[I wrote an essay because…because. Check it out here.
Some day, huh?
What were you supposed to do after meeting a Dragon? Cold shower, lots of cuddling with significant others? Talk with friends and make sure you hadn’t gone crazy?
The funny thing was that the instinct to run around in the streets and scream that you’d met a Dragon or wait for your interview with Wistram News Network didn’t happen. Not a single noble, nor even the servants or staff, talked—publicly, at least.
There were doubtless a lot of late-night talks with family and friends, but the Eternal Throne had issued a clamp order, and the Thronebearers had a word with everyone. The second reason why the nobility didn’t talk publicly was because they were busy screaming at their respective rulers, who were busy screaming back lots of questions.
Now, if this were the archetypal fire-breathing Dragon that left a lot of ash and bones in its wake, of course no one would hide the truth. But if you felt like you had just received an invitation from a creature of legend—that was a different card you kept closer to your chest.
So no news leaked…immediately. Which was to say a lot of people heard that night, from the Iron Vanguard, who had a really bad time in their respective toilets at the emotions that produced, to the Quarass, to Rhisveri himself. Yet the populace was ignorant of the facts.
Some day. The world was full of enough exciting news as it was, frankly. Even if no one threw a Dragon into the mix—this felt like a year to be alive. New lands, wars, Antinium crusades? Why were you staying in your job scraping barnacles off a ship or grinding herbs in a mortar and pestle?
Adventure waited. If you stayed here, now—you could never again complain that you’d missed your moment to shine.
Even so, some people stayed put. They said, ‘yes, new lands, adventure, magic, the Archmage of Izril, the beginning of a better era. But…I just don’t have enough silver to buy a sword or something. Where would I begin?’
And that was the end of that. The impetus to action was dividing families, driving young—and old!—out of their homes, provoking change.
For instance, Liska Coresh Silverfang was considering leaving her job. Coresh and Silverfang were her two last names, incidentally. She was technically a Silverfang; she and her brother, Ishkr, had been born before coming to Liscor, but they weren’t the ‘tribe’. So City Gnolls often took another last name and thus developed a middle one if they hadn’t already.
Anyways, Liska was seriously considering leaving her job. She didn’t like being the door-Gnoll in The Wandering Inn. Oh, it was exciting, but she hated working for family. Her annoying older brother was bad enough at home. At work? He was always giving her orders, and she had a hard enough time obeying the Watch.
But Shashi wanted a job at the inn, and she thought it was so fantastic—if dangerous. Which was getting on Liska’s nerves too. They might break up. But the dating scene was really poor in Liscor, and forget about Pallass. They’d actually arrest you.
Even Invrisil was apparently quiet. But Liska hadn’t gotten enough time off from her job to really find a contact point. Which was part of why she wanted to quit.
But she stayed. Oh, the Gnoll with light grey fur and a snaggle-tooth that other Gnoll boys found attractive until she spat on them was too young to worry about a permanent job. She liked the perks of the inn, like the weights-room, free scrying television, and food—but she didn’t like having to change the magic door every five seconds.
Or Ishkr. It was mainly Ishkr. Liska would admit, under torture, that she had some affection for him. He was just so…boring. He never got fired from his job. He took care of Liska in the sense that he often bailed her out if he found her in the Watch’s lockups, and he was always scolding.
‘Do this, do that, don’t kiss in public, stop antagonizing the older Gnolls, don’t throw rocks through a window of Peslas’ inn for being a speciesist.’
Brotherly stuff. But Liska stayed. Even though she was thinking of leaving with all the Antinium and Goblins coming to work here. Not because she hated them; they made her job easier. If anything, that was a reason to quit working because she wouldn’t leave Ishkr holding down an entire inn.
Erin and Lyonette had no idea how hard it was to work with just two Gnolls for an entire inn! Ishkr had kept it running for ages by himself. True…Liska might have quit, but even so, he’d been alone.
Anyways, she was staying out of solidarity. His girlfriend had just broken up with him.
Now, Erin, upon hearing that, might then expectorate all the liquid from in her mouth outside of her body. Ishkr had a girlfriend? Well, yes. Had.
Liska was angrier about it than Ishkr that morning.
“What did she say? Ishkr?”
He was combing his hair. Just the face and arms; they’d eat in the inn. It was so early Liska was yawning, but Ishkr replied quietly.
“She said she’s going to go with the Silverfangs. She was angry that I wanted to stay at my job.”
“Keisha said that? Where is she?”
“Don’t go and fight her. And come on—you’re late. Where are your shoes?”
He meant the wide, cloth sandals that Gnolls favored. Liska gave him a blank look.
She cast around the small apartment they shared. It was only two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen and dining room, but they made it work.
The deal was that if one person came back late at night from partying or working, they didn’t wake the other one up. They both had a key, and if you made noise enough to wake the other, you were immediately smacked.
The second deal was—if you saw a loop of cloth around the doorknob to the apartment, you never entered. Even if the apartment were on fire. Lest you see something you would never forget.
Ishkr growled. He looked around, and the two finally found Liska’s sandals under the table where she’d kicked them.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
The apartment was sorta clean. Neither Liska nor Ishkr cleaned up much; he did that as a job and refused to deal with her messes. If anything, her boring brother barely spent time here.
“Why do we have to get up at the crack of dawn? Why don’t we stay at the inn?”
Ishkr paused. He put on his apron; he was so ‘professional’ that he was never late. And he kept clothes from work.
“I don’t want to inconvenience Miss Solstice. She used to have only a few rooms. Besides, it’s dangerous sometimes.”
“Monsters. Bar fights—anything.”
“Hah, I bet there were only a dozen Crelers.”
Liska laughed, but uncertainly. She had never actually heard how many there were. Ishkr had been there, and he’d refused to talk about it. She’d heard from the Watch that an entire army had been surrounding the inn. If Ishkr hadn’t talked about it, it had probably not been that bad. Plus, Senior Guardsman Relc had been there, among others.
“What about now? We could get free rooms. Each!”
Ishkr sighed as Liska imagined a room of her own.
“Erin locks her doors at night. No coming back after dawn for you.”
“Damn. What if you get a room and I stay here?”
He did not dignify this with a response. Ishkr pushed open the door, and Liska trailed after him. Her brother snapped, looking vexed.
“Come on, we’ll be late.”
“Why are you so…like that? You’re not even crying that Keisha broke up with you.”
She waved her paws at him. He had been seeing Keisha for two months. She’d been really worried after his dry spell of three years. Keisha was another hard-worker who’d been apprenticing herself under Raekea’s Foundry, and Liska was privately glad she wasn’t going out to defend Ishkr’s honor. Keisha could probably take them both in a fight.
She was also very annoyed. Yes, Ishkr was boring, but he was reliably boring. Keisha just had to go off and leave him? She trailed after Ishkr, asking more questions.
“How is The Wandering Inn safe? I didn’t hear you sniffling last night.”
Gnoll noses and ears were too advanced to keep secrets. Ishkr just sighed.
“I wasn’t that surprised. It didn’t feel like it was working out.”
He gave her a side-glare.
“Why? Why? Why? Whywhywhywhy—”
She followed him down the stairs, lowering her voice since this was an apartment complex. But Ishkr finally snapped back.
“Because she kept trying to drag me to her family and friends and kept hinting about having children.”
Liska was so astonished she was still for an entire twenty seconds. By the time she ran after Ishkr, he was halfway down Scuttle Street.
It was named after Shield Spiders and had a bit of an octagonal design with the streets which branched off the main street into eight sub-blocks; a kind of suburb that was attached to a larger street. It often got crowded at rush hour, but they were too early for that. Hexel had apparently sworn to remodel this section of Liscor personally.
“She wanted to start a family? You didn’t say!”
“You could have told me.”
“I could have.”
The siblings’ argument was punctuated by a scuffle that a passing [Guardswoman] saw. The Drake eyed the two hitting each other lightly and seemed to recognize they were siblings.
“Morning. No entry to this street. Please move along.”
Liska glanced up, instantly annoyed, but Ishkr just peered past the yawning Drake as she pointed.
“I thought they were clean!”
There had been the bad smells, and the sewers always had problems, but adventurers kept them clean, and they hadn’t had bad blockages for ages. People said that the city was using some new way to clean them, and that was great. Unfortunately…the [Guardswoman] grimaced, and the two Gnolls noticed she had plugs in her nose-holes.
“We hired some adventurers to supplement the bone r—the cleaning service because of all the influx of people.”
“One of the idiots cast [Tidal Wave]. The backsplash has flooded this street and the next one.”
Ishkr and Liska sniffed the air and wished they hadn’t. You smelled the sewers and bad things all the time, but that was concentrated odor coming from ahead.
“Ah, we’re going to be late.”
Liska realized they’d have to cut through multiple streets to get around this spill. Ishkr just grunted.
“I have to open the inn. And get breakfast—come on.”
He began to jog. Liska kept up easily; of the two, she was actually more fit. Not just naturally either. She had a lot of experience running from the Watch, and she had done more physical jobs than Ishkr who lifted, what, chairs at most?
However, she was lazy, it was early, and so she whined.
“Ishkr, come on.”
He sped up, and she growled at him. She was definitely going to quit. As soon as she made sure he wasn’t drowning his sorrows or really broken up about Keisha. In truth, Liska was a bit disappointed by the lack of emotion. Did nothing change his attitude?
She lost sight of Ishkr, and by the time she rounded the corner, taking the long, long way across Market Street, he was gone. He really did take being the [Head Server] seriously. She rolled her eyes—then groaned.
It seemed like the entire damn city was trying to stop her from getting to work today! Ishkr must have seen the mess in the middle of Market Street. It was a classic Three-Cart Pileup; nothing fancy. A [Merchant] was wailing as he pointed to the spilled cargo.
“My Prelons! They’re the last shipment from Cellidel—”
“Ah, good riddance, then.”
A Drake [Guardsman] glowered as he turned to the angry Human [Trader] who hadn’t given way, leading to the collision. Liska debated wading through the Prelons—then gave up. Now she had to run down another street.
—Straight into a dawn-performance of a bunch of Drakes, Gnolls, and even Humans. The Players of Liscor were rehearsing as a huge crowd of admirers blocked the street. Liska was losing her temper. But she actually recognized the tired Human man shouting at them.
“No, no, it’s prithee! Not ‘pissy’!”
“Oh, that makes a lot more sense in context. Sorry, Manager Temile! Don’t fire me—”
The leader of the Players of Celum for Liscor and Invrisil had come up in the world, but Temile looked tired.
“Let’s take it from the top. Ladies and gentlemen, please, you’re blocking the road!”
He remonstrated with the crowd as Liska ran, now growling, to a fourth street.
By the time she got to the western gates, Liska had a stitch in her side. She was also fifteen minutes late, and she’d started running. She thought she’d beaten Ishkr. He wasn’t a good runner, and Liska staggered over to the door that stood next to the new Adventurer’s Guild, Mage’s Guild, and main Watch House.
It was a good spot for it, and while the door was often used for city-to-city transit, Liska knew she’d left it open. So she yanked the door open, stepped inside, and found herself in the new transit room. She stalked forwards, and a figure detached itself from the wall.
“Miss Liska. Thought you’d be ‘happening by’.”
Alcaz raised his hands as Liska freaked out. She forgot the inn had security these days. Panting, Liska clutched at her heart attack and the stitch in her side.
“I don’t smell or hear you!”
The Brother grinned and tipped his hat to her. Liska turned to the door that led to the trapped hallway. It was the coolest part of the inn to her. She loved all the hidden traps and weapons, though Ishkr had lectured her for an hour last time she’d taken one of the crossbows out to show Shashi.
“Sorry. There was a sewer backflow and a cart pileup and the Players and someone had bees.”
Alcaz raised his brows. Liska shook her head.
“Some idiot [Beekeeper] brought bees to the city and had no idea we have Ashfire Bees. I saw, like, fifty of them chasing the small bees around. How late am I?”
“Er…twenty-four minutes, Miss?”
Liska groaned. They were supposed to have breakfast ready in six! And they’d put the chairs up to mop the floors because that was ‘responsible’, and they needed to warm up today’s breakfast and get the water and—she dashed into the common room as Alcaz stayed put.
“We’re going to be late! Who’s still here for breakfast? Did the Horns arrive back yet? No, it’s only been one day—is Ishkr here yet—?”
Even as a bad employee with little motivation, Liska knew the job from Ishkr making her do it. She entered the common room and came to a stop.
Ishkr looked up from pouring a hot broth into a bowl from a container on a table. The chairs and the tables were perfectly arranged, and plates and bowls were already set out as the first early-morning risers like Architect Hexel and Normen came down the stairs.
He’d beaten her! And he wasn’t even breathing hard! And everything was in place. Her brother gave her a look, but just motioned to the side.
“You’ve got a bowl there. Eat fast.”
“How’d you get here? Did you miss the bee-man?”
“No. Architect, here’s your breakfast. Do you want it here or to go?”
“To go. Day of work. Must slither.”
Hexel was yawning, but he brightened up as Ishkr presented him with something.
“This is for you then, sir. Two ‘coupons’. A meal for you and Mister Elirr at Barehoof Kitchens. Miss Imani said to tell you this was better than a boxed lunch that sits around all day.”
Hexel inspected the colorful bits of paper as Liska tasted the morning’s meal. Imani was still pulling double-duty, although she often just ran her food to The Wandering Inn. Today’s breakfast was a chowder. Yum.
Liska watched Ishkr out of the corner of her eye. No waterworks, and no one else knew he had broken up with anyone. She sat and ate, fast, trying to get to work. Even Liska had a conscience, and Ishkr had told the rest of the help not to turn up until after breakfast.
Which was odd. Now that she was sitting and watching Ishkr, rather than doing whatever chore he assigned her to, she realized the inn really was in trouble.
Oh, sure, Lyonette and Erin were recruiting Antinium, and there were allegedly Goblins coming to be employed, but this inn had permanent guests, a huge amount of space thanks to the [Grand Theatre] and all the improvements, and a regular crowd.
Who but stood in the way of the masses and all the dust, dirt, and unfilled orders? Ishkr. Liska saw the rest of the guests coming downstairs.
Kevin, on the days he didn’t sleep in Esthelm’s bike shop, Imani herself, Palt, Joseph, Relc, Hexel’s three Lizardfolk assistants, Normen, and that was excluding Alcaz, the adventurers, and the rest of the crowd since most were with Erin.
Nor were they easy guests, all of them. Some, like Hexel, only wanted a lunch to go and even skipped breakfast. But Liska had a difficulty chart.
It was one of the few things Ishkr liked and sometimes collaborated on in secret. The Wandering Inn’s secret files. Employee edition. If you read the sacred texts, you might get entries like the following:
(★★) Kevin Hall, [Mechanic or Something]. — Pretty ‘chill’, ‘dude’. Says a lot of funny stuff. Easy to deal with. Just wants food when he’s dying. Sometimes comes back late and hungry. Tips. Shows lots of gadgets and metal.
(★★★★) Pisces Jealnet, (but don’t use his last name), [Necromancer]. — Sniffy. Tell him anything cooked is ‘sous veid’, or if he asks if it’s prepared in such and such style, say ‘yes’ or tell him to talk to Imani. Sometimes goes invisible and complains when you bump into him. Asks for tons of things. Lots of bone dust everywhere.
(★★★★★-★) Mrsha, [Troublemaker probably]. — Steals everything from plates. Lies. If she’s smiling guiltily, something has gone wrong. Do not let her play ball with Ekirra or she’ll kick a ball into someone’s face. She has no ‘dessert permissions’. She has no authority. Get Lyonette or Ulvama to reliably deal with her. May attract monsters. Is rude. Never tips.
You were only supposed to have a 5-star difficulty rating in the system they’d worked up, but Mrsha demanded one more. She had been the worst offender on their system so far along with a few other 5-star guests. Until the latest entry.
(★★★★★-★★) Gothica, [Goth]. — Hides among the corpses in the basement. Sits in cupboards and screams at you. Stares at you in the hallway in the middle of the night or mutters just out of earshot while you’re alone.
Anyways, even if there were no 5-star guests here, Relc was a solid 3-star himself. He was pretty nice, and he’d gotten downgraded after coming back from Cellidel, but he ate a lot, was messy, and somehow at least one chair overturned itself in his presence every single time.
Juggle that with Joseph asking if they had something lighter than chowder and one of the Lizardfolk being uncertain whether or not he was allergic to the chowder and Ishkr got both different meals. This was in between serving everyone, bussing the tables free of plates, and going to let in the crowds at the pre-arranged times from Liscor, Invrisil, and Pallass.
By the time a guilty Liska jumped up, she’d seen Ishkr pass her table eleven times.
“Where do I go?”
“Door. Let in Silveran and the Antinium. They should be coming now.”
Liska went to do just that. She had just changed the dial to Liscor when an Antinium walked in with the new hires.
“Hello, Liska. This is Liska. She works here. You must be very conscientious of her and Ishkr as they are the only two employees.”
Silveran entered with the new Antinium hires. They’d been on the job this last week, but they were still new. And his presence was…if not unusual, slightly unnecessary. Yet ever since the cleaning incident, Silveran had realized he could come here as a paying guest. Which wasn’t bad, but he got 2-stars in the Liska book because he kept cleaning up things and pretending to work here.
Six Antinium trundled in after him. Each one had an apron on, and they were armed with cleaning supplies, and one had a hammer and nails. They’d be useful for fixing small things since four were Workers. The two Soldiers looked quite nervous; Liska eyed them, wondering how they’d use their ‘hands’ to help. But Erin had said it was equal-opportunity after a talk with Pawn, and she was the boss. The weird boss. She was still better than bossy Lyonette. The only appealing thing about her was her red hair.
Anyways, Liska eyed the Workers’ attire. They even had a pawprint in black next to a stylized inn.
“Silveran. Did you buy the Workers supplies?”
The [Cleaner] hesitated.
“If I did, that is within my rights as a related Antinium. Besides, as I note, this inn lacks for the Goblin staff. So if I saw any dust, it would be my responsibility as a citizen to do my duty as a good samaritan and clean it up.”
So that was the angle he was going for this time. Silveran inspected the floorboards as Liska rolled her eyes.
“Well, only a modicum of dirt here. But if we enter the hallway and see the criminally overworked—hmm. Wait. Where is my dirt?”
He hunted around as the Antinium presented themselves to Ishkr. He patiently assigned them each to a chore and watched them as Silveran glared accusingly at Ishkr.
“I see you’ve mopped the floors. And waxed them?”
“I see. I see. How good of you. But have you cleaned Bird’s tower?”
He hurried past Ishkr to the always-occupied Bird’s tower.
(★★★★★) Bird, [Hunter] — Leaves rotting birds in hiding spots. Asks for bird-related food. Lie and tell him that broccoli comes from broccoli birds. Sings okay. It’s mostly the rotting birds.
Silveran came down a minute later, looking mad. His antennae twitched as Ishkr innocently held a bowl of chowder out.
“I see Bird is attended to and the tower is moderately clean. Well done. Well done. Perhaps I shall have chowder after all. Oops!”
The Antinium took the bowl and ‘innocently’ tried to toss it over a table as Liska poked her head back into the inn to ask if they had any more unscheduled guests. She saw Ishkr catch the bowl before it could tip. He and Silveran exchanged another glance as the Antinium turned to stare at them.
“Careful, Mister Silveran. You might not get to work on time.”
“Thank you, Ishkr.”
The two stared silently at each other. After a moment, Ishkr sighed gustily.
“…The Players of Liscor are putting on a performance tonight. Two plays. Would you like to clean up for a small fee afterwards?”
Silveran instantly brightened up. He stuck out a hand, and Ishkr shook it.
“Excellent service as always. Tonight? I will be there.”
Amazing. Somehow, Ishkr actually dealt with the problematic Silveran—which was an issue Liska had never thought would crop up. Indeed, he seemed to be on top of things as she monitored the door.
Liska was yawning by the time morning was done, but she perked up when the most attractive—
Wait a second, it was Gireulashia. Liska sighed. The gigantic Gnoll with brilliant dusky red fur, perfect features, and build was apparently fifteen. And she was accompanied by no less than three of the Ekhtouch Tribe.
Hot. Even the guys were moderately attractive. One older woman and two younger ones, maybe in their late thirties and mid-twenties respectively. Liska saw Gireulashia walk into the inn, and her ears heard them speaking inside from the open doorway.
That was the thing. Even if she had to stand and watch a door, she could at least hear fun things.
They were discussing something slightly fascinating as Ishkr got them a lot of food. Liska heard a growl.
“Chieftain or Chieftain Gire.”
The [Paragon] corrected them. The Gnoll sighed.
“Chieftain Gire. The rest of the tribe is asking where to meet up. Our separated groups are already bound for the Great Plains, but where shall we go afterwards?”
Gire grumbled as she munched on what smelled like a steak. For breakfast? She answered with a younger girl’s complaint in her carefully-enunciated tones.
“Can’t you all do anything? It’s not hard. We’re still nomadic. It’s just—get me a map. A cheap one I can draw on.”
Without a word, Liska changed the dial to Liscor and opened the door for the Gnoll who went back to Liscor. Less than eight minutes later, she had to open the door again and let them back into the inn. She decided to find a seat. Why hadn’t she thought of that? She could just sit, read a book, and occasionally check the door, right?
She took one from the common room, despite Ishkr’s glares. She noticed he was carefully pouring…Liska’s jaw dropped.
“Is that acid?”
A glowing vat of acid was being ladled into jars. Instantly, all the Ekhtouch Gnolls and Gire looked around. Ishkr growled back.
“Yes. Erin has the acidfly traps, remember? Someone forgot to check them yesterday.”
His look of accusation made Liska turn her head and whistle. Another jar was being filled with dead acid-flies.
“What do we do with the acid?”
Ishkr gestured to a bag of holding that the inn’s staff could use.
“I’ll take it down to the Adventurer’s Guild. They sell it. Or someone could do it. Or bag up the flies—”
“Why don’t I watch the door? I have to let in Pallass’ guests.”
He sighed. Then Ishkr waved away an Antinium offering to help. It was a dangerous job for rookies. You also used some acid for the bathrooms; you tossed it down the toilet. And Erin had a few jars—
“Should I do the toilets, Ishkr?”
Liska offered. Only for today, as a heartbreak younger-sister special. But Ishkr just shook his head.
“I could bring toilet paper…?”
“Really? But Menolit had a really—and I mean, I smelled him—a really bad time—”
“Done. It’s all clean.”
A mystified look passed between Liska and Ishkr, who was sighing at his annoying younger sister. She opened her mouth, then Gire began speaking.
“Here. This is where we can go. It’s very simple. Where’s the red chalk? Okay. Look…”
On the pretext of getting a few magazines and newspapers, like Chess Weekly and the Liscorian Gazette, for her spot, Liska managed a glance at the map. Gire was circling Izril’s south busily.
She was drawing countless red circles around each Drake city and Walled City of different radii. Liska had no idea what made each circle different, but then Gire explained.
“If we’re rallying or moving—we don’t enter these zones if we can. Duh. This is where most armies not on deployment from the cities could be in reach. They’re all hostile right now or untrustworthy. And here—pass me the blue chalk—here are all the tribes’ territories. And this is the uninhabitable spots or dangerous areas in black. Since Plain’s Eye and some big tribes are gone, that leaves us with…”
Liska eyed the map as Gire held it up. The [Paragon] peered at the spots not covered by one color or another. One of the Ekhtouch Gnolls glanced at Liska and then coughed.
“About half a mile on the southeastern coast, Chieftain?”
Gire glared at him. She threw up her paws.
“We go north past Liscor or to the new lands! Both are dangerous. We’re not self-sufficient, but it might beat fighting Humans. We could live in a neutral city too. We’re not that large.”
“Which is it, Chieftain?”
Gire folded her arms and seemed to draw into herself. She sulked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Have them come here, and we’ll strike in either direction. I want to see if the healing potion market is gone for good and if anyone else declares a war. Terandria’s coming to the new lands. So there’s even more danger there. Here’s where they’ll enter, so if we do go, the spots we could secure would be here, here—but we don’t know what’s waiting for us.”
She began pointing more spots out on the map, but Liska’s ears perked up. Terandria, the entire continent, was definitely going to the new lands? Then she saw Gireulashia glance up and realized all the Ekhtouch Gnolls were looking at her.
Flushing, Liska fled. But she did find one more object and put it in the portal chamber.
One of the temporary scrying mirrors that Palt had enchanted. That was when she got to watch Wistram News Network and Sir Relz break the news that a compact at Calanfer was going to send a lot of Humans to Izril.
And wasn’t that a day? Liska sat, yawning as she did her duties to the minimum requirements, and thought that Liscor would be abuzz with people talking about this, and more people would be speculating about leaving for the new lands.
Here she was, just doing her job. The new lands were tempting, vaguely. But if she went—Liska was no fighter. Nor was she a Plains Gnoll in her heart. Besides. If she left, who would keep an eye on Ishkr? He was so boring he’d fade away without her to watch over him.
She only blinked when Ishkr opened the door to Liscor. From Liscor’s side. He walked back in, and Liska stared at him.
“How’d you do that?”
He gave her a blank look.
“The inn is barely a few minutes from the gates. I went down and sold the acid jars.”
“But I thought—”
Liska had seen him less than eight minutes ago fetching Gireulashia half a cake as a ‘snack’ and telling her Mrsha was still at Riverfarm and wouldn’t be back for at least two more days yet. Ishkr sighed.
“Liska, just open the door on schedule, alright?”
He tapped the chalkboard with the times listed and underlined for each spot. Liska was so busy gaping that Ishkr went on overly patiently.
“Antinium can’t do it because it makes the other species who haven’t seen them before nervous. You get off work in four more hours. Break in eighteen minutes. Alright? I’m busy.”
Then he headed back into the inn. Liska craned her neck after him. And all she could think was—
Odd. But then again, even Liska didn’t really think much about Ishkr, and he was her brother. He was so normal. The only normal person in The Wandering Inn.
If the Dragon wasn’t part of today’s news cycle, Calanfer’s diplomatic agreement was. Ailendamus had just lost a political battle, and the Humans were coming to Izril.
…Wonderful. Yeah, what Izril really needed was more Humans. Because that had worked out so well, historically.
Even the Five Families didn’t like it. Here came their royal cousins, who sneered at them from across the pond, coming to lord it over everyone. It accelerated timetables.
In fact, even the Antinium crusade’s danger was getting a bit sidetracked by the new lands. It was amazing, really. One second, the Five Families were worried about the Black Tide, the next, everyone was discussing the land rush.
Then again, Ryoka Griffin supposed she was responsible for a bit of that. She had assured the leaders of the Five Families they had less to fear than they thought. Right now, she was eating as the nobility at the breakfast get-together in The Culpable Appetite, one of First Landing’s finest restaurants, were chattering.
“…just seems to me as if this is not simply a matter for one noble house, but a concerted effort by an entire Family. If not all Five Families. What do you think, Lady Oswen?”
A Terland nobleman was speaking to Lady Buscrei, who almost snorted her tea out of her nose she demurred so hard. He looked appalled, which compounded her point.
“That is a fine idea, Lord Telvin. I can’t see it working. The best is that all Five Families will make their efforts and we’ll try not to stab or step on each other’s feet.”
“But the kingdoms are presenting a united front.”
“Hardly united, Telvin.”
Those amused, mocking tones made Ryoka’s skin crawl a bit. But the slightly droopy [Lord] of House Reinhart smiled unctuously as he broke in, turning from his meal.
“Every allegiance has fractures to be exploited. If anything, joining arms threatens to drown all our endeavors together. Why pretend to civility when this is far more entertaining?”
“Lord Gorthes Reinhart, I have never agreed with you more. Which is really unfortunate.”
Buscrei retorted, and the man smiled coldly at her. He eyed Ryoka as if hoping the Wind Runner would chime in. But Ryoka had her hands full, thanks for asking. She was done with making messes. Yep, yep.
…Which was why it was so discouraging to have a mess all over her clothes. The Culpable Appetite made wonderful food, really. They hadn’t gone all the way into replacing taste with gimmicks like some high-level restaurants did. They mixed a reasonable amount of plain good food with a high-level set of Skills on behalf of their staff.
Such as their advertised ‘Free Brunch’. Which wasn’t free. The nobility would laugh at the occasional [Sailors] or visitors who inquired about it.
What was free was hardly the price in gold. What was free was that you could eat until your stomach was bursting with the sinful food, some of it cooked in butter, and you wouldn’t put on a pound.
And like that, Ryoka realized how Magnolia Reinhart was not dying of diabetes if this were what you could get with high-level [Chefs]. Of course, this appealing meal didn’t mean Buscrei needed it; she had declined the Skill on her food, as had Lord Veltras and a number of House Veltras. They had ordered light breakfasts—
Except for the huge plate of waffles, delicately crisped sugar caramelized on the outsides of the hot pastry. The pockets were filled with syrup, agave, not maple. Just to be interesting? Slices of sweetberry, raspberries, and strawberry were piled on top of the scoop of gelato placed on top of the hot meal.
Ryoka was wearing a quarter of the meal on her front. Sticky syrup was dripping down one leg, and some was, incredibly, mixed with a bit of ice cream sliding down past the neckline of her tunic. On the inside.
To say this was uncomfortable was an understatement. Clearly, at least Lord Gorthes found this mildly attractive for reasons Ryoka did not want to contemplate.
He was not the only one. A [Lady] with hair bluer than the sea reflected out the window was taking a third deep, deep draft of her morning tea as she fanned herself. Lady Ieka Imarris was practically unseen by the nobles as she watched Ryoka from afar.
She would have personally loved to help Ryoka Griffin clean up that appalling mess. Oh my, yes. Of all the coincidences to see the Wind Runner here on business? She was getting distracted.
—Unfortunately, Ryoka was with House Veltras, and even if Ieka would have liked to introduce herself, there was such a thing as timing. As well—the biggest impediment to her socialization was the reason why Ryoka was so unaccountably sticky.
…Ryoka Griffin did not eat like a starving Eater Goat. Even if her enemies would have believed it, the incredible amount of mess generated was not her fault. She had barely eaten a quarter of one of the waffles like a civilized person.
The starving wolverine in question who was adding to the mess was no less than Sammial Veltras. He was gulping down another mouthful of food as Jericha watched in mild horror, and Tyrion Veltras was lecturing him again about table-manners.
But the boy was on a sugar craze—and the second boy on Ryoka’s other leg, currently turning it numb, was Hethon Veltras.
“Hethon, Sammial, you are acting like pigs at a trough.”
Tyrion lowered his voice, but one of the Veltras’ just laughed. Lord Swey, his good hand awkwardly fiddling with a fork, nudged the far younger man.
“Come now, Tyrion. They’re lads who know they can eat as many sweets as they want! Poor Wind Runner.”
“Even one of Oswen’s magical baths won’t save you from that mess. Maybe a dip in the ocean?”
Buscrei teased Ryoka. Hethon looked up guiltily, but he and Sammial were practically glued to Ryoka. Especially Hethon.
Ryoka felt embarrassed. And slightly pleased. When he had come to First Landing, escorted by countless soldiers, he’d run up and given her a huge hug. Now, he and Sammial were so dedicated to not losing Ryoka again, they had insisted on sitting on her lap. Well, Sammial had, and the table was so packed that Hethon had done it mostly to make room. In truth, he was more squeezed against her from one side by Swey; Pellmia; Pellmia’s wife and daughter, Betta and Keireen; their silent son, Gilam, looking annoyed with the gathering; Buscrei, her husband and oldest son who’d ridden out to meet her; two members of House Veltras Ryoka didn’t know by name…
At one table. Their servants and guards stood to the sides and walls, and Ullim, the old [Majordomo], stood with Jericha, Pellmia’s own faithful retainers, their guards…
Lord Tyrion Veltras looked aghast at everything. But half the eyes of the diners here were still on the young Lord Tyrion, who had magically de-aged himself. The other men looked envious, and Ryoka could see why a few [Ladies] looked appreciative.
Tyrion was sort of sharp-looking. He glanced sideways at her, a trimmed, thin beard combed to the exact standards his son lacked. Jet black hair, perfect posture—he glanced at Ryoka’s mess and then coughed and turned his head.
Did his cheeks turn red ever-so-slightly? Ryoka thought the tips of his ears did, but when she saw that, she stared at Sammial’s head very, very deliberately.
“—It would behoove us to let Miss Ryoka clean up. Unless you would prefer a [Cleanse] spell via Jericha, Ryoka?”
He nodded to Jericha, and Pellmia objected.
“We’re not savages, Tyrion. [Cleanse] is not something that is—pleasant—to use on skin. Not to be obscene, but I’ve heard that notion repeated by men on campaign. One poor fellow tried it when he was in—in difficulty in the privy. Excuse my language. He didn’t walk straight for two months.”
Lady Keireen looked scandalized and horrified, but she covered a smile as Swey choked, laughing, on a bite of food. The rest of the diners glanced over at House Veltras as they exploded into laughter.
No wonder House Veltras hated First Landing. They were the rangers of the wild, untamed lands compared to the other Five Families. At any rate, Ryoka had spotted Lady Ieka, and she was fairly certain that fan-waving and the looks the [Lady] was giving her indicated that Ieka wanted to talk.
Ryoka did owe her a huge favor. So she was trying to interject—and ask if someone had a wet napkin—as Sammial talked in one ear.
“And then—and then I met the Waterbear, Hethon. She’s huge! This big!”
He raised his arms and punched Ryoka in the jaw. Sammial lowered his hands as Hethon, the fourteen-year-old, tried to be more dignified. But naked envy was in his eyes.
“What was she like?”
“Grumpy. She was nice at first, but she wouldn’t fight a shark I saw. And she said I talked too much. The Hundredfriends has so many tattoos! And they’re all animals! There was an orangutan, these big birds—even a huge fish-thing that pulled the ship! And—and—”
“Sammy, please don’t talk with your mouth full.”
He swallowed obediently and pointed at Ryoka.
“And she made us fly at the palace! Princess Oesca was okay.”
He told stories like, well, a child, with no real chronology. But Ryoka was just as glad she’d had a talk with Sammial.
“That’s all that happened at the palace, right Sammy?”
No other events? He remembered the injunction on not mentioning the scandalous parts and nodded.
“Nothing else. Nothing weird. Noooope.”
Hethon and even Tyrion gave Sammy and Ryoka instantly curious looks. But it beat him actually blabbing, so Ryoka sighed.
“And what about you, Hethon?”
The adults were talking, but aside from making sure he was fine, even Tyrion hadn’t asked what had happened while Hethon was gone. Ryoka stared at the back of Sammial’s head as she tried to look at the young man.
“Oh—nothing much. I just took my lessons and kept watching the news. I saw Father riding to battle—that was it. Ullim made sure I was well.”
Nothing had happened to Hethon, and he clearly felt like he had missed it all. But Ryoka gave him an encouraging smile.
“At least you didn’t get into any trouble. How’d Oswen treat you?”
He brightened up a bit.
“Oh—well, I did learn how to shoot a bow. And I did hunt a bit—”
“You hunted? No fair!”
Sammial furiously burst out as if this were some great injustice that had to be righted, of all the things Hethon had gotten to do while Sammial was kidnapped. Hethon smirked.
“I helped bag a Marshelk. I didn’t hit it, but I helped track it.”
Tyrion raised his brows, impressed. Lady Buscrei’s husband, Jaeke, leaned over. He was a commoner who had married into the family. Well, he had been Oswen’s [Governor of the Hunt], so it wasn’t purely scandalous.
“Hethon saw the beast faster than anyone else. He’s not learned how to shoot what he sees, but the lad’s got vision like a hawk—no, an owl!”
“I’m glad he distinguished himself to Oswen.”
Tyrion replied automatically. Ryoka blinked at him, and the [Lord] hesitated. Then he turned to Hethon.
“…I hunted my first Marshelk when I was seventeen. You got the chance before me; my father never allowed me to try until I could best a Level 25 [Knight] tilting. We hunted with lances. How was your hunt? Did you eat part of the elk?”
“We used bows and tracked it. It kept running even with arrows in it—we had some of the kill right then and there!”
Hethon described the hunt quite bloodily, and some of the Terlands paled at the thought of slogging through mud and marsh as leeches found you, not the dignified boarhunts or shooting from afar where servants beat the brush. Ryoka smiled as Jericha and Ullim shot her approving glances.
Sammial was fair jealous. He kept stabbing his plate.
“I want to hunt an elk when we get back! And I got to sail with the Waterbear and the Hundredfriends Courier. He called me his friend, and the Waterbear gave me a chunk of her hair when I asked.”
He said this, in the way of brothers and children, to one-up Hethon’s moment in the sun. Ryoka peered at Sammial’s head. She muttered very, very quietly. It must have been recent, but she turned her head to Tyrion and subvocalized.
“…that’s not all she gave him.”
Tyrion blinked at Sammial. Then his eyes focused. It probably hadn’t been the Waterbear. Maybe it was a horse or maybe they’d taken a while to germinate to the point where they were noticeable. Either way, Hethon’s own special eyes focused on his brother, and he practically leapt out of his seat.
Which meant the tiny little white specks that Ryoka was staring at and practically inhaling as he sat on her lap were almost definitely lice. Wonderful. Ryoka Griffin sighed.
“I think I need a bath after all.”
The breakfast in the restaurant broke up fast after that, but the great thing was this: Ryoka did not cut off all her hair.
She had been prepared to the instant she saw the white specks. But one quick visit to the nearest [Alchemist] solved the problem.
“A full soaking in your hair. And clothes. Lords and ladies, you will all need to stand there, please. The restaurant will be dealt with—I regret to say we don’t have enough bathtubs, so we shall go in turns. The afflicted Lord Sammial first. Miss Wind Runner?”
The liquid was deep purple and surprisingly runny. You know the feeling you got when you encountered thicker liquids than water? Syrup and the like? Well—this liquid felt more flowing than water, if that made sense.
It was also, apparently, a great delouser. The [Healer] took Ryoka’s clothes and soaked them briskly but quickly as Ryoka doused her hair. And lest the Waterbear’s good name be sullied, she opined that Sammial might have gotten his lice from one of the horses they had ridden about on or a sailor.
“In my experience, Beastkin do not suffer lice long, Lord Veltras.”
“Well, how dare they be on me? Can I aura them off?”
“I would not try, Lord Veltras. This is far simpler. Wind Runner? You needn’t bathe long.”
“Are you sure?”
Ryoka was understandably concerned about getting all the lice well and truly dead. But the [Alchemist] just smiled.
“We have our methods. Please, step out, and with permission, I shall direct my coworker, Magus Chemille, to enter. She must cast a spell, but I assure you, she will be brief in her observations.”
A female [Mage] entered, and Ryoka felt profoundly unhappy to stand in the nude. But the [Mage] was clinical—she cast one spell.
“[Detect Minute Life]. One moment, Wind Runner…ah, I see a small concentration on your hair. Right here.”
She directed Ryoka to obliterate the scourge, and then it was done. Ryoka felt a lot happier about this method. Sammial himself found it painless; the nobility, especially the male nobility, were vocally upset about being stared at by a man.
“We could ask Magus Chemille to do the same for you, Lord Pellmia.”
“That would be worse. Bring on the [Mage]. I—oh.”
It was the beginning of one of those days. The group outside the [Alchemist]’s shop was joined by several of the nobility from the restaurant who had to be inspected, including Lady Ieka. But joining that number and detecting lice with the help of the adjusted spell was none other than a man with lime green eyes that glowed violet and orange in the pupils as he cast magic. A huge, floppy wizard’s hat and bright indigo completed [Sorcerer] Leireit’s look.
“Lord Pellmia! And the Wind Runner and Lord Veltras. You seem to find yourselves in need of my magical services quite often, don’t you? Don’t worry, [Lords]. I shall be discreet, as embarrassing as it is. Few [Mages] specialize in this kind of magic, but I, Leireit the Sorcerer, can do anything a [Mage] can do with studies with pure willpower and grit!”
He preened, and Magus Chemille rolled her eyes. But Sammial was delighted to see the ostentatious [Sorcerer] once more, and he disappeared as the [Lords] entered the curtained back of the [Alchemist]’s shop.
Ryoka didn’t hear much as she redressed in a new change of clothes until Leireit yelled so loudly everyone heard it.
“What a weapon of war! I mean—excuse me, sir—”
Ryoka poked her head out of the curtains, but Leireit was silent. And when he emerged, he staunchly refused to say which man it was.
It was a really weird day. Lady Ieka, Lord Tyrion—the Five Families were entertaining, but despite the local chaos, all eyes were on the newcomers to Izril.
They had come, half-Elves, Drowned Folk, and even Dwarves, if not all to the new lands directly. Now, Terandrians were making their bid, and Chandrar and Baleros were both making their preparations in secret. The House of Minos had declared it was interested, but like competitors watching everyone else in a dash for the prize, a lot of powers, even the Five Families, were holding their tongues. Waiting to see who moved first, still.
What would push them towards true action was the scrying orb shining in Lady Ieka’s hands as she let a [Mage] inspect her for lice. It reflected a final group of people as they made their push and announcement to the new lands.
A final great power unveiled itself. And like the Dwarves and Drowned Folk—
They were singing.
They came first across the Floodplains. To Liscor’s gates.
That city in the middle of Izril had grown more in popularity day by day. The road passing the Bloodfields had made the city more appealing than a sea-route, especially with the changing tides.
At first, well, the first few minutes as they neared the gates, they were largely unnoticed, aside from the Watch, who called in the newcomers to the Watch Captain.
They were assured that this was not a threat, and so it was as this caravan came through the gates that people began to notice. And the first scrying orbs lit up, and Drassi took over the broadcast from Noass within barely a minute of this group’s arrival.
How could you not? This last power was undeniably more important than any news that could wait.
But that was as the event unfolded. The first person to really see them was actually a Human man.
Temile the [Manager], the [Actor]. He was trudging up to The Wandering Inn to head back to Invrisil and coordinate the Players of Celum.
He would have used the magic door to get to the inn, but someone hadn’t opened it for eight minutes so he decided he’d walk instead. Today, he was feeling a bit out of sorts. A bit…empty.
Oh, he was in charge of the Players of Liscor, who practically fell over themselves trying to impress him. There was some talent here, but there was talent everywhere practically begging to be accepted into the Players of Liscor, Celum, and now Pallass too.
Not that he oversaw Pallass’ branch; he had his hands full with two groups. He was a richer man, now. He had a home in Invrisil, and even if the A-team—Jasi, Wesle, and the rest—had gone north to wow First Landing—
Temile had made it beyond his wildest dreams. He’d been a humble [Guardsman], earning a living with Wesle until the day the man had told him that the new [Innkeeper] in the city had a fun idea.
Now look at him. Even if you’d told Temile the cost would be a thumb…he glanced at his hand and the stump of his digits.
…Well, he’d have counted it as acceptable.
So why was he so maudlin today? It was because while he loved acting, he was passionate for the future of the Players of Liscor and Celum—he had to admit.
He was bored of all the plays. Yes, he had good actors, and two of them were over Level 30, having gained a lot of levels after the A-team left. But all the plays, even Elisial, were done. Yes, Andel was now joined by a small host of competing [Writers] or—as Andel claimed his new class was—[Playwright]—but they were slow.
Plays? He wanted to see hundreds of plays. He wanted the same burning lines of Shakespeare to be filling his mind day in, day out! Erin claimed she couldn’t remember any more plays that were ‘topical’, but dead gods, he’d take the ones she felt she couldn’t give him!
What would make them incomprehensible? Something about where she came from? Temile was certain they were good. Frankly, though, he would have taken more acts on the lines of Frozen, which were just songs you based a narrative around.
“Songs. Songs. Dead gods dammit, we can’t wait for someone to write a musical about—about the Meeting of Tribes. We don’t need to reenact war and tragedy. Give me something purely fun! Give me something joyous to make the people sit up and laugh!”
That was what Temile felt they lacked. Too much of the storm and thunder like Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello. Too many grave men—or women—striding around on stage.
He wanted something funny. Something with music that children would love. Now, Emme thought that it was foolish to cater to youth. Temile was in the other camp. If children couldn’t enjoy an [Actor]’s work, then Kilkran had better stop writing about the ‘actor’s due gravitas’ or whatever because he didn’t deserve his class!
In a sense, Temile was struggling because he was straining towards a genre that well and truly existed—but had not yet entered his sphere of understanding. He was just about to write to their member from Erin’s home, Galina, and ask her if she knew what he wanted. She was one of those high-minded types who enjoyed talking about the art of the stage without the silly prat-falls and jokes that were written into even Shakespeare’s works that made it good.
Then he saw them. They were coming across the Floodplains, and they had emerged from one of those trick-valleys near the city. The man stopped as they rode towards the gates, and he turned his head, staring.
Why not? A few travellers were coming to the inn, but a lot were going in and out of the gates. [Builders] trudging to the new district for work, [Farmers] like the man dressed all in black, with an umbrella of all things, Farmer Himilt, heading to his farm.
[Traders] and [Hunters] and Menolit’s Liscor Hunted party. A bustling city of cityfolk and more, visitors from Invrisil, and Drassi herself. They all turned as this group appeared.
There were over a thousand of them. They rode, of course, on their journey here, and Temile’s attention was locked on them instantly. Drassi dropped her breakfast burrito and looked around for a personal scrying orb.
Who were these strangers? Well, at first Temile thought he saw a new species. Then he realized they were Drakes.
Drakes…with the oddest headwear he’d ever seen. It was a kind of helmet that covered their shoulders, a kind of protective gear that was closer to a second-skin than a traditional helmet. The distinctive covering was also compounded by the riders themselves.
Some sat in wagons, but most rode—ponies. Not horses. The shaggy animals were laden with packs and goods, and the Drakes were smiling and waving. They carried slings, and some had staffs or simple spears. In that sense, they might be warriors—but they didn’t have steel like Pallass’ forces.
“Who…? Who are they?”
Temile had no idea. Even the [Guards] on the walls only knew this group by their designations—allies in the war against the Hectval Alliance. Only one Drake looked around, saw the thousand Drakes descending on the city, and broke into a cold sweat.
“No. No. No, not them!”
Relc backed away, claws in his earholes. He fled into the city, but it was too late.
A thousand Yoldenites were headed straight for Liscor’s southern gates as Temile watched. But hardly in silence. Their laughter and odd calls were punctuated by a strange sound.
The sound was—a rider easily sitting in a pony’s saddle up front. His feet were almost touching the ground, but the Drake had both his claws holding something.
It was a guitar. At least, one variation on the classic stringed instrument so common among cultures. He was strumming on it, a fast, energetic song, and a female Drake was dueting with him in the band of a thousand. In fact, several dozen had stringed instruments, even lutes they began to play.
Temile’s mouth opened wider as the chatter fell silent. He had just one thought in his head: Numbtongue was going to be so upset he missed this.
But even he couldn’t have predicted what would happen next. For, as the caravan reached the city gates and Drassi raised her scrying orb, they began to sing.
A thousand Drakes looked up, listening to the merry tune as it filled the air. They looked at Liscor’s walls, and at the staring Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans. They stared back—but then, as one, raised their heads.
Question. Had you ever seen, or rather, heard a Drake singing? Aside from national anthems, it was a rare sight. But now, as one, the Yoldenites raised their heads.
And their voices blended together in the most incredible choir that Temile had heard in his life.
“♪Ooooh. Oooooh, oooh oo~♬”
There were no words at first, just a combined voice as the first wagon rolled past a Silverfang Gnoll of the plains who craned his neck and pinched himself hard to see if he were dreaming.
Then the Yoldenites began truly singing. The female Drakes began first.
“They’ll look high and then look low—
—But we’re higher than you’ll know
When we draw our slings they’ll hear us cry.”
A trio of Lizardfolk hid behind Hexel as the Lamia looked around to see if someone was pulling a prank on him. Young men and women Drakes waved at the Lamia as they passed. Then the men, young and old, took over.
“A Walled City’s got a few neat sights
But you’ve never seen a wall like ours
Yayde Re—keep a helmet on your head!”
Both sides joined in on that part, that famous greeting from the Drake city of Yolden. By now, they were on Pallass’ news network as Noass and Sir Relz stared in the same dead silence.
Like Liscor and most of the world. Even the most worldly of Drakes like Sir Relz might know of Hectval—but not Yolden except as a joke.
Well, the joke had a song. And it was quite beautiful and patriotic in its way. If you managed to get to the words.
Lism stood with his [Councilmember] robes next to Krshia Silverfang, hand raised to shake…the first Drake rattling a tambourine? A young man whirling an empty sling? Olesm had written to him about Yolden, but he had left out the details.
“They’ve got crossbows, bows, wands, and swords
But so long as it comes from overhead I won’t feel a thing
So I’ll keep a helmet on my head and breakfast in my pack
For music I’ll toss a stone and hear their helmets ring!”
There was only one thought in Lism’s head when he saw the conflagration descending on Liscor. It was a mix of chagrin and a realization—
Liscor needed an anthem.
This was news. Ryoka Griffin realized she was staring at the scrying orb with the rest of the nobility. Some of the Five Families looked horrified or amused or both.
In fact, while not everyone would see this live—any number of important people would watch the Yoldenites’ entrance into Liscor.
There was just something…purely cultural about them. Something unique. And yes, you could be mean about it.
Or good-spirited. Or both. For instance, the King of Destruction, that conqueror of an entire continent, nearly met his end this day. He laughed so hard he actually cracked two ribs.
“They’ve got [Archmages] and they’ve got Named-ranks.
They’ll set them at our flanks, but so long as I’ve got a rock we’ll be fine.”
However…Ryoka Griffin saw someone tapping their foot and nodding to the song. Lady Buscrei was listening appreciatively, and Ryoka realized—this was her kind of music. Hells, the Yoldenites might be her kind of people.
They entered Liscor like a musical storm and a single song.
“Send a catapult or bring a hundred mauls
You’ll never get past Big Wall
Yayde Re, keep your helmet on your head!”
Proud as could be. Which, to be fair, was far beyond Ryoka as an entire people. If you were going to enter a city, well.
The Yoldenites certainly had style.
“Donei! What a city! Hoi there, are you Commander Olesm’s uncle? I told him we’d be by to visit now we’ve got Hectval running tail-first!”
A Drake officer swung herself out of her saddle as a crowd gathered. It was impossible not to gather. Even if you just wanted to stare. And many people, like Temile, were just watching. The [Manager] was taking notes as fast as he could, and since he didn’t have parchment, he was writing on his arms and shirt.
At this, Lism finally managed to smile. He reached out, and a beaming young woman took his clawed hand and pumped it up and down.
“Oh. Yes. Councilmember Lism at your service. And you are…?”
“Captain Voita! Ah, doine! It’s [Major] Voita! Yayde Re, Councilmember! Hey there! It’s the Councilmember of Lism, and he’s not an egghead! Get over here, you lot!”
She said the word again. Then three dozen Drakes were lining up to shake his hand.
“How do you do? Yayde Re, Councilmember! I’m a [Mayor] myself. Lemel.”
A [Mayor]? Then he was like a city governor! Lism turned to the Drake who was in charge of Yolden’s city—but an older Drake with bright silver scales, a rarity, elbowed him aside.
“I’m [Mayor] Brieese!”
“Another [Mayor]? Er—”
“Hold on—[Mayor] Zollost here! Hello, Miss Gnoll! Who’re you? Doine, look at all the Humans and Gnolls here! That [Commander] didn’t exaggerate, did he? And look! An Antinium!”
“How many [Mayors] do you have in your city?”
Lism exploded until he realized his mistake. The Yoldenites practically fell off their ponies howling with laughter as they dismounted. Voita grinned.
“Good one! Big Wall’s got tons of towns behind it. And we all wanted a place to visit Liscor!”
They were so merry and friendly that Lism felt shocked. But that was nothing compared to how the Lizardfolk and some of the Plains Gnolls reacted. They stared as Drakes shook their claws and backed away.
“Are they sick? I’ve never seen a Drake smile for that long. Most of them probably think it’s unhealthy.”
Krshia whispered to Lism, but in range of Drassi and the scrying orb’s hearing. Which just provoked further hilarity. And in response? A Yoldenite heard Krshia and tapped her shoulder since he couldn’t really remove his helmet that easily.
“Hey, we hear that time and enough. ‘Least you’re not spitting our way, Councilwoman!”
Krshia instantly ducked her head, abashed.
“I did not mean that as an insult, no, Mayor. My apologies.”
He grinned in response. Or rather, he never really lost it.
“We don’t mind! If you can’t smile at least once a week, what a life to live, eh? Which is pretty much all of Hectval, Luldem, and Drisshia. But we’re a proud city come to visit our new friends and neighbors! ‘Sides, we don’t see many other species that often. Not that we mind! We’re just too far away to visit. Look! That Gnoll is a giant!”
He whirled and pointed, and Gireulashia froze as she poked her head through the gates. Instantly, all the Yoldenites shouted almost as one.
“Donei! She’s huge!”
“Is it something she eats? Get me some of that and load up my plate!”
The last Yoldenite turned in delight to her companion.
“Look! More of those Antinium everyone hates! Just walking about! I told you Liscor was going to be weird. In a good way.”
She glanced over and saw Watch Captain Zevara staring at her with mouth slightly ajar.
These were the greatest Drakes that had ever been seen. Drassi was delighted and already pushing forwards to interview the first Yoldenites. But it begged the question.
“Er—may I know why you’re coming, esteemed friends? Liscor is a great ally of Yolden. But we had no word you were coming on diplomatic business. We would have prepared a reception—”
Voita chuckled along with the leaders of the towns.
“We wouldn’t make you host a thousand of us! Mind you—your city’s big enough, but no. We’re not here for diplomacy. Things are going well enough; we’ve come here to buy!”
More than one person perked up at this, including the two [Shopkeepers]. Voita produced a full bag of coins and jingled it as she patted the loaded packs they’d brought with them.
“That’s right! Heard we could get to Pallass and Invrisil too. We’re hoping to buy and sell, but buy more than we sell, even! We’ve got helmets and goods from Yolden for sale. All kinds of magicore and stones. But the helmets’re the real good stuff.”
Some people snorted at this, but Watch Captain Zevara’s head rose, and she remembered a popular phrase that every [Soldier] serving around this region knew.
Nothing kills a Yoldenite from above. In fact, an impatient [Strategist] was, at this very moment, hammering on Pallass’ side of the magic door. Chaldion had sent him to requisition as many helmets as their budget would allow.
Unfortunately, Liska was too busy watching the spectacle. And the Yoldenites knew how to sell their goods.
“See, a lot of folks laugh at our helmets, but they’re comfortable as a second skin. They don’t dent or knock your head about. And you can do this and not feel a thing. We live with rocks falling all the time, see?”
Voita drew a hammer from one of the wagons. A real hammer, used to repair the wagon. Without even giving the Drake next to her a warning, she smacked the hammer straight across the back of their head.
The other Yoldenite, Mayor Brieese, didn’t even move as the hammer bounced off their head. It didn’t look like Voita had held back, either. Gireulashia herself blinked.
That wasn’t bad! However the Yoldenites made their helms—even a [Knight] in unenchanted plate would notice that kind of blow. But Brieese didn’t even seem to react, which suggested it hadn’t even been felt.
“That’s quite something!”
Lism was as astonished as everyone else, and he saw the value of those helmets instantly. But that begged the question—
“What are you intending to buy? I am a [Shopkeeper] myself, and I could happily sell you whatever you need.”
“Ah, doine! What luck! We’ll be going browsing for fun stuff, but we need a lot of supplies. Mostly nails. Raw iron and steel by the wagonload. We can forge it decently, but Yolden’s too far from any good material. All we have is magicore. We’re planning on heading to the new lands. We’ll need a lot of stuff we can’t get back home, and Liscor’s far better than the Heckies.”
“You’re going to the new lands?”
By now, Krshia’s brows were lost in her own mane of hair. Major Voita grinned in reply.
“Why not? I heard everyone’s going, and us Yoldenites know the wilds better than anyone else. We reckon we’ve got the best shot to make something special. We’re planning on heading out within the week if we get everything we need from this trade caravan.”
She looked straight into Drassi’s scrying orb as she said that. And then she really set the rooster among the hens. Or as the Yoldenites would say it—she tossed a stone straight up the mountain and watched the avalanche float down.
“They’re going to the new lands of Izril? Those half-literate yodeling idiots?”
“If they’re going—I’ll be damned if we’re stuck behind a group of helmeted fools camping on the prime ground!”
That was the broad sentiment that went up from countless cities. And it was what triggered the flood. Not the idea of the King of Destruction or the House of Minos making a bid for the lands. Not the half-Elves beating everyone to the punch.
The casual, perceived arrogance of Yolden. It was one thing to have a world power steal a march on them, but the idea of a group of Drakes on ponies shouting Yayde Re as they passed you by?
It put a fire behind every single person planning on their own moment. It did remind them that, despite this new area being a vast amount of land, the best spots were finite, and even small cities were moving. So, in many cases, timetables were expedited.
And as everyone knew—that was how you beat the competition and enjoyed successful ventures.
So who were the competitors? Actually, what were the stakes? The interesting thing about the new lands was just that; they were new and an unknown quantity in terms of riches.
This wasn’t like magicore—which was actually extremely valuable if you had the buyers and industry. Yolden might have been a rich city if it had only been more accessible, although Wall Lord Ilvriss had no idea what the quality of their magicore was.
He added it to his notepad as he sat with Alrric, planning out the venture. The Gnoll [Administrator] was humming to the Yoldenites’ song, which, you had to admit, was catchy.
Then again, Alrric had been in a fine mood for weeks despite the tragedies at the Meeting of Tribes. It seemed like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Ilvriss suspected that, perhaps, another child was on the way. But that was just supposition, and he didn’t inquire into personal affairs that deeply.
“So—do we know anything about the value of this land? Or is the entire grab purely based on it being free land and speculatively wealthy?”
“…The latter, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss sighed. It reminded him of companies bidding on new mining seams. They sometimes dazzled themselves with the idea of grabbing possibilities without exploiting known veins. Like the Adamantium vein that had so profited the Gemscale company.
Speaking of which, Alrric glanced at his notepad.
“I won’t say it’s not profitable, Wall Lord. But if you want to launch this project, we need to cooperate with as many other companies as possible. You, personally, and our company at large are not prepared for this kind of undertaking financially.”
“We have vast reservoirs.”
Ilvriss knew that, and Alrric raised his brows.
“Oh, of course. We’ll be eating into them month by month unless we supplement the costs. I don’t know if your family would appreciate the next generation having nothing in the treasuries, though.”
Does it matter if we’re all undead? Ilvriss kept his face blank, and he made a show of nodding.
“Fair, fair. Then let’s start from the beginning. What are the stakes? Who are our competitors? What are the known risks, and what kind of assets can we bring to the table?”
He folded his claws, and Alrric checked his files. The Gemscale Company of Salazsar was not blind. They had already been making preparations for this endeavor, but it spoke to each person or nation’s culture and personality how they wanted to settle the new lands.
For instance, Ilvriss treated it like a corporate endeavor. He had a meeting with the other big houses that Alrric had reached out to regarding a joint venture. This was a quick summation right now.
Frankly, Ilvriss wanted to explore the new lands. The young Drake in him was calling out for adventure, but he had other…projects he wanted to work on. Putting on a good show would be important. Plus, if all these workers were moving around, he could probably hide a few hundred [Miners] in all the chaos.
He had a lot of digging to do. Alrric was just beginning the brief when a Drake entered the room. Ilvriss instantly stood with consternation.
Wall Lord Zail entered the room, using a cane, but walking fairly upright. The dent in his skull was covered by a fashionable cap, and his eyes were steady.
“Ilvriss. Are you beginning a meeting regarding these new lands?”
“Yes. Of course. I was planning on meeting with…”
“House Erchirite? Among others. I had a word with Zazse Erchirite. She’s amenable to the idea and has spoken to the board. I’ll go with you.”
Ilvriss blinked as Zail took a seat. Zazse Erchirite wasn’t serving on the board of Wall Lords and Ladies that ran that company who had famously created the Erchirite Spears. But she was the former chairwoman and would have a lot of power.
Zail sat as Alrric coughed into one paw. Normally, Ilvriss didn’t expect the two to get along, but the [Administrator] didn’t snipe as always. And Zail…
“By all means, Ilvriss. Don’t let me stop you. I’m just observing, if I may, Wall Lord.”
He deferred to his son, and Ilvriss hesitated before sitting back down. Now there were three people in the room as Alrric found his notes.
“Let’s see. Back to Ilvriss’ themes. Value, competition, dangers. We have no reports of any new resources outside of purely land-related objects. There have been Garuda and Oldbloods flying the area, but [Scrying] spells are impossible to use since the area is not coordinate-charted or however [Mages] do such things, let alone [Geomancers] analyzing the substrate. I expect this will persist for a long time, even with the Archmages and other magic-users on the case. I’m also adding this to our ‘hazards’, because it will mean any exploration has to happen manually, and we will not be able to see what’s out there.”
Alrric got a nod from both Drakes. Ilvriss tapped a claw on the table, then stopped, adjusted his posture so he was sitting more professionally, and tried not to watch Zail out of the corner of his eyes. He felt like a boy again.
“And so where is our profit? Mostly in the land itself.”
Less valuable by far. Salazsar was not exactly cramped for room. Ancestors, northern Izril had yet to expand everywhere! But Zail shook his head slightly, and so did Alrric.
“That’s assuming there’s nothing of value, Ilvriss. But let me paint a picture. Let’s say an opportunistic group sets up a colonial-type area. It has no resources, even if others find anything. I would still call it a heavy incentive to be there for one main reason: our neighbors.”
“Ah. Oh, I see.”
Ilvriss flushed. Alrric produced a spreadsheet of underlined items.
“These are a list of goods that Drowned Folk and half-Elves create, from their specialty woods, bows, sea-based alchemical items, and more. I don’t know about half-Elves, but Drowned Folk are hungry for our best gemstones for their ships’ protective spells. We stand to cut out all the Zeres tariffs we’ve been eating century after century.”
Now that did put a smile on Ilvriss and Zail’s faces. That alone was worth a massive amount of gold, so Alrric outlined a plan unique to House Gemscale.
“My proposal, Wall Lords, is not to prospect. Some nations will do that. I suggest that House Gemscale mobilize a force with the express goal of finding a suitable trade route and capturing it. Invrisil has become a rich city not just due to the patronage of Magnolia Reinhart, but because it is where everyone goes. One city that provides access across the new lands safely?”
“We’d be rich. We often forget how important free travel is. The Walled Cities maintain the roads to keep commerce alive.”
Zail murmured. Alrric nodded.
“Worth established. I’d also like to point out this: there are almost certainly things to find in the new lands, if only relics of old.”
Now, Ilvriss was hungry again, and Alrric produced several mage-images and sketches taken by Zeres’ expeditionary fleets. He grumbled in the back of his throat.
“We had to pay a small fee to receive the mutual intelligence from our friends, but all the Walled Cities will have seen this—look. A city.”
It was just broken ruins, from what Ilvriss could see, set against a blasted beach stretching for miles upon miles inland. Still—there was a lot of green for what had been seabed before. He suspected that the Gnoll ghost who had cast the spell had accelerated the greenery’s development. Another action that might make things interesting.
“A ruined city. There are artifacts, possibly even spells or blueprints here. Or nothing at all. What I am certain is—this is not a simple venture. We need specialists.”
Ilvriss nodded. More profits, more risk. Alrric handed Ilvriss and Zail a sheet with the word ‘Hazards — New Lands Venture’ at the top.
It had about eight entries in red on one column, and the other column had over three hundred, all in black with question-marks appended. The [Administrator] smiled as Ilvriss and Zail eyed the unusually brief paper.
“This, Wall Lords, is a list of possible dangers we might encounter. I have eight known threats. The rest is a list I compiled, and I’m sure we’ll add to it.”
Ilvriss glumly inspected the sheet. Known threats?
[Pirates], Shifthold*, competing forces, crabs…
“Oh come on, crabs?”
“The only wildlife spotted so far by ships, Wall Lord. The point is that we have no idea what’s out there. We’ll be fighting them and other cities, other species—not to put too fine a point on it, but how likely is it a Lizardfolk colony would clash with, say, Manus?”
Ilvriss ground his teeth together and cursed Alrric for being right. Zail just nodded.
“So the competition is…?”
The Gnoll gave him a happy smile.
The two Drakes waited. Alrric spread his paws.
“Gentlemen. Ilvriss, Zail. Even with all my Skills, I do not have time to write down every single nation, [Merchant] over Level 30, and [Innkeeper] in existence. Everyone wants to go to the new lands.”
“Yes, but the amount of people who can venture out is low.”
Ilvriss smiled at Alrric’s exaggeration, but the Gnoll just gave him a long look.
“Yolden has made its move. You…haven’t been walking past the Merchant’s Guild lately, have you, Wall Lord?”
Zail and Ilvriss hesitated. They had people to get them coin, and the Merchant’s Guild was on the lower floors. Alrric nodded.
“You might want to take a peek.”
It was not unique to Salazsar’s Merchant’s Guild. In fact, the largest notices were plastered across many guilds in a region, whereas the smaller offers were specific to a few cities depending on the power of that particular guild or [Merchant].
[Merchant] Concie’s Venture to the New Lands! Sign up now with applicable classes* to journey to the new lands! Food, supplies, and even weapons will all be accounted for by the Level 34 [Enterprising Merchant], Concie!
Day pay 1 sp, 4 cp. Additional rewards for exemplary performance. Treasure splits to be negotiated. Inquire with Merchant Concie’s representatives.
That was one of the kinds of notices that Alrric fetched for Wall Lord Ilvriss and Zail. It was one of a dozen, and the Wall Lord just sat there.
“Does anyone actually take this kind of offer up? A silver piece per day…that’s rock-bottom.”
“I imagine that’s on top of other incentives. But yes, it is one of the weaker options. However, there are entire groups of [Merchants] pooling resources, Ilvriss. I saw a headhunter notice asking for anyone with [Settler] or applicable classes over Level 20. There was a 20-gold signing fee.”
Zail grunted, but Ilvriss was starting to get worried. If that was what you got from the public advertisements…he tapped a claw urgently on the table.
“Alrric, how many pickaxes or—or wagons are left in Salazsar?”
The [Administrator] gave Ilvriss a proud look, like a [Teacher] finding a great pupil.
“As a matter of fact, I secured as many of them as I could. A pickaxe’s value is already 344% what it used to be. The smithies are working overtime churning out nails and other related goods—I can only imagine how much Pallass is doing in business.”
It was great to have someone like Alrric. Ilvriss exhaled, but Alrric continued.
“So, as you can see, Wall Lords, there will be thousands of individual ventures. And they’re all headhunting. Talented individuals are in a seller’s market.”
“Your point is made. The competition is everyone, Administrator Alrric. Now…how is House Gemscale going to do this? I’m sure Ilvriss has a plan.”
Zail sat there like he was still overseeing the company, and Ilvriss really hoped that this wasn’t going to become a regular thing. He had a bad feeling about this, especially because Alrric seemed used to Zail being here.
Ilvriss had expected the Gemscale company to tank in profits after he sold the Adamantium mine shares, but they had apparently found a new seam—well, an old one—and they were booming in profits. He was beginning to wonder how lucky that had been.
But the hazards and value of the new lands were established. No one knew what was there—everyone wanted to go. The methodology would set apart each individual group’s success or failure along with luck and all the other random events you could run into.
Even so—Ilvriss nodded to Alrric, and the presentation he gave to Zail was a warm-up for the other nobles in Salazsar.
“We’ve been busy. I am going to call up eight experts, Wall Lord Zail, whom we’ve contracted for the last two weeks, ever since we realized the extent of the new lands. They’ve all put together plans and lists which Alrric has helpfully compiled. We reached out to Gold-rank Adventurers, an [Explorer] from Baleros familiar with the Dyed Lands, a [Ranger], and, crucially, a [Quartermaster] in Salazsar’s own forces, and a [Caravanner] used to long-hauls from Chandrar. All of these experts advised us on how difficult it would be to travel across Izril, then to sustain a force in the new lands. We have compositions of classes to take and the kind of gear we’ll need.”
The Gemscale Company’s approach to this kind of problem was to turn to experts in the field and source experience. If they were going to go, it was going to be organized and based on previous known ventures. They’d take the most comprehensive group they could to handle any possible problem.
It was going to cost a fortune, but as Ilvriss now knew, the profits were there. Alrric’s model was one he could back. Play it cautious—or rather, play it reliable. If they couldn’t produce the most gifted [Explorers] or [Caravaners] to use their Skills to keep people safe and efficient, they weren’t spending enough gold. Zail nodded along as the neat papers were passed out. Alrric, of course, had copies for everyone.
Ilvriss was a boring Drake sometimes. Even with the Erin-influence, he knew how to organize a venture. In that way—his was the approach to compare every other group to. His methods of dealing with the problem would cover most foreseeable bases, so it depended on his competitors to see whether or not they exceeded his plans—or miserably failed.
For instance, Lady Ieka Imarris, in between trying to invite Ryoka to her estates in First Landing, made a rapid series of [Message] spells to her representatives in the south.
“I want you to send all the people we can. Now. No, don’t take wagons. Riders. On horses. Have them take two of the enchanted carriages. We will send the slower groups to catch up with you.”
When she saw the Yoldenites, she knew that she was running out of time. So Ieka hatched a different plan.
Speed. Speed was key. She had been hiring Silver and even Bronze-rank adventurers, as well as the most eager and promising individuals. Now she pushed them to hurry via the door in Invrisil to leave from Pallass that very day.
“Lady Imarris, what about materials to construct anything? A full push will still take at least a week—”
Ieka snapped a fan open as she furiously amended her plans. She hissed at one of her [Maids], echoing Magnolia’s style. She hated to admit it, but a lot of her success was in observing what worked in the other [Ladies] who were more famous than she in Izril.
But she was also Valeterisa’s niece, and she had never been more proud of her aunt. Ieka was a [Mage Lady], and she trusted to that.
“Magic. Load up their bags of holding and send them with tents. We don’t need to build anything—we need to find what’s worth building next to, first! I want a dozen groups exploring ahead of all these [Settlers] and [Colonists]. They can sleep in the wild for a while. As for food? Bags of holding have a 0.8 rate of decay on average. Chests and well-made ones can be 0.6 times as slow to rot food. These are not the days after the end of magic where people had to haul everything on their backs and bang rocks together to start fires!”
She had [Mages] on her payroll, and magic would provide almost anything but food. Fire? Magic. Protection? Magic. Ieka was tired of playing second-fiddle to Magnolia. This time, she was going to be first there.
The other thing Ieka had failed in was her attitude towards preparing the expeditions. She had made lists, had her servants find and secure good, talented individuals, and had bought or arranged for the supplies, even if she was throwing the first wave out first.
But what she hadn’t done was talk to experts. Or rather, all the experts.
Ieka had bought supplies and hired people she thought might be needed to establish a town. Wagons for timber, [Carpenters], [Guards], and [Rangers]. And, of course, [Mages].
She had forgotten to hire what Ilvriss wanted. Which was, for instance, a good [Blacksmith]. Or even better, a [Farrier]. She had forgotten that horses threw shoes. Lady Ieka had been doing a lot of thinking, but it was still in the mindset of a [Lady] used to Izril’s north. She had sent [Healers] with bandages, but no one who knew how to sew bandages.
Even so, Ieka was at least quick, and her [Mages] were a cut above some of the ventures out there. However, her lack of insight into one area or another was going to be a repeated theme.
For instance, the ‘First Landing Trade Company’ of the north, which combined no less than twenty Merchant’s Guilds into a single venture, was going to have a bad time.
Oh, they had funding to match and exceed Ieka Imarris’. They had resources, connections in many cities, and the motivation to set themselves up as the new landed nobility.
What the [Merchants] didn’t have was the sense to double-check their so-called ‘experts’. They had prepared their group with what they thought was needed to begin searching for wealth. They had sensibly hired [Rangers] and other wildlife experts.
Calidus Reinhart couldn’t stop laughing about it. He was using his spy networks to see what everyone else was doing just because it was so fascinating—and hilarious.
“They’re hiring [Rangers]. Rangers—”
He wheezed to Zeom, his [Genius Polymath]. The older man looked annoyed by Calidus, who kept coming over to laugh about one group or another.
“What’s the problem with that? Seems like the tick-covered fools you want to scout ahead.”
Calidus wiped at his eyes. He waggled a finger in Zeom’s face.
“Oh, Zeom, Zeom. So smart, like the [Merchants]. But not at all practical. You must be thinking of a man or woman of the wilds, used to living out in nature, sleeping with wolves. Perhaps light on clothing—”
He sighed, imagining some toned woman with a wild look about her. Sticks in the hair and whatnot. Zeom edged away from him as he experimented with a vial, working up some kind of new poison for a blade. The [Assassins] were already availing themselves of his services. They were mostly unobtrusive, probably trying to get on Calidus’ good side. They didn’t realize that his good side was always best found reflected through a wine bottle.
But Calidus had been having a lot of fun thinking about the new lands, so he kept forgetting to drink. He conjured that image of the archetypal [Ranger], then snorted at his own fancies.
“Stories are not reality, Zeom. You don’t hire [Rangers] for exploration. That’s [Explorers]. [Scouts] at least! [Rangers] are used to their own territory.”
“Ah. The wrong class?”
Calidus’ eyes danced with mirth.
“I imagine there will be a spread. Some will be very competent at leading their groups—others will not. But the [Merchants] made another mistake—they hired highlands and forest experts from the Vail Forest region and Izril’s climates. And the new lands are…”
Zeom snapped his fingers.
“Buried coastal regions. They are stupid as shite.”
Calidus nodded again.
“Chandrar. Baleros—if they have local ‘experts’, those experts have to know they’re out of their depth. Literally. The only group that might be used to this terrain are Drowned Folk, and now it’s aboveland. Any Skills that use terrain as an advantage—no. Even the basic plant…stuff…will be different. You don’t need [Rangers], you need [Herbalists]!”
That was the hilarity to Calidus. Zeom actually abandoned the bubbling concoction of some kind of tar as he leaned over his table, genuinely interested.
“So what’s your take on how to fix it?”
“Search me. I know I’m no expert in what it takes to build a new colony. Take everything. Every class. The error in thinking is pretending you know it all. Dear Aunt Magnolia wouldn’t be so silly. Ah, if only she was doing this.”
He sighed, suddenly maudlin again, but then brightened up just as fast.
“Been hitting the crystals? You don’t smell like you’re on drugs.”
Zeom eyed the [Lord], and Calidus stepped spritely, twirling as if he were on a dance floor. He could move very agilely despite his size.
“Oh, Zeom. I’m having fun. A rarity without help, I assure you. Since Aunt Magnolia isn’t here to be outstanding, I, Calidus, will be organizing a few ventures to the new lands myself.”
The [Polymath] eyed Calidus in silence, then he began laughing so hard he nearly knocked over his poisonous resin.
“You? You’ll be a disaster!”
Calidus beamed. Zeom hesitated.
The [Lord] steepled his fingers and gave Zeom a serious look.
“I’ve been talking with some of the other members of the family and even some of the [Merchant] groups. I’ll sponsor my own forces, but I engineered some delightfully stupid ventures. Just to see what happens. For instance, I’m planning on sending a small group equipped to set up a village. They’ll have the appropriate classes, be led by decent folk who aren’t half as corrupt as the usual employees here—upstanding.”
Zeom carefully began to scrape the resin into a tin enchanted to keep it airtight and sealed. Calidus’ smile grew wider.
“But they’ll need one thing. Security. Now, a lot of the [Merchants] and other groups will hire adventurers, which I think is stupid. They’re a selfish, unreliable lot. You can’t tell what you get. Or they’ll get [Mercenaries], [Guards]…guess who’s guarding this group?”
Zeom glanced up and then snorted.
“You’re mad. Just…”
Calidus spread his hands out.
“Just [Assassins]. They’ll be in charge aside from a competent leader. Monsters? Assassins. Enemy forces? Assassins. I want to see what happens.”
Dear grandfather Regis had actually given Calidus a budget. And this was how he was using it? Zeom nearly put his hands on his face before he realized they might be poisonous.
And people wondered why Magnolia was the best of Reinharts. The worst part was…he turned to Calidus.
“Do you think they have a chance?”
Calidus just shook his head, eyes glinting in delight.
“That’s the thing, my dear Zeom. Adversity builds character, or so my beautiful bastard of a father said. What it actually builds is levels. Why try for a perfect move when you can make a flawed one that might produce something better? Okay, assassin-colony is one group. Another is going to enter with a specific bent. Animals. Warhounds, [Beast Tamers], dead gods, I even arranged for a shipment of Sariant Lambs, and they were expensive! Their orders are to tame anything they see.”
Calidus was chortling. He was spending too much gold, he knew, but the outcomes promised to be so insane that he thought he wouldn’t sleep for days! Which of course left the best ideas out there.
“I’ve been trying to contact a bunch of [Pirates], but they don’t like the idea of work. So I thought—if you’re going to send a bunch of settlers to explore and tame new lands, do you know what they need?”
“Please, tell me.”
Zeom, despite himself, was like a man trying to look away from a beautiful, horrible disaster. Calidus’ eyes glinted.
Zeom knew his employer was crazy, but he had always thought it was the stupid crazy of a noble, even with sharp wits at times. Now…he saw Calidus spread his hands.
“Peanuts. Walnuts. Cashews. Acorns. Their regular provisions will last them a good week into the new lands. Whereupon they will find in the timed locks I put on their Chests of Holding—nuts. Enough for at least a few months of provisions.”
He was mad. Zeom slowly packaged the poison, and Calidus followed him out, still babbling.
“Come on, Zeom. Give me another idea. I was thinking of giving another group all wine instead of water, but they felt too set up to fail. I need more ideas. The old man is doing his thing, but I advised one of the cousins that she should really invest in rugged folk at a cheap cost and introduced her to some of those [Bandits] you can hire. Zeom? Speak to me, man. What about a group of Drakes who find out the other half of their expedition are Lizardfolk? [Nudists]. Yes…how many of them are there?”
Some people were just doing this for fun. Then again, if Calidus was deliberately pushing the envelope off a cliff…filled with rats…
A few nations were just biased enough to be interesting in themselves. For instance, the Kingdom of Avel was sending their colonists out. You could count how many swords they had. But the amount of bows?
Incalculable. Many groups depended on what made them unique. If anything, having a type of expert like Ieka would at least guarantee an edge in that area.
…Calanfer was not going to be sending true experts in anything but diplomacy. And could you get water out of a rock? Yet they had pledged to send a [Princess]. So she would have [Thronebearers] and more funding than some, but Calanfer would not have the kind of true blue competence some groups did.
Even assuming they accounted for the biases of classes like [Rangers]. Even assuming they made all the logical preparations they could by speaking to people who knew what they were doing instead of relying on their own ego and judgment—a poor move unless you were doing it on purpose like Calidus—
Even then. The new lands might be appealing, but were you ready for them?
“Go to the new lands? You mad? It sounds like hell. I’ll sponsor it. I’m not going myself. And if we send a group from House Veltras, they’d better be ready for anything.”
Lady Buscrei’s opinion surprised Ryoka Griffin. She thought that the [Hunting Lady] would be all for the adventure, but Buscrei just shook her head as they walked through First Landing.
Everyone was talking about the idea, much like a thought experiment. Ryoka had Sammial in one hand—mostly because he’d walk off if you didn’t have a hold of him. Hethon was part of the group that included Buscrei and Swey.
Lord Tyrion was doing the murmuring and talking with the other nobles about alliances and such. Ryoka was trying very hard not to be caught up in it, hence the stroll.
Mind you—there was enough to see in First Landing. A group of Cenidau [Sailors] were having an axe-throwing competition they’d set up, and Ryoka was super interested in trying. But Sammial was all-too-eager as well, and she doubted his aim.
They passed by a young woman with clearly dyed black hair—she had a bit of blonde at the roots—who tried to get close to Ryoka. She wanted…an autograph? Ryoka saw several of House Veltras’ guards keeping her back then did a double-take.
“Wind Runner! Can I get an autograph? I’m going to become a Runner like you!”
The young woman had fairer skin than Ryoka’s, but she had the same unmaidenly trousers and t-shirt despite possibly being of the nobility. And she was barefoot. Ryoka stared at the cheap copy of herself, and Sammial’s jaw opened. Ryoka’s fan waved at Ryoka as another girl jogged over, wincing as her bare feet scraped on the pavement.
Buscrei’s mouth opened for a good five minutes until Ryoka spoke with the two girls. By the time she stopped chortling, they were headed to the park. Buscrei stared with a bit of dismay at the neat, manicured grass that had been pesticided or magically bombed out of all insects. Each tree was tended to, and there wasn’t any wildlife in First Landing but some squirrels and birds who were fed by some of the park’s guests.
“Look at this place. If that’s what a lot of the Five Families think is waiting for them in the new lands, they’re crazy. If I was trying to go there—well, I’d head out with light gear and tell the boys to bring all the supplies. But I’d pack very light and explore a good month. Slowly.”
Oswen’s folk were natural hunters, and Swey came from the plateau, which was why it was so interesting to hear the Veltras’ being cautious. Ryoka raised her brows as Hethon turned bright red; one of the younger Ryoka-clones was waving at him.
“You don’t think it’d be easier for you?”
Buscrei shuddered and gave Ryoka an incredulous look.
“You kidding? I know Oswen’s marshes, but my people have lived there all my life. What I don’t know is where a Mossbear’s territory is in this new place or if there’s hidden underground caves, faults in the rocks—new land is dangerous. If Veltras is going, Tyrion knows enough to send real rugged types. He’s the most city-like of most of the family, but he won’t go in with [Soldiers]. It’s a bad idea. Send people who can hunt for game and produce enough to eat over there.”
“But there are bags of holding, and it’s not impossible to ferry food out.”
Buscrei stared at the ceiling.
“Bags of holding. Chests of holding. Food runs out faster’n you think, Ryoka. If you can’t make sure there’s food coming in, it’ll be a short land rush. What do you think, Swey?”
“I think they’d better take [Druids] and dirt. We have Chests of Holding? I say—dirt, wood, and [Druids] and [Gardeners]. [Farmers] too. Even if they find pure rock, they can build a self-contained farm.”
Ryoka glanced at Buscrei, but she was smiling.
“Hey, now there’s an idea. That way they’ll be sure to have a crop coming in. Mind you, it’s fall…”
“One of those wooden structures filled with dirt and light spells. [Druids] have made them—they’ll grow food even in the snow. Warm inside. Speaking of which, they’ll need lots of stuff to bundle up with. No guarantees they’ll even have wood.”
Food and warmth. House Veltras’ priorities were some of the most basic for any colony. Nor did Ryoka think Tyrion would ignore their suggestions. She began to feel an itch in her feet herself, but Sammial clung to one hand, and Hethon grabbed the other arm.
“Look, Hethon! She’s going to run off again! Get her!”
“What? No, I’m not. I have plenty to do in the north. Er—visit Liscor. And, uh—”
Find a Dryad? That might be Invrisil. But Hethon just hung on as Sammial clung to Ryoka’s hand.
“You’re not getting away! Dad! Dad, she’s going to fly off again!”
He began screaming for Tyrion, and Ryoka sighed. At least she could fly. It meant that if she needed to move, she could get across Izril in a fraction of the time of most. And it occurred to her that only one man in the world could probably follow her where she went.
Or any Garuda in existence.
Sometimes it distressed Magnolia Reinhart to see idiocy repeat itself.
Oh, not House Veltras’ approach to exploring new lands. They were very pragmatic. They focused on survival. House Wellfar and Terland?
…Less pragmatic, maybe. Wellfar was going to believe it could keep up a sea-route to supply whatever coastal colony it made. Terlands? Terlands sent their ‘specialists’, who would protect and build without getting tired.
It might work, but it was so typical of them it made her sigh. The House of El, predictably, wanted to have some of their [Mercenaries] escort a group looking for new ideas. And as for Reinhart…
Well, she would not dignify some of the ventures coming out of her family with a compliment. But they were certainly ideas.
Nor could Magnolia stop even her family from trying to go to the new lands. The real question was—why?
“Why do we need new lands? Yes, trade and what not. Yes, the value in such and such resources yet undiscovered. But we are not yet done exploring Izril’s north, Ressa. Do we need more?”
“Half the pie’s never enough. Give a man a slice and he’ll ask for two.”
Ressa’s dour comment made Magnolia scowl harder. She stared pointedly at the pumpkin pie topped with the whipped cream that Ressa was guarding.
“I will have another piece, and thank you to keep your analogies about greed in general and not my diet.”
Silently, Ressa cut a slice of pie so thin that it was half the width of Magnolia’s pinkie. She placed it on the plate, and Magnolia stared at her.
Oteslia was growing on her—at least the local cuisine. She would also just like to point out that the pumpkin pie was pumpkin. At least, she assumed so. It was quite delightfully sweet.
At any rate, Ressa raised her brows.
“The local Drakes are still placing bets on you backing out of your promise not to go for the new lands yourself. Regis Reinhart had a few choice words for you.”
“Oh, delightful. Send me a copy if he was stroppy. I shall frame it.”
Magnolia purred. She sat back and sighed. It seemed to the world that Magnolia Reinhart had once again backed out, in her peacemaking ways, from a profitable venture to endear herself to the Drakes.
Which was completely true. But she was not idle. If anything, her staff were so busy that a recovering Reynold was up to his knees in paperwork.
“Well, have our best teams continue to muster, Ressa. I want our irregulars reminded of their promises to me and mustering in Drake cities or in ports, ready to go. Also—a list of all the Gold-rank teams and even Named-ranks who are unspoken for. What were, oh, those Horns of Hammerad doing?”
Magnolia could still pull a lot of people around from Oteslia. Ressa consulted her list.
“They haven’t agreed to go with any group, but they’re still headed back from the High Passes. I’ll keep them on the list if you want?”
Magnolia frowned, thinking about Yvlon.
“…Do. Keep the Silver Swords off that list, though. Ylawes is Ylawes, and he will be wherever he thinks he’s needed. The Horns might be erratic, but I do think they have promise.”
Ressa made a few notes. The reason Magnolia was thinking of Gold-rank teams was because she did have an expedition force planned.
No less than fifteen, in fact, and even Bekia, the Gnoll [Maid], was on a shortlist of reserves for more groups. They were armed, supplies were loaded in mobile wagons, and ready.
Magnolia could have stormed the new lands before Ieka got out of bed this morning. But she didn’t. If anything, she bemoaned the loss of her new carriage, and she hoped her…friend would come back. Let him come back, even if he didn’t remember her.
Magnolia squeezed her fingers together, but then relaxed. All was ready.
She called out to the [Butler], and Reynold jumped a bit.
“Yes, Lady Reinhart?”
“Magnolia, Reynold. I think you’ve proven you deserve at least that. Tell me, Reynold. Is there a betting pool among the staff on how soon the first colonial group gets wiped out?”
Reynold bit his tongue. He glanced at Ressa, and the [Head Maid]’s blank face led Magnolia to believe there was gold and pride on the books. Also, that Ressa might be the bookkeeper.
“There…might be a small bet placed, Lady Reinhart. Informally.”
The man coughed. Magnolia smiled.
“Put me down for two gold on a week or less. In which case, we will be busy indeed.”
She had no intention of fighting for land. Instead—Magnolia Reinhart glanced at the map of her people waiting in the wings.
The wings, placed to head into the new lands and grab the starving, hunted, or just desperate people who would fail in this damned venture. She did not like trying to best nature. Instead, Magnolia wanted to save as many lives as she could.
Not purely for acclaim or altruism either. She had to admit—it was because Izril would need the people who might die there. There would be more than innocent young men and women sent into the new lands. High-level individuals, even noble peers—a [Princess] was the first.
It rather reminded her of one of the mothers she had once seen in House Reinhart. The woman had told her children not to touch that or not to do all the sensible things. But she had let her children stick a hand into a pot of boiling water and then quickly bailed them out and applied a potion to the wound. Save people after they kick the beehive.
…Then again, that mother had been terrible. But at least Magnolia would not have to hear how her people had to defend themselves against another greedy force and have blood on the ground. She had spilled enough, so she sighed and began to count again.
“I want more spies. More spies, Ressa, in the other groups coming. Put them in the established colonies as they appear. Helpful people offering their services. When the real Crelers begin seeding Izril—I want them gone or to fail. When Roshal comes to Izril, let them smell the flowers. I intend them to all have poisonous thorns.”
Her real enemies were not the stupid, greedy, or naive. It was the snakes. It was the rot in the flowerbed, and they were corruptive indeed. Poison spread like an idea, and Magnolia could almost see her real opponents looking to sway minds just like she was. She slowly reached out for the entire pie, and Ressa slapped her hands.
The King of Destruction, Flos Reimarch, was sitting in his garden in the palace of Reim, talking excitedly. He gestured with his hands as Orthenon laboriously took notes.
Not in specifics, but in what he wanted. He had experienced vassals who knew their job. He had talent from multiple conquered nations. But it was still his vision, and so he spoke energetically to Teres and Trey.
“I think it’ll be simpler to expedite than most countries.”
“Oh, colonizing new lands is so easy.”
Teresa raised her hands sarcastically, mimicking him. She was tetchy, and Flos looked insulted.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t even know how to build a house! You’re just telling Orthenon to deal with everything.”
Teresa pointed at the [Steward], and he shifted, whether in agreement or disapproval, it was hard to tell. Trey slowly fed Minizi a Yellat as the Lifesand Golem masticated the vegetable, then spat it onto the ground. The real Gazi eyed her duplicate.
Flos drew himself up with annoyed dignity.
“You start with the foundation of the house. Then add beams and such. I’ve helped build some. Drevish made everyone work on his damned plans. Besides, I have the broad idea in mind. We’ll treat it like a campaign.”
“Wait, so you are going to Izril?”
Trey was patently disbelieving. Flos sighed.
“Trey. Trey. Trey. How could I not? If I didn’t try to settle the new lands while conquering Nerrhavia, I would be ashamed of myself.”
Trey slapped his forehead silently and wished he were visiting Fetohep. Flos just took this as a sign of approval.
“A campaign. I don’t know how to explore entirely new lands. I’ve ventured into Zeikhal, Teresa, but you’re right. So we’ll just prepare for a long campaign.”
“That’s stupid. That’s insane! You can’t treat settling new lands like a campaign!”
“No, it’s actually not.”
Mars commented, and Teresa spun.
“You’re not one to talk! You need explorers—”
The girl hesitated.
“You need people to build! Set up infrastructure—”
“[Quartermasters]. [Blacksmiths]. A war camp needs a huge supply line. [Handlers] for horses, [Cooks]—dead gods, they built their own camps all the time.”
Teresa looked outraged that Flos thought it was this simple. But Trey thought Flos had a point, unfortunately. The King of Destruction grinned.
“It’s true we might need more supplies than not, but it’s not a bad idea, is it, Teresa? There will be fighting. But it seems to me that even if we lack the exploratory arm—it’s not who finds the treasure, it’s who has the treasure. We can always find more help while we’re there.”
The [Glass Mage] muttered. He was already seeing why Flos was so happy about that. He saw another fight brewing, and he intended to go in ready for it. Teresa spluttered, but she had one last card to play. Unfortunately, it was a ‘2’. She pointed at the palace.
“Well—you’d better take all the armies, because there’s no way that the other nations will let your people be. The King of Destruction is the enemy of everyone. Do you have enough soldiers for that?”
For answer, Flos simply rose from his haunches and peered at his palace, hands behind his back. Then he turned.
“One of you guards…over here, please? Don’t I know you? L—no, Nerise?”
He nodded to a Stitch-man with that weird memory of his for names and faces. Flos Reimarch stood the guard just so and looked him up and down. The [Guard] wore armor that had seen recent use and carried a halberd. He also had a badge, pinning an enchanted cloak to his shoulders. It bore Reim’s symbol.
Flos pointed to the [Guard].
“Here stands a son of Reim, soldier of the King of Destruction.”
Then he reached out to the badge and removed it.
“Now, here stands a Stitchman of unknown origin. See?”
He turned to Teresa, beaming like a young man who’d won an argument by flipping the table over on his opponent. Trey slapped his forehead harder and heard a twin sound. He looked over and saw Amerys had done the exact same thing.
The King of Destruction just laughed as Teresa spluttered about [Detect Truth] spells. He turned and stared around.
“It’ll be fun, Teresa. Fun—and now that Amerys is back, we have mobility and magic. It’s time to conduct a real war on all fronts. I expect Orthenon will account for many issues and assign competent leaders. I will hand-pick some myself. If they end up in trouble they cannot handle?”
His eyes glinted as he looked back.
“…I’ll send some of my Seven. Amerys? Find me one of Nerrhavia’s treasuries. I want flying carpets.”
“And so we have an agreement. Sign here, here, and here. Thank you, Wall Lords and Ladies.”
Ilvriss finally scrawled his signature, and the magical contract flashed. He stretched and then shook claws with the Drakes who had been six hours at the meeting. But they’d finally hammered out acceptable terms.
“What a disaster.”
He muttered and saw Wall Lady Terith looking nervous. Ilvriss clarified.
“I meant the new lands. It is going to be the most chaotic scene ever.”
“I’ll keep my scrying orb handy.”
The Wall Lady chuckled, but Ilvriss’ smile was a bit pained. A lot of good Drakes were going out there. He might not know all their names, but they did not deserve shallow graves.
He had agreed to a comprehensive, competent push on limited terms, but he knew it was going to get messy. After all—it had just occurred to Ilvriss that this was the perfect time for the Necromancer to make his move.
But what could he do? Well…Ilvriss had just signed his contract. It locked House Gemscale into providing gold, supplies, and people, but there were clauses that let him add to the effort for proportional rewards.
He had asked for that, and it meant he could hire or send forces if he felt there was a need. Like the Erchirite Spears—but that wasn’t what Ilvriss was thinking of.
It was too bad Shriekblade had quit his employ. Or rather…he was still paying her to protect Erin. Yet a Named-rank would be a force in the new lands.
“…Even so, there are things I can do.”
Ilvriss retired to his tower and was moderately glad Zail wasn’t here. His father was taking an active role in the company, and Ilvriss was glad to see it.
It did feel stifling, though. Well, Ilvriss wouldn’t be in Salazsar all the time, so maybe it would actually be a net positive? Zail was going to be pulling strings, and he’d even hinted he had contacts he could prevail on to keep things working well between the Walled Cities.
Yet Ilvriss felt…there was something he could well and truly do to help ensure that the new lands were not disastrous. Or rather, that any disaster might be improved.
His claws twitched over a [Message] scroll he’d set up, one of those permanent two-way lines. Another new Wistram service, but he’d been cautious, and it hadn’t been used that much. He scrolled down it and saw a few new entries from the other side.
Mrsha — Hey, it’s me.
Mrsha — Hello? I am collecting money for the Liscor Cookie Fund. I accept donations in gold and gemstones.
[Prince] Merton the Fabulous — Hello, Wall Lord, sir. I am a [Prince] from Baleros who has fallen on hard times. I only require 50 gold pieces to reclaim my fortune. I will then send you 500 gold pieces in return.
Erin — Mrsha’s grounded. Sorry. How’s it going, Ilvriss?
He smiled at that. And Ilvriss’ quill hesitated as he dipped it in ink and studied his other [Message] scrolls and correspondence.
He was tempted. Oh, so tempted to ask a certain [Innkeeper] whether she’d be interested in setting up a wing of her inn or a temporary inn in the new lands. After all, everyone needed a drink. A place to stay. And surely there would be fewer places more equipped to deal with monsters and chaos, eh?
But he doubted Erin would go, and even with her impishness aside—he would not put a little girl in danger. Again.
That was what he needed, though. Salazsar was being competent. But Ilvriss well remembered how their competent, highly-trained army had once lost to a tiny group of Drake cities led by Zel Shivertail.
When you were up against the smartest and best, like Chaldion or the King of Destruction, and wrestling against foes who outmatched you—you needed a random [Innkeeper] with a frying pan to add some confusion to the mix.
So what was Ilvriss’ plan? He thought for a really, really long time. But he was rich. And he did have plausible deniability. And besides—he thought Erin might laugh about this for a while. Unless she punched him.
At last, Ilvriss wrote on the scroll a short reply to Erin, letting her know how ‘things’ were. Then he rolled up the scroll and reached for another one.
Alrric had not really said how he got the second scroll, only that he had a ‘contact’. Well, everyone said that, but Alrric had actually managed to go through the black market that Ilvriss knew existed in Salazsar. This…was still something.
Ilvriss slowly opened the scroll and chose his words carefully before writing.
To the Goblin Chieftain, Rags. I would like to hire your forces for a task in the new lands. If you are interested, please reply to this [Message] within the week. I am prepared to compensate you quite handsomely in gold or other means.
I may add that while our correspondence is not secret due to these scrolls, we have a mutual friend in the inn. Though I do not care for flies.
He wondered if the [Rogues] or whomever were reading this would think it was advanced code. Ilvriss sighed. He sat back, heart beating a bit faster and smiled to himself as he put his feet up on his desk.
Author’s Thoughts: Did I do it? Is this a shorter chapter? Well, I have one thing I’d like to write.
And that’s Reasons to Hate Tolkien #4: his songs.
Hear me out. Tolkien has some famous speeches and songs that movies and fans have adapted. And some of it is great. Yes, they tinker with it, but Theoden’s speeches and Clamavi De Profundis, a Youtube group, are amazingly good at making actually good stuff.
And I hate Tolkien for it. Because he just had to be an expert in old English tales—even translate famous ones like Beowolf. He literally redefined parts of mythos. He was a professor, survived a war, wrote the most famous fantasy books of all time—
And he can do poetry and songs. In actual decent meter and verse.
I had a song from the Yoldenites earlier in the chapter and I think it works, but it’s not chained well to a melody nor is it sing-able as it is, I think. And that’s fine; the genre and speed of web serials prevents me from workshopping it since it was written very quick.
However, remember the survey I did? I haven’t forgotten about it! It’s just taking a long time to parse through like…two thousand entries. I’m sure there’s at least someone with song-writing abilities in there. It’s my intention to someday try and get some of the songs re-written and maybe performed if it’s good enough.
Of all the songs, Great Plains Sing is probably the one I worked hardest on, but I think music is a great part of stories. Too bad copyright laws suck. But my point is that Tolkien is too good at all the things he did and I hate him for it. Anyways, hope you enjoyed the chapter.
I hope I’ll recharge after this shorter one and get some editing done. Thanks for reading and remember—don’t go camping. Let alone colonizing land. It seems like a lot of work.
The Wandering Inn, by chinhdwc on reddit. Commissioned by dado!
Emotes and Erin Hill by butts!
Chess Towers by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!