10.00 L – The Wandering Inn

10.00 L

Snow was still billowing down like great, thick blankets of white fabric draping themselves over Liscor. A final white sheet for the winter; a lie from the skies. After all—the days after would not be so snowy.

The final month of winter, the sixteenth and last month of the year, was a battle between the icy heart of the year and the advent of spring. By the end of the month, the warmth would be turning snow to mud in less-chilly climates, and soon, it would begin to rain.

A girl paused in shoveling a narrow path of snow banked shoulder-high and wiped at her brow. She had bundled up in three layers of wool for the cold, but now she was uncomfortably warm. Nevertheless, she persisted in shoveling snow up, despite the flakes twisting around her, seeking to undo her hard work.

Snow was like that. Life was like that. Sure, by the time lunch came, the snow would have covered the ground a foot deep at least—but if she didn’t do the shoveling now, then tomorrow the snow would be far too high to wade through. She could give up and just slough through the snow when it was knee-high, fight through it at waist height, or hope to walk on the top of a deep bank—or she could shovel today, tomorrow, and every day it snowed.

The girl’s hair was brown, and she’d chosen not to braid it today, instead leaving it hanging underneath a knitted cap, a toboggan if you wanted to be technical about hats.

She liked to be technical about hats. This wasn’t a proper, splendid, broad-brimmed hat with a pointed tip adorned with a flower or ribbon that she’d used to wear. Those hats were marvelous—but the young girl had decided not to wear one today. Accordingly, while her coats and leggings were thick and dark grey, purely sensible, she had splendid red boots that stood out like ripe cherries in the white landscape.

A Christmas gift that had pleased Nanette Weishart very greatly. They made her sad, sometimes, when she looked at them when putting them on every morning, but sadness was a thing you should feel, so she embraced the emotions and clung to them with all her might.

A witch should be sad, and she was a witch. The boots? The boots had been a gift to her from her Secret Santa. Alcaz.

Only a former Brother of Serendipitous Meetings would know the value of good boots like a [Soldier] or [Witch] or adventurer. Hers were watertight, and rather than be so silly as to gift them blindly, he’d had her walk into a shop and get them sized perfectly. She’d had to have them adjusted once already this winter. Her feet had gotten a tad bit bigger. Which was fine because it matched her lengthening legs.

It made her quite a bit taller than the grumbling, white-furred girl shoveling ahead of her. But then again, the Gnoll girl had gotten taller. The boots gave Nanette an edge; Mrsha refused to wear them. She had gotten into kilts, but unwisely decided her furry feet would suffice with a pair of sandals.

Judging by the way she was hopping from foot to foot—she was regretting it.

“You want to get boots, Mrsha? We’re almost there.”

Nanette leaned on her shovel, panting, and eyed the distance ahead of her. The girl in front miscalculated her attempt to loft snow onto the channel they’d dug and dumped it all over Nanette.

Oops. Sorry.

Mrsha instantly turned and, making a grimace, wiped her paw across her mouth. Then she covered her eyes slightly. That was Mrsha-speak, her invented sign language. She could do it one-handed rather than reach for a quill or the speaking stones buried under her own coat and leggings.

Nanette’s return gesture was expressive and universal and earned a smirk from Mrsha and a distant hrmf of disapproval from behind them.

“Lady Mrsha. Lady Nanette, proper young women do not express themselves so vulgarly.”

A [Knight] in shining gold armor, Dame Ushar, stood behind them in the snow, not deigning to lift a shovel. Rather, she had a mace and shield at her side and all the appearances of boredom. Nanette suspected she was rather more attentive than she looked, but the guardian of the two girls was still the least fun of the two Thronebearers remaining.

Ser Dalimont and Dame Ushar, the last two Thronebearers of Calanfer in service to Lyonette du Marquin, were…good people. Mostly. They were brave, had put their lives on the line, and two of their number, Ser Sest and Ser Lormel, had paid high prices for their service.

Sest was dead. Lormel had lost his arm. Nanette had not forgotten either one, but—dead gods, Ushar made it hard to respect her sometimes.

The girl took her time flicking snow out of her face at Mrsha before mustering her reply in a calm, level, and—she hoped—pointed tone like the witch she was. Her mother, the great witch Califor, had made geese uncomfortable just by talking to them.

“Dame Ushar, if a ‘proper young lady’ is someone who cannot be seen to be vulgar, I’d rather not be proper and be me. Neither Mrsha nor I feel like being raised like birds in a cage.”

Or pigs in a pen!

Mrsha nodded emphatically and signed so only Nanette could see. The two girls giggled and looked smugly at Dame Ushar. The woman had short-cropped brown hair that was usually hidden behind her helmet. She might have styled some of the strands that were visible with gold, though, and she had perfect posture; she even did a slight bow, arm across her abdomen, and her voice was a courtier’s neutral tone. Yet one that somehow made Nanette flush.

“I would never dare to argue with you, Lady Nanette, Lady Mrsha. Truly, vulgarity is a subjective concept. I would, however, posit that the raising of the middle finger behooves one seldom amongst all but the lowest company.”

“And what’s wrong with—”

“Doubtless a witch would not care to be respectful to the mannerisms or sensibilities of whomever she meets. A witch is a witch, I have heard it said.”

Nanette had been about to say that, and her teeth clicked shut as Mrsha glared at Ushar. Unable to come up with a retort, Mrsha began making a snowball. Nanette tried words. Always a mistake with Thronebearers.

“Yes, Dame Ushar. A witch is a witch. Minding my manners is something I know how to do and do employ—whenever I am around anyone else. That was simply between myself and Mrsha. In addition, I don’t intend to become a [Lady].”

“Ah, so you are practicing how you would regularly like to interact with the world, milady Nanette. Well done. Just as a [Warrior] chooses to keep her blade honed as a matter of daily habit that it might not fail her in battle, I see you have decided to practice uncivil discourse as your natural and default personality. A rusted blade must serve one very well in the battlegrounds of civil discourse.”

Nanette stared at Dame Ushar, trying not to let the Thronebearer see her blush, and saw Ushar’s lips—which definitely had some lipstick or balm applied, but nothing so obvious as color—curve up slightly.

It was annoying to be bested in both rhetoric and, somehow, personal appearance by a woman who covered 95% of her body in metal. Nanette was glad when Mrsha tossed a snowball. Unfortunately, Dame Ushar just let it smack her shoulder without flinching.

“Lady Mrsha, decorum befits you as well. Your gift with a quill is belied by your common roots.”

Shove your words up your bum!

Mrsha signed back without deigning to reach for a quill. In response, Dame Ushar lifted one hand.

My words are superior to yours, friend.

She didn’t know how to say ‘Lady Mrsha’, so she substituted ‘friend’, but that Dame Ushar had picked up Mrsha’s sign language was an unpleasant revelation to the two girls. They exchanged a look of horror as Dame Ushar added smoothly.

“—Fear not, young ladies. As Her Highness’ wards—nay, adopted daughters, it is my duty to assist in your upbringing as best I am able. I am no expert, but I shall endeavor to do my best to bodyguard you along with Ser Dalimont. I would have you look upon me as friend and mentor.”

“…Really?”

Nanette and Mrsha stared at Ushar. It had been a month of her or Dalimont following the two girls around; they needed bodyguards. And Liscor was not…not…

Not as safe or as welcoming to the members of The Wandering Inn as before. It was winter, true, so all the monsters were largely asleep, and the worst you’d run into in the Floodplains was a hibernating Rock Crab or Shield Spider nest buried in the snow.

Nevertheless, the girls needed a bodyguard, so Dame Ushar had accompanied them the last ten minutes of fierce shoveling. They weren’t even that far from the inn; they could see it, barely a hill away.

All this effort just to…well. Nanette began shoveling the last bits of snow as Mrsha wrote furiously. Even with her Skills—she was a [Scribbler] and had [Fast Scrawl]—the sound of her quill scritching filled the air for about twenty seconds. She had a wand that could also write for her, but the benefit of a card was that you could hand it to someone and run off while they read it.

She flashed it at Nanette before handing it to Dame Ushar, who read it while holding it up at arm’s length, probably so she didn’t lose track of anything moving around her.

 

Dame Ushar,

While I appreciate your candor and your frankly admirable commitment to what may be an admittedly thankless endeavor safeguarding the personages of myself and Nanette—and be assured thanks are not forthcoming in this moment—I must object to your characterization as ‘friend’ and ‘mentor’.

It is true you have been a stalwart, nay, pestilential erstwhile companion, but mutual acquaintanceship and grudging respect for your position does not, I believe, friends make.

I regret to break this news to you but felt it was best done with the nettle firmly grasped in hand, as it were.

Thank you,

—Mrsha.

 

“Excellent penmanship. Incredible diction, a lexicon any [Princess] twice your age would delight her [Tutors] with, and a cutting barb that reminds me of Princess Seraphel in her prime—she was a sweeter child. Splendid, Lady Mrsha.”

Ushar praised Mrsha as the girl groaned and rolled her eyes and went back to shoveling with Nanette as they glared at Ushar. She kept saying ‘Lady Nanette’ and ‘Lady Mrsha’. It seemed Ushar had decided they needed rearing. Worst…she wasn’t as soft as Dalimont, Lormel, and Sest had been. The Thronebearer tucked the note away and smiled.

“I regret that you two don’t see me as friendly. But surely, miladies, I have earned some trust.”

“You have protected us time and time again, Dame Ushar. Mrsha isn’t saying we don’t like you. Just that you’ll tell Lyonette about everything we do.”

Nanette guiltily called over her shoulder as Mrsha glared. They knew how much the Thronebearers had done. The woman’s crestfallen face made the two girls hesitate. Was Ushar going to bring up the battle? Now? It was their morning routine, and this was dirty—so classic Thronebearer.

“By the Eternal Throne, I would never dare, Lady Nanette!”

Ushar sounded genuinely shocked at the idea and cast her eyes up the hill. Nanette paused, and Mrsha’s shovel hit a patch of stones. The two began to scrape their way upwards. Here was the path…after four weeks, they didn’t mind Ushar talking as they shoveled the last few feet and then stretched in the cold air.

“—I merely meant that I, as your friend and ally, would never tell Her Highness what the two of you sign to each other. For that is a private conversation, and Her Highness need not ‘hear’ what you say in silence. Nor should I dream of informing her of a young lady’s escapades at night. Or in any other manner.”

Nanette froze mid-yawn, and Mrsha’s eyes opened wide with sudden paranoia. Both turned slowly.

“…She’s bluffing.”

There was no way Ushar knew about all the things Nanette and Mrsha got up to when they should be asleep, or just when Lyonette wasn’t looking. Especially in the inn! The two girls hesitated, then tried to look innocent.

Ushar smiled like a [Blackmailer] showing someone a folder full of incriminating documents.

“Milades, please. There is nothing wrong with a young woman’s desire to circumvent, ah, familial oversight. Believe me, the halls of the Eternal Throne have seen endless mischief of Calanfer’s royal family. A Thronebearer knows what should be reported to the Crown…and what should be kept secret. Any growing girl might well beg a sweet from a friendly [Chef], be he Goblin or any race.”

Oh, she knew about the midnight snacks. That was fine—

“Watching a movie in confidence is as understandable as going out to attend a [Bard]’s late-night performance at a tavern.”

Mrsha and Nanette didn’t blink. That was totally fine. Not even a blip on the Mrsha-Nanette trouble scale. They’d been very good, and Lyonette wouldn’t even get mad about that—

“Even the ones deemed inappropriate by Her Highness. And while it may be unladylike, any [Lady] would surely be curious what Dreamleaf or a mug of ale actually tasted like. As for using the [World’s Eye Theatre] to spy on the most handsome young men in a newspaper article from Terandria’s Graces, well, magic mirrors have been employed in Terandria for—”

A falling flake of snow melted on Nanette’s red face. Mrsha choked—and the most horrific thing of all was that Dame Ushar kept talking.

“—and if you were so inclined to head into Liscor, why, a clandestine visit might be arranged. However, to avoid accidental locking of any doors to the portal room, it would behoove you to inform one of your reliable guardians. It would, naturally, be secret to Her Highness so long as the request were within reason. We are your loyal—and trustworthy—servants.”

By the time Ushar’s speech was done, Nanette and Mrsha were staring at each other. Both were slightly red-cheeked, though you couldn’t tell as much with Mrsha’s fur. She was taller, these days. Four feet and maybe…three inches? Still short, but growing. As for Nanette, the girl was five foot one; she’d grown since the Summer Solstice. She couldn’t tell when it had happened, but she felt older.

They all did. Behind them, The Wandering Inn sat nestled up against the High Passes, far to the southeast of Liscor. It was not a few minute’s walk from the city, but instead, what might be a full day’s journey far from any road, be it the new one leading south to the Bloodfields or northeast to Esthelm and the Human lands.

Nanette still wasn’t used to the new location. Strange for it to feel so foreign; she hadn’t even been at the inn that long. But she felt it. The very building and the people within were shifted. The world…was different.

And in this moment, she and Mrsha exchanged a look that went beyond mere sign language to part-telepathy that not even Dame Ushar could read. At least, so Nanette hoped.

Is this going to be our new problem? Dame Ushar?

Mrsha’s return look with her big brown eyes and scrunched up nose and flicking ears was all the reply Nanette needed.

Probably. First school, now this. Maybe she’s cooler than Mother?

Both girls glanced at the inn. Well, that was a low bar. And somehow, Nanette didn’t trust Ushar’s smiling face. Their ‘convenient ally’ in their bodyguard smelled like a way to control young royals from the dawn of Calanfer.

Well…they’d figure it out after this. The two girls turned, stuck their spades into the snow, and walked forwards. They didn’t shovel here, for fear of damaging something, but produced brooms from their bags of holding.

It wasn’t fun trying to sweep that much snow away, and Nanette broke out a wand and added a Tier 0 [Heated Air] spell to help melt some. Even so, they reached the frozen layer quickly and didn’t bother trying to remove it. Mrsha would have helped with her own wand, but she hadn’t mastered any heat magic yet.

The two’s work had unearthed pieces of stone. They didn’t need to do it for all of them; one of the slabs was so huge it hadn’t even been fully buried by the new snowfall. Mrsha dusted the top of it as Dame Ushar held her up, and Nanette tapped her wand against a weird, boring piece of grey rock that she pulled out of her bag of holding.

Mrsha gave Nanette a vaguely jealous look as the rock, which had been growing oddly paler within moments of being exposed to the cold air, suddenly took on an orangish tinge as Nanette pressed her wand against it. It warmed rapidly, and by the time Nanette put it down, the Stone of Elements had taken on the heat of her wand.

One, two, three, four…Nanette put one stone down in front of each marker.

Make it hotter, Nanette! I’m freezing!

Mrsha drew in the air with her own wand, and the shimmering words appeared. Nanette shook her head.

“If you suddenly heat a stone that’s been frozen, it cracks, Mrsha. [Miners] would use that trick to cut huge stones—or [Villagers] do it to clear a giant rock that’s fallen in their way.”

Dame Ushar blinked and gave Nanette an approving look; it was just the kind of thing any good witch knew. Mrsha huffed, but adjusted the Stone of Elements so they wouldn’t do that to the fresh-cut stones they sat on.

There was a headstone, then, revealed by the warmth, a plaque set in the grass and snow. Nanette saw water running into the chiseled lines, straight and narrow and perfect. Pelt had made them, hewing the rock with perfect ease.

The first and largest gravestone was cut so that it seemed like there were vines and leaves growing out of the stone. It had a stylized emblem of an adventuring team, half and half—and a single name along with a class and levels beneath it.

 

Moore of Raithland. [Bloodearth Mage], Level 28.

 

The plaque set into the ground had more information. Nanette didn’t need to brush away at the water with a cloth, but she did. It was pointless; the snow melted and got the plaque wet, and Nanette wondered what this would look like in the mud when the rains came.

She’d never seen it rain across the Floodplains. She paused in wiping, guiltily, because it was such a mundane thought.

But truly. A month had passed. Mrsha didn’t cry either, but she solemnly pressed her paw against the stone—then turned and cleaned up the other graves. The two girls kept working as more headstones revealed themselves.

 

Halrac Everam.

Kevin Hall.

Silvermop.

Alcaz.

Seve-Alrelious.

Ser Herove Canidus.

Thunderfur.

 

Not all of them. No, not even close to all. Nanette had seen Gershal of Vaunt being sent home. She had joined the witches of Riverfarm in sending Witch Oliyaya off; though, of course, they had not been able to raise her ghost.

Nanette had attended Guildmistress Tekshia’s funeral, one of the largest that all of Liscor had been gathered for, despite the people who didn’t want to allow anyone from The Wandering Inn there. But they’d led Normen through, because they’d buried two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings who’d fought the Draugr in the city.

Those with places to be, like Bamer of the val Lischelle-Drakles or Major Khorpe, had been sent elsewhere. But those who…who…fit here had been buried.

There had been talk of burying Halrac in Riverfarm, but that wasn’t his home. Windrest was. And Master Helm, the only man who’d been close to Halrac since his immediate family was dead, and Typhenous and Briganda—they’d all said he would have liked to be here.

The graves were empty. Or rather, there were no buried caskets, just ashes spread or buried here before the headstones. Cremation was fairly traditional, and after the Winter Solstice…no bodies.

Some hadn’t had bodies to bury, like Seve-Alrelious. But when they’d asked, no one in the Carven City of A’ctelios Salash had even responded. So they’d placed a grave for him here, empty. So he had a home.

Thunderfur too, and Alcaz. Both Goblins and Brothers had said it would be better here.

Here—they’d be remembered. The Antinium had sent Silvermop, and the Halfseekers had said the same for Moore. Seborn and Jelaqua hadn’t been able to stand by the cremation, but they’d said not a thing, to each other or anyone else, until long after. They’d sent Ulinde home.

Moore didn’t really have a home. So he’d be here. And the last of them—

Kevin Hall couldn’t go home. He hadn’t made it back to his world, so they’d laid him to earth in the cold, hard snow and…

Nanette’s eyes were stinging. It had been a month, but she had been standing, feeling the dimming warmth of the stones, staring at the graves, and Mrsha had curled up on Halrac’s plaque for so long the snow had dusted her fur.

Ushar said nothing. She stood far from the graves on the hill, a silent, golden guardian. Nanette wiped at her wet eyes. Then she looked down at the words. The plaques were simple. Pelt had asked what should be written, and Mrsha and Nanette had worked hard on them. What they’d come up with was…

 

Moore of Raithland. Adventurer of the Gold-rank Halfseekers team. A gentle half-Giant with more courage and kindness than his body could hold. A beautiful voice, and a friend to anyone in need. 

Here lies the last Giant of Izril.

 

When they’d told that to Pelt, the old [Smith]’s hand had slipped a second—but he hadn’t argued. The faeries had said it, and so it was true. Mrsha walked over, and they stared at the tombstone. After a while, Nanette looked up and realized the snow had stopped falling.

Liscor, in the distance, sat like a small miniature across the deceptively smooth white world beyond. The High Passes, looming above them, had turned mostly white, and the sky was grey—but Nanette could see patches of blue breaking up the snow clouds already.

It was the same long winter she had seen for ages—but she thought it had been warmer of late. And—when she looked back at The Wandering Inn, the soot-blackened boards of the inn and the shutters looked more battered and worn than ever before.

Liscor looked larger. They were rushing to get 3rd District done before the rains, and if Nanette kept staring, she could even see a few specks on the road heading to Liscor’s southern and northern gates.

A wind blew across the skies, and Mrsha tugged at Nanette’s sleeve. The witch looked up and blinked.

“There it is again. You were right, Mrsha. It’s been too cloudy to see—but you’re right. Look at that.”

She pointed, and Mrsha and she stared up at a patch of sky. Ushar murmured softly.

“Eternal Throne illuminate us.”

So much the same. When Nanette looked down at the plaque or gazed up at the sky—so much different.

The world kept changing. You did get used to it. Not each individual change, but the feeling of what used to be…no longer holding true.

Walls fell down. People changed or moved or died.

Even the sky looked different. Where Mrsha pointed, the clouds had moved. But rather than reveal the too-blue sky of winter, they revealed instead a patch of…ashen sky.

Grey. But not grey like storm clouds, or even the grey of chalk. More like bleached air. Wan, colorless, pearlescent-grey without any other color. Unnatural grey; the kind that shimmered to the young witch. Nor was it the entire sky; the two girls could see where it ended. A strange patch in the air. Nanette knew exactly what the strange effect in the sky corresponded to. If you walked out there—and you would be very brave as undead still rose, even after the massive cleanup—you would find, if you dug through all the snow, a patch of earth.

And there would be two footprints where the ground itself was sapped of all color. If you searched for other places where the sky was so—oddly warped, you would find the footprints or steps.

The wake of Kasigna, Goddess of Death. The sky did not bode well. But Nanette didn’t see what anyone could do about it. She inspected it now that she’d gotten a good look at last.

“It’s hazy.”

Ill omens for the ides of March.

Mrsha wrote with a nod.

“What’s ‘March’? Sign it to me, please. I need more practice, Mrsha.”

Not sure. It’s Earth stuff. It has ‘ides’.

If Nanette was a repository of odd facts and knowledge only a witch might know, but was largely useful, Mrsha was a slightly less useful bank of Earth-knowledge.

Mrsha had to spell ‘ides’ out since her sign language didn’t have it yet, but the practice was good for Nanette. And sadly, Ushar. But the young girl was quite willing to learn Mrsha’s language as well as communicate via the written note. She often asked Mrsha to sign rather than write when they were alone.

Nanette based this on the principle that if you were going to have the ability to communicate nonverbally, you might as well be good at it. Besides, the Mrsha-speak language was useful.

[Rogues], adventurers, [Spies], and countless people practiced sign languages and secret codes—and Mrsha could do it and could communicate with Antinium Soldiers with it—and yet Mrsha took it for granted.

She was annoyingly talented at some things, but lazy. The Gnoll girl had sharp eyes, a luck power, a lot of levels for her age, and she could be both cunning and stupid. Lazy and determined.

Nanette thought Mrsha was her best friend and only wished it wasn’t always hard to be Mrsha’s…sister? She wasn’t sure about that. Neither was Mrsha, it seemed, because as the two turned for the last part of their morning ritual, Mrsha signed to Nanette—and the headstone in front of her.

Good morning, Moore. Nanette and Ushar got in a fight. And it’s cold. Also, Dame Ushar called Nanette a daughter. Of Lyonette’s. Rude.

“I’m not sure it’s that rude. I wasn’t too offended.”

Nanette half-spoke to her, half to Moore and the other…listeners. Mrsha gave her the side-eye.

Seems rude to me. Weren’t you bothered? Califor was your mother.

“Well, I understood what Ushar meant. Lyonette is kind, and she is trying…I think that’s how Lyonette sees it.”

Both girls peeked at Ushar, and the Thronebearer had taken that moment to turn sideways and cough into a gloved hand. Now it was the Thronebearer’s turn to pretend to be innocent. Mrsha nudged Nanette.

Weird. Hey, Moore. Isn’t that super rude?

She exaggerated the ‘rude’ gesture of thumbing her nose, and Nanette shrugged.

“Maybe I should be more offended, but I don’t choose to be. I might if Lyonette took liberties. But you have a mother, Mrsha.”

I don’t like her. Chieftain Urksh was a better mother than Prha. Lyonette’s my real mom. If you want Lyonette as a mother, she’s okay. I’ll write her a reference, if you like.

Both girls began giggling at that. Then hushed because they should be more polite. Nanette ducked her head to the other gravestones.

“I found out I’m a full inch taller today. I’m turning fourteen come summer. I daresay I’ll be even taller in a few months. My mother was…very tall, you know.”

I’ll be taller. Gnolls are taller because we’re cool.

Mrsha folded her arms smugly. Nanette glowered at her.

“That’s Gnolls in general. You could never grow an inch. You’ll be one of the shortest Gnolls—ever. Ekirra’s already taller than you.”

Shut up! Take it back. Moore! Moore! Look at—

The two began hitting each other—well, Mrsha started it—and Nanette deflected her paws until she got a good jab and then began throwing actual hands. They were about to get serious before they remembered where they were. Then they fell silent.

The graveyard was silent. The two girls stood there, shamefaced, sad—they could have gone to the statues. But this was different. This…the statues were a memory.

This was a graveyard, different. Also necessary. It was like that. And Nanette heard Mrsha sniff and, after a second, sign.

I was a good girl this week, Moore. I was. 

“Me too. We just fight a bit, but it’s been quiet here. Really. Lyonette took in some kid from Vaunt yesterday, but she didn’t have to threaten to stab anyone all week. And—and we’re going to help out, and they found Erin!”

Oh, yes! They found Erin! She’s in Baleros. Stinky Baleros. I bet Niers is giving her flowers. She’s…alive. And that’s good.

The two girls fell silent. They hadn’t heard more news about Erin, and they surely would, but neither one was hanging around the Mage’s Guild or begging Bezale or a [Mage] for a [Message].

It was like that. The two searched for more news. Mrsha talked about what she had eaten, and Nanette mentioned Jelaqua had been on her feet and reading a book Nanette had read. In time—they picked up the Stones of Elements, the shovels, and began to head back the way they’d come.

Nanette only stopped to inspect the horizon again. That patch of pale sky was almost covered by the clouds again, but she sensed the power there.

The grayness in the air was, Nanette was almost positive, visible death magic. She’d never seen the like before. She pointed that out to Mrsha as a thing to be concerned about.

“You know that tinge of greyness and bleakness in graveyards?”

Mrsha shrugged because she hadn’t made a habit of frequenting them, but sure.

“Noelictus is said to be dark year-round compared to other nations. But it’s literally a kingdom founded on death magic. The fact that Liscor’s changed so much after a month…”

Not good. Mrsha nodded somberly, and the two cast their eyes again over the Floodplains. It was harder today, but the telltale signs of pink despite the snow revealed another feature nearby that pale swath of sky.

The bone giant of Rheirgest. It was half-covered in snow and so large it filled up the same space as Liscor. Maybe more.

A dead Giant—though not entirely Human in anatomy—still bound by Magnolia Reinhart’s Skill. Nanette had heard Zevara telling Lyonette they’d evacuate the city if it was reanimated. So far—no.

What would they do about that? What would happen to Liscor? These days…Nanette pulled the beanie down over her ears.

“Come on, Mrsha. Let’s go back to the inn. We promised to get groceries, remember?”

Mrsha sighed, and they walked back towards the inn. They stopped only once to wave at the graves. Then they kept going. Nanette told herself again that it was okay to cry, but she’d cried all her tears out and found more and more…

A month. There was only one thing Mrsha said that had cheered the two up in a terrible way. And it was that, someday, they’d see Moore and the others again and give them a hug. Until then—

The world kept changing.

 

——

 

Liscor was never quiet anymore. To be fair, The Wandering Inn wasn’t either. It was more like a selective silence.

The common room and other guest areas of the inn were silent. Empty, devoid of many guests, and those who were still here had begun to treat the inn like a second home. More than once, Mrsha would wander into the gymnasium and see Relc’s towel hanging over ‘his’ bench. Or find the Goblins sitting and watching the scrying orb.

That was fine. Sharing was good, and it didn’t bother Mrsha, but the girl missed the…people. A few came by, but even Menolit wasn’t here so often. Of course, there was damage to clean up, and the inn wasn’t—safe.

There had been words after the Winter Solstice. Not loud ones, but insistent. Those were the scary ones. People hadn’t shouted. They’d gone to the Council and requested The Wandering Inn be removed. Someone had—quietly—tried to burn down the inn by throwing flammable vials of oil at it in the night.

Not riots. To be fair, Liscorians had seen what Erin Solstice did against riots, and they were aware the inn had protectors.

Liscor’s Council had deliberated and come back with a speedy reply: no. The Wandering Inn had to stay; it had been Lyonette who’d asked the Antinium to move it across the Floodplains. But the inn had what Liscor needed, especially come spring.

The [Door of Portals].

It was how everyone had known Erin was probably alive, and it was arguably the most valuable Skill she had, bar none. At least financially; while The Wandering Inn might be quiet, it was still earning enough to keep afloat regardless of savings, according to Yelroan.

The lines of people no longer clustered down the hallway, but stood or sat in the portal room itself, which had been further expanded and given railings so people could line up for ‘Liscor’, ‘Esthelm’, ‘Pallass’, ‘Invrisil’, or ‘Riverfarm’, and there was a schedule and everything tacked up in each city.

Mrsha and Nanette respectfully waved at a tired Gnoll shouting orders from her stool and flicking the door to various locations. Liska didn’t even groan; she just pointed, and they filed into the line for Liscor.

The new addition to the portal room was sort of ramshackle. Oh, it was sturdy, and the security that led into the inn was tight, but the new part had been built by the Antinium over three days, and it didn’t fit the rest of the inn. The wood composition was paler, and it was clearly additional. Temporary.

It made Mrsha feel like the inn was patched-up, and certainly, there were holes in it and damage from the monster attacks. Without Erin here to use [Partial Reconstruction], Lyonette had weighed replacing sections of the inn and just told the Antinium to do minor repairs.

“Liscor! Everyone through!”

Ushar, Nanette, and Mrsha marched through the door as it swung open. Light—pale—and a gust of cold air blew towards them, and everyone in line shivered and pulled up their hoods. Mrsha walked forwards over that boundary where the door frame was, and her sandals slapped onto the cold flagstones of Shivertail Plaza.

As ever—she looked up and saw General Zel Shivertail’s statue. His and General Sserys’ in the center of the circular plaza, the City Hall on one side, and streets leading out across Liscor in every direction.

The heart of the city—of course, these days you couldn’t just skip off instantly to the stores. Mrsha almost did that, then saw the painted red ropes and saw a double-line of cold [Guards]. She sighed again through her nose.

“Purpose of entry?”

A tired Human man was checking people at the front of the line. It was a minute’s conversation, usually, longer if the person was some kind of [Trader] or acted suspicious, but these little things added up.

What happened to the days when you could be in Liscor in a second? How much are we paying for these [Guards] to stand here? Where’s my tax money going?

Mrsha held up a grumpy card to Nanette, and the witch-girl sighed.

“Mrsha, you don’t pay taxes. This is sensible, especially since there have been incidents. I hear they’re going to build an entire…I think Zevara called it a checkpoint, but not so military.”

I could too pay taxes.

Mrsha grumbled and wondered if a time would come when it would be easier to just ride a horse to Liscor than use the door. Nevertheless, the [Guards] recognized her and Nanette and waved them through after a cursory question about their purpose.

Shopping.

From there, the two girls headed east, not west, away from 3rd District where you’d find more Humans and apartments and businesses springing up like weeds. Already, people were talking about ‘old Liscor’ and ‘new Liscor’, and people complained.

They liked complaining about things like this. Mrsha wasn’t a native Liscorian, but Selys talked…had talked…before the Solstice.

If you broke Liscor into quadrants, in the past, it had been simpler. The city had been a giant square, a simpler design than other cities, but bog-standard to many Drake cities. Square, circle…triangle…Liscor hadn’t been that imaginatively designed.

It had a limited premium on space thanks to the forty-foot walls that had been meant to keep out floodwaters, so you’d gotten stratification of incomes that led to different zones. For instance, the northwest was the nicer, ritzy, higher-income place where all the [Guildmasters] and more pleasant guilds worked.

Northeast was medium-income, and you ran into things like Raekea’s respected smithy there. Not that civilians tried to live near smithies; you got streets and districts of similar industries because it was convenient to group up like that. Yelroan called it ‘natural city growth’. All it meant to Mrsha was that the [Miners] tended to live and work in the same place as the smelters and smithies.

Similarly, the four main streets of each cardinal direction held stuff like the Mage’s Guild, Driver’s Guild, and so on. But the north and south, as traditional entry sources, had the most valuable commercial buildings. Like the Watch House having been around the southern gate; an older entry point for Drakes before the Bloodfields had grown and the roads had fallen into disuse.

Now, doing some more geographical math, it became obvious that the richest part of the city, where you could find mansion-houses like Selys’, was therefore in the northwest, but not so close you had to rub shoulders with the pedestrian traffic, nor too close to the walls where you’d be in the shadows all day.

Similarly, the southeast and southwest were poorer districts traditionally, though both had been changed by new species settling in Liscor. The southeast was Gnollish; it had lots of the apartments squashed together. Streets of smaller rooms and Gnoll communities, largely Silverfang. Market Street, that Erin had found, was a favorite of everyone on that side of the city.

As for the southwest, it had always been the poorest warehousing district; the Antinium Hive putting their entrance there had further depressed the area’s economy until recently. All that had changed with 3rd District, though.

Now, the western side of Liscor had an entire new third of the city—which meant that the poorer southwestern distinct was more appealing. Especially because the Antinium now had money to spend and were less monstrous; if you got over the Antinium, you realized they were very good at combatting crime and largely responsible neighbors.

Similarly, the northwestern Drakes and Gnolls were really unhappy that they were now rubbing up against the new district, and they had requested an isolation zone to keep their higher-end properties valuably apart. It was, as Visma termed it, ‘a whole tail of a problem’.

But it was good for business. Visma’s mother was a [Painter], and therefore her services were greatly desired for all the new buildings going up. Ekirra’s parents had actually taken on a lot of the building jobs; they were both [Handy Workers] who had broad-specialization classes.

Money was pouring into the city, so much that new arrivals were sometimes dismayed by prices in certain areas; you could get a very reasonable room in a new apartment given that Liscor’s Council pushed for it. And food was decent even in the winter thanks to the [Portal Door]. But if you wanted a premium spot in the city? Looking to buy some property?

…Mrsha had once heard it might cost a hundred gold coins to get a house, from foundations to the entire thing completely built, in Liscor. Not cheap, but something a family could hope for.

Apparently, with all the nobles who’d bought property in the city, from Salazsar to people looking to invest in this growing, notable city, the prices had literally grown tenfold. You could rent an apartment, but several of Visma’s friends’ families had sold their homes and gotten rich—but then had to move into an apartment because they couldn’t buy a new one.

This was…all complicated money stuff that made Mrsha feel bad for Visma’s friends who cried about leaving their homes. She never used to do more than count gold pieces, but now she thought about how unfair it was that Yesne had to move out of her home. Then felt bad when Yesne blamed the ‘damn Humans’ coming into the city and forcing all of this to happen.

Nanette said it was normal to blame newcomers for changes, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. But Nanette liked sounding wearily knowing, like people were making a mistake and they had to be helped to find the right answer.

There was a word for that: pretentious. But that was what [Witches] were, sometimes.

If all this new stuff coming to Liscor was hard to imagine, well, it was sometimes harder to see. 3rd District was, yes, new. If you craned your head up above the old slate tiles of the roofs of the city, you could see the first super-tall buildings breaking the somewhat-even skyline.

The Watch didn’t like having buildings taller than the walls, but Hexel had pointed out reasonably and at length that so long as they didn’t nestle right up against the walls, having taller buildings gave a lot more room for super-apartments and added to the variance of a city. The structures were also newer and didn’t resemble the old Liscor as much.

Liscor liked stone buildings with wooden furnishings like window sills, but because of their lack of trees in the Floodplains, it had always been a secondary design. Nice, white stucco and slate or shale tiles made up houses that sat close next to each other. Few had gardens unless you were lucky or rich, and many lived with a second house or floor over the first. Apartments began to rise upwards the closer you got to the walls, and the streets felt more cramped, possibly because of the strung out lines for clothing or the rooms full of people with their hopes, aspirations, and dreams crammed up against one another.

However, that was only the most plentiful of Gnoll districts; Mrsha had thought they were busy, being used to life on the plains, but then she’d seen one of the first super-apartment complexes where hundreds of people could live in one building Hexel had designed.

That had been almost scary. The cobblestone and brickwork streets were worn and nice, and the falling snow frosted over glass windows and kept people hurrying into shops. This was the same. The new part was the Humans, who strode around almost as awkwardly as Liscorians who would occasionally try to cross the street and get shouted at by a [Guard].

“Hey! Use the crosswalk!”

“The what? Ah—Ancestors, even here?”

The annoyed [Guard] was directing a bunch of wagons, who’d all had to stop for the group of Drakes who’d crossed the street without warning. The annoyed [Guard] shouted back.

“There’s too much traffic for you to just run out into the street! There!”

She pointed to a series of bright, yellow lines of paint on the street. Mrsha and Nanette, about to run across the street too, paused and reluctantly walked over to line up. When the [Guard] waved them across, they passed in a mob with other bemused or annoyed pedestrians.

Now we have to wait to cross the street? What’s this world coming to? Outrageous! Unfair!

Mrsha was outraged and showing her card to Nanette, and a passing Drake nodded.

“Yes, exactly! All these damn Humans coming in and putting their laws in the city. It’s enough to make you sick. First we have to line up just to cross the street. What next? Do we have to ask before using a toilet or going to bed?”

She was middle-aged, outraged, with dangly hoops hanging off her neck-spines rather than her ears. A [Jeweler] maybe, and her look was for support from Mrsha as she half-glared at Nanette. Mrsha recalled Krshia saying Gnolls hadn’t been welcome before Humans.

“I’m sorry, Miss, but I thought it was the Council who voted to put in the new traffic laws.”

Nanette bowed very politely, and the Drake woman hesitated.

“Yes, well—they got the idea from a Human, or so I heard! It’s nothing on you, my dear. You look quite nice to have about. But Liscor isn’t infinite! Citizens of the city, like the Gnolls and Drakes, have been here longer. Yet the prices are so exorbitant…wait. Do I know you, child?”

She had realized, perhaps belatedly, that Mrsha’s face poking out of her jacket was not the normal brown or red of a Gnoll, but white. The Drake’s eyes locked onto Mrsha’s fur, and her face went slack.

“You’re that child from the inn! And you’re—”

She glanced at Ushar, whom she hadn’t associated with the two girls before. Then someone else noticed Nanette and Mrsha and said it.

“The Wandering Inn—”

The female Drake leapt away from Nanette and Mrsha so fast it was like they’d cast a spell on her. She backed up five steps, caught herself, smiled with sudden nerves, and nervously eyed Dame Ushar, who bowed.

“Ah—I didn’t realize—it’s you. Don’t take what I said too far, children. Don’t mention it to—what brings you into Liscor today?”

“Shopping, miss.”

Nanette’s voice was determinedly cheerful. Instantly, half the people walking with them checked their step.

“Where?”

“Market Street.”

“Ah, wonderful. Well, I was just—delighted to meet residents of that inn. Is the Human still alive? Do take care of yourselves. I shan’t get in your way. Good day to you!”

With that, she backed up three steps, nearly slipped in the slush, and went back the way she’d come, eliciting another yell of frustration from the [Guard]. Mrsha just bet she’d been going shopping herself…right until she realized she might be cheek-by-jowl with two members of The Wandering Inn.

That inn. The other pedestrians didn’t exactly flee, but even the newcomers eyed Mrsha and Nanette with sudden apprehension. No one said a word, and Mrsha grabbed Nanette’s mittened hand and pulled her on.

Come on, let’s go.

Nanette pulled the beanie lower over her head, and Mrsha strode with her as they quickly rounded the street corner. The silence lasted ten seconds after they’d gone, then Mrsha heard whispers.

“It hasn’t changed, even after a month. I hope we don’t drive away Miss Krshia’s business.”

Nanette looked back wistfully. Mrsha just sighed and scribbled a note.

Now you know what it’s like to be a Doombearer. Though they weren’t like that even back before.

Nanette nodded somberly; the Drake woman wasn’t the first person to behave like that when finding out who they were, nor even the most extreme example the two could name. It had been worse right after the Solstice.

Too many people had died. Not all, and not even a majority of them Liscorian; the army had fought, as had elements of the Watch, especially as the Draugr assaulted the city, but it was the sight of that war, orchestrated and fought for the [Innkeeper], that had shaken Liscor.

They needed The Wandering Inn, but she was no longer their crazy Human. Or rather, Mrsha thought…she was truly their crazy Human, and they’d realized what it meant.

Even other Gnolls who noticed Mrsha had a different reaction these days. True, they might see her fur and tense up a second, but her nature as Mrsha of The Wandering Inn took precedence. Sometimes, it was overt; others, it was just a widening of the eyes, choosing words more carefully. Watching, listening. Not taking anything for granted. Mrsha, Nanette, weren’t ‘normal people’ to be ignored.

It wasn’t just fear of the unknown or of a ‘curse’. Mrsha had felt the superstitious fear of Gnolls before. This was different.

They were dangerous. People knew The Wandering Inn brought danger. They had seen it, so they reacted differently.

You threw rocks at a Doombearer or threatened to kill her or feared ‘something’ she might bring. Doombearers were the uncertainty that led to anger or fear.

The guests of The Wandering Inn? They brought war. And death. And they made pacts with Goblin Lords.

“It’s not fun being Erin’s friend anymore.”

Nanette murmured softly. Mrsha gave her an arch look.

It wasn’t always fun being her friend.

The young witch girl eyed her, then gave a half-smile and pulled Mrsha ahead by the hand.

“Maybe not, but it matters more these days. Let’s get to that shopping. Your mother doesn’t need more stress.”

 

——

 

At least Market Street’s prices were largely the same. By the time they got there, no more incidents occurred, and Mrsha strode into Krshia’s new store with a sigh.

“Welcome to the Silverfang Emporium! Can I help you?”

The Silverfang Emporium was a new, permanent shop set up on Market Street. It was very nice as opposed to standing with just a canvas awning covering a stall.

There were goods on shelves, an order form that Nanette instantly took and began to fill up, and a Gnoll woman at the counter smiling toothily at Mrsha, who waved at her.

Not Krshia.

Councilmember Krshia was a busy woman. But she had a business to run, and she was well-respected, what with her new levels and popularity. So she’d hired an assistant—several—and bought a permanent lot and made a store. Her shop still took orders and hired Street Runners to do bulk deliveries to her clients. It was just that, these days, Krshia employed a Gnollish Street Runner instead of going through the Runner’s Guild, and she had a carpet where you wiped your boots.

Mrsha instantly went sniffing for snacks from the Great Plains as Nanette marched up to the small line for the counter with Lyonette’s groceries. The [Shopkeeper Attendant] was calling out in a good mood.

“If anyone’s cold out there—we’ve got fresh cinnamon just in from the north! Come try a sample and warm up! Need a heating stone? We have new ones from Esthelm, guaranteed to last the rest of the winter!”

Several heads turned, no doubt attracted by one of the more profitable-looking businesses on Market Street, and a sniffling Human man drifted over, in need of a heating stone. But before he could enter, a voice rang out.

Heating stones are 20% off at Lism’s Exceptional Market! Prices you can’t beat and quality, Liscorian-made goods! You, sir, would you like to peruse a shop run by Councilmember Lism himself?”

The man stopped, blinked, turned—and there was a waving young Drake man, who glared daggers at his competitor across the street.

“Councilmember Krshia’s shop is open to all species!”

“Lism’s Market caters to a diverse array of needs—not just Gnolls!”

The two bellowed at each other in such a familiar way that Mrsha smiled and laughed. She wished Krshia were here so she could see her and Lism march out of their shops to argue in the middle of the street.

Then Mrsha remembered the two were having sex. She stopped munching on a sample of cinnamon and sighed.

Things changed. Not always for the better. She hadn’t been babysat at Krshia’s for a long time, but dead gods, if she ever visited again, she’d have to ask the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] what the heck was going on.

Mrsha reached for a second sample of cinnamon and got her paw slapped. She took her business over to Lism’s Exceptional Market instead. They had olive samples.

 

——

 

It was barely 9 o’clock when it stopped snowing, and a pair of girls was trudging back towards Shivertail Plaza with their groceries and a snack they had both decided they’d earned. A Thronebearer stopped as the two girls strolled through the door to Liscor and came to rest inside the inn. The girls headed to the common room, cold and seeking warmth.

Dame Ushar stayed. And her eyes lingered on a figure standing just outside the inn. Then they found the distant city she had just been in, and she thought the winter had preserved the images of almost everything, the snow covering up the battle that had torn the landscape. If you let your eyes relax, the giant of bones would meld into the distance and the unnatural sky wouldn’t be visible.

Then you could believe it was all the same.

This was the city of Liscor. The Floodplains were quiet.

The war was done. Kasigna was gone.

So was Erin Solstice.

The armies of three Walled Cities and the Five Families had packed up and left. The dead were buried.

Things were not the same, but it felt like they had reached a new normal of uncertainty. Patterns had come back when, as so often happened, everything was washed away, leaving nothing but memory, regrets, and triumphs behind.

Carved into the landscape, like the rolling hills or valleys, or into the people themselves as levels and Skills. If you saw someone touched only once by such days, maybe it was only a hint. Something you saw when you looked them in the eye or glimpsed in between their ordinary moments.

But the more you touched it—the more you couldn’t go back. The stranger you grew, and you transformed. Whether it was beauteous or grotesque in the end—

Ushar no longer recognized the woman standing in the snow.

She had donned a bright, blue jacket, enchanted and given a bright yellow crest on the left shoulder, lined with the fur of some unhappy animal, and magically warm and lightweight. A gift from a friend, again on Christmas, but the thread was torn on the right shoulder. The second patch, another crest, was missing.

The jacket should have been the perfect outfit. Hand-tailored with generous pockets so often lacking in women’s apparel, both inside and outside, lightweight, comfortable, with enough flair to catch the eye but not be ostentatious. An expensive, costly gift that symbolized friendship.

Certainly, one didn’t just wear the crest of House Ulta for no reason. The stiff fabric caught the light. Golden thread—but the other arm was bare. It had used to hold the sigil of the owner. House Walchaís, that prickled flower.

The leggings were less emotionally charged. They were simply brown cotton twill, too thin for this weather, but the wearer was in motion and, as of yet, hadn’t needed more layers. Thin gloves and casual boots were also somewhat protective against the wind, but she had neglected a hat—it made her hair wave like a flag of rubies by the morning light.

Carmine might have been the more appropriate word if you wanted to be fanciful. A rich color. Her eyes were the blue of a summer sea stretching out past a coast, the color of the water just past the green of the waves. A gemstone’s color.

Her mother had done her best to ensure her children benefited from appearance, and the young woman’s skin had been described as fair as a milkmaid’s first teasing by a [Bard], her chin shapely if stubborn upon the chin, her limbs delicately supple, like the glassware of an [Alchemist].

—Or so they’d once said of Princess Lyonette. 6th Princess of Calanfer, and a budding beauty, as yet unfinished into the blossom of true beauty but close enough to hint upon it.

Ushar remembered Lyonette well. She doubted the [Princess] remembered her. The [Poets] hired by the crown to describe Lyonette might have been a tad bit generic, but they hadn’t been necessarily wrong.

The only marring in Lyonette du Marquin’s appearance had been, more than her body of features, her unfinished youth. Immaturity had given her a permanently dissatisfied twist to the lips, her arrogance and selfishness an unflattering cast that made her feel younger than she was.

Right now, Lyonette du Marquin was less beautiful than she had ever been. For one thing, she’d gotten soot on her face stoking the fires, and it was mixing with the sweat and streaking across her face. She had no makeup on as of yet, and her skin had roughened and darkened slightly, which made it as natural as most people who saw the sun regularly.

Unacceptable, as markers went, for those of royal blood expected to look not like the ordinary plebian at all. In addition, and most offensive of all, perhaps, Lyonette du Marquin’s limbs no longer resembled the graceful branches of a willow sapling.

She had thickened her arms. Not egregiously like a young man, but she had definitely put on muscle, and it was most apparent now as she lifted her arms again and a length of steel rose and caught the light.

Lyonette was swinging the sword up and down in a repetitive motion that carried it from over her head, angled back and down like a [Woodcutter] about to bring it down, and then a controlled blow straight and even as she stepped forwards.

Her back arced, rounding in the graceful way only the youthful and dextrous could accomplish without pain. The glimpse of the sheen of sweat on her fair skin—that could be admired as well, no less than the intent focus within her eyes, which reflected the shade of skies yet to come.

That was one move, whereupon the girl reset her stance in one step rather than waste exertion finding her place or balance. She had done this enough times to where the motions became half-second nature, but she was also concentrating.

It had taken her a month for her morning practice to resemble anything so accomplished. A month—was indeed a long time.

The routine had clearly been going on for a while to judge by the sweat on Lyonette’s brow. It did not cease as Ushar leaned over and eyed a figure half-sitting with his back to the wall, observing his charge. She called out, softly, as he tried to hide a scrap of paper he was working on.

“Your Highness, Nanette and Mrsha have returned with groceries and no incident.”

“Thank you, Dame Ushar. I’ll see them in…five minutes. Dalimont? I’m ready to spar.”

Lyonette’s voice was slightly breathless, and she half-turned her head as Ushar and the other Thronebearer bowed.

Thereupon one of the two Thronebearers finished watching, and Ser Dalimont lowered the charcoal he had been sketching with. He curled up the rough he had been slowly giving form over the last week; a moment of passing inspiration, but one he had said a [Painter] could have done greater merit.

Ushar had hopes she’d convince him to hand it over when he was done. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it captured the essentials well; Dalimont had clearly taken classes, and the pose of Lyonette holding the sword over her head, arms framing her features in concentration, was too good to simply toss away, idle work or no.

In time, perhaps, she might send it to one of Calanfer’s experts, who might develop the image further. Ushar was no good artist, even to Dalimont’s level, but each Thronebearer tended to possess at least one or two utility talents like that that they’d hone in time.

Ushar, as a Thronebearer, had talents in multiple fields other than mere warfare. She had sacrificed her own training with a blade for the ability to bodyguard, conduct clandestine operations, and understand statecraft.

Naturally, she too practiced with the blade, but her morning exercise had concluded earlier in the day. Dalimont was getting up to spar, but only because Ushar had arrived and could take over monitoring.

Lyonette’s training partner rose to his feet as Ushar kept her hands free of tools. It would be acceptable, if she were an expert with throwing weapons, to hold a pencil or weighted object. Failing that, she should appear to be recumbent or relaxed while maintaining her role as the active bodyguard.

The two began to spar lightly, not like the intense clash of swords that you might see in a practice yard. Lyonette parried a strike at her chest, a testing blow from Ser Dalimont, quite hard. Her frown indicated she knew he was taking it easy, and he obliged with a harder strike; she deflected it and attacked, pirouetting left as he caught the blow on his shield.

Ushar just watched Dalimont spar. He was good—for a Thronebearer. They fought better together and were better bodyguards than pure warriors. Technically, she and he could not acceptably guard Lyonette; even with two standing guard at all times, they were understaffed to what doctrine demanded for a royal protection. Three was minimum at all times, but this was the real world, so they made do.

Three Thronebearers in case of danger, each with their own role. Fool, Blade, and Bodyguard. Thronebearer doctrine. At the moment, Ushar suspected that if it came to it, she would be the Bodyguard, Dalimont the Blade—if need be, she’d be the Fool too, but they’d hope one of the staff could occupy the role.

Two Thronebearers remained. Four had been sent; in hindsight, sixteen should have gone, at least. A full thirty, three entire Rays of Dawn—a measure of ten [Knights] by the Order of Thronebearers’ counting—would have been appropriate.

No one had judged the odds, the mission, nor the value of Lyonette du Marquin properly. Now, at least, Dame Ushar had a better measure of the last.

As for the former…Ushar sighed. Had Sest’s body been delivered to Terandria’s shores by now, or would they still be on the way? She had written a note of his end, worthy of any champion of Calanfer. The crown would doubtless take note to his family, and any loved ones. Sest hadn’t mentioned anyone, but if there was…Calanfer was good about such things.

He needn’t have died like that. We should have had three entire Rays of Dawn—a full thirty [Knights] as well as accompanying soldiers. But the inn could not have supported that.

Sest had fought Draugr without flinching. Lormel had faced down a Deathslayer Arrow for Lyonette. In that sense—the best [Knights] had come to Izril.

Well, perhaps besides her. Nominally, she was Princess Vernoue’s champion, but as the girl wasn’t yet married or had left the palace, Dame Ushar doubled as a [Knight] of the palace. Directly in service to their Majesties, an important distinction at times.

As a [Knight] used to serving the Crown, Ushar had outranked the other [Knights] in both level and ability—in theory. The truth was she had realized she was but a middling [Knight] in service to Their Majesties. Dalimont might be a champion of a disgraced [Princess], but he had been better with a sword than she before coming to Izril.

She recalled his rating as merely average before his trip to Noelictus. Now? She put him within the upper echelons of the Thronebearers for fighting ability, and they were not that deficient with a blade to call it a small thing.

Footwork, the incisive thrust, and the ability to use sword and shield in tandem was only half of it. The confidence of a seasoned warrior shone through each action; Ushar upgraded him again, today.

Lyonette, as well, had finally reached something approaching the level of an actual [Warrior]. She might not have the levels or experience, but if she cut at someone, she would cut them as opposed to a novice who did not commit to the blow. Lyonette could kill someone; most Bronze-ranks might hesitate where she would not.

The duel of the two was worth watching for Ushar for that reason, and she analyzed them while letting her gaze slowly pass left-to-right. She kept her head level and eyes unfocused; it was a strange technique, but it allowed you to spot anomalies better than trying to let your eyes dart around. Akin to a Golem on sentry duty. It still let her observe the skill of Lyonette and Ser Dalimont.

Neither one had the same finesse as an expert, but their effort also put them over a self-trained sellsword. Experience made mockery of even [Duelists] in battle, but technique mattered.

Dalimont had abandoned the heavyset style of many Terandrian [Knights]. He favored mobile footwork and active use of his shield as an offensive weapon to shove, lash out, or break the one-handed attacks of his sword. Normally, [Knights] relied on their armor and shield while inflicting measured blows and wore an opponent down. But Lyonette and Dalimont kept moving, never staying in one place too long.

A Draugr or monster would not respect your shield-arm unless you had a Skill powerful enough to ward off a blow. It was good exercise, and Lyonette was almost ready to remove her coat after another eight minutes of sparring. She had yet to touch Dalimont; he’d caught every blow on his shield or parried them with his sword, but her offense was actually respectable.

They only stopped when Lyonette held up a hand, looked up, and turned her head to the inn.

“I think Ishkr needs help.”

Dame Ushar got up instantly and held the door open as the [Princess] lowered the sword, sheathed it, and hurried into the inn. Ah, back to work already, Your Highness? Ushar thought that Lyonette had held up extraordinarily well given all that had passed.

When she had run away, the most admirable thing about her escape was that she’d actually fooled Queen Ielane for a few days. Even then, it had been only partly Lyonette’s guile and part the absolute distaste every servant had had for her.

But look at her now. Dame Ushar had orders. They were not always, she had to admit, the right orders for the situation. Her first orders had been to simply bring back the lost, and doubtless grateful, [Princess] in one piece and cover up any problems that might have occurred.

Now? Ushar’s fingers itched to write another report, but she was aware her role as intermediary to the Eternal Throne had already forced Lyonette to hold her at a greater remove than Dalimont. But the truth simply was that Ushar saw a [Princess] these days. And she had a slight obsession with chronicling what might come next. She was the eyes and ears of the King and Queen of Calanfer. She wished they could truly see how their daughter had changed.

 

——

 

Lyonette du Marquin had a lot of time most days after all the cleanup from the Winter Solstice. The staff were amply able to handle issues within the inn, and the worst…was over.

This would have been a good thing back when she had hated her job as [Barmaid] or when she was trying to take care of Mrsha as well as run an inn and keep it afloat. But now, ironically, the lack of work was the problem.

Lyonette was now a [Princess of the Inn]. No more the [Worldly Princess]; she had found another calling. The problem was that her new class was not easy to level these days.

The Wandering Inn had no customers.

None. Not Menolit, not Antinium, not interested people looking for gossip, not spies—no one. The inn was almost always bare, and only Liska’s portal door kept the inn generating coin. The reason wasn’t very hard to understand: Erin had murdered Prince Iradoren on a scrying orb. She had allied herself with Greydath of Blades and, before all of that, organized one of the bloodiest conflicts Liscor had ever seen.

Whether or not it was worth it or justified didn’t really matter. The consequences had come: Lyonette was just glad no one had tried to destroy the inn beyond tossing a few firebombs at night. Even she couldn’t have honestly said reprisals against the inn were uncalled for.

Her daughters, yes.

The inn.

No.

Regardless, the irony was that Liska was the most productive member of the inn and had won ‘Employee of the Month’, which came with a little bonus of free drinks for a week at the bar, and her brother had lost it for the first month since Lyonette had instituted the idea.

Ishkr still had a job to do, and Lyonette was still going to keep The Wandering Inn making money, though. And the source of both her income—and Ishkr’s troubles most days—was standing in the 2nd floor hallway speaking to Ishkr.

Archmage Valeterisa had a gemstone in hand. Ishkr had fourteen in his arms and a put-upon look as Lyonette used the [Garden of Sanctuary] to skip to his location.

“Mm. I need these processed too. No, wait. Not this one. Maybe this one too? There are tools in my workshop to do it. Or Salazsar can melt them properly.”

Valeterisa put two more gemstones in Ishkr’s arms, turned and began to walk off, then swung back.

“Oh, not all together. Obviously.”

She turned away. Came back once more.

“But obviously group them together by typing. There are…six groupings. I think. Six. If you get my tools, I can do it, though. They’re in my workshop behind the traps. Um. Um…in the second room. Next to the rune circles. There’s some more in a drawer there too.”

She stood back and gave Ishkr a vague nod. Her look indicated that if Ishkr could find his way to Valeterisa’s home on the northern coast, oh, a few thousand miles away or to Salazsar, which was closer if he could climb over the mountains, and have this done within thirty minutes, she’d be grateful.

Even Ishkr, veteran of the inn’s regulars, [Head Server of Tales and Fables], a Gnoll who had served the Titan of Baleros, thrown a cup at Belavierr, and faced down Facestealer without issue—even he looked put upon by the request. However, Lyonette had just put on her best smile when someone came to his rescue.

“Archmage Valeterisa! Is this another request for our staff? We would love to assist you in another project. May I, though, request a bit more information about what you need? We’re happy to oblige.”

A blonde Gnoll with sunglasses appeared, and Lyonette blinked as Yelroan, [Mathematician] and former Plain’s Eye Gnoll, strode forwards. Valeterisa blinked, sighed, but put on a fake smile just like everyone else present.

“Absolutely! How can I help you? Were my instructions unclear?”

Yelroan smiled wider.

“No, no, just clarifying details, Archmage. We wouldn’t want to do anything wrong for one of our most valued guests.”

At this, the Archmage of Izril looked a tad bit confused until she realized who he meant, then seemed actually gratified. Yelroan produced a notepad and quill, and he gave Lyonette a sideways nod and half-smile of welcome. But also one of those looks as he fiddled with his edged sunglasses that said ‘here we go again’. Also, his flick of the head and nod to the window said, ‘I’ve got this. You could really have kept practicing.’

Lyonette’s toss of her longer hair and slight exhalation from her nose and pointed gaze at Ishkr’s face said, ‘Someone has to deal with her. She’s a problem for all of us.

Since that was fair enough, they turned to Valeterisa as Yelroan pointed out the obvious.

“Archmage, we are sadly unable to reach Salazsar or your home in good time. May I suggest we find a…who would be able to process these gems?”

Valeterisa blinked and scowled as if this had just occurred to her.

“Oh. Um. A [Gemstone Smelter] or a [Mage] specializing in gemstones. An [Enchanter], of course, but it’s expensive. They know what to do if you give them the gemstones and tell them I need it for spellscribing.”

Yelroan noted this down and coughed politely.

“If you’d like to send your apprentice to your home via your teleportation network with a list of items to procure, I’m delighted to offer you another room for your work—or we can take care of the—the melting with a local agent.”

The [Archmage] frowned and tilted her head, then nodded.

“Um. The second option. I just require them processed without waste, preserved in bottles…I don’t have any more…once in liquid form, have them sent to my room.”

She waved her hands in a frustrated way.

“Is that a good way of explaining it? Relc tells me my technical terms are too difficult. Do not worry; they need not be hot when processed. Melting is an imprecise slang term used by [Mages] to describe rendering solid magical gemstones into a usable liquid that can be written into spells in a physical format.”

The Archmage of Izril paused and scratched at her untidy, greying hair.

“…Do not apply excessive heat, please.”

To her surprise, the rather difficult request was instantly answered with a bow from all three, and Yelroan assured Valeterisa they would have the melted gemstones as soon as could be. Valeterisa actually looked pleased by this and drifted back to her rooms.

“Good, thank you. Put them outside my rooms and knock, please. But do not enter. Oh, and I need one of those things for my hair.”

“Hair dye, Archmage? Shampoo? Conditioning supplies? Hairpins?”

“No, a comb.”

Lyonette nodded again.

“I’ll add that to the list and have both sent directly to your room, Archmage!”

Valeterisa vanished inside her rooms with a wave of her hand, looking pleased, and Lyonette turned to Yelroan, who was adding one more note, which he handed to Ishkr.

“Take them to Hedault after informing him of the situation and getting his approval. If not, find the best expert in Esthelm if there is one, then Invrisil or Pallass.”

“I’m on it.”

Ishkr took the paper, and Lyonette saw that it contained essentially what Valeterisa had said. She bit her tongue, and Yelroan avoided her gaze, but smiled slightly.

“You have to get used to delegating, Lyonette. Or what’s the point of hiring someone like me?”

“You’re a [Mathematician], Yelroan.”

The two bickered somewhat good naturedly, and Yelroan adjusted his glasses. Sunlight glanced off Ser Dalimont’s armor as he shielded his eyes.

“Ah, but I’m also basically competent, Lyonette. I know you’ve been taking on all the jobs, but you can rely on me.”

It was an unknown feeling, working with someone who could give orders. Ishkr was reliable, but Lyonette had to admit—she was always surprised when someone besides her stepped up to solve a problem. She gave Yelroan a guilty smile.

“Oh—I’ll try. Thank you and let me know if it’s so expensive we need a note from the Merchant’s Guild before rep—can we help you, Archmage?”

Both she and Yelroan turned, and Ishkr groaned and stopped on the stairs. The Archmage of Izril had come back. She vaguely nodded at them, and Lyonette wondered how Larracel had managed to entertain the Archmage over the years without going insane. Well, that was probably why she kicked Valeterisa out after a few weeks of hospitality. The two Gnolls and Human waited as Valeterisa paused, seemed embarrassed, then raised a hand.

“I am hungry. Do you know if I’ve had breakfast yet?”

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn was not entirely empty. But it was emptier than it had been most of the year. It reminded Lyonette of when she’d taken it over from Erin and had to start from scratch.

Even with Liska and the door, they had a staff who all had to be paid, food to buy, two growing girls who needed tailors, [Knights] who needed oil and armor polish, and frankly, you could never have enough coin. Relying on the door was irresponsible, but attracting new guests was foolhardy at this moment.

Lyonette’s solution? She had taken a quill from Larracel’s writing desk and pivoted from selling mass-goods and services to providing for a select few of her guests. The first and in some ways easiest?

Archmage Valeterisa.

She and her apprentice, Montressa, were using The Wandering Inn as their base as neither one wanted to work from Valeterisa’s isle at the moment. It worked out; oh, sure, Valeterisa was absent-minded and made annoying requests, but she was actually largely reasonable.

Occasionally, she’d say something inane, but Montressa being her [Apprentice] meant that Valeterisa’s tab was paid weekly, and the absent-minded Archmage of Izril was a profitable guest, if one that had constant, troublesome requests.

Ishkr took care of most requests, and Invrisil had the industry to support Valeterisa’s magical needs. As for the rest? She was easier than the other two because, well…Lyonette liked her.

The Archmage of Izril was the first person older than Lyonette that the [Princess] had ever thought the term ‘cute’ could apply to. Oh, sometimes she was an annoying or terrifying [Mage] who had given part of herself to magic, and Lyonette remembered she could be as cold as ice.

But she seemed to be genuinely kind to Montressa, and she had a definite relationship going on with a certain Relc that Lyonette found adorable. The sight of an [Archmage] loitering outside of Relc’s room at night before showing him a new puzzle she’d made and his always surprised but gratified smile—that did something for Lyonette’s heart.

The other two high-priority guests were…Lyonette looked around, then heard thumping from the side and heard laughter—right before two boys, and two girls, charged past her.

I’m faster! I’m f—

Hethon was shouting wildly as he ran with a giant blanket folded around himself. He froze when he saw Lyonette, but Sammial raced past him.

No you’re not! I’m—

He made a flying leap for the stairs, head first—but Mrsha dove past him. She had a pillow strapped to her head with a piece of rope and another blanket around her, and she went sliding down the newly-waxed staircase like an arrow on top of a board of wood. Sammial dove after her in a laundry basket, shouting, and Nanette tried to go back the other way.

Too late—Lyonette’s stare made Hethon turn red.

“Er, Miss Lyonette—”

“I trust you’re being safe, Nanette? I wouldn’t want to use a healing potion on any accidents.”

“No…that is, we’re very safe, Lyonette.”

Nanette fidgeted. Lyonette sighed as Sammial and Mrsha popped up to gloat—saw her—and decided to keep running. But she stepped back as a panting woman clutched at her side.

“Lord—Hethon—Sammial—that is dangerous—”

Alas, poor Jericha. Lyonette felt like she knew the woman despite them not really having met before this. But her second valuable guests, Hethon and Sammial, had clearly liked the game Mrsha and Nanette had invented with Visma and Ekirra.

If this keeps them from wanting to go into Liscor where they’ll be recognized and out of trouble, like Sammial searching for a Snow Golem to fight, so be it.

After all, entertainment was part of the service Lyonette offered her valuable clients, and the two sons of House Veltras were both valuable…and, she had to admit, decent playmates for Mrsha and Nanette. Whether or not Nanette appreciated being grouped as a child along with Hethon was sort of immaterial. They were here, and after Hethon had somehow saved her daughters, Lyonette hadn’t the heart to turn down all their gold.

Why were Sammial and Hethon Veltras here even after the Winter Solstice was gone? Well, it had something to do with the fact that their father, Tyrion Veltras, was gone. He was already at sea, heading towards Baleros after Ryoka Griffin, Lyonette understood. Yet he had left his sons behind, and at—of all places—The Wandering Inn?

Well, not alone. Majordomo Ullim was about, though he hadn’t seen fit to chase down Hethon and Sammial like Jericha and the House Veltras bodyguards, who looked winded—and envious of the kids’ fun. The Wandering Inn wasn’t where the two boys stayed all the time, but it was very convenient for transport. It was one of their abodes they could stay at, but frankly, Lyonette understood that House Veltras’ keep was secure, but entirely unpleasant for the two boys to be cooped up in without friends.

Thusly, they stayed here, where the food and drink was better and where they could run around and see more than just Humans in ‘dreary Veltras lands’. Frankly, Lyonette suspected House Veltras was quite enjoyable, but the boys’ classes kept them from enjoying it most of the time. Or their father did.

Anyways, she had approved their residency so long as she had the authority to reprimand them, despite their connection to their father. Since they were not Tyrion himself, she had few qualms about taking House Veltras’ money. They might not be the richest of the Five Families, but they could still afford the premium experience at The Wandering Inn.

Besides, there were rooms aplenty for them, Jericha, and their guards. Lyonette realized Valeterisa had wandered off, and she counted how many rooms needed active cleaning today.

Not many. The staff outnumbered the guests these days. Hexel was long gone, Silveran was here, but more and more people had left and just not come back. Even now…her heart hurt when she saw the nameplates on the doors.

Joseph had moved out. He was living in Pallass. Kevin was dead. Lyonette still hadn’t cleared out his room. Imani had moved out when she’d started Barehoof Kitchens. Apparently, they were open again.

Neither she nor Palt had been here all month. Lyonette had checked on Imani twice.

The same feeling fell upon Lyonette again, as it did so often when she stopped to think—and she had too little to do to keep her occupied. That haunting realization, that heavy weight she was still in denial about when she wasn’t weeping or angry or just—empty.

Death.

Halrac would never come and sit in a corner again. Nor Moore. The same teams that had been here from, oh, dead gods, the beginning were gone.

The Winter Solstice had come and passed, but they really weren’t over it, even after a month, were they? Lyonette felt it.

There were holes in the inn, scars etched into the foundation of the building far more excruciating than the burnt wood from the arson attempts. Lyonette sensed it, just like she sensed Hethon, Sammial, Mrsha, and Nanette using the [Garden of Sanctuary] to teleport up to Bird’s tower and slide down all over again.

She was the innkeeper. She was part of the inn. Lyonette just wondered if it was the right choice to take up Erin’s mantle. She feared she wouldn’t be able to or that it would be too heavy or not reward her.

And she feared what it might do to her. For she had seen Erin’s path, and that terrified her most of all.

 

——

 

To distract herself, Lyonette oversaw the day’s cleaning of rooms herself. That was a basic team of six Goblins and four Antinium armed with brooms, fresh linens, dust cloths, and plumped pillows.

Their war leader had done this all before, many times, and while they’d been clumsy before, they were all veterans of the job now. They’d take rooms four-at-a-time, and they had a narrow window to get the job done. So their commander pointed and intoned her Skill as she began the attack.

“[Staff: Flurry of Efficiency]!”

Her strikeforce charged the breach, advancing into the rooms like a storm of feather dusters, mops, new sheets—one of the Goblins let out a shrill warcry as an Antinium raised a broom overhead. Lyonette clapped her hands over her ears and called out.

“Less noise, please, Stick?”

The Cave Goblin hesitated and modulated his battlecry. He went in, sweeping after the sheets were shaken out and getting under all the corners. Lyonette watched approvingly.

Stick was a simple Goblin. Not an unintelligent one; he just focused. You gave him a job like “pick up sticks”, and by Queen Marquin’s single breast, he got you sticks. There was something highly desirable about a Goblin who wouldn’t give up on a task. If you told him to sweep the corners, he’d roll under a bed and sweep the corners.

Her new Skill—one of them—was [Staff: Flurry of Efficiency]. At first, Lyonette had wondered if the Skill was broken, because she’d hoped for [Flurry of Motion]. But this was better.

You could move fast, or you could move well. One single sweep of Stick’s broom pulled all the dirt around him in a commendable arc, and if they worked hard…Lyonette eyed a patch of wall one of the Soldiers was cleaning. She could see her reflection, dimly, in the wood!

Very good job, Tigore. Good use of all four arms.”

The Soldier waved their antennae as Rosencrantz marshaled the troops into another room. Lyonette clasped her hands behind her back, pleased by all their efficiency, and had a thought.

I’m just standing here. They’re doing my job better and faster than I can!

It made her slightly insecure despite how pleased she was that they were doing the chores. Lyonette nodded to Rosencrantz after a few moments and walked downstairs.

 

——

 

I’ve done this before. Once, Lyonette had moped about not really knowing her lot in life after she had found help. She’d done it more than once, really.

A lot of her…identity had become Lyonette the [Barmaid], Lyonette the 2nd-in-Command of The Wandering Inn. The rest of it was Lyonette the Mother of Mrsha—and now Nanette.

Maybe I should be a better mother. It was twelve past 10, and Lyonette was just waiting for her last important…and most- and least-difficult guest to arrive. She could teach Mrsha more! But wait, Mrsha had school.

Nanette needed a mother. Even if she couldn’t replace Califor, the two could…Lyonette knew all sorts of stuff about Terandrian law and politics…or she could try and run the inn better…

Dead gods, I’m boring.

The realization hurt a bit, and Lyonette sat there. But maybe it was better to be boring until Erin got back.

Niers has found her. I’ll ask him after this. If I keep the inn running and patch everything up, our reputation, finances, and there’s no disasters for as long as it takes until Erin gets back, maybe, just maybe, it’ll survive the next time she fights a disaster.

Or next time no one would be safe.

What a thought. Lyonette grew morose, but she couldn’t help it. This wasn’t like the moths. This wasn’t even like Facestealer or the Raskghar or Erin coming back to life.

Look at what you did, Erin Solstice. I shall never feel safe again. Not in this inn. Not if I hire fifteen more Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. This inn is not safe.

There was a damned Giant made out of bones sitting in the snow. Until Lyonette could know the inn could survive that—

That was what Erin had left behind. Deceptively quiet days. A graveyard. An aimless [Princess].

And fear of the future. Lyonette could have been optimistic. She could have said they’d all levelled, they would do better, and sworn that Erin had seized a hold of a better timeline than the one where she had never done any of this.

But how could Lyonette? She looked up, trying to smile as the last guest came in. But he did not smile back. He did not move—and the Drake who wheeled him into the room gave Lyonette a pained smile as usual.

“Grand Strategist, we’ve arrived. Would you like breakfast? He wasn’t—hungry this morning.”

Lyonette stood slowly, as if her bones had filled with lead. But when she did smile, it was softly, with as much kindness as she had, and that wasn’t much.

But it was more than his city had for him, and she saw that lost gaze and eyepatch over the Drake’s grey scales only barely twitch towards her.

“Hello, Chaldion. Would you like anything special to eat today?”

The Drake didn’t turn as Lyonette bent down next to his wheelchair. His eyes stared ahead, vacantly, out one of the windows.

He didn’t move.

He didn’t react.

Lyonette saw the attendant’s expression, and two [Bodyguards] shuffled into the room. Not high-level ones, just decent guards. She tried again as they looked at her, and someone handed them a menu.

“Chaldion? We have breakfast if you’ll have it. Should I get some soft applesauce? It was quite good with cinnamon this morning.”

He didn’t really say a word. Chaldion of Pallass, the Grand Strategist of the Drakes, one of the most famous and infamous figures of the Walled Cities…sat in the wheelchair that Erin had once used. His claws were folded in his lap, and he stared ahead.

When he did move, it was to vaguely eat a bowl Lyonette put in front of him or to say the word ‘bathroom’ as quietly as a whisper. He wasn’t incapacitated. But—when the children came crashing down the steps, they fell silent a moment. Mrsha waved hesitantly, and the Drake stared at her, then went back to looking out the window.

There was less of Chaldion there than there had been. After a while, Lyonette put a blanket over him, and the Drake sat there next to one of the fires, never saying a word.

 

——

 

Grand Strategist Chaldion of Pallass had retired.

No one had said as much publicly, but Lyonette knew the announcement was coming. The Walled City of Inventions was reorganizing. They had lost General Duln—and Grand Strategist Chaldion.

After his final charge, which had led countless Drakes to their deaths, there hadn’t been a question of it. Chaldion had planned his final move, as Lyonette understood it, to rid the Walled Cities of himself and mobilize them into finding a replacement for him.

But he had not counted on surviving. General Duln had died trying to save Chaldion and worse, at least in Lyonette’s mind, succeeded.

They had dragged the Grand Strategist away from the battle, throat cut, body torn to shreds. The [Healers] had pronounced him dead—until they’d realized he wasn’t dying, just in agony. Somehow, despite wounds he shouldn’t have survived, he’d made a recovery.

But Chaldion hadn’t come back with it. That was probably…for the best. He might have been court-martialed in front of the Assembly of Crafts if he had. Pallass and the Walled Cities had lost far too much. Instead, he just sat there, as if all the energy, bitter spite, and intelligence that had played Izril like a fiddle, a terrible tune, but a triumphant one—had left him.

Empty. Lyonette tried to make him as comfortable as he needed to be and insulated him from Pallass’ wrath or machinations. That was her kindness to him.

She didn’t know if he deserved it.

 

——

 

The Winter Solstice Conflict, as Pallass had labeled it, was a disaster for the Walled Cities of Manus and Pallass—for different reasons. Manus had lost Wall Lord Aldonss, and their Wall Lady Rafaema was crippled, a wing lost from the fighting. If you knew who Rafaema was…Lyonette understood why this was so dire.

They were still about. Some of the valuable guests had left, but one was a direct result of the tragedies in battle on the Drake side. Oh, they’d rushed Rafaema to Manus, and Wall Lord Ilvriss was still trying to dig in the north, but they had business with the inn, or needed it for transit. They’d be back. Other valuable clients with expensive tastes.

Wall Lady Rafaema, Wall Lord Ilvriss, Demsleth, when he appeared, and the last high-roller…

Taletevirion.

“I just inventoried our stocks. Looks like our silver fox looted two barrels, Lyonette.”

Yelroan caught Lyonette after she had gotten Chaldion breakfast and a hot drink, and she rolled her eyes, but neither she nor Yelroan were displeased. Far from it.

“Make Demsleth pay for it next time he comes by. Or we’ll send the bill to Lady Magnolia’s mansion in a week’s time.”

Yelroan smiled happily. Lyonette did too; upcharging Magnolia Reinhart on a barrel of ale was good coin. Why, they’d get as much as…twelve gold coins? Magnolia’s servants would push back on any truly egregious price hikes, but that was twelve gold coins if Taletevirion had nabbed a good barrel of ale.

Maybe they should stock expensive wines just in case he went for them. Lyonette could see putting a four-hundred-gold-coin bill in front of Demslesth, but he’d pay it, oh, yes.

Four hundred gold coins, just like that.

…So that would leave one hundred and ninety thousand and six hundred gold pieces on Hexel’s down payment for the new inn, right? And that was just the up-front cost.

Lyonette liked to clean tables when she was stressed. She stopped cleaning an already-waxed table now and stared at the dustrag.

I’ll never pay for that new inn that Drevish the Architect designed like this. See here. If Taletevirion steals sixty gold worth of alcohol each night—and he does not—

Thirty-two days multiplied by sixty is…

“Yelroan, what’s 32 times 60?”

“1920.”

“Thank you.”

Multiply that by sixteen…

“By sixteen?”

“30,720 per year. If you’re calculating how long until Taletevirion buys us the down payment on Erin’s new inn, the answer is 6.5 years.”

“Ah.”

Of course, we make more money than that. But six years? We don’t even have one year. We don’t even have…when’s the Summer Solstice?

Lyonette began to breathe faster as she imagined that. One month later, and Halrac was still gone. Seve-Alrelious was—gentle Moore was—

Her eyes darted to Chaldion. They roamed the inn, and she remembered Facestealer. Kasigna.

My daughters are not safe.

They were her daughters now. Hers! That was the one big change in Lyonette’s thinking. Not just Mrsha. Nanette needed someone to raise her, for all she acted mature. Lyonette could do it. She had to do it because no one else would; not Erin, not the other [Witches], and certainly not Ryoka! But she didn’t have what she needed.

I need to get the funds together. Or I need to bring them home.

Neither option appealed, so Lyonette rested her hands on the table—then went to call the people she could think to ask. Just one or two at most for a small loan of a hundred thousand gold coins.

 

——

 

“No.”

There were two people who could foot Erin Solstice’s bills that Lyonette trusted: Niers Astoragon and Fetohep.

Wall Lord Ilvriss had used to be on that list, but while he’d never said it, Lyonette had heard he’d sold Gemscale holdings to buy the Potion of Regeneration for Erin. Between financing the dig expedition and everything else…he hadn’t said ‘no’ outright when she hinted about the cost for the inn, but his pained silence had been enough.

Chaldion might have been able to help. He was out. Earl Altestiel had paid every price. They were in his debt.

That left Fetohep and Niers Astoragon. Lyonette had been meaning to ask about Erin’s condition anyways. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten Erin was alive. It was just that she—and the other people in the inn—didn’t know what to say to Erin. She was alive. This was good.

Lyonette wasn’t sure how to forgive Erin, let alone whether she wanted Erin to come back. So she broached the easier topic first.

No.

Niers Astoragon looked tired. But his reply through the scrying mirror he’d included with Erin’s chess set was terse and uncomplicated. Lyonette hesitated.

“Not the whole amount. I understand what I’m asking, but surely—”

The Fraerling did not have time for niceties, or perhaps he didn’t respect them because his voice was curt. He was writing something down as he spoke; troop orders? His eyes glanced up, and he flicked the angle of the scrying mirror so she couldn’t read his desk.

Which was hurtful, even if Lyonette had been trying to see what it said. She wasn’t using the [World’s Eye Theatre] for this; she’d tried, but he had blocked the Skill from reaching him. The Titan responded to her, glancing over his shoulder.

“It’s because you’re asking now. Listen, Lyonette. May I speak to you tomorrow? They’re still checking Erin for curse magic—”

“So she’s alive? I can report about that, at least. Can I speak to—”

“She’s still being checked.”

“Checked? Is she hurt?”

Lyonette grew slightly more alarmed, and Niers waved it off.

“Not badly physically. Deprivation at sea—but she clearly had something to eat. No, it’s the magic. She’s with Fraerlings. We rushed her to Paeth as they have the best and most public facilities. Detoxification, nullification, re-warding, and full-scale analysis—that’s just the magical side of things. It’s been an entire day of testing. Necessary—she was badly irradiated from magic, and several of the magical attacks left dangerous residue or lingering hexes on her.”

The Titan of Baleros’ tone was curt to the point where it would have been disrespectful if he was not, well, him. He would have surely affronted another [Innkeeper] in Lyonette’s place, but the [Princess] was reminded, in an odd way, more of home and royalty than she had been in the presence of the late Earl Altestiel, Wil Kallinad, or many other people acquainted with the protocol and decorum of Terandrian courts.

For you see—Niers reminded Lyonette of the [Generals] of old that the books her tutors and mother and father had drilled into her described as capable of snapping at royalty. Not the ones who snapped unwisely and were disposed of in due time, but the ones who could have a [Princess] shovel a latrine.

The ones who were not only invaluable, which was one thing, but too costly to replace. So the [Princess] did not snap back. The [Innkeeper] would have, but Lyonette was not her. And there was a benefit to that.

Niers was less and more retiring when he spoke to her than she had heard in his conversations with Erin Solstice. His fingers drummed as he worked, and while she was sure he was modulating his words through an internal mesh of filters—what to say, how to present—he was not making an effort to win her over. He was the Titan of Baleros, 2nd-in-command and effective commander of a Great Company. She was a [Princess] far from home in an inn.

They both knew who needed whom. But it was the marked contrast with how he spoke to Erin Solstice that made Lyonette wonder how the two would interact face-to-face.

Young as she was, the [Princess] had still seen the look of men besotted, and Niers Astoragon was still a man in any form. Not that she had the knowing of how it was done so well; she had seen her older sisters twist men up like a ribbon upon a present.

Not all her sisters. Menisi, the exile, the disavowed by Queen Ielane, had done it far better than Shardele or Aielef. Seraphel, after her first terrible marriage, had done it without knowing, like a poisoned flower drew in silly flies and bees.

The [Ladies] of Calanfer’s courts could play that game well, married and unmarried; the female Thronebearers, when they chose it, were gifted daggers wielded by Ielane.

The [Maids] and [Servants] were masters unmatched.

Lyonette wondered, belatedly, in her age, how many had done so willingly, how many had been Ielane’s weapons set upon her foes, and how many kingdoms had fallen victim to Calanfer by bed.

It was cruel, Lyonette realized, and she wondered how any servant could be persuaded, even with gold, to do such a thing.

Then she wondered how she might engender such loyalty herself. That was the [Princess]. The [Barmaid] felt guilty at such desires. The [Mother] wondered if her daughter would ever feel this way. Ah. Daughters.

Now she had two. So back to the subject. Lyonette broke the silence of Niers working.

“So shall Erin be back soon or…?”

The scrtch of the quill slowed a moment, then picked up speed as if to maintain the pace. Niers flicked his gaze up, seeming to both inspect Lyonette’s room, then the inn behind it.

“That would be unwise, both for transport and her current state. Mentally and physically. She’s a bit…”

He trailed off and reached for a glass of water, but Lyonette noticed the slightest twitch of the lips.

“Is she…much like when she attacked the [Pirates]?”

The Titan’s eyes flicked up, then he shrugged, a perfect, casual motion.

“The first war you win changes you. Let’s not bring up her numerous encounters with death, please, Lyonette. This was a proper war, and she scattered her enemies. Took out an [Admiral], at least one of their [Captains], and put down lives like I do. Not like she used to. She’s a bit different. We’ll see what actual rest does to her.”

Lyonette did not like that response. But Niers added a casual aside on the heels of it.

“Besides. Teleportation spells do work, but I wouldn’t put it past the Blighted Kingdom to try and cut her in half mid-teleport. Forget a ship. So the answer is no to her return and funding anything in the inn at the moment. Not by proxy, either. I have a list of countries who want Erin dead. I’ve put [Diplomats] and [Emissaries] on the job; stirring the nest isn’t what the Forgotten Wing company needs.”

Imagine smoothing over the death of Prince Iradoren. Lyonette swallowed hard for multiple reasons; the peacemaking could be done. But as for what Niers had said—she didn’t like it at all. Lyonette wanted to talk to Erin, but it sounded like she was genuinely indisposed. However, the Titan’s will mattered a lot for Erin’s future.

True, he seemed to be interested in her.

On the other hand, concerningly, he was interested in her.

Erin Solstice had made a fool of the Titan. In her way, Erin had been the best bait to lure him out of his element and into the treacherous world of romance once more. And romance was a battlefield that Niers had been routed in time and time again; only the best could have trapped him like that. In another sense, Erin was the poorest of players of the game of romance because Lyonette sometimes wondered if Erin even knew she was playing.

And if she did? She would have been crueler than Menisi, Seraphel, and all of Ielane’s servants because she had never intended to claim victory.

At least, so Lyonette felt. The danger with courting someone like the Titan of Baleros was that he was as lethal as Erin, if not in the realms she excelled at. But Lyonette—she was saved from worrying about Erin by another comment.

“Miss Ryoka will be at Paeth shortly, as well as the rest of her surviving acquaintances. I cannot speak for Princess Seraphel’s crew; they’ve landed along the south of Baleros in the jungles. I’d rather they sail north, but now the companies know where they are—I will reunite them all.”

And that made Lyonette realize something. Niers had never met Ryoka Griffin. He definitely knew of her, but he knew of Tyrion Veltras in the abstract as well. Who was out there? Lyonette knew Erek, Seve’s Orangutan friend, had survived and Revi and others, but—

They’re all in Baleros. For all Ryoka Griffin can’t be trusted to raise a child, she can cause trouble even the Five Families respect. So can Erin.

Perhaps it was on Erin to get out of the mess she was in. At least, that was how Lyonette framed it because she realized something as she’d been thinking of ways to persuade Niers, if it could be done with mere words.

She didn’t want Erin back.

Not yet.

As if the Titan was reading her mind, he shifted his discussion.

“I regret I cannot give you anything in the way of funding, Lyonette. If it were a building or other service in Baleros, I would say The Wandering Inn should be quiet. Or remind those with enough to lose of the value it provides. Scorch marks can be scrubbed off the walls, and the loss of revenue is preferable to loss of venue.”

Lyonette was not surprised that he knew about the firebombing. Niers exhaled as he took a deeper sip from his cup, and his face twisted much like her stomach at his next words.

“…Unfortunately, I understand Erin’s property is much like the woman herself. Her inn will not be quiet. She warned me within minutes of waking to keep it safe. May I inquire as to your plans, Your Highness?”

Lyonette smiled hesitantly.

“I don’t know if we have that many plans, Lord Astoragon. We’ve barely gotten Liscor settled and—”

“Please, Lyonette. I don’t have time to waste over tea and games. Your plans?”

Niers interrupted her, and Lyonette faltered. The Titan’s head rose, and he gave her a sharp look. He sat back a second, rubbing his fingernails against his jacket. A clearly fake gesture; Lyonette had never seen him do that before.

“—Erin Solstice is a charming rock upon which plans may break before she announces her way. In hindsight, I would call for pickaxes. The Wall Lord is a friend of yours, and he is about to dig up a treasure the north greatly desires—and remind them why they buried it. You have no Erin—which will save me the need to port an army to Liscor again. You are not ready. You have plans.”

It was not a question. Lyonette flushed because he was right—but also because she was embarrassed. She hung her head.

“I, ah, well. Rebuilding the inn and staffing it about tenfold with people I can trust was most of it, Niers. Drevish’s plans, you see, are marvelous. If we had that, even the giant wouldn’t be as much of a threat.”

The look of disappointment he was trying to cover up hurt her more than most insults she could remember. Lyonette turned redder. She was so used to Erin taking charge and backing her up…

“Yes, they are splendidly done. Especially for a dead man; I’ve reviewed them, and my own [Architects] won’t shut up about how much of a genius he was—my [Financiers] won’t stop screaming about how much it would cost. I remind you that a building is still a building, Lyonette. Upgrading the inn certainly would be part of what I’d hoped.”

“If you could find some way of assisting? Even if it were—say—convincing Architect Hexel to take on the project without an up-front cost?”

Lyonette was hopeful, but Niers began shaking his head and didn’t stop.

“No proxy, Lyonette. I am serious. And with respect to Eternal Khelt—I would be shocked if you get what you desire there, too. The situat…”

He trailed off, slashed a hand horizontally, and went on.

“The people Erin Solstice has offended are not stupid, Lyonette. There is no way I can transfer funds of that magnitude short of a mysterious chest of gold being dug up in the Floodplains two months later. And I don’t have the inclination to set that kind of complicated scheme up or risk the gold. Nor is the Forgotten Wing company ready to afford greater costs. We are at war.”

Three good reasons, but Lyonette still persisted. She knew nations, and the money was exorbitant for her, or even Ilvriss—but it could be done.

“Two months would be fine, Lord Astoragon. It’s—”

“Lyonette. Do not ask Fetohep for coin. Do not ask Wall Lord Ilvriss for gold. Do not approach Lady Magnolia Reinhart—you know what? I take it back. Go ask all three; don’t ask anyone stupid enough to actually give it to you.”

Niers snapped, and Lyonette jumped in her seat. She flushed again, because she was clearly missing something he felt was obvious.

I’m out of practice at grander machinations. She hung her head.

“I suppose there is no scenario where the risk of discovery is worth the reward.”

“Partly.”

The Titan’s eyes were on her, appraising, and now she felt like one of Yelroan’s numbers, and she was wondering if he was adding to her sum or reducing it, and which was more dangerous. He spoke slower than his normal patter of impatient half-orders, but with more clarity and information packed into each sentence.

“Lyonette. Erribathe has no agents in Invrisil. Not a single one. The Restful Three don’t have many to represent them abroad at all, unlike Calanfer. Not even contacts.”

“Yes, exactly.”

The Titan met Lyonette’s gaze and slowly drained his cup of water before putting it back down. He refilled it, one-handed, from a decanter on his right.

Don’t make them find any agents.

Lyonette swallowed. Then she saw why he was so concerned for the inn. Giant of bones? Damn the Giant of Rheirgest. The real threats wouldn’t come with a battering ram. They’d walk in, order a mug, and…

Perhaps she was the one who’d forgotten how dangerous it was to anger an entire nation. Erin had tweaked Pallass’ nose more than once, but Erribathe…Erin had killed their [Prince].

She’d killed their [Prince]. And he was nearly two hundred years old and the only heir to the oldest Kingdom of Terandria. Queen Marquin’s single sagging breast…

Niers seemed darkly pleased by Lyonette’s sudden discomfort, because he took another gulp of water. Then he scared her by reading her mind. He might have been trying to do it already, but she hadn’t been meeting his expectations. Now that she was, he gave voice to her sudden realization and plans a second before she could.

“Do you know how to keep a household, Princess Lyonette?”

Lyonette stopped herself from jumping again in her chair and half-glanced towards the rest of the inn. The door was closed, and she saw no shadow from under it—but she knew Dalimont and Ushar were listening to her. She could sense them hovering just outside the door.

But it was Peggy and Rosencrantz she thought of, the two other heads of staff under Ishkr. There used to be Normen and Alcaz, but they had left. All of them were good, hard workers.

None of them were what Niers meant, and Lyonette spoke slowly.

“—I have seen it done, but barely learned, Lord Astoragon. I don’t suppose one writes down how to implement such things?”

To her surprise, the Titan of Baleros actually smiled, and here his eyes lit up. He ceased being the [Warlord] and was once again the Professor, who turned and looked around at the shelves of books and documents behind him.

“As a matter of fact, I studied that sort of thing. I even maintained a Terandrian consulate for…eight years? I can find notes—but you should trust to your Thronebearers and servants as the best candidates. Though I have heard of no Calanferians traveling across northern Izril.”

Suddenly, Lyonette was wishing she hadn’t sent away Ser Lormel. Even one-armed, he’d be able to train and think—the Titan watched Lyonette’s face grow more concerned and alarmed. She stood, smoothing her leggings as if they were skirts.

“I believe—I have rather a lot to do, Lord Astoragon. Thank you for the chat, though I fear my budgetary needs have only increased, not diminished.”

“I deeply regret not being able to assist, Miss Lyonette. I will keep you posted about Erin, and when she feels ready to return, I shall endeavor to make it happen.”

The Titan stood and swept Lyonette a bow, and the [Princess] barely thought of Erin for a moment. But he did throw her a bone, of sorts. The Titan eyed Lyonette—and sighed. He hesitated for one second, stared up at the ceiling, and spoke.

“…Given all the death and uncertainty of late, Lyonette—my own parents are deceased, but I can at least tell you my regrets. It would be good, whatever the rift, to reconnect with your own family.”

Lyonette blinked at him. The Titan met her gaze with a half-smile—then his image winked out.

 

——

 

Lyonette understood what Niers meant and slapped herself in the forehead so hard it left a mark. Then, because she didn’t want to do it, she avoided Dame Ushar by hurrying into the [World’s Eye Theater].

“He thinks he knows everything. Well, maybe he’s quite intelligent, but he hasn’t ever met Erin. As for me—theatre? Contact Erin Solstice!

She didn’t talk to Fetohep or Magnolia Reinhart since she suspected Niers was right. But he must have forgotten that even if it was vulnerable, this was Erin’s inn. And her Skill worked wonders.

Lyonette saw the glass dome overhead ‘blink’ as the panes of glass moved, the image of the sky above darkening and vanishing until a pinpoint of light shone down. She waited for it to open and transport her image across the world as she stood in the center of the circular room. She could, at least, ask Erin for advice.

And if Erin had a new Skill—

Lyonette waited a second, then five more, and then hesitated, staring up at the single pinpoint of light overhead. This was taking longer than even when she called Fetohep. What was—

“Erm. Hello.”

Lyonette did not appear in Baleros, or rather, the Fraerling City of Paeth. Instead of a perfect image of the world around her appearing and her own body being projected into whatever room where Erin was at…she remained standing in the theatre. The dome remained dark, nigh pitch-black.

And a single image appeared right above Lyonette, forcing her to crane her head upwards. She stared up as a man, tall, broad-shouldered, with a pink beard, appeared.

Alchimagus Resk looked like an ordinary man, even rather tall, but he was, of course, a Fraerling. Lyonette blinked and then blurted out.

“I’d like to speak t—”

“If you’re listening to this, firstly, this is a recording.”

The image of Resk continued, slightly awkward but warming to his task. His eyes were slightly off-camera to the left, and he was definitely reading from a script. He coughed, then beamed at Lyonette.

“We, ah, er, know it’s the trend to [Scry] everything, but I regret to inform you that the City of Paeth is off-limits. As is Talenqual. We’re terribly sorry, whomever you are, but also, congratulations!

He spread his arms cheerily.

“Your spell or Skill was so impressive it’s now been logged, and we will sell the information about your identity and location to the highest bidder if you keep trying to spy on us. Please stop. Have a good day!”

Lyonette’s mouth opened. Resk paused, looked off-camera—

“Am I done? Good!”

Then he winked at her, and the image vanished. Lyonette was left standing in the dark.

Ah. That’s right…Paeth.

At this moment, she really disliked Fraerlings.

 

——

 

When they got tired of sliding down the stairs, Hethon and Sammial were called by Ullim for their morning lessons. They complained about it.

“Doesn’t she have school? And she doesn’t!”

Ullim moved Sammial’s finger away from Mrsha’s nose before Mrsha could bite it, and the [Majordomo] nodded respectfully to Nanette, who bowed back. The two girls were unimpressed by Sammial when he got like this.

It’s a snow day, stupid.

Mrsha held up a card. Sammial turned to Ullim.

“Why don’t we have a snow day?”

“Because I am here, Lord Sammial, and do not point. It is rude to point. Secondly, Miss Nanette is a [Witch]. They tend to teach themselves.”

For that, the old [Majordomo] was rewarded with a big smile from Nanette, and she decided she did like him. He was a good mentor, and Sammial gave Nanette a second glance. Hethon just blushed at Nanette.

“Have fun!”

Nanette waved cheerfully at the two boys, who slunk off to their lessons, then she and Mrsha went to do something interesting. The boys were all very well and good, but Nanette and Mrsha did want to know about Erin.

What they found, when they got to the [World’s Eye Theatre], was Lyonette pouring herself a cup of wine. The [Princess] tried to pretend it was for Dame Ushar when they saw her and cleared her throat.

“I, er, just got finished talking with Niers.”

“Oh, are we going to be building the new inn, Lyonette?”

Lyonette hesitated, partly because she was red-cheeked and clearly annoyed, partly because she’d asked for Nanette to address her more informally. Nanette supposed that meant calling Lyonette ‘mother’, but she’d decided to just drop the ‘Miss’.

“Um, no, Nanette. In fact, it seems as though Erin will be in Baleros longer than we thought. She’s rather injured, and it seems like the Titan of Baleros may be courting her with flowers! I am in such a mood I could wish he actually succeeds.”

And gets her into bed? Gross!

Mrsha held up a card, and Lyonette spluttered. She’d forgotten her daughter was intelligent enough to know what that meant. As for Nanette, the girl snickered.

“He could practice by throwing a Flatfish covered in Acid Flies into his bed first.”

Miss Nanette! Don’t be vulgar!”

Lyonette was shocked even as she tried not to laugh, but Mrsha just nodded, and Nanette’s face was straight. In all seriousness, Nanette understood the Titan might be interested in Erin and it would complicate her return—but courting Erin Solstice against her will just seemed impossible to Nanette, and she had yet to see Erin even receptive to the idea. She’d see Eloise flirting before Erin.

At any rate, the [Princess] was morose, but since she seemed to think drinking in front of children was a bad idea, she clapped her hands.

“Why don’t you two clean up your rooms, and then we’ll all go into…Invrisil and do something fun, shall we? Don’t forget the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Mrsha. I see your things everywhere.”

We came to you for fun, and instead we got chores? You’re as bad as Ullim, Mother!

Mrsha held up an outraged note, and Lyonette snapped back.

“I should like to be half as good at parenting as he is, Mrsha. No buts! I told the staff not to clean up your shared rooms. I do mean it; I’ve found your things everywhere in the garden, Mrsha. Two balls in the jungle, you left three books lying around—this is why you can never find your dolls for Visma’s get-togethers. Put them away, and if I can’t find anything, I’ll buy you a treat.”

Grumbling, Mrsha stomped sideways and entered the garden door. Nanette, who had a largely clean side of the shared room, followed Mrsha, but stopped by the doorway.

The garden’s door was still, usually, the wooden door with a few scars and cast iron bands and a brass handle. It remained where you opened it, so Nanette swung it closed, but didn’t let it meet the wall.

Mrsha perked up her ears and halted, and the two girls listened by the door. Mrsha was learning from Nanette, and Nanette liked knowing things. What they heard was Lyonette sighing, then speaking.

“Pass me that glass, Dame Ushar. It won’t kill me to have half of it before we go to Invrisil.”

“I…would advise you not to have a single sip, Your Highness.”

“Oh, come now. If we must go through that ridiculous Adventure Room so Mrsha can get a ‘high score’, I’ll have two.”

“Your Highness—would now not be a good time to take Lord Astoragon’s advice?”

Nanette’s brows rose, and she and Mrsha exchanged glances.

What is Ushar talking about?

Mrsha signed to Nanette. The witch signed back.

Don’t know. Something dangerous?

There was a pause from Lyonette, then a loud sigh.

“She doesn’t even want to—”

“I believe Her Majesty would be very receptive. If you were to speak…now.”

Lyonette’s voice rose slightly.

“You told her?”

“Your Highness. Given the circumstances—”

“She will simply strip my flesh from my bones with her tongue and then order me back.”

Dame Ushar’s voice was patient.

“Your Highness. You may be remembering your interactions—accurately—but I believe you have changed. I personally vouchsafed your abilities. Please consider it?”

“—I—you did? Oh, very well. Do I use the theater, or do you have a secure line?”

“Given the circumstances, I believe face-to-face would not be optimal…”

“Good idea. Perish that thought.”

Dame Ushar’s voice was growing louder. Nanette realized she was drawing nearer and leapt back; poor Mrsha didn’t realize Ushar was right on top of them until the Thronebearer kicked the door closed.

Not hard as she could have, but Mrsha grabbed her feet and went hopping around, howling, as Nanette sat down to think. Her Majesty? But that could only mean—

Nanette stared at the door, then hurried off to continue playing with the kids. After all, she had to keep an eye on the inn’s doings. Lyonette was doing her best, but Nanette was the only witch left. Someone had to do things right.

 

——

 

After sliding head-first down the stairs for the eighth time on a board—they’d gone back to stair-sledding after their tutoring lesson—Hethon began to feel a bit stupid. However, hearing Sammial laugh made tying a pillow to his head worth it.

If Jericha and the guards weren’t watching him, Hethon thought he could have laughed like that. They did their best to pretend they were not watching. The worst part, in Hethon Veltras’ opinion, was the smiles.

Not mocking. House Veltras’ people rather liked Hethon and Sammial, and Tyrion, or so Ullim claimed. Rather, it was how they smiled.

Imagine…imagine seeing a dog that you knew had been mistreated all its life, cooped up in a house, and never allowed to run about outside, that had finally been rescued and allowed to play in a puddle for the first time. Even if it was too old to play like a puppy, how might you smile when you saw it laughing like that?

A pained, glad, and regretful smile filled with history. Hethon hated it. He liked to pretend he had grown up like other children.

He was fourteen years old, though, and his closest associates were Jericha, Ullim, and now, Nanette and Mrsha. Sammial, a boy of ten, could still have fun like that.

Hethon could too, but he felt self-conscious. Nanette could seemingly enjoy herself despite being only a year younger than he was. But he felt like she enjoyed it in a more adult way than he did.

The complex headology of Hethon’s embarrassment, self-loathing, and preoccupations meant that he lagged behind as the other three kids sped down the 2nd floor hallway. Sammial did a flying leap onto the stairs, only for Mrsha to land on him. The sounds of the two crashing down the stairs made Hethon wince.

We’d never be able to do this back home. Father would tell Sammial to stop it. But Ryoka would tell him to let Sammial be a kid. I think.

Hethon missed Ryoka. Again, she’d vanished, and he had a feeling that his father wouldn’t be back anytime soon, despite his promises. Once more, Ryoka Griffin flew away when he could have really used her here.

Not as a…a mother. That was a weird thought. For one thing, you weren’t supposed to think mothers were attractive like Hethon thought Ryoka was. For another—she was more like a…an inspiration. Something like a friend and mentor, what Hethon wanted to be in a sense.

Beguiling, strange, and oh yes…one of a handful of women who’d ever made his father not a statue. That, most of all, was why Hethon liked Ryoka. Tyrion Veltras was at his best when he was a person, but only Ryoka, Magnolia, Salva, and Tyrion’s own mother had ever done that. Maybe the cousins, now and then—

Of the lot, Ryoka was the best. Well, maybe Grandmother Atlanna beat her. Hethon didn’t remember her much; they’d visited her cottage a few times, and he recalled, each time, Tyrion asking her to move into the keep and her telling him she wanted to live in House Veltras, not in a stone keep, for her last years.

Then she’d sit Hethon on her lap, and…his memory faltered. So did his eyes.

The boy adjusted the pillow on his head and stood in the corridor, panting a second. The inn was quiet. Warm, but quiet. Battered, not destroyed. He hadn’t known many of the people who’d died. He’d felt bad for not crying. He just felt numb. Numb and unreal, to see Gold-rank adventurers laid to rest and hear tales of the tens of thousands of Draugr and glimpse those horrific corpses being burned.

Hethon remembered how he and the children had escaped the attack on Magnolia’s mansion vividly. He walked down the corridor, checking the nameplates on the doors. He dreamed of that moment when a hand had seized his and shown him a path.

Those people. 

Of course, a month later, Hethon had given out the explanations of what he’d seen a number of times to Ullim, Jericha, even Miss Lyonette and several others. It had been frantic, rushed, and frankly, Sammial shouting ‘who are you?’ over and over hadn’t helped.

But he remembered their conversation with him and the boon they’d demanded for saving the children’s lives. Hethon had hoped, at first, Ryoka would fly back and join him so he could puzzle it all out with her. As the days had turned to weeks, it had become clear she was Baleros-bound, and Tyrion had set after her.

Then, Hethon had been preoccupied with House Veltras mobilizing, and they’d been in the north, setting Tyrion off, hearing more fallout from the battle at sea—and by the time Hethon had gotten back to Invrisil and thus The Wandering Inn, three weeks had passed.

This last week, he’d done his best to fulfill the promises. Not just because he had dreams of that forest creeping up on him, or that he’d begun noticing the hands that appeared out of carved wood or the roots of trees.

He really had tried. It was just…Hethon glanced at a nameplate on one of the doors he passed.

Ryoka Griffin.

Her room was mostly empty. Tyrion had asked Jericha to collect any possessions to give to Ryoka, and Hethon had asked—just asked—to see what Jericha had packed. Aside from the mistrustful look Jericha had given him, which was very hurtful, he’d encountered a problem:

There was no wand among Ryoka Griffin’s possessions. Hethon had asked her to double-check, and they’d even asked Lyonette, but it was nowhere to be found.

It then followed that she’d carried it with her to the battle at sea. But that was strange because Hethon definitely remembered the wand not being in Ryoka’s bag of holding; it should have been on her desk, and would she have really brought the wand to a sea battle given how valuable it was?

He’d given up—until his dreams had begun to be those voices urging him to ‘bring the seed’ to them. So Hethon had done some thinking.

…His thinking led him to slowly turn a doorknob, the second door on the right as you came up the stairs onto the second floor. The nameplate read:

Lyonette and Mrsha.

Presumably, this was from before Mrsha had moved out. Hethon looked around, hoping the guards weren’t watching, but he thought the hallway was deserted. He swallowed.

This isn’t very noble of you, Hethon. But you made a promise, and you can’t ask Miss Lyonette if she’s lying. She said there wasn’t a wand like that. But…

A fourteen-year-old boy was in a weird spot. Sixteen was the age at which you began to level up fully, but Hethon wasn’t there. He wasn’t a child, but he had yet to really go through his teenage growth spurts.

He wasn’t responsible enough for real duties, but all his elders told him he needed to be more mature. Not a warrior, not a [Lord], not a child.

Hethon suspected Lyonette had lied to him, but he didn’t know why she would have hidden Ryoka’s wand. He’d told her how the mysterious folk had saved them! If she had hidden it…well, Hethon hadn’t intuited where the wand was on his lonesome.

He had clues. Like a strange sense of…growth, or maybe potential growth, in the room beyond. A feeling like knowing there were seeds in the ground that would spring up. A sense of green beyond, and the hands and signs, like a strange pattern of leaves somehow blown across the ground, kept pointing towards this room. So Hethon tried the brass doorknob.

…The door was locked.

“Drat. Er…come, door!”

Hethon tried to use the [Garden of Sanctuary] like he’d seen Mrsha and Nanette do, but he was already flushed with nerves, and the door didn’t come. He wondered if it was because he was trying to snoop—when he heard shouting from above.

Let’s go again! Hethon, where are you?

Ah, Sammial and Mrsha had appeared upstairs by the sounds of it. Hethon jumped and felt his back prickling with sweat. If they caught him in Lyonette’s room—

He turned, about to find a better moment to try to sneak into Lyonette’s room, and came face-to-face with a girl two inches shorter than he was with a pillow tied to the back of her head.

Despite the ridiculous look, Hethon flinched away from Nanette Weishart. He could have pretended it was the wrong room or played it off. Some [Suave Lord] like Pellmia would have.

Hethon? He turned red and began to stutter.

“I—that was—”

“I trust you’re not trying to rummage in Miss Lyonette’s room for her underthings.”

Nanette’s voice was polite, if slightly frosty, and Hethon panicked.

“What? No! Never!”

Her brown eyes fixed on Hethon sharply. Nanette pursed her lips.

“Then what are you doing?”

“I was just—looking for Ryoka’s wand! I haven’t had a good night of sleep for a week since we came back to the inn, and the hands and leaves keep pointing me here!”

Nanette’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“The…I thought you brought it to them already. It’s been a month. Do you mean you haven’t?”

Hethon turned redder. He wasn’t sure he liked Nanette. She was bossy for their age, put on airs, and made him feel like a fool.

“I thought Ryoka took it. And I did check her room with Jericha! It wasn’t anywhere to be found. But the signs…”

Nanette frowned at Lyonette’s room and raised her brows. She glanced up at the thumping upstairs.

“I can use the garden door to get in. Or I could open it myself. Move aside. And I might as well make sure you don’t cause trouble.”

“I’d never steal anyone’s underthings!”

Hethon muttered, red-faced. Nanette brushed past him with a distrustful glance. Then she felt around in her bag of holding and produced, of all things, a key.

“What are you doing?”

“Opening the door.”

“You have a key to Lyonette’s room? Did you steal it?”

Nanette rolled her eyes.

“No. I have a skeleton key.

“Oh.”

That’s so amazing! How did she get it? Hethon was mildly jealous as Nanette inserted the key into the lock.

Strangely, it didn’t open right away. Rather, Nanette rattled the key around in the lock, puzzled.

“Huh. It takes a while, it feels like. The key’s…changing. It’s made of ivory. Does it resize to the lock? One second.”

She rattled it around again, and Hethon felt compelled to explain more as Nanette tried to twist the key.

“I haven’t been lazy, you know. Lyonette said they might be dangerous. Father promised to talk to some [Druids], but what with Ryoka being missing and all the trouble—”

Nanette glanced up and sighed loudly.

“And you didn’t seek any [Druids] out yourself? Your father didn’t do anything so you didn’t?”

Hethon knew he was still flushed scarlet. He felt like he had skin problems around Nanette.

“I don’t know any [Druids]! That is—I’ve met some, but I can’t just ride to where they are.”

“Why not? You’re a [Lord] of House Veltras.”

“I—”

Nanette’s arch look made Hethon want to kick her. Instead, he relished her failure with the lock.

“Your precious ‘skeleton key’ not working?”

The young witch cooly brushed hair out of her face.

I’m doing something. Why don’t you tell Mrsha and Sammial to try rolling down the garden’s hill? We don’t need them getting in the w—aha!

Her note of triumph made Hethon jump as the skeleton key clicked. It slid open, and Nanette pushed the door ajar. She and Hethon hurried into Lyonette’s room as Mrsha and Sammial continued pounding down the hallway above.

“There. You see? Good to know it takes a bit of time.”

Nanette looked smugly, if a bit confused, at Hethon as she stowed her magical key. He bit his lip and tried not to laugh at her. The young woman frowned at him—and he pointed.

“I, er, don’t think it was the skeleton key alone. Maybe it did the lock, but not the doorknob. And I think we’re on the right track.”

“Why? I—oh.”

The ‘oh’ was because Nanette had just seen the other side of the door. Namely, the hand made out of wood that had grown out of the door and turned the knob from the inside. It was retreating into the door as the two watched.

Hethon exchanged a look with Nanette, and then they peered around Lyonette’s room. Hethon was taken aback by the elements of a woman’s room in general, not at home with the vanity mirror and various accoutrements of makeup or Lyonette’s knicknacks, like a painting Mrsha had made hanging up.

The room was intimate and, therefore, embarrassing. Nanette was more sensible and marched over to the desk and began rifling through the drawers.

“If it is here, I doubt Lyonette hid it. Did you ask her about the wand? Go check that drawer, there.”

“Yes! She said she didn’t have it.”

“I wonder why she said that. Maybe…”

Hethon was wondering why Nanette was helping him. Did she feel a debt for being saved as well? She was Ryoka’s friend too. Then he wondered why the mysterious folk even needed his help to get the wand if they could make a hand grow out of a door.

Then again, they’d said they had woken up because of all the visitors and the fate of forests. And that they were dead. 

Hethon was a Veltras, and it was their pact, ancient by mortal standards, that gave him the authority and responsibility. He wondered if they were dangerous.

“Do you think this is a bad idea?”

Nanette shrugged as she opened the last drawer of the vanity.

“Bad. Good. I’ll talk to the witches I know. But it’s impossible to say without finding the wand first. If this is to be a thing, it would be better to be prepared. So let’s find it first before Lyonette’s done with her call—aha!

She exclaimed as she opened a drawer, and Hethon whirled and saw a case of metal, long and thin, one of the wand-cases that [Mages] used, in the girl’s hands. Nanette held it up, and Hethon exclaimed.

“She did take it! She lied to me! There’s no way she forgot—I saw that in Ryoka’s room last! And the case is new.”

“The case is new? Hmm. Let’s just make sure it’s the right one.”

Nanette critically but eagerly inspected the case, found a fastener, and flicked it open. Then, without waiting for Hethon’s opinion, she lifted the lid—and Hethon felt the air change.

The cold, dry air of winter wasn’t something you normally noticed. The chill that permeated even the heated inn, the harsher light—all these things were a background to life.

Right up until the moment when Hethon Veltras smelled soil and remembered what warmth felt like. It was a crawling energy, a seeping power that emanated from the open case and into the air. Hethon felt like he heard the rustling of leaves, and for a moment, the sunlight slanting through a window ceased to be the pale rays of winter, but was instead the warmth of spring.

That—was new. He looked down, and in the box was a wand.

It was made of ironwood, strong and nigh-unbreakable. That, at least, was unchanged, but when Nanette held a hand over the wand, she jerked her fingers back, and Hethon felt it too.

All that potential, all that energy of spring, of nature itself, came from the wand. Hethon’s hand slowly reached for it, and he felt the whispering again. In his mind, in the wood of the inn.

 

Yes. Bring it to us. A seed.

Hope. Honor your vows, Son of House Veltras.

One last forest. One last dream.

 

And here he’d thought that all the adventures would end with Ryoka and his father gone. Hethon Veltras picked up the wand, and a sigh ran through the inn.

 

Now bring it to us.

 

A way opened, but not a door. Rather, it felt like that forest that Hethon kept seeing—above the High Passes, whenever he wasn’t thinking. During the evening, in the day, he would see mists part in the distance and then it would appear.

A great forest, looming always in the background…appeared in the window that showed the snowy Floodplains. Hethon looked up and saw those massive trees waiting, miles away. Only, this time, he could see how to get to them.

Nanette shaded her eyes, frowning.

“Is that…a forest? I sense life magic coming from the wand.”

“You don’t see it?”

Hethon’s voice was dreamy. He held the wand up, then blinked. A path was waiting for him. It went out of Lyonette’s window, across the ground, a dirt path, crusted by ice, but warming, turning lush with greenery sprouting across it. Nanette stared at Hethon, then narrowed her eyes.

“I can see…something.”

“Follow me.”

The voices were calling Hethon. Dreamily, he held the wand tight and began to follow them. Once more, Nanette hesitated, then grabbed his hand. She cast a glance over her shoulder, but Hethon’s heart was pounding.

An adventure. A promise. If Ryoka can’t do it, this will help her, right?

He had one foot out the window, feeling as if he were stepping not onto the roof but somewhere else, when Hethon heard a sound. A door flew open, and a voice snapped.

“Hethon? Nanette!? Stop!

—And a hand grabbed him and pulled Hethon back. He fell with a cry, and someone snatched the wand from his grasp.

Lyonette du Marquin yanked the wand out of Hethon’s grip and put it back in the metal case. She snapped the lid—then turned a look of anger and shock on the boy and girl.

“How did you find it? Ushar! Dalimont! To me!

The two [Knights] were in the room in seconds, shoving aside House Veltras’ guards, who had noticed Hethon was gone. Lyonette had been there in a flash; she must have sensed the wand’s theft somehow.

“Wait, no. The wand—”

Hethon reached for it, but Lyonette backed away. She was narrowing her eyes, as if she couldn’t see the vanishing forest and path. She looked at Hethon, breathing hard.

“That is not yours. I don’t care what Ryoka Griffin’s gotten you into this time—no more mysteries. No more chasing after mysterious—”

“Lord Hethon!”

Jericha raised her voice, and Lyonette turned. His minder had her wand drawn, and she was giving Ser Dalimont, blocking her way, a dangerous look.

“Let her pass, Dalimont. Hethon is safe, Miss Jericha. This is all a—an accident that shall not be repeated.”

Lyonette gave Hethon a warning glance, and he hesitated, looking from Jericha to the wand’s case. Nanette did not heed the warning.

“Lyonette! Why are you hiding that? Did you feel the magic? Those were the people who rescued all of us from the mansion. If Hethon and I go to see—”

Absolutely not! No adventures! No risking your lives! Above all—no more strangers and mysterious artifacts!

Lyonette’s bark took both children aback. She was breathing hard, her eyes too bright. Too worried. She held the wand in the case and glared at Hethon so intensely Jericha moved to shield him from it. The [Princess] looked at Nanette, then at Sammial and Mrsha, who had come running to see what the shouting was about.

“No more…everyone out of my room. This is my inn, and we will discuss this—later.”

She snapped, and the guards of House Veltras, Nanette, Hethon, and Jericha were all ejected speedily by the Thronebeaerrs, despite their objections and questions. Hethon was left outside with Jericha and Sammial demanding to know why he’d been in Lyonette’s room, and Nanette fuming and hand-signing to Mrsha, who looked incredulous.

This wasn’t over. For the first time, Hethon was not inclined to listen to an adult’s words. Those strangers had saved his life. The wand was connected to them and Ryoka, and this was his responsibility. His…power. He strode off, and Nanette followed him with Mrsha and Sammial bringing up the rear.

 

——

 

In her room, Lyonette scowled until the two Thronebearers had closed the door behind the children. Then she addressed Ushar.

“They’ll be after the wand. I don’t know how they found it. Stymie them, and I’ll think on the matter—later.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Ushar strode off, but Dalimont gave Lyonette a troubled look. She ignored it, and he bowed and closed the door after Ushar. She stood there, in the room, staring at the wand in the case.

It hadn’t used to do that. Hethon had woken something up or, probably, Ryoka had. What had Hethon said? Some strangers had called him here? Told him the wand was in Lyonette’s room, and now they wanted him to bring it to them?

Even [Princesses] knew better than to visit strangers and do their bidding. Dead gods, the boy was the kind of poor [Prince] who would kiss dead-looking women to wake them up. Or frogs to turn them into royalty.

It wasn’t all his fault. Even as Lyonette held the wand, she felt a hint of that power of earth. A breeze swept through the inn, and she guessed whatever had woken up was gaining power—or desperate.

The road was open behind her. A road leading to a great forest. Silhouetted against the shadows of vast conifers were figures beckoning under a bright, spring day.

Lyonette shivered as she turned her head—then she saw hands reaching from the wooden walls of the inn. Inside The Wandering Inn, no less! They were gnarled and root-like, grasping, reaching for the wand.

“Begone.”

The [Princess] whispered, warningly at first, but the hands stretched across the room. A sense of menace filled the air, desperate or malicious, she couldn’t have said. The wand mattered more than…

Lyonette drew her sword. That did not stop the beckoning figures, nor the hands. But the young woman’s first swing of the sword did cleave the longest hand of wood in twain. The hands hesitated, and Lyonette stepped sideways and cleaved another in half. Then she faced down the figures in that distant forest.

A silver-green glow ran down the length of her blade. [Silverglow Enchantment]. The magic to kill ghosts was on her sword, and the [Princess] lifted the blade and set herself, securing the wand in her bag of holding.

I said—begone.

Her voice was warning. Her eyes? Cold. The sword’s tip didn’t waver; it was unlike her spar with Dalimont in the morning. Within Lyonette’s arms was a cold grace. Deadly intent. She saw the hands reach out suddenly—she parried two, severed another, and speared the third in a moment.

Fast. Precise. Her arms were fire. Her heart a kind of subdued rage. The hands hesitated, and then they saw Lyonette.

She was using a Skill. Not [Flawless Attempt]. Something more dangerous still. In Lyonette’s eyes was the calm certainty of a mother who would murder to get her child back. In her heart? Rage.

The same fury she’d felt when Mrsha was taken, and the will to bring her back, even if it meant facing down the Raskghar and Nokha herself with sword in hand. She was a Level 30 [Princess of the Inn]. Her new Skill?

[Remember: My Defining Moment].

Memory. This inn was memory and flame. The [Princess] had inherited a bit of that power with her class consolidation. She faced down the intruders and whispered louder.

“I will commit this wand to the flames if you try to take it from me. Until I am satisfied as to your intent—until they are my terms—begone. I am warning you.”

Not yet. Not this. Her heart was pounding despite the Skill coursing through her. But the bluff worked. The figures retreated, and the hands began to vanish, save for the ones she’d cut.

Lyonette exhaled as the hands retreated. Only then did she sheathe her sword and fish the wand case out, grim.

I’d better hide this in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. In a lockbox.

She’d have to have words with young Hethon Veltras. And Nanette. The girl was too—wild for her own good. Lyonette would have thought she’d understand how dangerous it was to pursue such things.

Not yet.

“Not yet…please?”

Lyonette rested her arm on the wall. She sagged, then she gathered herself and went to chat with her mother.

 

——

 

There was only one person Niers meant when he said ‘your parents’. At least, when it came to the realm Lyonette needed to excel at there was only one.

They called him the King of Diplomacy. You were always the ‘King of This’ or the ‘Something King’. King Reclis du Marquin of Calanfer was well-known as a savvy expert in all things political. He had a reputation.

His Queen, Ielane du Marquin, did not. She was called the ‘Queen of Radiance’, a generic term for most [Queens] of Calanfer. She had married into the family and, like many [Queens] who were married to their more-famous counterparts, was sometimes overshadowed by King Reclis’ reputation. At court, she was charming, but often left the speaking to King Reclis, and her reputation was…generic. Ielane was cast as a softhearted mother concerned with the affairs of the realm as it pertained to commonfolk, her royal family, and affairs of court.

You could just imagine her fussing about a reception for guests, and she did do all that. But if Lyonette had to name which of the two did more for Calanfer, she’d call it a draw at best.

King Reclis made pacts that sealed the fate of nations. Queen Ielane had servants who served the emissaries and rulers of nations and reported in. King Reclis spoke to his [Ambassadors] and [Diplomats] and [Couriers]. Queen Ielane spoke to [Spies] and [Servants] and Thronebearers.

King Reclis had always been a somewhat absent father given his duties, and Lyonette remembered being exasperated at his long-winded pontifications about the theory of rulership or his endless discussions about other nations’ courts or internal affairs.

Did she love him? She would have said, honestly, she would have liked to get to know him more, but definitely, for the average value of love every family had. Then Lyonette would have wondered why everyone gave her a strange look.

Lyonette feared her mother. That fear hadn’t been there as a girl. But it seemed like every moment she’d noticed or realized more of what her mother did, Lyonette found more reasons to be wary of her. Lyonette’s hand didn’t tremble when she accepted the speaking stone from Dame Ushar, but it took some effort.

It was a secure connection to Calanfer, one of the old speaking stones worth a hundred times its weight in gold because no one could just break into it. Of course Ushar had one. She was the Crown’s servant as well as Vernoue’s bodyguard. That meant she reported to King Reclis—but it really meant she was Queen Ielane’s.

“Um. Hello? Mother? I’ve missed you.”

For a second, she heard nothing from the other side. Then, as if they’d just seen each other last week, a voice replied. Briskly, inflectionless, and each word enunciated perfectly.

If Niers Astoragon came across as impatient, rude, and dangerous, like a prowling wolf with a mind like a razor, Ielane du Marquin was the razor itself. She had borne Lyonette, 6th Princess of Calanfer. You’d never guess it from her tone.

“Lyonette. Is that your first address to me in over a year’s time? If it were calculated, it was banal. If it were ill-thought out—Ushar has spoken more highly of your incisiveness than was warranted.”

For a second, Lyonette felt like the [World’s Eye Theatre] had actually teleported her, only back in time as well as through space. Suddenly, she was standing in front of the straight-backed chair where Ielane sat in her rooms, watching as her mother smoked on a long puffer-stick and wrote or signed documents as [Servants] circulated around her.

A face that could be beaming in gratitude or filled with genuine sadness when she was in public would be flat—those summer-blue eyes now grey with shards of electric yellow when she removed the illusion spell. Even then, her posture would be perfect, and Lyonette…

She was sitting down, but her back straightened, and her knees were shaking until she steadied them. Dame Ushar stood back, listening, hands clasped behind her back. Ser Dalimont had retreated two dozen paces.

I have to convince her. I can do this. I’m not who I used to be. Lyonette took a breath, and she had that same sensation she’d had with the Titan, of her brain being too slow and stupid. Being aware she had to think rather than thoughtlessly reply. Strange. Ielane had told her that hundreds of times in all their lectures about Lyonette’s conduct. For the first time—Lyonette understood what it meant and tried.

“It was genuine, Mother. I have an appreciation for honesty after being away from home for so long. You are as blunt as a mace, sometimes, but I did mean what I said. Until now.”

What are you doing? Lyonette tried, but the snappy retort came out like a crossbow bolt firing. She couldn’t help it. It had always been like that.

Unfortunately—speaking to Ielane was hard. Why? Because she never paused. That brief pause where someone considered their words? Lyonette’s mother didn’t need it, and it could leave you constantly off-balance, like someone being punched in the face repeatedly and trying to keep up.

“I operate from a position of authority and hope my offspring listen and learn from frank commentary. Cease the greetings and old antagonisms; I haven’t the time. A diplomat from Erribathe is due to approach the Eternal Throne within the hour, and the meeting is far more strained; I needn’t remind you of why? Explain why Ushar will not be escorting you back to Calanfer tomorrow. Now.”

Lyonette did pause before she responded. She swallowed, then kept her voice pleasant as possible.

“Why, Mother, because it would be a waste of Ushar’s time and the trust we have built up. She is incapable of doing so even with Ser Dalimont’s help. And that you have let me stay without pressing the issue proves you know I am more valuable here than I ever was back home.”

Ielane exhaled softly, and Lyonette imagined a plume of grey smoke.

“False. The issues of sea travel and war prevented guaranteeing a safe return. I do not gamble with my family’s lives. If you trust Ushar, her testimony that you have improved in every conceivable way comes into doubt. Try again. We both know you desire something; why should I hear out a girl who has cost the life of a brave [Knight], maimed another, stolen artifacts from the treasury, and is now demanding Calanfer’s assistance?”

If Lyonette said ‘because we’re family’, Ielane would hang up instantly. The [Princess] exhaled and was suddenly slightly relieved. She’d feared she’d be overwhelmed with emotion, like guilt, after speaking to her family. But Ielane was amazing at disabusing Lyonette of the notion. Was this how Mrsha felt about her blood-parents?

“Mother. A [Princess] of Calanfer is always an asset no matter where she is placed. You know this or you would never have committed any Thronebearers to rescuing me.”

“I sent four at your father’s request.”

Ielane’s tone was flat. Lyonette hesitated, but her mind spoke faster than her duplicitous heart, which had wavered.

“Ah, you say that. But four was the right number, wasn’t it, Mother? Father would have sent an entire group and tried to negotiate his way. Four [Knights] makes more sense. They couldn’t have been too-high level. But they were competent. Well, largely. But for my situation and my unwillingness to go, I probably would be back home by now.”

She almost believed it, intellectually, but she wasn’t sure. Then Lyonette saw Dame Ushar’s lips twitch, and she heard the slightest pause from Ielane’s side.

“A year of privation seems to have engaged your mind, at least. Vensha. Push makeup twenty.”

There was a mutter Lyonette didn’t catch. Dead gods, was Dame Vensha still alive? If Ielane had sent that monster, Lyonette would have been sent back in a box the moment Vensha saw her. But the Queen of Radiance continued her offensive.

“If you are not returning, your value to Calanfer becomes negative; your body double must fend off suits for your hand, which have, gratifyingly, increased of late. You have passed eighteen years of age; any value in levels increasingly becomes stale when offset by your overripeness.”

Oh dead gods, here it came. Lyonette hesitated, then decided to use her best weapon. [Flawless Attempt]!

“M—”

“[Perfection is Overrated]. A moderately valuable Skill. Marriage exceeds its value ten thousandfold. Go on.”

Dead gods! Lyonette felt someone snip her Skill in half and actually reeled a second. She knew her mother had Skills like that, but—could she actually have countered something like [Perfect Strike]? What a terrifying…Lyonette scrambled for a retort. Buy time, at least to stop her lungs trying to exit her throat.

“Maturity deepens any flower, Mother.”

“Izrilian metaphor. Prosaic, basic. You are no flower; you are a fruit already past succulent. Though I will own your temperament led you more to juvenile before your departure. Regardless, few [Princes] look for experience when youthful innocence will do. Innocence is to be enjoyed; you are now a sobering reminder of eternal second-placement. To an Antinium, no less. You do seem to enjoy making my life difficult, Lyonette. Your value is now negative, pending any argument you may have to the contrary.”

Queen Ielane du Marquin stomped on Lyonette’s stomach, then sat on her chest and began punching her—metaphorically, of course. Lyonette’s face was crimson.

She knew. Lyonette had wondered if—once more, her mind took over.

“Please, Mother. You could marry a Selphid into Gaiil-Drome. You married Aielef, didn’t you? A Level 30 [Princess] is worth far more than a spoiled brat who runs away from her home. But you’re not even interested in that, are you? ‘My value is negative while I’m outside of Calanfer’? Please. A [Princess] is an asset, and I have access to multiple Walled Cities and the Five Families. Do you not recall House Veltras interceding in the Dawn Concordat’s war? Or my help with the Dawn Concordat war?”

She was drawing on the times she’d helped Calanfer indirectly, both in Oteslia at the dance with Ilvriss and the fact that Tyrion had gone to war for Calanfer. Unfortunately—

“House Veltras entered the war over a Courier. Drakes paid lip service to our efforts, no more. A [Princess] is an asset if she can be trusted. Final chance. Your own self-interest and levels do not concern me. Why am I entertaining this call?”

Lyonette held her breath a second and, for a moment, thought of what she’d say to Mrsha. ‘No’, if it was a silly request, or she’d be concerned if Mrsha was doing something reckless, or—

This was just a negotiation. Lyonette squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them and stopped feeling, because you couldn’t feel in a cutthroat battle like this. Her pulse cooled, and she spoke softly.

“Because, Mother, you have no idea what’s going on in the world. You don’t know why The Wandering Inn or a mere [Innkeeper] are so important or why it’s all changing so fast, do you? Calanfer talks to everyone. You have your agents in every court, but you know what? You and Father never really did introduce me to any commoners growing up except for them to wave as I rode past or for charming moments for the public to adore. Well—now the commonfolk are all that matter. Izril matters, and if you pull me back to Calanfer to continue playing games, you can kiss all of Calanfer’s ventures in Izril goodbye, and you’ll be left behind with every other nation. You can’t even beat Ailendamus, and you think you should withdraw in like a Rock Crab hiding in its shell?”

She snapped the last words into the speaking stone and was tempted to hang up there and then. But she waited.

One heartbeat. Two…then a rustling sound of paper.

“So that’s what a Rock Crab looks like. I am aware of ‘Earth’, Lyonette. Dame Ushar reports everything, and even without your cooperation, she and the other Thronebearers are superior informants.”

Ushar flinched as Lyonette’s head turned, but Ielane continued, and the first note of…anything entered her voice. Grudgingness, Lyonette thought.

“The Restful Three each have these ‘Earthers’. I would have been aware of the issue purely from their conduct and the Umbral Throne incident.”

“Dead gods. Was there actually—

“Do not interrupt. You are correct in your assessment of the opportunity, even if your own assessment of your capabilities is doubtful. The argument hinged upon my ignorance and Calanfer’s weakness; I would have expanded more upon your rapid gain of levels. That would have been the superior persuasive argument, as well as your insight into Antinium culture.”

Wait. Ielane’s voice was cold as ever, but Lyonette inhaled. Did that mean—?

“You are currently the 3rd-highest-level [Princess], including your brothers’ marriages. Your rate of level acquisition is the most astonishing thing about your escape, Lyonette. Do not misunderstand me; you have a debt to pay, your lost virginity aside, and if you are prepared to make requests of me as an adult, I will treat you as such.”

“I…I need your help, Mother. My daughters are in danger. I have two and—”

Daughters.

The first note of scorn entered Ielane’s tone. Lyonette opened her mouth, and her mother spoke over her.

“I know about the Gnoll girl. From what Ushar said, you do seem to think of yourself as one. You bore neither girl. You have raised one, generously, one and a half years.”

Don’t you dare claim I—

“When you’ve bled ten times over for them and watched them hurt themselves and patched everything up, you may call yourself their mother. Like everything else, I consider it probationary. I am running out of time. To business.”

For one second, Lyonette had heard an actual emotion besides scorn and impatience out of Ielane, but it vanished so fast Lyonette couldn’t chase it. The [Queen] spoke as Dame Ushar handed Lyonette something with a smile and a thumbs-up. Was Lyonette winning? It didn’t feel like it, but Ielane was growing brisk again.

“Ushar collected this from the Mage’s Guild. Your ‘contact’ in Baleros is a dangerous man. I’m relieved that a war with another, former Great Company and the Dyed Lands are keeping him occupied. With that said, I read the Titan of Baleros’ notes on how to conduct diplomacy and run a household. It was refreshingly direct. A [Soldier]’s point of view with all the bones in place and no nuance. Like a [Tailor] gone colorblind.”

Lyonette blinked down at a sheaf of bound papers. It must have been copied by a [Scribe]. The title read:

 

Intrigue, Integrity, and Ingenuity in Terandrian Staffing, an 8-year Guide and Reflections, by Niers Astoragon.

 

Ielane kept going as Lyonette noted that there were over two hundred pages, big ones, bound together. That poor [Scribe]’s hands.

“Put together a staff of thirty. Budget. Have it prepared by the end of the week—I expect you to put together a proper ensemble and attire, even if you must keep up a charade as an [Innkeeper]. Clothe those children you have elected to raise in something resembling fetching. There are four events in Invrisil, Liscor, and Pallass alone this week; attend two of them or a sufficient gathering anywhere else and comport yourself decently. Do this before I approve anything you submit to Ushar.”

“But I came to you for adv—”

“I expect you to submit their biographies, which I will cross-reference against Ushar’s opinion. All your sisters learned by doing, and largely succeeded, even if Seraphel refused to have any after her second marriage. Ushar is now equipped with a series of references. If you insist on hiring Goblins or Antinium, ensure they only occupy two-thirds of your staff, and their training will take additional discretion.”

Ielane paused, and Lyonette’s mind was racing. If she had help with vetting people for her staff…Peggy did a good job already with Rosencrantz. But Lyonette would need people who could best [Spies]. Wait, start with more guards for the kids. How had the palace staff actually been run?

She’d have to ask Ushar, and the Thronebearer gave a nod that made Lyonette feel more confident. Wait. Would she have withheld the knowledge if Ielane hadn’t approved of Lyonette or helped her anyways?

Was this a trial to pass? Or was this a test of Lyonette’s abilities? Lyonette heard Ielane ashing the puffer-stick and finishing her instructions.

“Finally, the fate of the Silvaria lands is troubling the Dawn Concordat. Pheislant greatly desires expansion, Taimaguros a harbor. Everyone else wants pieces, but those are the largest claimants. You had some sway in Oteslia’s politics. The Drake opinion is largely irrelevant of course, but it might matter. The Five Families significantly more so. Contribute any meaningful resolution to that singular issue and I will approve any aid you desire. Your rewards will be based on merit rather than my affection for you this time, Lyonette. Remember that, and try not to run away twice.”

Ielane paused a second, waiting, and Lyonette found her voice one last time.

“—What affection?”

There was the faintest sound which might have been a not-a-laugh, more like a grunt, and then true silence. Dame Ushar took the stone, and Lyonette stood there; she realized she was standing. Slowly, she collapsed into a chair, and Dalimont got her that wine after all.

Lyonette felt like she’d gone three rounds with a Mothbear.

 

——

 

It took Lyonette twenty minutes to recover from the conversation. When she got back into the inn, she was relieved to know the world was still there.

The inn…made her feel better than her mother’s smoke-filled parlor, that sharp razor’s edge of her mind and will dividing up the world in Calanfer’s name. The world felt greyer around Ielane du Marquin.

But when Lyonette looked around the inn, she remembered what she was doing this all for. Friends. Family. An annoying Vampire girl pestering Calescent…

Lyonette focused on Fierre. Her daughters were done cleaning and putting on their boots and apparel, but Fierre was arguing with Calescent about something he was hiding behind his back.

“Listen, Calescent, I’m a paying customer here. You have to get rid of it.”

“No.”

I’m a guest. You can’t put it in a jar—it’s keeping me up at night.”

“Is vital.”

Fierre grabbed for it, but Calescent opened the jar and wafted it at her, and she recoiled. Then began sneezing.

See? I can’t—kechew—you can’t have it here! Lyonette, Calescent has an ingredient that’s making me sick, and he won’t get rid of it!”

“Calescent, really?”

Lyonette was appalled. She hurried over, and the Hobgoblin tried to hide what was so objectionable behind his back.

“Can’t get rid of it. Must have it. Shoo—”

He waved it at Fierre, and Lyonette saw the girl’s eyes were red and streaming—despite the clothespin on her nose!

“I can smell it even if you shut the jar in a cupboard!”

“If it’s so bad, Calescent…”

The Hobgoblin [Chef] glared at Fierre as he showed Lyonette what was inside. He gave her a long, grave look.

“Can’t get rid of. Is too tasty. Necessary in spices.”

Lyonette looked down and blinked at a bunch of…garlic. She glanced at Fierre, and the Vampire tried to look innocent.

“I’m just—allergic to it! Everyone’s allergic to something. You’ll have other people complaining, you know.”

“I’ve never had a complaint. Even from your father, Fierre.”

Lyonette spoke slowly. She knew Fierre was a…well, she knew something. That was the problem with not being Erin or Ryoka. They loved their secrets, but Lyonette wasn’t blind. She’d helped cover the val Lischelle-Drakle family up. But what a Vampire was? Why garlic?

If only one of the Earthers were here, Lyonette would be able to ask. But they were all gone.

They were all gone. Lyonette realized it suddenly. Every Earther, including Erin, had left or quit the inn. It made her feel oddly vulnerable, and not just because she had no idea what garlic had to do with Vampires. But Fierre just crossed her arms, looking oddly happy for all her horrible allergies.

“Yeah, well, it never used to bother me this much, but it’s really bad. I can smell it even if it’s in the kitchen, downstairs, in an airtight jar in a cupboard!”

“Too bad.”

Calescent wasn’t about to get rid of one of his spices. Lyonette sighed loudly as Mrsha pointedly tapped a boot on the floor.

“I have a solution. Calescent, store it in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He’ll cook with it, Fierre.”

“I can still smell it, then!”

“Well—we’ll let you eat in a private dining area, or deliver to your office if you can still smell it, but we can’t just ban it! That would probably stand out.

Fierre hesitated, then uncrossed her arms and gave Calescent a glare.

“I guess. But you’d better keep it in there and clean up with [Cleanse] spells each time you use it. Or I’ll let you know.”

The normally-affable [Chef] rolled his eyes.

“Yah, yah. I do this. And I put more in my death-spice.”

He patted his bag of dangerous spices he liked to toss in his enemies’ eyes. Fierre shuddered, and Lyonette smiled at her [Chef]. She decided even her mother would approve of someone who could intimidate Vampires.

Calescent grumpily put his jar of cloves in the [Garden of Sanctuary], and Lyonette assured Mrsha and Nanette that they’d go out to have fun. She turned to Ser Dalimont.

“Is Numbtongue around? We might as well invite him.”

“I believe he may be with Miss Octavia at the moment, Lyonette.”

“Ah. Personally or…”

“Or Miss Salkis. Or Runner Garia. I have not checked.”

“No, no. If I haven’t seen him—”

For a moment, Lyonette heaved a huge, hefty sigh and remembered that Bird should be returning soon. She would like that. Everyone had changed since the Solstice. She had seen Numbtongue less and less. Badarrow had gone to the battle at sea, not him.

That was a change. At any rate, Lyonette was about to put on another layer when she remembered her promise.

“Alright, inspection time. Let’s see if Mrsha’s earned a treat.”

The Gnoll girl and Nanette were not afraid of Lyonette’s scrutiny. They had hidden everything they considered valuable, made their beds, arranged their shoes, and folded their clothing—Lyonette reflected that soon she’d have to talk Mrsha into more than the sets of kilts in her drawer, but they really were good girls.

She dithered, thinking of her own mother, when she got to the [Garden of Sanctuary] and poked around for a few moments before coming out with a sigh. But she had made Mrsha a deal.

“Looks like no snacks for you two.”

Mrsha!

Nanette shoved the girl, and Mrsha’s mouth fell open.

I missed something? What? No way!

Her guilty look made it clear she didn’t know what she’d missed, but it definitely wasn’t out of the question. Lyonette pointed, trying to be stern. She’d probably buy something from a store anyways. They’d go into the city, have a nice…something, and then she’d get to work.

Maybe she could recruit Ressga back from Magnolia’s mansion? Did Antinium have anyone…no, she couldn’t have just Antinium. She needed subtlety. Expertise.

Lyonette’s vision rose to the room where one of her guests, Tessa, was resting. Another problem. At least she’d begun eating again, but she said worrying things. Someone who could stop Tessa if she went wild might be a good step. Or just trying to talk to the Drake again.

So much to do, so little coin. Yelroan would be needed for a serious conversation about funding for all this, even if Ielane gave Lyonette help. But that was fine; Lyonette liked Yelroan and trusted him.

No bad people. It’ll be under my control, so I won’t hire another Maran and Safry. Lyonette squared her shoulders. She should also send another [Message] to Pryde, and she wondered how Ilvriss was doing. Maybe someone would come back and report.

This was Lyonette du Marquin’s new world without Erin. Smaller stakes, perhaps, or at least less high-level craziness, but she was sure it would have its own fair share of difficulties. But at least it wouldn’t be life-or-death drama for a while.

Mrsha stomped over, grumbling, and looked into the garden for her missing toy. She queried Lyonette.

What stupid, damn thing did I lose?

Lyonette gave her a look with Ielane’s cold wrath.

“Watch your paws, young lady. It’s right there. I nearly stubbed my toe on it. Put your toybox away, and we’ll go out.”

She turned and missed the faint look of puzzlement on Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll girl stomped into the garden and, after a few seconds, came back. She poked Lyonette in the side and signed up to her.

Aha! It’s not mine! You owe me a snack!

A triumphant look was plastered all over the girl’s face. Lyonette blinked, then peered into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“It’s not? Oh, I’m sorry, Mrsha. Then who left it—Nanette?”

The witch girl looked up from kicking her feet on a chair. She stood up, and Lyonette pointed into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“Nanette? Did you get something from a City Runner? Or did Numbtongue?”

“What box? Mrsha and I did actually clean up after ourselves, Lyonette.”

Nanette strode into the garden, and Lyonette pointed with Mrsha.

“It’s the, er—well, it’s just that box made out of wood. I thought Mrsha made it for a toy or something. It’s right—wait. Where did it go?”

Lyonette had been pointing to an object sitting in the grass just inside the garden, half-buried, really, but when she looked back, she only saw a divot of ground. Mrsha blinked, and Lyonette turned to Ser Dalimont, assuming he’d picked it up. But the [Knight] just hesitated—and Nanette frowned.

What box? I haven’t seen it.”

“You haven’t? I’ve seen it all over the place. Mrsha’s left it in my room, in your room, even in the hallway. I keep putting it back.”

It had been one of the few things Lyonette hadn’t begrudged since she’d felt so lazy with all the staff. But Mrsha just gave Lyonette an increasingly blank look. She broke out her quill because this part was more complex.

Mother, while I do not doubt the veracity of your claim, having seen this box with mine own two peepers just now, I must inform you that this box was not and has never been mine. I have good taste, and that piece of wood isn’t even painted. Nor have I ever personally witnessed this box in my room.

“What? Then who—Peggy? Have you been moving a box around?”

The Hobgoblin had been coming downstairs after doing all the rooms on the 3rd Floor. She strode over.

“Yep, Chieftain Lyonette?”

“Don’t call me that, Peggy. I have to talk with you about staffing soon. Er—there’s this wooden box. It’s yay-big.”

Lyonette gestured, making a box around a foot-by-foot, describing it.

“Solid wood, I think. Just pieces connected together with glue or something. I thought it was Mrsha’s, but she says she’s never seen it. Have you seen it?”

Peggy scratched her head.

“Uh…I think so. This that box that—hey! Inkpaper! Get your chach ass out here!”

She shouted a Goblin word, and a Hobgoblin came running, guiltily hiding a book behind his back.

“What? I’m on break.”

“No. Remember that box? Where you put it?”

It turned out the staff had seen the box, at least some of them. Peggy turned to Lyonette.

“I’ve seen the box. Was in, uh…the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Can’t remember where. Inkpaper had it.”

“Oh, is it his?”

“No…he was using as footrest in rec room. Is it there?”

Inkpaper shook his head. Rosencrantz raised a hand.

“I do recall this box. I was checking on Bird’s tower per his request as Bird is now rebuilding his body and will be back soon. I found the box on the roof.”

“On the roof? Is someone playing a joke?”

Now, Lyonette was getting annoyed, but another Goblin lifted her hand.

“Is no joke. Is good box. Strong.”

“…How do you know?”

The Cave Goblin fidgeted. Peggy listened as the Goblin whispered in one ear.

“She say she put it in fireplace because she think is useless box. Is empty. It don’t burn, so she go to ask someone if maybe it Demsleth’s or Valeterisa’s box.”

Everyone knew they were magical. Lyonette stared as Nanette’s bored expression suddenly grew sharp. Peggy frowned.

“Then she come back, and it gone. Oh! I know where I found it! In the garden on the hill.”

Suddenly, Lyonette’s back began to crawl.

“On the hill? You mean the hill? With the mist and statues? Where?”

Peggy smiled at Lyonette.

“On top of Erin’s, uh, death-bed thing. Found it last month. Then I found it in the mouth of that big Dragon. Xarkouth. Then in the middle of all the Antinium standing in circle. I thought someone playing a game.”

Now, Lyonette’s heart was beating faster. She looked around and remembered where she’d seen it.

In her room, on her desk. On her bed. In the hallway as she opened the door. Even once in Erin’s room next to her chessboard.

She’d just assumed Mrsha was leaving it around, but why would Mrsha be playing in Erin’s room? It was as if Lyonette had kept walking past it—and it had been following her around.

“Did—did you say it was empty?”

Lyonette addressed the Cave Goblin, whose name was Asgra. The Cave Goblin nodded, but the rest of the staff and even the people listening in were catching on.

“I’ve…seen the box too. I’ve found it under the bar, and Calescent’s found it in the kitchen. Calescent?”

Ishkr appeared, and the Hobgoblin seemed embarrassed.

“Yah. Kept finding it. So got mad and threw it out window. Very far, into snow. Didn’t see box after that.”

And yet the box was back. Now, Lyonette knew. She knew, but she didn’t want to admit it. She took a step back, smiling.

“How about this? If anyone sees the box, um, hold onto it for me. Mrsha and Nanette and I are going out.”

She turned and saw the two girls staring at her, arms folded, expressions identical.

Like heck we are.

They knew. Ishkr knew, and he was already peering around. The Goblins were whispering to each other, and the Antinium…were heading over to the weapon stashes. Lyonette’s heart was pounding.

I knew it. I knew she levelled up, but after the first day, I thought her new Skills didn’t affect the inn. Wh—what is it? It’s just—it must be a minor Skill or something. It’s just—

She turned, and Peggy blinked.

“Oh. Look. The box.”

Lyonette whirled, saw the box sitting on a table behind her, and screamed. She grabbed at her sword—then saw everyone staring at her and felt foolish. Then she stared at the box that had not been there a second ago.

“I am very scared. I believe Miss Lyonette’s scream was warranted, but I missed my timing.”

Rosencrantz announced. Peggy breathed.

“The box is moving. Is it alive?”

That was not the question you should ask! It was a Goblin question that cut to the heart of possible danger scenarios, but—Mrsha reached for the box, and Nanette, Ishkr, and Lyonette instantly grabbed her.

“Erin’s. Stay away from it.”

Mrsha tensed, glaring at Lyonette—then she hesitated. Her arm reaching out for the box drew back a second, and the guests, the staff, all gazed at the box.

The [Immortal Moments]. The [Garden of Sanctuary]. [Like Fire, Memory]. The [World’s Eye Theatre]. Each one of Erin’s…unique Skills had always been magical and powerful. Wonderful, but as Lyonette had once said—everything in Erin’s inn either made you laugh with joy or cry uncontrollably.

No. Everything in Erin’s inn did both. And this—

“Is this her Level 50 Skill? Can’t be.”

Peggy knew what level Erin should be, and Nanette’s eyes were fixed on the box, unblinking.

“If it is…she has no way to access it from where she is. If it is her Level 50 Skill—it is the most powerful thing she has. Bar nothing. Her [World’s Eye Theatre], her [Garden of Sanctuary], are all lower-level Skills. Your Level 50 capstone is the most powerful Skill that defines you. I think Saliss’ is [Disable Friendly Fire].”

Psh. Doesn’t sound great.

Mrsha wrote nervously. Nanette turned and gave her a look only a [Witch] could give.

“His power disables causality. He could destroy the entire continent, and everyone he likes, including himself, would survive until the Skill wore off. What do you think Erin’s does?”

Everyone stared at the box. No one moved to touch it. Mrsha and Nanette and the staff slowly turned to Lyonette, and the [Princess] was breathing fast.

“No one—I’ll try to get in contact with Erin. Niers can get me to her, especially if I tell him—maybe not tell him. Ushar. Tell my mother before I know what this is and I’ll have Peggy drown you in the outhouse, understand?”

Ushar jumped, and Ishkr murmured in Lyonette’s ear.

“We could investigate, Lyonette. The moment we tell Niers, even with Erin’s theater, it’s out. This is her special Skill. If we carefully—”

No!

He recoiled, and Lyonette turned. She met everyone’s eyes, panting now. More than when she’d been talking to her mother.

“The inn isn’t ready! We’re not ready.”

“Oh come on, Lyonette. The inn’s still intact. How bad could it be?”

Fierre said that—from behind Calescent. Lyonette just stared at the Vampire until the young woman fidgeted.

“Intact? Is that what you see?”

The [Princess] slowly gazed around at the inn, at all the faces of the people who were here—and thought of the people who weren’t here. Kevin. Gone. Erin. Another continent away. She said it, what she hadn’t wanted to say out loud, but what she knew to be true.

“We’re still rebuilding from the ashes. I don’t know if we can do it properly this time. We’re all smashed to bits still, the city, us—I love all of you, and I trust you all. But I don’t want to do it. Not yet. We have to—”

She stumbled, almost fell over, and Ser Dalimont caught her. Lyonette had to sit down, and the people gathered around her. Mrsha ran over to pat Lyonette’s hand. The [Princess]’ face was pale, and at that moment—the door opened, and someone walked in.

“I’m back!

Lyonette would have actually stabbed the boy from Vaunt if he’d come back in with a piece of cheese. If it were Saliss—she would have thrown the box at him. But it was gone, and the person who stood in the doorway had thrown up her arms with a smile.

But not really a smile. She’d come back, trying to be the friendly, upbeat person she thought they all remembered. And yet…

Rose Cinevoy, the last Earther of Magnolia Reinhart’s group, had on a Gnollish-style hat and clothing lined with fur. She looked, like so many, a bit older, and she lowered her hand shyly and brushed her snowy cap.

“Uh—sorry. I thought I sent a [Message] I was coming.”

Of all the things—it made Lyonette stare, then start laughing in relief. Mrsha hesitated, and Nanette poked her to whisper and ask ‘who is that’? Rose stared at Nanette, at the Goblins and Antinium, and around at the inn.

“I got lost on the way to—Liscor’s so different. And I can find somewhere else if I’m a bother, but I—”

She got no further. Mrsha bounded over and gave her a solid hug, and Rose seemed so relieved that Lyonette got up at once. And she smiled.

The inn has its Earther. At least there’s that. The staff bustled into motion, and Rose began pulling out souvenirs and letters, and for a moment—everyone forgot about the box. When they turned, it was gone, and it would keep.

 

——

 

Dame Ushar debated informing Queen Ielane about the mysterious box, despite Lyonette’s clear opinions on the matter.

She elected not to. That was the choice, you see.

It wasn’t treason. It was subjective loyalty, and that was something all [Knights] learned. Consider the hypothetical: did you obey your [King] or your Order’s [Grandmaster] if the two gave conflicting orders? If your superior ordered you to do something dishonorable or, worse, illegal, did you comply?

Multiple Knight Orders had written doctrine on the subject, and there were famous tales of when integrity had driven individuals to defy their sworn oaths for a higher cause, or where strict adherence to one vow had damned too many.

Thronebearers, being political and having a fair understanding of the nature of royalty, dictated that loyalty to the Eternal Throne came first. If you lied to your ward, or even a superior, so long as it was in service to the nation as you saw it, things could be understood. Of course, that meant on your own head be it.

Queen Ielane was even more of a pragmatist. She called Ushar as Lyonette was recuperating. If you thought the Queen of Radiance was even worse with her underlings than her daughters, you’d be mistaken.

She was even more…prosaic, but she spoke to Ushar like Ushar was a subordinate. It was a kind of efficaciousness between them; from a mother to daughter, Ushar understood why it had caused strife.

“Ushar, keep an eye on Lyonette. Is she still fraternizing with the Antinium?”

“Not since they broke up, Your Majesty.”

Ushar leaned on a wall of The Wandering Inn outside, shivering. Nowhere in the inn was safe from eavesdroppers, and she had deployed her customized silence spells. Dead gods, but she needed a resupply of tools. And more backup.

“Good. Loss drives some to seek solace. Monitor her entanglements. There’s less to lose unless she catches something, but ensure the matches are at least beneficial in some way.”

—And here Dame Ushar hesitated. Because where she was the willing agent of the crown, sometimes she thought the crown still didn’t understand.

“Your Majesty. She was quite poised in the debate with you, wasn’t she? As I said—”

—Your Majesty, makeup in four to meet Erribathe’s—

A muffled voice. Ielane murmured.

“Push it two minutes and have them prepped for speed. Ushar, don’t belabor your point. All of her sisters could pull a debate like that if they needed to.”

Liberties were allowed if you knew Ielane, and Ushar let herself grow the faintest touch skeptical.

“Your Majesty. Princess Shardele? Menisi, I grant you, but Aielef—perhaps Princess Seraphel, but she was calm. She held her ground. I don’t wish to be seen as your hand—”

Another snort, but Ielane made a drumming sound with her fingernails.

“If she’s wise—adroitly, Ushar. When is this never implicit? I heard how she has changed. I have witnessed it. None of this alters the fact that she is still as headstrong as any of her sisters. She’s broken the record on running away, you know. This month.”

For a second, she sounded…fond? Ushar wished she could record that and have Lyonette listen.

“Was another [Princess] away from the Eternal Throne that long, Your Majesty?”

A pause. There were things Ushar didn’t know, not being that highly-ranked. Ielane’s tone was flat as it returned.

“Menisi. Take care Lyonette does not follow the 2nd Princess’ example, Ushar. You think she can maneuver herself with free rein? On your head be it.”

Ushar needed a tonic for her stomach, but she kept going; you couldn’t last if you faltered at that level of reminder.

“May I expect reinforcements of some kind, then, Your Majesty? New staffing only goes so far.”

The sounds of Ielane taking a drag on her puffer.

“—Expect Thronebearers via the new colony ships. Some will filter in via the north. They will self-flag when Lyonette hires her staff. They’ll have your dead drops.”

In other words, some agents of Calanfer would magically and spontaneously appear to Lyonette when she reached out for a new [Barmaid]. If Queen Ielane sometimes ran her staff like a [Criminal Mastermind], well, there was a lot of overlap there. She had one of those histories that you learned about the more you rose.

“My time is up. This debacle at sea will keep sending waves ashore, Ushar. Lyonette has chosen to defend that inn? So be it. Let her level, but the moment wrath turns on her, you are to pull her out at any cost. Make sure Dalimont is trustworthy; I doubt Noelictus suborned him, but he’s Seraphel’s agent. If he wants to go after her, let him, and we’ll find replacements.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Ielane didn’t say goodbye or end with anything else. Ushar just heard a click. And then she stood there, stamping her feet in the snow.

Well, at least Her Majesty saw Lyonette as having potential, as opposed to being a liability. Level her up was the job? Ushar had seldom heard of a Thronebearer being given that role. It meant, whether Ielane said it or not, that she had hopes for Lyonette.

That was a splendid thing, for you see—Ushar was fairly certain that Ielane did not have…hopes…for at least a few of the older [Princesses] and [Princes]. They were in their positions. If they excelled or delivered, wonderful. Otherwise, they were assets to be maintained, and their offspring were further ties.

—Queen Ielane did not expect more of Aielef, for instance. The Thronebearer tamped down her feelings and began to consider what to do. Mostly keep working on Mrsha and Nanette, for one. Her job was to guide Lyonette and her daughters—but keeping them safe was her principle charge. And frankly, two wayward girls with a talent for getting into trouble were a lot more of a risk than Lyonette herself. Ushar had to win them over. Being a bit stroppy and snide seemed to win their respect.

It was a contrast to her previous charge…and as if the thought had summoned her, Dame Ushar heard a pinging sound from her other speaking stone.

She had almost forgotten she carried it. When Ielane pinged you, you went and reported in unless someone was on fire. But Ushar had a second speaking stone of lesser encryption, albeit still expensive. This one had to ‘bounce’ across multiple Mage’s Guilds, so until a spell was cast from multiple [Mages], the words were choppy. It was also a lot easier to intercept, but the, ah, owner of this speaking stone wasn’t judged as valuable as Queen Ielane of Calanfer.

Even if she was a [Princess].

—hear me?—think it’s—ah, there. I hear you, Dame Ushar. Report!”

Princess Vernoue, the 5th Princess of Calanfer, and Ushar’s [Princess], sounded like she was whispering. In her rooms or the library, perhaps. Dame Ushar hesitated, then adjusted her tone.

“Your Highness, it is a delight to hear from you. I, ah, trust you received my correspondence?”

Vernoue’s voice was slightly defensive, slightly rushed and excited.

“I did! It took me nearly three hours to decipher, even with our codes—and I meant to call you last week, but there was never a good time for it.”

It had been about a month since she’d last called Ushar, and Princess Vernoue’s check-ins were a lot less regular. And often longer, so Ushar stomped her feet a bit more.

“I regret that I cannot speak long, Your Highness. I must get back to protecting Lyonette.”

Of course you must. Is she coming back? I don’t suppose she’s particularly keen on the matter, what with an Archmage under the same roof. Does she even practice magic?”

Vernoue focused on different things than Ielane, and if you wanted to be frank, her level of intrigue in contacting ‘her’ Thronebearer was far more limited. Just like Ser Lormel had been Princess Ellet’s sworn guardian, Dame Ushar had been the champion of Vernoue.

A twenty-five-year-old [Princess], as yet unwedded, and in her way, more problematic than Lyonette. She sounded oddly…young. Compared to Lyonette, that was.

The thing was, Vernoue lived in Calanfer’s palace. She wasn’t wed, so she had a lot of Thronebearers around her. The position of ‘champion’ wasn’t as special for Vernoue. By contrast, Aielef’s Thronebearer, Dame Kyetne, was a Kalivian-born woman whom Aielef trusted for both her defense and to help manage the staff, and whom Ielane made sure was loyal—but might keep her own secrets.

Ushar did like Vernoue, but she had been simply the most friendly Thronebearer of the lot that attended the 5th Princess. She felt bad about her lapses in communication, but there wasn’t much to offer besides gossip.

“She does practice the sword and spells, but your younger sister hardly learns from Archmage Valeterisa, Princess Vernoue.”

The 5th Princess sighed enviously.

“I suppose that’s fair. But if I were there, I think Archmage Valeterisa might consider teaching me—do you know, Ushar, I’ve had more magical lessons from all the guests in Calanfer than my tutors managed last year? It makes me think I should really go to Wistram, especially these days. Everyone knows Archmage Eldavin is revolutionizing magic. And Mother actually heard me out! Father was for it—but Mother said ‘we cannot be certain this is the correct decision’. Because she wants me to be married. What a waste!”

She was complaining to Ushar again, and the Thronebearer tried—she really tried to be sympathetic. But her armor was freezing, and she hadn’t been back in Calanfer for months.

“A dire thing, Princess. Could—could Ser Loxlet represent you to the other Thronebearers? Dame Isni?”

She named the other Thronebearers Vernoue liked, hopeful, but Vernoue just sighed into her ear.

“They’re not the same as you, Ushar. I miss you. I’m glad you’re there, what with brave Ser Sest falling and poor Ser Lormel—but I do miss you.”

She did? Ushar had half-thought Vernoue wouldn’t even notice her absence, aside from being a useful informant abroad. She coughed and cleared her throat.

“That—gives me great joy, Your Highness. If it helps, I think every Thronebearer is needed in Izril. It can be exceedingly dangerous.”

More than your sheltered life. Vernoue’s tone reflected that truth.

“Mother is trying to get me married again. She won’t stop. Even if I’m ‘overaged’, I don’t know what to do. Seraphel got away, but I tried to volunteer for the colony fleet—well, I don’t want to anyways.”

Vernoue had done a rather amazing job of deflecting any suitors from her. Even more than Seraphel, actually. It wasn’t so much her appearance or any huge personal habit—it was her complete unwillingness to marry anyone who wouldn’t let her at least study magic.

There was something about a [Princess] who, oh, asked on your first encounter if you could read, and if so, ‘when this year’, ‘what books’, ‘please tell me your favorite passage’, and ‘do you even know a single spell’—that repulsed potential suitors. Especially when she often called their bluffs.

Ushar let Vernoue complain quite gustily, then tried to give an abbreviated account of goings-on in Liscor that she felt were interesting. The magical [Princess] didn’t care for all the talk of politics, or the Rheirgest news, but she did lock onto odder things.

“A witch? You mentioned that, and I suppose I skipped over it—there’s a coven of [Witches] in Riverfarm? Do they dance around naked and actually do rituals?”

“I did not inquire, Princess Vernoue.”

“It’s another form of magic! You know, they used to sacrifice people in Chandrar in blood rituals? Baleros too. I bet there have been some in Terandria, but I can never find records. I haven’t levelled up in ages. But you know—Level 25 might be before my birthday in the fall!”

Vernoue was determined to be a ‘thirty before thirty’ [Princess], or at least, keep up with a level to match her age. Ushar heard her switch to Mrsha and any lucky powers of the Doombearer, then bring up something else around Invrisil.

“Those ‘Players of Celum’ are actually performing for the Eternal Throne, you know. They’ve been touring around, and they’re the talk of Terandria. That will be quite fun. At last, I’ll be able to see what the fuss is about. You know, they’re quite rich. Everyone just showers them with gold and attention. They must be better than regular [Bards], musn’t they?”

Usher had, in fact, treated herself and the other [Knights] to a play at the Solstice Theatre, so she could speak knowledgeably about that.

“If they are anything like their counterparts in Invrisil, I believe you will be delighted, Princess Vernoue. They are quite, quite fascinating.”

“Oh, good. I will look forwards to it. I—know you must get back to work. But I shall try to call next week, alright?”

There it was. The 5th Princess’ voice sounded wistfully sad, yearning for the brief flashes of the world Ushar described, oddly proud of her younger sister, and plaintive. Like a bird in a cage. Ushar’s fist tightened on her speaking stone.

“—Perhaps you might go to Wistram after all, Princess? The higher Archmage Eldavin’s star rises, the more it behooves us to have a seat at the Academy of Magic.”

Vernoue laughed softly and quietly.

“No. Mother would rather marry me to an Archmage. If that Viltach wasn’t already married—the other two are far too old to be seemly. Just—maybe I could speak to Lyonette? Informally. I don’t know what to say to her, really. She’s so different than whom I remember. She doesn’t even call anyone peon anymore—I’m fine, Ushar. I have more suitors to meet. I might as well send an invitation to the Fall’s Sentinel myself if it’s to be an engagement this year.”

Ushar didn’t know what that meant, but she stood there a second in the snow until some fell off the roof onto her helmet. Then she said goodbye and exhaled.

Sad [Princesses]. She’d served them all her life since graduating from [Squire]. It occurred to Ushar, briefly, that one of the reasons she advocated for Lyonette, one reason why she had gained a sense of—loyalty—might be that.

As stressed and tired and anxious as the 6th Princess of Calanfer was, she was not sad in the same way. With luck and time, perhaps Ielane might see that too. But then, Ushar reminded herself, the more valuable you were to the Eternal Throne, the more it called for you. Their Majesties gave much of themselves to the Eternal Throne.

And if Lyonette were to tire of the gilded chains—beware. One [Princess] had tried it in this generation. There was a reason Princess Menisi, the black sheep of the family, was never seen at court. Pitfalls and traps. Ushar reflected that Ielane was right.

All you could do to escape was level up.

 

——

 

A mystery, a new year beginning soon, and change coming to Liscor. As ever. Sometimes, it was good to wait. Skills were dangerous. Erin was dangerous.

A [Chef] went back into the kitchen, hurrying to make something fresh for Rose. Obviously, Erin’s Skills kept everything fresh, but it was the meaning of cooking he pursued. He only stopped once, glancing into the warm common room.

—Obviously. He was just a [Chef]. No one had asked him why he’d given up Goblinhome for the inn. Except Erin, once, but that was different. If Lyonette wanted to change the inn, Calescent would adapt or leave. He liked to think he was part of the inn, but change was inevitable.

As for the object he’d hidden behind his back when the door opened—well. Yes, you could wait, but Goblins were curious.

It was indeed a box. Calescent placed it on the counter as he activated a heating rune. One foot by one foot exactly. He saw pieces of wood making it up, overlapping to create a cube…and there was a hinged door with a little screw that let the cover slide open.

No paint. No detailing of any kind. It looked a bit banged-up, but when Calescent, on a hunch, took his best knife and tried to score the box with all his might…he left not a scratch.

Nor could the tip of the knife make the screws move. For that matter…Calescent remembered Rags shrieking about nails. He’d seen Kevin designing screws, but the fact that anything had these screws in them meant it was new.

“Hmm. Is very suspicious.”

The [Chef] narrowed his eyes over the box, glancing around covertly. He was reassured seeing everyone fussing over Rose.

Oh, the secretive Goblin was so sly. He thought he knew all the tricks—he never noticed the door of a cupboard opening ever-so-slightly so a little witch could stare out at him. Nanette knew that Erin’s [Compartments of Holding] could hurt you badly if you used them wrong, but you could disable Erin’s Skill and use the garden door to appear anywhere you wanted.

She watched as Calescent fussed about the box, trying to find a secret compartment or something else. But in the end, there was nothing for it. The cupboard door closed slightly as Calesecnt hesitated, then fished in his apron pocket for something.

[The Transient, Ephemeral, Fleeting Vault of the Mortal World. The Evanescent Safe of Passing Moments, the Faded Chest of Then and Them. The Box of Incontinuity]…sat on the counter.

At least, one aspect of it was here. Calescent hesitated and held his knife in one hand. With the other, he put the bulb of garlic that Fierre had been complaining about inside the box. Then he closed the lid.

When he reopened the lid, Nanette peeked out and held her breath. Calescent peered into the box and said:

“Huh.”

 

 

[Princess of the Inn Level 30!]

[Skill – Remember: My Defining Moment obtained!]

[Skill – Staff: Flurry of Efficiency obtained!]

[Spell – Conjure Prepared Dish obtained!]

[Skill – Conceal Reputation obtained!]

[Skill – Shared Authority: The Wandering Inn obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes:

No, but for real, I wouldn’t do that to you. Also, for clarity, Lyonette’s level-ups are from after the Solstice. Continue onwards!

—pirateaba

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bulb of garlic was sitting in the box, disappointingly ordinary. Calescent stared at it, purely let down, and Nanette saw his shoulders sag. He let out a huge breath.

So did she. He upended the box so the garlic fell out, sighed, and tore off a clove which he popped into his mouth, and chewed.

“Lame box.”

Nanette agreed silently and decided there was something else about the box that investigating would turn up. She was just about to go back to talking to Rose when she heard a voice.

“One second, Rose. I’m a [Princess of the Inn] now, and I have some of Erin’s abilities. One of them—is Nanette in a cupboard in the kitchen, Calescent?

The Hobgoblin and Nanette jumped. He spun, saw her, and laughed. Then they glanced at the box.

Uh oh. Lyonette would be mad. Calescent hesitated, then began to shove the garlic back in, searching for a place to hide it. Nanette got out of the cupboard, thinking of an excuse—then saw something strange happen.

Calescent tried to put the garlic back in the wooden box.

An ordinary action with a twist: he could not. The Goblin’s hand pressed against the opening, and the garlic would not go in.

His hand would. But when he pushed the garlic with more strength—it refused to go. It didn’t crush against an invisible barrier. It didn’t strain—it just held still in the air, even when his arms bulged and a full Hobgoblin’s force went into it.

The garlic would not go back into the box. Lyonette barged into the kitchen, saw Nanette staring, saw the box and the garlic, and shouted.

No!

Calescent jumped. He tried to hide the box behind him, and Nanette protested.

“I asked him to, Lyonette. We have to—”

No! You don’t know what it does! You don’t—

Lyonette grabbed for it, and Calescent tried to hand it to her, then avoid beaning her in the face with it. The box went tumbling as she snatched, and Nanette grabbed it. She blinked at the box, Erin’s Level 50 Skill, and the lid swung open.

A piece of garlic hit Nanette in the face. Lyonette, about to scream, exhaled in relief. Calescent blinked. He glanced at Nanette, and the witch’s eyes opened. Wide. Wider…as she stared at what was in the box. Then another bulb smacked her in the face, and Lyonette’s breath stopped. After exactly four point two seconds…another garlic bulb bounced off Nanette’s brow.

Then another.

And another. Nanette bent down and picked up one of the pieces of garlic. Real garlic in taste, texture, and even nutrition. Even after Lyonette had been talked into letting them test it, even the next day—

It was still there.

 

 

 

 

Actual Author’s Note: 

Trolling readers is an art. At some point in my life, I wondered if I’d be white-haired and distinguished, one of those authors who has a reputation. Then I thought about other authors who get that old, and they have fun with things.

No one gets old in a set way. Age is something that can affect someone very young, and I have heard people in their nineties say they feel like they’re still in their twenties.

So, the point I’m making is that I hope I enjoy annoying readers no matter how old I get.

Hello, and welcome to Volume 10. I’m trying to make it smile more. My month off? It was good. I wrote two blog posts on it, but in truth, it wasn’t an entire month, and what I said last year holds. I figured out how to vacation near the end, I wanted more, and I did fear my return because I didn’t know if I ‘remembered’ how to write.

Perhaps that’s also because, after a volume ending, I have to reset. The battles are done, but the effects aren’t over…and then you’re a bit lost, right? I don’t want to imagine what it’s actually like for any kind of event or conflict for people in real life.

Ah, well, I’m rambling a bit, but maybe that’s how we’ll start. With an attempt at both easing into things and trying to find whatever normal used to be. And as ever, I hope you enjoy it. I mean it; that’s been the point the whole time.

This month will be interesting. I just learned I have a hard deadline to do some revisions to Book 12: The Witch of Webs by the end of the month or I, uh, delay all audiobook releases for this year. So I’d better work hard on that! But I’ll be putting regular chapters out…I think it’ll work.

I have energy at the start of the year and, once I do that, I’ll have 0 other writing projects besides The Wandering Inn for once. Which will be the first time for like 2-3 years that’s happened! Not that it’s a bad thing, but what a thing, huh? I’m also planning a vacation to a country in April, but I’ll probably try to work during that. This is all the news from me.

Look forward to that box on Tuesday, and thanks for reading!

—pirateaba

 

PS. I’ll be featuring lots of art but the backlog is amazing–and huge! Have you seen some of this art like the comics, the fake Gazi book, and everything else? Even a tattoo!

 

 

Volume 10 returns by Maoxfhan, commissioned by Linu!

Site: https://maoxfhan.carrd.co/

 

Happy Volume 10 by Bobo Plushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Visiting Gershal by Lanrae!

 

Lyonette by korakkz!

 

Erin’s [Boon of the Guest] comic by Foxy!

 

Tattoo by Noodledragon!

 

Gazi’s Children’s Book by Stargazing Selphid!

 

Shopping in Liscor comic by Duchess Ivory!

 

 


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