“Have you heard of The Wandering Inn?”
It was a question that had grown louder over the past year. At first, it was a whisper amongst the guards on Liscor’s walls. Then it stole into the city, amongst the Antinium. It went to Celum—and spread further. Growing faster and louder, jumping to Invrisil, Pallass. And then across the world.
They didn’t talk of it the same way. The Antinium only knew it as the idea of chess stealing into their Hive. Someone feeding them new food.
Most of Liscor only thought of the ‘crazy Human’ rather than her inn. At some point, it became a contentious haven for the Goblins. A young woman who could make the inconceivable reality. Then—even a point of pride.
Even now, though, so many people took it lightly. The Wandering Inn was connected to Pallass and Invrisil. It was in the news. People knew Erin Solstice’s name better than, say, the Bannermare’s. Oh, they knew the title, but what was her name?
Erin Solstice was famous, and even now—people took her lightly. The world was filled with Jewels, who knew the inn existed and was even within their ability to reach. But they thought it wouldn’t ever affect them, personally.
It was like seeing a mountain rising in the distance over a year’s time and still getting surprised when it walked over and picked on you. In that sense, Jewel had done nothing wrong.
The smart people, though, the ones with cunning or a head for stories—or who had met Erin Solstice—those who had a dream gathered. Because they realized she could help them. Or they could help her.
As winter deepened across the world, The Wandering Inn faded from the news a bit. People were more interested in other things if Erin Solstice did not visibly cause a worldwide incident.
Four months made up the season of winter. The turning from winter to spring marked the end of the year, which was paradoxical to Earther minds. Nevermind that this calendar system made more sense.
Halfway into winter, fourteen out of the sixteen months in the year, would come the Winter Solstice.
That would be a significant day. However, there were sixty-four days—thirty-two days in a month—until that point. The dramatic opening of winter turned into quieter days, at least, at the inn. Erin Solstice caused no explosions. The Haven passed into the Bloodfields, and all the news turned to ongoing wars, like Flos Reimarch continuing his war against Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
The Forgotten Wing Company pushing into the Dyed Lands with the other Great Companies. And the surge to the new lands of Izril.
Forty days into the season of winter and a glum little Gnoll girl was shoveling snow off the front step of the inn. She shook a paw up at the sky.
Damn you for snowing! Somehow, despite having a [Princess] for a mother, she still got the job of shoveling snow that was almost identical to Earth’s custom of child labor. Mrsha’s rage at the sky didn’t last long. Someone gently kicked her with a boot.
“Mrsha, stop complaining and shovel. It’s breakfast hot chocolate. Miss Lyonette got the nibs that finished fermenting in, and she’s got some marshmallows that Miss Imani made. I saw them. The faster we finish, the sooner we get to try it!”
Nanette stopped Mrsha’s rage, and the Gnoll girl looked around open-mouthed. How did the witch girl know that?
“You might hear far better than me, but I listen, Mrsha. Come on, this isn’t hard.”
Nanette had a thick, blue overcoat on and mittens, unlike Mrsha, who just had lighter clothing over her fur. Mrsha’s poofy hat did look cute, though, especially with Apista napping on top. Mrsha rolled her eyes, but they set to work clearing a small path through the paved walkway across the top of the hill.
All they had to do was get to the outhouses; two Thronebearers, Alcaz, and a number of Antinium and Goblins were doing the rest of the walk, so Mrsha’s complaints were even less valid.
Why do I get the <Basic Quest – Shovel Snow, Mrsha!> if this is so easy, Nanette?
The outraged little Gnoll held up a card. Nanette poked her playfully.
“Because you won’t do it otherwise. Besides, I think Miss Erin likes bullying you.”
Mrsha poked her back until they were tromping back into the inn, little shovels put aside, giggling and having a poking-war. As they entered, a vexed voice called out.
“Lehra Ruinstrider, are you going to laze around here forever?”
Mrsha and Nanette stopped as they saw another familiar sight. Which was the slightly chubby Gnoll Named-rank adventurer being berated by no less than Suxhel. The Gazer was yanking on Lehra’s ear.
“We’re late. Half the caravans to the new lands have set out—”
“Aw, but we can use Erin’s door. Come on, Suxhel, it’s hot chocolate today.”
“Everyone is using the door. Erin Solstice told you to find the Crossroads. We’ve wasted our time here—and all the gold! All you do is eat and watch the plays and—drink!”
“Sh-she might give us another clue if we keep waiting. It’s not that expensive here! Come on, Suxhel. Didn’t we say we were going to work with the Halfseekers?”
Lehra wheedled as Suxhel looked to her team for support. But Emper the Stitch-man and Elgrinna hadn’t managed to get Lehra moving for an age, and both had given up.
“We had a nice rest, Lehra. After that war—everyone needed a break. Now is the time to move.”
Emper opined, and Lehra grumbled that he might be right. Elgrinna stopped reading a book and glanced up.
“Getting the Halfseekers was an idea—but it wasn’t going to pan out. I think the team might dissolve. Mage Moore’s fairly content, and it’s not like a Gold-ranker hurts for coin. Rogue Seborn is planning on going to sea, and Jelaqua Ivirith is probably bound to announce her engagement any day now.”
Nanette and Mrsha skidded to a stop as they headed to the breakfast table. Lehra’s own ears perked up.
“She’s getting engaged?”
“She’s been seeing Master Maughin for months. Why do you think she only accepts local contracts?”
“…I thought she was lazy like me.”
Suxhel rolled all her eyes. Lehra rubbed at her face as she sat up a bit.
“What about Moore and, uh—their new Selphid, Ulinde? Can we hire them?”
“Maybe. But I think Moore might retire too. If not—you know he’s seeing Ulinde? He’s not exactly in the adventuring mood either.”
Lehra waved her paws in alarm, and her teammates shook their heads at her. The slightly-disheveled Stargnoll looked around.
“But I thought—well, if we’re not waiting on the Halfseekers, why are we here?”
“Miss Mrsha, punch Lehra, would you?”
Suxhel called out. Lehra yelped at the punch to her leg. Then she rubbed it.
“Okay. Okay…we can think about leaving. It was a nice break. We’ll get back to doing Named-rank things again. All I have to do to level is—fight a Dragon. Naked. Throw myself into danger. I can do that. That’s what Named-ranks do.”
She shuddered faintly, and her team looked at her in concern. Lehra’s confidence seemed shaken since seeing her rival, Dragial, die and the carnage at the Meeting of Tribes. She slapped her cheeks slightly with her paws and tried to focus.
Lehra was an example of someone who had wasted around two months. Or perhaps she hadn’t wasted it, but needed it to simply not be in the middle of fighting.
Not everyone had been so idle, though. A month.
A month was enough time for Ceria to send a single [Message] back saying the Horns of Hammerad were enjoying their time amongst the Great Plains. And that she really enjoyed parfaits with karaoke, and that Erin had to come over so they could play a dancing game at the arcade.
One letter from the half-Elf alluding to the fact that she had made use of the Earther Tent in the Gnoll gathering was equivalent to twenty-three missives from Ksmvr reporting on the state of things. After eleven days of trading amongst the Gnolls, the Gaarh Marsh tribe had finally sold him forty-five trees in exchange for a bale of slightly damaged silks salvaged from the sea and brought to the Meeting of Tribes by a Drowned [Trader].
Erin wanted to know the full story as, somehow, Ksmvr had neglected to write anything other than the final trade. He was far more invested in talking about his teammates than himself, and he had observed Pisces’ feverish studies along with Yvlon’s flying lessons—which Erin had realized were actually somewhat literal about eight reports in.
She was reading the last of his messages, sitting cross-legged, sweating into a light workout shirt this morning. Before she washed and changed herself into her day clothes, she had found lighter clothing was preferable.
But she couldn’t bring herself to do the morning dancing with just her underclothes on like a certain green Hobgoblin sipping juice out of a cup.
“I think Tkrn and Inkar are heading back with the Silverfangs today. I need to get Inkar a gift. I thought she might stay.”
“Eh. She has a tribe. She’s not a city-girl like you.”
Ulvama shot back. Erin glanced up at the Hobgoblin, who was now a regular face in the mornings.
Ulvama, the dancing [Shaman], had ironically been one of the greatest contributors to Erin not going the way of Lehra. Unlike Grimalkin or anyone else, she would relentlessly practice her hobby and have Erin exercise her weak body.
Which—to be fair, everyone tried to get Erin to do. The difference was—Ulvama didn’t bother Erin to come join her. If Erin forgot or made excuses, Ulvama would dance by herself. And her pointed stare of contempt for Erin’s laziness got the [Innkeeper] to rarely miss the morning and nightly practices.
A month of practice still couldn’t get Erin on her feet all day—and in fact, she found herself bound to her wheelchair so much that she could navigate very smoothly with it.
“I feel like your dancing isn’t getting me on my feet, Ulvama.”
The Hobgoblin gave Erin a challenging look, and Erin complained as she pushed herself into a squat from her sitting posture.
“—Because every time I get stronger, you want me to dance harder! How many side-hops did we do today? A thousand? You keep upping the difficulty until I’m so tired I have to sit in the chair!”
“Yah. Because you’re weak. You need legs like this. Hrgh!”
Ulvama tensed and flexed a calf. Erin stared at the bare skin and had to grudgingly admit she had muscle there. She poked Ulvama’s leg.
“But you eat almost as much as Lehra.”
“And I can stand up. I am better than you. Now, time to do cat-stretches.”
That was what she called the yoga-like routine where they stretched into complex postures. Erin groaned, but the [Shaman]’s exercises were effective. At least, she thought they were.
An audience of koi fish watched the two at their morning routine. Erin grumbled to Ulvama.
“I just found out yesterday that you steal up to twenty gold pieces worth of food each week. Yelroan did an inventory with Calescent. Can you stop that?”
“…I’m the [Innkeeper].”
Ulvama turned her head and treated Erin to a beaming smile.
“And I am a guest. Make me.”
Erin bit her lip. She hadn’t had it out with the selfish Goblin [Shaman]—mostly because she was grateful for Ulvama’s help. And Yelroan had assured a horrified Lyonette that they could make up for Ulvama’s stomach if they needed to. He had inventoried their door income, and that alone was such a high amount of gold per week that Lyonette had decided to give Mrsha and Nanette an allowance that very day.
But Ulvama? Erin wasn’t quite sure she knew the Hobgoblin yet. She definitely had a feel for Ulvama’s character, though, and it was spicy, bullyish, and you had to catch her caring for people. Erin dropped it and muttered.
“Well, I’ve had enough fighting with Goblins after Gothica. She keeps visiting from Rags’ tribe, you know. And she’s getting worse.”
“Because you fight her.”
“Because she aura-clashes with me! She literally stopped my wheelchair until I made her back off!”
“Hmm. So? Sounds like a good [Goth].”
Gothica would annoy Erin until she lost a literal confrontation, and Erin was sick of having to toss her aura at the Goblin. Gothica seemed to believe it was making her level up—and the worst part was that she might be right.
Badarrow was a far better visitor. He would come every week or two, and he and Numbtongue and sometimes Bird would disappear to watch movies, play games, or shoot arrows at things.
Aside from the Gothica issue, Erin rather liked having a new routine and a quieter inn. She was trying to hold a pose where she bent forwards and touched one foot—when Ulvama began poking her in the side.
“Stop it. Stopitstopit—”
“Hm. Good stomach. You’re getting better. But your arms need more strength. Dancing only takes you so far. Maybe we need to get Mrsha to beat you up each night. That’s good practice, wrestling.”
Erin swatted Ulvama away.
“What, wrestling now? I thought I was just getting enough muscle to walk!”
Ulvama scoffed at her.
“Enough muscle to walk? You mean the same muscle as the One Eye Cyclops? Pssh.”
That was her name for Chaldion, and Erin tried not to smile. That would be a pretty weak—
“Hey, what are you doing?”
The [Shaman] tried to put Erin in a headlock. Erin twisted away, but Ulvama pointed.
“Knee’s frozen up.”
Erin’s knee went numb, and she wobbled. Then Ulvama had her head under one arm, and she was messing Erin’s hair like they were boys fighting.
“Stop that! I’m gonna get mad! Stop—”
“See? No muscle. You want to swing a pan? Even a [Shaman] can beat you up. Let’s practice that. Or you can swing a pan while dancing.”
She let go of Erin before the [Witch] could either activate her flames or use her aura. Erin glared at Ulvama and flopped onto her back.
“Most [Shamans]…aren’t Hobs, Ulvama. I’m tired, and you don’t play fair!”
Ulvama flapped a claw at her.
“You’re stupid. You think Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh can’t beat you up with her paws? She’s eighty years old. I’d watch. She’d punch you out faster than that [Boxer]. It would be very funny.”
“She couldn’t do that. I mean—if I was back to normal, she couldn’t do that.”
Erin hadn’t met Shaman Theikha in person, but she knew the eldest [Shaman] was old. Even if she was a Gnoll and they were taller and bigger than most Humans…Ulvama smirked at her.
“[Shamans] aren’t wimpy [Mages]. She has the heart of the earth. She’d beat two of you with her paws. Four.”
The [Innkeeper] groaned. She didn’t like to hear that, but Ulvama didn’t actually tend to lie much when she was explaining things. Other times? All the lies.
“Great. So do I have to practice fighting now?”
“Mm. Just some exercises. I will think of fun ones. Throwing rocks builds muscle too. We could get little witch and Gnoll and throw rocks at them.”
That was one of Ulvama’s cruel suggestions she didn’t really mean. Erin was pretty sure she didn’t mean it. But then the [Shaman] was poking Erin.
“Up, up. I want hot chocolate.”
“Give me ten minutes. Stop poking me, Ulvama. I’m gonna get mad—tell Lyonette to get it ready, alright?”
No respect. But that was somewhat refreshing from Ulvama. It reminded Erin of the good old days. Goblins, for all their peculiarities, were consistent like that.
Some people gave her all the respect. Too much respect. Ever since the day when Erin had begun telling her story of getting to this world and becoming an [Innkeeper], people had been talking about a book or writing down the tale.
Lyonette was taken with the idea, and she kept trying to find a [Writer] or [Historian] who was interested. Satar Silverfang claimed she wasn’t a good-enough writer yet, and she was trying to document her people’s entire history, but Erin was embarrassed.
Especially because she did have people who never said her first name and bowed and such.
“Miss Solstice. We will have your bath ready momentarily. Did I hear you wished to have Princess Marquin begin serving the hot chocolate and ‘marshed mellows’ now?”
“I’ll be down in ten minutes, Dame Ushar. Yeah, give everyone a cup. And it’s marshmallows.”
The formal Thronebearer bowed and strode down the hall. She had on her gold armor like always, and—Erin felt guilty as she saw three Antinium trudging out of the bathing room.
It was on the ground floor of the inn, and Palt had enchanted it so the moisture wouldn’t mold the wood. Even so, they cranked a window open so there was a cold breeze—and a hot copper tub filled with water.
The water came from the Antinium Workers who hauled it from the well. They could do it fast, and three of them could fill the tub in less than five minutes. Then a simple heating rune warmed the water until it was steaming.
“We really should do, like, a permanent bath house with plumbing. Sorry, guys. I mean…girls?”
Erin squinted at the Workers. Rosencrantz wasn’t here, and she wondered if Ushar had deliberately selected the Antinium who weren’t distinctly male like Bird or Pawn.
Silverboots had never indicated which way they cared to be addressed, at any rate. One of Silveran’s [Cleaners] had been part of the new inn staff—much to Silveran’s jealousy. They waved one hand as Erin wheeled into the bathroom and the door shut.
Silveran. Silverboots. Silverarm. Who else had popped up among the Workers because of his cleaning service? There was Silvermop, Silverstache…and those were just the Antinium who had taken after his name.
“How many people is Silveran employing these days? It used to be two dozen Workers. Now…did he really say over a hundred?”
That couldn’t be right. Then again—Silveran’s Cleaners were very good at their jobs, cheap, and he had told Erin he had employed his first Human because there was no Cleaner’s Guild, he paid better, and you could get reliable work through him. He was already employing a Drake and two Gnolls.
The times, they were a-changing. Erin could now soak in a bathtub—and notice Ushar had sprinkled in some dried petals, which gave the water a scent.
“Rosewater? And it’s got oils. Aw. Come on.”
This was too much fancy respect. Erin did like having a Goblin [Chef] doing the food, though. She remembered waking up on the floor of her inn, cleaning all the tables from last night, and cooking all before dawn.
These days, she danced with Ulvama, had a bath, and breakfast was waiting for her without doing work once.
“…Am I getting spoiled? If I am, I’d better drag down everyone with me.”
The staff and inn were nice. It was nice having Relc here in the mornings because he had a room here. It was great that Mrsha had school and a routine, that Nanette would sit in the tower with Bird and sing some mornings, and that Erin could call up a friend in her new theatre at a moment’s notice.
“Ah, right. Goodbye present to Tkrn and Inkar. I think it’s gotta be chipping in for that new saddle Krshia found, but I also can give her a bunch of snacks to bring to the Gnolls. Mana candies, Unbreakable Scones, Spider Succulents—no, wait, those will never survive the journey without breaking. Um…”
Her menu had a lot more items on it, many of actual quality. Erin had found she liked making new dishes—if she didn’t have to replicate them. With Calescent’s help, only the magical ones that required [Wondrous Fare] needed her direct involvement.
Plus, the [Chef] had developed a handy new Skill—[Copy Recipe]. With it, he could choose a single dish per day to steal from Erin, even the ones he shouldn’t be allowed to make.
Unbreakable Scones, incidentally, were Erin’s latest creation. She saw Relc gnawing on one and dipping it in the hot cocoa that morning. He had snow on his boots. He must have been helping shovel.
“Relc, are you still eating that scone? Give it up.”
“I wonsh lesh ish beash me.”
He growled, and his sharp teeth ground against the Unbreakable Scone. It was, uh…hard to eat.
In theory, it was a dense, highly calorific piece of bread that had a huge amount of butter, Sage’s Grass, a teeny bit of cement mix…and other hard edibles in it.
In practice, Erin had yet to find anyone who could take a chunk out of the scone in a single bite except Snapjaw—and even she had been afraid she might break her teeth on the stuff. But the effect was that if you managed to get a bite, you developed [Stoneskin]!
Your skin would literally turn as hard as a rock. A full ‘bite’ of half a scone gave you a [Stoneskin] effect for thirty minutes. Powerful.
The issue was, uh…Relc had been gnawing on this scone for four days now, and he had it halfway down. Until Erin figured out how to make them more edible, they were a joke food. She’d heard one of her guests had taken a scone and hammered it into the street until it broke the cobblestones.
Snapping it into swallowable pieces was also not a good idea. Menolit had gamely had Lehra saw off a chunk with her Blade of Mershi and—painfully—swallowed a huge chunk.
…He still told stories about passing it out of his system, mostly in the same piece. But the point was that Erin was working on her magic in her spare time.
In fact…she levitated a mug of hot chocolate off Ishkr’s tray with her hands.
“Whoooo~ I have the power of ghosts. Who could be doing this?”
Her levitation abilities thanks to her [Witch] magic were a lot less impressive when she added sound effects. But Erin still beamed every time she did it. Correspondingly, every single [Mage] grew embarrassed or pretended Erin didn’t exist.
Erin sipped from the hot cocoa and reflected it should not taste this good for a new product. Didn’t chocolate factories on Earth have a formula they’d refined for ages?
Then again…they also had labels that said quite explicitly there wasn’t much chocolate in their ‘chocolate’. Whereas Erin was getting hers from a garden filled with literal magic.
“What’s the sweet stuff in here, Lyonette? Sugar?”
“Nope. Nali-sticks. One one-hundredth per cup.”
“Huh. That doesn’t seem like much.”
Even for the famously sweet nali—maybe it was just the quality chocolate being fresh. Erin smiled as she sipped from her cup, then she looked out the window.
“…Is that graffiti on Liscor’s walls?”
Everyone stared out the window. Lyonette groaned. Erin stared at the giant image of an Antinium pushing a wheelbarrow, which some citizens were admiring.
“I wonder who could have done that.”
“I hear there’s been street art in Invrisil, Celum, Esthelm, Liscor—but not Pallass.”
Ishkr carefully glanced out the window. Erin eyed the Antinium, but it didn’t seem like a critique of anything. Just a pent-up artist unable to go anywhere. She decided not to comment.
“If Zevara comes by, I’m not here. [Invisibility]!”
She flicked her fingers. Erin did not vanish. She was smiling as Mrsha and Nanette stared the other way, trying not to give her any attention. And that was the inn. Erin called out to Lyonette.
“I’m going to Liscor soon to see about Inkar’s gift. Where’s Numbtongue?”
“Nope. Riding with Salkis.”
“…Hmm. Okay. Let me know if you spot Ryoka or that guy.”
Erin glowered a moment, then exhaled slowly. At least Lulv and the Manus crowd hadn’t come by for a while. She wheeled over to the door as a [Knight] came striding over to escort her into the city. Normen, Jewel, and Ser Dalimont formed up in a practiced manner as Erin smiled.
The inn was peaceful, for a given value of peace.
Ryoka Griffin’s list of injuries she had accumulated over the past year might exceed any other Earthers’ record. She had been slapped by a Wyrm’s tail, had her arms dislocated, lost fingers, broken bones, been shot by crossbows, and more.
She had also reached Courier, was entangled—yes, that was the best word—with Tyrion Veltras, and had made powerful enemies on multiple continents.
Over the forty days of winter, she thought that no one had come closer to killing her than one man. Where Wyrms had failed, where myths from the lands of the fae and dead gods and Persua had all fallen behind—
Hedault versus Ryoka had nearly done her in for good.
Thirty-eight days ago.
Ryoka Griffin was still a bit shocked Valeterisa could like anyone. But the Archmage of Izril seemed to have upgraded Montressa from ‘apprentice’ to…cat.
She kept patting Montressa on the head and telling everyone how exceptional she was. Which, to Ryoka, felt more like having a favorite cat.
Then again—given how Valeterisa treated most people, a pet was an upgrade. She certainly seemed more present after being stopped by the Unmarked Coach and Fierre. Then again, a lot had changed.
Two days after her arms got dislocated and Valeterisa was saved from herself, Ryoka Griffin was breakfasting with Fierre.
“So you’re working for Lady Ieka? Seriously?”
The Vampire girl gave her a toothy grin.
Ryoka raised her brows over breakfast at The Wandering Inn. She had a room and so did Fierre, and she was antsy today. A light green faerie was currently devouring a muffin larger than she was, and a Sariant Lamb was chewing on another at their table. But even Fierre seemed to treat Nerry and Shaestrel as familiars at best. Not as real people.
The irony of a Vampire being out-subterfuged by a Sariant Lamb was not lost on Ryoka. Yet Fierre was distracted. She looked, well, happy. Excited.
“It’s the kind of job I never thought I’d have, Ryoka. I never considered working for the nobility—too much danger of inquisitiveness. But Lady Ieka…she has contacts. She’s magical. Clever.”
“She, uh, likes women.”
Fierre’s smile widened as Ryoka coughed into her fist.
“That’s a perk! I think. I don’t mind it, and if she wants me to wear a maid’s outfit or something—well, the employee can flirt with their employer, can’t they?”
“I think that breaks about every labor law I can think of. But since I don’t know if Ieka obeys any…good luck?”
Ryoka had some misgivings on how professional Ieka was, but Fierre just rolled her eyes.
“I’m open to tons of stuff, Ryoka, but I think she just wants an expert helping her. Which is too bad.”
“Yeah, yeah. You thirsty Vampire. As long as you’re happy.”
The Wind Runner sighed and glanced towards Shaestrel again. The Spring Fae was giving her a meaningful look, and Fierre switched tacks.
“Ieka would love to have you on retainer—but something tells me you’re busy. Can I write ‘relationship’ with Tyrion Veltras on my notes? I’ll cut you in 50% if I can sell that as fact.”
“None of your business. But you can put me down for any healing potions on the black market. I might need them soon enough.”
Not just for herself…she was speaking of an upcoming event she was dreading. Ryoka had put it off, and Fierre raised her brows calmly.
“You can pay an exorbitant fee if I get any—though Ieka has me snapping any up too. The fact is that there aren’t healing potions on the black market, Ryoka. No one’s selling. Even the hoarders are nervous.”
Healing potions were vanishing. Now it was how many you had—and Ryoka Griffin had heard Jericha talking about House Veltras’ supply with Tyrion. The Vampire girl, for all she loved blood, lowered her voice.
“It’s going to be a bloody war, the next one that breaks out. The King of Destruction, Ailendamus, and the Forgotten Wing companies are the hot battlegrounds right now, and they all have surpluses. But a city? Not so many healing potions. When there are none to be had…”
No more fast healing. No more curing a massive wound in a moment. Valeterisa had her magic, but she was one person. Ryoka swallowed hard.
“Yeah. Well, on the subject of magic, I have a meeting at twelve I cannot be late for. Wish me luck, Fierre. Because I’m about to either be hexed to Rhir and back or…well, I can’t imagine a fun outcome.”
She got up, pushing her chair back, and the Vampire girl raised her brows. Erin waved at Ryoka as she wheeled herself towards the [Garden of Sanctuary] with Ulvama.
“Hey, Ryoka. Off to meet with the jerk?”
“Not Tyrion, Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] was still mad at Ryoka for even associating with Tyrion…but Ryoka still took breakfast at The Wandering Inn and hung out here as often as she could.
No…she visited Sammial and Hethon and sometimes watched Tyrion trying to practice and regain his levels or went with House Veltras on their extended vacation, but the winter was reminding Ryoka of a time limit.
Her time limit. Erin needed rest, and she had her own goals. But Ryoka…Ryoka knew the Winter Solstice was coming. She had a great task—everyone did.
Ryoka knew how she could make a first start in gaining a powerful ally in Ailendamus. The only problem was…she gulped.
It was going to require something she had given away on behalf of the Horns of Hammerad. And somehow, even if she showed up at 12 o’clock precisely, she didn’t think Hedault was going to like her taking back the wand she had sold him.
Not one bit.
Shaestrel’s goals were a mystery. She might have been along for the ride. But in order of importance, Ryoka regarded her tasks as follows:
Find weapons or follow the Faerie King’s hints to stick it to the dead gods, be it finding dungeons, mastering the wind, or so on.
Gain the full support of Ailendamus and Rhisveri by fulfilling his task of reviving the Dryads or in some other manner.
Help Nerry to realize her people’s goals of fulfilling their own quest.
Something about Tyrion Veltras.
It was vague, but the truth was that it was more direction than Ryoka Griffin had had at a lot of times in her life.
In fact, she’d been doing more prep work and more talking and discussing the problem than she had—ever. Before she ran off, she talked with Erin. She talked with Nerry and Shaestrel, and Ryoka had a good approximation of some of the problems in front of her.
Firstly, Shaestrel was pretty certain that the ironwood wand that Ryoka had sold to Hedault for the Horns way back when was a Dryad seed, or rather, a Great Tree’s seed as the core. A nigh-unlimited green magic wand that was probably Relic-class or close enough.
“Ye didn’t do wrong by selling it.”
“Really? You think it was good to sell the one Relic-class item the Horns recovered? For all the help Hedault gave and the appraisals?”
Ryoka was relieved to hear that. Shaestrel snorted.
“What? That? Nae, you haggled as well as a [Sailor] ten years at sea staring at a bare chested Siren singing on the rocks. ‘Twasn’t worth it, though the favor still remains. But yer friends wouldn’t’ve used the wand well. A boney duelist necromancer or a frozen daughter of whores?”
“Pisces and Ceria. Can you not insult Ceria’s ancestry? I get the part about Sprigaena—”
Shaestrel drop-kicked Ryoka on the forehead.
“Don’t talk of that name to me! Those traitors—as I was saying, neither one’s got a green bone in their body. That [Enchanter] though…getting the wand from him may be difficult.”
“I’ve got the Faerie King’s obol. Wouldn’t that be magic beyond even the wand?”
“Oh, aye. But something tells me that one’s not the kind to like reneged promises. Reminds me of brownies or crafter sprites, he does. Very picky. Hates broken promises.”
That…was so accurate to Hedault that Ryoka winced and smiled at the same time. She didn’t know him as well as Kevin or Selys did, but she knew quite well that he was a fastidious man who did not like unexpected things.
And that was pretty much Ryoka’s modus operandi. Ryoka jogged down Invrisil’s streets as she spoke. People turned because they noticed the Wind Runner—but many smiled because they saw the grumpy, bouncing Sariant Lamb in a sling across Ryoka’s chest. Nerry looked mildly seasick, but the carrying sling, rather like one you used for a baby, gave her a way to keep up with Ryoka and see.
She couldn’t speak, and formulating words was hard, so Ryoka didn’t expect her to join in, but the Sariant Lamb’s sour glare at everything said much.
“Maybe Hedault hasn’t done much with his wand. We could be offering him way more with new magic, and I can sweeten the deal with…well, I can try.”
Ryoka’s hopeful note lasted right up until she reached Hedault’s apartment. Then she realized that even if she, personally, hadn’t heard of things changing, it didn’t mean they hadn’t changed. The enchanting world was not a loud one unless you were invested in it—and while Ryoka had been flying around the world, Hedault had been moving up in the world.
Literally. Ryoka Griffin found his new apartment and stared at the sign out front. Instead of his home in the rich street, he now had a four-story apartment. And according to the sign…he owned the entire thing.
Enchanter Hedault, no solicitation. No meeting without prior booking. Specializations: artifact identification, Tier 4 general enchantments, bicycle and skateboard tuning.
Affiliated with Solar Cycles. Please inquire with Selys Shivertail of Liscor for any orders pertaining to vehicles.
No bribery. No [Merchants]. No individuals affiliated with or including Archmage Valeterisa, Erin Solstice, Gilam Quellae, Ulva Terland, Mihaela Godfrey, and Saliss of Lights allowed except by prior, written consent. No [Assassins]. No copying or other theft of enchanting designs. No deferred or delayed payment accepted. No dogs. No cats. No avian or any other pets.
Commissions on Lifewood Furniture closed. Please see Merchant’s Guild for any available products.
The sign was typically Hedault, and Ryoka craned her neck back to see each window had been closed—but the [Enchanter] was clearly doing well if he could afford this entire apartment. She really wanted to know what some of the people here had done to get that ban—and they must have all done something to get their names written out.
Good on Kevin and Selys if their business was so profitable it was the second thing listed under Hedault’s services. But Ryoka really, really didn’t like the Lifewood Furniture mention.
“What the fuck is Lifewood Furniture?”
Shaestrel made a face.
“…Is it…is it the souls of family members bound to your seats or couches so you can hear them scream and watch ye enjoy yourself for the rest of their mortal lives? No? That’s what I think of. Don’t ask me. Magic here is stupid betimes.”
Ryoka was hopeful that wasn’t the case, but then a sharp hoof jabbed her through her sling. She heard a rustling—and a very annoyed Sariant Lamb scribbled with one hoof.
One of the things that had taken Ryoka a while was—equipping Nerry with things she needed to just communicate and get around.
The sling was one thing. And Ryoka was also trying to fix her damaged glider and assemble gear befitting a Courier. She had some artifacts, but she wanted to be ready for a fight. Her new Faeblade with its paralysis and flame settings was quite powerful, but Ryoka felt unprepared to take on Valeterisa or anyone of her caliber.
Nerry, similarly, needed a way to write that didn’t involve her dipping her hoof in ink or using a quill with her mouth. Ryoka had heard you could buy quills that wrote whatever you said—and they were completely damn useless for a Sariant Lamb.
Instead, she had helped fashion a very crude ‘pen’ that was a metal nib attached to some straps so Nerry could write with a hoof.
It was still painful and slow because her hoof didn’t have the same dexterity as a hand, but the Sariant was pleased by it. It seemed a lot of the things impeding her people’s ability to do things were their quadrupedal nature and tiny limbs. Wands, writing implements—everything was so hard.
Poor Sariants. To make up for this, Nerry was a ball of vengeance and contempt towards everything else. Which Shaestrel and Ryoka rather respected. She also had as much information as Fierre, albeit sometimes only in things rich owners of Sariants possessed.
Lifewood. Very expensive. Very rich. Rumored to give long life. Conforms. Even grows. Very lucrative. Probably paid for apartment.
Ryoka groaned. She looked up—and coincidentally, just before her meeting with Hedault, the doors to his apartment opened, and two [Porters] came out carrying a chair. Their leader, who looked like someone from the Merchant’s Guild by the crest on his clothing, was bowing.
“Another fine work, Master Hedault. We will have the auction’s proceeds to you on time by the end of the week, sir. No need to involve any other Merchant’s Guild or a private association! If there is anything I can d—”
The door shut without any physical help and locked itself magically. At least Hedault still had his giant scrying orb embedded in the doorframe.
The Merchant’s Guild representative was smart enough not to say anything until he was down the steps and a ways down the street. Ryoka had debated going up to the door, but it was 11:47 and she was therefore far too early for Hedault.
“No, we are not accepting—oh, the Wind Runner. Excuse me, Miss. We have to get this to the Merchant’s Guild now.”
The representative looked askance before he recognized her, and no less than sixteen bruisers, men and women, were waiting for the two [Porters] with the chair. They set off towards the Merchant’s Guild, and Ryoka eyed the chair.
It looked…vibrant. Beautiful wood, rosewood maybe, gleaming with a fresh varnish and probably cut from a single log or something. This chair wasn’t upholstered, though, and didn’t look ‘done’.
Yet the wood seemed to be subtly shifting in the two men’s hands, and Ryoka had the oddest feeling as she stared at it.
The…difference between a desk or a chair made of dead wood was the feeling that this chair was still, somehow, living. Hence the name. It was unsettling. Beautiful, and Shaestrel muttered as she saw it.
“Ah. So that’s what it is.”
“What’s that chair? Lifewood?”
“Yes, Miss Griffin.”
The man was friendlier to Ryoka, as a Courier, than most. He spoke quickly, pointing to Hedault’s apartment.
“Master Hedault—a prickly man, genius, but hard to work with—has been making them all year. His first creations were a bit wild—overgrown, needing water, but these latest ones are going to all the nobility. In fact, this might go overseas at a huge auction. Lifewood, and if we give him the right chair, he can enchant one to modern styles. No thousand-year-old chairs in old fashion. Of course, it requires so much finicky precision…no glue, no metal. The same tree, and a naturally-made varnish. We have to work with dedicated [Woodcarvers], but as you can see—”
“What makes Lifewood special?”
The representative gave Ryoka a blank look.
“Oh, it’s got all kinds of properties. Many say it’s got natural power in it, and it does generate green magic, but between you and me, I’d rather buy a chair and pocket the rest. We have to sew a cushion to match, and the cushion’s just basic. But the chair is many times stronger than a regular one, and it will conform to how you sit. Some you can water and put in light and they’ll grow leaves and branches and repair cracks. But most owners just buy them for the value.”
“Ah. So it’s useless crap for rich people.”
Half the porters and guards laughed, and the representative gave Ryoka a grin.
“Miss Wind Runner, you shouldn’t say such things of our clients. It’s rich enough for the Guild. No less than Lady Ulva bought the first few sets, and Terandria wants as many as we can buy. Master Hedault’s the first to rediscover how to make Lifewood in centuries.”
So this had made Hedault rich. Ryoka had half suspected it was Solar Cycles…she groaned as she thanked them and jogged back to the apartment to pace back and forth. This was going to be harder than she thought.
At 11:59, according to the magical timepiece Ryoka had bought to avoid being late, the door to Hedault’s apartment swung open.
Doubtless, he had seen her, and she jogged up the steps—and saw a magical note hovering in the air.
A scroll was floating next to the door, listing instructions for visitors. Money had given Hedault all the things he wanted—including a way to interact with people even less.
Ryoka Griffin — 12:00. Wipe feet thoroughly before entry. Proceed to second floor. Follow the arrows. No pets.
She stopped, stared down at the glossy, transparent gel doormat, and shivered as she stuck a foot in it. It was made of water, and the cleansing mat removed the dirt from her feet. Then she glanced at Nerry.
“Aw, come on.”
Had she already messed up by bringing Nerry? Ryoka did not want to put the Sariant Lamb outside even for a moment. The scroll flashed with handwriting, brisk and impatient.
The rules are very clear. Place the lamb outside or find a caretaker. Our meeting is now 29 minutes.
She just—could not win with him. And she couldn’t run back to the inn and—Ryoka was about to dash outside or beg Nerry to stay put when Shaestrel hovered up.
“Listen, ye fastidious blowhard! My kin, Ivolethe, has been your guest! Do you grant me the same entry? If so, the lamb stays. If not, we both shall leave and ye shall be poorer all of your days for it! A brownie has rules even the Faerie King must acknowledge, but no law has ever been set that does not bend or break!”
The writing stopped dead—and Ryoka held her breath. Shaestrel had not gone through the doorway but hovered outside of it, arms folded like a…
Well, like a Vampire who couldn’t enter without permission. And at the same time, like an imperious member of the Faerie Court, small as a Fraerling and ten times as arrogant.
After an eight second pause, the writing did not resume—but a voice spoke from the scrying orb.
“Enter. The lamb and your…guest are both welcome. Next time, please indicate any company in writing.”
“Thank you, Hedault. We’re on our way.”
Ryoka exhaled in relief. She saw the way up the first staircase was clearly marked by glowing arrows and stepped quickly upstairs with Shaestrel.
That was the easy part.
Hedault was not an idiot. Ryoka suspected, with all due respect to him, that he was definitely high-functioning. A literal savant.
But an idiot? Oh, no. By the time Shaestrel appeared, he had a bowl of assorted nuts and some rye bread and butter that Ryoka suspected came from his pantry. And he definitely remembered Ivolethe.
“Ryoka Griffin. You are on-time, and your lamb may sit there. Hopefully it will not move or shed. I did not expect to see a…green Sprite. Is she important?”
“Her name is Shaestrel, and—yes. I’m not sure of her rank, but she is very important.”
The Faerie was grabbing nuts and biting them down. She was a messy eater, but she paused as Hedault nodded to her.
“Ah, there’s politeness. Greetings, Magus of Humanity. You are smarter than most. You have the honor of seeing me, and that is hospitality for hospitality. Trust for trust. I think ye will understand the nature of our visit and weigh what is offered wisely.”
He blinked at her, then turned to Ryoka. Hedault sat back, steepled his fingers, and eyed her up and down.
She was no longer the City Runner pestering him on behalf of the Horns, and he had moved up quite a bit. Hedault spoke crisply.
“So…this is not a mere consultation as you indicated on your form?”
Ryoka sighed and winced as she fumbled at her belt pouch.
“What should I have written? I assumed that was general. I—have a big request to make of you, Hedault. How are you?”
“Inclined to skip small talk. I am sure your events and mine are a matter of public record unless it is germane to our talks?”
She sort of liked him. He was unapologetically straightforward, and she remembered that he had somewhat taken to her when Reynold had finally gotten her a meeting with him. How had it gone last time?
She didn’t recall exactly, but she knew he had gotten invested in talking about enchantments. Ryoka switched tacks and was surprised to realize she was actually accommodating and understanding. When had she figured out how to talk to people?
Maybe a year of dealing with people as troublesome as me helped out a lot. All I had to do was meet a bunch of people like Madain. Or Alber.
“—I was in Ailendamus, recently. That’s part of why I’m here, Hedault. I have a very important obligation as, well, a Courier and more. Shaestrel is here in Ivolethe’s place, and she is an important representative. Nerry is—a companion.”
The lamb was sitting with her hooves folded, not eating, just watching the conversation with too-sharp eyes. Hedault glanced at her, then at Ryoka.
“Very well. Are you representing Ailendamus? House Veltras? The Runner’s Guild or…The Wandering Inn?”
He pronounced that last part with some hesitation. Ryoka smiled faintly.
“Let’s call it myself in service to Ailendamus. None of the Five Families, not the Runner’s Guild or anyone else. I’m only friends with Erin. Have you enjoyed working with her?”
The [Enchanter]’s eyes narrowed, and he tapped his fingers together twice. Ryoka remembered that was his tic. He also was missing a ring finger on his left hand—the product of a magical mishap, she suspected.
“Her inn has never failed to upset my stomach. Whether or not my experience is a net positive or negative, Erin Solstice is not a woman I care to associate with without preparation for a disorganized day.”
Did that mean he liked her or not? The [Enchanter] reached for a cup of tea, and Ryoka did the same.
“Small talk seems inevitable regardless of my comments.”
“I’m sorry for wasting your time. I think it’s a Human—a personal thing to lead with that.”
He gazed at her. He was balding with orange hair, and his eyes were a sharp, luminescent beige-grey color, like wild cotton, perhaps, but magical.
“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad was refreshingly direct. Master Pelt, likewise. Efficient men who I was pleased to work with. Kevin can be likewise direct and concise in his communications.”
“No efficient women?”
She couldn’t help but needle him slightly. Hedault narrowed his eyes.
“Maid Ressa in service to Magnolia Reinhart. Maviola El at work. Would you like me to write up a list of both genders?”
“No…just asking. Alright, Hedault. I can see this isn’t going to be easy. Er…this isn’t small talk. How’s the, um, Lifewood business going?”
Hedault’s pinched glare shifted. He sat back and gave Ryoka a wary expression. Then…he closed his eyes, snapped them open, and spoke quickly.
“It is, as you can surmise, the most profitable endeavor I have undertaken even including Solar Cycles. Although I personally find my partnership in that project more rewarding. The Lifewood enchanting within my capacity is mostly for furniture; few have asked for functional objects, and I am not prepared as of yet to make a Lifewood Carriage per Lady Reinhart’s request, nor was she able to produce the raw materials immediately. But it has contributed to four levels and my class consolidation and capstone. I am now a Level 42 [Lifewood Artifact Analysis Enchanter]”
Ryoka’s mouth fell open. That name was so—pedantic it fit Hedault. But he’d hit Level 40 thanks to the wand? Hedault wasn’t done yet.
“In recognition of this success, I have already allocated a substantial sum to my debt, which I articulated to the Horns of Hammerad and yourself. If you are collecting upon that, I will set aside all but my most obligatory projects.”
He sat forward, gazing at her. Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. He thought she wanted to renegotiate their debt. He was…partly right. But the real reason she was here was going to really make him upset.
“I, uh—appreciate that, Hedault. And that is partly why I’m here.”
He gave her a pinched nod and waited. She slid something over the table. He gazed down—and his eyes opened wide a moment.
“What do you make of these?”
A stone with a hole in it, marked in red lines, threatened to set fire to the table it sat upon. Hedault had a big slab of slate that floated over an enchanted dais—he had probably made it himself. The obol of the Faerie King, marked ‘flame’, or rather, a word that encapsulated a lot of meanings of fire, was threatening to set the stone on fire.
“It’s drawing the magic of my enchantment in on itself. It is—inherently magical. Is this an enchantment? It’s fire magic. No. It’s…this isn’t a spell. Wh—this isn’t an enchantment. What is it?”
He saw more in the obol than most. Ryoka almost wished she’d shown this to lesser [Mages]. Jericha had been unable to guess at the obol when Ryoka had flashed one at her, and Ryoka didn’t have enough to give out, even to her allies.
“It’s something you couldn’t get anywhere in the world. It’s called an ‘obol’, and it’s more like a—”
“Word. This is magical language. A magical word so powerful it reacts with ambient mana.”
Hedault’s eyes glittered as he lifted it up. Then he stared at Ryoka and then at Shaestrel.
“It’s the same magic as Shaestrel and Ivolethe. Entirely foreign. Wild, for lack of better description. It reminds me of my studies that claimed Unicorns and other immortal beings had magical systems that defied modern [Mage] spells and Skills.”
He did know his stuff! His hand closed around the obol as if he wanted to snatch it away—but he placed it down with effort.
“If you would like me to decipher this and enchant something with it—I will put all my projects aside. Where did you get it?”
His eyes were alight with desire and interest, and Ryoka had his full attention. The Wind Runner smiled faintly.
“It was payment for services rendered, Hedault. Extremely weird services. I am prepared to give you a number of these—and they might make your enchanting magic far more powerful. But I…I need to have something in exchange. Do you remember what Ivolethe said when I showed you the wand we traded you for your help?”
Hedault’s avaricious gaze turned into inquisitiveness—then alarm. He looked at Ryoka, then touched the grey, ironwood wand at his side. His mind ran ahead of the conversation and then he sat back in his chair—and stood up, pushing himself back.
“—You want the wand. No. We have made an agreement, and I cannot trade it. It is the most powerful object I possess.”
Ryoka exhaled hard. So much for an easy entry.
“I need it, Hedault. Let me explain—”
He was backing up fast. And Ryoka saw the floor glowing and barrier spells activating.
“No. I do not suffer reneged contracts. Not from a Courier, not from one of the Five Families. I will involve the Watch and Magnolia Reinhart herself, if I must. The law applies to everyone fairly, and I will not be persuaded by you, a Gold-rank team, or Erin Solstice herself.”
“Hedault, let me explain—”
She feared that this reaction wasn’t due to her—but probably Hedault’s experience with other individuals. Ryoka could just bet that pre-Circle of Thorns nobles would use [Assassins]—and Gold-rank adventurers would use force if they thought they were overpaying for something.
“I’m not stealing the wand! I swear on a truth spell! I am negotiating, Hedault!”
He stopped behind six magical barriers, each ensconced in runes. And unlike Valeterisa—Ryoka didn’t see an easy way to get at the enclosed magical circuit. Hedault’s face was hostile.
“That remains to be seen. I have heard that claim before—and I am taking sufficient precautions this time. State your offer.”
Ryoka was about to snap back when someone kicked her in the knee. She winced—and looked down and saw Nerry’s warning stare. Someone pinched her ear with a tiny hand made of spring and buzzed a whispered voice.
“Careful. Yon man might have brownie blood after all. Going back on a deal is the hardest thing of all to do without a grudge. Don’t think of it as that, aye? Think of it as a new deal. One wrong move and he’ll stop listening.”
Stop. Ryoka froze—and her mind cleared. She bit back the harsh words and looked at Hedault.
He was clutching the wand to his chest. She realized, suddenly, that he was throwing off the same vibe as Madain. Or Lupp.
He had probably been attacked more than once, and she was threatening the most valuable thing to him. He wasn’t even thinking of the obol. Ryoka…knew how to do this, didn’t she? She took a deep breath.
“Hedault, are you casting [Detect Truth]?”
“Yes. But I am not a fool to think that Archmage Eldavin’s acquaintance cannot defeat it.”
The man called out, glaring at her. Ryoka nodded.
“Then—read me carefully. And trust me—please, Hedault. On Erin Solstice’s inn and Shaestrel and Ivolethe’s hospitality—which is not easily breached—I am not going to take that wand from you by force. I need it. But I want to offer you a fair deal for it, and there is a great reason I need it. Will you let me explain why?”
She looked at him—and his sudden alarm and anger faded bit by bit as he stared at her, then Shaestrel and licked his lips. Hedault’s death-grip on the wand loosened. He closed his eyes.
“…I have never been attacked nor forced against my will to do something at The Wandering Inn. Though Erin Solstice has been pushy beyond politeness. Nor have you ever betrayed trust—aside from the moment when you tried to kill Archmage Eldavin.”
Ryoka’s smile turned lopsided. Hedault stared at her, clear-eyed. But then the barriers deactivated, and he slowly sat back down.
“Explain the context to me. Then I shall make a decision.”
How much did Ryoka tell Hedault? Fithea and the nature of Ailendamus was out. Earth…she suspected his contact with Kevin had told him a lot.
Earth was a secret Ryoka had tried and failed to keep hidden. The Faerie King was hard to explain and touched on the dead gods.
So…because this was critical, she told him everything but the Faerie King’s and Ailendamus’ natures.
“A Dryad seed?”
Hedault stared at the wand lying on the table in front of them. Ryoka had placed a bunch of the Faerie King’s obols on the other side, and both she and Hedault were inspecting the other’s items.
Ryoka couldn’t sense any signs of life from within the wand. But she touched it and felt—
Had she ever touched it before? Maybe once, but either Hedault or the usage had—activated the power of this wand. The green felt like nature, but all of nature, not just your image of green spring. It felt like an echo.
It felt like the gigantic forest in the lands of the Fae. Very, very faintly compared to that place, but the potential was there. Ryoka’s skin prickled, and she saw Shaestrel staring sadly at the seed.
“I—think so. Shaestrel. Is it really a Dryad’s seed? Would casting magic have…”
Harmed the seed? Killed it? The faerie’s voice was soft.
“Aye, that’s it. I knew it the moment I saw it. If you’re asking if it’s the seed of a Dryad unborn or if it were harmed—no to either. Not exactly. You can’t burn a seed up like this. Ye might have drawn from some of it, but it was a seed of a great tree and has power to spare. As to whether it’d make a Dryad…that’s not one thing you hold. It’s potential. A Dryad comes from a tree. Wherever it were planted—that matters.”
The last member of a species. Or the revival of a great forest. Ryoka held the wand and had the sudden urge to break it open. To make up in a small way for her carried guilt.
She knew the moment Shaestrel said that—she couldn’t ever agree to letting Hedault have the wand. Not knowing what it contained.
The problem was—it seemed Hedault knew her will too, because he stared at the wand as she slowly put it on the table and forced her hands back. He was playing with an obol.
“It is the foundation of my fortunes, Ryoka Griffin. I counted on this wand. It was given to me fairly—and I do not like being forced to do things. Not at all.”
He hesitated, and Ryoka caught herself—again—before she could say something hasty. Hedault fiddled with his hands, tapping them on the table.
“…But nor do I like the idea of using a living being for my magic. That makes me uncomfortable. And if what that wand contains were to be known—every [Druid] in the world would come after it. Countless individuals.”
A curious thing happened there as Ryoka watched the [Enchanter] sitting across from her. The man in his thirties stared down at the wand, and a host of emotions overtook him.
A sudden silence that made him go still. A pensive closing of his eyes—then a look of pain and frustration that shifted to loss—such that his eyes glimmered. He looked up at her, and she felt like a monster.
He did it so fast. The balding [Enchanter] gazed up at her.
“—I cannot see a future in which you, or I, become comfortable with the notion that I keep the wand. That you take it in exchange for something is inevitable. I—must reconsider my business. But I cannot imagine the results any other way.”
He stood up again, but slowly. Ryoka’s mouth fell open, and even Nerry blinked. Hedault—moved at a different mental speed to her. He had transitioned from his decision at the speed of light, and now he was looking around his apartment, as if counting the cost of running it without his Lifewood furniture.
Suddenly—Ryoka stood up, hands raised, and began speaking quickly.
“Hold on, Hedault. I have more than the obol. And—and if you need anything, let’s put a price on—”
Suddenly, the conversation changed from ‘persuade Hedault to give me the wand’, to ‘give him a fair deal’. He looked so genuinely pained as he listened absently to Ryoka’s reassurances that she would make up the cost—and he was not really listening.
“Take the wand. Take the wand…I didn’t budget more than thirty minutes to you, Miss Griffin, and Miss Selys is outside the apartment. I will—see you tomorrow. Clear my schedule. I will announce to the Merchant’s Guild a cessation of my Lifewood sales and—”
Ryoka Griffin passed by Selys Shivertail on her way out the door. The Drake smiled at Ryoka—but the Wind Runner barely noticed.
“Rude. Hello, Hedault. I’m just going over Kevin’s projects. How are you doing? I know, five minutes for small talk—”
Ryoka Griffin found herself standing outside. And she was holding…a wand. The feel was rough, and it was heavy. Made of wood literally as heavy as iron and even tougher.
He hadn’t even taken her obol. The [Enchanter]…Ryoka turned back to the apartment as Nerry trotted outside. The door closed, and Shaestrel floated down solemnly next to Ryoka. She looked the Wind Runner in the eye.
“Ye are a heartless monster for hurting that man. And he has a heart as gentle as any brownie. What a terrible person ye art.”
Nerry nodded with a huge smile on her face.
Did you know Hedault was a vegetarian? Ryoka had no idea. No wonder he didn’t like the idea of owning a wand with a literal Dryad in it.
She felt bad as she walked back towards the portal door to Liscor. Now she was trying to figure out what to give him. The obol, obviously, but—could she give him anything else? She didn’t have a surplus of magic.
Shaestrel was not helping. She kept floating after Ryoka, adding to the Wind Runner’s guilt.
“Ye know, but for our meddling and the Faerie King’s tricks, he was fated to have that wand till he died. You ruined the man’s fate. Perhaps his levels. Fame would have poured onto him, and gold aplenty. No telling where his destiny lies now. Tis true. I swear it by the Dryads, living and dead.”
“Shaestrel, stop. Are you trying to make me cry?”
Ryoka wished she were surprised. She…well, she was going to make it up to Hedault. He was right. Now that he knew the truth, he didn’t want the wand. He wasn’t going to have to lose his apartment just because she’d taken the most profitable…source of his income away.
The image of Hedault selling his apartment was not to be focused on. She headed to Esthlem, and Kevin didn’t help when Ryoka asked about Hedault.
“Hedault? He’s a stand-up guy. He doesn’t charge us much on Solar Cycles. He’s a partner in the business, but he makes all his money from the weird chairs. I think Solar Cycles is his passion. He loves skateboarding, and he can afford to work with us because of his Lifewood stuff. Actually, we were going to make a bike out of it. Pure wood. Green.”
“Oh, fuck me!”
Ryoka left without elaborating. She stomped through Esthelm, trying to tell herself that the obol of Oberon was worth far more than the wand in the long-term. And…as if someone had been watching her the entire time, someone spoke to her as she was headed to the portal door.
“Psst. Hey. You. Windy Girl.”
Ryoka Griffin slowed in front of a conspicuously empty alleyway no one seemed to be paying attention to. A hooded figure with a huge nose…or mouth…was standing there. She stepped into the alleyway, and no one but Nerry and Shaestrel noticed.
“Uh. Excuse me?”
The figure tilted his head up—and Ryoka recoiled in horror. Right before she saw the deformed mouth and hideous, vacant—
A gigantic sock puppet wearing a black hood made a show of looking right and left before bending over to her.
“I’m a friend.”
“Dead gods damn it, Rhisveri—”
Ryoka raised her voice and turned to the passersby, but not a person heard or saw them in the alleyway. The puppet instantly shook his ‘head’.
“Rhisveri? Who’s that, the handsome Duke of Ailendamus? I’m Rhissy—”
“Fuck you. What do you want? I thought I was excommunicated!”
“Hey, the nations you destroy and innocent people you kill are none of my business. I’m just a friend. Met with any people carrying ironwood wands lately?”
Ryoka covered her face. Shaestrel was laughing so hard she was about to puke nuts. ‘Rhissy’ didn’t seem to be able to see nor hear her with his magical projection.
But it was amazing how smug a sock puppet could look. So this was how he was getting around his injunction that no one from Ailendamus talk to her? Why couldn’t any immortals she knew be cool? Only Oberon was 100% style all the time.
“How do you know that’s who has the—seed?”
“You’re the one who mentioned a wand. Wand. Only production of Lifewood in centuries. It’s not arch magic. But I’m sorry, I forgot I was talking to the Windy Girl herself. I suppose it was a genius realization on your part. Incidentally, you’re a hit in Ailendamus. Very popular.”
Ryoka didn’t want to engage with him. She shook her head.
“I’m handling it.”
“Sure you are. That [Enchanter] totally just gave away the most powerful wand he could dream of.”
Rhissy’s tone grew more sarcastic.
“Definitely. One look at your face coming out and I knew you needed help. Well, just say the word and I’ll take over. Rhisveri won’t accept just the wand—it needs a way to germinate the seed. But I might have some ideas on that. Just beg me for help and I’ll help, Windy Girl.”
Something about his tone…Ryoka’s head rose. She realized—Rhisveri didn’t have the power to break through Hedault’s anti-scrying spells.
He didn’t know Hedault had just given her the wand. Ryoka hesitated.
“No, I’ve got it under control.”
“Oh, of course. Tell you what. I’ll check back in a week, and when you need help—just let me know.”
The sock-puppet laughed at her. Then he slowly sank down into the brickwork of Esthelm, hood and all. Ryoka stared as his head vanished. When she looked down, Nerry gave her a long look.
Even without words—Ryoka nodded.
“Yeah. You think your life is weird? That’s mine.”
“That stupid Wyrm. Did ye see that? I’ve never—I’m going tae puke. They’ll laugh at him nine realms across when I tell them about that! And his face when he thought ye needed his help!”
Shaestrel had to lean on a wall to keep from falling over. Ryoka just shook her head.
The next day, before she visited Hedault again, Ryoka Griffin was walking through Invrisil when someone pulled her into an alleyway.
“Rhissy, I swear I’ll kill—oh.”
A man with silver hair was holding onto a bandaged stomach and grimacing. Taletevirion spoke as he glanced at Shaestrel.
“Who’s Rhissy? Nevermind that. The seed was dead, right? There’s no way it was a real one. Good? Too bad. What a failed dream. Back to rest for me.”
He slapped Ryoka on the shoulder with a false look of sympathy on his face. Ryoka Griffin stared at him. The Unicorn gave her a bright smile…then his eyes jerked down.
“…What’s that in your pants?”
“What would you like to see, exactly?”
Shaestrel laughed so hard this time she threw up the morning sausage she ate. Ryoka slowly pulled the ironwood wand out of her bag of holding. Taletevirion’s eyes locked on it. The Unicorn, holding his wounded stomach, slowly slid down the brick wall.
“Oh. Neuter me with a spoon.”
He saw the wand, and his face went even paler. Ryoka Griffin gently patted him on the shoulder as she put the wand away.
“Know any good planting pots?”
She waited—and he sat there, staring ahead with a kind of pained horror and resignation as she went to see Hedault.
“Eighteen obols. And I’ve got tons of gold. And—I could get Archmage Valeterisa to teach you some magic?”
She tried to cheer up the silent [Enchanter]. Hedault just poked at the obols on the table.
“Whatever you believe is fair. But no Archmage. She is objectionable, dangerous, and a thief.”
“Okay, no Valeterisa. Come on, Hedault. I feel like I’m kicking dogs here.”
“…Do you do that often? Nalthaliarstrelous may want a word.”
His head slowly rose. Ryoka backpedaled at once.
“No! Never! Only if they’re off the leash and literally about to tear a leg off! Listen, Hedault. Ask for something, please. Need a delivery? A favor? Want Erin to stop bothering you? Please demand something. I can ask House Veltras for a favor. Even House El or Terland!”
It would salve her conscience if he had anything to make up for the wand. Hedault looked at her, and his eyes did light up slightly.
“There is…one thing. But I doubt you would part ways with it.”
“Name it. If it’s something of mine…”
Aw, shit. Ryoka hesitated, and Hedault saw it. He was going to ask for the footwraps. She closed her eyes and wondered what Nama would think.
But if it made up for things…fuck. That felt fair. Ryoka hated turnabout when it was fair. Hedault nodded.
“If you ask me what I want, I will be honest. Few people are inclined to actually be truthful, I’ve found.”
“…I could at least let you study whatever you want. Say it, Hedault?”
He inclined his head with a bit more respect.
“Then—the one suitable repayment I would take would be if you gave me your unique Kaalblade and let me disenchant or study it. Including how it is made. That would be appropriate along with the obol.”
Ryoka gave Hedault a blank look. He frowned at her, vexed.
“Your Kaalblade. The one that Deilan El or the late Maviola El gave you. The one significantly more powerful than the rest? Some have called it the ‘Windsword’, but I doubt it’s made up of wind. It is—pink?”
Ryoka blinked at Hedault. Then she realized what he meant and almost laughed. But his annoyed expression and how bad she was feeling—
“Oh, Hedault. You must never have seen it up close. It’s—I hate to tell you this, but it’s not enchanted.”
It was a completely logical mistake for him to make. What object could do what the Faeblade did without magic? Ryoka was rewarded with a look of complete incredulity and then skepticism on Hedault’s face.
“Impossible. If you are lying—hm?”
He stared as she pulled the hilt of the Faeblade out of her belt loop. Then…he stared at it. He bent over the Faeblade, and after asking permission and Ryoka telling him not to squeeze the handle—although he wasn’t registered, so the danger was minimal—he touched the Faeblade.
He held it up. He peered at it. Hedault found a magnifying glass. He murmured a spell.
“[Detect Magic]. [Analysis: Mana Trace]. [Identify Magic: Elements].”
Three spells, each of a more complex nature than the last. Hedault stared at the Faeblade—then looked at Ryoka.
“That’s—impossible. It must be camouflaged magic. So powerful it’s above me. I’ve heard some enchantments do that. Or else—it’s spring-metal. Yes, a forged contraption on the level of Master Pelt. Thinner than paper and sharper than mithril!”
Nothing would do but for Ryoka to create the thin light blade. Hedault stared at it—and then his eyes popped.
“What is this?”
The Wind Runner gave him a sheepish look as the actual sheep stared at Ryoka, Hedault, and then at the sword with avariciousness. Nerry and Hedault listened as Ryoka spoke.
“Master Hedault. It might not make up for your wand but—let me explain something to you from the start. Oh. And we might need to borrow Kevin’s laptop.”
That was how she ended up telling Enchanter Hedault all about Earth. And aliens. And that was when the [Enchanter] nearly lost his mind.
The question was asked in not so succinct a manner over a hundred times to a hundred individuals over the course of a span of time that felt like an aeon.
Time was different in the courts of the Faerie King. The closer you got to the heart, the less it mattered in small ways.
The more it mattered in others. Laws were like that. Some laws in the realms of the fae you could bend around until they made a circle. And others grew so strong that they could break reality.
In this place—well, Melidore still spoke like summer. His very nature, let alone his attire, was a harsh ray of sunlight. Even when the Winter Court held sway, he was that bright beam of sunlight. A warm day in winter.
Technically, he was in dissent, and the Faerie King’s wrath might fall upon him—but only technically. After all, there were realms where it was ever-summer, or places out of sync where spring had slain winter. So Melidore was, in a large sense, fitting and representative of the Spring Court even if every being around him was frozen and somber, like crystals glittering upon the surface of a lake.
In another sense, he was a stubborn prat. But then, that was a matter of perspective.
He was sitting, moving pieces across a board, when he asked the question to the right person at last. And that was Ivolethe. They were playing a game similar to chess, only on a board that would have made Erin Solstice sit up and salivate.
The rules were incomprehensible to the rare guests who made it this far. It was the kind of game that made visiting deities sweat, and some visitors got up after a mind-boggling defeat to realize they had spent fifty-two years losing.
The Faerie Court could be cruel. At any rate, the pieces were moving. Ivolethe would place one and watch it, a suspiciously barefoot young woman, run in a diagonal line across the board. But she vanished as she ran into a glowing portal, and Melidore’s figure that looked like a frozen member of the Wild Hunt—missed.
The game, incidentally, was the game of Fate. And the fae played it very well. But of course, any good player knew that you weren’t just playing against one opponent. Melidore and Ivolethe were just passing time with a smaller reflection in a limited scope.
The real game was played against the board, a thousand opponents, luck herself, and overturning the table was a valid tactic.
Melidore scowled as Ivolethe pulled her entire board apart to protect the annoying Runner, sacrificing pieces to throw them in his path. Against all odds, it was working. A mini-Nama tossed the Wild Hunt piece off the board, and it vanished.
“It was a prophecy, twit. Are ye not familiar with how it works? Swords in stone. Some things are inescapable.”
“If you let them. You have not tried to escape your role in this in any way, Ivolethe. But—why her? Why does our King give her a gift?”
Ivolethe was choosing her next move carefully. Ryoka was still running. She hadn’t been moved the entire game; both were playing around her. She was currently turning in a circle, and no one could guess which way she’d go. But when Ivolethe looked down at her, she smiled with fond exasperation.
When she looked up, her gaze was sharp, like falling icicles, and dared Melidore to keep playing. He did, of course. He was burnished arrogance, and his armor would have made the sun look like a pale reflection.
“He has given children gifts in hopes they will shatter foes. He sees a thousand paths, and if there were a blade out of a piece of grass—wouldn’t you hurl it at that lot?”
Winter and summer stared each other down, and Melidore nodded grudgingly.
“I would. In a heartbeat. But I see more faith placed in her than that. What power does she have? Friendship with the wind? She is no master of any weapon. Why. Her?”
Ivolethe laughed. She had lost the game. Ryoka went tumbling off the edge of the board and vanished—it was a bitter loss. But the two fae reset the board, and Ivolethe kept playing.
Younger, lesser. Members of the court watched. Some thought Ivolethe mad. She had been playing this game, this side for countless turns.
And she had been losing. There was one road to victory amongst a million, and the Winter Fae was searching for it. Some would have thought it was Ivolethe’s madness, championing a mortal.
—But those ones did not see the weary figure slumbering upon the throne. One of two—and the other was eternally empty.
He looked like he was sleeping, a great head of antlers resting upon a fist. But betimes, Melidore thought he saw a green flicker.
As if the Faerie King were watching Ivolethe’s board.
Ivolethe graced him with an answer to the question at last. Ryoka looked up, and the faerie waited for her to run. The Winter Fae pointed at Ryoka.
“Don’t look at it so simply, Melidore. Look at how she plays, Ryoka Griffin.”
His wrath at being lectured like a neophyte to the game made a group of visiting guests to the Faerie Court flinch. One of them drew a blade—and burning plasma winked out in the face of Melidore’s fury.
They quailed, but Ivolethe laughed at him. The Summer Fae looked down—and then he saw.
There was some analogy to chess—but Ryoka was neither a bishop nor a rook nor a queen piece. People were more than one thing. He looked down—then traced Ryoka’s route across the board. Ivolethe’s smile widened.
“‘Twas not about her. If our king wanted a sword, he would call you, Melidore. Why does Shaestrel go? Perhaps it is because Ryoka’s ability is…to make a mess of things. So grandly no one can play around her.”
Every single time, the board dissolved into chaos around the Wind Runner. One of the Winter Fae would end up fighting Melidore’s own pieces, the Wyrm sisters, or a melee would ensue that caught even him off-guard.
Now, he saw it. Melidore’s eyes rose, and he traced the path Ryoka Griffin had taken. He looked at the guests of the Faerie Court, who regarded him in great alarm with their little tools that beeped and chirped numbers that made no sense of them. His burnished gaze stared through them—
And through space. At a spaceship still hurtling through their realm, leading an armada now. Every ship that they could pull together.
Commander Paethex had left over a thousand warships venting into space. There had never been a craft as deadly as hers. Solar-battlestations hadn’t done as much.
—However, the tide of the war was turning upon her. Planet-cracking weapons were being trained on her position, and the fleet was in rapid reconstruction, even in transit. Engineer crews were feverishly working on prototype shield arrays meant to make use of a nigh-unlimited power source.
Solar-battlestations. Entire worlds remodeled to harness the power of a star, or the similar equivalent, with fusion generation. At least two were vectoring towards her. Her superiors had informed her that if she could destroy them, she would liberate multiple sectors.
If she could kill a battle system with the firepower of a star. And she had…a stick. But it was a lovely stick, and at this point, she was willing to see what would happen if she—
“…It’s the only maneuver that will work. Tether as many generators and containment batteries as you can. I need twenty units of time or we’ll be shredded before we can launch within my optimal range.”
She was giving orders to the other Victory Company commanders—even a Sector Admiral. None of them were happy.
“If they capture your weapon—”
“This isn’t a matter for debate. We reach optimal range. Accelerate to maximum velocity—”
Her projections of the battle were very simple. Their harnessed AIs were calculating tens of thousands of attacks would come from the first Solar-battlestation. Too many to count. They would overload any shields they had, but the entire fleet would be bunkering behind the prototype shields.
Even in the simulated battle, it was clear they wouldn’t last. Twenty units—less—and some weapons would punch through, shredding ships. After the shields went down, nothing would remain.
So the fleet would already be backing off. They just had to accelerate into range, dangerously close to the enemy station and escort—then they would flee backwards in their twenty units of time.
The AIs were not happy. The commanders were not happy. Paethex’s entire plan revolved around a single object that left the combined fleet—and her ship. It flew towards the enemy station, which would launch every interceptor it could…and then…?
Throw the stick. Of course, the rest of the fleet called it Providence Garethex after the sector they’d found it in and her. Paethex was highly embarrassed by it.
Only her track record and miraculous offensive kept the other Victory Commanders from stripping her of her position on the spot. She saw them looking at each other silently.
They were going to toss the greatest asset in this sector at a Solar-battlestation that had more gravitational tractoring and shielding than their entire fleet combined. It would just catch Providence Garethex, and then they would all be dead.
The Koorvigas member of the Collective that had sent the Solar-battlestation would just love to use that weapon to exact vengeance. Paethex, though, was gambling that the ‘stick’ wouldn’t be caught.
“—How can we retrieve the Providence, Commander Paethex? Even without the ability to match a Solar-battlestation outright, we have not utilized its full potential. Is this—gamble—worth the risks of losing the Providence outright, even if it destroys the station?”
The Sector Admiral had one question that indicated both a suicidal amount of trust and a lot of doubt. And to that, Paethex just smiled. That wild, crazy smile that had put her on every news cycle across this galaxy.
“It is the gamble that will change whether we can win this war in our lifetimes or not, Sector Admiral. Because if we fall back, we will cede ground to those battlestations until an equivalent can warp in. How many units of time will that take? Thousands? Millions? Our fleet and the Providence can destroy any number of battleships, but we will flee every battlestation—so the Collective will pull back around them. But if this works, every battlestation between here and their homeworlds is now a target.”
And if it worked, suddenly that other Solar-class battlestation would be turning around and running as fast as it could. Then—she had a route straight through their lines. Turn their impenetrable forces into weak targets. Force the other members of the Collective to either sue for a ceasefire or pull out of their warfront entirely.
If it worked. Paethex stared at the projection. The…child or gigantic scaled creature that she had met and made the deal with had been very precise about how to use the Stick. There was no situation where he had said ‘power your entire warfleet off the ambient energy coming from it’.
She was taking a risk on what he said it was meant to do, so Paethex spoke as they began counting time down to their entry into realspace.
“…As to your other point, Sector Admiral, the ‘Providence’ was never meant to be used as a mobile power source. Just as you observed in our combat—it was designed to be used in close-quarters combat. Thrown, in fact.”
The commanders muttered louder, in disbelief. Paethex turned to them, and then her eyes lit up.
“It may not happen. The Solar-battlestation might seize it. Or the explosion may throw it out of our reach. But I was told—it comes back.”
Everyone turned to the viewports. And they stared out the window. Paethex still saw a stick, if she looked, but behind the arrays absorbing the energy, floating in space off the bow of her vessel…
Some of the Victory Commanders had already identified the Providence as looking similar to objects used in ceremonies from their homeworlds. Floating in space, bathed by the energy it was giving off—the spear was eight feet long, and the tip was edged.
It wasn’t even a monomolecular blade. But it was a very pointy stick. The ‘Dragon’ claimed it had belonged to a legendary hero, well, multiple legends. For some reason, he’d decided that he was willing to part with it for enough printed gold, platinum, and other metals to cover him eighty times over and five of the Victory Company’s ships. He had seemed very interested by the way they could print metals like gold. Enough to give up the stick in return.
Paethex was going to throw it. She had been told it would hit whatever she threw it at, and it would always come back to her. Paethex was still unsure why he’d taken her offer, but she had remembered what he’d claimed. She was going to take that very, very literally.
The point that Ivolethe was making to Melidore was simple. Visitors to the Faerie King’s courts. The fate of at least one galaxy. And—Sariant Lambs, a Wyrm, the last Unicorn?
Ryoka had a way of making strange connections. And in a game about fate? She was a good card to play.
Hedault the [Enchanter] had known Kevin’s bicycles were not normal. But like Grimalkin, like most people who tried to wrap their heads around another world, he had assumed Kevin was from either a nation that had invented the bicycles—or that Kevin was in possession of ancient knowledge.
Not the knowledge of another world.
“I thought you came from another dimension.”
Ryoka nearly spat out her drink.
“It was the most reasonable idea. I thought Erin Solstice had appeared from a dimension separate from this one. One created by an Archmage.”
“—Is that a thing?”
“My studies indicated it was possible. Even modern [Mages] can create partially tangential dimensions. Wistram is functionally a compressed city within the academy. Another world without magic seems ludicrous.”
“…Huh. But we’re from different worlds. Just so it’s clear. Everything runs on—”
“Electricity. Lightning magic harnessed. Not fire, wind, or water?”
Hedault was sitting in his apartment, and Ryoka had a laptop. Kevin had made a Powerpoint slide-based presentation when he realized that he’d have to explain Earth to people like Selys. She was flipping through slides and glad Hedault was no longer hyperventilating.
Rather—she was disconcerted by the way the [Enchanter] thought.
“Uh—those are actually power sources. We still burn coal for fuel in some places, but we have wind farms—that harness wind power. Dams harness water, and we’re working to take advantage of volcanoes and other power sources.”
“I see. That is logical. Without magic, you would turn to natural sources of energy. Blood sacrifices?”
“That doesn’t produce power. We definitely tried that—for other reasons.”
Hedault was rubbing at his head. He had to have the most killer headache—Selys had been forced to lie down for over a week, according to Erin. Yet the [Enchanter] just sat there, staring at the Faeblade.
“This is a piece of technology from…”
“Another world. Another another world. So far in the future compared to mine that it’s like us—comparing a laptop to a piece of paper.”
Ryoka waved the laptop and a piece of paper for emphasis. Hedault nodded.
“And that is why I mistook it for magic. The competence of its creation is on par with magic—or even exceeds it.”
He was way too calm about this. Ryoka paused.
“Are you sure you understand, Hedault?”
He glanced up at her, and the Master Enchanter of Invrisil raised his brows.
“I do not understand anything of Earth. I will ask Kevin to explain it more thoroughly. And review these—pictures later.”
“Keep it secret.”
“Yes, yes. But I do understand the concept of the ‘Faeblade’. It is a piece of superior technology incomprehensible in the modern age. That is the very definition of Relic-class items recovered by adventurers and treasure seekers.”
When he put it like that, it was familiar to him. It was a different kind of technology, but the effect was similar.
Here was where things got weird. Ryoka was nervous about telling Hedault about Earth and aliens. However—she thought it was the right call.
Trust. She needed friends, or at least, a lack of enemies, and Hedault’s giving up of the wand was exceptionally…noble of him. But it got weird about fifteen seconds after she explained all of Earth to Hedault’s basic understanding and told him where the Faeblade had come from. Because the first thing Hedault did was stare at the hilt of the weapon.
“Have you tried enchanting it?”
“Have I what now?”
Ryoka paused, and Nerry looked up from her nap. Shaestrel had been gobbling snacks out of a bowl, and the Spring Fae looked up as well.
“Hah? What did he say?”
Hedault gave all of his guests a blank look.
“It is a non-magical item. Have you tried enchanting it? Anything in this world can be enchanted that does not have magical properties, and this has not a dram.”
“You…can’t enchant alien tech.”
Ryoka looked at Nerry and Shaestrel. She hefted the object in her hands.
“Well, you couldn’t enchant this laptop.”
Hedault’s frown now looked insulted.
“You have never shown me that laptop before. I can enchant it.”
“N-no, you can’t…I mean, if you could—”
Ryoka suddenly remembered something. Hadn’t Inkar claimed that Krshia had upgraded her iPhone? Ryoka had inspected it, and it was a model beyond the latest ones she knew about in 2016. But Rose had claimed she’d heard this new phone was coming out—it just hadn’t been in stores.
Was it possible to enchant electronics? No. Surely not. But [Repair] worked on a laptop to charge it up, and she had seen Teriarch…
“You can’t clone a laptop, can you, Hedault? With magic?”
He gave her a dubious look.
“You mean with [Foundational Recreation of Mundanity]? The Tier 7 spell that can recreate any non-magical item? That would be lost magic.”
“Ah. Just checking. But you think you can enchant a laptop? I’ve shown this to Palt, Ceria, um…Pisces, Montressa, and Bezale all know about it, and [Mages] of Wistram are all aware of Earth. Heck, Grimalkin knows about Earther tech, even if we don’t show a lot of it to him. No one’s tried enchanting it.”
Hedault sat back in his seat, and he tapped his forefingers together. Twice.
“None of those [Mages] are [Enchanters]. I am an [Enchanter]. The difference is our competencies and specializations, Miss Ryoka.”
“I get it—”
Hedault kept going, face straight, but he sounded peeved.
“I am sure you regard your Gold-rank friends as capable [Mages]. Their ‘enchantments’ are, by and large, temporary, inefficient, and ineffective. Even Mage Montressa and Mage Palt are not equivalent to my spellcasting. Mage Montressa is capable of laying down a temporary ward or runecrafting. Mage Bezale can runecraft, write spell scrolls, and lay out a semi-permanent ward. None of that is equivalent to what I can do. I am an [Enchanter]. I can create an artifact that does not lose its magic after a year. My magic is specialized and permanent. Please draw a distinction between a [Mage] and myself. And underline it.”
Ryoka ducked her head at his furious glare, and yet he still didn’t raise his voice.
“I’m sorry. So you think you can enchant a laptop.”
Hedault’s left eyelid twitched. He got up, walked over to a drawer, and pulled something out. He came back with a glossy piece of magical paper that Ryoka knew had to come from actually magical trees. He also had a brush and a bottle of what turned out to be one of the liquid gemstones that [Mages] melted to use in their spell runes.
Magicore was apparently lower ‘grade’, and Hedault wrote furiously, inscribing a beautiful rune that looked like a feather—but incredibly stylized.
“Wait, Hedault, I get it. Don’t just enchant—”
The entire process took him less than a minute. Then he placed the still-wet runes face-down on the laptop’s front—and murmured.
He flicked the paper up—and the glowing rune was dead center on the laptop’s front. Ryoka stared at it. Hedault picked the laptop up—and threw it over his shoulder.
Even with [Repair], it wouldn’t survive a full-break! Not without Demsleth! Ryoka leapt—and nearly crashed into Hedault’s sofa as she saw the laptop slowly floating downwards.
“[Featherfall]. That would be a temporary rune that will last a month at peak efficiency. Pure material fee discounting tools is likely only two gold coins’ worth of gemstone. I would charge you sixty-four gold coins and fourteen silver for the labor.”
Hedault’s smile was smug as Ryoka caught the laptop and felt how light it was. She tossed it up, and it floated down.
“Did—can you remove—?”
“I can remove it very simply. You could remove it with a simple blade, but I am capable of pulling the rune off the laptop. Give it back to me.”
Ryoka did, and Hedault made a show of running his hand over the rune. He murmured.
Then he levitated the gemstone up—and it was liquid once more. It floated back into the jar, and he stoppered it. Fastidious, Hedault put his paintbrush away, stored the jar and the piece of paper—and sat back down.
“A demonstration at no personal cost for materials. [Artisan’s Dissolution] is a Skill that allows a crafter to undo parts of their work. I have seen [Carpenters] create temporary shims or other wooden structures and strategically destroy their creations once no longer needed.”
Ryoka sat there, trading glances with Nerry. Even the Sariant looked impressed.
No wonder he was the best [Enchanter] in Invrisil! Ryoka’s heart began pounding.
“Okay, you can enchant the laptops to be tougher. But—c-could you enchant them to be better?”
Now she was confused, and Hedault put his head in his hands.
“It is a question for myself as well. When I used my Skill—[Analyze Object]—I detected the—laptop—was hollow. There are a number of strange things inside.”
“That’s the motherboard and memory and…”
“What do they do?”
“What does a motherboard do? Uh, it directs the laptop. Makes decisions.”
“How does it work? It was made of copper, gold in small parts, and…many materials I am not familiar with.”
“How does it work work? You mean, how does it operate?”
Hedault gave Ryoka a too-patient look.
“I must know in order to enchant this device. The rune I showed you is…a trick of sorts. I can enchant an entire object without knowing the functionality of what lies inside. But to enchant an object perfectly—you have seen Kevin’s bicycles, haven’t you?”
Ryoka had. Just that morning, she’d seen Kevin riding around Liscor. His bicycles were lighter, faster, and tougher than Earth’s most expensive bikes, and she really wanted one.
The only thing that didn’t work perfectly were the brakes. She’d seen him run over Watch Captain Zevara’s tail. For the second time, apparently.
Ryoka did know how a computer worked—but the principle of how the binary-level decisions it made, literally a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ built up to the level of computing a screen or running a video game, was hard to articulate.
As it so happened, Hedault understood the issue.
“I do not need to know how it functions perfectly, Ryoka Griffin. I need to know how it operates. Heat? Electricity? Lightning? Friction? Kevin’s bicycles are hand-enchanted by myself. I enchant each part to a purpose. The wheels have a spell to increase their grip on the road. [Gecko’s Pads]. The chain we had meant to make as lightweight or frictionless as possible, but even Master Pelt’s steel would break under too much stress, so I enchanted it with [Protection]. In theory, I would apply as many enchantments to each component of the laptop as I could.”
“I…don’t think you can draw on them with gemstone. You’d destroy every component. Plus, I don’t know how to put a laptop back together.”
“The same for the Faeblade?”
Hedault began taking notes. Ryoka hesitated.
“Er—I’ve never found out how to open it, and I wouldn’t if I could.”
“So, an all-encompassing enchantment. There are ways to ‘attach’ an enchantment to component parts, but—aha, you are a potential client, so I shall explain.”
Hedault got up and pulled over an easel. He flipped the cover off it, and Ryoka realized he was giving her a lecture he often gave new clients.
“Each item I enchant has a set amount of mana it can contain. The right materials hold more magic; inferior or impure items contain less. Thus, a perfectly carved piece of wood all from the same tree would be far more receptive to magic than a bag of gravel glued together.”
He had a diagram of each object for reference. Hedault turned the page, and Ryoka saw the breakdown of a sword.
“In theory, I could enchant each ‘part’ of a sword. From the grip to the guard to the blade. In practice, most enchantments encompass an entire object. Because each object can contain only so much mana, it is a question of choosing the most efficient enchantment. The most skilled [Enchanters] can divide up enchantments without creating magical interference. In practice, most items are enchanted as a whole with the most powerful effect.”
He came back to the laptop and regarded it critically.
“For this kind of object…I do not believe [Protection] would matter. But how would I enhance it?”
“Could you increase how fast it runs? But you’d be enchanting the thing to just go faster with [Haste] or something. Wait. That might work. But then…I bet if you played a game, it’d run at twice the speed. Numbtongue would kill me if you did that.”
Ryoka was confused, and Hedault was very interested. Nothing would do but for Ryoka to boot up the game of games that Numbtongue loved so much.
Hedault stared at the brightly pixelated figures moving around and peered forwards until his eye was nearly touching the screen.
“This picture is made up of tiny images.”
“Fascinating. Why are you killing those people?”
“Um. It’s a game. Want to play?”
Hedault stared at the image of a dead person—well, an alien—with blood splattered all over the screen. The look he gave Ryoka was so judgemental she closed the program.
“For a woman so concerned about Dryads, you do not seem concerned about this ‘fun’. I do not enjoy games about killing people any more than I enjoy watching it. But I can see a [Speed] enchantment would throw off this entire contraption. Tell me more about it.”
Ryoka explained the power supply and let Hedault feel the laptop. He frowned.
“Feeding it electricity seems like a very dangerous game to play.”
“Yep. You’d make the battery explode.”
“Hm. I wonder if Wistram tried? It would be like them. But half my classmates I studied with had no nuance. Control in the level of an enchantment is another skill most [Mages] lack. The ability to regulate mana intake….why is this warm?”
Ryoka blinked. Kevin’s laptop wasn’t great. It wasn’t. It could run an old game and play movies by his standards, but…
“Computers heat up when they’re in use. Ideally, you keep them cold. See the fan running there? The best computers are in frozen rooms.”
“Ah. Then if I enchanted this to be cold, would that improve it?”
Ryoka’s mouth fell open. He already had a good idea! She had owned laptops before, and she had literally melted the graphics card in one.
“That could work! Wait—that’s genius! Or you could enchant it to be heat-resistant, maybe, to save the parts from melting?”
Couldn’t you overclock the computer? If Hedault could freeze it cold, you could probably get a lot more power out of Kevin’s laptop!
That was exciting for the future of Numbtongue gaming. But then Hedault turned to Ryoka’s Faeblade.
“And this…you claimed this was the product of light. Or—heat or even the ability to paralyze someone? How does it work?”
Ryoka had to shrug.
“I have no idea, Hedault. If I had to guess, it’s projecting something out the hilt there. Don’t worry, it won’t turn on unless I add you as a user—and it doesn’t hurt me. See?”
She showed him with the lightblade, and he winced as she let it pass ‘through’ her skin, though it was really the light just morphing around her body as not to touch it. It was scary—but safe.
“If you don’t know how to improve it…I could simply enchant it for [Protection].”
Nerry yawned as Shaestrel floated over. The lamb looked around and decided she needed to use the bathroom. She trotted off in search of one as Ryoka muttered a reply.
“Well, I suppose that works. Actually—! Hedault, I have a problem where the regular blade shatters every time it meets magic. The paralysis blade is more like…well, it works really well, and the fire setting is horrific. Could you make the blade not shatter?”
“If it is a projection, similar to a Kaalblade, I doubt that my enchantment would work. It would only affect the hilt.”
Nerry found a bathroom and nearly drowned in the toilet before she situated herself. She listened, wondering if she could get Ryoka to make her some armor or Hedault could be trusted to give her tools.
Sariant Lambs had long coveted a powerful [Enchanter]’s aid. The issues of holding wands, or just the ability to do things with their hooves…well, she was more concerned about surviving in Ryoka’s company.
The Wind Runner had yet to know the full scope of Sariant trials. Would she even be helpful?
Nerry was worried about the Wind Runner’s cooperation. But as it happened…
“Ye fools. If the blade is made of light, make it brighter. Duh.”
“There’s not a spell for that.”
“There is. [Luminosity]. Try that.”
The door was mostly closed. But Nerry knew the moment Ryoka Griffin activated the Faeblade. The searing beam of light scarred the lamb’s retinas. She recoiled, nearly fell into the toilet—and then felt the heat in Hedault’s apartment suddenly go up. The lamb recoiled—then heard a shout.
“Turn it off! Turn it off, you f—it burns!”
Shaestrel was shouting, but Hedault and Ryoka were dead quiet. Nerry was frozen there a second—then she smelled smoke. She leapt to the door, nudged it open, and went blind.
Pink light was blazing from the sword. So bright that even not looking at it, it was blinding. The Sariant Lamb felt heat too. She dashed for the stairs, and by the time she was halfway down—
Her wool was sizzling. Ten seconds had nearly caught her on fire, and the heat was growing. Hedault and Ryoka were up there! Nerry looked around, and Shaestrel, swearing, dove.
What about Ryoka? Nerry looked back—then ran on a hunch.
Hedault’s apartment was blazing with light through one of the windows. As a frantic Sariant Lamb and the Spring Fae dashed outside, Shaestrel pointed.
“There! Get him!”
Nerry ran into an alley beside the apartment, and a Silver-haired man drinking Rxlvn and lying on his side stirred as she leapt on him.
“Stupid undead. They never die. Damn seeds. It’s not new. It’s not n—get off me, you pest.”
Taletevirion nearly tossed Nerry off him…then he sat up as he saw the lamb’s frantic face and smelled the foul, burnt wool.
He noticed the piercing light a second later and looked up.
“Upstairs! Turn the thing off! ‘Tis burning them both alive!”
The Unicorn swore as he leapt to his feet. He blurred up into the apartment so fast Nerry was still climbing the steps.
“Damn [Enchanters]! Dispel!”
The flash of light stopped—and the Unicorn lowered a horn to the charred skin of Hedault and Ryoka. He looked around, wincing as he took in the blackened room, which had begun to catch fire from the heat of the sword alone.
He eyed the Faeblade and chose his words carefully.
The ongoing tales of Ryoko Griffin, the Windy Girl, were a hit in Ailendamus. Each week, a new story came out. It was making the hither-to unknown Duke Rhisveri something of a hit, and he was accepting new storylines from [Bards] and Ailendamus’ [Writers].
Sock puppet sales were becoming an entire industry.
This week’s tale was about the Windy Girl, that rapscallion who always ‘meant well’, who was trying to recover a seed for Fithee, the great protector of the forests.
She went to an [Enchanter]’s house to get a wand. She ended up stealing the [Enchanter]’s livelihood, for the greater good, kidnapping his Sariant Lamb, and burning down his home.
Rhisveri liked to draw from the real world. He was also highly amused by the reports he was getting from his agents in Invrisil. Of course he took some creative liberties, but he liked to think he captured the spirit of everything.
In truth, it was Hedault who blamed himself. The [Enchanter] was inconsolable.
Not about the apartment. Or his damaged workspace, materials, and his near immolation. If not for Taletevirion, who Ryoka excused as a ‘friend’, she thought she would have been burned for life if she survived—and blinded as well.
The light-enhancing spell on the Faeblade hadn’t even been that strong. But…what if you held up a magnifying glass to the sun? The intersection between technology and magic was far, far more powerful than Ryoka thought.
And yet—Hedault just pressed his head to the table at dinner in The Wandering Inn, much to her horror.
“This is entirely my fault.”
“Yeah, it’s not your fault! Ryoka, what did you do?”
Erin slapped Ryoka on the shoulder in the private dining room. She was serving them sausages in a bun, loaded with condiments—or rather, Ishkr was serving with Erin supervising. But Hedault was adamant.
“I should have weighed the risks. I was excited—I did not test my enchantment. The fault is mine alone.”
“No, it’s not. I was stupid—we were both stupid.”
Hedault was pale with fury—at himself.
“I am an [Enchanter], and if I had made the same mistake with any of the dangerous artifacts I have ever handled over the years—this is the second mistake in my career. This is the first, and I deserve a scar for the second.”
He held up his missing ring finger on his left hand for emphasis. Ryoka winced.
“Hedault, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I bring trouble wherever I go. Please—I’m sorry, you’re sorry, and you gave me the wand. Let’s eat. Do you…like the food?”
He stared down at his sausage-in-a-bun. Or rather, in his case, a seasoned Yellat. Erin had put out ketchup, mayonnaise, relish, cheese, chili…Hedault rather seemed to like the art of creating a six-layer condiment topping before he took a bite.
Ryoka just put some sour cream and chives on hers, then added some ketchup. Erin gave Ryoka a deeply disturbed look.
“What are you doing, Ryoka?”
“Sour cream and hot dogs?”
“…No. Mayonnaise if you’ve gotta.”
“Who eats mayonnaise on hot dogs? That’s disgusting, Erin.”
“Why’d you put it out for me if you didn’t think I was going to use it?”
Erin shook her head.
“That’s just so you feel like you have options! You’re never supposed to use it! It’s like having all those popcorn options at the movie theatre. Caramel, chocolate, and the weird flavors no one tries like raspberry-white chocolate popcorn.”
“I love that stuff.”
“I’m not friends with you. I don’t associate with this person!”
Erin wheeled out the door to shout at no one in particular. Hedault, meanwhile, looked pleased by his creation. But he was eating it with a knife and fork rather than messily holding it up.
“I…will not make that mistake again. It is a lesson I will not forget when handling Earth’s technology. The next time I perform any enchantment on your Faeblade, Miss Ryoka, I will do it using the appropriate Skills. [Reduce Mana Flow] will allow me to funnel a hundredth of the mana into any enchantment, and I will have every protective spell activated. Nor will I allow the device to damage itself.”
Ryoka paused in her second bite of her meal.
“…You want to keep enchanting it?”
Hedault stared at her messy face until she used a napkin. Then he replied.
“Of course. Give me time to experiment. But I can, at the very least, put an enchantment on it that allows you to call it back to your hand. Depending on the quality of the materials…I may be able to make a far more powerful effect.”
His eyes glittered with the challenge. Then he peered at Ryoka.
“Your clothing as well. I have seen you use your ‘Wind Suit’, and the glider.”
“I’m getting the glider repaired actually.”
“I can enchant that.”
Ryoka sat up. Shaestrel was trying to eat her half of the hot dog while Nerry demonstrated that Sariant Lambs were happy carnivores—she had put only ketchup on her bun and seemed to like the feeling of carnivorism. Hedault was inspecting something on the table in front of him.
“I will accept these ‘obol’ as payment. You can afford my services, I think.”
Ryoka was a Courier, and she had Valeterisa’s money. She gulped at the thought of hiring Hedault full-time—but then she leaned over.
“You’d do that for me, Hedault? Really?”
He looked up blankly at her.
“Miss Ryoka. Aside from the fact that you are offering me magic I cannot get anywhere else. Aside from the wand, which I consider morally imperative to turn over—”
His eyes flashed.
“Enchanters level by enchanting what is new and novel. I will trade that wand in expectation of the levels and drive to allow me to attain Level 50. Assuming you have…a month, I will begin a very careful series of tests on the Faeblade and return you a series of possible enchantments for your clothing and flying devices in three day’s time. Is that acceptable?”
Ryoka smiled. She held out a hand, and Hedault refused to take it.
“I will send you a contract this evening via Street Runner. I do not shake hands.”
“Are you a germaphobe, Hedault?”
The vegetarian [Enchanter] didn’t appreciate physical contact. Or messes. He sighed.
“No. I simply dislike people touching me. I dislike messes. In my line of work, dirt can ruin an enchantment. Or kill me.”
“Huh. That’s fair.”
Hedault treated Ryoka to a rare smile. He lifted his fork as a cup of water came out for him and blue juice for Ryoka.
“Very good. Then I will see you in three days. When you arrive, I will have some temporary slippers for you to wear.”
Ryoka’s face went blank, and Hedault nodded in satisfaction. Temporary slippers for everyone. No more adventurers with muddy boots. No more barefoot runners.
He had his own kind of priorities.
If that was all that had occurred over the last forty days, it would be something. But it would have let down Ivolethe, really.
Ryoka Griffin was pacing the night after Hedault promised to upgrade her Faeblade and her gear with time.
Because she hadn’t given him the okay. She’d told him she’d sleep on it. An astounding comment that had Mrsha trying to steal the Faeblade to give to Hedault so he could turn it into a blade that could cut the High Passes.
But Ryoka was worried.
“Am I going to stay here for another month, Shaestrel? Even if I’m flying about—am I wasting time?”
The Spring Faerie was enjoying life in the inn. Unlike Ivolethe, who had taken her sweet time until she was Ryoka’s pocket-buddy nibbling on snacks, Shaestrel had come here for a purpose.
So…she was currently sitting on a heating rune Hedault had drawn on a piece of paper. That heating rune was warming a cup of tea.
She was having a hot tub bath. In tea. Jasmine, Ryoka thought it was. The Spring Fae seemed to be enjoying the novelty.
Nerry was busy writing her nightly essay trying to explain her people’s woes to Ryoka. She had a little fluffy bed that she refused to sleep in because it was cute and cuddly. She slept under Ryoka’s bed with a wand aimed at the door.
“Ah. This would be the part where ye panic and breathe too hard and pass out from yer weak spine and liver.”
That struck home. Ryoka hadn’t actually been in panic-mode, but it was familiar.
“I’m not going to hyperventilate and pass out. My liver’s fine.”
“Pshaw. I haven’t seen ye take a drink of anything stronger than blue juice for the last four days. A real warrior maiden of old would be squeezing men’s heads between her thighs while pishing ale!”
“Who did you meet who does that? Vikings?”
Shaestrel laughed as she kicked her legs in her tea bath. She gave Ryoka a sardonic look over the lip of the cup.
“You want me to say what your path is. But the truth, as I told you, is that I don’t know, Ryoka. My perspective is limited here—”
She meant this world.
“—And it is not perfect regardless. Remember when I told you that [Enchanter] was fated to have that wand? I was not lying. One fate had him carrying it until he died in battle. Thence—with his dying breath, he broke it. And a great tree grew from where he fell. Perhaps a world’s tree. But that was how he was meant to die until we meddled.”
“Die in battle? Hedault? How?”
Ryoka stopped pacing and turned. Shaestrel’s eyes were deep and sunken. She smiled like some prophetess speaking dire fates.
“Never ye mind. If I told you, you’d avoid that fate so hard you’d run into another. You’ve changed his destiny. So. If I tell you to not stay, I might well steer you into another stupid problem. If you stay, you might do well. Certainly, your stupid sword wouldn’t shatter if a cantrip sneezed on it.”
Shaestrel’s role seemed to be to tell Ryoka nothing was certain and everything was unpredictable. And that…helped.
Ryoka had to think. Every morning, she would see Tyrion Veltras. And Hethon and Sammial would follow her around, and she—
Well, Tyrion aside, she had done some good here. Valeterisa hadn’t flown off in part thanks to Ryoka. Rhisveri, for all his posturing, was watching her.
And there was a Unicorn. But…Ryoka paced back and forth.
“I see your point. It’s just—I know there are people I can help influence or talk to. Influence is the wrong word. I’m…friends with them. Tyrion, Teriarch, even Magnolia to some extent. That matters. Ysara. I can’t leave without seeing her. I just don’t know how to—talk to them or change their opinions. The only way I’ve done it is by flying across Izril with an antidote or dodging magical traps in Valeterisa’s mansion.”
“Ah, ye have the problem of heroes. So busy rescuing damsels and slaying Dragons ye can’t hand someone a handkerchief to blow their noses without saving their lives first. She’s got the ego of one.”
Nerry nodded as she dragged her first essay out. She scribbled a note at the top.
The [Emperor] and you are both arrogant. Equally. Is it an Earther-Human thing or just you two?
Royally stung, Ryoka Griffin sat back down. She put her head between her legs and stared at the ground. Things had gone well. Erin Solstice hated Tyrion’s guts, but she was tolerating his presence.
Though, for how long? She had been about to throw him out, but Ryoka’s talk in the gardens had helped. She had feared Hedault would call the Watch, refuse to give the wand, and she’d cause a disaster.
Burning down his apartment didn’t fully count. That was only half Ryoka’s fault, which was an improvement.
The truth was—Hedault had been eminently reasonable, nay, principled when she talked to him. Talking to people seemed to avoid the entire drama she was used to.
“Hm. Nerry, I’ll read your essay in a second.”
The lamb was kicking her ankle, and it hurt like shit. The truth was…Ryoka thought of yesterday.
“Is Erin telling more stories about how she got to the inn?”
Despite Erin’s claims, she had barely gotten through Skinner in a single night of storytelling. Everyone had so many tales, like Pawn giving his perspective of how he and Bird had first been ordered to unearth the crypt in secret, that they hadn’t gotten far.
Ryoka hadn’t known how Erin had met the Goblins. Or that Relc had actually killed Rags’…parents. She should go down. She didn’t know much about Goblins, she realized. Tyrion Veltras had killed a lot of them, but Erin’s outrage was only a fact for Ryoka.
Yet Ryoka knew for a fact that a certain Goblin Chieftain had literally flown in to join the storytelling. She had a thought as she stood and picked up Nerry’s essay. The lamb still had ketchup on her face.
“Do you like eating sausage, Nerry? Are Sariants actually omnivores?”
The lamb nodded. Ryoka was perplexed.
Sariants were omnivores.
That entire fact became the foundation for an idea. Slowly, Ryoka Griffin thought of something novel. She fished out Hedault’s contract and gingerly signed it. Then she turned to Shaestrel.
“Just tell me if I’m being stupid in the next few days or really wasting my time.”
The faerie opened one eye and fanned a wing as Ryoka picked up the teacup and went down to listen to the stories.
“Since when have I stopped? You’re not always incompetent, mortal.”
Tyrion Veltras was busy training. Every morning, before dawn, a younger man woke up, eyed his mirror, shaved everything but a budding goatee off his face, and dressed himself.
He disliked his face. He quite recalled hating the way it aged—now, he disliked how the goatee just looked terrible on his younger face.
The vigor of his body was a welcome tradeoff. The lack of levels—not. He would check his [Messages], then leave the Haven and practice his swordsmanship.
Sometimes against the fake image of himself, sometimes with a partner. Jericha or even Ulim or his guards. But mostly, Tyrion was trying to rebuild decades of muscle memory and push himself.
He should have gone back to his keep to practice tilting and to work more thoroughly in secret—but Ryoka Griffin was here, and his sons would have refused to go regardless.
Anyways, a [Lord] levelled differently from a [Lancer], and Tyrion needed to marry the classes. So he spent a good deal of time tending to the affairs of House Veltras.
It had already earned him a single level. He recalled he’d never taken his lordly duties seriously until his father had passed away.
In between his training, Tyrion would have breakfast or lunch with Ryoka, though his sons usually pestered her with questions and activities. He would go out to see a play or ride with her and discuss topics.
Like her world. He listened to her description of another world’s woes and strengths. To Ryoka’s surprise, Tyrion, like Hedault, wasn’t blown away by everything he heard.
If anything…he quite recalled her face when he said he would like to visit if the chance ever occurred.
“You? Visit? I would have thought you’d hate a place without horses and…well, so modern.”
“Are not these ‘cars’ and other vehicles capable of great speed? I should greatly like to ‘drive’ one. Or race one.”
The thought of Tyrion Veltras behind a racecar’s wheel somehow fit—and yet disconcerted Ryoka Griffin greatly. But a speed freak loved fast things regardless of the setting.
This was very enjoyable, incidentally, and Tyrion had reported to Lord Pellmia that things were going well. The [Lord of Love and Wine] was quite the popular figure in the north. Pellmia’s only complaint was his son, Gilam, who was temperamental. Tyrion could relate to Pellmia, despite the age-difference between their sons. Sammial could be troublesome too.
His fear was that Ryoka Griffin would soon run away. His frustration was that he could not visit The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice held a great grudge.
She also charged him two gold coins per transit. Not his people. Just him. He could afford it, but felt she was doing her best to make his life inconvenient.
They had gone to the Season’s Theatre to watch a play yesterday. Tyrion Veltras was training in the winter cold while eying the Bloodfields.
He had heard an Adult Creler had been spotted. While the Haven could doubtless fight one, he had seldom seen the Bloodfields in the winter. The yearly battle…
Well, his armies led with fireballs and blasted the Bloodfields until they had enough clear space to fight in. But he had never liked this place, and there were parts that had been growing for millennia.
Few people were brave enough to stretch their legs as the Haven went south, even the nobles with retinues. Which was why it was such a surprise to see two women walking into the Bloodfields.
Not far in. One had a horse, and the other…Tyrion stopped his morning sword training as he saw a familiar young woman with black hair talking to a woman with…indigo hair?
He had no idea who she was until he realized.
It was Ysara Byres. Tyrion glanced at the Haven. Hadn’t Ryoka said she wouldn’t make breakfast? Then he saw the two were eating.
Erin Solstice made a toasted baguette wrapped in wax paper, piping hot. Horseradish sauce over beef was Ryoka’s principle condiment. Again, to Erin’s horror.
Ysara Byres had a ‘philly cheesesteak’, which she kept picking apart.
“I just don’t understand why ‘cheesesteak’. It’s a beef sandwich. With some melted cheese.”
“It, uh—it’s colloquial to where we come from.”
Ysara looked up, and of all the things they could have opened with, that was the first thing they talked about.
Breakfast. But it was a good opener, and when Ysara Byres had ridden in with the Silver Swords—well, Ylawes and the expanded team were being hosted by Erin.
The Silver Merchant and Wind Runner were having a chat.
“I think it was here. Right here.”
“Hm. No, we were closer to the hill leading to Liscor. The Haven’s passed that.”
“Oh. Well, it’s similar. Persua was right over there behind some rocks with a crossbow—no, Claudeil had the crossbow, and he shot me. Then I was in the Bloodfields, and you saved me.”
“You saved yourself. I just distracted a Watchertree. Yvlon could have probably charged in and killed half the Bloodfields. Ylawes, the same.”
Ryoka shook her head, flushing red.
“No, you saved me. I was about to run straight through the Bloodfields. I was self-destructing, and you pulled me out of it. I didn’t know who you were—and I ruined your caravan. What happened to the [Merchants]? Um…was the leader…Goelax?”
“Tellgre. They were fine. We recovered the cargo, and yes, we had our trade routes disrupted, but after hearing about Skinner attacking Liscor…my one regret was not being able to see Yvlon. I heard she was recovering. I have you to thank for helping her.”
“Thank Erin. I was mostly a mess afterwards. It took me a while to get on my feet. Thank you. I don’t know what to say.”
The woman hadn’t changed much over a year. Her tattoo was both of a silver ship and of gold vines encasing it. She had indigo hair, a silver earring—but Ryoka had changed, and she took in a lot more of Ysara.
If she had the knowledge back then, she would have realized how odd it was for a respectable, traditional member of the nobles of Izril to be in the south—let alone be so dramatically different.
Ysara was definitely gay. Even apart from the similarities in style—she didn’t fit with her family.
“How—was visiting House Byres?”
Ysara’s face was careful, but she added after a second.
“I hear from Qwera that you and Erin are trustworthy. To Turnscales.”
She glanced around, and only Tyrion Veltras was in sight. Ryoka lowered her voice.
“It’s a fight. But yeah. I sorta picked up on it before…do people try to target you? If they notice, I mean?”
Ysara frowned faintly.
“…It’s easier in the south. Drakes put down any oddities to me being a Human. In the north? Most wouldn’t put the name to me instantly. How much they ‘know’ varies, as do their reactions. But I haven’t attended a gathering of nobility in…well, since I was fourteen. There are exceptions. Lady Ieka would be one. Some are entirely gracious or do not care. Lady Zanthia, a kind of mentor to many of Izril’s noblewomen, never said a word about my hair, and she has bullied Magnolia Reinhart for filching sweets as a girl, or so the rumors go.”
“But it’s hostile.”
The Silver Merchant’s smile was even more pained.
“Your world is different from mine, Ryoka Griffin. Hostile? Hostility implies they know we exist. The Drakes are hostile. The north insists there is nothing wrong. Behind closed doors, they put the daggers out, but they don’t stab us to death. Just poke us until we fit in.”
“—Fuck. That sounds terrible. Are your parents? Is Ylawes, Yvlon…?”
Ysara Byres turned her gaze north as Ryoka fumbled a bit. She didn’t know if she wanted the answer. The Silver Merchant blinked down at her cheesesteak as if she hadn’t remembered she was holding it and ate. The hot food was good in the cold snow.
“Oh, Ylawes has no idea I’m a Turnscale. I suspect Yvlon knew something, but she was a girl when I left. My parents…my mother is a kind, generous woman and hospitable even to strangers. If you ever meet her, I hope you will treat her kindly, and I am sure she will be welcoming to a friend of the family.”
Her smile twisted as she took a bite of her sandwich.
“I think I am her great disappointment. And perhaps the only person in Izril she’ll war with. A proper, bloody war that would make the Creler Wars seem light and ethical. All behind closed doors. My father is more baffled than anything.”
Ryoka swallowed. She didn’t feel like prying more.
“I’m sorry to hear that. My parents…well, I hated my father more for letting me down. I feel silly about it now. But I wonder—if I could go back—if I’d be even more disappointed or if I’d change my mind. I wasn’t a good kid.”
Ysara turned with a laugh to Ryoka.
“Neither was I. I can’t say I made it easy for my parents. But that was just fair turnabout. I tried. I tried to become an adventurer. Then a respected [Merchant] in the north. The distance helped—but then one day I snapped, found myself dying my hair indigo with some of my merchandise in my bedroom in an inn, and then I shipped out to sea for three months with a [Storm Sailor] I’d met the previous week.”
“Whoa. A trading voyage? Was it…?”
“It was an interesting three months. After that, I decided I’d better go somewhere that kept me from being able to visit. The south was where I met Qwera. So when I saw a young woman running away from something—”
So that was why she had known what Ryoka needed. The Wind Runner thought of what Shaestrel had said. They were walking north, and she stopped and bent down. Something was glinting in the snow.
“I wonder what would have happened if I went with you. Like you offered. Just—joined your caravan as a helper or Runner or something instead of going back. Do you think I would have been—healthier? This can’t be what I think it is.”
Ysara eyed Ryoka. The Wind Runner had found something next to a withered stump of a tree. She lifted half of a silver blade out of the snow. Ysara’s broken blade. The Silver Merchant inspected it ruefully.
“The enchantment on it must have been old for it to snap. But the silver’s barely tarnished.”
She tossed it back into the snow. Then touched the sword at her side.
“Plain steel works for me. I’m not better than Ylawes or Yvlon anymore. If you went with me—maybe you would be the ‘Silver Runner’, hair dyed, kissing strangers in pubs. Or you and I would have killed each other. I bet I would have gone to Qwera for help, and you would have ended up as one of her projects. Vetn, Tesy, both owe a lot to her.”
Qwera. Another Turnscale in a position of power, hiding. And she was also a Doombearer. Ryoka exhaled.
“Um. I know a few more…”
“We know each other. You mean the [Alchemist]. I would be very careful how you speak. Even with wards. Even in privacy.”
Ryoka ducked her head at the warning note in Ysara’s voice. But she raised her head.
“Can anything be done? No. I’m sorry, I meant—is there anything being done that we can help with? The [Alchemist] has a way Erin can help. But can I do anything?”
Ysara savored the words like a strange drink she had never had before. She looked at Ryoka, then laughed.
“You make it sound like there’s a path forwards other than just continuing to be. You…Qwera tells me she found interesting things in the Earther tents. But you said that like Magnolia Reinhart once spoke before the Five Families. Like a [Bannerlady]. As if there’s a war to be fought. Rose was an interesting girl. She spoke as if it was time for the Turnscales to come into the open.”
“Is it? I’m not so sure. Rose is—”
Ryoka hesitated. Ysara supplied a word.
“Naive? If we tell the cities we exist, and the north, then they will come after us. North will copy south, and I have seen how the Walled Cities deal with Turnscales.”
“Yeah. So maybe not. It’s a fight on Earth, and sometimes it feels like people who just don’t like gay people—let alone transgender or…anyone win. Hell, we barely get along as Humans. Forget species like Drakes vs Gnolls. We’re down to skin color.”
“That should surprise me—but it doesn’t. If we had no more foes on Izril to fight, the flowers of Izril would prune each other based on pedigree and whether we’re noble-blooded or could trace our heredity back to the Hundred Families of Terandria. I think you are right. It would endanger us all.”
She paused, and her earring sparkled as she turned her head north.
“…It would be dangerous and deadly, and there would be no going back. But the idea makes my heart leap.”
Ryoka turned to Ysara as she crumpled the wax paper into her belt pouch. Ysara touched the sword at her side.
“I never felt much joy in victory over monsters or people with the blade. But if you want a warrior, I’d raise a blade and fight for that. Drawing a sword and telling my mother, telling Izril, ‘here I am, come silence me. Try to make me vanish.’ That? I would fight for that.”
Her eyes flashed just like they had when she walked into the Bloodfields with sword in hand. Ryoka Griffin swallowed hard. Then she looked around. At the man standing there, pretending not to watch her. Then at the High Passes, where the road to Liscor lay. The Haven—and then Ysara.
She held out a hand.
“Maybe there are some slow steps forwards, Ysara. Or fast ones. If I can do it—if you need me to do anything, I’ll always do a delivery for you. Would you…well, are you sticking around Liscor? Would you be free to talk again sometime? Over food?”
Ysara gauged Ryoka’s face and noted her missing fingers on her hand. She removed her riding gloves, took Ryoka’s hand gently, and squeezed.
“I think I could stay in Invrisil and see where the wind is blowing before I set forth again. Qwera is busy with her enterprise, but I am one woman—and I can make coin for House Byres sitting for a month. Especially with Erin Solstice’s door. Did you just need a friend to talk to?”
Ryoka Griffin took a breath. She glanced over her shoulder, and Tyrion Veltras trotted off. He really was the most unsubtle spy in the entire world.
“Maybe. But I might be here a while. And I have an idea about the best thing I could do.”
Ysara Byres nodded reasonably.
“Ah. I heard Lord Tyrion had a flag raised for you. But if you’re going to be here a month—I haven’t been part of a meeting of three ships at sea for a while, but if you find another lovely lady, I’ll think about it. Not Lord Veltras. Thirty-two days in a month…you could have at least sixty encounters, each with a different person. Especially if your ship docks on both port and starboard sides.”
Ryoka’s mouth opened. Wait, was she talking about—she definitely was. Ysara’s smile was cool as could be—and Ryoka realized she really wasn’t like Ylawes and Yvlon.
“What, you’re trying to level up, aren’t you? Ah—I forgot, you don’t have levels. But there’s no faster way to level up sometimes. Everyone could use another level.”
“What? No, I—”
Ysara was laughing at Ryoka Griffin, and it turned out she had the humor to match Wailant at his worst. It was a good start.
You know, the power of food really could bring people together. Ryoka Griffin was not a foodie. In fact, she had eaten a lot of bad food on the road.
Mad Madain’s bowel-scourging bowls of meat were an example of what Ryoka could eat and be fine with. But she had to own—there was something nice about food.
It relaxed people. It was a way to connect. In fact…it was the only time she had ever gotten Taletevirion to sit down.
He had a bandage over his midriff and winced every time he moved, but he did sit down. He stared at the bowl of noodles.
“What is this?”
“Ramen. I think it’s ramen. Um. Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] was rolling back and forth on the floor as bowls of the noodles were sent out the kitchen. She was shouting.
“Hey, Bird, you put the egg into the bowl! You don’t eat it with the shell on! That’s right, Ryoka! Ramen is on the house! We’ve got pork in the ramen. We’ve got spicy ramen! We’ve got, um…basic ramen!”
“No, but what is it? Noodles in broth? You can’t do that and call it a fancy name. This is literally just long noodle soup. Wait a second—no, this is Drathian. How do you know how to use chopsticks?”
Taletevirion protested as he picked up two chopsticks. Ryoka paused.
“I’m from Drath.”
The Unicorn snorted.
“And I’m from the moon. The green one.”
“No, my ancestry is partly Drathian. As you understand it.”
The Unicorn gave her a long look. He spoke in a language Ryoka didn’t know. Korean? It wasn’t any dialect of Chinese she could place nor did it sound Japanese.
“What did I just say?”
“I don’t speak the language.”
“Right. So I believe you. You’re so Drathian. You know, ‘Drath’ is an archipelago of survivors of countless nations. Even if you have a similarity with your Earth-thing—that’s like saying I’m from Izril. What part?”
He was in a persnickety mood. Ryoka threw up her hands.
“Fine, I know more about the culture—probably—than the average person living in Izril!”
“You don’t know more than me. Let me try another language. Let’s see—”
This time, she thought he definitely spoke in something that sounded analogous to Cantonese, maybe, but she wasn’t sure. There were differences in how each language spoke.
Pekona, who was sipping from the definitely-authentic-to-her-homeland soup, had been quietly eating at her table with Vuliel Drae. When she heard what Taletevirion said, she sprayed her entire mouthful of soup into Dasha’s face.
Ryoka twisted around in her seat. Pekona stared at Taletevirion, and the Unicorn looked worried.
“Er—that was a joke.”
“What did he say?”
Pekona didn’t want to repeat it. She eventually whispered as Ryoka came over, and the two women gave the Unicorn a look of such disgust that he turned red.
“I appreciated it. It’s polite to remark on aesthetics. In Stitch-folk Culture.”
Ryoka sat back down at the bar and slid her bowl slightly away from the Unicorn.
“Teriarch said you were randy.”
“That bastard has no room to talk. Did he say ‘randy’? That—”
The Unicorn pounded the table with a fist. Ryoka laughed.
“He’s not that bad. He’s old now. He was old when he met you, right?”
The Unicorn folded his arms.
“Perhaps, but I know stories. He’s not immune, either. Mention the ‘Wuvren incident’ around him or Magnolia. I dare you. And that’s nothing compared to what he got up to in his youth. But I warn you, I’m a being of dignity and taste. You can’t seduce me into helping you. Even if you have a seed.”
Ryoka Griffin stared at him open-mouthed over her bowl of soup. Nanette was peeking at the two of them from the side—she had brought her bowl over to eavesdrop. She was far too interested in the conversation. Without a word, Taletevirion put his foot out and pushed her chair.
With a squeak, Nanette went sliding across the bar until she bumped into the far wall. Ryoka was recovered enough to shoot back.
“On the list of long-lived people I know—you’re on the bottom. Under Rhisveri.”
“Ooh, I’m so impressed. The Wind Runner has bad taste. Everyone goes for the scaly ones first. You think you have good taste? Wait till one of them spits fire over you. That little lightshow in the [Enchanter]’s apartment is mild compared to that.”
Ryoka Griffin hesitated. Fire back. Fire back…she had a good retort after only two bites of food.
“—How’s Lady Bethal’s horse stock doing? I hear it’s a good time to be a horse breeder. Know anything about that?”
He froze with a mouthful of soup in his mouth. Then he looked sideways at her.
“I’ll have you know I flirt like a champion. I’ve seen how you flirt. Crashing into the ground in a glider and getting shot with crossbow bolts—it’s a unique one, but I bet at least one subspecies of swan was impressed. And Lord Tyrion Veltras, of course.”
“I fly well. I survived a magical hurricane in my first hour of flying. I’ve outflown the Wild Hunt in you-know-where. Mihaela herself certified me as a Courier. I’d like to say I’m decent.”
Taletevirion pulled a face.
“Eh. I’ve seen better ducks flying, and they spend half their time face-first in lakes.”
Shaestrel stopped fishing noodles out of her bowl as Nerry stuck her face into her bowl of ramen.
“Eh. They were taking it easy on ye.”
A woman slowed down as she carried a bowl of ramen over to a table with Valeterisa.
“Eh. You’re average at best. Even if you can fly, most Couriers are still better than you. Don’t get a big head.”
Mihaela Godfrey delivered the final blow as Ryoka Griffin slumped over in her seat. She put her head down, and Taletevirion laughed.
“I like this place. I’m glad I accepted your dinner off—whoa! What was that for?”
Even his enjoyment of Ryoka Griffin’s misery was cut short by surprise. Erin Solstice had just rolled past Ryoka, and she slapped the Wind Runner on the back. Fairly hard.
“What? Ryoka asked me to.”
“Dead gods damnit, Erin! I meant that for—not the moment!”
Erin rolled on as Ryoka glanced at Taletevirion. He was laughing. Then he grew quiet.
“I don’t want to risk my life. Don’t say it.”
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just having ramen.”
“Sure you are.”
He grumpily took another bite of soup, but Ryoka held up her hands.
“It’s just soup. I promise, I won’t say a thing.”
“You say that, but the next thing I know, I’ll be waking up in a wagon in Chandrar, and someone will be telling me I’m on my way to be executed. Or we’ll be rescuing an Earthspirit Djinni. Or…I can’t do it, you get it? I can barely protect myself in retirement. See?”
The Unicorn indicated his stomach. Ryoka glanced at him.
“Retirement doesn’t sound that safe if you’re getting stabbed. What if you were a consultant?”
Taletevirion kept a straight face.
“Nice try. Every consultant gets pulled into the fray eventually.”
“Well, even assuming that’s so, isn’t it better to have someone who can take the burden from you if you do have to do something?”
“And you think I’ll teach you swordplay? With your cute glowing sword? You’re not talented.”
“I didn’t mean me. Plus, I think I’m decent. What’s—Erin, stop hitting me!”
“You want me to stop? Fine, fine. Hey, are you the guy who drinks Rxlvn? Have another cup. Hey, Lyonette, look! He’s not dead!”
Taletevirion chuckled weakly as he took a sip from the black liquid. And truthfully, Ryoka didn’t press him that hard. They just—talked.
“Do you know, um…turn…skins?”
Ryoka muttered after a sip of ale. The Unicorn paused, his mug to his lips.
“Are you against them?”
He thought about that.
“Your people burned the Vale Forest until no magic was left. The Treants fled the land. The Dryads and forest spirits lie dead, and the last Elementals are either the noblest sort who laid every grudge aside or insane with grief like the river your [Innkeeper] friend poked. I am the last of the last. Yes, absolutely I care who porks who. That’s what I go to sleep thinking about. It preys on me. Not the Great Trees burning, no. I am haunted by the image of two men rolling around in the hay.”
“Just checking. Not everyone’s on board, and I’m curious.”
Ryoka got sad just hearing that. And to her surprise, Taletevirion patted her on the shoulder.
“Hey. It’s a good question. Your spicy salamander is too good-hearted, but there have been sorts who would give you the opposite answer. Ever heard of the Silver Knight of Dragons?”
“Oh. Him? That explains a lot.”
Taletevirion gave Ysara Byres a meaningful look as she, Saliss, and Mirn all had a bowl of soup in their own private meeting.
“Yes, it d—yeow! What are you doing?”
Erin Solstice lowered her hand. She had just delivered a slap to the Unicorn’s back as hard as she could.
“Okay. That one was just because I thought it was funny. It doesn’t hurt that bad, does it?”
Taletevirion and Ryoka turned. Ryoka whistled.
“Gothica? Get her.”
They called them Ryoka’s Dinner Dates. Or rather, that was Lyonette and Erin’s term for them. Ryoka opined they were not dates. She just wanted a private room or to have a conversation with a guest.
“I dunno, Ryoka. You looked pretty chummy with that Unicorn last night. And Palt kept calling Taletevirion the only handsome man in the inn besides himself. Imani said you two were a good match.”
Ryoka rolled her eyes. Erin was being mean—for her—but she had no teeth when it came to the world of innuendo-sniping. So the Wind Runner leaned over and smiled at Erin as the [Innkeeper] teased her over lunch.
“Then may I have a date with you this evening, Miss?”
Erin gave her a wide-eyed look, and the teasing stopped immediately. But she and Ryoka didn’t really have dinner so much as popcorn over one of Erin’s memory-movies in the [World’s Eye Theatre].
And a fight.
“I don’t have to ever forgive him. And I think you’re hanging out with a monster. The only reason I let him go through my inn is because you won’t give up on him and I need your help. If I wasn’t trying to kill those six, I’d ban you both!”
Ryoka tipped Erin out of her wheelchair. It was like cow-tipping, but the [Innkeeper] was an angry cow. And Ryoka was only mad enough to do that because Erin had aura-kicked her out of her seat.
“Maybe he can change, Erin. Maybe he can be redeemed. Do you want allies or not?”
“I want allies. But I don’t have to like any of it! [Killer Fishies Attack]!”
Ryoka dove for cover as a glowing piranha dive-bombed her. She raised her head.
“I don’t see you quibbling with Lyonette.”
“She didn’t murder thousands of Goblins.”
Erin shouted back. She raised a finger—and Ryoka threw a pepper spray potion into the air.
It didn’t even hit Erin directly. The [Innkeeper] couldn’t right her chair, so she opened the [Garden of Sanctuary] door under her. Ryoka cut the fishes in half with a belt dagger—and Erin landed on top of her with a flying elbow as she was looking around. Then the wind flipped Erin off Ryoka.
Shaestrel and Nerry were eating from a bucket of popcorn, and both were enjoying the fight. It ended with Ishkr tossing a bucket of water on the two of them—and Ryoka got up.
“Zel Shivertail killed thousands of Antinium. Relc killed Rags’ parents. Tyrion Veltras’ wife was murdered by Drakes, and he fought Velan the Kind. Many members of House Veltras died in the Second Antinium Wars. I don’t need you to forgive him. It’s just—keep letting him use the door. Please.”
Erin lay on her back, arms folded as she stared up at the ceiling.
“I will never let him in the inn proper.”
“Okay. Okay. But—will you at least let Hethon and Sammial in? They’re kids. And you can change their minds.”
“Sammial’s a little brat.”
“He’s okay. He just doesn’t have a mother.”
Erin eyed Ryoka as she raised her head with effort, then flopped onto the ground.
“I don’t get you, Ryoka. You are the nicest person to terrible people.”
Ryoka smiled weakly.
“I guess I see something familiar. Thanks, Erin. Can we agree to disagree?”
The [Innkeeper] was flopped on her back, water running down her brown hair onto her face. She looked up at Ryoka, and her hazel eyes flashed.
The inn had not been trembling with the force of their fight. But now, Ryoka felt the full force of Erin Solstice’s true anger.
For a second. Then her face turned baffled. She searched Ryoka’s face up and down, and she closed her eyes.
“…What am I missing? Nanette?”
The witch had been watching the fight and perhaps taking notes. She peered at Ryoka and then called out.
“Maybe it’s what I don’t understand, Miss Erin?”
The [Witch] took over for the [Innkeeper], and she gave Ryoka a different look. Searching. Then—she seemed to understand.
“That’s it. Ryoka, it’s not about me forgiving Tyrion Veltras. It never was about me ‘agreeing to disagree.’ You…you talk as if I wasn’t there, too.”
“Me? No, I know you were at the siege.”
Erin Solstice sighed. As if it suddenly made sense. She looked at Ryoka and then past her as more guests of the inn popped in to see the end of the fight.
“—Did you ever see an image of…? No, there was no public television back then. You don’t get it. She doesn’t get it, Numbtongue. Don’t drop-kick her.”
Ryoka twisted around, and the Hob stopped sneaking up from behind one of the rows of seats. He clearly believed in tag-team brawls. He stood up and gave Ryoka a smile. She hesitated.
It was harder to argue with Numbtongue than it was with Erin for multiple reasons. He had lost his brothers.
But there was something Ryoka didn’t really know. And Erin Solstice slowly pulled herself up into a sitting posture.
“Ryoka. I wasn’t ‘at’ the battle. I didn’t watch it from the walls or my inn. When I tell you I saw Tyrion—there was a girl with a flag. A really stupid white flag that was actually just a bedsheet. Before his army attacked Liscor, Goblins fought Goblins. They did it because they didn’t agree with the Goblin Lord, Reiss. They did it because they had nowhere to run. And some—did it for me. They followed a girl with a flag, and I saw Tyrion ride right past me.”
Ryoka Griffin froze. And Nanette sighed and made an ‘oh’, faintly, in the background. Numbtongue looked at Ryoka’s face, and he realized—she really hadn’t seen that part.
She had been in Reizmelt, and it was a battle she had followed, but not watched. Niers Astoragon and the Walled Cities had seen it. Nobles of the north like Magnolia Reinhart had seen the battle and that girl waving a flag and trying to stop everything crashing down.
But not Ryoka Griffin. She had never well and truly seen Goblins die. If she had—maybe she would never have been able to look Tyrion Veltras in the eye and smile.
She hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t really gotten what had happened. Ryoka had heard Goblins fighting Goblins and no one had mentioned that Erin Solstice had been there.
Of course she had. And now—Ryoka Griffin saw it.
The World’s Eye Theatre flickered as Erin Solstice spoke. The glass dome didn’t blink. But it shifted.
And there was a girl waving a flag. She looked younger, her face was dirty, and she was holding a stupid flag made out of a bedsheet. Tears ran down her face as she waved it, and an army of Goblins poured forwards in front of Tyrion Veltras.
Antinium, a hundred led by Pawn, charging into battle. A Goblin with black eyes pointing and killing them, casting [Deathbolt].
Az’kerash’s apprentice. And then Ryoka saw House Veltras and the Humans of the north charging…
She looked away. Then peeked. The images flickered so fast as Erin Solstice got up. But they were there.
If Ryoka had the nerve to watch it. If she dared…Erin Solstice slowly got up. She twisted her head and realized what was happening—and raised her hand. The dome went blank again, and Erin Solstice took mercy on her friend. She inhaled, exhaled, and then looked at Ryoka. Peaceably, speaking softly.
“I will never forgive him. Just remember that. You can advocate for Tyrion Veltras. And I can avoid taking a rook to checkmate the king or avoid losing a piece or position on the board.”
She exhaled as Mrsha brought a towel over to her. Erin took it and ruffled her hair as her face vanished from view. But when she lowered the towel, her eyes were somewhere else. In the past and long ago.
“—Tyrion Veltras and I will never see eye-to-eye. He’s not here. He’s still riding past me on that battlefield, and I am still holding Headscratcher in my arms. If you can aim him away, do it. But if we ever meet like that again. That time—I will kill him.”
She met the Wind Runner’s gaze and smiled faintly. Then she sat back down in her wheelchair as Numbtongue and Mrsha helped her up. Ryoka Griffin finally got it. Erin Solstice turned away.
“I wish I got to level from fighting. I shoulda been a [Bard] like you, Numbtongue.”
“You’re not worldly enough. Not enough sex.”
The two bantered as Nerry trotted over and inspected Ryoka. She had a smirk on her face, as of a lamb seeing someone who had fought someone else in a wheelchair and lost.
But Shaestrel just floated on by.
“Good on ye two for having a proper fight like friends. Soft friends. Ye didn’t even bite each other’s fingers off.”
Ryoka rallied a bit at that.
“Again. What kind of friends are you used to, Shaestrel?”
The Spring Fae laughed merrily.
“Legendary friends. The kind who rolled around in the first kingdoms at the dawn of time brawling, then fucking, then fought the gods side-by-side! Does anyone know my story? No. Peh. You ignorant children.”
She spat to the side. Then looked fondly down at Erin Solstice.
“Ah, but you don’t bow before legends nor anyone, eh? And here I thought Ryoka Griffin was arrogant. If you met my king, Melidore might explode before he beheaded you.”
For Erin Solstice might not kneel. Ryoka Griffin weakly grinned.
“Didn’t I hear she stole the sword in the stone?”
Erin flushed mildly.
“Oh yeah. I was going to ask whether I actually stole that thing.”
“Psh. Memories. As if it would be owned by the likes of you. It was a nice trick. But you claimed it. Ghostspeaker. Fae thief. What a marvelous [Innkeeper], to fear not and bow to naught. A witch indeed.”
The Fae smiled as she spiraled down around Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] flushed mildly—but there was also a great deal of sarcasm in Shaestrel’s tone. Erin’s chin rose.
“I don’t like bowing to people. Sorry. Besides, it’s not that I think I’m that great. It’s just—that I’ve met the greatest people in the world. Gnomes and [Kings] and [Queens]. Dragons.”
Her eyes blazed with memory. The Spring Fae left it at that. She winked at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner slowly sighed as someone handed her a towel to wipe the water off.
Some dinner conversations were harder than most.
Ysara. Taletevirion. Erin.
Of all the meetings she had had—Ryoka had not expected to fight with Erin again. But also, of the four Dinner Dates that week—the one she dreaded most was easiest.
“So I, uh. Thank you for coming.”
“I owe you. I was not kind. What is this?”
“Sushi. Hey, Erin. You don’t have to serve me Japanese food each time I ask for dinner.”
Erin poked her head into the private dining room and scowled.
“It’s not just you! Do you know how hard it is to find the dried seaweed stuff? Besides, sushi is fun. You guys should come outside for a bit. Relc and Mrsha are making a seventeen-foot-long sushi roll.”
Ryoka felt like this was an affront to all things good and proper, and she sort of wanted to see it. But the sound of Nerry trying to spit out a mouthful of wasabi made her look over. Shaestrel was chewing on the raw salmon in a bite of sushi as she eyed Ryoka’s fourth guest with a lot of unspoken sadness.
Rags, Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe, was on her eighth piece of sushi. She had a huge taste for seafood.
“I didn’t know Goblins liked seafood.”
“Many Goblins do. Fish taste good. Why is it rolled in seaweed?”
“Presentation, I think. A good way to hold it together. Uh. I don’t know. Probably just the ingredients that were around Japan at the time. Good flavor and texture composition.”
Rags chewed down on the platter between them.
“Makes sense. What about the mayonnaise-bacon one?”
“Don’t touch that. Erin’s from America, and they bastardized sushi. I heard her bullying Imani and Calescent into making it. They know crimes against cooking when they see them.”
The conversation between the two was light, at first. But Ryoka was fidgeting, and Rags was silent.
“So. Do you have the same grudge as Erin about me associating with Tyrion Veltras?”
Rags stopped chewing and glanced up at Ryoka. Her crimson gaze was steady.
“No. I don’t have the luxury of choosing allies.”
Ryoka sucked in her cheeks. Rags kept chewing.
“I was not kind to you. I tried to rob you—I stole your potion.”
“Yeah, but I…I guess I never got to know Goblins as well as Erin. The Redfangs at her inn—I just didn’t meet any. So I’m saying I—want to understand.”
Rags patted at her lips with a napkin.
“You wouldn’t want to meet Tremborag’s Goblins.”
“No, of course not.”
Ryoka shuddered. She knew what Rags meant, and the Goblin Chieftain gave her a long look.
“Do you want me to explain my people are a people?”
“No…but I don’t know how else to learn.”
The [Great Chieftain] of her tribe frowned, and her eyes were sharp.
“Then explain to me what you asked to talk to me about. Are you…learning Goblins are not monsters?”
“Then are you seeking forgiveness? Are you trying to understand our culture? Do you want to know my history? My opinion?”
“Not—exactly? It’s just that I don’t know much.”
Rags sat back, patting her stomach.
“Right. So you asked me to explain what it is to be me. Couldn’t you guess? Pretend you’re a Goblin. That’s most of it. I am not Numbtongue. I am not Ulvama. Goblins are very different. Like Humans.”
She was being slightly facetious, but she was challenging Ryoka. The Wind Runner turned red.
“I just—I am trying to both help and be Lord Tyrion and House Veltras’ ally. I don’t think Tyrion Veltras is beyond a kind of redemption. I don’t even think he’s evil. But he has done terrible things.”
“Mm. But he’s attractive so it doesn’t matter?”
Ryoka stood up fast, and Rags grinned at her. It was not a nice smile. But nor was it completely mean.
“I see Goblins. Goblins like each other. Sometimes Goblins overlook other’s bad sides because they like each other. Snapjaw eats everything. She nibbles on Badarrow in her sleep. He likes her. Poisonbite is bossy, rude, gets jealous—but Goblins fall in love with her. Until they don’t.”
“It’s not about being attracted to him. I hope not. I know what he did. But I wasn’t there. I just—I am not guilty enough.”
Ryoka spread her hands, and it was honest. Then she saw Rags smile at her. And the Goblin Chieftain leaned forwards.
“I will tell you a secret, Ryoka. Something I don’t tell Erin. Okay?”
Rags glanced at the door and whispered.
“I know everything Velan the Kind did. I know he killed countless people. I don’t feel bad about that. I like Velan. I think he was wrong—but I don’t hate him. Because I was not there.”
She sat back and picked at her teeth with a claw. Ryoka Griffin sat there. Rags eyed her.
“Reiss killed Zel Shivertail. And many Humans. My tribe did not. Tremborag earned his hatred. It is hard to see one tribe when the Goblin Lord went marching. It was not a good thing. But you weren’t there. If Tyrion Veltras tries again—I will fight him. If, next time, you help him or stand aside—I will be angry. But if next time can be stopped, I say you should be his ally. That is where I am not Erin Solstice.”
She was pragmatic. Ryoka felt like she was exhaling a breath she hadn’t known she was taking in. Then—Rags smiled faintly.
“I did not come here to talk about Tyrion Veltras, anyways.”
“Oh? Then—how can I help? I would like to talk to you.”
Ryoka smiled, and the shorter Goblin smiled back. It felt like they were trying to kindle a friendship they had never quite had. Both had known Erin Solstice, but, oddly, it was like two friends of a friend trying to feel each other out and become friends themselves.
Ryoka didn’t even know Rags’ personality that well. The fact that the Great Chieftain could talk so eloquently now was a shock. But she got a good feel for Rags from her exchange about Tyrion. A pragmatic, highly intelligent Goblin. Rags picked up another sushi bite, this one eel.
“…Tell me about trebuchets. I hear you gave the blind [Emperor] the trick to making them. How do you make a fighter jet?”
Ryoka’s face fell. She stuttered.
“I don’t know—how responsible it would be to share—even if I had a working plan, which I don’t, Rags—”
The Chieftain slowly drank from her cup of blue fruit juice.
“Tyrion Veltras killed my tribe. I am suddenly feeling very sad about it. There is an Archmage making flying Humans in armor. He got that from Earth. Give me fighter jets.”
She looked at Ryoka.
“It’s only fair. Plus, I know how they’re made. I watched a movie in the theatre. They spin a blade around very fast. I know the shape, the wings, just not the engine. But I could probably figure it out.”
Ryoka stared at her. Damn the overabundance of World War 2 movies.
“Bullshit. There’s no way you could guess how to make one.”
“I made ballistae and trebuchets. I have a plan for a giant falling rock trap. My Goblins just can’t find enough rocks big enough to haul over. I am going to make an elevator. I just need enough gears from Kevin’s workshop. I have blueprints. Want to see?”
Rags dipped into her bag of holding, and Ryoka walked around the table in disbelief. Nerry trotted over, and both stared at Rags’ designs.
“No way. Did you design all this yourself? Aha. You’re wrong about how engines work, by the by. That’s a steam engine. Real engines use gasoline.”
Rags rolled her eyes.
“Yes. And I have so much gasoline lying around. It’s so easy to get. All your stupid vehicles are made out of steel. Do you know how hard it is for Goblins in the mountains to get steel? I make my Thunderbows and ballistae out of Wyvern bone.”
Ryoka was trying to see a flaw in Rags’ plans, and the Great Chieftain took another sip of blue juice, looking smug.
“…You don’t know how to make a fighter plane, do you? You hint you do. But I am going to tell Erin you are a…what word does she use? A poser.”
Ryoka’s head snapped up.
“I—I just haven’t laid it out in my head yet. Do you know about the capstone-bridge design? Where all the rocks are held in place by pressure?”
“Yeah. They’re called bridges. Humans and Drakes make them.”
“Kevin told me about them. You can’t make them either. There is nothing you know that Kevin doesn’t know, is there? He made bicycles. He knows more about how a combustion engine works than you do.”
Ryoka Griffin found herself sitting and facing Rags. She spoke quickly.
“Aha, but I know how a battery works.”
“Acid, copper wire, magnet. Things go round and round. Useless unless I use electricity. Next.”
“Bat poo, sulfur, saltpeter, charcoal.”
“Dead gods damn it, Kevin!”
Ryoka slammed the door open and shouted down the hall. Kevin jumped as he made up an egg sushi.
“What did I do?”
Ryoka went back to Rags.
“Even Wailant knew that.”
“Pythagorean theorem? No—no. Euler’s equation. I bet you Kevin doesn’t know that, even if he knows calculus. Did he mention the cartesian system of graphing? There’s an entire system behind mathematics that’s useful. Double-entry bookkeeping? Stop me if any of these things are new. I—I know how Greek fire was made. Or at least, how we guessed they made it. Roman concrete?”
Ryoka and Rags were going back and forth, and the Goblin was having fun now as she asked questions. Slowly, the door to their private room cracked open, and a pair of sunglasses gleamed as Yelroan peaked in. He had been promised math, after all.
Ryoka had a single thought as she caught her breath and she realized Rags was manipulating her. But when she thought of Eldavin or all the knowledge of Earth…she had already told Hedault to experiment on her energy sword from the future. So she grinned and tried to actually think how you’d make an airplane. She hoped Kevin had explained aerodynamics to Rags. The worst part was that even if the materials were inferior—magic might bridge the gap.
“I did have an idea I’ve saved for a rainy day. But it might literally change the world.”
“If it’s new, I’ll make a statue of you.”
Rags leaned forwards as Ryoka began to outline a plan she had come up with but had no interest in pursuing, because it wouldn’t help her. And she didn’t trust Laken. But before she began, she whispered to Rags.
“Say. Of all the people—why don’t you give Bird a ballista?”
Rags was the one person who could do it, aside from Chaldion, and she was arguably just as close and even more friendly to the inn. Rags smirked.
“He can’t pay me enough for one. They are not cheap. Now, what was your special project?”
Forty days and forty nights. That was a lot of time to talk to people. But step one was talking. Reconnecting with some.
Getting to know others properly the first time. For instance, Ryoka had a formal Terandrian dinner with Lyonette and Mrsha with the Thronebearers dancing attendance. It was the most awkward thing in the world—until they established who was Mrsha’s mother.
Ice cream cones with Nanette while they sat in Riverfarm, by the graves. Sometimes, Ryoka cried—other times, her companions were very gracious to her. Often, Nerry and Shaestrel were there.
The lamb would be chomping down on an ice cream cone as Shaestrel listened, and the Spring Fae, as promised, told Ryoka if she was wasting time.
She said not a word. But she began smiling on the sixth day.
“It’s called ‘mac and cheese’. And Erin made it. There’s a lot lower-quality stuff. This has sausage and breading, and it’s healthy if you eat the salad.”
Sammial and Hethon looked delighted by the food in the Haven’s private dining rooms. Tyrion eyed the noodle-based cheese dish with dubiousness, and Jericha eyed Nerry and Shaestrel, who were waiting in front of a bowl to be served by Ullim.
But the most interesting part of the table was not Ryoka Griffin for once. Hethon kept glancing sideways as the guest to this conversation smiled faintly.
“It looks better than the ship slop you get. And that’s with respect to Miss Solstice. I love her, and she is a fine host—but I nearly broke a tooth on her scones.”
Ysara Byres could be pithy if she felt relaxed, and she was leading with her nautical experience and frankness. Ryoka had said it would play well with the Veltras family.
“Ysara, if I may, Lord Tyrion.”
She smiled briefly, and Tyrion ducked his head after a moment’s pause.
“Then let us be informal. I must say your appearance has changed notably since last I saw you. I regretted not having the chance to test your skill with the blade. I was told House Byres’ prodigy was one in a thousand years.”
Ryoka winced a bit, but Ysara was equal to Tyrion’s indecorousness. And he was not being deliberately impolite.
“I have a fondness for dyed hair, Tyrion. And I received my tattoo at sea. Do you find either objectionable?”
Hethon and Sammial’s heads swung from Ysara to Tyrion. The [Lord] gave Ysara a blank look as Ryoka held her breath. And true to her expectations…
“House Wellfar dresses much in the same attire as you. I was merely observing the facts. I do not follow fashion trends.”
Jericha and Ullim exchanged a glance behind Lord Tyrion. Ryoka almost burst out laughing—and wondered if she had to explain to Tyrion about ‘Turnscales’. Somehow, she thought he knew more than he let on when it came to same-sex relationships.
[Soldiers] often did. But that was her big trick, you see? Ysara Byres and her indigo hair were seated next to Sammial and Hethon, and she gave Ryoka an amused look.
What if I told you that you could influence the Lord of House Veltras’ way of thinking? Ryoka cleared her throat gently. Ysara had asked her to bring up the topic. She was still wary of her identity and the dangers to her people. Ryoka? Ryoka was crazy. So she smiled across the table at Tyrion and spoke.
“They have a lot of fun customs at sea, you know. And on campaign, I’m told. It’s not a topic most Drakes bring up. But—I’ve heard [Sailors] have relationships with each other, men in a relationship with other men. Does it happen in armies too that you know, Tyrion, or is it not spoken of? It’s completely normal to me, but I don’t know Izril’s customs.”
Jericha’s head snapped around.
“Miss Ryoka, Lord Hethon and Sammial are here.”
“So? It’s not an inappropriate conversation.”
Tyrion Veltras blinked at Ryoka Griffin. He often seemed surprised by the line a dinner conversation took, and he visibly hesitated. Sammial and Hethon were staring from Ryoka to Ysara to Tyrion to Jericha. Sammial had a vague look of disgust on his face, and Hethon looked uncomprehending, but neither was shouting in outrage. That was good.
“I—am familiar with some rumors. But it is not mentioned. What occurs on the campaign, and at sea, is often dropped. Such gossip is often used to cast aspersions on the character of members of the nobility. I do not partake in that kind of gossip.”
“Right. But it’s not wrong, is it? Or do you think otherwise? By the by, Drakes call that being a ‘Turnscale’, but I have a bunch of different definitions from home. Let me know if Izrilians have a different term. Pass the bread, would you, Hethon?”
“Ryoka. This is not a fit subject for the dinner table.”
Jericha hissed at Ryoka. She looked nervous, or perhaps uncomfortable. Ryoka gave her a flat look.
“I’d be happy to share what I’ve seen. And it does exist, regardless of thoughts on it. I would like to hear what Lord Veltras has to say.”
“But it’s—not appropriate!”
Jericha tried again. This time, Sammial raised his voice.
“Why? I want to hear about this.”
“Yes, tell us why it’s inappropriate.”
The final guest spoke up, and if Ysara had vivid indigo hair—she was not the most dramatic person at the table for hair color.
Taletevirion looked very interested as he sat up at the table. He had not been especially moved by Ryoka inviting him to dinner with Lord Tyrion. Or mac and cheese. But this conversation…he began picking baby tomatoes out of the salad bowl and shoveling them into his mouth as Jericha floundered. His silver eyes glittered at Ryoka.
I know exactly what you’re doing. But I’m playing along.
That’s what they said. He glanced at Ysara Byres, and Tyrion Veltras eyed Taletevirion.
“I understand you are an accomplished swordsman, sir. I am reinventing my own skillset. Would you care for a duel after this meal?”
“I could spank you both for a while. Why not? It sounds funny to see what ‘once in a thousand years’ looks like for House Byres’ prodigy. And beating on a Veltras [Lord] used to be a tradition in my family.”
Ysara and Tyrion’s faces both turned slack as the Unicorn laughed like a braying donkey. Jericha turned her wrath on him, and Ryoka sat back. Hethon passed her the bread, and she tucked into the meal with a good humor.
Yes, this. This was what Shaestrel was smiling at. This was the Ryoka Griffin trademark.
Chaos. No, wait, that was Erin’s job. Ryoka was more like weird meetings. Suddenly, Ryoka wondered if she could get a certain sock puppet to agree to a meal at Erin’s inn. Maybe he’d run into a Goblin. Maybe he’d run into Erin Solstice or Demsleth.
Either way, only good things could occur. Ryoka Griffin lifted a cup and smiled.
“Here’s to awkward dinner parties.”
Everyone stared at her, but Ryoka Griffin had done this so much that the embarrassment was like second nature to her. She drained the cup, laughed, and then began to launch into a discussion of Turnscales with a Unicorn, a Silver [Merchant], and the [Lord] of House Veltras.
It was going to be a fun month.
The Unicorn sat, awkwardly, with Ysara Byres and Tyrion Veltras, as Shaestrel floated out the window, burping, having eaten half a normal person’s plate of macaroni at a speed not even Sammial could match.
He told himself he’d seen something like this before. If not all in the same place…you didn’t get credit for rearranging the same thing into a novel order. A sword was a sword. A girl was a girl. To a Dragon—or a Unicorn—it was still the same thing.
It didn’t matter if it was a sword in the stone or an alien’s weapon from the far future. The last Harpy of empire or a young woman with an aversion to socks. It wasn’t…new.
—Even he knew he was lying at this point. So the Unicorn broke into a discussion of what sailors did and whether that was normal—quietly.
“The Vale Forest is dead. Every Great Tree was felled. You, boy, and your family did not raze the entire forest for lumber. There are deep roots—but your legacy is just that. A legacy. If you want to grow a seed faster than a decade for the first shoot to break soil—you had better find magic. But the Drakes stole the magic of Oteslia’s tree. There are no great green havens left. A Treant might nurture that seed. But it would be the death of an ancient. And they’d do it too, the soft bastards.”
He took a long drink of Rxlvn as Tyrion Veltras stopped abruptly. Ryoka turned, eyes widening. Ysara paused, then waved a fork.
“Excuse me. Is this—innuendo I’m missing? About ships docking together?”
Ysara thought Taletevirion was joking or making a reference to Turnscales. She smiled—until the Unicorn blew air out of his mouth.
“No, not your stupid issues of Humans kissing each other regardless of gender, girl. Which I have entire sympathy for—fools are fools. But you haven’t even gotten into the weird stuff yet. Ever had a relationship with an Elemental but their form keeps changing? Or a spirit of the snow who melts and forgets their lover every year and falls in love all over again? That’s hard to make work.”
Jericha’s mouth opened, and she looked between Taletevirion and Ryoka. The Wind Runner opened her mouth nervously.
“What seed are you referring to, sir? And how do you know about the death of the forest?”
Tyrion Veltras eyed Taletevirion, and the Unicorn was drunk. Or getting there with Rxlvn. He took another swig.
“I’m talking about the Dryad seed in the wand Ryoka has. The one she’s trying to grow.”
He gave her a smile like a horse as everyone’s gaze suddenly locked on Ryoka Griffon. Hethon began choking on his food, and Tyrion sat bolt upright. Ryoka was open-mouthed. She realized—
The Unicorn was doing this on purpose. Taletevirion exhaled happily.
“I love making smart-assed people’s lives harder. You want to talk secrets? Let’s talk about that, too. Trust goes every direction. And around a corner. That’s when you stab it.”
Ysara Byres sat there as Ryoka Griffin looked for a way out—and Jericha closed the window and bolted it with a look of great satisfaction. Nowhere to run. All the time to talk. As Nerry nearly laughed herself off the table, Sammial Veltras rubbed his hands together with glee. Ryoka never let him down.
A fun month indeed.
The Spring Fae was laughing so hard she slammed into one of the walls of the inn. Then she flew through the window.
“What the—hey! Shaestrel, what’s up. Aw. Is Ryoka in trouble? Is it the Bloodfields? Let me get Relc!”
Erin Solstice was in her room, writing a letter to her penpals. Which included Earl Altestiel, the King of Avel…
She had just played a game of chess with Niers, and he’d said that he knew at least a few Earthers. He’d wanted to talk about her world, and she’d countered with ‘if you beat me we’ll talk’.
The Titan seemed to enjoy having someone who could actually throw him mentally off his game. They had a winter, though, and Erin was trying not to think about the Winter Solstice.
She was going to do some baking in a moment—once more, she would call upon the profane, the ignored, and the humble warrior of the kitchens. Though he was small and probably inedible…
The Shadow Loaf would rise again.
Erin was also making preparations in her way. Time was a valuable thing, and neither she nor Ryoka were wasting it. If they were warriors with swords, they should have been out training or slaying monsters.
But since neither one was—Shaestrel alighted on Erin’s desk.
“Nae trouble. Not yet, or if it is, let her wallow in it like a pig, eh? She enjoys it.”
“That’s so rude and so Ryoka. Did you want more food or something? Or another teacup bath?”
Erin Solstice was being as nice to the Spring Fae as she could be, and she really did like her guest. Although she was quite aware of the fae’s penchant for trouble and pranks. However, Shaestrel hadn’t even done much pranking aside from an incident where she convinced Palt to cast a miniature [Forcewall] spell right under the lip of one of the outhouse seats.
Which—gross. She peered at Erin Solstice.
“Your flowers are looking well. Perhaps some will bloom soon. That was another thing my kin told me about. A girl who tricks the fae’s oldest prank. The [Innkeeper] who makes Gnomes laugh, mocks the gods, and claims a Dragon’s title.”
Erin flushed mildly.
“You mean the Grandmaster of Scales thing? I think Xarkouth wouldn’t have minded. I played a bunch of people in chess…”
“Aye, aye. I’m not holding you to task. But what a wondrous young woman. High ‘level’ in this world, great friend of Goblins.”
“You’re talking me up.”
She was getting embarrassed, but Shaestrel wasn’t saying it as pure praise. The Spring Faerie was…smiling. Erin Solstice saw her eying the chess board. The [Innkeeper] waited for the prank. And…here it came…
“The greatest chess player that the warlord of another continent plays. I say these things and they’re true. You spoke well to Ryoka Griffin of who you are and what you have done. I see it. I do not deny it, Witch. I would be a fool to try. But…”
Shaestrel paused, and a light came into her eyes. Then she grinned, and Erin saw the member of the Summer Courts. Small, compressed into this world, a visitor from far off.
Smiling, without contempt or dismissal of who Erin was. But even still.
The arrogance of the fae upon her. And Shaestrel’s voice was sweet like honey and buzzed like a storm of flies in the midst of an overwarm forest.
“…What a fat head ye might get. Luckily for you, I am here. You play chess well, [Innkeeper] Erin Solstice?”
Erin blinked. She looked down at the chessboard, then up at Shaestrel sharply.
“Wait. Do you play chess?”
The Spring Fae’s smile grew wider.
“I play it. And a game beyond even that. If you beat me at chess—I might teach you the other.”
Erin’s hand crept towards the chess board as if it were possessed. And suddenly—her heart was beating fast. Her eyes lit up.
“Are you any good?”
Shaestrel shrugged overly modestly.
“We shall have to see. But I hear tell you have lost to Gnomes.”
“One game. And he bong clouded me.”
“Gnomes bong about everywhere and everywhen. ‘Tis not surprising. But just so you know—I beat Gnomes at games of chess and fate. Let’s play a game.”
Just like that. Erin Solstice was not ready. The window was open, blowing the cold winds of winter in, and she had Ishkr close it after a second.
She had to go pee, and she was tired from a long dance routine in the mornings. Winter had just begun—but here was Shaestrel.
And the Grandmaster of Scales had no great thunderous temporary Skill appear over her head. There was no quest. A fell wind did not blow, nor did an ethereal battleground representing their chess pieces appear and shake the foundations of the inn.
But her heart was pounding. And she swore—she could hear laughter.
The [Innkeeper] faced her greatest opponent yet, who fluttered down and stood there, eyes alight with an even greater challenge.
Erin Solstice laughed in delight. Then she began to play and fight for the chance to step onto an even greater playing field. A deeper game still.
Author’s Note: I’m not dead. Nor am I that sick. But this cold refuses to go away.
It’s actually not much coughing. Or snot. At the start of last week, I had chills and a mild fever. Then—headaches every time I tried to write that sometimes went away.
The last cycle of this chapter, I felt weird nausea and wasn’t that hungry. The point I’m making is that I realized I was under the weather and it sucks. Writing isn’t a thing where if you’re at 90%, you can still put out a decent chapter. Sometimes even being a bit ‘off’ or mildly tired is a huge impediment.
Other times, I have written amazingly good chapters despite being in incredible pain or sick as a dog…who’s sick. But this is just a pain and I tried to tailor this chapter to the fact that I am weaker.
I hope you have enjoyed Volume 1’s rewrite. I hope I am better soon, and I feel like big things have happened or are happening. I am old after my birthday, and we may have to take things slow in my decrepitness.
But really, if I get healthy, I’ll be back to it. For now, I’m launching the Patreon poll. Late, I know, but I’ll try to toss in some fun options to make up for it. I have completed a big task in rewriting Volume 1. Onto the next one—but for now, maybe I’ll take it easy.
…This is ‘easy’. I may need to learn easy. Thanks for reading.
Stream Art of Shovel Duo by Bobo Plushie!
Volume 1 Erin and Rags by ArtsyNada!
Yolden by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!