10.01 L – The Wandering Inn

10.01 L

[Will Wight is Kickstarting an animation for their Cradle series! The Kickstarter is already funded and I was not aware of it during my break, but shouting it out for people to see. Fantasy stories moving into other mediums is always great to see, especially newer ones! Check it out here!]

 

 

The next day, Calescent slowly and reverentially broke an entire stack of spaghetti in half. He tossed the pieces into a pot, then poured in a dram of red wine he’d found to add to the taste.

Then, after closing the door to the kitchen, Calescent added a bulb of peeled garlic to a second pan of sauce. Then another bulb. Then five more.

After some thought, he put ten more bulbs’ worth of garlic into the tomato sauce, some butter, onions, salt, sugar, garlic, and more garlic.

The point was, in Calescent’s opinion, to create the most garlic-flavored sauce possible without ruining the sauce. Or to murder Fierre.

He snapped more pasta into the pot he’d already brought to a [Quick Boil]. The point was also to offend as many sensibilities as possible. Joseph had once jokingly complained to Calescent when he’d found the Hobgoblin broke up longer pieces of pasta so you could have a nice dish rather than long, stringy stuff. He’d told Calescent that ‘the Italians’ would hate him for doing it.

Thereafter, Calescent had deliberately broken spaghetti every time he’d made it, and especially for Joseph. This critical task done, the [Spice Chef] had a moment while both pots simmered. Then Calescent slowly inserted a piece of garlic into his mouth and began to chew.

It was definitely…spicy. A different kind of spice than regular garlic, and after eating about twenty pieces, he was getting sort of tired of the taste.

On the other hand? It was free food. Even if

Someone hammered loudly on the door to the kitchen. Lyonette opened the door as Calescent sighed.

Calescent, are you eating the garlic? I told you to stop before we test it!

“I’m not eating.”

Calescent spoke around his mouthful of garlic. He poked at the cloves of garlic in the pot and had a thought.

I really should have put a pre-peeled garlic into the box. 

That would have made his life so much easier. Well, it wasn’t like it was that hard to peel garlic, especially since he just slapped it on the table and picked the pieces out of the shell. It took five seconds, but…Calescent looked over his shoulder.

There was a reason he was considering garlic-based foods. And why Fierre had decided to nap in Lady Ieka’s reserved rooms tonight. The Hobgoblin hunched his shoulders and decided the sauce could have a few more cloves of garlic.

He was used to buying in bulk. But the pile of garlic behind him?

That scared him. Every four seconds…he heard a pop, and another piece of garlic plopped down onto the pile.

They hadn’t even left it running for more than a few hours this morning. There were hundreds of pieces of garlic behind him, and as far as Calescent was concerned…he popped another piece into his mouth and chewed.

“Yah. Very real.”

Calescent! Stop eating it!

 

——

 

Garlic. Such a strange thing. Relative to the onion and leek. Said to have medicinal or possibly purifying properties. Bane of vampires and good breath.

What might one do with garlic? No, seriously. What were they going to do with all the garlic?

“That’s nine hundred and sixty-four pieces. Lyonette, I don’t think it’s stopping.”

Yelroan did a count after one hour and eight and a half minutes. Almost exactly. The garlic was popping out at a rate of 4.2 seconds, which meant that you could calculate exactly when a new bulb appeared.

Not just ‘approximately’. Exactly. The [Mathematician] had a counting Skill running, and it was a perfectly precise increase in garlic every minute. He’d thought, at first, that it had been variable, but that had been just Calescent snacking on it.

“It might stop at one thousand.”

Lyonette du Marquin hadn’t gotten much sleep last night. She looked stressed, her hair frazzled, her eyes bloodshot. Yelroan hadn’t seen Lyonette so worried for almost a month, and he regretted that that sense of—of pressure was back.

Yet he couldn’t deny that he, personally, was excited. Disbelieving. Amazed at the power of…the box.

It was hanging in the kitchen, suspended by a rope so it could drop pieces of garlic. Lyonette paced around. She snapped at Calescent and made sure her daughters didn’t go anywhere near the kitchen. She was waiting for Magnolia Reinhart to respond to her [Message] spell—or for Valeterisa to wake up.

After about three minutes, Yelroan called out.

“That’s one thousand and one pieces of g—”

Lyonette strode into the kitchen and slammed the door to the magical box. The Erin box. That was what everyone was calling it. She brought it back out, slammed it on a table, and glared at it.

“It’s not real garlic. It’s clearly a cornucopia-type Skill.”

Ye-es. Definitely.”

Yelroan adjusted his sunglasses. They were also handy because he could avoid meeting Lyonette’s peeved gaze.

Yelroan was new to The Wandering Inn. It had welcomed him gently, without castigating him for his past sins, and while he didn’t feel like ‘part of’ the inn fully, he found it healing in a way. Useful and interesting, but not like being Yelroan, the [Mathematician] in charge of Plain’s Eye’s entire financial structure and helping a Great Tribe of Izril run.

It wasn’t like he had been planning to run off, but he’d been wondering if he could have put his talents to use here or there, and he’d obviously stayed at the inn but made more use of his time. But each time he thought about straying, Erin Solstice revealed a <Quest>, or he was suddenly talking to Normen about how you’d set up an entire [Knight] Order.

Or, suddenly, wondering how you could offload 20,571 pieces of garlic every day. Because that was how much that box would produce—assuming it had no limits. Of course, garlic rotted, and there were limits to how much people wanted to eat garlic. But pig feed? Garlic could be boiled to reduce the flavor, and even if it sucked to eat, how many [Alchemist] recipes called for garlic?

Assuming it was real, of course. But if it was real…was there a magical cost? Was this real garlic?

Could that box copy…other things?

Yelroan’s heart was beating far too fast for the morning. He slowly sipped from a cup of coffee that Peggy brought him. Lyonette was just sitting there, staring at the box.

“You want milk with coffee? Garlic?”

Yelroan grinned at Peggy, and the Hobgoblin grinned toothily back—but she kept her voice low to keep from angering her boss. She was actually one of the people Yelroan knew more of in The Wandering Inn.

Consider, for a moment, the division of jobs as Yelroan saw it. You had the ‘core family’, which was Lyonette, Mrsha, Nanette, Numbtongue, Bird, and, of course, Erin.

Then there were the regulars, guests everyone knew, like Menolit, Relc, formerly Selys, the Earthers, Krshia, and so on.

The adventurers were another category since they came and went, and then you had people who were maybe less regular, but valuable associates like Grimalkin and Ilvriss. Allies. Antinium, different cities or groups like House Veltras, and so on.

But the staff—the staff were a bit odd. Peggy and Rosencrantz had both come fairly recently to The Wandering Inn, from the Flooded Waters tribe and the Free Antinium Hive, respectively. They had settled in very quickly and quite well. They, sort of like Yelroan, were background to a lot of events.

But valuable background. Yelroan considered Peggy and Rosencrantz to be much like him. They kept the wheels moving, and even if they didn’t attract a lot of attention, well, neither had Ishkr or Normen. Look at them now.

“Maybe no garlic, Peggy. But I’ll take the milk. Er…can I have some sugar too?”

Yelroan had discovered the joys of coffee and lattes, but Peggy gave him a severe look.

“Sugar? Sugar is expensive now that the Admiral, eh—the one at sea became a traitor. Sugar from Baleros is expensive.”

“Oh.”

Peggy saw Yelroan’s face fall and glanced around. Then she hurried off and got a small pitcher of milk and a bowl of sugar. She winked.

“Just for you. But no showing other guests or we have to charge them, eh?”

He grinned at her. This was why you made friends with people like Peggy. She was a [Floor Boss] and, as he understood it, a former Redfang. Rosencrantz was an ordinary Worker who’d been elevated to ‘Individual’ by dint of personality.

Who else was on staff? Well, there was Asgra, a Cave Goblin, Sticks, Picker, and Inkpaper—those were the Goblins that Yelroan knew really well.

On the Antinium side, there had been Silvermop. Yelroan’s face fell slightly. There was Dots, Silverboots, and a Soldier named Handyfellow. Yelroan knew he had a list of all the staff; there were only about sixteen in total, eight and eight of each species.

He hoped they were happy with their jobs. It occurred to him someone should check on that sort of thing. Lyonette was good at teaching the job and managing people, but his role should be a backup check on what she was doing.

“Peggy, we don’t have many guests this morning. Do you have a second to sit?”

The [Floor Boss], in lieu of other work, had been ordering the Goblins and Antinium under her command to set a table for their morning guests. She looked around, decided she did have time, and sat down.

“Sure. What’s happening, Yelroan? You got anything for me to beat up?”

She reminded him a lot of Merish. That was it. Yelroan grinned at Peggy and realized they had a lot in common.

“No. Just checking in on the staff. How’s the month been?”

“Check in. Ooh, interesting. You mean is am I grumpy?”

“Er, yes. Don’t Goblins do that?”

Peggy shrugged expansively; she had on a uniform with a black paw on one corner of the apron and an adjusted [Barmaid]’s outfit, shortened on her right leg for her peg-leg. Hence the name. She was still a former Redfang, but she didn’t have the same attitude Numbtongue had once had towards training religiously every morning.

Actually, Yelroan saw Numbtongue doing less of that recently; Lyonette seemed to be occupying the morning workouts. Well, Relc and several others took the gym.

“Goblins mostly know if you’re sad. If a Goblin is, uh…mad, a Hob notices. Or other Goblins. Chieftain finds out, does something about it. Other peoples can’t tell?”

Peggy looked slightly amused, and Yelroan hesitated. He fiddled with his sunglasses, and Handyfellow moved out of the way of the blinding light.

“Sort of. Everyone can obviously notice things, and Gnoll tribes are rather like that. But I’ve found in, uh, ‘civilized’ society it helps to have practices and rules like that.”

“Because people in cities have hearts like dried plums?”

“Something like that.”

They both grinned. Peggy looked amused but indulged the concept and waved at Asgra.

“Hey. You bring me first garlic pasta and coffee.”

“Yes, boss.”

Asgra grumbled. She headed into the kitchen, and Peggy rubbed at her leg unconsciously. Yelroan coughed.

“Well—you and I both come from tribes, so I think we’re more alike than I realized. Strange…or not so strange since I’ve never talked to any Goblins before coming to the inn. I suppose I can lead with whether you, or the staff with you, feel like you’re working too much. Are you enjoying work here?”

“Huh? Enjoying? Is great. You see this?”

Peggy gave Yelroan an incredulous look as she accepted a hot plate of spaghetti. Lyonette opened her mouth.

“We have to test—”

Peggy inserted a huge bite of noodles and sauce into her mouth and chewed. Then she shouted.

Hey, Calescent! Is good! Nice taste! Good as shit!

Good! Food’s up!”

He shouted back. The staff hurried into the kitchen, hungry, and Lyonette raced after them to insist the garlic pasta be tested first.

We could sell all this garlic to the people afraid of those ‘Vampires’, but that might be against The Wandering Inn’s policies. Yelroan watched Peggy eat with gusto.

“The work’s not too hard? Can I get a plate too?”

“Hard? Psh. Standing on feet for, what, nine, ten hours? Is not hard like running for twelve hours. Or fighting Gargoyles. Food is always good, can eat as much as we want—this is good living. Any Goblin will tell you that. Except Mountain City Goblins.”

Peggy waved a clawed hand dismissively. Yelroan glanced at her foot.

“You don’t miss the tribe?”

For one second, he thought he was being too direct, but a glint from Peggy’s crimson eyes turned into a grin.

“You say things to my face. Is good. Gnolls is smart. Miss tribe? Maybe. Maybe…but I have no foot! Hard to be good Redfang. I could be, but not a great one. See?”

She slapped her peg-leg and sighed. Yelroan followed her logic.

“You’re still a good warrior, but you wouldn’t be one of the best.”

“Yep. Can’t ride with Redscar. Maybe if I was higher-level or had a Carn Wolf, but…I was a good warrior. Not great. Great warrior with bad leg is great warrior with weak spot. Good warrior with bad leg is okay warrior. So Chieftain Rags said, ‘Peggy, you want to guard an inn and serve tables to stupid Humans and Drakes instead of having babies or something’? And I said, ‘Sounds great’. Maybe I thought I’d go back if it was bad, but this is nice.”

Yelroan made a few notes about that.

“That’s great to hear. Your rooms are big enough? Is—is there anything Goblins need that we’re missing? I should ask the Antinium that.”

“Good, good, we don’t need anything…eh. Life is nice. Except that there are not many Goblins, so less people to talk to. But you fun, and Ser Normen and others are good. Only one shame—handsome Drake got stolen by the stupid Archmage. Always the good fighters everyone wants.”

Peggy heaved a huge, morose sigh, and Yelroan opened his mouth.

“—Relc?”

“Is hard competition. Can’t beat woman who can lift city over her head. But hey, I live longer than three more years, so maybe I’ll find another person. Maybe a [Swordmaster].

“So you want to raise a family?”

Peggy nodded energetically.

“Someday. Big family of Redfangs. Not many of us left, and Flooded Waters tribe is good—but we shouldn’t forget how to ride Carn Wolves. Is a good plan for me; when I have gold saved up, I can buy magic sword and build a house-thing in the High Passes. What I want, you get it, Yelroan? Not sure about Asgra, Sticks, or others. Inkpaper just wants to sit in the inn and read books instead of working!

She shouted that last part, and the other Hobgoblin, who was prone to avoiding work, flinched into the kitchen.

Inkpaper was another interesting Hobgoblin. Yelroan noted down Peggy’s ambitions. Then he was taken off-guard by Peggy’s knowing gaze on him. After all, a [Floor Boss] was an advanced type of leader class, even if it was Goblin-specific. And Hobs were natural leaders. Peggy focused an eye on Yelroan.

“What about you, math-man? You staying around?”

Yelroan hesitated.

“—I’d like to. I just haven’t yet found a role fully suited to my abilities. I hope to. But it’s, uh, rather like having—let’s try an analogy. It’s like having Redscar only kill Shield Spiders all day.”

The Hobgoblin blinked, then slapped the table and hooted with laughter. She shouted a translated version of Yelroan’s comment to the Goblins, and they all began laughing—or cheering Yelroan.

“This Gnoll has giant, furry balls! I like how he said it—because it’s true, right? You’re very smart math person.”

“Mmm. Yep.”

Yelroan was a bit embarrassed by saying it so outright, but it was true. With his understanding of the science of mathematics, he suspected only an Archmage or very few other experts in the world would be able to keep up. The problem was that he was too good at his specialization. Peggy gazed at Yelroan, and he sighed.

“I’m good at managing people, and I can see myself helping run this inn or the Order of Solstice. But I want a mathematical challenge.”

“Eh. Not sure how you fight a strong math-monster. What do math-people do?”

Yelroan was glad someone had asked! He enthusiastically began to explain as his pasta arrived along with a refill of coffee for both.

“Well, I’ve actually apprenticed with the Engineering Guilds of Drake cities, and I’ve studied architecture as well. What we can do is model real events with numbers. So calculating how much weight a structure can take, or siege weapons—I don’t like war. I know on Earth my class models…physics. The movement of stars and so on. I’d love something like that, or to push forwards the entire understanding of it somehow.”

He’d been studying Earth math and had considered writing a book about it, but what was the point when they already had books in the [World of You and Me]? The Earth-tent was a better teacher than he could be, so Yelroan was searching for a role for his class in this world.

Peggy took a piece of paper from Yelroan and began writing that down. She was scribing in Goblin and nodded and tried to look serious. She steepled her claws together.

“Hmm. Yes. We will work on this thing for you. You want to talk to Rosencrantz? He easy. He happy like Goblins, but I know his dream.”

“Oh?”

It was always good to hear this, even if it was only Peggy’s understanding of Rosencrantz. Yelroan made a new entry.

“What does Rosencrantz want?”

“To meet Players of Celum and see tons of plays. Duh. He has fancy name from one of them. He likes music and acting and such.”

“Interesting. The Wandering Inn’s moved away from that. It was a pity we didn’t keep the Players of Celum—or Players of Liscor—in the inn. But if he’s happy—do you have any worries?”

Peggy nodded seriously. She leaned over the table as more guests came downstairs.

“Big fear is next time Draugr make it in, we all die. I am not so good, and last time, good people died, like Silvermop. I don’t think I can level up high enough. So…concerning.”

That…was a valid and legitimate concern, and Yelroan underlined that a few times. He sighed.

“That’s the concern of everyone here, I think. And why Lyonette is so resistant to anything…big happening. The box included. I hear there might be plans to, uh, upgrade staffing.”

“Ooh. More Goblins?”

“More people.

Yelroan clarified and saw Peggy’s faint look of concern for a moment. He understood her reservations, but he nodded to where Lyonette was pacing back and forth.

“Without Erin, it’s in Lyonette’s hands, and she is a [Princess]. More staff would be nice. Then again, there is Miss Tessa.”

She was upstairs, but Peggy grimaced.

“Her? She crazy. I don’t trust her. She stabbed people after Roshal gave her drugs. Is like a Goblin with a blood class. Can’t trust her. Point her at enemy and run the other way. Very sad; nothing can do.”

“I hope that’s not the case.”

“Well, Ulvama gone, so no good [Shaman]. Never seen a good Drake [Shaman], so what can you do?”

It was a puzzle, and Yelroan sat there, ruminating, as Peggy turned to stare at the plain, wooden box. Because as far as the Hobgoblin was concerned, the box was great. Maybe it would lead to them all dying soon, but she didn’t see why you had to be afraid of it until it started spitting out Crelers.

It was Erin’s Level 50 Skill. And yes, her Skills were dangerous and tragic—but Peggy had seen her rescue Rabbiteater and ally herself with Greydath of Blades. The [Floor Boss] grinned. As far as she was concerned, bad things from Erin’s Skills happened to other people.

 

——

 

Here was what they knew about the mysterious box. First. It accepted a single object—a piece of garlic—and could not fit another object inside. Calescent had tried, but the box had an occupancy of one item.

Second? Unless you took the item out (if you even could, no one had as of yet tried), the box would clone the object inside.

Third. There seemed to be no limit on the number of copies made. They didn’t dissipate, they seemed genuine; Lyonette had mashed one up, and Calescent had done too much taste testing, and they were all identical. They might be…real.

To test this, Lyonette waited until someone came downstairs. A sleepy woman was letting Montressa chase after her with a brush to comb her wild, grey hair.

“Where’s Relc?”

“At work, Master. I tried to wake you up at six, but you were reading books too late. You have a call with Archmage Eldavin in an hour.”

“What’s breakfast?”

“I don’t know. What do you want, Master?”

Montressa du Valeross had a too-patient tone of voice with Archmage Valeterisa, and the absent-minded Archmage of Izril was reading a book at the table. She looked up as Lyonette approached.

“Breakfast is garlic pasta—unless you’d like anything else. Good morning, Montressa, good morning, Archmage Valeterisa!”

Instantly, Valeterisa’s eyes narrowed.

“She’s using my title. She wants something. Take care of it, Apprentice.”

She pointed, and Lyonette saw Montressa stop combing and look up, frowning. Lyonette groaned internally.

A mix of oblivious and the kind of insight that had allowed her to survive years of politics in Wistram.

“I don’t have a large request! I just have an, uh—an object of extreme magical interest. Potentially.”

Valeterisa stopped pushing Montressa in front of her and peered at Lyonette.

“Go on.”

The [Princess] handed over a cloned garlic bulb. Valeterisa levitated it up and frowned at it.

“This is garlic. Non-magical garlic.”

Her betrayed look made Montressa frown at Lyonette. The [Princess] hadn’t told everyone what was going on, and she’d ordered the witnesses to keep silent. Lyonette heard Mrsha and Nanette come in, and a sleepy Rose appeared. They noticed her showing the garlic to Valeterisa, and Lyonette hoped they could be subtle.

“Well, apparently not, Archmage. But I suspect that this is, in fact, some kind of Skill or magical copy. Is there a way to, uh, test it?”

Valeterisa peered at the garlic with more interest and cast a few spells, though they were far too advanced for Lyonette to detect more than magical outflow. She frowned at the garlic, then at Lyonette.

“Is this from a Cornucopia Skill? I can test it. This is interesting. Montressa, cancel my appointments! I’ll teach you how to look for simulated objects. Unless you studied that in Wistram? [Create Food] is an old spell that was only supposed to be Tier 4, but it’s been lost to time, yet I did find out how to test for fake creations due to an incident where the Ullsinoi kept faking food at the banquet hall. It was edible and tasted good, but Telim passed out because he hadn’t had anything actually nutritious in…”

She was halfway up the stairs when Montressa tried to drag her back.

“Master, you haven’t eaten! And Eldavin in an hour?”

“Cancel it! Wait, who’s faking garlic? Are you sure this is fake and not just real garlic?”

Valeterisa halted, turned to Lyonette, and the [Princess] assured her this was important.

“Archmage, it is vital I know if this is faked. I am sure it is, in some way. Or it…expires? If you can prove it, definitively, I’ll—waive your room rental fee for a week.”

Valeterisa brightened up.

“A cunning fakery? I can do this.”

She vanished upstairs, and Montressa shot Lyonette a dirty glance, then requested two breakfasts to be delivered upstairs. Both she and Lyonette knew that Valeterisa’s room fee was nothing compared to her other fees.

“We’ll get you the information by evening—if you tell us what this is about. I suspect inn shenanigans, am I right?”

“When you tell me it’s fake, I’ll tell you everything, Montressa.”

Lyonette crossed her arms victoriously. She ignored Peggy, Yelroan, and Calescent giving her skeptical looks and turned and clapped her hands.

“Alright! I need someone to run a delivery to Magnolia’s mansion. Ishkr?”

“Absolutely.”

The Gnoll appeared behind the bar, and Lyonette handed him another bulb of garlic. She gave him brief instructions and knew he’d be back the moment he handed the garlic off. He could teleport back to the inn from almost anywhere with no hard limit—except that he couldn’t immediately reappear where he’d been.

They had all leveled up. Lyonette felt certain she’d have her answer on the garlic by evening. She strode past Calescent, who was trying to take the box back into the kitchen.

“No more cloning garlic, Calescent. Just take the garlic out. No one, and I mean no one, touches the box. That includes you, Mrsha, Nanette.”

“What?”

Calescent looked hurt, but Lyonette reached into the box, snatched the bulb of garlic out, and put it on the table. All the inn’s staff looked disappointed, but Lyonette was doing what she had to.

Keep the inn safe, keep disasters curtailed…she checked, and the wand that Hethon and his mysterious ‘friends’ were after was still in the [Garden of Sanctuary], buried in the metal case.

The inn could stay free of disasters for a while. Speaking of which—Lyonette squared her shoulders and went upstairs. She’d overheard part of Peggy’s interview with Yelroan. If Draugr came back, or if Lyonette did have to fight off people seeking the wand that Ryoka had brought here—the Thronebearers and staff could fight off Level 30s, maybe.

But there was only one person who could be counted on for anything worse than that. The problem was—Lyonette couldn’t count on her. If the inn had multiple ticking explosion spells on countdown, from the box to the wand to reprisals from abroad—

Shriekblade was the most volatile. And Lyonette didn’t know what to do about her.

 

——

 

Tessa. Shriekblade. Unclear who was who.

The Drake had grey-green scales. Scars.

She sometimes failed to recognize herself in the mirror. Then she’d tie a scarf around her face, or put on a mask, and the reflection would look more familiar.

Shriekblade. Because she screamed. Named-rank adventurer. Face of Salazsar’s underworld. Killer for hire. Member of the Assassin’s Guild in the south.

Largely broken. Unpredictable. Her employers were warned about her; she’d read the contract. Good at killing.

Don’t murder the clients. That was her rule. They could do whatever they wanted with her, to her, as long as it paid well.

Save up. Go to Tenbault.

That was the purpose of…no, wait. That was what she had to do. To feel right. At least, it had been.

The days before were…hazy. She was sweating, naked, in her rooms under the bed. She didn’t like sleeping on beds. She remembered, faintly, a somewhat better employer. Purple.

Ilvriss? Something about hitting him and not having sex? She didn’t recall. Then there was a mission to safeguard a random Human. Boring, boring—until the moment she found it.

The cure.

Then she had been healed. Free! Better than the Healer of Tenbault. Normal.

Bzz. Bzzzz! Something was buzzing. Tessa licked something furry and kept sweating. She was in withdrawal.

Selphid Dust. Made you crazy angry. Even when she was indulging, she’d been careful with it. You went berserk. Like a Selphid going on a Rampage. But it was a bad thing to come off of.

You went through withdrawal six to eight times. Slowly, Tessa reached for a vial among the ones scattered on the floor under the bed.

Chink. Chink. They were all empty. She tossed them away and finally found a half-empty one. She lifted it, and a bright yellow glow made her fumble with the cork.

Salvation. Only—it was all wrong. She took a drink of the Faerie Flower draught, which could do so many things.

Painkiller, cure for addictions, drink of remembered glory—a magical drink that came from the flower that obeyed no known rules, even magical ones. This particular variant cured her addictions.

Or—should have. Tessa drank. The cravings vanished. The screaming voice in her that told her to get more Selphid Dust now!—vanished. She became normal Tessa again, and her mind cleared up.

The Selphid Dust in her system was mostly passing. Now, Tessa remembered her last name. Since it didn’t matter, she just lay there. Sweat cooling. She was once more cured of her addictions.

That damn Gnoll of Roshal had restored them to her. Thrown a bag of Selphid Dust, and it had coursed through her system until they got a Faerie Flower draught in her. Even afterwards, she had been plagued by her body slowly, slowly purging the symptoms.

—And yet, even as her blood cooled and she was granted relief, the memory of being normal—something was terribly wrong. Tessa lay there, curled up, as something buzzed. She hesitated, tried to stop herself—then began to suck on it.

It’s not working anymore. Why isn’t it working?

She was in The Wandering Inn, in her rooms they’d given her, having failed her job. Erin Solstice—kidnapped. Tessa, incompetent.

Would they throw her out now? What happened when they did? Tenbault?

Tenbault. The Healer of Tenbault had said she was waiting for Tessa. Half off. Tessa should go.

She shouldn’t go. It smelled like a trap. This place was nicer.

The potion wasn’t working.

Buzz. Buzz—

“Tessa? I’m coming in.”

Then Tessa heard a voice she’d learned to recognize over the last few months. She curled up and said nothing. The door was locked, and she’d pushed a dresser in front of it. Sadly—the [Princess] just walked through the wall. She looked around, then remembered and peered under the bed.

“Tessa? Are you—why are you licking Apista?”

 

——

 

Lyonette sort of understood why Erin didn’t know what was always happening in her inn. Like with Laken, the power to sense anything in an inn wasn’t the same as understanding it.

For instance, Lyonette knew Tessa was under the bed in her rooms. But she hadn’t realized Tessa was naked. Or understood why she’d sensed Apista there.

Now, seeing Tessa licking Apista’s back…Lyonette had questions. The bee finally escaped the Named-rank adventurer’s grasp and flew away, shaking herself.

Apista was not happy. Lyonette could sense her pet’s emotions, and Apista flew around her, trumpeting anger at Tessa. But Lyonette’s wariness eclipsed that.

Dame Ushar appeared in the room a second after Lyonette, looking, as ever, very tense around the famous Drake Shriekblade. She gave Lyonette a look—which Lyonette ignored.

“Tessa, are you okay? Are you having withdrawals again?”

She made her voice gentle as possible. That damn Selphid Dust…the Faerie Flower draught didn’t detoxify Tessa, only remove the symptoms of her addictions.

Lyonette’s reply was two eyes, long, reptilian slits, slightly aglow from the daylight, staring at her from under the bed. The rest of Tessa was practically invisible.

“I have potions.”

“Are you—are you doing well?”

Silence. No. Lyonette bent down, and Ushar shifted.

“Your Highness—”

The glare Lyonette shot back at Ushar made the Thronebearer shut up. Tessa didn’t have her blades. That might not make a difference, but Lyonette had been talking to her. At least now Lyonette didn’t get a swipe of the claws.

“Tessa, come out of there.”

“Why? I like it. Do you have anything for me to kill?”

More of the Drake appeared as Lyonette cast a [Light] spell. Pale scars, a curled up Drake—sweating and wild-eyed. She didn’t look comfortable.

“What’s wrong, Tessa? We have breakfast. Do you want—”

No. I want Selphid Dust. I want—it’s not working anymore. The drink isn’t working. Tell that—tell that stupid Stitch-girl to add more Faerie Flowers to it! Tell Saliss the Stitch-girl’s making it wrong!”

Tessa clawed at her cheek, and Lyonette bit her lip. To her knowledge, Octavia hadn’t been making the Faerie Flower draught wrong, and there wasn’t a way to ‘intensify’ the effects.

“But it is clearing up your addictions, isn’t it?”

“Yes. No. It’s not working right anymore. It wasn’t working right before the Solstice. Where’s the bee? Is there any Dreamleaf left? Where’s the Centaur?”

When the Drake did move, she kicked herself out from under the bed like the world’s largest cockroach. She was so fast that she was tossing objects aside, hunting around the cluttered room, then moving the dresser aside before Lyonette caught her.

“Tessa, Palt’s not here. No more drugs. You don’t need them, remember? Do you still want them?”

Was the Faerie Flower potion losing its effectiveness after all? Tessa turned in a flash, grabbed for Lyonette’s arm—

Dame Ushar’s gauntleted fist caught the snarling Drake’s hand. Tessa blinked, looked at Ushar, then pivoted. The Thronebearer grunted as the Named-rank moved her sideways, out of the way, but she didn’t let go.

“Ushar.”

Lyonette’s glare made Dame Ushar release her grip. Tessa stopped making a fist. Her face had gone alarmingly blank for a second. Then she stared at Lyonette. Grudgingly, with a kind of recognition.

“It’s not working. It is, and it isn’t.

“Explain it to me. Start with Apista. Why were you licking her?”

This was the furthest they’d gotten in a while, and Tessa’s eyes darted to the bed. To the window. She seemed to want to escape or go back into hiding, but then she blurted out.

“The Faerie Flower draught isn’t working. It is—I don’t need Selphid Dust anymore. But I want it. I want it. And yet I don’t. I don’t need it—but I remember how it feels. It’s not fair. I want to try it again. I have to…but I don’t. I can’t forget what it felt like. You can lick Ashfire Bees sometimes, and it’s like mushrooms if they’ve had the right nectar. I think. Maybe it’s eating wasps.”

Ah. Lyonette exhaled. It was confusing, but it fell in line with what Tessa had screamed or said to Lyonette over the last few weeks. Lyonette was no expert, and Palt wasn’t speaking to her, but Nanette had helped cobble together an understanding for Lyonette that made sense.

“You’re saying…the Faerie Flower tonic makes you stop needing the Selphid Dust and whatnot. But you still want it.”

It tastes good. Phlack powder. Selphid Dust. Can’t do Selphid Dust. Dreamleaf pills. Five for a gold piece on Hatlever Street. Blissbloom. Blissbloom from Conec the [Fence]. It’s worse than last time.”

“Why? Sit down, Tessa, just…Ushar? Get me some breakfast, and find some clothing here, would you?”

“I’ll have Ser Dalimont pass it to me.”

Ushar didn’t leave the room. She cooly spoke into a stone, and Tessa sat there, shivering, as Lyonette draped her in her blanket.

“You don’t understand. It’s worse now.

“Because you want it so bad?”

No! Because it’s like the first time I ever had it.

A clawed hand grabbed at Lyonette, and Apista jabbed it. Her stinger was sharp and venomous. Lyonette grabbed for Apista—but then she saw Tessa’s eyes focus on the bee.

Only the tip of Apista’s sharp stinger had grazed Tessa’s scales, but the Drake took the bee’s stinger—and jabbed it deeper into her hand.

“Ow. Ow.

“Tessa? What are you—”

The Drake had closed her eyes. She grimaced—then let go, and Apista flew back, as unnerved as Lyonette. Tessa stared at her hand, then licked the blood welling from the gash. When she looked up, she was happy. And sad. And slightly insane.

“It hurts. It hurts.

“Yes. It does. Why…why is that good, Tessa?”

The Drake stared at Lyonette.

“It didn’t hurt a while ago. Food tastes like food. I forgot how it tasted. I forgot what water felt like. Blissbloom on the tongue makes it go dead. Phlack powder numbs the…it was like the first time I had Selphid Dust. I want to again. Where’s the Centaur? Dreamleaf isn’t bad. It’s—”

She tried to get up. This time, she went for a window. Lyonette pointed, and the window locked, and Tessa scrabbled at it. Then Lyonette seized the blanket.

“Tessa, you don’t want to relapse.”

“Why not? If the potion cures me—I shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t. A voice in my head tells me not to. I want to.

Sweating, clammy, the Drake looked around for a vial of Faerie Flower tonic. She had countless vials, despite Octavia protesting she never got the glassware back, and she swallowed more of the tonic.

“—Nothing.”

“Tessa. Won’t you come downstairs and socialize with us?”

Lyonette stared at Tessa as Dame Ushar put down a plate of food on the desk. Tessa darted over to it and began to eat with her clawed fingers, not the utensils. She turned to Lyonette.

“I can’t do it. I can’t…a voice says I owe you. I want it. You need to kick me out. Selphid Dust. Next time, I’ll kill everyone. Why didn’t the potion make it so I couldn’t ever take Dreamleaf again? It makes it worse, not better.

A Faerie Flower’s bargain. Lyonette swallowed hard. Just like everything the Faerie Flowers did, there was a great downside for the upside. She put a hand on Tessa’s shoulder.

“I want to help, Tessa. But I don’t know how. Do you think you can put on some clothes? I might—need your help, soon.”

She didn’t want to get into specifics. Tessa stared at Lyonette.

“I can kill anything you want. I can do that.

“Can you—eat breakfast with me and sit in the common room of the inn?”

That was what Lyonette needed. She didn’t want an unpredictable Drake who had no care for herself and knew how to kill. But Tessa? The Drake sat there, shuddering, shivering, licking sauce off her claws.

“I’m sorry. I tried to stop Roshal. I did. They’re good at breaking people. I was already broken.”

She said the same thing she’d said for the last month. Lyonette turned her head away.

“It wasn’t your fault. Put on some clothes and meet me downstairs if you can, Tessa. There’s something odd happening—”

Tessa wasn’t listening. She cut into Lyonette’s conversation, still staring a million miles away.

“It was my fault. Liar.”

So, Lyonette stopped, then rose and nodded to the Drake after a moment. She had to go. The Drake watched Lyonette heading for the garden door. She gave Lyonette a blank, sad look, then stared around at the inn and the room she’d trashed. She kicked an empty vial, then whispered.

“This is a good place. Too good for me. I can’t be cured. So that’s what Hekusha was telling me.”

She seemed relieved by that. After a while, Tessa realized the plate was empty. Then she hunted around and saw there were some folded clothes on her bed. She stared at them—then put on her gear.

 

——

 

For a woman who was complaining about having little to do, Lyonette had a lot to do all of a sudden. She wasn’t done with Tessa, but she had obligations.

One of them that couldn’t wait, that trumped even the box, was Ser Normen. When he called, he didn’t waste time.

“Lyonette. I have a problem. I need your help.”

The [Grandmaster] of the Order of Solstice was standing on a cliff looking out over snowy plains below. He had to own, it was a nice view.

It was a shame he hated heights. But he could see why it was beneficial to be up this high. It gave one a splendid view of the northern plains around which Celum was based. In theory, if Humans had ever settled in large numbers this far out, Normen could imagine the comforts of living near a nice town or city with only a minimal journey to this place.

…Since Celum was the nearest city and the only village close by was fifteen miles away, the nice journey became isolating, which was a benefit and a curse. But he understood why people had settled here, once. Everyone needed to eat, and a reliable source of anything, be it ore, fertile land, or ivory, would have been appealing.

—Unfortunately, the Village of Rheirgest hadn’t ever been as prosperous as they’d hoped. Prosperous enough, but susceptible to the rising and falling call for ivory, which, yes, was a strangely volatile market. At least, it was when [Necromancers] being in the vogue or out of favor were your economy and lifeblood.

If Normen turned his head, he would be able to see the other Knights of Solstice, Jewel, Durene, Vess, and a newly-reborn Antherr, securing packhorses and breaking down the last houses. But he didn’t because it was painfully sad to see children crying or the villagers looking grim faced and worried but trying to seem cheerful.

Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings weren’t good with such things. They tended to hit anything that they felt increased the levels of sadness in the world. But Normen didn’t see a way to fight his way out of this problem.

In a sense, fighting had ruined Rheirgest, when a desperate battle through a blizzard two months past had saved it. All the hard work he’d gone through, and it was wasted…

No, not wasted. The people were alive. Normen turned and saw Rittane, a villager he knew particularly well, and her parents, Dorkel and Leiithe, waiting by the horses. She was looking at her home being torn down piece by piece, ivory loaded on a separate wagon bound for the market. When she saw him looking, she waved. He waved back, his azure armor glinting in the sunlight.

He smiled—then finally heard Lyonette, breathlessly, get back to him.

“Normen, apologies it took a moment to—I’m entering the [World’s Eye Theatre] now. What’s wrong?”

“Rheirgest. They’re almost ready to move out, but they’ve been talking, and I think they’d prefer to move to Liscor…if it’s acceptable. The local villages aren’t any good. That is, they could try to join one, or go to Celum, but even with the money Magnolia Reinhart gave them and their ivory sales, they’d be unable to house everyone.”

“…Pardon?”

At this point, Normen realized Lyonette hadn’t heard from him for the last two weeks. The last they’d talked, he’d been heading to Rheirgest—he froze up and turned red underneath his helmet.

He kept forgetting he was a [Grandmaster] now, not a regular [Knight] or a [Thug]. He tried again.

“Let me explain it. You know how we went to Rheirgest to help them resettle? Now that their ivory source is gone?”

“The…bone giant Magnolia stopped. How could one forget?”

Normen had a vivid memory of it crawling through the Floodplains, looming above everyone and everything, a monster the size of a city as he raised his mace, fighting against Kasigna’s Draugr. He swallowed hard.

“Yes. Well, with it gone—”

“Rheirgest is out of ivory. Of course. I thought they’d just switch to a different, um, product. Or, as you said, join another village. Why Liscor?

“Liscor has the bone giant. They’re all—they have interesting classes, Lyonette. I spoke with their Village Head, master Itelvaunhz, and he believes mining the ivory and, ah, continuing their unique methods of agriculture and so on would be best done around Liscor. There isn’t really enough to sustain the village here, and they’re not well-loved in the nearby settlements. So he thought—”

“—Well, of course that makes sense. Absolutely. And Magnolia’s stipend of funds probably helps with the transit.”

Normen was glad she agreed. He’d been hesitant to agree to Rheirgest’s idea, but he trusted Lyonette. She was, after all, a [Princess], and a fellow assumed they knew how things were. He nodded a few times.

“They’re also selling off their houses. That will cover a lot of costs, though it’ll eat into their coin to resettle. It’d be best if they could just—move each house, but there’s nowhere near enough Chests of Holding we could borrow to move that much ivory. So they’ll sell it and move to Liscor. The thing is—”

“Hold on, ivory? I vaguely recall—their houses are made of bone, aren’t they? Hold still, Normen. I must see this.”

He hesitated, but in less than ten seconds, he saw a telltale glimmer of light, and Lyonette du Marquin, or rather, her projection, stepped out of the air, found herself standing in the empty air past the cliff’s edge, and leapt forwards.

Dead gods! That’s terrifying.”

She clutched at her chest a second, then smiled at Normen.

“Sorry, Normen. It’s been frantic today and yesterday. Has it truly been two weeks? You must have worked hard.”

“Not in any dangerous way. Durene’s pulled more weight than the rest of us…it was mostly loading wagons with ivory.”

“With—of course. Look at that.”

The final house was coming down. The villagers had been sleeping together, or in tents, and they were now deconstructing Rittane’s house piece by piece. They’d made it out of huge blocks of smooth ivory that, despite the years, had worn down little. Bone-white ivory, beautiful even if it was from the bones of a giant, hard and durable—excellent material if you forgot where it was from, and a [Necromancer]’s treasure—was being loaded into a wagon.

Lyonette saw the villagers, just around a hundred and fifty men and women, Humans who’d lived here for generations, staring around a rather barren place that had been their home. But then—it had already been gone before they’d pulled the first house down.

After all, the Giant of Rheirgest was gone. Its absence was rather more dramatic.

“Eternal Throne.”

Lyonette’s head craned up, and she saw the sight Normen had been watching for two weeks. It was as if someone had punched a hole straight through part of this particular mountain that made up the High Passes—and the ensuing month had seen more and more of the mountain crumbling away. Most of it was filled with rubble, including the ‘mine’ that had been set right next to the villagers’ houses.

When Kasigna had animated it, the giant had crushed several houses to dust, though the villagers had sensed the shifting bones and fled long before it had started moving. Even after, the horrific giant of bones had left a literal trail of flattened earth that the snow had covered, but was visible from above, a furrow in the landscape.

That journey had ended in Liscor, just past the main road, and Normen knew that while the Giant had made the trip overnight in hours, the villagers would take days, maybe up to a week, to do the same.

It would be cold, even with the snows about to melt, and dangerous if brigands or monsters attacked. But Normen had less worry about escorting so many with only a handful of people backing him up.

For one—they were the Knights of Solstice. Jewel, Vess, Durene, and Antherr were all exceptionally dangerous. Three of them were over Level 30, and only Antherr’s rebirth had lowered his level. More than that—Rheirgest was more than capable of defending itself.

Lyonette’s amazement at the damage to the mountainside was replaced by sudden, and worrying, nerves. She gazed across the hundred and fifty villagers—then blanched. Because their numbers were closer to two hundred—if you added in the help.

“Are those—skeletons?”

Nearly fifty skeletons, of varying heights and builds, were carrying the ivory to the wagons or tearing down tents. One, as large as a Draugr, with huge, spade-like hands, was digging up the foundations while a pair of undead horses stomped in front of a wagon.

“Rheirgest’s undead. You can see why other villages don’t want them around.”

“Yes…and you want to send them to Liscor? Liscor, where Az’kerash died?”

Headman Itelvaunhz twitched as he turned and saw Lyonette and Normen talking. Instantly, he bowed, as did several villagers, and she waved and smiled, then turned to Normen.

“It…they trust Erin Solstice more than most. Because she helped organize the delivery of food.”

“And you.”

Lyonette gave Normen a pointed look, and he blushed and fiddled with his visor, sliding it down.

“—I can’t help them do more than resettle. So I thought I’d do what I can. That’s why I called. I, ah—I promised Rheirgest’s people I’d help them go wherever’s needed, Lyonette. But I just realized, today, that I hadn’t asked Liscor about Rheirgest’s people moving in. Could you—that is—would you be able to approach someone about it? Whoever that is.”

Lyonette’s face went from amused to concerned in a moment and Normen kicked himself again. No one had brought it up until Durene had wondered aloud where the villagers would settle, and Normen had said in Liscor probably until they could find a spot—and then Jewel had asked how much that would cost to rent that many rooms.

It was the kind of thing a [Grandmaster] ought to think of. Normen wasn’t a regular [Knight]. He should have asked before he even left. Worse, he was used to Erin being here, so he’d taken it for granted it would just…happen.

If Ser Solton, the Knight of Haegris, could see Normen now, he’d shake his head at the younger [Knight]. The Order of Haegris knew full well how hard it was to do this sort of thing. All Normen could do was beg for help.

Thankfully, Lyonette’s face cleared, and she nodded and took a breath.

“It’ll take days for Rheirgest to get to Liscor, won’t it, Normen? That gives me time. Let me petition Liscor’s Council. I’ll see if they can find a place for Rheirgest’s folk. Maybe even free housing until they can set up a village? It’ll have to be fast if they want to avoid the spring floods, and it’s not easy to just relocate that many people. You need hills. Maybe the Antinium could help? Give me until the afternoon, and I’ll hopefully have news.”

Normen exhaled, grateful.

Thank you, Lyonette. We’ll be heading towards Celum, and if we can use the door, that would be splendid. If not, it’s possible to do the rest of the journey on foot.”

“You might have to send the wagons overland if you have a lot of possessions, but I’ll let Liska know and see how much she thinks she can transport. I’d better get on that quickly. It would be good to have the Order of Solstice back as well.”

Something about how she said it, too casually, made Normen look up swiftly.

“Trouble?”

“No…possibly. Nothing urgent, I hope, but it’s nice to have people I can rely on around. There’s been more updates. But I’ll tell you when you’re back. Don’t rush, and, ah, ah—keep the undead hidden, perhaps?”

“No fear, Lyonette. They’ll keep all but the horses hidden, and we have a good lie—we’ll say Pisces animated them.”

Lyonette blinked, then laughed.

“Pisces! Good idea. But aren’t [Knights] supposed to tell the truth?”

“I didn’t swear an oath to do that.”

Normen replied, and she smiled—right before turning.

“Dame Ushar is giving you an approving nod. I must go, Normen, but I’ll be on the job.”

“Ah, one more thing, Lyonette?”

Normen caught her before she could vanish, and she turned back obligingly. He leaned over—and nearly fell off the cliff—as she bent closer to hear.

“There is something that could be valuable. Perhaps you could give it to Liscor to sweeten the deal?”

“Oh?”

Normen pointed at the hole left in the mountain.

“When the Giant of Rheirgest left, before the mountain started collapsing, some of the villagers inspected the wake it left. They think they saw something in the mountains that resembled a structure. Something made by people. But no one wanted to risk getting hurt, so they could only send a few skeletons to check it out. It’s a network of caves. Maybe a dungeon or something buried?”

Lyonette’s eyes lit up with fascination.

“That’s…valuable. I can’t imagine anyone but an adventurer would pay for it, but I’ll tell Liscor’s Council if I may.”

“Please do. We—the Order of Solstice, that is—aren’t likely to want to go exploring dungeons. None of us save Jewel does traps, and we can’t spare the time. If it’s a bargaining chip or whatnot, I think it’s best used, as it were.”

“Then I’ll begin asking. Thank you, Normen!”

Lyonette gave Normen a big smile, and he regretted dumping the problem in her lap. He’d do less of that, he promised himself, once they built a keep.

…It occurred to Normen he was going to need help funding and finding a place for that too. He sighed. He had gotten this far purely on the generosity, trust, and help of many people like Erin. Someday, he would have to start repaying that debt.

 

——

 

The handy thing about having a staff was delegation. The moment Lyonette got Normen’s request, she sighed, then asked Yelroan to head down to City Hall to put in an urgent request to the Council.

“We could file a request through the main desk. But Normen left it hanging, so if you could find a way to speed that up, Yelroan?”

The [Mathematician] nodded.

“I’ll just have them treat it like a request from The Wandering Inn. I’ve heard those get expedited.”

“We shouldn’t cut the line—”

He scratched his chin and shook his head amiably.

“Yes, we should. Everyone else tries. We’re just better at it.”

That made her smile. Lyonette sat back and thought about checking on Tessa, but she had no time.

“Lyonette, I’m back. I got the garlic to Magnolia and phrased it right. You’ll have an answer by early afternoon or late evening. You are also paying for a certain old man’s meals.”

“A small price to pay, Ishkr. How did you convince him?”

The Gnoll strode out from behind the bar as Lyonette re-entered the common room, and she smiled at him. He looked rather pleased with himself.

“I just treated it like a challenge and mentioned we have a new dish on the menu.”

“—Calescent hasn’t invented a new dish. Has he? The garlic pasta surely doesn’t count.”

Ishkr shrugged.

“Anything Demsleth hasn’t eaten is a new dish.”

Well, that simplified that. Lyonette began to feel more in control of things once again. Yes, there were problems, but no one had exploded into flames, and there was no drama to be had. Soon, they’d have a more concrete answer as to this garlic phenomena.

Unfortunately, Lyonette was then met with a piece of paper as she was about to sit down and write a formal letter to Paeth asking them to connect her with Erin. A solemn quartet of children filed up to the table, and Lyonette saw Mrsha offer her a sealed envelope with a serious face.

“Er—hello. Can I help you, Lords Veltras? Mrsha? Nanette?”

“Please read the letter, Miss Lyonette.”

Nanette’s eyes were twinkling, but she kept her face straight and her hands clasped behind her back. Lyonette eyed Mrsha, and her mind flashed to a few scenarios.

Mrsha’s broken something. Mrsha wants to eat dessert. The children want to do something in Invrisil or Pallass.

She unsealed the envelope and found it was none of the above. Rather, it was a petition. The writing was definitely Mrsha’s.

 

Dear Miss Lyonette,

We, the undersigned, would like to present you with a formal petition to return the ‘Wand of Ironwood’, heretofore referred to as ‘the wand’, to the possession of ourselves that we might fulfill Hethon’s promise and/or a debt of profound gratitude.

It has not escaped our notice that you have deliberately hidden and lied about your possession of said wand, and we, the undersigned, find this both a dereliction of your own friendship to Ryoka Griffin and parental duties as a mother not to lie.

Whereas you may object that the wand is Ryoka Griffin’s property and therefore not in any person’s said custody, I remind you that stewardship of The Wandering Inn does not convey upon you any material claim to goods of your guests. Furthermore, as Ryoka Griffin is also affiliated with House Veltras, custodianship of her possessions is therefore the purview of Hethon and Sammial Veltras.

If you would be so good as to return the wand posthaste with sufficient apologies (dessert may suffice), we will consider the matter dropped. If not, we, the undersigned, will have no choice but to escalate this matter to concerned parties such as Enchanter Hedault, who will doubtless be displeased to learn his wand has been purloined in such a perfidious matter for little good cause. Thank you,

—Mrsha du Marquin, Nanette the Witch, Lord Sammial Veltras, Lord Hethon Veltras.

 

It was a beautifully made letter. Lyonette admired the calligraphy as a mother. As a [Princess]—she hated petitions. So she compromised.

“Thank you, Mrsha dear!”

She patted Mrsha on the head. Then tore up the petition. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Lyonette handed the pieces of the petition to Ushar.

“Have these [Repaired], and please file it with Mrsha’s other works, Ushar.”

“Yes, milady.”

For some reason, Lyonette swore she saw Ushar mouth ‘told you so’ at Nanette and Mrsha, but it must have been something else. Mrsha stomped her foot.

“But Lyonette—”

Nanette saw Lyonette’s narked expression, and her tone grew sweeter.

“I mean, Miss Lyonette, the wand’s quite important, and Hethon’s chosen.”

Sammial jumped up and down.

“By the weird people! He’s got to take the wand back! It’s a manner of honor for House Veltras! I’m going too!”

Hethon bowed, the most composed, but the most nervous of the bunch.

“I did promise, Miss Lyonette. And Ryoka’s also said the wand is vital. If you could return it, maybe it would help her?”

They looked at her, and Lyonette crossed her arms.

“No. The wand and whomever those people are are dangerous. They did save you, but until I know more about them, I’m not letting you visit them.”

“But, Miss Lyonette—”

“You can’t—”

Mother! Don’t be stupid!

Mrsha’s signed protest earned her a stomp on the foot too late. Lyonette’s eyes narrowed. She reversed what she’d been about to say and stood up.

“Stupid? Watch your tongue—your paws, little Miss Mrsha! I’m not the one being foolish, and if that’s how you’re going to ask, we may consider the matter dropped. If you press the point, then you and everyone else may go without dessert tonight.”

“Good going, dummy.”

Sammial glared at Mrsha, who looked so astounded to be lectured by him of all people she was lost for words. Then she began to protest—until Nanette wisely dragged her back.

Tyrant! Bully! I mean, nothing, Mother!

Lyonette scowled as she strode away from Mrsha, and the girl furiously signed at her back. The children were left staring gloomily at each other. Then they ran off to plot how to find and steal the wand.

 

——

 

“We have to get the wand! You said a petition would work!”

Hethon was so frustrated he kicked a wall in his room afterwards, and then looked quite embarrassed. He was unusually worked up about the wand.

“I said it might work. Lyonette likes formal appeals. Give us time. Trying to steal it again is impossible unless we find clues to where she’s hidden it. Mrsha, can you bribe Apista?”

Forsooth, the tricky bee won’t accept a cookie! I shall continue to offer her sweets.

Mrsha held up a note, and Hethon paced back and forth. Nanette eyed him as she sat on his bed, dangling her feet. She was, oddly, on his side, and Mrsha was here, probably like Sammial, because she was bored, and this was a lot of fun.

But it was personal to Hethon in a way that Nanette, a witch, noticed.

“Why are you so insistent on getting it now, Hethon? Is it just because you want to help Ryoka? Or your oath?”

“Yes—well, not just that.”

Hethon was slightly embarrassed to be treated so seriously. He did value the oath, but he was hardly like his father who would rather lose a hand than forswear himself. But he was passionate for other reasons. He turned and tried to explain to Nanette, cheeks going a bit red. Again.

“House Veltras needs…that is to say, the Vale Forest has always been significant to my family. It’s still our treasure, in a sense. Half the family at least lives within ten miles of it, but it’s not the legendary Great Forest of old. Everyone says back in the day, there used to be a lot more magical plants and animals and those folk. Then the forest waned.”

“Well, yes. Because your ancestors cut down the Great Trees and helped drive the last Treants into the sea.”

The witch replied like a stab to the heart. Hethon felt injured and attacked, glaring.

“I didn’t—”

“I never said you, just your ancestors. Don’t put words in my mouth, Hethon Veltras, please.”

Trust a witch to hold a grudge on someone else’s behalf. Even Mrsha, an actual [Druid], wasn’t so sharp-tongued. Hethon clenched his teeth.

“What I meant was that it sounded like they needed my help. Maybe if we help them…”

“They said they are dead.”

Sammial interrupted, and Hethon hesitated.

“Well—at the very least, it won’t hurt. Someone has to help. House Veltras isn’t poor. It’s not like the House of El! But after the Circle of Thorns and with Oswen…”

He swallowed suddenly, and Sammial’s face went blank. The boy had been sitting on the floor, but he got up and jumped face-first onto Hethon’s bed.

Oswen. Gone. Hethon couldn’t believe it.

Everyone he had stayed with when Ryoka was taken—obliterated, save for Buscrei and Reneil and Palac. Vanished. The town, the tree-houses. The otterdogs—

They said there was a huge rift across the entire area. The waters had rushed in, and no one knew how deep it went. Buscrei had gone back, after the Solstice battle, to see her home.

Nanette’s not-a-glare softened, and Mrsha bowed her head. The white Gnoll girl gave Hethon a sympathetic look, then handed him a note filled with pain.

They can’t bring Oswen back. No matter who they are.

He wanted to tear the note up in front of the younger girl’s soulful eyes, but Hethon was reminded that she, too, had lost her tribe. He turned abruptly.

“No. But I can at least do something.”

Nanette and Mrsha looked at each other. Mrsha patted Sammial on the back as the boy looked up at his older brother, and Nanette adjusted a hat she didn’t have. Then scowled as she felt at her bare head.

“And that’s why we’re helping. Come on. We were nice. Now it’s time for blackmail.”

Hethon started. Mrsha sat up with a big smile and cracked her knuckles. Hethon awkwardly stepped over and reflected that, for all their faults, these girls did have a commendable way of getting things done.

“How do you blackmail someone?”

Once again, they gave him a look as if they couldn’t believe he’d never done it before.

 

——

 

The [Princess] was so annoyed she stomped upstairs and threw herself into her bed. There she lay, angry, tired, and wishing she had someone to confide in.

That someone turned out to be Dame Ushar and Apista, both of whom buzzed into the room after a single knock.

“Ushar, please tell me the children haven’t tried to steal the wand.”

“No, Your Highness. Not yet. I have some tea, and I believe Apista hasn’t been fed. I took the liberty of making up some sugar water.”

And she’d brought a snack, which turned out to be a garlic flavored pretzel. Lyonette scowled at it, knowing Calescent had made it with dubious box-garlic, but it was hot, buttered, and she was cold, so she took the tea and nibbled on the pretzel, wishing it didn’t taste good. Apista landed and began to drink from a bowl of sugary water, and Lyonette petted her bee with one hand.

Some days, she longed to be a [Princess] raising a little bee with less concerns and a less-mouthy daughter.

“Did you hear—I mean, see her insulting me, Ushar? Mrsha? She used to be the most darling little Gnoll girl.”

“Your Highness remembers a time before I arrived. I can only take your word for Miss Mrsha’s saintly qualities before, even if all evidence makes me doubt that assertion.”

Dame Ushar’s comment made Lyonette smile—then scowl.

“She was! Oh, she was afraid of me, the poor girl, but she warmed up after she stopped biting. Then she was only a bit of a rascal.”

“Stealing food. Getting into trouble. Trying to kill the Hobgoblins?”

Lyonette had conveniently forgotten about that. She glowered as she chewed, and Apista buzzed her wings.

“…She’s a bit of a handful. But she treats me like I’m dull as a brick and unwilling to see reason! If she hadn’t insulted me to my face—”

Ushar was smiling. Lyonette glared.

“What? I am reasonable.”

The Thronebearer ducked her head.

“Your Highness, you sound like every parent to their child. It is your duty to be the responsible, and thus, boring and cautious one. Miss Mrsha is impatient. If you’d like, I could reason with her.”

“Reason? With Mrsha? Nanette, you might, but Mrsha respects no adults. Except maybe Erin and sometimes Bird and Numbtongue. Maybe if General Zel was alive—”

“I could pretend to be on their side, Your Highness. It’s the thing Thronebearers do. Of course, that means helping them break the rules now and then, but I would be watching them rather than them escaping me. And I would report any substantive incidents to you.”

Ushar offered carefully. Lyonette thought about it as Apista tried a piece of her pretzel. The bee buzzed her wings at Ushar and twirled her antennae, but Lyonette shushed her with one finger and gave Ushar a grateful look.

Would you? That would be helpful. Just go and check on them and tell me if they get up to mischief.”

“As you command, Your Highness.”

Ushar got up instantly, bowed, and departed. Lyonette waited until she sensed Ushar heading downstairs in pursuit of the children. Then she let out the snort she’d been holding in. Apista rolled onto her back and flailed her good legs and her prosthetic ones in the air, as if she were laughing herself off her feet.

“Did you hear that, Apista? Did she just—? She really thought I didn’t know she was asking permission to ‘look after’ Mrsha and Nanette? Dead gods, she’s sharp, but she must forget that the sisters and I did talk. My Thronebearers tried that on me when I was seven.

She shook her head ruefully, and Apista flew around her, jabbing her stinger lightly. The Ashfire Bee didn’t think in words Lyonette understood, but the [Princess] got the meaning. She held up a hand, amused.

“No, Apista. I don’t need you to sting her in the…bum to make her shape up. Ushar’s cunning enough, and I think she’s loyal. She’s just Calanferian. It makes sense to have my approval. I just wish I could trust her with everything. I wish you could talk or I had a confidant. Here we are with more Erin-problems again, and she’s not even here.

Lyonette lay back in her bed with a sigh, and Apista landed on Lyonette’s head and tried to give her a painful scalp massage with her spiky feet. The [Princess] stared at the ceiling.

It would be nice to have someone I could trust. Not just Yelroan or Ishkr or Ushar. But—an equal. A peer. Erin was sort of that, but she was also my superior. Who’s…my rank?

Not just in terms of class, but position, in what they did, or where they were. Lyonette thought of Selys, but the Drake hadn’t come to the inn after Tekshia had died. Krshia was busy, and the Earthers weren’t the same.

Rose. I need to see why she’s come back. Homesick? Tired of the Gnolls? It will be good to have her, if she’s less—youthful than when she was here last.

Youthful. Rose was as old as Lyonette, who was turning nineteen this month. No, wait. She was technically younger because years in this world were longer than those of Earth. But the point was—

There was only one person who sprang to mind as a—a kind of person in the same boat. Someone she wished was hanging around the inn who she could talk to. In fact, Lyonette almost wished she’d gone with him, but she had to take care of the inn, and he’d said he’d send for her once they needed her help.

That was, of course, Wall Lord Ilvriss. He was planning to dig up a Walled City in the north, and Lyonette would help. Surely, but he had been shifting [Miners] towards his destination; even with the door, he had to organize transport, food, lodging, and she hadn’t heard from him in ages.

She’d rather enjoyed his company in Oteslia. Saliss’ too. Ilvriss was a Wall Lord, but he also seemed to understand that, at times, he and Lyonette were both swept up behind Erin, clearing the path, guarding her back, but content to not fight for the tiller and do what they could while she charged an army.

If only Rags were here more often. I might be friends with Rags. Or…if only Bethal hadn’t turned traitor. Or Pryde not been hurt.

Both [Ladies] had vanished after the battle, one to her lands to recuperate, the other going on the lam. Lyonette assumed Lady Bethal Walchaís was alive, despite Magnolia Reinhart’s wrath. Apparently, the Five Families hadn’t wanted to see more noble blood spilt.

Magnolia would never forgive Bethal. Lyonette wasn’t sure if she’d be able to. For one moment, Lyonette had had peers. She rolled over in her bed, indulging in self-pity for a moment. Then she sat up and remembered.

“Wait a second. I have one peer left who I could talk to. Surely. Why, we’re so alike. We’re both fashionable, mothers, live in the same location, and we have troublesome children to deal with.”

Despite the telepathic bond that linked Apista and Lyonette, the bee didn’t follow Lyonette’s trail of thought and realize whom Lyonette was talking to until the [Princess] was hurrying out the door. Apista followed until she finally figured out who it was, and it took Apista until they were literally knocking on the door. Even then, Lyonette kept shooing the bee because Apista was projecting intense skepticism at her.

 

——

 

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle and Lyonette were exactly the same, really, when you thought hard about it. They both had a certain, oh, flair for style and refinement. Both were mothers. Both, arguably, were newcomers to Liscor who couldn’t remain in their homes for personal reasons.

True, Colfa might have been twice Lyonette’s age, but another thing was true: Colfa did indeed have a bit of time on her hands.

“It is ze weather, Lyonette.”

Colfa waved a hand as she offered Lyonette some more tea and fresh cheese. From some goats, apparently. The farm was sort of quiet. There was Himilt, who had nodded at Lyonette as she came in, but kept milking goats in the barn, and also the ranch-style home and…

No one else.

No Rivel. No Bamer. Lyonette had felt guilty when she remembered the old Vampire’s death, but Colfa had welcomed her, Dalimont, and Apista in so warmly it had been clear she’d been lonely. And bored.

“Not much crop farming to do in the winter?”

Lyonette hazarded a guess, and Colfa sighed.

“If we wanted to, a lot, actually. There are winter crops, but most are magical, and Himilt and I thought it would be better to properly build out this farm. For the springs. We chose a very large hill because we knew it would rain, and I was preparing for having to herd animals in this weather.”

She gestured at the various goats, some of whom would just wander around the house. Like Fluffles IV. Lyonette nodded seriously.

“Is it possible? Wouldn’t animals go a bit crazy without much space to roam?”

“Oh, it is. Some [Shepherds] take their flocks outside of Liscor, but others have found you can build a bridge to a nearby farm; sort of trade the animals so they don’t feel like they’re in the same spot. Goats? Goats aren’t as picky about being cooped up. We’ve more shoring up of the foundations to do, but—I just don’t know if we need this house anymore. With Bamer and Rivel gone—it’s just the two of us.”

“I see.”

Lyonette swallowed hard. Colfa stared past Lyonette at a worn leather armchair. She didn’t cry—she was very upright, very distinguished, despite the rash that often plagued her, covered by a scarf and long dress. But her red irises reflected what her tone of voice did not.

“He would fall asleep there all the time. I knew he’d pass sooner or later. He was old for—for us. You understand? We all knew one day we’d find him—passed. But I never expected him to be a hero. He always told Rivel and Fierre not to. You know? Because we’re—”

Vampires. It was something unspoken that Lyonette didn’t understand, despite Erin telling her what it meant a few times. They’d helped Himilt and Colfa and Fierre hide their identities, even given Rivel a suit of armor to cover his crimes against House Byres.

Lyonette…hoped Rivel was okay. Niers had claimed he was in the company of Rabbiteater and the others, but he was a continent away. Colfa had to be worried. But she seemed just as uncomfortable talking about her nature as she did about death.

“I, um, if the farm’s too empty, could you hire [Farmhands]? For the work.”

Colfa blinked and looked at Lyonette, then smiled and poured more tea.

“For the farm? We don’t need it. Himilt works from afternoon till dawn; farming is in his bones. I just meant the farm itself. Fierre doesn’t come back home; she claims she’s too busy serving that [Lady]. Does she look well? She’s at the inn still, right?”

“Most of the time. We, uh, had a lot of garlic in this morning, so she’s been gone.”

Colfa shrugged.

“She’s more sensitive than I am. Himilt would be sneezing; I can smell it on your breath.”

“Oh, I’m sorry—”

Lyonette flushed, but Colfa just shrugged.

“It’s like a dust allergy if it’s not fresh or I’m not eating it. Fierre’s true to the blood. I? I have the advantage of being a pretender, of sorts. One could call it the best of both worlds. Or the worst.”

She laughed, glancing down at her too-pale skin, which was abnormally cold. And Colfa was stronger than most people, even with Skills. But she had no levels, and while the normal weaknesses of Vampires were mitigated, save perhaps true silver—she took sick and could die of it.

Lyonette didn’t know why, only that Colfa’s family had fled the north, which was cursed in some way. She didn’t know Colfa that well—but she burst out after a moment.

“Well, I’m glad you stayed. With Bethal gone and Pryde disfig…injured, I missed having people to talk to. Won’t you come to the inn more? I could use the company.”

“Me? Lyonette, my dear. I am twice your age. Even if it’s traditional with my people to associate with those far younger, vell—”

Colfa gave Lyonette a toothy grin and looked a bit aghast, but Lyonette saw her brighten up at the suggestion.

“Won’t you, Colfa? I could even add a new destination on Liska’s door.”

Really? You can do that?”

“Yes! All of Erin’s Skills—most of them—I can access. Think about it. You could come by for breakfast, and I could confide in someone besides Ushar or the staff. I don’t know any women around my age.”

Colfa looked pleased to be included in the ‘my age’ reference. She drummed her painted fingers on a side table, and Lyonette blinked.

She paints her nails even with all the snow and a farmer’s job? How does she keep them so pristine? Skills? She has no Skills!

“I had no idea you were so isolated. Surely there’s someone you could confide in? Goblins…well, I suppose they don’t have the same worries. A Drake?”

Lyonette’s face fell.

“—There is Selys. But she hasn’t spoken to me since her grandmother passed. I’ve tried to talk to her, but she doesn’t open the door to the mansion when I go to call. And Zevara is often busy with the new Watch Commander. Truly, Colfa. Won’t you come by more?”

Colfa dithered for a moment, glancing at the other room and murmuring to herself.

“Himilt will be lonely—but then, he does seem to have a companion in that Wailant fellow. And there’s the farm—but one can hire a [Farmhand], and arguably, the less we two are around, the less oddities—it wouldn’t do for me to drag down a [Princess].”

“I’m no [Princess] at the inn. Just Lyonette, the acting [Innkeeper].”

Lyonette protested mildly. But to her surprise, that comment was met with an arched eyebrow. Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle drew herself up and adjusted her old-fashioned dress that made her look like the royalty of gothic farmers of old.

“Ah, that last comment was not a true concern of mine, Lyonette. My people have often associated well with royalty and the nobility. I have complete confidence in myself—if you’d have me. I can be, as my daughter assures me, haughty at times.”

Her eyes twinkled, and one of her canines appeared in a rare toothy smile. Lyonette beamed in delight with Colfa. Right up until Lyonette remembered the inn was full of garlic.

 

——

 

Colfa gave Lyonette a head start to get back to the inn with her [Knight], Ser…Dalimont, was it? She didn’t know. She should make a point to remember the man’s name and the other one. Had a third one perished during the Solstice?

Be it ever so embarrassing to admit, she did not have a complete memory of The Wandering Inn’s staff and had to genuinely remind herself which girl was Nanette and which was Mrsha.

Naturally, she had been present at the inn enough times to remember the highlights. She’d gone exploring, which was odd to say about a singular building, but each room had had something odd, like the weights room, or another room where Antinium ‘prayed’.

Fascinating, and of course, there had been the beach. That wonderful place that would never be open again. It saddened Colfa to think of, and the Solstice had been terrifying, and she had lit candles for Bamer every night.

Yet, and yet. She honestly had not thought she would ever go back as more than an occasional, hopefully well thought-of, guest.

Everyone said they would keep in touch. Colfa had quite enjoyed the two [Ladies] and Lyonette, especially given how she’d met Bethal and Lyonette fighting a fish in the dead of winter. That left an impact. But she hadn’t expected the [Ladies] to really, actually remember her.

In Colfa’s experience, you could run into a nobleman or noblewoman and help them out of a rut in the road, introduce yourself while they had an axle repaired at your farm, treat them to tea, and impress them with your name.

The Lischelles? Of course! Practically royalty among farmers in your own right—I think I have a scarf made of Lischelle cotton. How do you do?

They’d shake your hand, invite you to one day have a brunch with them, drive off, and not remember you when you met in the market a month later. Lyonette was a friendly young woman who rubbed shoulders with famous and powerful people. There was no reason for her to remember Colfa’s name—unless of course it was because Colfa was a Vampire.

That scared Colfa, so she sought out Himilt after she put a warm cloak around herself and found her boots.

“Himilt. I’ve been invited to The Wandering Inn by that Lyonette. As a—friend. She seems to want to make a regular occurrence of it.”

He was almost done milking the goats in the unfinished kitchen. They’d put up the house in time and gotten the walls and roof done, but the kitchen was unpainted; they’d put down good stone walls instead of cheaper stucco.

Around Liscor, stucco was apparently the material of choice for homes. You could use traditional stone or wood, but it took a lot of effort and, in the case of wood, wasn’t common enough. But the val Lischelle-Drakle Vampires had lived in an old keep of stone and taken the effort to replicate that in what they hoped would be a long-term home. They’d conceded to the look of houses around here by applying the stucco over the stones.

All that meant was that the house wouldn’t fall over even if one of those Rock Crabs hit it, and if anyone tried to punch through a wall in a fit of anger, they’d break all their fingers.

—It needed painting to give it life indoors, and the wooden cooking countertop was unvarnished. Everything needed hours of work to make homely.

The goats did not help with the sense of clutter, but they knew better than to eat anything not put in a feed bowl. One caught nibbling would get to sit in the lonely barn with the new cows, and besides…they made the home feel more lively with everyone gone.

Bamer, Rivel, Fierre. Colfa saw Himilt look up; he had his boots on and had tracked in some mud. He avoided her pointed look.

“She’s a friendly young woman.”

Why are you asking me? Colfa bit her lip with one fang.

“I might not go long.”

Himilt glanced out the window.

“It’s a cold day. Might as well have a cup of something. I’m going to take the milk to market and see how it sells. Then I might see how much it costs to have the Antinium build up the hill a bit. If we hire a [Farmhand] or two, we can plant heavy. Even on another hill if we connect it with bridges.”

“How will the crops survive the rain?”

He shrugged.

“According to local [Farmers], you build a temporary roof. Set down wards against water settling in the ground if you can afford them. There’s a local [Aegiscaster]. At the inn, actually.”

It all sounded incredibly expensive to Colfa, who was used to farming in Reizmelt. Not always cheap in labor or costs in itself, but growing anything in rainy Liscor sounded like a nightmare. She sighed.

Apparently, many of the citizens fish or do related work in the spring. Fancy being a [Fisher]?”

He smiled, drat him.

“I may have commissioned some nets and hooks.”

No wonder he’d been suspiciously eager to move to Liscor of all places. Colfa could just imagine him sitting and fishing; he’d always tried in the local ponds and streams to limited success. She pursed her lips.

“At least I won’t have to worry about you being eaten by what you catch. Himilt, I could finish setting up the silo.”

“We have time. I could work on it tonight. Go have fun.”

Himilt barely glanced outside at the half-finished grain silo. Colfa insisted, sitting down to lace up her boots.

“And tomorrow? If Lyonette invites me tomorrow?”

“Seems snowy tomorrow. If I don’t see you, I’ll go visit Wailant.”

He was avoiding the subject. Colfa stared at him as he measured the milk into a container.

“—Himilt. Are you still planning on sending Bamer’s ashes north?”

The other Vampire didn’t respond right away. When he did, he glanced towards the fireplace and metal container sitting on the mantle.

“…I’m going to see someone in Riverfarm about a yew casket like he wanted. That’ll save us a bit on costs. I think it’d be simplest to have a good [Driver] take it north. Someone respectful. City Runners get leery about that kind of thing.”

Couriers were out of the question. Colfa began to count.

“So a stop in Reizmelt—and he wanted to be buried where?”

“Yolta. I plan on sending a letter with a note to the Merchant’s Guild to have it done by a [Gravekeeper] there.”

Old Bamer had probably never thought they’d leave Reizmelt. Casket, delivery that far, and burial…there was no body to bury.

“That’s what his will said? He didn’t want to be buried on the farm?”

Himilt scratched at his neck where the swelling of his skin was covered by a scarf.

“He wrote it back when he and I didn’t know each other as well. I would’ve buried him with the family—but the land’s no longer ours. Yolta will do. He wanted it, Colfa.”

“Of course. I’m not saying it’s wrong—just that it’s expensive. You should do it. But I should have a lovely evening with Lyonette and be back tomorrow. How about that?”

“—Mm. We’ll make it through the spring. We have everything we need.”

Seed, yes. Animals, yes, though they’d sold quite a lot to finance the move south and simply because they couldn’t take so many. But magical enchantments for the fields? Finishing the home and the cost of farming and outwaiting the spring?

“Go enjoy yourself, Colfa.”

Himilt glanced over his shoulder at the door, and Colfa sat there, arms folded as his eyes flicked to her, then indicated something to the side. She was too upset, in a quiet sort of way, to pay attention.

“Just don’t work all night. I’ll ask the [Aegiscaster] about prices myself while I’m there. If we have to sell, let’s sell the sheep first. They’ll be unhappy with the rain unless we can somehow graze them in…Riverfarm? We’d never afford that even if we could move them through the door. If Bamer and Rivel were here, they could herd them up to Esthelm. Otherwise, we’ll sell—”

She was working down a cold list she’d made in her head before of the animals they could afford to sell that were the least profitable, even if they were part of the family in a way.

Only when Himilt’s eyes jerked left twice did Colfa’s voice slow and she realize he’d sensed something.

Damn Himilt. He had always been a Vampire, so there were times his senses were far more honed into things than hers. Colfa only realized Lyonette had come back and was standing in the living room when she turned her head and sensed the blood behind her.

“Oh, Lyonette.”

Embarrassment didn’t begin to cover it. But Colfa had been embarrassed before and smiled blandly, and saw the [Princess] was red-cheeked, which meant she’d heard too much.

“I, uh—had forgotten to drop off a little gift. Don’t worry, it’s not garlic, and we’ll have that out of the inn by the time you—would you take some cookies?”

Ah, the cookies. Colfa accepted them, audibly admiring the little Goblins and stars drawn on them with—frosting? Sugar. Himilt peered at the cookies in a way that made Colfa suspect they would become his meals for the next few days, and he grabbed a goat who tried to beg for one.

“I’m almost ready, Lyonette. Would you give me another few minutes to get to the inn?”

“Of course. Sorry for interrupting, ah—”

Lyonette bowed herself out fast. The silence that was left thereafter was long enough that Colfa did feel her cheeks warm, but only faintly.

Financial troubles. Colfa came from the Lischelle household where they had conquered those woes long ago in her lineage. Himilt, a Vampire unable to make use of Skills, had been more familiar with those woes, but they’d done well enough in Reizmelt over time.

“The move was necessary. If Rivel and Bamer were here, we’d have the hands, and I’d have asked the other [Farmers] if they wanted us to drive their sheep north for the spring.”

“Rivel would have hated that. Or enjoyed it. I could never tell with him. Himilt—I shouldn’t waste time.”

He hugged her one-armed with that pained look he sometimes wore. A Vampire who’d introduced a mortal Human girl into his life. Well, she’d asked. But he always seemed to think it was his fault.

“Go have fun. We had to move. Bamer must’ve saved a hundred lives.”

“A thousand.”

She wiped at her eyes. Himilt nodded.

“We’ll continue onwards. Maybe see if some of the others want to work with us. It’ll be a hard spring, but Rivel’s safe enough. He’s got armor. Fierre’s working for a [Lady]. And we’re away from the curse.”

Silver in the blood. If they had more children, or other Vampires who escaped the north and all these hunts reproduced or more were sired, there might be a generation of Vampires with powers and no sickness once more. It was a bitter thing, but Fierre was cured.

Think of that. Keep walking onwards.

Colfa sighed and then brushed at her eyes. She stood up and shared a kiss with Himilt. Then she went to keep a lonely [Princess] company. She laughed as she walked into the snow at what a ridiculous thing that was. Almost like all her dreams of majesty and myths when she was a girl.

 

——

 

Lyonette felt like a real Erin sometimes. And by that she meant—thoughtless. She wasn’t sure if she regretted remembering her gift to Colfa and going back and overhearing all that.

Some things you should pretend you hadn’t heard. Everyone had their woes, but this one made Lyonette guilty.

Bamer was dead. She remembered the Vampire, vaguely, as that tall, gaunt fellow who was even less jocular than Himilt. She hadn’t seen him die, only heard that he’d somehow brought down one of the bat-undead things before it could attack Liscor.

He was a name on a long list of people who’d given everything to stop Kasigna or protect Liscor. Of course, it hurt the val Lischelle-Drakles more than Lyonette. She hadn’t known they also had financial woes.

I should have just pretended I hadn’t heard. [Straight Face]. Why didn’t I get a Skill like that? Could I offer to help pay for the funeral? She’d never accept, but I should. Maybe if I talked to Termin or Rhaldon?

“Your Highness. I’m sure that Master Himilt and Miss Colfa weren’t overly offended. They seem like stalwart people.”

Dalimont must have sensed Lyonette’s embarrassment, because he offered a comment as they trudged back towards The Wandering Inn. Via Liscor, actually; it was a shorter walk through the portal door.

Lyonette was grateful for the commentary.

“I’m sure they are. I feel guilty, Dalimont. Could we prevail on Master Termin whenever he appears around the inn?”

“Of course, Your Highness. That’s a quite reasonable offer I am sure they would accept. We could also pay Termin to offer them a discount.”

Now there was the kind of sideways logic a Thronebearer employed. Lyonette half-smiled at him, then walked into the snow, head bowed.

“—There’s no way we could simply offer them some gold, is there? We aren’t rolling in it ourselves—”

But we are one of the most profitable inns in the entire region. Put it like this: even though Erin Solstice didn’t have a great business-sense and she had costs like ‘accidentally destroyed Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild’, she was probably miles beyond any regular [Innkeeper] in profits.

No one under Level…40 could hope to match someone who could sell as much food and drink in a single night as Erin. A wild night on the town in, say, Invrisil might put you ahead of Erin until you factored in the money her door pulled in, her sales of magical food to adventurers, or…

The top inns in Invrisil, Pallass, and certainly Larracel’s Haven were doubtless superior to The Wandering Inn, but they had several thousand gold pieces stored at the Merchant’s Guild and a decent amount in the vault in the gardens. A splendid amount for anyone but a Gold-rank adventurer or someone buying magic.

“Your Highness, I don’t believe that would work.”

Dalimont’s reply was cautious. Lyonette knew he was right, but pressed anyways.

“If we offered it as an—an—well, not blood money for Bamer’s death, but a kind of recompense for—?”

The Thronebearer thought and replied carefully. He touched the sword at his side as they passed by a huge lump in the snow, but decided it wasn’t a Rock Crab in disguise. He was over Level 30 and, at least for fighting, better than Dame Ushar.

“They are a proud folk. They remind me of the common folk of Noelictus. I spent much time around the people of Afiele.”

“You mentioned it. I don’t recall where Afiele is…”

“The province of Ovela, nominally, on Noelictus’ border with Ailendamus, Your Highness. Afiele is a poor agricultural town and a handful of villages. Poor—but very decent, brave folk. If you were their liege-lady or the crown, they would accept your generosity. You are not. Help is welcome if needed direly, but I believe even the Singer of Terandria found she could not simply give gold away.”

That reminded Lyonette that Dalimont knew Cara O’Sullivan. He’d been with her and Seraphel, Lyonette’s older sister, for a number of adventures. She exhaled.

“Did she try?”

Dalimont crooked half a smile.

“I believe she sent gold back numerous times to help with reconstruction. Earlier in her career, it was limited; your older sister sent snacks, mainly. Gifts from the capital city of Menorome via Courier.”

“—That sounds out of touch.”

Lyonette imagined someone sending expensive sweets when people were starving, but Dalimont corrected her.

“Not at all. Afiele was never starving; it was quite well-received actually.”

“Oh. Well—how did it go later?”

Ser Dalimont stroked his chin.

“I believe, when Miss Cara became the Singer of Terandria, the famous—and rich—icon, she tried to send thousands of gold pieces. At that point, I believe Afiele’s folk sent the gold back to her, despite her attempts. They didn’t need it.”

“I’m not suggesting we do the same. I’m hardly so tactless, Ser Dalimont.”

His face was perfectly straight.

“Absolutely not, Your Highness. I would never suggest you would offer the val Lischelle-Drakles coin for nothing. People wish to earn their value.”

“I know! I know—I just—are we not allowed to be charitable to them when Bamer literally died a hero? At the very least, neither one should hesitate to come by for as much free food and drink as they can eat. Dead gods, I do sound like Erin.”

Lyonette groaned. Suddenly, she had a bit more sympathy for Erin’s approach to life. Fight an Adult Creler? Free drink on the house. Have a spaghetti. How else were you supposed to reward people for…?

“It’s a very [Princess]-like thing to wish to reward people for their triumphs, Your Highness. I remind you that we are in Izril. Calanferians would accept a gift far more readily than people of this continent.”

Dalimont offered. Lyonette sighed.

“You’re right. I can just imagine—what happened when Shardele’s horse tossed a shoe while riding and a [Peasant] helped get her back to the city? She gave the man a hundred gold coins. It was the talk of Calanfer. Dead gods.”

She scowled, and Dalimont coughed into his fist.

“A hundred gold coins per member of his family and a horse, Your Highness. A quite good one.”

Per member of—she wasn’t even that far off the road. Was she insane?”

“No, your mother orchestrated the event. If one is to be generous, they should be excessively so. Current Thronebearer doctrine as it applies to the royal family. Your Highness shouldn’t normally know this, but…”

She rubbed at her face with her gloved hands, morose at how unsurprising that revelation was.

“Call me Lyonette, Dalimont. I can disguise my identity, so you should be in the habit. Miss Lyonette will do.”

“—I shall try, Lyonette.”

It sounded so awkward that the two grimaced. Lyonette smiled, and Dalimont tried to hide a chuckle. She sighed.

“Add it to my list of problems, Dalimont. Rheirgest, Tessa, the val Lischelle-Drakles…I don’t want to feel like I’m pressuring Colfa, but I could use someone to talk to. Oh drat. I forgot to talk to Rose. I thought she liked the Gnolls! Why is she back?”

“Shall I inquire or—?”

“No, I’ll do it. Let’s just find out whether we can get land or a place to stay for Rheirgest’s villagers.”

 

——

 

Entering Liscor via the gates wasn’t as pleasant as it used to be. When the [Guards] saw Lyonette and Dalimont, they instantly grew a bit—tense.

Not hostile, but tense, as if they expected a Snow Golem to rise out of the snow armed with…Tier 7 magic. Lyonette assured them she was just heading back to The Wandering Inn, but they corrected her.

“Actually, Miss, we have a warrant—no, wait. A request from Liscor’s Council for your arr—presence at City Hall.”

A [Guardsman] that Lyonette didn’t recognize seemed to be having trouble not putting her into custody. He checked the notes he had been given, and Lyonette blinked.

“Oh? Liscor’s Council heard the request I had? Already?”

“Er—sort of. There’s a public forum being convened about the topic of rent, the 3rd District land grants, and so forth. The Council invited you to be present; it’s open to the public. If you need an escort, one can be arranged.”

“I know where City Hall is. Thank you, Guardsman—”

“Senior Guardsman Lekless. 4th Floor—I mean, Liscor’s…Watch House…uh, southern district.”

Ah. Now it clicked. Lyonette eyed the Drake.

“You’re from Pallass? Did Liscor hire you?”

He saluted her, clearly relieved that she understood.

“I changed jobs, Miss. Liscor needs more [Guards], and I had the hours to move up to [Senior Guardsman] here. It’s a delight to serve under Watch Cap—Watch Commander Venim in this fine city.”

I wonder if you’re a spy. Lyonette gave him a bland smile and amended the thought. I wonder whom you’re spying for.

Then she thought of Watch Captain Zevara and was concerned if Zevara felt her job was being taken away from her. She hadn’t pushed to be Watch Commander, so Venim had taken the role. Lyonette really should have talked to Zevara this last month, but it was—hard.

If Mrsha and Nanette were often made uncomfortable in Liscor as members of The Wandering Inn, Lyonette was an even more recognizable face. To say some of the Watch treated her with fear or a hidden resentment would be fair. The reaction of other Liscorians, some of whom had been friends?

That hurt.

 

——

 

On the way to City Hall, Lyonette waved to four people she knew and got three waves and one stare and half-smile. She felt eyes on her; Dalimont’s armor made her impossible to miss, but she hadn’t run into anyone she truly knew right up until she was a street away from Shivertail Plaza.

Then she saw a familiar four-legged person trotting down the street and called out, despite herself.

“Palt! Hello!”

The Centaur jerked, half-turned as he trotted forwards, and Lyonette’s throat constricted the moment she saw his arm was around a young woman walking by his side. She hadn’t spotted Imani, but the woman from Nigeria turned—and Palt stopped puffing on his cigar. He stared at Lyonette, and his face went flat.

Without a word, the [Illusionist] of the Ullsinoi faction of Wistram kept walking. Lyonette swallowed. Yes, that was pretty much the same reaction she’d gotten the other times she’d tried to visit Barehoof Kitchens and ask about Imani.

However—the [Chef] walking next to Palt didn’t stride off. Palt slowed down and circled as Imani threw off a winter hood and smiled.

Imani. Her hair was tied back in a bun, and she had on winter gear, a woolen sweater decorated with running centaurs under a thick cloak, and she looked older than the shivering, terrified girl that Lyonette remembered first coming to The Wandering Inn. Maybe that was because she stood taller; Mrsha claimed Imani ‘always smelled like something good’, and she was an [Otherworld Chef], one of the highest-levelled in Liscor.

Everything was as Lyonette remembered, just aged up by maturity. Black skin, glossy lips, so she’d made herself up; were her eyelashes coated with a luminescent powder? Very stylish. Oh—and an eyepatch on her right eye secured by a band that ran into her hair. Pale white, hiding the place where Roshal’s [Assassin] had blinded her permanently.

All the same except for that.

Lyonette’s stomach lurched. She hadn’t seen Imani on her feet until today; Imani had been recovering. Palt’s silent glare indicated how easy it had been to visit Imani in all the failed attempts.

The [Chef] ignored her partner and lifted a hand.

“Hello, Lyonette. Dalimont. I haven’t seen either of you all month. Are you here for the forum as well?”

“Ah—yes. I was just invited. I had no idea it was going on, but apparently the Council wished me to be part of it? I was on separate business, really. Rheirgest—it’s good to see you. And you, Palt.”

He didn’t speak as his hooves clip clopped over the frozen street. Imani glanced over her shoulder as Palt stared at Ser Dalimont, then past the two Humans.

“Why don’t we walk together? Don’t mind Palt. Listen, dear, if you’re going to give them the silent treatment, why don’t you go on ahead and get us seats?”

She elbowed him before he could walk between Lyonette and Imani. Palt hesitated, but Imani walked in front of him, and after a second, he trotted ahead.

“So. What’s this about Rheirgest?”

Lyonette stared after Palt a second. She explained, briefly, but was distracted by Palt’s demeanor. The normally-jovial Centaur had never been that angry with her or anyone in the inn…ever. Even after his friend had perished fighting the Crelers—

“I’m sorry, Imani. I wanted to visit but—”

“Palt turned you away. I know. I would have visited myself, but he would have insisted on coming, and I didn’t trust him not to start a fight. He blames Erin for everything. Somehow.”

“I—can’t say he’s entirely wrong?”

Lyonette knew she shouldn’t stare, but she kept glancing at Imani’s face. The [Chef] seemed used to it, at least enough to smile crookedly. Then Lyonette saw Imani pull out a pipe of all things and light it. She puffed a ball upwards and then looked at Lyonette and sighed.

“Oops. Sorry. He’s gotten me into it. I can’t see why it’s Erin’s fault. I’m not holding a grudge against The Wandering Inn, just so you know. In fact—since you’re here—I think I have a recipe book of the latest things I’ve made this month. It’s a bit sparse, but we sent it out to all my contacts. Why don’t you take it to Calescent?”

She produced a rather nice-looking binder of papers, simple, but Lyonette noticed the neat hole-punches and even a piece of wood painted with an insignia and title.

Barehoof Kitchens. Imani and Palt. There was a bare foot with a horseshoe around it.

“Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you, Imani. I’m glad to see you’re doing so well. I’m so sorry about your eye. And I wish…”

“I’m alive. I’m sorry I missed Kevin’s funeral. Can I visit him in the [Garden of Sanctuary]? His statue, I mean. I know where the hill is.”

Imani’s voice was level, and she kept half-smiling. Lyonette recognized the scent of Dreamleaf coming from the pipe, and she nodded repeatedly.

“Of course. And thank you for being so understanding. I think Palt has every right to be angry.”

“He’s angry at the wrong person and place, but I’m talking to him. I’m trying to not wallow in grief, Lyonette. See the glass half-full. Then again, I can only see half the glass these days.”

Something about Lyonette’s expression caused Imani to actually laugh. Dalimont’s face was a study of impartiality. The [Chef] chuckled as she took the pipe out of her mouth.

“Sorry. Palt joke. I got him to laugh despite himself. I think he’s already reserved us seats.”

Palt was galloping back to them, and Lyonette wondered how he’d reserved the seats.

“I hope he doesn’t slip on the cobblestones.”

“He’s got enchanted horseshoes. And he’s been galloping everywhere. He has it in his head that if he’d been faster, he would have saved me.”

“From…the gun-thing? I thought it was too fast to even see.”

Lyonette didn’t know guns very well, but she’d seen them in Erin’s movies. Imani just shrugged.

“It’s what he believes. Do we have seats, Palt? Does Lyonette have a seat? No? Why don’t you go back and get her one?”

She ordered Palt around so fast that he barely had time to give Lyonette the evil eye. The [Princess] had to own that, unlikely as she would have put Imani and Palt being a couple, they did seem to know each other well enough.

“—He really isn’t wrong to be upset, Imani. If we hadn’t been separated when the undead attacked—”

“Lyonette.”

Imani put a hand on Lyonette’s shoulder as they neared City Hall. Mostly Drakes and Gnolls were entering it, though Lyonette spotted Temile and Timbor both vanishing into the building. The forum might be important, but she had to meet Imani’s good eye.

Brown, solid, not filled with cold anger. Even sympathetic.

“Rheirgest’s that village that had the bone giant, isn’t it? I wish you the best of luck, and if I can help—well, Barehoof Kitchens is just getting started. We’re doing a lot—with food and only food. But I really don’t blame Erin or the inn. The undead went after us, but they went after all Earthers. As for this?”

She touched her eyepatch, and then, and only then, she grimaced. Lyonette saw anger, then, cloying the [Chef]’s pleasant smile. But not at her.

“I have ears. I heard them, that [Assassin], say Kevin was the target. I was the second target.”

Imani exhaled more smoke. Then put away the pipe as they began to walk up the steps into the building, past the columns of faux marble.

“I heard them. Erin didn’t call them there, and they went after her. Palt’s mad at everyone, including himself, but I’m not. If you need a favor, come and ask about it. Again, food-related, and hopefully no [Witch] or [Innkeeper] cooking, please?”

Lyonette grabbed Imani’s hand and squeezed it, so earnestly relieved and grateful that her throat closed up a second.

“Thank you, Imani. I was worried. If we can do anything for you—”

Imani gently squeezed back and nodded at Lyonette as Palt waved at her. They were all being pointed by several [Receptionists] and helpers into a big room on the first floor that seemed like a gathering spot for this forum. The [Chef] whispered back.

“I’m afraid of being shot again, Lyonette. So forgive me if I don’t visit the inn often. That’s my irrational fear.”

Lyonette swallowed and began to say something until Imani leaned in and lowered her voice even more.

“—But I’m not blind to who my friends and enemies are.”

She stepped back, touched her eyepatch with one finger, and grinned.

“Palt joke.”

Then she turned and walked into the room with Palt, who swished his tail at Lyonette. The [Princess] exhaled hard and stood there for a second in the hallway. She looked at Dalimont.

“Dead gods, she’s tough. When did she get that tough?”

“Surviving Crelers does that to one, Miss Marquin. Your mother would love to have a woman like her on staff. Shall we?”

Dalimont gestured, and Lyonette felt better, despite the heartache, for talking to Imani. They entered the forum, and Lyonette saw the Council of Liscor, all seven of them, were present. She saw Krshia half-smile at her and nod, and Lism glanced at her, face unreadable.

Seven, not eight. Jeiss was gone. Elirr blinked at Lyonette, then raised a paw, but Lyonette wasn’t staring at the Council.

A Drake in the crowd jerked in surprise as Lyonette entered the room. Palt’s method of reserving seats was to conjure an illusion of the person already sitting down. Several people jumped and glared at the Centaur as illusory copies of him, Imani, and Lyonette vanished.

Selys Shivertail just looked up, spotted the real Lyonette, and glared. She didn’t blink. She was wearing an expensive dress clearly sewn with multiple enchantments because she hadn’t a cloak or anything else; it was white like a wedding dress—or a mourning one.

The [Heiress] didn’t blink at her friend. Lyonette smiled back and felt it vanish into the room as people drew back from her and Ser Dalimont. The [Princess] sat down, and Selys kept staring.

If Imani had forgiven whatever she felt there was to forgive in the first place—Selys Shivertail had not. Any of it.

 

——

 

The death of Senior Guardsman Jeiss hung over Liscor when Lyonette had honestly forgotten he’d also perished.

Senior Guardsman Jeiss.

Guildmistress Tekshia Shivertail.

Both popular figures. Pillars of the community. To say they were mourned was an understatement. To say they left a hole—it was here, even now, as Councilmember Elirr broke the silence.

“Greetings, everyone. I’m glad we fit everyone into the meeting room. We had plans to project an image out to other rooms—it won’t be necessary, then.”

There were three hundred people crammed into the largest room they had. Lism cracked a joke.

“These public forums are a new idea. Pallassian. We might have to get more space for it—assuming we can find it in the budget.”

Polite laughter. Lism was well-liked among Drakes. Some Drakes. Lyonette had thought of him as a grouchy bigot. Now? She regarded him as fairly decent at his job, but she noted a number of people, mostly older Drakes, did not laugh.

Interesting. Lyonette hesitated, then nudged Ser Dalimont, who was standing behind her. They had space; people had vacated chairs around her until the end, and there was still one he stood in front of at the far back of the room. He glanced down, and she used Mrsha’s handsigns.

You. What level? High?

A Gnoll woman to her right gave Lyonette a puzzled look. Ser Dalimont raised his brows, then covered his mouth with one hand. Instantly, his voice was audible in her ears, not even whispering, but clearly audible only to her.

Your Highness. I estimate the average level of the room is over Level 20. As you surmise, these are clearly wealthier Gnolls and Drakes.

Lyonette had guessed that and gave him a faint raise of the lips. It wasn’t hard to pick out Guildmasters in the room; they wore the badges of office, but others were wearing their wealth. If not always overtly, it was in the polish of boots, a magical ring, or just Lyonette’s vague sense of their classes via her aura.

Humans were a minority. Well, Gnolls were a minority. It was largely Drakes, but newcomers like Imani, Timbor, and so on made up almost fifteen people in the room of three hundred.

Not bad for a city who had barely any Human residents when Erin arrived. The Humans were largely close to each other; some Gnolls were grouped up, but others sat with their guild or by other allegiances Lyonette couldn’t decipher.

Dalimont, what is this forum about? She almost asked, but then decided just to listen. Elirr was continuing.

“—entire Council present with the passing of Councilmember Jeiss. A moment of silence for him and the brave defenders of Liscor, please.”

Silence. Lyonette saw heads turn her way, but the Council just surveyed the room. Krshia wore a frown, and Lism was craning his neck as if counting a smaller turnout than he’d thought. Lyonette would have kept studying faces—but one was fixed on her.

Selys Shivertail hadn’t looked away since Lyonette had entered. Her tail was curled up by her chair, and Lyonette met her eyes briefly, then glanced away.

Why is she that angry at me? I…

Tekshia Shivertail, dead at the age of eighty-four. Eighty-four, and she’d killed four Draugr with the help of some Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. A Gold-rank adventurer. A heroine of Liscor.

They were going to put up a statue of her. Jeiss had died trying to hold the gates against one of the Hag Queens.

Eyes on Lyonette? She felt like a giant and began to shrink until she saw Imani glancing her way. Lyonette took a breath—firmed her aura, and sat there.

“—Thank you, Elirr. The forum today is to address the topics of purchasing land in Liscor, specifically in 3rd District, as well as the issue of rent prices—and I believe we had a request from Miss Marquin. In the interest of openness, especially given the abundance of complaints and requests, we should hear the request now.”

Lism’s voice was dry, and he slapped down an entire sheaf of papers that were probably said complaints. People glanced at Lyonette, and she inhaled.

I sense trouble.

It was unlike Liscor’s Council to throw her to the wolves like this, but it seemed the Council—at least, the ones Lyonette liked, Alonna, Raekea, Lism, Krshia, and Elirr—were struggling against something. Lism was frowning around the room, and Tismel, one of the Drakes from the old Council’s way of doing things, took over.

“The, um—the first issue is the rising cost of purchasing new lots in Liscor. Liscor has been selling land in portions—all proceeds to go to Liscor’s treasury. Of course. It’s financed a lot of the expensive projects, including Architect Hexel’s wonderful work. Erm. It’s been open for anyone with sufficient gold reserves to place a bid. This has led to problems.”

The Guildmaster of the Cobbler’s Guild was not a good speaker. Councilmember Tismel faltered.

“The prices are getting too high? Ah, um, yes. It seems that way? Councilmember Alonna?”

He sat down, and Alonna favored him with a glare that said ‘thanks for being useless’. She took over with a piece of paper.

“We have, ladies and gentlemen, the rare issue of having too many people wanting to buy new lots in Liscor. Not a problem, normally—we just raise the prices.”

She grinned around, then paused.

“—The problem is, they pay those prices. We had a sizeable lot go up for sale—we’re not selling all of 3rd District right away—and it was snapped up for forty-seven thousand gold pieces.”

Lyonette had been surreptitiously taking a drink of water and nearly performed the old Waterbreath Blaster over the crowd. She choked on her drink, and voices rose; even the people here seemed shocked by the number.

“Forty-seven—”

Who can afford that?

Lism replied.

“Salazsar can. Or Wall Lords and Ladies in Manus, Fissival, Pallass, most certainly, [Merchants] in Invrisil—and I think we just received a six-figure bid for an entire row of lots. From House Reinhart no less. Six figures. Wonderful for Liscor’s treasury. Problematic for anyone who wants to buy a house.”

It seemed as though Lism was bewildered, unsure how to feel about that. He was alternating between a kind of annoyed smile and a frown. Lyonette could see why.

Land in Liscor should not be this expensive. Even for a city with finite space—this was exceeding the value of land in Invrisil. She understood Liscor was a place where a lot of business was cropping up, Imani’s shop and the inn’s door, but Lyonette had a hunch this was not a wholly, ah, organic event either.

A certain Wall Lord of Salazsar had placed exorbitant bids last year for land in Liscor, encouraging Salazsar’s nobility to do the same. It had been meant to help Liscor, and it had—at the time.

Here came the consequences. There were always damn consequences.

“The pricing is out of control. This would be where you say that, but we are saying it first, yes?”

Raekea grinned and got nods and growls from Gnolls in the room. She glanced at Krshia.

“We…are open to suggestions. But we are trying to be fair. Perhaps we should limit it only to residents of the city to buy land? But this seems unfair to anyone entering the city. Perhaps we should cap how much any plot of land goes for? But then, how do we decide whom it goes to? Lottery? Before we open up the forum for questions, we will also address a complaint in tandem with this. Lism?”

The Councilmember stood up with a look of distaste on his face. Now he gave Lyonette a look that she caught onto, and he raised his voice as if speaking to the room at large, not just her.

“Liscor is expanding. That means more Humans, more Gnolls of the Silverfang tribe—all very welcome because it’s giving the city a boost in everything. Even Antinium taking houses.”

There was a murmur, and he spoke over it.

All of it good since they pay! But I’ve had endless complaints about one law we put into action—putting a cap on rent prices, especially in places where people…how shall I put this? Are in a less fortunate…no. Don’t have the financial…”

His mouth moved, trying to come up with a better descriptor, then he gave up and shrugged.

“Can’t afford it. Prices were too high. We slapped them down. Why in the name of the Ancestors should we reverse that now there are more people flooding into the city? Especially, maybe, a large group of them. But we’ll save that for the end.”

He shot Lyonette a look, and several people blinked at her. Now, Lyonette understood. She gave Lism a nod, and he steepled his claws together.

“You have the floor. No, don’t shout! Raise your claws! Dead gods. Okay…you first.”

 

——

 

There was something the Council hadn’t realized. At least, Lism, Krshia, and the ones Lyonette liked. It took them a while to figure it out.

“—the prices of land are due to foreign investors coming into the city. I’m not opposed to having the Walled Cities in Liscor. Far from it! All this gold is excellent news, but I’ll tell you the same thing all the buyers will say the moment they realize the buildings going up have a huge issue. And that’s free pricing. I had a conversation with a fine Wall Lord the other day who had no idea that he couldn’t charge anyone the price he wanted. He said he might have to ask for a refund on his property. There are plenty of people in Liscor. There’s an entirely new district. Time to let prices go where they will.”

“Up.”

Lism shot back at a Drake [Landlord], who raised his claws, offended.

“I wasn’t finished, Councilmember Lism. Go where they will, and if it goes up? That means everyone is earning more.”

“No, that means landlords are earning more.”

“Well, if the prices of rent go up, then the tenants can request more money from their employers, Councilmember.”

An older Drake lady raised her clawed hand, speaking politely, but without actually having been chosen. She got nods from the people around her.

“It’s how it works in Invrisil and Pallass. The cost of living might be higher, but we can’t have these laws impeding our business.”

It was a fight Lyonette could have told you was coming, and the Council was ready for it. Zalaiss, one of the Councilmembers, was nodding sympathetically along with the Drake woman—but Raekea, Lism, Krshia, and Elirr were all unmoved.

Alonna, the Guildmistress of the Mage’s Guild, seemed somewhat hesitant to be as strident in front of her peers, but Lyonette knew the majority of the Council had just stomped on any protests to their laws. Until now.

Krshia smiled at the woman with all her teeth.

“[Financier] Nedres. The Council hears your concerns, believe me, we do. But one must admit that the rent prices before this were impossibly high, yes? There were rents of multiple silver pieces—per week—in many buildings.”

“But they were being paid, Councilmember Krshia. Besides, Liscor is a third again as big as it used to be. Good governance does not hold our tails like we’re children.”

The smile the [Financier] gave Krshia was more edged than Krshia’s own sharp teeth. Lyonette saw Krshia sit back.

“Good governance does not? I am sorry, Financier. I am new to my class of [Councilwoman], even though I have earned it, so I am unfamiliar with good lawmaking, yes?”

She got a few chuckles even though that wasn’t a joke. Krshia went on with a big smile.

“You must show me where that is written down. In the tribes, every Gnoll is always guaranteed a place to sleep.”

“Ah, but this is the city, not some tribe…Councilwoman. You are a [Shopkeeper], aren’t you? Surely you understand that this is simple supply and demand. Prices may go up, but the market will stabilize.”

It…wasn’t a bad argument, even if the problem was that in this case, ‘supply’ was held by a narrower group that could raise prices. Hence the Council’s law on rents to begin with. Lism was tapping his claw on the table.

“Right, and as we sell more land, the supply goes up. Do we want to circle back to that? Am I hearing a vote to restrict land sales to purely residents?”

He got both yeses and noes in equal measure, rather to Lyonette’s surprise. She supposed it made sense; the desire to not have a Liscor with too many outsiders holding land was balanced by the prestige of having connections to a Walled City.

What most of the audience could agree on was the rent problem, though, and to them, it was a problem.

Hence the bafflement. Lism cleared his throat and looked around.

“Okay, let’s hear from an actual [Shopkeeper] about their opinion on the rent. Or someone who’s a tenant. How about—is there…huh.”

And there it was. He looked around, then, with a vaguely confused look that was changing to one of a kind of alarm, sat back and let someone else speak.

As if he hadn’t realized it, but was figuring out something was sneaking up on him. Krshia had already noticed it, and she was not-quite-glowering as she surveyed the room. Lyonette?

Lyonette had realized there were very few people who weren’t wealthy enough to own property of some kind in this room. It was all [Landowners], [Guildmasters], or people like Selys. At best, it was Timbor, an [Innkeeper], or Imani and Palt, who owned Barehoof Kitchens.

Dalimont. Why no no-money people?

Lyonette still sought clarification from the Thronebearer. She signed at him, confused. There should have been an open advertisement this was a forum for all. The Thronebearer took his time in replying.

If I had to guess, Lyonette, it would be a lack of interest and many people feeling they did not belong in this discussion. Someone without the means to purchase land at its exorbitant price would not feel the need to attend. I would also be deeply interested in knowing how the forum was discussed—if at all—by many outside of certain circles.

Ah.

Uh oh.

The Council had really stepped on their own tails. They had probably thought this would be well-attended by everyone, but it was mid-day. Mid working day, and indeed, even if you had hopes the Council might reduce prices on new land, if you were in a room of people all talking one way, it was hard to speak up.

By the time Lism caught on, it was too late, but it was something that the Council in opposition to the forum’s will. Lism glanced around.

“—It seems like we’re not getting the opinion of many tenants. Well, we could reconvene the forum—”

“Councilmember, you’re hearing from a majority of landlords in Liscor! You must cease these egregious rent price fixes—or else no one will want to do business in Liscor!”

Lism shot a glare down at the Guildmaster of the Merchant’s Guild, one of the former Councilmembers, actually. Lyonette gave Lism marks on his silky-smooth reply and his verbal wit.

“And yet, Guildmaster, they are buying property. Rather too much of it for the average citizen to compete with. How do you square this oddity in the market?”

The [Guildmaster] hesitated and spluttered.

“Well—no one will want to maintain the buildings if it isn’t worth the coin! A [Landlord] has to pay for repairs, maintenance, cleaning, security—”

That got a bitter laugh from Krshia and an odd ripple from several Gnolls in the room. The [Guildmaster] fell silent uncomfortably, and Financier Nedres took over smoothly.

“—we must see returns on our investments, or we will have apartments falling into disrepair.”

“Like they were already, Financier? You do have a point. We should make failing to repair living spaces a crime.”

Lism brushed his claws against his vest, nodding agreeably. Lyonette tried not to giggle at the expressions on the faces of his audience. Then her skin crawled as she sensed the hostility of the room amp up.

“That’s a very inhospitable argument coming from the Council, if I may say so, Councilmember Lism. I don’t feel as though you’re representing us fairly.”

A new Drake got to his feet, speaking for another group, and Lism raised his brows.

“I’m speaking for many tenants of Liscor, Mister…?”

He didn’t get a name. The Drake glanced around.

“I suppose that’s your right as a Councilmember. But I remind you that you were elected by a consensus of the people. I simply don’t feel I can back someone who doesn’t have Liscor’s interests at heart.”

The murmur of agreement gave way to a greater silence as Lism’s eyes slowly narrowed. Lyonette looked up and saw Imani waggling her brows across the room at her. The [Chef] looked amused, and maybe there was something funny about it to her, in a way.

It was politics, but early stages. So, in a way, blunter and less refined, but the nuance was the same. No wonder Imani was keeping silent. Lyonette saw Lism finally catch on to the hanging noose in the room. The [Councilmember] just grunted.

“I suppose we’ll see when the elections start just who’s right, then. Until then, I think we have another year in office to do what we think is best for the city. I’m sure when we run for our positions again, the public will tally what we’ve succeeded and failed at and come to the right conclusions. Sir.”

Lism growled, maintaining his composure.

Oh, his faith in the voting process was endearing—and sad to a [Princess] who didn’t believe in that kind of thing anyways. Ielane would have laughed if she’d seen Lism, but Lyonette didn’t. She saw Krshia looking worried, though. She sensed it.

The one benefit the Council had was that their opposition was as new to this as they were. So while the Drake addressing Lism sat back down, he was unable to stop the voice that murmured loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Unless someone calls for a new special election.”

Lism’s smile vanished. He craned his neck to see who had said that, and the current Council reacted. With alarm, surprise, a narrowing of the eyes—and Zalaiss looked sideways and grimaced, and Tismel tried to look innocent.

Oh no. Lyonette heard Raekea bark.

Special election? That’s not a thing. Jeiss’ seat will be replaced, but why would anyone replace us?

“There’s a—uh, a rule for a no-confidence vote. If members of enough Guilds vote for it—”

Tismel did his best, but Lism’s head snaked around like a vengeful shark. He whipped around, and the Council suddenly felt a noose around their necks.

“Who, exactly, is of so little confidence they want us replaced? Come on, stand up. Let’s hear it since this is a public forum. And who put that stupid-sounding law in the books? Can we repeal it? This is ridiculous. If you have a public objection, well—”

Lism was blustering, getting angrier, and the forum was restless. Imani was frowning deeply and glancing at Lyonette, and the [Princess] wondered if this might go the Council’s way. But, as if they had been waiting for a moment like this, someone stood up.

Selys Shivertail had not ceased glaring at Lyonette the entire time. When she stood, for a second, Lyonette thought Selys would put in a point for affordable rents, as someone who had made a name for herself doing just that.

Instead, the Drake [Heiress] spoke to the room.

“If we’re worried about how much space we’ll have come spring when the floods begin, I, personally, would like to know about this request put in to the Council. For housing for…? What’s this about, please? Is it Liscor’s business at all or outsiders asking us for a favor? Again?”

Ah, Selys. Lyonette felt her heart fall as heads turned to her, and Lism gave Selys a puzzled look, then Lyonette a nod.

“Let’s move away from the rent discussion a second. Indeed, Miss Lyonette of The Wandering Inn has put a request into the Council about a housing situation of a village. She’s asking for temporary rooms and perhaps some funding and help for a village in need. Rheirgest, I believe? You have the floor, Miss Marquin.”

Lyonette stood up.

“That’s correct. On behalf of the village of Rheirgest, and Ser Normen of the Order of Solstice—”

She was glad she got a few reactions from that. Human or not, The Wandering Inn or not, he had weight.

“—I would like to ask for space for the villagers of Rheirgest to settle in Liscor or around the city. They’ve lost their homes and source of livelihood after the Winter Solstice battles. They’re hardworking, industrious, and if they receive a modicum of help, they could add to this city in no small way. There are about one hundred and fifty of them; it is hopefully not difficult to lend them a place to stay for a while? And they come with finances and levels of their own.”

The forum turned to Lyonette as she explained the situation as best she could, trying to talk up Rheirgest and present them not as a charity case, but an opportunity. She didn’t deliver the request foolishly; [Flawless Attempt] activated the moment she stood, and by the end of it, she felt like she’d sold a number of people on the idea.

“Miners? Ivory-cutting experts? If they can bring ivory to Liscor, that’s not actually a bad proposition. We have several industries, but that would be a completely new one—the cost aside.”

Even Financier Nedres could see the appeal, though the cost didn’t appeal to her. Alonna was doing numbers on an abacus.

“It’s not the most extortionate price, Financier. Frankly, selling a lot of land can pay for any number of villagers to resettle. If we put them in a new series of buildings for a few weeks, grant them a loan or funds…”

“More Humans coming to Liscor. Why not let them settle…wherever they are?”

Others were less happy about Rheirgest, and Lyonette was set to argue them down and be her most charming. She put a smile on her face as Lism waved a claw at her, looking relieved to be having a break from the most contentious issues of the forum.

Then it happened. It was a shiver down Lyonette’s back. She looked around as a Drake rose to her feet, and for a second, she met those eyes.

Pleadingly. Selys’ yellow gaze met Lyonette’s—and there was something more than just anger there. Lyonette stared at the [Heiress] incredulously. Then looked away. Right up until Selys spoke, voice sweet and pointed, like she was cutting down an adventurer at the desk of her guild.

“Oh, Landlord Xalls. That might have something to do with the fact that the entire village is made up of [Necromancers]. No one wants them where they are. And I, personally, object to another problem brought to Liscor by The Wandering Inn.”

She met Lyonette’s gaze as the [Princess]’ gaze, which had wandered, retreated, avoided conflict, finally snapped to the [Heiress]’, and Lyonette’s aura sparked. The two locked eyes, and Lyonette curled her toes in her boots.

Then she began getting angry herself.

 

——

 

There were complaints, then. The Council heard them. There were protests for a law against that sort of thing. The Council overruled that. There was anxiety—someone had to be escorted from the room.

The entire time, Lyonette answered—as politely as possible—the public, explaining that these were not ‘bad [Necromancers]’. Pisces Jealnet was a [Necromancer]. They did not animate dead bodies randomly.

She did this while staring Selys down across the room from her. Neither the [Princess] nor [Heiress] broke eye contact. It got to the point where Lism’s head began bouncing like a ball, left to right, trying to see if either one was blinking.

Lyonette had sat back down, and she was speaking, as composedly as possible, to the angry forum.

“Liscor owes Rheirgest a favor, ladies and gentlemen. Or at least, their problem is related to the city. The bone Giant that attacked on the Winter Solstice? It had been inactive, buried in the mountainside. Their very livelihood is now on Liscor’s plains.”

“Is it…is it still undead?”

Someone spoke with considerable, warranted anxiety, and the room murmured. Lyonette smiled grimly.

“I am not sure myself. It is bound by Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Wouldn’t it be better to have people continue to mine it and reduce its size? And to tell us whether it might be still active?”

Half points. She could almost hear Ielane blowing a ring of smoke and lecturing her. Lyonette knew she wasn’t winning the debate. There were good, intellectual, logical reasons why Rheirgest was a boon, but her opponent was going all in on emotion—and it was still too close to the Winter Solstice.

And it was Selys.

“Liscor does not need more undead.”

That was all Selys Shivertail had to say. She leaned forwards, and the people below and in front of her moved out of the way. The air was actually uncomfortable between her and Lyonette. Auras clashing. Wills grinding against each other. The Drake sipped from a straw. Continued.

“How often will The Wandering Inn—which isn’t part of Liscor—bring us another problem that will bite us in the tail? Even if it’s not tomorrow, how long? One month? Two?”

“There are children in Rheirgest who need a home. The Wandering Inn pays taxes.”

Lyonette spoke very calmly, trying to hammer the first sentence into Selys’ head. She loved Mrsha. What was wrong with her?

“There are other places. The inn may pay taxes, but you aren’t a resident of the city, Miss Lyonette. In fact, you were expelled from the city for thievery and burning down Councilmember Krshia’s shop. Not all visitors to Liscor are bad. Most Humans are excellent. Do we have to take ones like you and bend laws for them to be allowed back in? This isn’t Liscor’s problem. But once again, the inn is making it ours. Our money and our lives if it goes wrong.”

She didn’t say Tekshia’s name. That was…something. But the rest of it felt like Selys was slapping Lyonette across the face. The [Princess]’ voice grew softer in contrast to Selys raising her voice.

“I didn’t hear you complaining when Erin delivered aid to Esthelm. In fact, you were part of it, Miss Shivertail. Is generosity to your neighbors not a Liscorian value? Or just not a Drake value?”

“I say, uncalled for, Miss—”

Councilmember Tismel tried to interject, and Lyonette glared at him, and he fell silent. Her aura was heating up the room so much that the people around her had taken off their coats. Selys just waved a fan by her face. She frowned, then came back with a retort.

Damn [Receptionists]. She was faster with her tongue than most opponents, used to dealing with stroppy adventurers.

“That was our choice. That was for neighbors, not a village we’ve never heard of.”

“Well, choose again. It’s the right thing to do. You do…remember what the right thing is, the noble thing is, don’t you? Heiress Selys?”

The air was changing colors, now. It was, to Alonna, the first time she had ever seen someone manifest an aura spontaneously. The air around Lyonette was growing pale gold, a painfully bright radiance.

It was sinking into bitter lime green, like Selys’ scales. Two colors twisting and fighting back and forth across the room.

“Ladies, let’s be civil.”

Lism ducked as both auras lashed out, and a sound like a whip cracking split the air over his head. Elirr leaned over.

“Someone call for Guardsman Relc.”

Selys slowly stood up. Her eyes were glistening, and she was breathing in and out. Her claws were clenched.

“I know what the right thing to do is, thank you, Princess. The right thing? That gets you killed. First it was Zel Shivertail. Next? Tekshia. I suppose I should ask how long until I’m next, shouldn’t I? Can you schedule it after my birthday?”

Lyonette flinched once. Then she spoke, her voice quivering, her hands folded in her lap.

“I know we’ve brought trouble to Liscor. I certainly have. But think. Not all of the disasters The Wandering Inn has been part of have been its doing. In fact—Erin has fought more things than anyone else. Skinner. Facestealer. The moths. The Raskghar—

Elirr twitched, and Lyonette ducked her head at him.

“Tyrion Veltras. Did she cause any of that? I don’t think so.”

“Are you suggesting we owe her a debt? Because I don’t recall her saving the day single-handed.”

“I never said that. It’s not about debts. Selys—”

“My grandmother’s dead, Lyonette. Strange how everyone but Erin seems to go that way. Halrac. Moore. If I was wise, I’d never have tried to make friends with her. Maybe you’re right. She doesn’t cause disasters, but it’s amazing how many people who like Erin die for her causes. Tell me again about your village of [Necromancers]?”

You liked a [Necromancer] called Pisces. Lyonette’s eyes were hot and dry, painfully, but she would have rather ripped them out and given them to Imani than blink.

“—Erin doesn’t force people to die for her, Selys. The Winter Solstice was a disaster. I’m sorry for everyone who died. She didn’t want it to happen that way.”

She picked that fight. The entire world knows it. Don’t pretend that was an accident she saved Liscor from.”

Lyonette hissed under her breath.

“Selys. You’re her friend. You’re mine—do you think Erin caused that all? She did choose that fight. Do you think Kaligma was kind and undeserving of a war? Look what she left outside Liscor.”

She thrust out a finger, but Selys’ head never wavered.

“Everyone has a moment when they get to step back and see what they’re doing, Miss Marquin. After she sailed off to sea, leaving us to bury everyone—I wonder how many people will come running when she asks for volunteers to die for her. If I were you, I’d stay behind. And I’d keep Mrsha locked in her room as well. When it’s your turn, all the people you bury will be your fault. I’m sorry, it’s never Erin’s, is it? She cost the city two heroes and countless people. How many more heroes is she going to martyr?

Dalimont was looking at Lyonette, braced, as if ready to shield her or pull her back. She didn’t move. Her mother was in the back of her head. For once, Lyonette channeled her.

Hit her. Lyonette dipped a ladle into the pitch-black bile in her chest and tossed its contents back out into the world. She wished it weren’t so easy.

“Tekshia Shivertail was a hero. So was Senior Guardsman Jeiss. I was endlessly sad when they died.”

Selys’ head jerked back. She opened her mouth, and Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle slowly closed the door to the City Hall. The forum listened in silence as Lyonette kept going.

“She was a hero who fought four Draugr in the streets of Liscor. Just like the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings who put their lives down on the ground to halt them. No one asked them to. There’s not a better word than ‘hero’ I know; I would never sully that word with anything less. I won’t forget that, or Tekshia. Or something else: she chose to be there. Erin didn’t ask her to go.”

Erin brought the Draugr.

Selys hissed, and Lyonette shouted at her.

“And Tekshia stood there. Just like Erin never ran! I didn’t see you at the Winter Solstice! Don’t talk like you gave anything or risked anything yourself. You didn’t send your grandmother there. She chose to go. And if she were right here, I’m sure she would hit you for trying to leave a village out in the cold for your own petty revenge.”

“You—”

Selys was stunned. Lyonette continued, slamming her aura down over Selys’, cutting off Selys’ ability to speak.

“Tekshia never had time for cowards. If she ever disapproved of Erin or thought Erin was too dangerous to keep around, she would have done something about it. [Necromancers]? She made the first [Necromancer] to come to Liscor since Az’kerash into a Gold-rank adventurer. She wasn’t fair-weather like you. She faced down Az’kerash, and she had the heart to look Pisces in the eye and call him a Gold-rank adventurer. And you know what? Zel Shivertail liked The Wandering Inn more than the entire damn city. Don’t talk about them like you know them better than me.”

Now, the [Heiress] was gasping, and her claws were shaking. Lyonette kept going.

You think you have a say? Come at me with a spear in hand as a [Guildmistress]. You’re not. You’re a [Heiress] because of something Zel Shivertail left behind. You’ve never defended Liscor. Suffer for The Wandering Inn? You were never there! And if you think your grandmother would back any word coming out of your mouth, go headbutt her grave so you can understand how she’d react if you dared say any of this to her f—”

At this point, Krshia grabbed Lyonette and tried to put a paw over her mouth. But the [Princess] kept going. She honestly didn’t remember what she said after that, only that Selys stared at Lyonette, then tried to hit the [Princess] with a spell from one of the rings on her claw.

That was when Ser Dalimont blocked it. Selys came at Lyonette with her claws, and the [Princess] went for her sword—but Colfa grabbed her.

“Get her out—out of—I think there’s no budget for Rheirgest. We’ll reconvene the forum later, maybe. Out!

Lism was shouting, and Lyonette would have struggled with Krshia, but the Gnoll was blocking Selys. And Colfa didn’t bother trying to push Lyonette out of the forum. She just carried Lyonette under her arm and ran for it.

“Hey, Lyonette. What’s going—”

Relc began a second before a spell hit him in the breastplate. Then the forum turned into a miniature riot.

 

——

 

—Ser Dalimont never lost Lyonette or Colfa. Though he did look winded by the time the Vampire stopped running. Lyonette was shouting as Liscorians stopped.

“Let go of me! I’m not done with her! Let—”

Colfa upended a bucket of ice-cold well water over Lyonette, and the ardor faded out of the [Princess] in an instant. The Vampiress folded her arms, poised, eyes icy.

“I believe you have said more than was called for, Lyonette.”

“She was—”

“Her last relative in the city is dead. Be silent.

The last elements of fury left Lyonette. Colfa’s eyes flashed—then she paused, brushed a stray white hair out of her face, and hesitated.

“Vell, I do not know if it was her last relative. Nonetheless, you said more than enough. I sincerely doubt you will have the support to resettle this village. If that was your goal, it was quite adeptly done.”

Lyonette was shivering, and she groaned as she realized what she’d done. The Council might have been inclined to override the public forum, but after a fight like that—she put her head in her hands.

“No! No—we weren’t getting support anyways.”

“Perhaps not, Your Highness, but we have received a new enemy. In fact, I believe the inn is the place to be. For a towel and hot fire if nothing else. Miss—Lady val Lischelle-Drakle, I believe it is sufficiently clear of any annoyances.”

Dalimont bowed to Colfa, who favored him with a pleased smile. Lyonette was shivering.

“Get me a towel, Dalimont. Don’t you have one?”

He didn’t move, but rather gestured down the street towards the eastern gates.

“Absolutely, Your Highness. But Thronebearer doctrine makes it clear that giving you a towel might engender further altercations. One may magically appear when we reach the inn. Not before.”

She glared at him—then realized something else. Lyonette squeezed her eyes shut. This was a terrible, no good, and possibly very bad day. And it kept getting worse.

“Fine. We’d better hurry, though we’re too late.”

“For what?”

Colfa blinked at Lyonette, and the [Princess] let out a soft, sad breath.

“Tessa’s gone.”

 

——

 

When Lyonette got back to the inn, Yelroan had bad news for her and was trying to figure out how to break it gently.

The news was, as it turned out, not the same bad news that Lyonette brought.

“Tessa’s gone. I didn’t get a place for Rheirgest after all.”

“—Ah. Are you sure?”

Yelroan grew instantly worried, and Peggy, alarmed, ran upstairs to check, but came storming down the stairs.

“Is true. Scary Drake girl gone. She leave this.”

The Hobgoblin had found a letter in an almost-neat room. Tessa had left a scrawl of untidy words, but it was perfectly legible to Yelroan, who translated it for everyone present. Including Colfa, the children, and the staff.

“I’ve left. Don’t follow me. I can’t be cured. This is for failing everything.”

He looked at Peggy, and the Hobgoblin handed him a sheathed knife. One of two that Tessa carried. It had to be a powerful artifact. Yelroan whistled, and Lyonette sat down and put her head in her hands.

“She thinks she’s unfixable.”

“Why would she think that? Excuse me. Excuse me. Who is this?”

Someone interrupted, standing on her tip-toes to see the letter. Rose edged past Colfa, and the two gave each other strange looks. Who’s this now? Lyonette’s voice was bleak.

“Tessa. She thinks…where did she run off to?”

“Tenbault.”

Yelroan didn’t have to guess. Lyonette’s head came up slowly.

“Tenbault? She mentioned the Healer. But why would she go there if the Faerie Flower…oh.”

Peggy folded her arms, scowling hugely.

“Healer of Tenbault not nice person. Inkpaper has letter he found from her. Sound like shit tongue [Healer].”

“Letter?”

Lyonette looked around, then shook her head.

“Show me later, please, Peggy? We have to get her back.”

“We do?”

Even Yelroan was surprised by the [Princess]’ authoritativeness. Nanette, about to probably say something similar, closed her mouth, gratified. Lyonette, meanwhile, had put her cheek on the table and was giving a wall a thousand-yard stare.

“Of course we do. She’s not well. She’ll kill herself without help. But first—Rheirgest. The Council won’t give us any money.”

Those fucking bastards! Why not? Was it Lism? I bet it was Lism, the shit-tail.

Mrsha wrote furiously and hid the card when Lyonette’s eyes went to her. The [Princess] replied.

“I—got into a fight with Selys. And the people have realized Rheirgest is full of [Necromancers]. No one wants them.”

“Not a very hard thing to understand. [Necromancers] aren’t the most sociable or helpful folk to have around. I’ve run them off trying to kill flocks for bodies more than once.”

Colfa murmured. Lyonette put her head in her hands.

And I have to deal with Rose.”

“Hey! I’m not a problem!”

Rose protested. Lyonette stared up gloomily at the Earther, too tired to find the energy to lie to her face.

 

——

 

 

At this point, Yelroan really registered Colfa’s presence, and Peggy blinked. Rosencrantz appeared, offering the farmer a cup of tea, and folded his hands behind his back.

“Hello, Miss Colfa. May we offer you anything to eat? On the house.”

Well done, Rosencrantz! He gave them all a tiny salute as Colfa dithered.

“—If you had some of this non-garlic pasta I’ve heard about, I will gladly accept the repast. Otherwise, perhaps something Drake or Gnollish?”

“Would silkap with fresh bread do for a starter, followed by a bloody Wyvern steak dressed in an Oteslian salad? I believe we have some in storage.”

“Oh. My. Is that not too costly?”

Rosencrantz lied in a way that would have made Bird proud. With the truth.

“We have no set cost as we do not normally sell it, Miss Colfa. Your daughter, Fierre, often requests the dish.”

“Very vell. I shall partake of it gladly.”

Colfa looked quite happy to be waited upon, but turned her attention back to Lyonette, who had explained the Rheirgest issue. She looked so miserable that the children, Nanette, Hethon, Mrsha, and Sammial, began whispering to each other.

“Maybe we shouldn’t blackmail her right yet.”

Hethon tried to hide the list of things Lyonette didn’t want getting out—like her identity as a [Princess]—-that they’d send to a Runner’s Guild or put on Wistram News Network if she didn’t give them the wand.

It had been their project for the day, and they’d come up with a quite large dossier of blackmail information, some of which were basic, others of which were surprisingly personal and came from Mrsha.

Strike when they’re weakest!

Mrsha wrote back. Nanette was watching Lyonette and whispered.

“The blackmail was just for fun. But we can probably push her once Yelroan tells her the news about the box.”

“What box? I want a Wyvern steak too! Give me one, and Hethon too. You there, steak!”

Sammial was speaking loudly to Rosencrantz. The Worker was trotting into the kitchen.

“Did you hear me? Hello?”

The Worker turned slowly.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

Sammial gave Rosencrantz an odd look as Yelroan began to hurry over. But the Worker was, like Peggy, a cut above the ordinary staff. He’d learned from Ishkr, after all.

“Can’t you see me? Hello?”

Rosencrantz saw Sammial, but he cupped one of his four hands to his ear hole.

“Hello, small child. I am Rosencrantz. I cannot hear you.”

I SAID, I WANT A WYVERN ST—

“I cannot hear anything that does not have ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ attached. Please repeat your order?”

Sammial Veltras’ mouth fell open. He stared at Rosencrantz, and then his eyes narrowed.

“Yes you can. You can’t fool me because you’re an Antinium.”

“What? Excuse me, I cannot hear you. Wait, that was not an order so I can probably hear that.”

Rosencrantz’s reply made Sammial get angry. Hethon was about to kick his brother when he saw the amused look Yelroan was giving the boy and settled in to watch. Sammial tried again, a bit nervously because he knew Rosencrantz was an Antinium and even he had seen his father failing to outrank Erin Solstice.

“I’m a [Lord]. You can’t pretend not to hear me!”

“I am situationally deaf when I am treated impolitely. It is a horrible condition of my class, Mister Sammial. I hope you will be able to remember the rules.”

“What if I don’t?”

Sammial folded his arms defiantly, despite knowing his manners. Rosencrantz bent over.

“Then I regret that you shall starve to death.”

“Nuh uh. I’ll go find someone else to give me my food.”

Rosencrantz stepped to block Sammial as the boy tried to march left.

“I regret that other Workers will not be able to hear you if I cannot. And I would not advise you to be rude to a Goblin. They might kick you. Or bite you.”

Peggy waved and showed Sammial all her teeth. The boy stared at her—then at Rosencrantz. The pitch of his voice rose slightly higher.

“You—you can’t threaten me! I’m a Veltras! Jericha will shoot you with magic if you try to harass me! Ullim will make sure I’m fed.”

“Oh. Really? Then why did he ask me not to feed you unless you had manners?”

Checkmate. Rosencrantz stood there as Sammial’s mouth fell open. Then he stood straight and, like a Golem, swiveled around and exaggeratedly walked to the kitchen, swinging all four arms.

“Oh dear. I have only heard one Wyvern steak for Calescent. I shall likely not be able to take another order for Wyvern steaks until dinner. Alas. Alas…”

“No, wait! I’m sorry! One Wyvern steak, please.

Sammial tried to resist, but his nerve broke, and he ran after Rosencrantz, voice petulant. The Worker paused.

“I believe I heard another Wyvern steak. Hello, sir and or madam. Would you like a steak?”

“Yes, please. Thank you.

Sammial’s glower was probably not adding to Rosencrantz’s hearing, but the Worker instantly produced a notepad.

“Would your brother care for one? May I ask if you like yours bloody, rare, medium, or well-done with the understanding that asking for ‘well-done’ means your steak will be overcooked and make you an inferior person?”

Sammial peered up at Rosencrantz and scuffed his foot on the ground.

“I’ll…have the one she has. Please.”

He indicated Colfa, and all the adults noticed Rosencrantz pause. Then the Worker leaned down conspiratorially.

“…Do you not know what the difference between these things are, Mister Sammial? I can tell you. It is a very strange thing, food.”

Sammial gave his brother the side-eye, but Hethon looked away just in time. He hesitated, then leaned over.

“—Okay. I forget since my father always orders it the same way. Thanks.”

“Very good, sir. I can show you what it looks like, in fact, if you promise not to touch. Follow me.”

 

——

 

“Miss Lyonette, may we offer you something to eat? Things tend to feel better on a full stomach.”

Dalimont tried to encourage the recumbent Lyonette to eat, but the [Princess] was truly upset. She was glad Colfa seemed to be well-attended, but this day truly had been a series of disasters.

She could see Mrsha and Nanette whispering to Hethon and eying her, and Sammial had disappeared—never a good sign with a boy that young. Then there was Rose.

“Did you say you saw Imani? H-how is she?”

The young woman had been heartbroken by the news of Imani’s missing eye, and while she’d heard about Kevin, the news had clearly been inconsistent as it reached her. She looked around the inn, forlorn.

“It’s so strange that Kevin and Joseph aren’t here. And…and Imani’s gone. Good riddance to Troydel, but they’re all…I’m not a problem, by the way! I came to help! Honest.”

She met Lyonette’s eyes.

“I know I was a bit of a bother last time, but I’ve been helping the Gnoll tribes. In fact, I’ve come back with some interesting news. I didn’t get a chance to talk about it but, uh…”

Rose hesitated, and the young woman realized this might fall under the category of ‘problem’. Lyonette stared blankly at the young woman. Then exhaled.

“Ser Normen will have to help with Tessa. I can’t imagine anyone else can get to Tenbault, and—and Rheirgest is a problem. At least we have a day or two to see if we can afford a downpayment on…what? A plot of land outside Liscor? They were giving those away.”

Her commentary attracted Colfa back over to the table.

“Ah—Lyonette. Did I hear this village of [Necromancers] is trying to settle around Liscor?”

“Yes. I imagine they could buy land—they almost gave it to you, didn’t they, Colfa?”

The farmer nodded, but hesitantly. She licked her ruby-red lips, trying not to say what was on her mind.

“Yes, but…I fear you have a problem, Lyonette. It is entirely possible, nay, simple, to acquire ze—what do Drakes call it? The permits? The proof of land and rights from Liscor. But finding enough land to settle an entire village is hard.”

“They’d have to spread out.”

“True. True…and build very quickly. With stone and wood. They might hire Antinium, but they would have to be, ah—very willing to spend gold. To build a village in a month’s time. And if I may be upfront—the rains have not been described to me as an easy thing to live in without a proper home.”

It felt, at this point, like bullying to see Lyonette blanch as she realized that the cost of hiring Antinium to create a hill—not to mention the costs of building that many houses at such speed—would be beyond Rheirgest’s means. She faintly whispered.

“Celum or Esthelm, then. I’ll talk to Normen tonight about the likeliest city. If I can convince Esthelm…perhaps Pelt can put in a good word? If he doesn’t hate us too. Thank you, Colfa. That was good to know.”

“It, ah, was necessary to say.”

That was all Colfa felt she was able to say. The [Princess] looked actually sick as she put her head down again.

Now?

Mrsha nudged Nanette, and the [Witch] stroked her chin and sighed back.

Almost. She’s about to collapse. One more push…

Yelroan hesitated, but Lyonette was turning her attention to the kitchen now that food had been raised, and she sighed in relief as Sammial came marching back with his choice of medium-rare steak, proud as could be. He even gave Rosencrantz a silver coin. Lyonette half-smiled.

“Maybe I could face this all on a fuller stomach. What’s on the menu? Oh, and tell Calescent absolutely no more cloning garlic until Colfa’s gone, understand?”

She nodded authoritatively at Peggy, and the Hobgoblin gave her a fixed, and worried, smile.

“That is no problem, Miss Lyonette. Won’t happen again. Ever.”

Something about the way she said that made Lyonette’s smile turn upside down. Yelroan sighed. There was no getting around it.

“What did you do? What did he do?”

“Er—Lyonette. It’s not the largest problem. Please sit down. There’s no crisis—”

She was beginning to hyperventilate. Lyonette the Extremely Stressed wavered, and everyone waited for the final nail in the coffin.

“What happened with the box?”

Rose, Colfa, Hethon, and Sammial, who weren’t all in the know, perked their ears up and glanced around. Yelroan, mindful of the audience, leaned over.

“Nothing. After you, uh, removed the garlic, I did tell the staff not to try anything else with it until Archmage Valeterisa and Demsleth got back to us. And Calescent obeyed. Mostly.”

Calescent…

“He really did!”

A Hobgoblin was peeking out of the kitchen, looking worried. Lyonette’s eyes swiveled to Yelroan and then to the kitchen—and the Gnoll delivered the final blow as gently as he could.

“He didn’t do anything else with it. Certainly not put anything else in the—the box. The problem is…he couldn’t. The garlic won’t go back in.”

Was this code of some kind? Rose mouthed the words ‘The garlic won’t go back in’. Why did that make Lyonette blanch?

“Did he try to force the garlic back in? What do you—it won’t go back in?”

“It cannot be inserted into the box.”

At this point, Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle really hoped this wasn’t some kind of euphemism, but the look on Lyonette’s face suggested that if it was, it was not a good result either way.

“And he tried?”

“I tried. Everyone tried. With a hammer, even. No amount of force could—no garlic. Not another clove, not another bunch. No piece of garlic works.”

Colfa really had to know what this box was. Was it literal garlic or…Lyonette put her head in her hands.

“No. No. No. Does it mean you only get one try or—?”

Yelroan patted her on the shoulder, as concerned as she was. Slowly, the [Princess] stood up, giving everyone a wan smile.

“I think…I had better lie down a second. Excuse me.”

None of the staff had the heart to say anything as she headed upstairs. Even Ser Dalimont and Dame Ushar looked sympathetic. The only group that got up and began to file upstairs after Lyonette were the children. When the adults fell down, why, that was the time when you kicked them. They were too tall normally.

 

——

 

Lyonette du Marquin lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her head was a mess.

The box of…of whatever it was called had stopped working.

She’d broken it.

No—the garlic wouldn’t return to the box. Did that mean it only worked once? Was it on cooldown? But if it wasn’t and she inserted something else in…

You only got one try. That sounded—horrifically—like something that Erin’s Skill would enforce. Moment. Memory.

Intransigence.

The box had a limited amount of power. Or a rule of some kind, and Lyonette had just used something up. Forever?

There was a…a sense in the back of her mind that came from having access to Erin’s Skills. An intuition, like how she could sense children marching up the stairs to harass her. Before she practiced the sacred art of child-punting, for the first time in her life, Lyonette tried to feel for the box. Erin’s newest Skill.

—She sensed nothing. Not a thing. Lyonette could sense the [Garden of Sanctuary], even how to open the other doors. The hallway, the gardens folded up into each other, able to be anywhere and nowhere in the inn.

She could feel the inn, sturdy, sense the [World’s Eye Theatre] like a waiting eye or how Erin had described a telescope, ready to swivel and view the world.

She did not sense the box. But when she opened her eyes—there it was.

Resting on her chest. When Lyonette focused on it, she felt the faint weight, but even that was a lie. Sometimes it was heavy, other times it was small.

…It was smaller this time. Hand-sized. Lyonette reached out to touch it and whispered as her fingers flinched away.

“[The Box of Incontinuity].”

Her skin crawled. She did not know it. Yet she knew the name. It was more than that. She knew that much—but she knew nothing of what it did. Perhaps Erin Solstice herself didn’t.

It terrified her. It was a Level 50 Skill, and Lyonette lay there. Selys’ glower of hatred was burned into her vision. Tessa’s blank look of despair. Colfa’s quiet voice.

We have let them all down. Each and every one. That was what hurt so much about what Selys had said.

Who’s next? Which friend has to suffer when we fight for a cause, even if we have every reason in the world? And what do we leave behind?

Lyonette wished she could talk to Erin face-to-face. Maybe the [Innkeeper] had a better answer, but from where Lyonette lay—it looked like the answer was nothing.

Yet. And yet. Lyonette stared at the box and let dark thoughts drift in her mind. Maybe…no.

Maybe. She lifted it up and inspected it. The Box of Incontinuity was plain, wooden, and Lyonette thought no force in this world might be able to break it. She cast her mind into the [Garden of Sanctuary] where Apista was buzzing around a pile of garlic and nibbling on some.

Lyonette lay backwards again and thought to herself. Just thought for a while. Then she wondered what was taking her daughters so long.

 

——

 

Blackmail was, in the Kingdom of Calanfer, as traditional as one’s first monthly bleeding. That was why Dame Ushar didn’t stop Mrsha and Nanette on their quest to drive their mother to the edge.

After all, each one of Calanfer’s [Princesses], save for little Ellet, had at one point or other tried to blackmail, bribe, persuade, or otherwise manipulate their parents. That usually was when Ielane took one glove off and they learned something of their mother’s true nature.

In this case, Ushar was hoping it would give the girls some much-needed respect for Lyonette, or, if it led to strife, then she would be assisting both sides in productive warfare until they reconciled.

Such was a Thronebearer’s life. The children would surely not stop for her anyways; they had a mission. A debt of honor and a wand of true magic to acquire. Great secrets to unravel; who could halt such adventure and destiny?

Ser Dalimont? Of course not. He valued his shins and feared whatever mischief the children might visit him in the night. Who would stand against them? Peggy, Rosencrantz, and the staff? They had better things to do than make enemies with the children.

Yelroan, then, or Rose? No, even to the newly-returned Earther and Gnoll. They had learned the dangers of Gnoll cubs long ago.

Mrsha the Manipulator ascended the stairs to the second floor, adjusting the black bowtie she’d found as Nanette fiddled with a cap. Hethon and Sammial brought up the rear, wishing they could have had the steak before they blackmailed Lyonette. But intrigue waited for no man’s stomach.

The children found someone blocking their way. She stood, silhouetted in the oddly dark corridor, a shawl of crimson draped around her shoulders, a cloak thrown back to reveal clothing that looked old, black cloth sewn carefully with white thread and grey to give it the look of silver brocade.

An upraised chin; red eyes half-aglow by the light. Wind even swept around Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle’s feet, blowing her skirts.

It was, even to Ushar and Dalimont, an amazing entrance. The two Thronebearers and the children all stared at Colfa a second.

“Children. Vhat are you doing? Your mother is resting. Let her rest. Come, let thee return below to dine on our repast.”

The accent that tended to come and go with Colfa’s mood was in full force. She seemed rather pleased by Mrsha’s and Sammial’s open mouths. Nanette, though, was made of sterner stuff. She touched the cap, doffing it like a city girl.

“I know she’s resting, Miss Colfa, but we have business that can’t rest. As it were. She’s been rather stubborn, and if you’ll let us have just a few minutes with her, we can resolve this all quickly and have a luncheon. I should be delighted to dine with you.”

Assuming Lyonette doesn’t want to make this hard. Mrsha the Muscle punched a fist into her paw. Colfa’s lips twitched up slightly.

“Ah. I can see thou art resolute. Naughty children. Rebellion is all very well. But I vould hope you would remember to respect your elders. Miss Lyonette has suffered a trying day. Kindly give her a moment’s rest.”

“I, uh, I’m sorry, Miss. But we have business with her that can’t wait.”

Hethon interrupted awkwardly before Nanette could reply. The witch and Colfa gave him mildly annoyed looks as if he was interrupting something, but as impressive as the stranger was—wasn’t she some kind of [Farmer]?—he really had urgent business.

He went to stride forwards, and Colfa lifted a hand, two fingernails painted red held up in warning.

“I cannot allow that, young man. Come; don’t tempt my ire. There are rules to be observed in every house. This one I hold especially dear: never wake a Lischelle from her rest. I trust Miss Marquin adheres to such rules.”

She spoke…in an odd pattern, smiling in a way that made his heart beat faster. Shyly, Hethon hesitated, unwilling to anger a lady. Sammial, as someone fully willing to, marched forwards.

“Oh yeah? Well, we’re doing this for Ryoka, and she doesn’t listen to anyone. So move it! Or else! Please!”

Colfa had been glancing around the hallway slowly; the wind blew again, and Hethon shivered in actual cold. The wind that brushed at her white hair and dress came from outside, but she didn’t shiver like the children. When she bent over, Sammial retreated a step.

“Young man. I would caution you to more respect were you under my roof. My family, you see, is older than yours. And we do insist on good manners.”

Nanette and Mrsha exchanged a glance as Sammial hesitated, unwilling to defy his instincts and risk a second confrontation.

What was this strange, mysterious boss before victory? Well—Mrsha squared her shoulders and gave Nanette a nod.

She pulled out a pre-prepared notecard and, with blasé confidence, shouldered forwards, intending to just muscle past Colfa for the door. Rude? Yes. But it worked, and they didn’t have time for manners.

Mrsha the Shoulder flicked a card up at Colfa as she strode for Lyonette’s door. It read:

Hey, sorry about that.

She used it a lot. She saw Colfa turn, that eerie smile never quite leaving her face, but she pivoted across Mrsha. In other words, her outstretched arm, and cloak, covered Mrsha, and the Gnoll brushed at the fabric, stumbled—

—and walked straight into Sammial. Huh?

The boy blinked as Mrsha stopped walking back the way she’d come. The girl turned her head, and the other children gaped at her. Even the Thronebearers started.

It had seemed, to Ushar, Dalimont, and the other children, like Colfa had done a slow, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree pivot after Mrsha walked into her cloak—upon which time Mrsha had reappeared, walking back in the other direction.

Whoa. The heck!

Mrsha turned—and Colfa raised her brows.

“My dear. I believe that is your second warning. Vould you like to reconsider?

She offered Mrsha a single fang of a smile, and Mrsha hesitated.

“Uh…maybe we should go back. She reminds me of one of the scary aunts.”

Sammial whispered to Hethon, and the older [Lord] hesitated, about to say much the same thing. A Veltras never ran from a fight, but he was of a mind to make a strategic retreat. Nanette, though, was perhaps the most sinfully prideful of the lot.

She had rubbed shoulders with the greatest [Witches] of Izril. Her own mother had been one.

“Miss Colfa, let’s stop the games, please.”

She called out as Mrsha narrowed her eyes and nodded, confidence restored. Colfa raised her eyebrows at Nanette.

“Miss Nanette. I never joke about—”

Mrsha leapt forwards on all fours, streaking past Colfa. She passed under the cloak, doing an evasive roll—

Colfa’s pivot was faster, but she never visibly touched Mrsha. She just spun, and Mrsha reappeared, leaping out of Colfa’s cloak, and headbutted Hethon in the stomach. Both fell over, and Colfa finished smoothly.

“—anything. I mean what I said. My friend desires her sleep. Never disturb a lady at rest. You may be unpleasantly surprised by what awakens.”

Her lips twitched upwards, and Mrsha raised her head dizzily.

What hit me? 

Nanette hesitated, and Mrsha stared up at Colfa as Hethon, wincing, waved a hand for retreat. Sammial was already backing up.

“She reminds me of Ulva Terland and Magnolia. Let’s go, Nanette—”

“I think not. Miss Colfa is entitled to try to get in our way, but she is a guest. And I have business with Lyonette.”

She could have tried to use the door, but Nanette just squared her shoulders, put a hand on the wand at her side, and walked forwards. Daring Colfa to do the same trick on her as Mrsha. The Vampiress’ chin rose, and her eyes shone scarlet a moment.

Dead gods, she is so cool. Mrsha’s head was still spinning, but she decided she had to tell Visma all about Colfa’s look. She normally didn’t…‘get’ the clothing thing, even if she’d begun to with the dolls and making sure they looked the part.

But this? She could get behind this. The lady was positively…Gothica-like, only older, and Nanette looked purely silly striding up to Colfa, even though she was trying her best. She had a hand on her wand, and she was going to do something radical. The children held their breaths as Nanette closed the brief distance. She twitched as Colfa bent down, eyes locked on Nanette’s fierce, brown ones.

The witch yanked her wand out of her pocket as they were about to collide—

Colfa threw Nanette out the window.

It was so fast that Mrsha barely saw it. A blur—Nanette’s draw of the wand turned into a wide-eyed look of alarm as Colfa seized one shoulder—and Dame Ushar leapt with an oath. But she was too slow.

With a shriek, Nanette went out the window that Colfa had opened. Ushar followed her like a golden comet, but the sound of Nanette’s untimely contact with the ground was muffled…by the snow. The witch landed outside and spluttered, legs kicking in the air.

Ser Dalimont blinked at Colfa. Colfa flicked at her shoulder and lifted one hand, cupping it to hear Nanette shouting—then snapped her fingers.

The window closed on its own. Without a word, the Lady of val Lischelle-Drakle looked pointedly at the remaining three children. They backed away without a word, down the steps. Only when they were at the bottom and craning their heads up to the window above did they hear a sound behind them.

“Ah. I believe ze steaks are getting cold. Won’t you join me, Miss Mrsha? Mister Hethon, Sammial?”

Colfa was sitting at a table, eying the steaks with great appetite. Sammial’s mouth dropped open. Mrsha’s head tilted up towards Colfa, who gave her the slightest fraction of a wink, and remembered something.

Colfa was a mother. She’d raised Rivel and Fierre. 

The ultimate backup for Lyonette beckoned, and the three children filed into their seats. Mrsha watched Colfa as the Vampire reminded them to wash their hands.

She is so cool.

 

——

 

Bitterness was the name of the day. Acerbic; a taste upon the tongue. It wasn’t just the splenetic argument Selys had put forth in Liscor, it was some common thread of today’s events.

When Lyonette woke up from her nap, she was holding the box as if it were a comfort pillow. She’d been drooling on it—she put it aside, got up, and washed her face with some water at the vanity. She was patting her features with a towel and remembering that this would be a sin—if she were wearing any kind of makeup.

I don’t bother with it these days. My hair? Yes. But we don’t even have running plumbing here. We were always meaning to get water for the tub. Fat chance of that with Liscor so far away. 

Colfa now, Colfa did a lot with her features. Even Imani was passing Lyonette. Did Octavia have anything Lyonette could buy off her?

It was silly, but sometimes, Lyonette did feel like she’d forgotten how to have fun. Sometimes she was the grouchy, anxious mother running after Mrsha or running an inn. Then she’d catch herself laughing and singing with Bethal and Pryde and Colfa—and remember who she was.

Then, of course, Bethal would betray everyone to resurrect her dead sister, and Pryde would be wounded fighting a Hag Queen from another world.

These things happened. But Lyonette thought of Rheirgest, Tessa, Tekshia, Selys, Imani, and Palt, and the common thread was that bile in the back of her throat. She cast down the towel on top of a spotless box sitting innocently on the vanity and glared at it.

“You really are Erin Solstice’s creation. Come along, then. Let’s see what you’re worth.

Visitors had come to The Wandering Inn for the evening rush. Which meant there were as many as eight people besides staff and family eating there.

Rose gave Lyonette a nervous wave and mouthed ‘you okay?’ as Lyonette came down. The [Princess] gave her a weary nod and smile, then focused on the familiars.

Grand Strategist Chaldion was sitting by the fire. Here came Relc, telling everyone about a riot he’d had to break up by sadly punching people. Hethon and Sammial were…for a second, Lyonette’s paranoia spiked, but they were sitting with Mrsha and Nanette.

Very respectfully playing cards with Colfa at a table. For bronze coins of all things! Gambling? When she saw Lyonette, Colfa winked, then walked a bronze coin across her fingers. She seemed intent on teaching the children how to do it, and they seemed fascinated by her.

W-well, since it was Colfa, Lyonette just gave her a relieved nod and focused on the guests she’d been waiting for. And there one was, licking his lips as he rattled off a list of dishes to Ishkr.

Demsleth the Devourer. That wasn’t what Lyonette called him. Mrsha had given him the nickname, and all the staff had liked it. The old man was sitting, hands folded over his belly, looking tired and overworn, as if the cares of the world had been upon his shoulders and he simply had to take a break.

As someone who had actually felt like the world was collapsing onto her back, Lyonette’s smile at him was barely polite. But she did smile when she saw a figure sitting and listening, nodding every now and then, at Relc’s table.

Archmage Valeterisa was paying attention to Relc as Montressa and Bezale talked at another table. But the Archmage of Izril had found time in her busy schedule to sit with Relc, who kept grinning and looking at her sideways, as if expecting her to get bored. He brushed at his neck-spines, laughing, and—there it was.

Lyonette stopped and saw Relc making a punching gesture and Valeterisa shyly showing him a piece of garlic. Colfa started sneezing, but Relc’s eyes popped, and he listened to her, and as Valeterisa began to draw magical signs in the air, he looked so surprised. As if amazed someone like her had the time of day for him.

There it is. One good thing in all this ruination.

“Relc! Valeterisa. Hello, welcome. Can I get you two a head start on dinner? Appetizers, maybe? Relc, thank you for the help at the, um, forum. Valeterisa, did you have a chance to look into the garlic?”

They looked up as Lyonette approached, and the smile was real this time. Valeterisa adjusted her glasses, and Relc waved at Lyonette.

“Oh, that? No one even really was throwing hands—except Selys. One idiot tried to have a run at Lism, so I knocked him flat, then they were all complaining about Watch brutality. But that was crazy. Did you hear they want an election this year? We just had one! I think the Council’s fine. Though I guess we have to replace Jeiss.”

His face fell, and Lyonette’s stomach twisted.

“Do you think they’ll be able to push a reelection through?”

“Eh…I dunno. But hey—what’s this about an appetizer? You wouldn’t happen to have a discount for a hardworking Senior G—Sergeant of the Watch, would you?”

Relc glanced hopefully at Lyonette, and Valeterisa opened her mouth. Possibly to say she could pay for everything or to put it on her room tab. But Lyonette got there first.

“I think we could offer you a free dish to share. How about a Couple’s Special? Imani just sent over the recipes for new dishes. How about some of the, ah, ‘koeksisters’? They’re these braided pieces of dough deep-fried in oil, and you eat them with lemon syrup.”

“Oh. Oooh.

Relc grinned in delight, then realized what Lyonette had called it. Couple’s Special? Valeterisa blushed faintly, and he blinked—glanced at her as she looked at him—and they smiled. This made Lyonette feel better. Admittedly, she hadn’t had much to do with the two getting together, but even Mrsha had lent a debatably helpful paw.

It had been during the beach. The beach that Lyonette wished was still here. But the [Garden of Sanctuary] that had held the beach was gone forever. Sanctuary ended.

Yet if this strange couple was the result…that was something, you see? That was the difference between Selys’ hateful words and snow-covered graves.

Like that, Lyonette felt something in her mind clicking into place. Relc was rubbing his claws, and Valeterisa saw Lyonette hesitate.

“May I sit for a second? I don’t want to interrupt you two…”

“No, go on. Have one of those ko-ec-sisters with us. You’re paying for it! Let me just—who put this weird box on the chair?”

Peggy almost slipped and tossed the tray of braided bread sweets as Relc found a box. He shrugged, put it to the side, and Lyonette’s heart leapt. She noticed the children look up.

It’s following me. It knows I’m thinking of it.

She could go over to the [World’s Eye Theatre] and beg Paeth or Niers for an audience with Erin right now. But somehow, Lyonette didn’t feel the need to. Her answer was right here, and Valeterisa remembered her project for the day.

She gave Lyonette, oddly, a half-aggrieved look as she put the garlic on the table. It was covered, Lyonette noticed, in intricate magical symbols, and pieces had been carved out of it.

“This was a…valuable magical course in refreshing Montressa’s knowledge of magical analysis. Fruitful. Garlic is a fruit, I think? No, vegetable. Fruitful for academic studies. Very un-vegetable for my work. Which I’m busy at.”

“Oh? Why’s that, Archmage?”

Relc eyed the garlic with considerable fascination and gave Lyonette a knowing look as Valeterisa sniffed.

“Because it’s garlic. Oh, this tastes like lemon.”

She popped a twist of bread into her mouth and chewed, absently smiling. At her table, Mrsha’s head rose slowly over her hand of cards. Calescent poked his head out of the kitchen. Lyonette paused.

“…Garlic?”

“Yes. Which I suspect you knew. There is nothing magical about it. I have been tricked, fooled, Archmaged upon, as I believe children say.”

No children said that, but Lyonette was suddenly intent.

“Why don’t you—can I get you anything to drink, Valeterisa. Are you sure it’s not from a—a Cornucopia Skill or something?”

“I am positive. Unless you personally witnessed it coming from such a Skill or spell, in which case I would be very surprised. So much so that I would immediately try to steal whatever artifact you had found for myself.”

Valeterisa replied amiably, opening a drinks menu. Lyonette’s palms began to itch, but she kept her face reasonable. Smile. Ruefully.

“I thought…are you sure? What kind of tests did you run, if I may ask?”

This the Archmage of Izril was only too happy to talk about. She gestured to the piece of garlic as Yelroan subtly edged over, bringing some drinks for the table.

“I began with a basic battery of tests, the simplest of which is, um, taking a piece of the garlic and casting exhaustive magical detection spells on it. Most magical food is part illusion, so even high-grade food that can be eaten is visibly magical. Having ruled that out, I moved with Montressa onto identifying if it was a Cornucopia-type creation. But testing revealed the magical value of the garlic stayed the same even after conversion over a series of fourteen independent tests. So. We didn’t need to do more than two, but I was showing Montressa how each one worked.”

She steepled her hands together as if that explained that, and Montressa gave Lyonette a glare from her table that said some of those tests had been annoying to run. Lyonette hesitated.

“Can you…explain that again, Valeterisa? I understood the part about magical foods, but what do you mean the magical value of garlic?”

Valeterisa flushed a bit and glanced sideways at Relc.

“Pardon me. I was using imprecise language.”

“No—no, keep doing that. She’s asking what that means. Because, y’know, we’re all sort of idiots like me. How’s this garlic stuff work?”

Relc patted her on the shoulder, and Valeterisa blinked. Lyonette was prepared for more magical jargon to spew forth, but she saw Valeterisa hesitate, adjust her glasses, and abruptly, her cadence changed. She began speaking less like a dreamy Archmage, but more like a young student from Fissival. A younger Valeterisa.

“It’s…how would I put this to Milaw? He understands magical conservation theory, of course. This is all, um, theoretical, but it’s not, Relc. Magic is a resource, like water or air. It moves about, it can be generated or lost, but it’s always a set amount. You cannot generate more magic from an object than it has. An orange always has an orange’s amount of magic in it. You may infuse more or generate more or lose it, but if all other things are equal—and they never are—magic is constant.”

“Like a bucket of water is always a bucket of water.”

Lyonette added as Relc struggled with this. His expression cleared, and Valeterisa gave Lyonette a sour look.

“Yes. My test was simple—I took a piece of the garlic, calculated the magical value, then burnt the garlic and calculated the energy it produced as a product of a flame spell with no source of mana but the garlic. You see, the method of—well, the point is that the garlic yielded some energy in being burnt. Miniscule amounts, but it was there. If it was a Cornucopia-type Skill, it wouldn’t have been as efficacious. Cornucopia food is only half as nutritious as real food at best. So it would have yielded a lesser value.”

“So what you’re saying is that this is real garlic because it has all the energy of…garlic.”

Relc was catching on. Valeterisa nodded energetically, smiling.

“That is one of the most consistent proofs. If this was generated with a Skill, perhaps it is artificial in some way. But it has a magical presence identical to regular garlic. It is, therefore, worth as much as regular garlic so long as it doesn’t degrade. Though I do detect a bit of browning around the edges. Decay?”

“No, that’s garlic rotting. You were carrying it outside the inn, remember? Preservation only works inside.”

Relc helpfully interjected, and Valeterisa gave him the side-eye.

“Well observed.”

They shook hands. Lyonette sat back and kept her voice level.

“You’re sure about this, Valeterisa?”

The Archmage of Izril gave Lyonette an actual, vexed frown.

“We have been testing it for four hours. If this is the product of a Skill, then I remind you that some Skills like [An Apple A Day] create actual apples. Those are the rarest of all supply-type Skills.”

“Wait, Lyonette. Do you mean you have the power to create garlic for free?”

Relc’s eyes lit up, and Colfa twitched at her table. Her friend’s look of mild horror made Lyonette begin to protest.

“No—well—that is, it’s complicated, Relc. We do have a lot of garlic, and—I was worried it would vanish or something. Hence me asking Valeterisa. Thank you for your time, Valeterisa. Surely, though, the garlic might vanish at some point?”

It was a fair concern, and Valeterisa hesitated.

“It’s real garlic, though. You could eat it, and if it vanished inside your stomach…I wonder what would happen.”

Lyonette blanched, but a nosy fellow sat up at his table and, self-importantly, Dragoned into the conversation.

“No fear of that. Did you ask the good young lady over here for the same project, Lyonette? Honestly, you and that other girl love to waste people’s time. It won’t ‘vanish’, and if it’s come from a Skill, then I shall expect a splendid garlic-based repast tonight as part of my fee. Not too heavy on the powdered stuff though; it gives me a cough.”

Demsleth strode over, and Valeterisa frowned at him, then glared at Lyonette. The [Princess] blushed, but she lifted a hand.

“I just assumed one of the two of you would be too busy. How did you find out it was garlic, Demsleth?”

“Yes, did you quantify the magic in some way?”

Valeterisa was interested, mage-to-mage, in Demsleth’s process. The problem was, she had no idea she was talking to a lazy Dragon as opposed to a preeminent scholar of magic.

Yelroan was taking notes, and Demsleth waved a lazy hand as he sat down—and helped himself to some of the appetizers.

“Oh, this is quite zesty. I’ll have a plate for the table, thank you. And I believe my guest, Taletevirion, will be joining me along with Alber. Hmm…I don’t often go for magical analysis, miss. It’s so difficult to properly quantify. We have values, but you know how those change with every new empire and magical era. Magic is so—tricksome. Dark magic, shadow magic, let’s not even talk about elementaless stuff. It’s too hard to figure out how to convert to raw magic as a data point.”

Valeterisa, as oblivious as she normally was, didn’t miss that crack about changing magical values. She adjusted her spectacles, and Yelroan twitched. The [Mathematician] raised his sunglasses slowly.

The glare of light made Demsleth snap his fingers, and Yelroan’s glasses were suddenly no longer bright and shiny. By the same casual magic, he lifted something into one hand.

“It took me five m—majorly strenuous hours to cast this spell. But as you can see, the garlic is real and will not vanish.”

Lyonette’s pure glower of outrage changed to surprise, then amazement as Demsleth put something on the table. It was…garlic. Or rather, a rooty, green, overgrown plant.

It was a full stalk of garlic! Not just one, but several, in fact, all twined together. Valeterisa stared at it, then Demsleth.

“…Time magic?”

He gave her an arch, confident smile that earned him a kick from Relc. Demsleth explained as he kicked back.

“Youngsters—it was the most obvious solution. If it was fake garlic, why, aging it a few y—weeks would instantly demonstrate any decomposition of its structure. As you can see, the damn stuff grows. Ergo, it’s real.”

All of Valeterisa’s painstaking analysis was trumped by the experience of a Dragon. If it lasted, it’s real enough. Of course, Valeterisa began to argue with Demsleth.

“That’s such a…a lazy way of analysis. Sir. What if you had a fruit or vegetable capable of germinating seeds?”

“Pshaw, young lady. Do you think I can’t detect if I’m accidentally growing destabilizing seedlings? Mind you, I’ve seen it happen before. There was an experiment where a Level 60 [Farmer] tried growing some magical seeds an [Archmage] whipped up. The stuff deteriorated like mad, but he managed to preserve it and grow generations of successively more imbalanced fruit.”

“Are you referring to the Corpusfields Incident? The most intensive famine ever to hit Terandria?”

“Hah! Yes! Er, very tragic. Some things should never be allowed and all that. I say, do you know if they ever wrote down the story of that [Cleansing] incident gone wrong?”

Demsleth and Valeterisa were drawn into a historical comparison of past magical incidents and how they had actually happened, according to the Dragon. Lyonette just sat back, not saying a word.

The garlic is real.

The garlic is real.

The garlic. Is real.

Lyonette du Marquin slowly looked up, and there it was. The Box of Incontinuity sat on a beam of the inn above the diners, small, unnoticed by even Demsleth and Valeterisa.

Playful. Terrifying. Innocuous.

And…now Lyonette’s eyes focused on it, and she felt her breath slowly leave her body. An exhalation like satisfaction.

It couldn’t be true. Unless it was. A reward for making the world crazy; something to make it even stranger. Then, Lyonette stood up and snagged a final snack.

“Excuse me, everyone. Enjoy your dinner. I just have a little something to take care of. Ishkr, Yelroan? Let’s work on a little project. Get the staff.

 

——

 

The Box of Incontinuity had rules. Of course it did. One of the rules was apparently this: something that went into the box once could not be added to it again.

No matter how many times Lyonette tried to push in a new piece of garlic, she couldn’t. The box refused to accept it; it wasn’t even an invisible wall, the garlic just stopped.

The second rule was that the box was indestructible, or at least, Lyonette wasn’t inclined to test how indestructible it was. The third?

The box was not just the box.

But she kept that secret. If this little box scared her, she refused to even think of the other ones.

Lyonette du Marquin stood in the hidden Earther rooms, exhausted from a long day of defeats and setbacks. But there was something in the air. It was not just the box in her hand or Mrsha trying to show off her canines in the most Colfa-like smile.

Or indeed, Colfa herself. The Vampiress was staring at a model of the planet Earth and hesitating, clearly wondering if she’d missed a memo on what was going on.

Why is she in here, Lyonette? Rose was giving Lyonette an alarmed side-eye, but the [Princess] didn’t care. She was busy watching a crazy Gnoll muttering to himself and sketching on a blackboard that had held valuable and useless ramblings of Earth.

Some of it had been Kevin’s hand—and Lyonette hadn’t wanted to erase it. She almost stopped Yelroan, but he had focused on the weird writings that Kevin and the other Earthers had put up.

 

E=mc2.

The cake is a lie.

Gasoline comes from fractional distillation of crude oil. (I don’t know what that actually is).

Gunpowder has bat shit in it.

The Earth is round. (Duh. Who wrote this? Troydel?)

 

And so on. Valuable and worthless things that occurred to a traveller of another world. Speculations on how you made steel katanas mixed with actual scientific data.

“Energy is mass times the speed of light squared. Building blocks of Earth physics. Foundational. She measures magic in garlic. It’s a value, but no one’s quantified it.”

The [Mathematician] was muttering to himself. He was staring at the blackboard, jotting down notes.

“There are units of magic. But he said that it changes depending on the type. It can be used and created—is it a constant? That’s it. That’s it. Gravity’s a value; I calculated it out after I learned Earth had calculated theirs. Exact one-to-one equivalence. I could measure the sky or circumference of this world—but these are known values.”

“Is he alright?”

Peggy was whispering to Rosencrantz and Ishkr. The [Head Waiter] shrugged.

“Maybe not, but he’s being fascinating. Let’s watch.”

Yelroan stared at the blackboard.

“Why assume it’s merely magic? It has rules. It—famously has rules, even if the rules seem to change. That’s it. That’s my theory.”

He was writing on the blackboard, noting down magicore units and drawing lines connecting ideas together. Lyonette watched as Yelroan wrote in the center of the board, stepped back, and left an unfinished equation dangling.

Everyone needed a dream. Now, the Gnoll’s eyes had lit up. Mrsha craned her head and gave him an approving look.

 

M = ?

 

She thought it stood for ‘Mrsha’. So she tried to write ‘cool’ there until Yelroan took the chalk from her. He stared at the prompt, and Lyonette’s head turned.

“Is that your great mathematical equation, Yelroan?”

For a second, he stared at the idea. Then he posed, and his glasses flashed as he smiled. A wild, crazy smile.

“If I could solve it—it would be. This world is ruled by crazy Archmages and magic we don’t understand. I believe almost anything can be rendered into an equation or value. And I’m the only fighter the world of science has—in this world. Until I get backup, I might as well take a new first step.”

Behold. He pointed at the equation dramatically, like a challenge. Nanette stared at Yelroan, for the first time with actual incredulity. He couldn’t be serious. The craft of witches was not something you could hope to write down and calculate…was it?

Her confidence, even arrogance and disdain for his craft, wavered, and that uncertainty? The grinning smile of a [Mathematician] was like a beacon of intent.

Nor was it unfocused. Yelroan moved up from the hugely theoretical ‘M = ?’. He began speaking more rapidly.

“Magic has always been quantifiable by [Mages] in some way. They measure it just like Archmage Valeterisa said. However, they derive all their questions through the practical implementation of magic. Did you see Valeterisa talking about the value of garlic in magic? She knows it’s there. But she hasn’t created the equations to model it. The world we see, the magic we practice, is magic of the real world with a thousand factors moving upon it. Surely, in the past, someone calculated the true way magic flowed.”

The hairs on Mrsha’s neck stood up as Yelroan sketched his understanding of magic onto the board. There was magic in people. Magic in the air. The nature of magic mattered—yet this was simply a value.

“Darkness magic is an alternation of how it is used, but if magic follows any rules, you do not get more of it. There is a model I cannot see. Once, I think, Archmages knew part of that formula. Maybe they lost it in Wistram. But it can be rediscovered if I can observe and calculate. And how better than the Archmage of Izril?”

If they could hear him now, some of the old ghosts of the Waning World might have tried to murder Yelroan there and then with their bare hands. Not because he was wrong, oh, no.

He sounded too logical. If there was any part of magic that could be married with math—and why not?—he intended to find it. To seek the truth.

Just like so many before him had done. The greatest [Mage] in history had once tried to confirm his theories and touch the heart of magic itself. That was why the ghosts would have shivered. And yet, Yelroan was muttering.

“I’m not after that foundational equation. Not yet. I’ll build up to it. I need to borrow the laptop and work my way up from Earth’s physics. First, I derive the magical rule equivalent to gravity. Then—”

It was all Drathian to Mrsha, but the infectious energy in Yelroan, the confidence and desire? That made her proud of another Gnoll searching for something new. Or old. She puffed out her chest and sidled up to Yelroan, and a [Princess] saw the Gnoll alight on a project worth all his time and energy. Then, Yelroan’s sideways look at her said he was now thinking of his own budget. The cost in paper and ink alone…not to mention buying [Mages]’ time.

Well, good. It meant he needed them too.

Lyonette had another dream in her hands. She slowly placed the box on a table and turned.

“Everyone. I’ve come to a realization today. The Wandering Inn—has let people down.”

Her audience turned to her. Mrsha looked up at Lyonette, and Peggy scratched her head.

“Uh oh. Chieftain-Lyonette is getting sad. Where Ulvama when you need her?”

She whispered to Rosencrantz, who whispered back.

“I could get Pawn to cast [Benediction of Hope], but he might get sad if he comes here.”

Lyonette ignored them. It was so clear. Ishkr was the one who raised a paw.

“Do you mean those who’ve died, Lyonette? Don’t let Selys get to you. She’s conveniently forgotten how Liscor was before Erin arrived. We had bad sewers, prices were horrible, and we were a no-name city with a dungeon under our feet. No one liked Antinium. Gnolls were the old Humans—I remember it.”

He smiled, his face as close to annoyed as it ever got.

“Miss Selys is entitled to her opinion, but she’s no Tekshia.”

Damn. Mrsha felt like she had to defend Selys from Ishkr’s savagery. She began to scribble a comeback hesitantly, but Lyonette shook her head.

“It’s not just that, Ishkr. Of course…I’m sad about the Solstice. I wish it hadn’t happened, hadn’t needed to happen. What Erin did after that—some of it wasn’t her choice, like being kidnapped. At the end of it? That was her.”

She stared past them, and she could still see the image of Erin standing behind the [Prince of Men]. Calmly ramming her knife through his chest without even looking at him. The most shocking thing Lyonette had ever seen. The most—predictable.

That wasn’t what Lyonette meant. The [Princess] turned and made her point clearer.

“Erin has always made it a priority to help those who help her. From the Horns, way back at the beginning, to anyone who’s been a guest. We try to feed them, make them comfortable, but we also try to make things happen for them. Right?”

Like Relc and Valeterisa. Or Demsleth, for all he was a pain. If they needed something, the inn helped make it happen. All the staff nodded. Right. It was the kind of thing Erin did. It was an [Innkeeper]’s role—and a [Witch]’s.

Quintessentially Erin. Lyonette looked around and shook her head.

“But lately—they’ve been giving more than we can ever repay. The scales used to be balanced. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers—they came and went. Now?”

The ultimate price was on the books, and no one could settle it. Lyonette saw Mrsha stop writing, and Nanette hugged her. Lyonette kept going softly.

“Back when all we had was food and a room to sleep in, it was fine. People risked their lives because Erin was doing the same. But we’re running debts. The Order of Solstice. Rheirgest. The val Lischelle-Drakles—”

Colfa opened her mouth as Lyonette glanced at her. To protest, but Lyonette saw her think of Bamer and duck her head. The [Princess] went on, pacing back and forth.

“I’m sure Erin is thinking what I am. We can never forget. We don’t. That’s the point of her [Garden of Sanctuary]. Someday, someday we’ll pay back our debts. Somehow…and it’s fine to try to live like that. It doesn’t change that we’ve let them down a bit.”

For the first time, The Wandering Inn had taken too much. Asked too much. It didn’t matter if they were great causes. Necessary battles. Lyonette had always been happy that the inn left more than it took in ways that had no value in gold, but in people and deeds.

If only they had given Halrac Named-rank and the gear to go along with it, maybe…or been able to give Moore a library to read in. Lyonette thought of Brunkr and closed her eyes a second.

Monsters arose. They were put down. In the meantime? The inn should have done more than reward people in food and drinks.

“We’ve run a debt, and I can’t even begin to pay the costs. I’ve been…I’m afraid of another big adventure or event. That’s why I haven’t gone after Ilvriss. That’s why I haven’t let anyone touch the wand. I kept saying ‘we’re not ready’. I guess what I meant was I don’t want us to do it the wrong way.”

“But Miss Lyonette. If we wait on these things, then it’ll be too late—”

Nanette began to protest, and Mrsha nodded. Lyonette glowered at the two girls.

“Oh, and you two were just going to run off and visit strange—forest people in secret? Without telling me?”

They saved us once, Mother.

Mrsha protested, and Lyonette scowled at her.

“Mrsha. Not once did you tell me your plans or ask! Hethon and Sammial I can understand. They’re [Lords] of House Veltras. Did it never once occur to you to ask if I wanted to come along? Or if I had a plan?”

The two girls looked at each other. Nanette bit her lip, and Mrsha hesitated, then wrote on a card.

I didn’t know you’d be cool like that. All evidence hither to points to no.

Lyonette tore up the card and handed the pieces back to Mrsha.

“If you hadn’t been so unreasonable, you would have learned that my plan might have been to go—once we had Ser Normen with us. Perhaps an expert on the Vale Forest like Nalthaliarstrelous? What about a [Witch]? Or is Miss Nanette a great witch herself already?”

After all, you might as well have a negotiator, and if negotiations with these people failed, someone capable of generating flames was a good second bet. But she didn’t say that part out loud.

Her daughters squirmed, but their eyes lit up when they realized this meant they might have a chance of fulfilling Hethon’s promise soon. Huzzah! With Lyonette and parental supervision!

Ah. There’s the rub. But Lyonette had already warmed to her theme, and now it was coming out of her.

“If Liscor doesn’t want to back us, well—Eternal Throne, we’ll do it ourselves! Rheirgest doesn’t have to live in Liscor. What if—what if we found them a spot of land and hired Antinium to make it flood proof? Selys doesn’t want to associate with us? Fine. But we’ll repay our debts. Not just to Liscor and Rheirgest. To everyone! They can avoid us and hate us, but we have the door, and when the next idiot comes to call, I’ll have Bird’s ballista on the roof, and he’ll have permission to shoot it all day and night and enough ammunition to take down the bone Giant himself if he has to!”

“Yeah! Ballista!”

Peggy pumped a fist in the air, and all the Goblins cheered. The Antinium began clapping, and Ishkr grinned. Mrsha was nudging Nanette, slightly worried.

I think Mother’s gone a bit crazy. Someone should stop her.

No one felt like it. Even Yelroan seemed positive, though he did have to raise a paw and cough.

“This is all stuff I believe in, Lyonette. But I’d be remiss if I, uh, didn’t mention that we don’t have the funds to do most of this without asking for discounts. Massive ones from the Antinium, for example.”

And there it was. Lyonette felt like a [Dancer] having skillfully led her partner to the right place at the right time. She gave them a certifiably crazy Erin Smile™.

The answer was, after all, simple. Erin had always had ways of making money or calling on favors. She hated doing it. She was a side of her own, and she didn’t like striking alliances or deals.

Well, so what? She wasn’t here right now, and even if she was, Lyonette had it on good authority that Erin was seven inches tall. What was she going to do, stop Lyonette?

She had left her inn behind. Now, the [Princess] stood here like a cuckoo bird invading a nest. That made her sound a lot worse than she felt she was, but the point remained.

I am Lyonette du Marquin, the [Princess] thought to herself. A better innkeeper than Erin. A more composed, articulate, attractive, well, fashionable Erin. I can do the things she’d never dream of.

So, she turned with a smile that Dame Ushar took a Magic Picture of. Just so Ushar had it for posterity. A brilliantly wide smile, like a [Lady] daring someone to kiss her hand so she could slap them across the face. A dangerously peeved glimmer of wrath and fortunes—

Why, she looked like Queen Ielane when she was young. Ushar saw Lyonette lift up the Box of Incontinuity and admire it.

“Here’s what we know about this box. The Box of Incontinuity. Whatever goes in is copied. If you take something out, you can’t put it back in. So we’ve used up ‘garlic’. Perhaps forever.”

Calescent shuffled his feet, lowering his head with the shame of [Garlic Cooks] everywhere for lost opportunities. But Lyonette favored him with a smile.

“I think Colfa will be glad we can’t duplicate more garlic.”

Rose and Colfa exchanged a look. Wait, duplicate? Was that what this was all about? They had a thought, or perhaps the burgeoning thought that Lyonette had mulled over all day from the morning. It couldn’t be. But maybe…Lyonette looked at Yelroan.

“Yelroan? Quick question.”

The [Mathematician] who had held the Plain’s Eye Tribe’s finances in his paw for years. A Gnoll who’d probably had the ability to embezzle multiple fortunes and hadn’t, because he’d been loyal and better than his Chieftain deserved.

Why did her smile make him more nervous than Xherw, suddenly? Yelroan broke away from his musings of the blackboard and equations and gave Lyonette a nervous grin.

“Yes, Lyonette?”

The [Princess]’ smile grew wider as Mrsha’s eyes grew round, and Nanette slowly took off her cap and held it in her hands. Like a witch saluting a masterfully stupid—or amazing—play.

“Yelroan, would you do me the favor of finding out which gold coin we have is the most valuable? I know they’re not all made equal. Better yet, can you prepare a spread for me to consider?”

Everyone stared at Yelroan. Then at Lyonette. Then at the Box of Incontinuity. Rose covered her mouth slowly. Rosencrantz had four hands over all of his mandibles.

Ser Dalimont just leaned over to Dame Ushar and whispered.

“We’d better get Tessa back and find more bodyguards. Because if Erribathe doesn’t try to destroy the inn, the [Merchants] are going to try to murder her.”

Dame Ushar didn’t reply. She was too busy applauding.

 

——

 

So it was that Mrsha and Nanette went on a field trip. Not to Liscor, where they were unwelcome, but rather, into the City of Adventurers.

Invrisil. They were escorted by Ser Dalimont, Yelroan not being present. He was busy sorting coins in the [Garden of Sanctuary], but he’d given them nearly fifty to take with them.

Not to spend, but rather, to bring to a contact that Lyonette had in the city. Or, failing that, the Merchant’s Guild.

However, Lyonette wanted secrecy. Someone she could trust, as opposed to suspicious questions. So she had them talk to someone who knew more about coinage than even Yelroan.

The rather modest apartment on a more well-to-do street wasn’t impressive, but it was one of those buildings you could rent out quickly and at a decent price. The nameplate had been recently done up, and what it said was:

 

Salazsarian Embassy — No Solicitations.

 

Whether or not it was Salazsar’s actual embassy sort of didn’t matter; they hadn’t had one in the north hither to, at least in Invrisil, and the renter of the place rather fancied he counted if anyone else did.

“Ah, Miss Mrsha of the Persuasive Pen! And Nanette Weishart, I believe. Welcome, welcome. Did your mother send you? I hope she’s changed her tune on a little jaunt to the north. How can I help you?”

[Diplomat] Nerul was, by his own admission, not a Drake who enjoyed going on expeditions unless it was to the nearest bar. While his nephew had to organize sending so many people north, Nerul did what he considered was most valuable for Wall Lord Ilvriss: he hung around Invrisil and had drinks.

The proper sort of drinks, mind you. The ones where you bumped into a surly [Lord] or introduced yourself to a [Lady] who might never have seen a Drake from a Walled City and, coincidentally, got to talking. You paid for drinks, you introduced yourself to a table of [Merchants], and when you needed that favor—they’d remember your name.

Nerul had another mission, which was to get people like Lyonette on Ilvriss’ side, but he knew better than to push, given what the inn had been through. He was gratified to see Lyonette had come to him with a request and trusted him enough to send her daughters.

Of course, when they asked him for a favor, he paused—then smiled.

“Coinage? My dears, as your mother surely knows, you’ve come to the right place. Salazsar is one of the cities in Izril that can mint new coins, and I’m personally a bit of an expert on the subject. What did you want?”

We have come for good coin, sir. The best coin you have! And we will pay with inferior coins! Like these!

Mrsha slapped coins down on the coffee table in front of him, and one of the Drakes winced as she scratched the woodwork. Nerul just laughed heartily as Nanette explained.

“We’re not actually after the best coin necessarily, but Lyonette wanted to know the difference between the different—denominations? Of gold coins? She’s, ah, worried about it because of the inn’s income, you see.”

It was one of the rare subjects where Nanette actually didn’t know anything, so she was curious on two levels. Nerul instantly produced a monocle and inspected the assortment of gold coins.

“Ah, understandable. Has she gotten some fakes in? It happens, you know—oops. Here’s one.”

He flicked up a gold coin instantly, and Mrsha blinked.

A fake gold coin?

It looked real enough, but when you stared at a strange poc-mark, an odd cross dug into the metal, you noticed the gold turned into a darker, grey metal on the inside. Nerul tossed it down.

“Always hurts to see. Though if it’s only one in a hundred, that’s not the worst. Lyonette could probably make some good money if she’s wise about trading up gold coins. Not that it’s easy; any [Trader] worth their salt learns gold coins. As you said, they’re not all the same value.”

They’re not?

Mrsha was astounded. Gold coins weren’t a standard? Everyone knew it went copper, silver, and gold for value. But Nerul waggled a finger at her.

“I love talking about coins. Good icebreaker at the bar. Can I get you two wine? Grape juice? Watered wine?”

I shall have an amphora of watered wine, if you please. No vinegar. I do know the difference.

Mrsha handed the request to a servant, and Nerul coughed into a handkerchief until his scales were red.

“Child, never change. You heard her. An amphora, but go light on the wine. It’s always good for girls to know what wine tastes like.”

“Is it, sir?”

Dalimont was disapproving, but Nerul gave him a serious look.

“Of course it is. If I had daughters, I’d have them at least know what wine’s like. Or how are they to know if someone’s altered it? And they should know how much they can drink.”

“…Very good, sir.”

Wine cups were passed out, and Mrsha tried to look dignified as she sipped at hers and decided wine sucked. Nerul launched into a practiced explanation.

“What you need to know, ladies, is that gold coins are universally recognized across the world. Everyone from Drath to the House of Minos accepts them. Even if some places have internal currencies or barter systems—gold coins have a value. It then stands to reason that if it’s nice having a currency, well, someone has to make the stuff, right?”

“Right. So each kingdom has a coin, don’t they?”

“Aha! Wrong!”

The Drake waggled a finger at Nanette. She blinked, and he gestured to the spread of coins on the table and flicked several out of his own money pouch.

“Take a hard look at these coins. Just the Izrilian ones…here. What do you see? How many cities or places?”

One, two, three…Mrsha and Nanette counted, but came up with only eight places. It was easy to see from the coins; there was a raised face on each coin that had neat edging and an image of the city’s crest and sometimes their name on the front.

Salazsar, House Terland, House Reinhart, Ottopren—Mrsha didn’t recognize the last one, but she did know the others. Strangely, she noticed a tiny little flag in the right corner of one of the House Terland coins—and it was another flag on another gold coin.

“What’s this, Mister Nerul?”

“Which Mint-City coined the actual piece itself. The big crest is which power backed it. Except for Ottopren. They’re an independent city. Not many cities, or even kingdoms, are in the habit of minting coins, Miss Nanette. It’s not the easiest task.”

Pshaw. How hard can it be? You take some gold and stamp it.

Mrsha was faintly outraged, but Nerul raised his brows.

“Well, yes, that sounds simple enough, Miss Mrsha, but what if someone takes a gold piece and stamps it? Then they’ve copied you. Besides, most gold coins aren’t actual gold. Someone bring me a magnet?”

Mrsha’s day was filled with outrageous revelations. She gasped—but Nanette just watched as Nerul passed a magnet over the coins. Only one stuck to it; a few moved, but the magnetic stone passed over the rest without issue. Nerul grunted.

“Thought so. Some of these are more valuable than I thought; but look at this coin, Mrsha. Magnetic. Gold isn’t, at least, not pure gold. This is a Manus gold coin.”

It was nice, heavy, and in good condition; none of the lettering or edges had worn down. Mrsha felt it suspiciously.

Seems like a good coin to me.

“Oh, it is. But it’s not gold. Rather, I’d guess it’s about 40% gold. The rest is other metals. I’m never sure which, and you see how Salazsar’s is slightly different? Their alloy makes the coin’s a bit different. Top secret; it makes it harder to forge. If all gold coins were, well, gold, my word, we wouldn’t have nearly as many!”

He laughed, shaking his head at the notion. Mrsha stared down at the traitorous coin from Manus. Now she thought about it…one time, when Griffon Hunt had come back from the dungeon, hadn’t Revi said they’d found actual gold coins in the dungeon? Which meant that it was rare.

“So cities mix gold with other metals to save money on making them? I understand that, Mister Nerul. That must be why people try and make fake gold coins.”

“Exactly. If it cost a gold coin to make a gold coin—there would be no value in minting them! Most gold coins are actually a profit for the city who coins them, but a lot of that money has to go back into making them forgery proof. Or else you get things like this—and believe me, this can ruin cities and businesses. One high-level [Forger] and you’re in trouble.”

Now, Nerul held up one of the fake coins, which was a Salazsarian coin—but it had a punched piece of metal taken out of it.

He showed them the coin, and Mrsha, sniffing it, thought she did detect a different scent from it.

“This is a lead-painted coin. Not a bad one; they painted it with several coats, and it’s the right weight. Mind you, any Merchant’s Guild would pick up on the forgery. You can test for it; it devalues the coins slightly, but let’s play a game.”

Nerul developed a twinkle in his eye. In a trice, he produced ten gold coins and turned to Mrsha.

“Mrsha, I’m a delightful character who wants to buy a meat pie at the market. But instead of paying you, oh, a silver piece, I say, ‘I’ll pay you an entire gold coin. If you change it for silvers, I’ll let you have two silvers.’ What do you say to that?”

Mrsha wrote furiously.

I’m no rube! I’d say give me four silvers for having to exchange your gold coin! My meat pies are superior to ordinary stock!

The Drake howled with laughter, and Nanette covered her face.

“Mrsha. Nerul is giving you a fake gold coin. It’s a classic scam.”

What? Outrageous! Mrsha’s face fell, and Nerul handed her a coin with a wink.

“Sadly, it’s the most common way of trading a fake coin. That way I get four real silver pieces and you get…lead. You might not notice it when you go shopping, but at some point, someone does—and then things get ugly. Tell me, you’re at the counter and you think someone’s trying to cheat you. How do you tell the coin’s fake?”

Mrsha knew that one. She instantly put the coin in her mouth, bit—and nearly broke a tooth. Nerul laughed so hard he nearly splashed wine all over himself.

“Good try! But this is an alloy. Here, try this.”

So saying, he handed her an implement like a weird stabbing device. It was pointed and had four flanges running off it, but it was pen-sized.

“This is a coinpuncher. Stab it into the metal—don’t damage it too much! Go, eh, a third in.”

Mrsha did. It took some effort and all her weight to drive the tip down deep enough, but when she lifted it up, she saw the glossy gold metal had revealed lead again.

Fraud! Guards, arrest this man!

Mrsha hurled the coin down with disgust, and Nerul gave her a wink. Then he began producing other objects.

“Magnets for identifying fake gold coins, alchemist baths that react properly with gold, punch tests—that’s the most primitive, but often the easiest way. Another way is to just know how a coin is minted. See how complex each one is? This is a real Salazsarian coin. Now look at the fake.”

When you put them side-by-side, the differences became clear. Gold coins had multiple ways to tell if they were real—and annoy the heck out of anyone trying to create a mold of a coin. Not only were the details exceptionally fine, from notched edges to embossing around the edges of each coin, there were more little secrets.

“This Golem-horse on the Terland coins only has three hooves. That’s deliberate, just like the crosshatching on the scales of the Drake here. It makes it nigh-impossible to pick up if you’re doing a wax-print. Now, details fade as coins are worn down. And not every kingdom uses the same style. Let’s take a look at this coin.”

The next coin Nerul handed Mrsha was insultingly thin and had a crest design and very narrow shape; it was more a disk as opposed to a fat coin.

“This is worth less, isn’t it, Mister Nerul? I’ve seen [Merchants] weighing a coin.”

Heavier coins with more gold in them had to be worth more. Nerul tapped one cheek with a smile.

“Half right, Miss Nanette. It’s always about gold content. This coin, despite being smaller, has more gold in it; it’s Calanferian. A smart [Merchant] checks on how much gold a ‘heavy’ coin has. You are right that weight and size matter. Well, you don’t need to know more than this, generally. But if you cared to dive into a deeper world, you’d think of all of this as…current coin minting theory. With that said, where are these coins from, hmm?”

He pulled over the other coins that weren’t identifiable as coins from Izril. Many were old; a few had been worn shiny-smooth, and one had an insignia that Mrsha recognized.

The King of Destruction’s seal. This is from Chandrar!

“At least twenty years old. Might be worth something as a collector’s item. Lovely seal, and I imagine he began minting his own. Actually, I’d trade you four gold coins for this one if you like after we’re done; I do appreciate various coins. And this isn’t the oldest one you have. Look at this.

Nerul held it up appreciatively. Then he handed Mrsha another coin, and she blinked at it. The coin had a snarling wolf’s head on it, and the scratches of writing below were familiar to her. Not Nanette. The girl peered at it.

“That’s not Drakeish or Terandrian script.”

“It’s a Gnoll coin. From when the tribes minted their own. That has to be over two hundred years old. Heavy—is this nearly twenty carats? Where did you get this?”

Nerul was suddenly fascinated, and Nanette explained.

“Miss Lyonette was paid in tons of coins by adventurers. I imagine it might have come from Albez or the dungeon.”

“Damn, and they just handed them out? Classic adventurers! They always say a savvy [Merchant] earns more than the adventurer, especially if they’re the ones exchanging all the loot! This coin is old, Miss Mrsha. It’s truly worth any two coins here combined.”

Mrsha snatched it back, holding the coin made by Gnolls with sudden reverence. Nerul’s eyes were glittering now, and he hunted around.

“Hmm. You see, older nations made coins, but new nations will melt some down and recast, or just use them until they’re too thin. That’s why older coins always vanish, but you can always find someone holding onto a really rare coin. There are, of course, [Collectors], but most coins are sadly like these. Shamefaced Coins.”

He held out the coins that were perfectly flat, worn, smooth, without edgework in some cases. Just a thin cylinder of metal.

“Who made these, Mister Nerul?”

The Drake shrugged.

“No one can say. But I’ll bet they’re genuine. They’re just—well, we call them Shamefaces. Because the city who minted them can’t make that many and doesn’t want to try to combat forgeries. As many as forty percent of all coins are this kind. These ones you do want to check. Or have a [Merchant] do it.”

“Forgery countering must be tough.”

Nanette observed, and Nerul sighed wistfully.

“Oh, it’s a grand game. You see this coin that has a punch mark already? It’s fake.”

He pulled out a new coin, handed it to the girls, and they saw gold gleaming all the way down the punch mark—only when Nerul showed them an edge with another knife mark in it, it revealed iron.

“You see, the [Forger] created the coin with the punch mark so it looks like someone’s already tested it. Very clever. It’s a game of Skills; you have [Forgers] who can make the real thing perfectly accurately, but at that point, is it even worth the cost? In the same way, testing coins can drive you mad. Invrisil’s doubtless got a good Merchant’s Guild, but a small town?”

“Who can tell whether all the coins are real or not? Is there an authority?”

The Drake nodded.

“Mint-Cities, of course. They have a vested interest. House Terland’s the powerhouse of the north. I hear they have Golems that can hold a coin and measure its weight or alloy; we’re no slouches in Salazsar. Now, your mother sent you to get the best coin per weight, eh? I have a few in my room; they’re hard to come by.”

“Wait, there is a best coin?”

The Drake gave Nanette a haughty look.

“My dear. If there were a king of coins, you know people would vie to produce it. One second—”

He vanished and came back with something. A cloth bag. In fact—a specific fabric.

“Here’s how you know a coin is valuable: when someone handling it doesn’t touch it with their bare hands. If anyone ever hands you one of these coins casually, they’re either an idiot or it’s a fake. This, my dear Mrsha and Nanette, is the most valuable gold coin you can find that’s minted today. This is a Salazsarian Goldstriker.”

Of course the City of Gems minted the best coins. Mrsha saw Nerul taking a piece of metal out of the bag and was prepared to scoff—until she saw the fattest coin she had ever glimpsed in her life.

A Salazsarian Goldstriker was half again as large as a regular coin, thick, and made of real gold. It sat gleaming on some black cloth, and Nerul let them touch it, but cautioned them.

“See how soft and heavy it is compared to a regular coin? You’ve got some actual gold coins yourself; you should store them carefully. This coin will rub down if you let it, and even the dust is valuable.”

“Why do you make a coin this big, Mister Nerul? It’s still a gold coin. It must be worth more than others.”

The Drake nodded reasonably.

“Oh, it is, though I grant you the average person might not realize it. I have a supply I stock up on every time I go back to Salazsar; I’ve been handing these out judiciously while I’m here. This coin you use when you want to tip and leave an impact. It’s the coin you put down when you want to make a purchase and show what it means.”

But why have the coin to begin with? Nerul snorted at the innocence of children.

“It’s a message. ‘Our money is worth more than your money’. Our money is better than your money. Our money takes yours out behind the stables and beats it down with a halfbrick because it’s too good to be held by your worthless hand…ahem.”

He held the coin up and then held up a regular coin.

“It’s all politics, in the end. Just look at it like this, Miss Mrsha. When I pay you for that meat pie, which coin do you want more? This one? Or this?”

The Goldstriker was obviously the one Mrsha wanted. And Nerul handed it to her, much to her delight, and winked.

“And now you’ve taken your first steps to becoming [Negotiators]. Can I sign you up as prospective diplomats? Salazsar needs more non-Drakes.”

Dalimont was grateful for the lesson on currencies, but he bristled at Nerul’s attempts to suborn Calanfer’s potential new talent. Mrsha and Nanette conferred excitedly, and Mrsha wrote to Nerul.

You have been very informative, Diplomat Nerul! I must now request we take your Goldstriker—I will pay you for it! I think Lyonette would like to see it.

Nerul had also sorted the other coins for them, and he folded his claws behind his back.

“I suppose I could let you have it…but I must insist you recompense me for it. Give me fair change, would you?”

Mrsha obligingly counted some of the lesser gold coins into Nerul’s palm. One, two, three? Very generous. Nerul’s face was blank as he stared down at the coins in his claw. Then at Mrsha.

Four?

Five?

Six? Oh, come on! Mrsha glared, but Nerul frowned at her. Hesitantly, biting her lip, she added two more gold coins to the pile. Then Nerul grinned.

“And that, my dear, is the power of the Goldstriker. It’s worth three on a good day.”

He handed the coins back to her, clapped her on the shoulder, and walked them to the door as Mrsha stomped away. Nanette thanked him shyly, and the [Diplomat] paused at the door, then bent down and winked as the girls began to hurry back to the inn.

“Convey my best to your delightful mother. Oh, and when Lyonette gets a moment, I will so enjoy hearing what she actually needed the coins for.”

They tried their best to keep straight faces, but the [Diplomat] was a shark in the waters. He just winked and closed the door in their faces.

 

——

 

When they got to the [Garden of Sanctuary], Lyonette’s lips quirked the moment she saw the huge coin.

“A Salazsarian Goldstriker? Is it enchanted with listening spells?”

Lyonette blinked at the coin. Colfa held it up reverentially, before passing it back to Mrsha. It turned out the farmer knew coins as well as anyone else in the inn, and they had sorted a lot of the coins in the vault’s reserves.

Mrsha held it out proudly as Nanette told Lyonette all about coins and such. Lyonette smiled as she held the coin up—then she handed it back to Nanette.

“Thank you, but we’ll have to return it to Nerul.”

What? But this is the most expensive coin, Mother!

Mrsha was aghast. She pointed at the box, waiting for an offering, and Lyonette slapped her hand before she could shove it in.

“Mrsha, if we start producing Salazsarian Goldstrikers, the entire world will wonder why we have so many!”

And the last thing I need is to make it look like Ilvriss is backing me. Lyonette inspected the coins the girls had brought back, then flicked one into a pile of six.

These are the coins we’ll pick from. And I think I sent the best with Mrsha and Nanette. This coin—I like this one. Someone run this to Demsleth or Valeterisa and make sure it’s legitimate. No flaws, no impurities.”

Mrsha and Nanette stared at the coin that Lyonette had selected. It wasn’t a fancy Goldstriker or a Terland coin or even the weird coins from other places in the world like a Samalian Keycoin, largely ornamental.

This coin was worn, unmarked, a Shameface from a no-name kingdom. Yet for all it was plain—Nanette saw why Lyonette had chosen it at once. Ishkr nodded to it.

“—Twenty carat gold, Miss Lyonette. Demsleth nearly spat on it, but he says it doesn’t have any flaws or imperfections in it.”

Lyonette angled the coin so it gleamed in the light, admiring the glow..

“More than average. Almost twice as much. It’s hard to say who minted this, isn’t it? I’ll wager an adventurer gave it to us, and it’s the kind of coin an inn has.”

Untraceable. Now, Mrsha was catching on. Lyonette slowly lifted the coin up, and it could buy you a hot meal and a bed in all but the most extortionate inns.

A low-wage laborer might hope to make a full gold coin in a week. Adventurers spent so many gold coins they had to go through a Merchant’s Guild, but everyone wanted more.

“The Wandering Inn’s never been that poor since we got our feet under us, and we are rich for an inn. But a village costs money. A new inn costs money.”

Everyone held their breaths as Lyonette slowly and deliberately opened the Box of Incontinuity and placed the coin inside. Then she tilted the box upside down and shook it.

Once, twice…the gold coin didn’t fall out. Mrsha, edging around the others, saw it sitting in the box, untouched by gravity or the shaking. Lyonette waited.

One…two…three…four…five…six…

Everyone held their breaths, then began to breathe as they realized nothing was happening. But Lyonette just held the box up. Waiting.

…twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine…and then, with a soft ping, a gold coin fell from the open box and bounced off Mrsha’s brow.

My face! Mrsha rolled around because it hurt when it dinged you with the sharp edge. But then she sat up, and Lyonette held up a gold coin. An exact copy of the one in the box.

“…Twenty-nine point seven seconds.”

Yelroan sighed. That was his guess. Lyonette held the box up, and Rose’s eyes were almost as round as the gold coin.

“Dead gods. Does it really just—and it’s free gold?”

“Every thirty seconds, almost.”

Another coin plopped onto the grass as Lyonette exhaled. It took a lot longer than the garlic. Because it was worth more? Was it worth seven times more than garlic? Did the box obey market values?

Strange. Lyonette was a bit disappointed, despite herself. Thirty seconds for a gold coin. Even she could do the math on how much that was per day. 2,880 coins per day.

That was still a lot of gold coins, an inconceivable amount, really. It would do…so much. But it wouldn’t fund the new inn overnight.

“Looks like we have a new income stream. Literally. This…no one speaks of this outside this room. The Merchant’s Guild doesn’t usually employ [Assassins]. For this? They would.”

Yelroan looked at Mrsha seriously, and Lyonette’s lips quirked up.

Goblins and Antinium staff, Rose, Mrsha, Nanette, Colfa, and Ishkr. She didn’t see many traitors here. If anyone was going to tell tales, it was Ushar or Dalimont, and she fixed Ushar with a look that said this was another secret her mother would never know about.

“We’ll arrange a place to store the box. I wonder if we can make it spit coins out without having to hang it upside down? Seems like an odd problem to have. But either way—no one speaks of this. Not to Valeterisa, not to Relc—definitely not Demsleth. Understood?”

The staff nodded, and Lyonette inspected the box again. She stared at it and the coin within. Such a simple thing. So powerful. And she knew there were more sides to the box.

—If she was honest, she was just a bit disappointed, though. She’d panicked, she’d feared what this box did, and it turned out it had a simple, if earthshaking, ability. Lyonette wasn’t going to turn it down or anything, but she had to say it.

“You know, for an Erin Skill at Level 50, I thought this thing would be more terrifying. Doubtless, it is, but even if we only get one chance, I’ll make sure we have enough gold to never need it again by the time we’re done. Dead gods, we’ll need a vault. If only it were faster, we’d be able to buy that other inn.”

She sighed, and Yelroan shrugged. The box spat out another gold coin, and Mrsha picked it up.

“Give us two months and we’ll be able to afford the downpayment. Frankly, Lyonette, I don’t see a problem.”

And I can have all the snacks ever! Right?

Mrsha signed enthusiastically, realizing that Lyonette couldn’t ever speak to her about the costs ever again. Lyonette scowled at Mrsha.

“That’s the kind of attitude that makes me not want to trust you, young miss! Or Bird! Or Numbtongue, if he’d ever show up. Where is he, anyways?”

The box spat out another coin onto the grass, and it bounced off Rosencrantz’s foot. He paused and bent down; everyone else had been focused on Lyonette a second. But Yelroan’s eyes drifted down.

“I think he’s still out with Garia—”

Another coin shot out of the box and hit Mrsha in the side. She jumped, looked around, and stared at it. Then at Rosencrantz. Lyonette glanced down.

“Still? This is why he m—”

Ping. A third gold coin shot out of the box’s lid. This time, everyone saw it. Mrsha caught it in midair, and Lyonette hesitated.

“That wasn’t thirty seconds. Was i—”

Ping. A gold coin shot out, and Nanette caught it with one hand. Startled, she almost dropped it, but it was cool metal, a glimmering, shiny surface.

“That’s—but wait. What—”

Ping. The next gold coin made Mrsha duck. It bounced off Peggy’s leg, and she caught it. Lyonette whirled.

“What’s going on? What—”

Ping. Another gold coin. Yelroan was muttering.

“Four seconds? Three?

His head rose, and Lyonette’s eyes widened.

“Who’s doing that?”

“You are! You said go faster!”

Lyonette stared as Rose clapped her hands over her mouth. She looked around.

Faster? Ping. But I only wanted it to go faster. What—Ping. Ping. Ping—”

As she said that, the Box of Incontinuity continued to spit out gold coins. Not every three seconds, but in rapid succession. Mrsha stared at the box and saw a gold coin appear—and hurl itself forwards.

One, two, three, four—they bounced off her face until she retreated, and then Peggy had the box in her hands.

“Is too fast! Is very fast!”

She held it up, and the coins bounced off Asgra’s face. The Cave Goblin shrieked, and the coins kept landing on the grass. The Cave Goblin shouted at Peggy.

“Make it stop!”

“No, make it go faster!”

Rose shouted, egging on the box, and it began to accelerate. More gold coins spat out at higher velocity, and then people began taking cover. Lyonette whispered in horror.

It can speed up how fast it—

This thing can’t be real! It can’t be real!

Yelroan was shouting. He stared at the gold coins coming out of the box and had a thought. This thing won’t just destabilize the Merchant’s Guild—Magnolia Reinhart herself would murder Erin Solstice if she saw this.

Mrsha stared at the rain of golden coins falling onto the grass. She stared at a coating, then threw up her paws.

We are the richest people in the world! She looked at Nanette, and the two girls high-fived. Lyonette stood there as gold rang in the [Garden of Sanctuary]—and then she was afraid all over again.

Afraid—but she clenched a gold coin tightly in one hand until it cut into her flesh. Then she handed one to Colfa.

“I think…it would be delightful if Rheirgest could settle near your farm, Colfa. As close as you feel comfortable with? Or maybe the inn. And if I could help in any way—believe me. It’s not about us giving money to you as charity. We just—have quite a lot of gold coins. You understand?”

Colfa’s mouth was wide open, like Fierre had once stared at Ryoka and other things in The Wandering Inn. Like mother like daughter—she watched as Peggy chased the staff around with the Box of Incontinuity firing gold coins like a weapon of war.

“I…I think I could accept some of your money, Lyonette.”

The Vampiress felt like she needed a lie down. Lyonette turned to Rose.

“And why did you come back to Liscor, Rose? Not that you aren’t welcome, but I forgot to ask.”

A golden light, more terrible than the Eternal Throne’s radiance, shone through her gaze, and Rose swallowed and tried to smile. Her knees were giving out.

“Funny thing you should ask, Lyonette. You see—I really do like the Meeting of Tribes, but I wanted to come back, and—Adetr wanted me to stay. But Deskie, um, Honored Deskie was actually the biggest reason I came north. Remember that dress you sent?”

“Oh, Erin’s? What about it?”

Rose lifted a sample of fabric.

“It’s…the best cloth Deskie has ever found, even if she says the color is worse than runny camel diarrhea. She thinks more can be made. Actually, she thinks this comes from a plant. But no Gnoll knows where it is, and she thought an expert might be able to…get more? Find out which plant it is, but it’d require connections, and she doesn’t want to tell Drakes about it. So she asked me to ask Erin or Krshia…it’d take a lot of money and connections to do, though.”

Lyonette stared at the odious dress and ancient fabric. Then she patted Rose on the shoulder.

“We’ll see what we can do about that. I can’t promise we have too much room in the budget, but I feel like we can spare some. Oh—Ishkr?”

He had a pawful of coins. Mrsha was making a huge pile of them, and even Ishkr was wearing one of those stunned looks.

“Yes, Lyonette?”

“Go run down to Liscor and tell them we’re buying land for Rheirgest. Then find the Antinium representative about moving dirt. Downpayments on both by tonight. Then I shall tell Normen that the matter is sorted and ask him to really think about the Order of Solstice. A keep, I think, would be the thing. Oh, and do tell Hexel to keep his hours open this month.”

She smiled like the wealthiest woman in the world. Like gold was water and it was raining. Lyonette du Marquin watched her daughter do a swan dive into a pile of gold and shriek in agony because landing on hard, metal objects was actually extraordinarily painful.

And the Box of Incontinuity kept spitting real gold pieces into the world. Lyonette du Marquin stared at it and held her breath. Then she decided to keep breathing, but she kept waiting.

For the catch.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

A few notes. The first scene with Calescent is a tribute to one of the readers of the story, who was trapped in Rome recently and relayed the horrors of unpleasant people. I don’t blame Italy as a whole…I definitely have been to Florence, Venice, and maybe Rome, but I also don’t generally care what shape my pasta comes in so long as it’s edible.

Second—I’m actually not sure when this chapter will reach you. There are some website issues I think we’ll sort out, and I’m not sure what the cause is. The long and short of it is that it’s down and we’re working to get it up, but it might be a day or two. So I’ll post the public chapter in Discord and the Patreon one on the site, with apologies, but it happens. Assuming it wasn’t external.

I never thought we’d get big enough to have hacking issues, and it’s not quite there, but people HAVE run automated scripts that try to brute-force passwords and repeatedly ping the site for new chapters. I’d say ‘don’t do that’, but I’ll probably just ask our admin side to ban those addresses. I am not looking for an online hacking war. AI stealing my work for their algorithmic data…not sure if they’re doing that, but I digress.

Minor issues in the large scheme of things. The writing news is that, for all my fears, I am back in it.

This chapter, as well as 10.03 (I am still two chapters ahead), were where I felt like I was cooking. Not cooking well, but cooking. I wrote for about 13 hours on stream, and it’s mostly up on Youtube. I’ll do some commentary and maybe a blog post when I publish it, but that isn’t wholly a good sign.

It’s a sign. I have energy. It’s a sign I have the motivation to push to write a chapter in a day (because this was supposed to be a one-writing-day chapter). It means I’ll burn through said energy faster, but I do feel like it’s a return to form. If I can check my posture and pace myself, I think I’ll be good.

Strange insights because with other, physical exercise I could probably work harder. But all this to say—snap your spaghetti in half for solidarity. See you next chapter.

 

 

Stream Art: Gold Glitch by BoboPlushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Arson Kids by Sol Adventurer!

 

Olesm and Selys by Duchess Ivory!

 

Tears of Liscor by Pontastic!

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/tobiasnordin

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Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCde0VI7ReuYdsyzoFrIfr7g

Website: https://www.nordink.net/home

 

Honey Mrsha by Hellcat!

 

Tell Death, Mrsha’s Mom, and Montressa by Yootie!

 

Mrsha Cake animation by Wing!

 

Inkpaper by Brack, commissioned by Linu!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 


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