rabbiteater fell on the ground and lay there for a while.
Now, Teriarch, the Lord of Flame, had their wonder as well as fear. Reclis du Marquin looked around. Then he bowed. Bowed, as few bows exist between [Kings]. But they had one for magical beings.
“Stranger. I have not yet welcomed you to the Eternal Throne. I am Reclis du Marquin, King of Calanfer. Do you come as herald of our righteous intent or this great hour in the world’s changing of eras?”
Even now, he tried to spin things. Not realizing that he stood upon a chunk of earth slowly rotating in space at a Dragon’s whim. Once again, Teriarch chuckled.
“Hail, King of Calanfer. Forgive my amusement. With our long histories, it always tickles my fancy that Humans come to my kind for reassurance their cause is just and correct. I did not come here to lend credence to any morality or justice of your deeds. Rather, I came to remind myself of this land I once called home. And see how it has changed and failed to change, even as the rulers have shifted.”
He looked again, and two emotions ran through the Humans. One was born of admiration and fear. A kind of wonder for a legend thought no longer to exist. The other was the knowledge buried in the roots of so many kingdoms.
Blood and fire. An old foe and ally stood here, and both were…impossible. But which? And why?
“If you are here, Drag—stranger. Then tell us. Is this due to the events of last month at Ailendamus’ gates and around the world? Come, lend some understanding to all present.”
Earl Altestiel called out urgently. He had the craziest urge to challenge the Dragon to a game of chess. And imagine being able to tell the others that! For a reply, Teriarch fixed the [Earl] with such a stare that Altestiel gulped.
“What you saw. What you heard on that day was real. Can I say anything more than the ghosts that came before you, your ancestors of old? Of course. Yet if you will not listen to them, my words shall surely fall upon deaf ears. I say again: I did not come here to endorse the Kingdoms of Terandria more than any other species. I have long been both friend and sworn enemy of your peoples, and many remember that.”
He nodded again at Prince Iradoren, who much looked like he regretted that fact. Yet his consort now raised her head, throwing back her hood and speaking.
“If not those days behind us, then surely the days to come. It must be Izril’s new lands, then, and this pact. You have watched us, great stranger. Are you one of the Forestheralds, an old friend whose name still remains in our tomes and books? Tell us, please, that we might honor you.”
Her voice was inviting, even friendly. The shadow of Teriarch snorted gently, and a gust ran through the room, hot air tinged with a laugh.
“Oh, that you might mark my exact name and nature and how to best use me in your interminable squabbles? I think not, little Rootfriend. I am here to challenge and upset, not give you any gifts. After all, I am not your friend. Or surely I would be one of your Thousand Lances, honored with such titles like the Dragonknights of old. Here is your hint: I have never sworn service as a knight to any crown.”
Another susurration. The half-Elf lowered herself back into her seat, but Ser Greysten approached next. Boldly, he planted his feet.
“Then, Ser Stranger. Make your claim. Challenge, but not threaten. Reassure us what we saw was real, but not explain. I am a simple [Knight] of the Summer. All this playing with shadows and words is slightly too much for my mind. Please tell us openly what you wish.”
He was right, of course. Teriarch was dragging it out, and the Dragon had to admit, he was enjoying it. He felt alive. Alive and sad and oh—the nightmares.
The Kingdoms of Terandria. He knew many forms they could take and many ways any nation could change. But to rise to the occasion he knew they must?
There was a horror in his chest. And it was the twin of glory and, yes, memory.
He hesitated just once. It was so easy to play the mysterious wizard, the stranger who left clues and hoped that someone found the true path. Because the mysterious wizard was somewhat of a jerk. It was far harder to trust, to follow and let someone else lead.
So—the shadow on the wall paused, and then it vanished. The Summer’s Champion recoiled slightly, and the Drake who stood there looked at Ser Greysten.
Then he flickered out of existence.
“Summer’s Champion, you prat. You chased him off—”
Hundredlord Cortese burst out. Then he suddenly felt a breath on his back. He turned, and a Dragon stood behind him.
But not Teriarch. Not quite. Oh, he had the form of a Dragon, but his scales were pale white. He was trimmer than he might actually be, and a single armguard was on a shoulder. Etched with the oldest symbol of Cenidau.
“Do you see me now, Summer’s Champion?”
The Dragon turned, and Hundredlord Cortese was in sudden need of the bathroom. The Wisdom, Hellei, and the Hearthlords rose as one. The Dragon looked down at them. Then a claw touched at his face. Two eyes like winter, one the frost that covered the land until all was death, the other like the buds of green through the snow, regarded them. He touched that face of a dead comrade and turned.
Turn—a vast Dragon with scales scarred a hundred thousand times lay restless against the balcony, blotting out the light. Her mane was like stone, calcified, but still flowing like the bedrock of the very firmament. The Dragon exhaled.
“Do you recognize Cenidau’s champion? The last Dragonlord of War? Which one I am does not truly matter, does it? What form should I take?”
Suddenly, a half-Elf was sitting at a table. His hair was white—and now—he looked all too familiar. His brows rose as suddenly—everyone recognized the face—
And a Gnoll with fur like molten bronze leaned against the fireplace. He looked older, tired. And he clung to the stone as if the entire Eternal Throne should support him.
“…yes. Names are such dangerous things. The consequences of revealing myself do not come to mind lightly. Forgive me, those gathered here. I am old, now. If I give you no names nor titles, it is because they have no point. I did not come to be lauded. Nor to rule or seek authority. I came simply to show you that this world has not yet worn the last of us from this earth.”
Greysten’s voice was shaking.
“I invite you to Pheislant, Ser. Rest your bones in the Order of Seasons’ keep or wherever you please. Even if you seek no leadership, your very words are wisdom enough.”
Flicker. A third Dragon folded his wings, his scales not just dark but voids of light. Xarkouth, his image, looked down at those who had inherited his people’s Dragonthrone. Grand and small. He prowled left and right restlessly, a perfect copy of how the real Dragon had moved.
For one person remembered his names and deeds. Teriarch shook his head restlessly.
“I should hope you are all wise enough. But if you were, surely, you all know your…expedition to the new lands of Izril will end in bloodshed. Every nation upon this world grabs, even if they hold a fortune in their claws. Even now, as I roamed the Eternal Throne, I heard a hundred plots for Humans to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with naught but their own kind.”
The emissaries shifted. Ielane spoke, sounding pleading.
“We are a nation of Terandrians, Ser Dragon. Dwarves and half-Elves were not lost from our minds, I promise you that.”
“But did you intend to go to Izril with Drakes as your foes?”
The Dragon challenged her, and Ielane hesitated.
“No one owns the new lands of Izril. If we were attacked, we might defend ourselves. Is that not fair?”
Teriarch grinned like Xarkouth.
“Of course it is fair. By all means, defend yourselves. I expect nothing less of proud nations. Perhaps those armies that ‘defend’ will march against a Walled City. In the name of safety. Then, if we speak of old stories, you shall see one upon the battlefield, Queen of Calanfer.”
Ser Markus gulped loudly. Seraphel caught her breath. Did the Dragon just say what she thought he did…?
“Then are you warning us away from Izril, Ser?”
Greysten pursued the question, and Teriarch shook his head once more.
“No, and no. In fact, I invite you there. Not just armies. Not just colonists. Come, brave [Knights]. I am sure many of you have already pledged your swords for your kingdoms. Then—beg leave for a quest beyond your shores. You have heard the <Quest> posted for the Crossroads of Izril?”
Murmurs. His eyes glinted as a Brass Dragon, scales like metal, rested his head on his claws. His wings fanned, refracting rays of light for the wondering Humans. The Dragon laughed.
“More will come. Seek out these old sites. Explore the lands yet untamed, and surely—some of you will meet a stranger on the roads. They might be Drakes of good or ill repute. They may be Gnolls upon their own stories. One of them, at least, will be me. Come to Izril. Challenge or learn from me, or teach me a lesson I have not yet heard of in all my years. But do not expect silence from me. If you threaten war, expect a Dragon and those who have slain Dragons to stand against you. Perhaps the might of Terandria is more than that of Rhir, Baleros, Chandrar, and Izril combined, eh? Or perhaps you might come more humbly.”
A cerulean eye winked like mischief and amusement at the others. The voice rumbled.
“But come. Come and see. And learn. That is my invitation to you all, and I apologize for dragging this moment out. Call it playfulness. Dance far from your shores once more, sons and daughters of Humans. I would have you found better kingdoms on the new lands. But also—uncover every old secret. Find the City of Stars. And for those worthy—rise far beyond the [Knight] who struck me. I do not crave death. But I seek those who could slay me and rise above even that dream. For you will be needed. Do you understand?”
Then Prince Iradoren exhaled, and Earl Altestiel looked up. The Dragon didn’t change forms, just looked down at them all.
“You would have us level?”
“I would have every kingdom level. Each kingdom grow and break the traditions that have grown like weeds. Keep the most beautiful things about what you have made—and prepare for a storm like no other. Were you blind? Did you not all see and hear the warnings? Hence my invitation. It is a poor thanks for the greatest of Gnolls, to use their lands like a great training ground. But they have always been the most generous of species. And little has my kind repaid them that.”
Teriarch hissed, and his voice grew sad. Then his head rose once more.
“That is for now. I will not give you orders. I will not stop you from making war on each other or other species. But bear in mind the consequences. And allow me to give you…a longer goal than your self-interest. After all, you must find your own heroes and leaders to rival Marquin. She was a woman who I saluted on the bloody fields where the last of the great Crelers died.”
His audience shivered, breaking into goosebumps. Seraphel could barely breathe. Now, she thought she knew the name. One of three. But Teriarch was going on.
“I seek a hundred Marquins. A hundred, a hundred thousand. Retemper yourselves, each nation. Try…please try to find that elusive path. I have seen you reach it and go astray. I will be there, taking sides, meddling, all for a day not long in the future.”
“And then? What happens on that day?”
Someone had to ask it. Of all the people, it was Rabbiteater. He sat up, and the Dragon looked at him. Now they came to it, he exhaled.
“There is a foe. There is a foe I found worthy after all this time. Yes. Even I. I, who once swore an oath against almost every nation here. I, who gave up vengeance, for the bones of my foes and those who committed the crimes were dust. Some deeds and monsters are worse than Crelers. When you are ready, that is the foe I hope we will all stand against.”
Now there was a dangerous question. The Dragon peered down at Altestiel. Once again, he spread his wings and vanished.
The Drake stood where he had been, and a shadow spoke on the wall. Mocking the Earl of Rains.
“Come now. Once more—is there no one you cannot name?”
Lord Etrogaer spoke it like an oath, and someone else whispered a second name.
The Drake’s disapproving glare found a single man standing in the back, and the Blighted King’s representative hesitated—and began to tremble, though they did not know what he might say next. Instead, Teriarch spoke.
“This is my promise to you. A day will come when this world must be purged of that which is intolerable. All swords raised, no matter the odds. You may disagree with nations and crowns. My people have always been both foe and friend. Some foes are beyond question. On that day—the true enemies will reveal themselves.”
Rabbiteater’s hand was trembling because even he was listening. That mismatched stare swept the room, and the voice rose.
“If need be, the fleet to end all fleets shall cross The Last Tide and seek truth at the end of the world. But I promise you this: Rhir. Perhaps the innocent shall flee. But a day will come when the sons and daughters of Terandria will sail to that blasted continent and put an end to Rhir’s nightmare for good. A long dream for a sin older than Rhir. The coming war will burn nations to ash. It will break all chains. Horrors lying buried in the sands shall be put to sleep for good. On that day…”
He closed his eyes, and a terrible smile crossed his face. Gentle enough to make Ellet burst into tears, and sharp enough to cut the Summer Champion’s heart.
“I swear to you on that day, the Dragonward Bells shall ring. One last time.”
The promise rang through the Eternal Throne and the banquet hall, and there were no words to follow it. The Dragon’s shadow grew larger—then it flickered out. Leaving only a tired Drake and a promise.
But like the ghosts and visions—they believed. Rabbiteater thought no moment could surpass that, and probably none could. The Drake drew his sword and planted it in the table in front of him. King Reclis leaned back as Teriarch looked down at him.
“So. Calanfer proposes a journey to new lands, eh?”
Reclis managed. Teriarch’s eyes were kinder, now, his vow said. Almost relaxed. But in a sense—he felt more of himself now. For his great promise was spoken—but there was always more for a Dragon. So he chose these words with as much care as the others.
“Then I shall have you back your promises with more than casual effort, esteemed guests. If you are to do this, know the secret to levelling. Passion. Throw yourselves across the ocean by sheer will of it.”
The mortal guests of the banquet hall looked at him. Powerful nations, all. Being invited to Izril by a legend as old as their thrones? Who could be upset?
Well—how about the Naga from Baleros? How about the Five Families? Because, at this, Lady Cosoi Reinhart had to break in. She was very pale as she called out because her family did not have a good relationship with Dragons historically.
Oh, how little she knew. But she did speak.
“I say—I say! Are we, the children of Izril, supposed to take this lightly?”
Teriarch swung his head to her, and she hesitated, but the Five Families were nodding, so Cosoi looked around.
“It is our home! No continent has a better claim than those who have lived and died on Izril.”
“Barely a mayfly’s time compared to the Drakes and Gnolls.”
One of Kaaz’s nobles snorted, and Cosoi resolved to give him a bowel movement that he would never forget if the chance arose. However, her eyes were on Teriarch.
“What is our reward, pray, noble Dragon, for being invaded?”
She meant the Five Families, not the Drakes or Gnolls. But in answer, the Drake just bared his teeth.
“Who said there is nothing for you? I will see you back on Izril. Give Terandria its moment now, Lady of House Reinhart.”
She started, compressed her lips, then bowed as graciously as possible. Well, now, that changed a lot.
The Dragon turned back to the crowd. His head found the guests, Iradoren, Etrogaer, and the representatives of Avel, Noelictus, Desonis, and more. Duchess Greina, Princess Telleis—and he called out.
“So I ask before all here: who will go to Izril and seek the Crossroads? Who will dare to meet every species in peace and strife and reach out across Terandria’s shores?”
He turned and looked around. Now, he was waiting. He did not have to wait long. Hundredlord Cortese leapt to his feet.
“By Kaaz, I swear I shall not spend the end of this month on Terandrian soil! I have been called, and I will go!”
Reclis’ head swung left, and Ielane’s eyes opened wide. This…this was everything they wanted. Surely? So why did all her Skills and instincts start blaring a warning?
But more people were calling out. Lord Etrogaer was hesitating, but members of his congregation were swearing it. Greysten wrestled with his own duties—and Dame Voost and the Winter’s Watcher’s hands—as he tried to shout out.
Teriarch turned, and it seemed as though the Drake were staring into every eye. But he really wasn’t. He looked and waited. That kindly old man.
A [Princess] stood frozen. She felt like she were walking through the Eternal Throne. On daises of light, but ones she had seen a thousand times.
And while she despaired, while she wept inside, a door and a garden, full of strange roads and paths forwards, opened. A terrifying sight compared to the well-worn palace around her.
Her mouth trembled at the thought. It wouldn’t work. But she thought she heard Queen Marquin’s voices and the other [Ladies].
“If you wait, that day will never come. Better to weep and gnash your teeth now than to do it forever later.”
Which of them had said that? Not Marquin. She had looked Seraphel in the eyes and laughed.
“My grandchildren are timid. You looked better terrified, riding with life and death in your mouth. The vomit on your tongue and terror in your veins is how you know you were alive.”
…As inspirational quotes went, it wasn’t the best. She had said more—but Seraphel got the meaning.
She was clasping her hands together so hard her nails dug into her palms. More and more people were standing up.
“Desonis shall go. And I swear it in the Sleeping Queen’s name.”
Earl Altestiel. Altestiel and Cortese, and now—Seraphel was almost afraid to look around. For two heads were seeking hers. And it was—it was just a fancy. It was not something you should make life choices around.
It was a bathroom encounter. Yet—that silly Menrise stood up.
“Tourvecall shall send at least one [Lady]! Mother—”
She actually turned to Lady Ficombe. The goldfish bowl-wearing [Lady] almost had an apoplexy before everyone, and the Dragon actually chuckled. But then Menrise was bowing, and that just left two.
Rabbiteater, who glanced around and laughed in his own way.
“Of course I’m going home.”
He tilted his head, and Seraphel thought he was looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She closed her eyes, and her heart was beating out of its chest. Just like it had, once, when she saw a [Singer] appear in Afiele. Just like all the best and worst moments of her life.
It did not feel like that piece of lead when she stood before a wedding altar three times. Her head rose, and she thought she could hear Cara’s song. It and every part of Seraphel were pushing her forwards.
The only thing that held her back was her fear. So the [Princess] opened her mouth and called out.
She coughed. She actually coughed, and heads turned to her. Prince Iradoren, Rabbiteater—Seraphel coughed and turned beet red. She fumbled for her words as Aielef and Ellet turned to her.
“That is—I promise that Calanfer will not forge this pact lightly. As a sign of our intent, our goodwill—the Eternal Throne will send one of its daughters to Izril. Me. By the Eternal Throne, I, Princess Seraphel du Marquin, will join this great expedition, for better or worse.”
She felt dizzy. Light-headed. Ebullient. And she couldn’t wait, secretly, to see how much of a punishment she would get.
There. I said it. Now, I’ll never make it. But at least I can say I tried.
Tears ran down her cheeks. Because she just knew what was coming next.
Queen Ielane and King Reclis had realized what she was trying to do in that moment. Ielane couldn’t well stop Seraphel so obviously by holding her mouth shut—but she could still salvage a bad situation.
Which was with an apologetic laugh. A distressed one, to indicate that Seraphel was swept up and making promises that, obviously, she didn’t have the authority for. Reclis would, in turn, promise the Eternal Throne would put its support behind the effort but that Seraphel was spoken for, hinting at a marriage.
Before rumors spread, they took a loss to avoid this blunder. Ielane raised a hand to her mouth to crush her daughter’s dreams. She opened her mouth—and nothing came out.
The [Queen] blinked. She tried again, but her mouth didn’t move, and no one noticed her amidst all the cheers and exclamations. Reclis was giving her the urgent side-eye—now was the moment. She knew that. But why…?
Ielane’s mouth moved again, then she tried to rise urgently. But she couldn’t. Someone was holding her down. Ever-so-gently. Just like he held her mouth closed, or rather, the words inside.
She looked up, and a single eye of heliotrope found her. A Dragon nodded to Seraphel, and Reclis tried to speak. To rise. But the Dragon innocently blocked the words from coming out. It wasn’t much, he liked to lie.
Just a few words. A bit of hope for a girl. He looked at Seraphel, staring at her immobile parents, and remembered why he liked to wake up in the mornings. A tearstained face swung towards him, and he bowed. Time he was off.
Perhaps they would never remember this day. Perhaps, in the years to come, they would forget him as surely as he might forget some of them, no matter how hard he tried. But for now—[Princess] Seraphel du Marquin shed a bunch of tears as Rabbiteater and her friends approached and began to tease her gently.
A Dragon came to Calanfer’s Eternal Throne. Gently, as he set everything aflurry and aflame as he was wont to do, he pried a few bars loose. Then he left, and a [Princess] followed thereafter, looking around and blinking in the light.
As for the Goblin? He just laughed and laughed, because in the end?
He really was going home.
Author’s Note: I ran out of gas during the writing of this chapter. Which I hate to do because I usually manage my energy well. But sometimes it happens and I only hate it because it’s a sign my writing quality goes down.
Unfortunately, it was in the big, important moments. I will have time to edit, although I note that this 2-day writing isn’t really reducing word count. Let me just check how much it is before the third day of edits?
…36,000 words in two days. Yup, yup. I’m not reducing the goalposts, I’m just kicking the same goals and uh, also editing. I don’t have a soccer analogy for that. Or football.
I don’t care. I’m done! I hope you like it. I like writing, I just have very poor self-management. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sore, I’m hallucinating bugs or monsters out of the corner of my eye, and I will see you later. Did you think this was a good side story poll? Let me know how you liked this and see you next chapter!
Xrn, Rabbit Poo, and Valeterisa and Mons by Brack!
Rabbiteater by Kalmia!
No Gods, No Masters by Darko Jovanov. Commissioned by dado!