10.13 – The Wandering Inn

10.13

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Lyonette du Marquin dreamed of gold. She slept on it; she woke up and tossed a gold piece out from under her nightdress. She breathed it; she was pretty sure that would lead to lung problems, so they had begun putting cloth masks on when cutting it up.

Gold was such a pleasant dream. On the fifteenth day since The Wandering Inn had begun mass-producing gold, Lyonette woke up knowing three things would happen today:

One. Bird was due to come back today.

Two. The villagers of Rheirgest would finally get here, escorted by the Order of Solstice.

Three. Erin Solstice had more secrets. More to terrify the world with.

The dream of gold had been a simple haze. In her sleep, Lyonette had awoken from a simple, fun slumber of mining gold under the supervision of a vaguely Calescent-shaped Goblin named Pyrite. She, Mrsha, Normen, Ishkr—everyone had been working a gold mine, saying things like ‘it’s not much, but it’s honest work’—piling up gold in a never-ending pile.

Then she had awoken into another kind of dream. A true dream. Someone had opened a door, beckoned her in, and she had walked into a room that was nowhere. A room in a void.

Lyonette had become awake in a way she had never felt before. Alert. She could not have told you, later, where it was or articulated the nature of this spot. Only that it was highly dangerous. 

There were rules. They were unspooling in her mind; a kind of an awareness of the stakes and seriousness of this place. Lyonette well imagined that, in another situation, she might have been incautious. This place, this aspect of Lyonette, took it utterly, deadly at face value.

That was a cost. By entry, she had incurred a kind of debt that put the owner at an advantage. A terrifying notion only mitigated by realizing who was waiting for her here.

Erin Solstice.

She looked—Lyonette was walking towards that strange gazebo in the distance, processing everything, squinting at Erin, and wondering why she looked so off. In the airless vacuum of the void, she heard Erin’s voice faintly. But clearly.

“I’m—I’m not ready after all. Stop. Not her. I’ll do it some other way. Not this.”

“Erin? E—”

Lyonette called out, and she saw that familiar stare meet hers. Lyonette’s breath caught. Why did she look so—

Then she woke up. All she remembered was that place and the brief, brief encounter with Erin. It set her heart to racing. It left her unsettled. But when Lyonette jerked into wakefulness in her bed by early morning, it was not what terrified her. That was something else the [Innkeeper] had left her.

A message.

 

<Mythical Quest – Keep The Wandering Inn Safe Until I Return.>

Limits: Lyonette du Marquin. Everything at her disposal.

I am far from home, Lyonette. 

I will be back when I can.

They’re coming for you. For the inn. I don’t know how many. I don’t know what will happen. It might be Tolveilouka. It might be Roshal or whomever that [Prince] was. 

Keep the inn safe. Keep everyone safe, if you can. Use the box. I don’t know what it does. 

There’s not only one. 

I’m sorry. I’ll be back when I can. 

—Erin.

Quest Reward: Experience in the [Princess] class worthy of the feats performed. A marker of achievement.

Optional Condition (Impossible): Don’t let anyone we love die.

 

That last part.

That last, new, little part.

It woke her up, as it always did. From her sweet dreams of gold and nothing else. More than seeing Erin fighting in a new form on Baleros—that was the [Innkeeper] that Lyonette knew.

Not the one she had been. The old Erin Solstice had been inconsiderate and kind. Brave but also thoughtless. This one had died and come back with the ability to stare at you and tell you the world was ending.

Thus, the [Princess] awoke. The sun was warm; her windows were frosted over but melting. The skies were blue today. It was cold. She was shivering. Her heart was beating out of her chest. She fumbled with her quilted blankets and then just sat there in a nightgown of chartreuse leaves falling over pale fabric.

“Okay. I hear you, Erin.”

The [Princess] took several deep breaths. Then she got up. She spotted a golden coin on the ground and slowly picked it up. When she raised it to the light and caught the morning’s rays on it, it made the room glow golden.

The [Princess]’ eyes shone with it. The world was a mess. She had more troubles than she knew, more enemies than friends, perhaps. She was not ready. All she had was gold.

It did not solve the world’s ills. It was only as valuable as you made it. It was heavy and not as shiny as people thought.

But dead gods. She had a lot of it.

 

——

 

The first thing Lyonette did was check on her gold operation. That was to say, before even breakfast, she took a door out of her room and into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had to adjust the entry point slightly so she came out higher up than normal; her footing was very unsteady and she saw, to her displeasure, that there was gold in the pond.

“Oh, honestly! We want to have fish in there, you know. Who moved the box?”

It was early morning, and yet the garden was filled with workers. Antinium, Goblins; even Lyonette’s two daughters were up bright and early.

Mrsha and Nanette were shoveling wet gold out of the pond, groaning at the weight. They looked guilty, and Lyonette bet she knew who had moved the box. She began to walk down the hill—then slid as the ‘hill’ began to move.

The Wandering Inn’s [Garden of Sanctuary] had…changed. The very ground Lyonette stood on was actually quite hard and dense. Like gravel, but given its weight, fairly good, if sometimes treacherous, footing. And like gravel, it began to cascade in a series of chiming, pure sounds of ringing metal.

Goldalanche! Run!

Nanette shouted, and the two girls fled screaming, as a wave of small but heavy objects rushed down at them. Lyonette, windmilling her arms, felt a moment of panic; you couldn’t hurt someone in the [Gardens of Sanctuary].

But you could get hurt by doing something stupid, and being buried by this stuff could actually almost kill you, as Rosencrantz had found out. It was so heavy—

A hand caught Lyonette’s arm and steadied her just in time. A Thronebearer, whose armor was as shiny as the metal cascading down, wore a resigned, slightly hurt look as he towed Lyonette to safety.

“Your Highness. Didn’t we agree that you would allow us to accompany you at every moment?”

Lyonette flushed as gold poured into the pond, and Mrsha threw down her shovel in disgust and shook a fist up at them. Sighing, a Hobgoblin—Peggy—began to drag a bag of holding across the ground with a loop of rope, collecting gold before it could continue pouring away.

“Thank you, Dalimont. I, er—well, it’s going to be a busy day. And you found me right away!”

Lyonette protested, still flushed, and the Thronebearer was too good to argue back, but he did bow.

“And I can see you were quite safe in my brief absence. Truly, I had no cause to fear nor to throw myself into yon pool and drown should a hair on your head be harmed.”

He gave the still-cascading gold a pointed look, and Lyonette turned even redder. Ser Dalimont was Seraphel’s [Knight]—even if he’d been in Lyonette’s presence for ages—and he had inherited some of her older sister’s sarcasm.

“Well, you may help me down to where Yelroan is.”

They navigated down the hill until someone whistled, and Lyonette saw a series of wooden planks had been laid down to form a walkway of sorts. As she walked, people maneuvered around the base of the hill where it met grass. They were working.

“Hi ho, hi ho! Melting gold we go!”

And singing. Lyonette coughed as she saw a merry team of Goblins and Antinium tossing gold into a glowing vat of stone—a line of six. Smoke was rising as one shoveled more charcoal under the raging fires, and gold was littering the ground even where the hill wasn’t.

“Eugh. Can we clean up the pieces soon? They’re even in our gardens! The cocoa trees!”

There was so much gold trash! By which Lyonette meant individual gold coins. Shamefaces; blank and smooth with a notched ring around the edge. Decently heavy and—she sighed as she bent and cleared one away from a shoot that should have been a growing coffee bush—annoying!

Indeed, Mrsha was kicking gold coins out of the way with her boots as she hauled another handful of wet gold coins out of the pond and hurled them into a muddy pile. Dalimont was apologetic.

“Moving them with bags of holding is the best we can do right now, Your Highness. We debated using spells, but the only spell that anyone could come up with was levitation or some kind of magnetic spell—both of which would require Mage Montressa, Bezale, Valeterisa—

“—not suitable. I see. Well—can we have someone clean up the random ones?”

Lyonette wondered vaguely, as she tossed a gold coin down and heard it clunk in a faintly unsatisfactory manner, what seeing so much gold did to a developing mind. Probably nothing good, but Mrsha had also seen Raskghar and her tribe die.

It probably wasn’t that harmful.

…Probably.

Ser Dalimont nodded and waved one of the Goblins over, and Sticks, the Cave Goblin, began to pick up individual pieces. It was a doomed task; even as Lyonette watched, one of the Antinium stumbled, and more gold coins hit the ground, adding to the clutter.

She wandered by the fuming vats of smoke and metal, nodding to people.

“It’s so early. Dawn. Are you all getting enough sleep?”

Some slightly redder-than-usual-eyed Goblins reassured her, and their boss grinned as she turned from her work.

“Sure, sure! Is lots of fun. Hey, is it day? When that happen?”

Peggy raised her head from the world’s crudest crucible; molten gold was being poured into molds of ingots. Across from her, Rosencrantz was laboriously turning a cauldron filled with more gold, rocks, and even some knives to give them a rough, weathered look. He tossed some dirt in the cauldron and pulled out a weathered coin.

“Gold. Gold. Gold.”

The Antinium repeated the word. His entire team was chanting the word. Lyonette passed a hand over her face in resignation.

It was a fever, and the only cure was more gold it seemed. She’d gone to sleep, but at least she had seen wealth before. This amount of gold was, uh—having an effect on the workers of the inn, fifteen days later.

Gold dust flecked more than one Worker’s carapace; some were weathering the shameface coins, others were stamping them with fake seals that Yelroan had come up with, others were even rendering them into gold dust.

All were covered in gold dust; one more than others. Goldbody had, uh, well, taken The Wandering Inn’s new wealth rather literally. Even the other Antinium stared at the gold-dusted Antinium; Drakes were very complimentary of the look. They thought it was tasteful.

“Nine hundred and ninety-nine…one thousand.”

The Antinium was obsessively sorting gold pieces into groups of a thousand. He didn’t have to be precisely right, but as Lyonette watched, he dumped the gold into a waiting bag of holding and wrote ‘6’ on a piece of parchment tied to the drawstrings. Then he got up and walked it over to someone sitting at the center of this operation.

Yelroan.

The [Mathematician] had carefully spaced bags of holding and chests of holding sitting around him, and he was attaching notes to each one. When Goldbody put the bag down, Yelroan glanced at it, then instantly found another tag and tied it onto the bag of holding. He turned and handed it to a third person.

Dame Ushar. The [Thronebearer] seemed more rested than the others, but she had a harried look on her face as Yelroan spoke to her.

“Alright, this one is good to send to Marwsh as a downpayment. In the care of Merchant Veills. Qwera has generously agreed to sell us more goods, despite doubling her prices. Send via the Runner’s Guild in Invrisil this time, by Courier. When they ask for payment, have them take it from the Merchant’s Guild, who will remind us our account is low—that’s when we take this Chest of Holding to them.”

He was divvying up the ‘good’ coins and ingots and other gold-products into portions and sending them across Izril. Across the world, actually. The problem was—Ushar was fiddling with her armor.

“I’ve already been to Invrisil four times, Pallass twice, Yelroan. I’m going to have to use a disguise in Pallass.”

That made the Gnoll pause.

“The checkpoint guards aren’t stupid.”

“No, of course not. I’d hardly walk in trying to fool them. I meant at the Merchant’s Guild. Hold on, let me find a new wig. Or mustache. Some of the clerks don’t see beyond the hair.”

Sighing, the [Thronebearer] stared at the huge chest of holding.

“If only they let Goblins and Antinium into Pallass, I wouldn’t have to do this myself. Can’t Ishkr…?”

“He’s been eight times. I think they’re getting tired of him, even though he has a valid excuse. I could ask; I haven’t seen him all morning.”

Yelroan looked around, and Ushar shook her head. She bent down, tried to lift the Chest of Holding, and groaned.

How heavy is this?

“…Eighty pounds. You may want a helper.”

Lyonette watched with urbane amusement as Ushar had one of the Goblins help her drag the chest towards the door. She knew it was filled with gold—but not just coins. Some of the contents would be the blank, golden coins littering the inn. But some would have stamps from other nations—or just look beaten up or worn down from constant use. It was all part of the plan.

Defacing the coins, stamping them, and even melting them down and casting them into gold bars or even into other coins again at higher or lower purities all worked. But the main thing was…The Wandering Inn was rich.

Yelroan spotted Lyonette as he reached for a cup of coffee on his golden armrest. He smiled and waved a paw. He sat on a little pile of gold as a chair; he’d added a pillow, but some of the Goblin staff had made him a table out of gold. Lyonette glanced at Ushar and had to ask—

“Yelroan, do we need to buy all these shipments of goods from merchants? I understand they won’t be shipping to Liscor. But it’s rather peculiar to own, say, fifty thousand Prelons in another city and never see one. They spoil fast, too.”

Prelons had a shelf life of about four days from the moment they were plucked without a Skill or magic. But Yelroan just smiled.

“They won’t go uneaten, Lyonette. They’ll be sold and go to dozens of settlements, even make their way as far as Pallass. The only difference is that the profits and the cost won’t be borne by Merchant Veills.”

“I suppose it’s rather like local nobility making their own money and sending a tithe to the crown?”

Lyonette was involved with the financial shenanigans, of course, but she was still wrapping her head around this part. Admittedly, even Yelroan found it fascinating and new. He adjusted his sunglasses, and they flashed—golden.

“Very close. In this case, Veills was only too happy to not shoulder the risk of the Prelons. We also contracted another [Merchant], a [Supply Chain Master] Etola, to do the actual distribution. She thinks we’re trying to get into the Prelon market and is only too happy to do our work to skim a good chunk of the profits for being the one doing the work. In a sense, this is a highly suboptimal use of our gold. Not that either [Merchant] cares. We might actually lose gold on this transaction, Lyonette. As much as 11% of our stake.”

“Dead gods. How horrible. And the rest comes back to us…”

“…Along with two very happy [Merchants]. They’ll even hold our gold in escrow—a separate account at the Merchant’s Guild for this kind of large business transaction. If we want to try again in a week’s time? The second Prelon harvest of the new year will be up for grabs, and we could try a bigger chunk. Put more money into the account as well just to cover more expenses.”

Lyonette and Yelroan considered losing so much of their Prelon investments. Lyonette folded her hands together.

“And all this is being done under Trader Lllenetta’s name. Vast sums of gold—and, ah—remotely trading goods and sending money across Izril we shall never see.”

Yelroan nodded happily.

“Unless you want some Prelons, in which case I’m sure we can arrange for some to get to Liscor. It’s much like what I did at Plain’s Eye; there were so many subtribes that I never saw the things they did, I only accounted for the money, their income, and trading. But this…this is bigger. I had a vague idea of how to set a system like this up, and Rose had some interesting concepts from her world.”

He nodded at a Human girl, the only Earther in the inn, who was making something with a few Goblins like Picker and Sticks. They were goofing off, and Rose tried to hide a very crudely made…golden sword behind her back. But it was so heavy she could barely lift it.

“It’s Wall Street all over again! Stock markets suck! I’m only helping because this is really cool!”

She shouted somewhat guiltily at Lyonette and Yelroan. Since neither one had context for Rose’s complaints, they went back to looking at Yelroan’s map.

“Marwsh is just one of countless locations we can do this to. With the Runner’s Guild and a few aliases, we can ‘waste’ money in other ventures and have it waiting for us. Or even turn a profit. Invest in a thousand properties and products and it’s very, very hard to tell where the money came from. It’s the Golden Triangle, in a sense. Only, we actually have real gold.”

Lyonette had been nodding at this, but that last comment drew her up. She bit her lip, and Mrsha sat up on her golden throne and gave Lyonette a slightly alarmed look.

“But it’s not, is it, Yelroan? I mean, obviously, having wealth is good.”

Lyonette stared at more gold coins than The Wandering Inn had ever made in its entire existence—more gold than any Gold-rank team might have ever had, come to it. Maybe not Named-rank teams; they sometimes found things worth the ransom of nations.

But still. This was enough to make someone nobility. Enough gold to live off of, each and every person in the inn, for the rest of their lives. A mind-boggling amount of gold.

Could it be a bad thing? Lyonette looked at Yelroan, reminded of the Golden Triangle scam.

“We’re not hurting anyone by buying Prelons in Marwsh, are we? No one’s going to be impoverished if we spend this?”

The [Mathematician] took the question seriously. It had kept him up several nights, but he regarded this all as a fascinating case study of when his mathematical models and ideas got to be put into action. What happened if you did inject a hundred thousand gold coins into this equation? He shook his head after a moment.

“Even if we kept the box running nonstop, we couldn’t affect the world economy, Lyonette. At most, it’ll be the effect of another Chalence or major dungeon being conquered. We could do more damage if we funneled it all around locally. As it is—we should be going under most sensors, even the Eyes of Pallass. If you want to start spending money, well, that’s when someone will notice we’re rich. Think of it like this: you could harm people if you bought those Prelons and they didn’t get to the markets expecting them. You can ruin local market value by overspending.”

Lyonette nodded, wishing her fingers didn’t tingle and her heart didn’t beat faster at the implications of his words. Gold was power. It was…her eyes lingered on a little box sitting at the top of the pile of gold, spitting out a gold coin every four seconds at a lazy pace. Yelroan’s eyes lingered on it too.

“Assuming this is real, and it has, by now, entered many Merchant’s Guilds across Izril—think of it like this, Lyonette. A new nation has appeared in the world. A kingdom’s worth of wealth. You cannot see it, but it exists. It manipulates economies with its own finances, and that has a real effect in the world. I can see it, even without my eyes. It exists in the numbers. We are that kingdom.”

Of all the things to say, he knew how to make Lyonette smile. She turned and kissed him lightly on the forehead. The Gnoll blushed, but Lyonette gazed at the infinite wealth before her. Then she took a huge breath, felt at her tied back hair, and let it down a bit.

“Well. In that case, I had better find something to spend it all on, hadn’t I?”

Yelroan, Rose, Peggy, Mrsha, Nanette, and even a half-buried Ser Dalimont, trying to rescue one of the Goblins who’d gotten stuck in another Goldalanche, staring into the sea of gold like someone hypnotized, all looked at each other a moment as Lyonette smiled. They all shared the same thought:

Maybe all this gold wasn’t that good for a growing [Princess]. 

But then, time would tell.

 

——

 

It was time for breakfast; she’d have to have some sent around for the staff in the garden. Lyonette walked out of the garden and into the second floor of the inn, musing to herself.

“I wonder what I should buy first for the inn. Maybe I should take a look around Liscor or Invrisil today and think—wait, why think it over? It’s not like I’ll need to save up, and there’s always more gold where that came from. Ha. Ahaha. Ahahahaha—hehehehe—heeheeeheee—ahahuehueHAHAHAHA—

Lyonette coughed as she left the garden.

“Strange. I’ve never heard that laugh.”

Dots, one of the Antinium Workers, gave Lyonette a strange look as she passed by, and she smiled at him, flushing slightly.

Today was too important to stay in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was the fifteenth day since the gold operation had begun, and the day Yelroan had marked as ‘initial testing period’. Which basically meant seeing if anyone screamed ‘fake, fake!’ when they were using the gold to buy and sell things.

However, it was also the day that the Rheirgest villagers reached Liscor. They had been a bit delayed due to the melting snow, but it was good they were getting here. The winter was ending swiftly, and Lyonette remembered the rains.

Most importantly of all, though? Today was the day Bird came back. The Free Antinium had sent word his body had finished being created, and the Free Queen had tested it for errors and found none.

Which was very encouraging? Lyonette had had Calescent bake a huge cake in the shape of a bird, and they had a party planned with their few guests. She had big plans for the future.

So did everyone else, which worried Lyonette slightly. A girl padded out behind Lyonette and held up a card.

Mother. May I have a horse?

Lyonette glanced at Mrsha’s card and sighed as Nanette innocently popped out of the door behind them. All three were careful not to show anything too overtly golden around the Veltras lot or some of their other guests. Colfa knew, but even Octavia, Numbtongue, Valeterisa, Relc, and the other regular guests had no idea.

Some probably knew there was something going on, like Saliss and Valeterisa, but all they knew was that The Wandering Inn had wealth, not where from. As for Octavia and Numbtongue—neither one was present in the inn long enough. Octavia was either working for Saliss or on a camping trip or something with Numbtongue, who was just…

Lyonette sighed and directed her attention back to Mrsha.

“Firstly, it’s a pony, Mrsha, not a horse. And no, you may not. Why? You don’t even like horses.”

Mrsha exchanged a look with Nanette and scribbled. Lyonette peeked over the card and saw Mrsha cross a word out.

Jousting I would like a beast of burden to convey me at great distance and haul myself and my friends around.

“No. We have means, Mrsha, but we will use our funds on very important, good works.”

“Like…?”

Nanette frowned, and Lyonette clapped her hands together excitedly.

“Why, proper education for Mrsha and you, Nanette! The school is all very well, but we can afford a private [Tutor] and even magical instruction for you two. A wardrobe of clothes—proper alchemical products for your hair. I’m sure Gnolls take better care of their hair than the occasional comb. Plumbing for the inn, some good books, a few paintings—a bathhouse with running water, imagine!”

Mrsha and Nanette exchanged a look as Lyonette envisioned all the things they’d buy. Nanette raised a hand.

“And a Battle Golem.”

“Yes, and a Battle—what?”

The young girl had let her hair down instead of braiding it today; she was trying out new looks, and today, it seemed, Nanette had tried to self-style her hair. It hadn’t quite worked, but it was good enough for the young witch’s tastes. Lyonette saw Mrsha had adopted a t-shirt and loose pants today, which was progress. The problem was what the t-shirt said.

I Survived Liscor Hunted. 

Lyonette hadn’t even known that Menolit’s company made shirts for children. She would have to have a word with Mrsha about taste in fashion.

“A Battle Golem, Miss Marquin. And a wand with Tier 5 spells in it. We can afford both, surely.”

For a moment, the <Quest> of this morning rang in Lyonette’s head, but she was sure someone else would have brought it up if they’d gotten it. She stared at Nanette. Half-shook her head.

“That’s far too dangerous and noticeable, Nanette. Leave the purchasing to me. No pony. No Battle Golems. Can’t we all have a nice, relaxing breakfast this morning? It’s a big day. Bird’s coming.”

“He is? Why didn’t you say so?”

Mrsha and Nanette instantly changed direction, as Lyonette had expected them to. The [Princess] smiled briefly.

“I wasn’t sure, but last night, a Worker said the Free Queen had ‘approved his condition’, whatever that means. He might arrive over breakfast, so why don’t we shower—Mrsha, you have gold and mud in your fur—and greet him at our best?”

The two girls ran off to do just that, although Lyonette distinctly heard Nanette speaking to Mrsha.

“Just wait till Bird gets here. He’ll help us buy what we need. Like a catapult. And I bet we can help Hethon’s friends with all the gold—”

Hethon’s ‘friends’. The mention of the Dryad seed wand put a scowl on Lyonette’s face. She’d woken, twice, with a hand made of wood trying to open the dresser where the wand was sealed and caught Sammial in her rooms once; Mrsha thrice.

“We have to do something about all these issues, Dalimont. Once the Order of Solstice gets here…that’s first thing once Normen—Ser Normen—is available. Second is Hexel. I, ah…believe the inn is an even greater priority than before. Third, recruitment. How does my schedule look?”

Ser Dalimont knocked a gold coin out of his armor and coughed.

“Fairly acceptable, Your Highness. Breakfast. Architect Hexel will be meeting you directly afterwards. Bird is due to arrive sometime today but we do not know when; Rheirgest should be around midday if their progress is as expected. All this snow bogged them down, so they will be wet and in need of food; Calescent has appropriately spiced soup ready for them. Ser Normen will be available in the evening if all goes well, pending which you have a meeting with Druid Shassa Weaverweb about Miss Mrsha’s scholarly progress. Dinner is as yet undetermined, but Bird’s cake is ready, and your schedule is clear after that.”

“Excellent. That’s not bad at all.”

Normally, Lyonette dealt with such matters herself, but Dalimont and Ushar had been stepping up to start managing her tasks. It was her mother’s doing—Ielane du Marquin had told Lyonette to hire a staff, and she was in the process of doing just that. In truth, Lyonette feared there might be another Maran and Safry incident, but she knew the inn needed staffing.

It needed protection. Thus, Lyonette headed downstairs to begin using some of the prodigious amounts of gold she’d made. A hill’s worth. More gold than you thought. More gold than anyone in Liscor had, she was sure.

More gold than Ilvriss! More gold than Ilvriss’ family, maybe! More gold than lesser nations! Ha. HAHAHAHA—

Ahem. Lyonette fanned herself as she sat down at the breakfast table. Mrsha and Nanette sat down, and they stared at a plate of warm bagels, some jam, cream cheese, fruits, and other toppings, like half-a-day-old sausage.

They stared at Lyonette. She sighed at the rather rudimentary fare herself, but Calescent had been working nonstop to prepare for Rheirgest’s arrival. Without Goblins working in the inn, they were understaffed.

“What? This is a perfectly acceptable breakfast. Ser Dalimont, won’t you sit?”

The Thronebearers normally insisted on standing lookout, but it was lonely without Numbtongue—who was never around—or the usual guests. That would soon change with Bird, of course, but even Valeterisa and Relc weren’t here this morning. Ser Dalimont hesitated.

“Er—as you will, Your Highness. Thank you for the repast.”

Mother. I would like a Wyvern steak. I know we have some, and I am a growing girl who needs food to live.

Mrsha eyed the kitchen, and Lyonette scolded her.

“Mrsha, this is a fine meal! Those Wyvern steaks are almost all gone—you can’t waste money we don’t have—”

She hesitated. Nanette, Mrsha, and even Dalimont paused and stared at her. Lyonette reconfigured her mouth.

“You shouldn’t waste money, Mrsha.”

Is it a waste if it is in my stomach, Mother? Quid est untum verito.

Mrsha wrote, and Lyonette stared at the second part in the mage’s language of what Rose called Latin. She was fairly certain Mrsha had just made it up.

“It is a waste of m—it’ll make you spoiled. Who has steaks for breakfast?”

Gnolls, Mother. Are you denying me my heritage?

“Mrsha du Marquin, watch your insinuations, young lady, or I will—”

The argument at breakfast was interrupted as someone walked out from behind the bar, strolled over to the table, threw something down, and then yawned.

“Hey. Eat this.”

Ishkr, the highest-level member of staff at the inn, had appeared. Lyonette turned, beaming at her hardest-working—

She stared at Ishkr, who had forgone his usual apron and neat work-clothing. He’d put on a suit—where had he gotten a suit?—and was adjusting a tie with a sigh. It was fancy, jet-black, and yet he wore the collar unbuttoned, giving it a slovenly-professional look.

He also looked less-than-motivated today, and he had apparently arrived late rather than bright and early. Oh—and he had a big bag of something and an entire tray of drinks?

“Ishkr! Good morning! What is that new attire?”

“Suit. I bought it with the inn’s money. We should look more professional sometimes. There’s no style here. This is breakfast since all the staff’s busy. I already gave Liska and the staff in the gardens their share.”

That was Ishkr for you. Wait, with the inn’s—? Lyonette stared at the bag, and Mrsha sniffed, then ripped it open and yanked out something that made Nanette drop her bagel.

It was the cousin of a bagel. It was the superior bagel.

It was a glazed donut. And—an entire bag of fresh tarts, croissants, a cheesecake—Lyonette’s eyes popped, and Ser Dalimont stared as Ishkr gracefully deposited drinks in front of them!

“What’s this?

“Boba tea from someone copying Barehoof Kitchens for Mrsha and Nanette. Coffee for you, Dalimont—whipped cream. A tea for Lyonette—from Liscor.”

“You bought it?”

“Yep.”

Ishkr met Lyonette’s horrified gaze and yawned with one paw. Then he ambled over to the door leading to the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“I’m gonna deal with the pain-in-my-tail gold stuff. I’ll be back when Bird gets here. [Gravity Paw].”

He cast a spell, and a gold coin lying on the floor floated up—and stuck to his paw! Ishkr also got two forks and yanked a crossbow out from under one of the tables. He shook them off his paw, grimacing. Lyonette’s eyes bulged. Mrsha and Nanette stared, mid-bite of their breakfast. The [Head Server] sighed.

“If we keep leaving gold coins around, people will notice, you know. Oh—also—Erin put her [Boon of the Guest] on me. Ulvama. I don’t know what it means, but I’m taking two extra breaks today.”

He nodded at them and strolled into the [Garden of Sanctuary], casting another spell. Lyonette’s head swiveled around to Mrsha and Nanette. Both of them wore a look of delight.

“Well, that explains that. Ishkr was only so off because of Ulvama’s boon. Why did Erin…? Mrsha, stop gobbling that donut!”

It was already a chaotic morning at the inn. Lyonette tried to think of what it meant, Erin using her Skill like that. And at least her daughters were willing to speculate there.

“Maybe it’s a sign? She didn’t want to say much to you, Lyonette. So maybe she’s signaling us to find Ulvama?”

Nanette frowned mightily over a big bite of a blueberry jam tart. It had to be expensive. Blueberries at this time of year? The cost of food was rising, but premium goods like these were hot in Liscor, Invrisil, and Pallass thanks to the cuisine boom from Earthers. Lyonette tried not to visibly savor a fresh croissant. It was better than the bagels, but she resolved someone was going to eat them for breakfast.

“Perhaps. Or she’s saying Ulvama has been found, Nanette. It could very well be Niers has located her, and given the reputation Goblins have in Baleros…I had a meeting with Erin last night. A message from her. Two, rather.”

What? What was it?

The two girls and Dalimont turned, and Lyonette relayed some of what she’d seen. Not the ‘Optional Condition’ of the quest; Mrsha’s eyes went round with delight, and Nanette sat up importantly.

“We should ask her about it! She must have done that because she wants to communicate in secret, Lyonette. But if we use the [World’s Eye Theatre] carefully…”

There was a lot of ‘we’ and ‘we should use the theatre for this’ going around with Nanette of late. Lyonette knew the girl wanted to be helpful, but she cleared her throat meaningfully.

“We should be careful what we do. With the garden. Or theatre. Or any other objects Hethon Veltras might want used, Nanette. I believe we agreed to discuss any plan of action?”

Nanette instantly frowned at Lyonette, and Mrsha scowled and scribbled a note.

You mean, whatever you want, tyrant! We want to help too!

“We’re fully capable of doing things on our own, Miss Lyonette.”

Nanette argued, nodding. She said ‘Miss Lyonette’ when she wanted to bother Lyonette, and the [Princess] scowled at her.

“I’m well aware you’re responsible, Nanette. But you’re only thirteen.”

“So? You’re only nineteen.”

I’m—

Nanette saw Dalimont’s brows quirk with amusement as he repressed a smile. Before she had to defend herself, she saw Hexel enter and stood.

“Ah, Architect! Good morning! Would you care for some breakfast? Mrsha, Nanette, why don’t you head to school? I’ll let you know when Bird arrives.”

She smiled victoriously at the girls, who gave her a glower. Hexel, the Lamia who had come from Baleros to design and upgrade Liscor, slithered into the inn, glancing around. He had all three of his Lizardfolk assistants, and they had sheafs of paper. Hexel’s movement was slow, but the Lamia looked about the inn with a sharp gaze.

It was time. Lyonette beamed at him and half-glared at her daughters. Neither one moved.

“Mrsha? School. Have Ushar take you. If she’s busy, you need an escort. Dalimont?”

Mrsha folded her arms smugly. Dalimont stood smoothly and went to take Mrsha’s paw, but the girl wrote something and handed it to him.

I don’t have to go to school. School’s out—forever. Didn’t you hear?

Lyonette’s attention wavered, and she turned to Dalimont. He blinked.

“What? That can’t be. Miss Marquin is meeting with Druid Shassa this evening!”

Mrsha rolled her eyes.

Yeah. Because she’s leaving. Until they find better teachers for the new year, I’m on break. Hexel, I require a jousting area! And an anti-gravity chamber! And a barbeque.

She waved her notecard at Hexel, and Lyonette began to get that feeling she sometimes got when days got hectic. The [Architect] sat himself down at the table.

“I can see I may have to discuss some rules about expanding the scope of our arrangement already. Your Highness, good morning. Are those treats from Baker’s Bonanza down Main Street? My, that’s a treat. Are they for anyone? I’m sorry if I’m delayed; I was just confirming some details about the project.”

Someone pulled out a chair for the Lamia; not to sit in, but so he could curl up. Ser Dalimont had a pillow ready, and the Lamia smiled as Nanette spoke.

“Not at all, Architect Hexel. Please, have a seat. Witch Nanette; I don’t know if we’ve been formally introduced. Help yourself to the food, by all means. Let’s discuss our construction of the new Wandering Inn, shall we?”

She sat across from him, and Mrsha steepled her paws. Hexel gave them the look of a veteran of The Wandering Inn and nodded as papers were passed around. Lyonette tried to nudge Nanette out of her seat and got a pinch to her leg. She sat next to the girl, glowering.

“Don’t mind the girls, Hexel. They’re not in school—it’s closed. Please, help—can I get you anything else? I hope the, ah, preparations for this meeting went smoothly? We’re not taking you from 3rd District, are we?”

Hexel’s scales were a bright yellow, and the Lamia wasn’t as colorful as some variants of his species. He was slim with a scar on one cheek from his entry to Izril and seemed almost scholarly—but he had once killed a Drake attacking him by squeezing them to death with his tail, or so Lyonette had heard.

Those days were hopefully behind him, and he was more comfortable in Liscor now. His role as architect for an entire city had given him an air of easy confidence. Normally, he was polite but firm, executing on the Council’s approved projects like in 3rd District.

But today? Today, his eyes gleamed as he put on some magical glasses and pulled out a blueprint. He put a clawed hand on it, and a projection rose from the blueprints he had designed—or rather, implemented—based on the work of the greatest [Architect] of contemporary history.

Drevish, one of the King’s Seven himself. A gigantic inn rose in Lyonette’s vision, a sweeping building larger than a mansion with eight floors and inner courtyards, logical rooms decorated for any occasion—and defenses, oh yes. All the defenses. There were four ballistae mounted on top of it and a gigantic spire glowing with magic—Mrsha stared at a moat with an open-mouthed expression of delight.

But Hexel’s eyes were brighter than even his creation of the blueprint. He spoke, taking a tart and letting his forked tongue flick across it.

“Third District is complete, Lyonette. The floodwaters won’t touch it, and I am keen to see the walls tested; they’d hold even without enchantments, but Valeterisa is finishing the preliminary enchantments today, I believe. I have countless projects I could take on in Liscor and even without; loyalty means I’d be implementing some of the more ambitious plans for Liscor, and I doubtless will, come the new year. But when you reached out three days ago, I started preparations for what may be my greatest project yet. Even more than designing cities in Baleros.”

Lyonette leaned forwards and swallowed. This was it. This was the beginning of something new, expensive, and long-awaited. The inn. Drevish’s plans.

A building designed by the Architect of the King of Destruction himself. Hexel noticed Nanette craning her head and waved a hand; the front of the inn vanished, revealing rooms inside. Even a piping system for water!

“Let’s not waste time on pleasantries, then. Firstly, are we secure?”

He looked at Dalimont, and the Thronebearer nodded, albeit unhappily.

“As much as we can be, sir. There might be a Level 40+ expert in the room with us, but anyone short of that has been accounted for. Please watch your wording, if you would?”

Hexel shrugged.

“That’s how I operated back in Baleros whenever I had to work for an important company. We always joked that Three-Color Stalker might be in the room with us. It was quite funny until the one time she actually was—I digress. The money has cleared the Merchant’s Guild along with the…substantial deposit I was given. Rest assured, it’s not in my apartment.”

His scales rippled slightly with a shiver. He tried not to smile, but Lyonette saw the [Architect]’s eyes flick to her.

“I don’t know how you secured it—and I don’t want to know. It’s there. I have the funding, and I can begin work. Can I count on similar amounts of gold for the projected expenses?”

Lyonette schooled her face to calmness. Even Mrsha was trying to do the same, though she and Nanette had grinned too hard.

“You may. We have a significant backer in some capacity, Hexel, so continuing funds are not an issue.”

“Good. Because expenses are going to mount. I told Erin this was the deposit for the project. Frankly, you could call that a little more than my fee for taking this task on. At last, though, I can even discuss building Drevish’s posthumous work. The Architect’s masterpiece—an inn for Izril’s greatest [Innkeeper]. At least, that’s the pitch, I assume.”

Hexel rotated the building and spoke as his assistants gazed on with a kind of envy and awe. They were aspiring [Architects] too, and it seemed this was the first time they’d seen this as well. Lyonette leaned forwards with a gasp. Even Erin hadn’t told her what to expect, but this?

“Eight stories. The version lets you build up from four, but the full project is what I assume we’re working with. This building has about the same square footage as a Calanferian castle, for reference, Your Highness. Modern plumbing and sewage. Defenses—you could throw an army at this place from any direction and they’d have trouble getting through the first layer of defenses. Magicore-inlaid walls. Murder holes. Secret passageways, four mounted ballistae on top, and sixteen magic-thrower artillery weapons. A moat.”

Magic Throwers? Where?

Nanette burst out. Hexel lifted up part of the blueprint, revealing another layer of disguised weapons on the fifth and third floors.

“I’d call that Drevish’s style. Overt and hidden weaponry. He also has inner courtyards in designs from every continent—there’s a Drathian one here that I had to improvise. Understand that what you’re looking at is my attempt to recreate a description of his blueprints. All this furnishing? My doing. The, uh, relayed version from Erin Solstice was more technical. Very credibly so; he clearly drilled it into her head.”

Knowing Erin, Lyonette wondered how many repetitions that had taken. Hexel reassembled the inn and sat back.

“This inn is possibly the most overdesigned, ambitious building I have ever seen in my life. It looks like something out of the King of Destruction’s wars of conquest; it will make Larracel’s Haven look like a cheap gimmick. It calls for more redundancies and failsafes than I’ve ever seen. Even if two-thirds of this inn were blown away, the rest would be sturdier than Liscor’s walls, and more defensible too. You could literally close off rooms, and they’d be harder than Invrisil’s walls. See how you can move walls around via these sliding mechanisms?”

He demonstrated. Lyonette’s heart was beating out of her chest. Imagine that. Her inn! Well, Erin’s inn, but—

“This is wonderful, Hexel. When, er—when can you begin?”

The [Architect] was glancing from face to face. Dalimont, Nanette, Mrsha, Lyonette—he pushed the blueprint across the table so they could inspect it and spoke.

“Well, my earliest window is in four months, if you can hand over an additional eighty thousand gold right now. My preference is never. I know that’s what we discussed with Erin, but I’d really prefer not to make this.”

Lyonette froze. She looked up at the Lamia, incredulous.

“What? Whyever not? Why four months?”

She thought he’d be ready to go today! In response, Hexel took his glasses off.

“I try not to bore my clients too much with the minutiae, but allow me to in this unprecedented case, Your Highness. This inn…is insane. You see that, don’t you? Eight stories? A moat? It’s Drevish’s finest work, don’t get me wrong. All his latest achievements and breakthroughs in architecture are here, which is how I knew it was his stuff. I levelled up twice just drawing the blueprints out! But it’s egregious.”

Ser Dalimont nodded. Lyonette and Mrsha gave him a betrayed look, but the Thronebearer had a thoughtful look in his eyes.

“It’s too ornate, Your Highness. Sliding walls? Secret passages of that scope? A castle should be simple for the defenders. This? The current staff would be lost on one floor, let alone eight.”

“Yes, but if Erin has enough staff—”

Hexel leaned forwards.

Thousands? And she’d have to have thousands of guests per month to justify the maintenance cost. I know Erin. I don’t know if Drevish did, but this inn is designed for the crowd of crowds. That aside—I can’t build it right now. I don’t have the materials. I don’t have the expertise—I’d have to press-gang Valeterisa herself into working nonstop on the enchantments it calls for. But most of all, Miss Marquin? Drevish must truly have forgotten where Erin is. Because I don’t have the workers.

Lyonette frowned at that.

“What do you mean? No workers? But the Antinium—”

The Lamia shook his head.

“This is a Drevish-original, Miss Marquin. Some of what it calls for can be copied, but some of it is literally impossible without his signature worker. For instance, one of the things he loves doing is working inside of a material after it’s sealed—only someone who can literally pass through walls can do that. So unless you have some ghosts, it’s that or what Izril lacks: Djinni. I just made a call, and I could rent some—in four month’s time.”

The penny dropped. Lyonette knew that Drevish had been famous for putting buildings up fast with Djinni, but it was a kind of footnote in her studies of him and the King of Destruction. She put her head in her hands.

“Oh no. He didn’t—”

“He probably thought Djinni were accessible to Erin. He studied abroad as a younger man, but he did work exclusively on Chandrar. Plus, he was the King of Destruction’s vassal. At his time of death, he had a group of fifteen he personally owned.”

Hexel has a sympathetic look in his eyes as he outlined the problem. Nanette’s look of delight had turned into a huge frown, and Mrsha wrote uncertainly.

What if we hired that fellow at Fissival that Valeterisa likes?

She tried to hand it to Hexel, but Dalimont picked the slip up after showing it to Lyonette and ate it. Everyone stared at him as he chewed and swallowed. That, at least, gave Lyonette some composure.

“I can see the issue, Hexel. But what if—”

The Lamia held up a clawed hand.

“Hear me out, Your Highness. That’s half of the reason I can’t do it. I’ve been studying these blueprints in the months since Erin showed them to me. Thinking. Half of the reason is because it’s too costly. This is a multi-million gold piece project. To execute on every facet of it is…insane. The Titan—even Fetohep of Khelt would hesitate at bankrolling it. Magicore in the sealant between every wall. The other reason is…I don’t want to make it.”

It was his turn to steeple his claws, copying Mrsha. Now, his apprentices were giving him looks of betrayal, but Hexel’s tone made Lyonette’s head rise hopefully. Because the Lamia had a familiar quality to his voice.

Ambition.

“I…would like to design The Wandering Inn myself, Miss Lyonette. With elements of Drevish’s work. I will happily steal the best parts of his design. But if I may be frank? I might not be the Architect of legends, but I’m a better expert for this job than he is.”

Lyonette looked at Mrsha and Nanette—and her heart rose like the soaring Phoenix before Bird shot it out of the skies. She realized she was leaning forwards and sat back hurriedly, interjecting an aloof tone into her voice. As if she weren’t bothered at all.

“Go on, Architect Hexel. But please, elucidate us on why you’re superior to the Architect.”

He smiled, enjoying this.

“Absolutely, Your Highness. Let me be frank: Drevish might have put his soul and craft into this work, but it’s a mess. It shows just where he was when he died. With respect! But he made this monstrosity as if Erin had all the time in the world and a kingly budget, without regard to who she is.”

Hexel paused, and then screwed up his face.

“No, I’m being far too uncomplimentary. Say rather—I don’t know what the circumstances were, but I think he didn’t ever have a chance to see Liscor or the inn. Is that fair?”

Erin talked to a dead ghost in Chandrar, as far as Lyonette knew. She nodded hesitantly, and Hexel ran a claw across the blueprints.

“He might not have even known her Skills. I have a Skill called [Vision of Completion: Projection of Factors].”

His eyes flashed, and Lyonette drew in her breath. The [Architect] smiled at her.

“It is my capstone Skill for Level 40. It allows me to see the effects of the landscape, the ground, even earthquakes or, one time, the effects of pigeon defecation over a ten-year period.”

He waved his clawed hand, and rain began pouring down on Drevish’s image of the inn. The rains of Liscor—they ceased, and then Lyonette saw a floating garden appear. Hexel stared at the dome, hovering outside the inn.

“I don’t know what they do. I wish I could, but I can see what happens if someone owns a building, too. In limited ways. Erin’s Skills, at least, as they intersect with my design.”

“And Drevish didn’t account for that?”

Hexel turned to Lyonette and gave a quick, apologetic shake of his head.

“I’d never accuse him of that. Rather—I imagine he couldn’t. Do ghosts have Skills?”

He couldn’t know how strange a question it was. Hexel stared at Lyonette’s frozen face, and his grew uncertain. Then he hurried back to what he knew, slithering to his blueprints.

“—He didn’t. At least, I very much doubt it, or he would have taken into consideration Erin’s abilities. Every element he put into her inn is genius. I’ll steal his modifications and ideas, of course I will. It’s just—this is why I’m advocating for myself. Part of it was his lack of Skills and understanding of Erin. Part of it is because he was Drevish and he made a building he thought she needed. I’ll make the one she wants.

Hexel gestured around the far smaller inn with its comfy common room, and Lyonette stared at Drevish’s blueprint and wondered how vast a forty-foot-tall ceiling in the common room would be. Had he made it like that to accommodate half-Giants? Wait. He probably had. Hexel moved Drevish’s blueprint to one side.

“I know Erin. She doesn’t have parties this big. I’ve been in Liscor; I’ve seen what goes on. With respect to Drevish, he made this assuming Erin would be attacked by armies. But do you know who I think could have taken this inn? Facestealer.

Everyone shivered suddenly, and Hexel leaned forwards.

“Drevish never ran into that many great monsters. He was a man who defended inns from armies. And with respect to him—mortal armies. I don’t think he ever saw something like the Winter Solstice, even in all his years with the King of Destruction. He might have known of Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary], but he doesn’t build around it. He doesn’t build around her; this is an inn fit for a legendary [Innkeeper]. Not Erin Solstice.”

He was selling Lyonette on this word-by-word. The more she looked, the more she realized that if Erin were here, she would hate this inn when it was built. Four ballistae? She only had one Bird.

“So do you have a superior inn, Hexel?”

The Architect had to pause here, and pride warred with honesty.

“I…might not be able to best his work in pure skill. But I’m alive and able to level and improvise, Lyonette. Let me stop stalling and show you my concept.”

He pulled out a second blueprint, unrolling a large scroll. Lyonette saw the image waver—and the vast inn Drevish had made changed.

A far smaller building replaced it. Humble. Even paltry compared to the scope of Drevish’s ambitions. It looked…almost exactly like The Wandering Inn of now.

Dead gods, I hate it. Lyonette kept that from showing on her face, and she glanced at Hexel, wondering how to refuse politely. But he was smiling.

“This is The Wandering Inn. Stage one. Reality. This is Stage Two.”

He passed a claw over the inn, and it shifted. A foundation dug itself into the ground, far deeper and wider than before, and the inn rose to a fourth floor, expanding until it was wide and tall. A huge tower became part of the foundations, and Lyonette swore she saw a curious bulge appear before the walls grew, but aside from the tower, the inn remained the same.

It’s not cool enough! Fail!

Mrsha slapped a note down, and Hexel laughed as Nanette poked the Gnoll girl in the side.

“No, no. I was hoping you’d say that. It’s rather humble, isn’t it?”

“Actionable…”

Lyonette tried to keep her voice neutral. She suspected a trick, now. And Hexel winked at Mrsha, who had her arms folded.

“Here’s my concept. Erin Solstice has a unique set of Skills for an [Innkeeper]. I was reviewing other famous [Innkeepers] around the world, and she does have a style. It took me a moment to realize what it was. Larracel is known for her magical acumen. Her floating inn. Other [Innkeepers] have penchants for imitating regal rooms or expertise in some area—even architectural cues. Do you know what Erin’s is?”

No one answered, so answered his own question.

“She’s always got more than you think behind the surface. Dimensional Skills. Her rooms fit in small spaces. Vaster than anything they should contain in reality. Her inn is like Wistram. So I present to you: The Wandering Inn. Stage Two.

He pulled the front of the inn away, and Lyonette heard a gasp. Then she saw it.

The new Wandering Inn was indeed bigger than it looked from the outside. It was built around a single foundation, a center of the inn: The Garden of Sanctuary.

The dome occupied the center of the inn, and a round common room stretched around the garden, branching off into side rooms and upstairs where bedrooms were waiting. However—something was completely odd about the common room.

If Lyonette stared at it, it led into the central dome, which was unmistakably the [Garden of Sanctuary]. But also, simultaneously, there was an overlaid, second room. Another dome—she realized when she saw how the auditorium was set up that it was the [World’s Eye Theatre].

“Huh? Wait a second…Architect. Is this blueprint off? All the rooms are jumbled together.”

Nanette was trying to make sense of it all, and she couldn’t. Like an optical illusion, the corridors would overlap on each other. Entire hallways ran onto the second and even fourth floors and simultaneously were connected to the first.

Hexel was beaming at them.

“I assure you, Nanette, the blueprints work. I double and triple-checked it: this building will only work for Erin Solstice. After all, her doors lead wherever they please, don’t they? In reality, this common room won’t even be this narrow. What you see inside of it will not necessarily match the reality of anyone trying to map this place out. But if you open a door here—”

He demonstrated, opening a door in the common room.

“—You can enter the World’s Eye Theatre. Or the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Take a hallway here—”

He left the common room—

“—And enter Bird’s Tower. Possibly without ever climbing a step.”

“But—how?”

It was bewildering to Lyonette. The Lizardfolk looked like they were ready to applaud. Or throw up. Hexel’s eyes gleamed.

“She has a new Skill. I came up with this latest iteration earlier this month, after the Solstice. Each hallway seems like it can span the entire length of all hallways in the inn combined. If I make them long enough, you could walk from the first floor to the last. It also means that there’s only one or two entrances needed to the inn. Observe!”

Then he was gesturing, and Lyonette saw there was a vast basement area, far deeper than anything she’d seen. Hexel was speaking faster now.

“Good design means I should be leaving exit points in case of fires or emergencies. But I’ve seen The Wandering Inn: those are called windows. Drevish believed his inn should be defensible from all sides. In my experience, what comes for the inn goes through the path of least resistance. The stretch from the portal room to the common room? The most trapped, disgustingly dangerous, fortified stretch of ground I have ever built. The Dullahans of Invictel would call this overkill. Two hundred feet of traps and emplaced defenses—here!”

He pointed, and Lyonette imagined having to jog down all that each time. Wait…

“Hexel, there isn’t even a path at this point in—”

He winked at her.

“It doesn’t need a path except as a last resort, Miss Lyonette. Why? Because of the real way you enter the inn: the [Door of Portals]. The walls can be thick as a castle’s—with, yes, that damn magicore inside—and your only concern is airflow. Why?”

Because the inn was convenient that way. Lyonette blinked. How many times had she, rather than walking upstairs, just walked through the door to the garden and back out again? Not only that, but Hexel had a bunch of ideas only enabled by being around Liscor.

“Drevish hates deep underground areas. I suspect it’s because he’s used to Chandrar, so his foundations are often poor. Djinni can have more trouble digging down than building up; you can have hellish times digging, as I’m sure poor Wall Lord Ilvriss is finding out. Even with [Geomancers]. But we have the world’s best underground experts. Bath house. Here. Greenhouse—with glass for sunlight—here, unless the garden takes care of that. Library, Mage’s Workshop, Stitchworks—”

The four-story inn was far smaller than Drevish’s project. A third or maybe even less the size! But inside, the power of Erin’s crazy Skills allowed Hexel to lay out the inn, economizing for space and defensibility.

“I can start this inn today. I still need a plethora of magical materials. I’ll want to send to Yolden for magicore if they have the right quality, and Drevish has a list of high-grade materials and metals I want to incorporate into the inn. Mithril for bracing…Erin’s requirement about ‘no iron’ is actually easier given how expensive some of the stuff is. Even glue.”

He winced, and Lyonette saw him shove over a list.

“Balerosian. You’ll have to import it from overseas. I’ll have to talk to Pelt and see how much Grasgil he’s got, for instance. The glass alone from Pallass or another nation is going to cost—”

Lyonette’s eyes bulged for a second. The cost of the glue was about half of what she estimated The Wandering Inn had ever pulled in—ever. Dalimont peered over Lyonette’s shoulder and rubbed at his eyes.

“So this is, ah, not cheaper than Drevish’s inn?”

“It’s cheaper! Just only relatively.”

Hexel beamed at them. Mrsha was staring at elements of Hexel’s inn and comparing them with Drevish’s inn.

At first, Lyonette hadn’t been sold on Hexel’s pitch, but he had won her over by proving he did know Erin better. Mrsha, though, had just stared at the moat and ballistae and clearly been about to execute her Mrsha veto authority—until she saw something.

Wait! Forsooth! I see something! Is this…a slide?

She pointed urgently, and Hexel slowly pulled up and enhanced a huge, snaking slide of wood that ran through the inn. Lyonette had missed it, and the Lamia gave Mrsha an innocent look.

“Well, I did have an idea for a rolling boulder trap, and then I went a bit crazy with the idea. I know that’s not very appealing to my clients, and I can always adapt my design…”

Mother, pay this man.

“Hexel, there’s no need for—that’s just a joke, right? Erin wouldn’t—”

Lyonette bit her tongue.

Erin would definitely pay for a slide. Nanette was beaming as she stared at a massive kitchen.

“And it has plumbing, right?”

“Oh, yes. I can begin with the plumbing, actually—my idea was to take it in stages. The first step would actually be to do the tower after laying foundations. So you’d see the inn going up nearby and, over time, it would actually encompass this building. We’d have to tear down rooms eventually, but that’s minimally intrusive. Plumbing is easy…ish. We just need lots of copper and enchanting, and Hedault can do that. But we can start digging now, and I’d prefer to do that before the rains begin. Putting up a shelter for the rains is better after the foundation is dug.”

Every eye turned to Lyonette. She bit her lip. She glanced once, regretfully, at Drevish’s inn, then gave Hexel her most reluctant smile she could muster.

“I think I can tentatively approve your work, Hexel. On your inn. Rest assured, once your budget runs out, we may be able to scrape together funding. And indeed, if you need more workers or money to get things done faster—when can you begin?”

The Lamia’s eyes lit up, and he began to beam incredulously.

“You’re not going to wait on it? Are you sure? This is a massive undertaking.”

“I believe we are committed. We have some amount of gold—”

Dalimont, Mrsha, and Nanette developed coughing fits, and Lyonette spoke over them.

“Please, gather your workers and supplies. Can we help you with anything?”

Hexel blinked at her, then slithered upright.

“Let me see how many I can gather up in Liscor today. I’ll have my apprentices—Lizzi, start seeing if that spot we have is good. Get someone to clear snow out of the—I just need to talk to some [Merchants]! About the goods. Can I circle back with you in a few hours?”

Lyonette gave him a dignified nod. Hexel almost shot back out of the inn, pausing only to call after her.

“And we can definitely upgrade your current hallway! If you have any designs—I’m only too happy to—thank you again—”

Then he was gone. Lyonette counted to ten, then a furry headbutt hit her in the stomach. She hugged Mrsha anyways and began shouting.

“We have an inn! Did you see his designs for the royal suite? A properly large bedroom! Walk-in wardrobes!”

A slide! A slide!

“A magical workshop! Wait—I want a hammock in the library! Hexeeeel—

Nanette ran after him, shouting. Ser Dalimont just stood there and wiped at his eye.

“Working toilets.”

Word began to spread through the inn as Liska came dashing back out of the hallway.

“Wait, did we just pay for the inn? Hexel was almost doing backflips—and he’s a Lamia! Does it have a bigger rec room? Can I get a sofa? Just for my work—”

She hesitated when she saw Ishkr come out of the [Garden of Sanctuary], and Calescent peeked out of the kitchen excitedly, but Lyonette was so happy she hugged Liska.

“You may have a sofa and a waiting room! Did you see it?”

“A waiting room? For all the annoying idiots who keep asking how long till they can get to Invrisil?”

Liska’s mouth dropped open. Then she began to beam. The Goblins started whooping and cackling and demanding to know what kind of traps they’d get to play with. Lyonette was jumping up and down with Nanette, holding hands—

“Hey!”

Someone barked, and Lyonette heard an exclamation of surprise. She whirled; a young Gnoll in a trench coat holding a [Magic Picture] crystal jumped. He nearly dropped the crystal, and Ser Dalimont strode towards him.

“A spy in the—”

Aaah! Don’t kill me!

The terrified [Spy] ran, screaming, and Lyonette’s neck prickled. Ser Dalimont chased him only to the hallway; he let Peggy and one of the Antinium Soldiers dash after the [Spy]. Dalimont frowned, checking some glowing wards on a chain.

“No one else has infiltrated the inn. I doubt he uncovered anything meaningful; he just entered. Apologies, Your Highness.”

He gave her a huge, significant frown, though, and Lyonette felt some of the elation drain out of her. How had he gotten in with…?

Oh, right. Sest and Lormel were gone. Tessa was gone. Alcaz, who’d normally always be there, was gone. Without them, and with the inn’s staff and Ushar busy, they really were down to bare bones.

“Time to hire some security then, Dalimont?”

He gave her a troubled nod and glanced at the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“Posthaste, Your Highness. Did you have anyone in mind?”

Lyonette did not. But the need for good help was not lost on her and, in fact, grew more obvious throughout the day. Liscor was changing. And as Lyonette well knew—

It was not long before some trouble would come crawling by again.

 

——

 

“My middle name is Trouble. And my spear’s got your name on it, pal. Back off.”

The spear jabbed a few times, but contrary to the warning, the giant undead did not back off. Nor would you really expect a ten-foot-tall zombie with arms like tree trunks to retreat in the face of a spear.

A group of Humans were running to Liscor at top speed as the Drake adjusted his grip on the spear. He didn’t like fighting undead, normally; they could be hard to put down. More than once, Relc had thought he’d killed a zombie or other undead and it tried to bite him again.

But he really didn’t like this zombie. Mostly because it roared.

Auga—AUGHARR.

Then it swung an arm at him, and he dodged back, cursing. A trio of [Guards] instantly shot arrows into the zombie’s chest, but it barely staggered.

“Sergeant, your name’s Relc Trouble Grasstongue? And you have a zombie’s name written on your spear?”

One of the new [Guards], a Gnoll just out of training, called out merrily as he shot another arrow from his bow. He almost went for his spear, but Relc shouted back.

“Shut up, Vok! Back up! No one uses a melee weapon unless it charges! Aim for the legs, the legs!”

An entire squad of [Guards] was fighting the zombie as it swung its arms around and came for Relc. He backed up, waiting for a faster blow, but it was just lumbering around. Mind you, that was decently fast, but for a [Spearmaster]…he dodged a swinging arm, stabbed into one leg, and then shouted.

“Now!”

The patrol fired and hit the thing in the leg. Arrows sank in deep, but the zombie didn’t stop coming.

Not just a zombie.

Greater Zombie. Some kind of classification that Relc had never heard of. Greater zombie? What were they doing in the Adventurer’s Guild with the naming? He supposed it made sense; this was no Draugr.

It might have come from one of the Draugr bodies they hadn’t found after the Solstice battle. Or it was just some regular zombie who’d upgraded itself with all the death magic around. Either way, what qualified a ‘Greater Zombie’ was more intelligence, power, and the ability to make sounds.

This one, for instance, had snuck up on a group of travellers coming down the northern road. It had been lying down and tried to grab them. If dawn hadn’t illuminated it—well, Relc’s patrol might have come to find a far worse outcome.

Run for the gates! Two patrols are on the way!

Vok shouted at the civilians, and Relc backed up from another swing. He wasn’t stabbing that hard—mostly because he was letting the trainees in his squad gain experience.

It was this new thing he was getting used to as a [Guard Sergeant], which reminded him of the army. He could kill this zombie himself. But…they’d never level or gain cohesion as a group if he did. So Relc projected his voice, keeping an eye on his surroundings as much as the Greater Zombie.

“Keep your distance! Meshawn—you’re aiming too close to Vok. Remember, don’t take a shot if anyone’s in the way! Back up, Vok.”

The junior [Guards] did what Relc said, but Meshawn, a new Human, stumbled. He was breathing hard, and the zombie had a terrifying voice. In fact—it might have been a lesser fear effect. Relc couldn’t tell, but the moment it sensed weakness, the Greater Zombie swung around—and demonstrated why it had earned the name.

Unlike a Ghoul, which was fast, the Greater Zombie’s abilities were different. It lurched at Meshawn as the young man tried to back up faster—and Relc saw the Greater Zombie’s eyes flash—

A second before another zombie burst out of the soil and tried to drag Meshawn down.

Oh dead gods!

“Shit. Hit the leg!

Relc sprinted forward, swearing and sweating. He was certain that a zombie hadn’t been there a second ago. Had that thing just summoned one out of thin air? The Greater Zombie didn’t break off from attacking Meshawn until Relc hit it in the leg.

“[Triple Thrust]!”

His spear punched through the leg, behind the weakened knee-joint, and the undead went down as Relc smelled rotting flesh and grimaced. He dodged around the body, grabbed Meshawn, and tossed him towards Vok and the others.

“Dead gods, dead gods, I’m bit—kill me before it gets the others!”

The boy was in a panic; Relc doubted he’d actually gotten bit through his leather armor. He rolled his eyes.

“That’s Plague Zombies, Meshawn. Everybody up! Watch out for zombies—I think it summons them!”

On cue, another pair of hands erupted from the ground, and Relc jumped. He stabbed down and used his spear to vault into the air. He counted as he landed, seeing the Greater Zombie crawling towards him.

Four. That made six. Four more zombies were emerging, and Relc kept his voice smooth as his patrol grouped up. They didn’t see the two squads riding hard at them down the road; it was a ways from Liscor, but the Watch Tower nearest them had sent out a patrol the moment they’d heard the horn.

“Alright, boys and girls, form up. Remember your training. Keep the zombies off of you. I have the big guy.”

They heard him, and Vok scrambled into a line with Meshawn and the other three. A group of five attacked the nearest zombie, Vok’s spear stabbing into it as Meshawn and another Gnoll took hacking blows at it.

Excellent. Relc watched the Greater Zombie crawling at him, more alert for a trick than worried about his foe.

This is going to be really tiring today. And all I had were hot bagels for breakfast. He groaned as he imagined having to stab the thing’s head off its body. Relc paused, raised his spear—and jumped back a second before the giant boulder crunched the Greater Zombie’s head.

The [Guards] stared. The rushing patrol slowed, blades drawn. Relc looked up as the boulder rose—slammed down two more times with heavy, wet thumps—and then stopped. After a second, a [Flame Strike] spell roared down and burned the body to ash.

Only then did the woman floating overhead turn and innocently put her hands behind her back.

“Er. Hello, Relc. Fancy seeing you here. I was just flying around when I saw you—”

Relc tried not to grin. He made his voice stern as possible.

“Archmage, I’m on duty. I appreciate your help with the Watch, but we had it under control.”

His squad were so busy staring that Relc had to stab one of the zombies to remind them of the threat. They went back to fighting as Valeterisa floated lower.

“I was just doing my civic duty.”

I’m sure you were. Nasty undead around, huh?”

“Yes, it’s fascinating what a death magic zone does to the ambient fauna, isn’t it? I saw a nest of undead shield spiders back there. I, um. Well. I should let you get back to work. I just—you forgot your lunch. Which I made. I’m just scouting the mountains for a place to build something. Good day. Senior Guardsman Relc.”

She floated off with slightly red cheeks, and Relc stared at a box of food. He opened it, whistled at what was inside, and closed the lid as the guards finished off the last zombie.

“Well, that beats stale bagels for lunch. Hey, Vok, want a bagel with cream cheese?”

“I smell rot and death.”

Vok looked ready to puke; the poor lad must not have realized fighting undead meant you smelled them too. Relc shrugged and tossed the bagel at the leader of another [Guard] patrol.

“Hey, Remos, sorry. The Archmage stole the kill.”

He jerked a thumb at the flying [Mage], and the [Guardsman] leading the other Watch Patrol just grinned as he leaned on his horse’s neck, patting the nervous animal.

“File that in your report, Relc. And I think since that was her doing her ‘civic duty’, we all get a share of the lunch.”

“Eat my tail, Remos.”

Relc was grinning despite himself as he stared down the road. Undead attacks were on the rise, and it kept them all busy; his major concern was if a Draugr or that Bone Giant animated. Relc shaded his eyes as he frowned into the distance.

“Hm. I think that’s Rheirgest. Either that—or some other fellow has blue armor. Someone send a message to Liscor! We’ve got company!”

“More fucking [Necromancers]?”

Meshawn spat, and Relc cuffed the back of his head lightly.

“Good ones, this time. Alright, shut your mouths and let’s get back to work. What they didn’t tell you was who gets to dispose of the bodies. Someone grab that leg and—aw, Vok. Okay, someone give Vok a handkerchief and then grab that leg.”

He hummed to himself as his rookie [Guards] realized their job was going to be disposal. They didn’t realize that Valeterisa had saved them a lot of work by burning the big zombie. And hey, at least the [Guards] got gloves.

Relc wished Erin were back, but as he stared at Valeterisa flying off and snuck a snack from his lunch, he decided things might be okay. He couldn’t wait to get off-duty though and see what was happening at the inn.

 

——

 

“The Watch did what?

There was a kind of…fun-ness to being a Liscorian. Not always; not when you had Draugr pounding on the gates, and not laugh-out-loud funny. But an amusement to be derived nonetheless.

In this case, it was at the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor and, indeed, the Adventurer’s Guilds in Celum, Invrisil, and Pallass. You see, when a Greater Zombie popped up, people spread the word.

A group of Silver-rank adventurers in the guild had just formed a fifteen-person strike group to take it out. None of them knew what a Greater Zombie was, so they’d grabbed old encyclopedias with the help of a grumpy [Head Receptionist].

The temporary Guildmaster, an old adventurer in his seventies, a Drake, had put up a bounty on the Greater Zombie. The Silver-rankers, forearmed with knowledge, acid jars some were very gingerly keeping at their belts, and one healing potion between the group, had been about to take the fight to the enemy.

…When a Street Runner came in and said the Watch had taken the Greater Zombie out.

The Humans were very unhappy. They were a motley group from the north; they even had a dog. One of them, a [Pyromancer], turned to the [Receptionist].

“They can’t do that. The Watch never kills more than slimes.”

“In your cities, maybe.”

The Drake shot back at him. Levil, the leader of Pithfire Hounds, sagged in his chair, and another Silver-ranker from the north piped up.

“Well, that’s inconsiderate of them. How are we supposed to make a living or level up?”

Selys Shivertail gave a rather strident young woman with curled hair and altogether too much coin for a Silver-ranker a dirty look.

“By killing the monsters the Watch doesn’t get. Don’t worry, when a Draugr pops up, you’ll have more time. There’s also the dungeon.”

The Silver-rankers fell silent, and the Pithfire Hounds backed away from the luckless Silver-ranker being addressed. The young woman had more bravery than sense; no one picked fights with the Adventurer’s Guild staff. They could make your life hard.

“I shan’t be talked to this way! I’m Ortresia Su-El!”

“Su-El? So not the House of El?”

“A branch family! And I was told the monsters around here and the rewards were worth it! I should have gone to Albez instead! First, we run into a horrific suit of armor in the dungeon—something out of a Terland’s nightmares, and now the Watch steals our prey? I demand to speak to your Guildmistress about our treatment!”

Selys Shivertail’s glower couldn’t have gotten worse, or so the adventurers thought. But at this last comment, she gave the younger adventurer such a look that Ortresia hesitated.

“That is—please.”

“You want to speak to the Guildmaster? Oh, go ahead. Why don’t I also call the Council for you to chat to? Your team lost to a single suit of enchanted armor? What’s your team’s name? It must be mislabeled here because ‘Skillful Swords’ says ‘Silver-rank’ here. Bronze-rankers should be able to take out a single suit of armor. Let me just amend that here.”

“How dare—it was seven feet tall and swung a greatsword around as if it weighed nothing! I shot it with my crossbow twice, and the bolts just bounced off!”

Levil’s head turned, and his ears perked up at that. That sounded intense! He’d been told Liscor’s dungeon had been largely denuded of some threats, even if it had waves of monsters, and he’d hoped his team could breach into Gold-rank trying it. But if that was the case…he scratched the war hound’s ears, worried. It might be better to take local contracts rather than go down.

However, Selys kept talking, sarcasm in every word.

“Oh no! A single suit of armor? Dead gods, I’m so sorry. It’s not like a nest of Baby Crelers or a Flame Elemental. A Silver-ranked team took those down in one encounter, by the way.”

Encounter: a Guild-term for a single run of battles before resting. The young adventurer was trying to get a word in edgewise, but Selys kept talking. And writing.

“Why don’t I note your complaints down? I’ll just forward that to Pallass’ Adventurer’s Guild. And Invrisil’s. And what’s your home guild? Then we can have the Guildmasters make a ruling on whether or not this is appropriate for a Silver-ranking team—

She was going off on the poor young adventurer. Who hadn’t been the best, but dead gods.

“Levil, is this that Liscorian attitude I heard so much about?”

One of Levil’s teammates whispered in his ear, and he half-nodded. Perhaps—or perhaps not, because an old Drake came out of one of the back rooms, limping on a cane. He was scarred all over, a former [Archer], and his tone was far more placatory.

“Now, now. What’s all this shouting about? Miss Selys, Adventurer Ortresia, yes? I’m sure emotions are running high after a monster attack. Here you were, ready to fight, and the rug feels pulled out from under you. It happens with the Watch—thank you for your readiness. Please, have a seat. Selys? Do we have any lemon water about?”

“Guildmaster Besoid—!”

Selys hesitated, but he fixed her with a kindly stare, and she hurried back to get a pitcher of water. And a lemon, which she squeezed into said water.

The Guildmaster was more retiring. He took a seat as Ortresia apologized, flushing.

“I’m sorry, sir—”

“No, no. Miss Selys is our best [Receptionist]. It’s a hard time for the guild—forgive her for being so emotional.”

“Of course, sir. It’s just that it was a dangerous suit of armor, and the way she talked—”

The old Drake spoke with that way you did when you were delivering a genteel kneecapping to someone.

“Her grandmother, Tekshia Shivertail, passed away during the Winter Solstice. Fighting Draugr, no less. That would be the previous Guildmistress. Do forgive her.”

Ah. Every head turned towards Ortresia, and she paled, then began babbling apologies. But the old Drake was smoothing things out; Selys came back and, stone-faced, accepted an apology. Then stomped into the back rooms as Besoid focused the room.

“Now…now, I can see this Greater Zombie might be a recurring threat. If you’ll all direct your attention to the board, I have a new bounty on patrolling the roads. In cooperation with the Watch, and if you wait just a moment, I’ll have an updated bounty on undead…”

He coughed into one claw as adventurers crowded around the board. Smoothly bringing them back to focus, asking about where they’d patrol, such as other villages, how much help they’d get from the Watch—solid work.

In the back rooms, Selys Shivertail fumed.

 

——

 

Besoid was good at his job. Mostly because he’d been the Guildmaster and retired before Tekshia had taken over. And then come out of retirement when the vacancy needed filling.

But what made Selys so angry was—it should have been her.

She knew Besoid was good. He was smooth, reasonable, and a former Gold-ranker. Not of renown like Tekshia; he’d been low-ranking and never even passed Level 32. He had other classes like [Guildmaster] instead of his main [Archer] class. But he was old and had told Selys straight out he intended to do this only for a bit until a replacement could be found.

Which should be her.

Selys had applied for the job with the Council. She had argued her case; she had grown up in the Adventurer’s Guild. No one had worked more in it. She knew adventurers, she knew the work. It was her grandmother’s position, and it wasn’t nepotism—she could fill Tekshia’s role.

At least, in this.

But they’d denied her request, appointed Besoid in her place, and Krshia had refused to talk to Selys and explain why.

A month later and Selys didn’t know why she was still working at the Adventurer’s Guild. She’d come back to work, mostly to see if Besoid could do the job, and also to hint at Liscor’s Council who they should replace him with.

Would they get someone from another city? For Liscor? Ridiculous! Someone else in the guild? Who? No one was as good as—

“Selys. I’m not sure that’s the best way to win over our new adventurers.”

The Drake jumped. She’d gone back to make more lemon water for their guests, and she stared at a dozen squeezed lemons and a single pitcher.

“Guildmaster Besoid! I, uh—lost track of—”

She began as the old Drake appeared. He leaned on his cane, looking amused and concerned, and shook his head.

“I know it wasn’t malicious. Why don’t we sit down in my office? I’m rather tired from all this fuss. Another new undead. My, my…and those suits of armor keep popping up in the dungeon?”

She followed him into his office he’d set up on the first floor; the stairs hurt his feet too much, and he sank back in a chair with a groan, propping his cane up.

His flagging stamina was the real reason he couldn’t stay as Guildmaster. His archery days were long behind him, and unlike Tekshia, Besoid was one of the Drakes who sat with her old group of veterans and didn’t actively keep himself in shape.

She liked him; he was a Drake she’d grown up with, but it was hard to see him in Tekshia’s chair. Besoid clearly knew it, because he sat up and tried to sound—accommodating.

“I realize it’s hard working with northern adventurers.”

“Not as much as you think, B—Guildmaster.”

It was hard. He sat where Tekshia should have been smoking on a puffer, munching on a cookie, annoying, harder than mithril, chewing Selys out for this failing or that, her spear propped against her desk.

If a monster came to the guild, Tekshia would have been there, telling the rookies to either do something useful or get out of the way. If a monster came to Liscor.

When they had—

She had been there.

Not just the last time at the Solstice. Selys remembered when Skinner had attacked the city. Tekshia Shivertail had picked up her spear and cleared street after street with Hawk. As she had from the day she was a girl herself. She had been there when the Necromancer attacked. She had survived the Antinium Wars.

It had been the Solstice that finally stole her life. Draugr. Six Draugr—and Selys hadn’t even known. She’d been with the civilians, trying to keep people calm, waiting to hear news from the Watch. Then someone had said the battle was over, and Selys had been cheering, asking about Erin and Olesm or the adventurers.

Then someone had said the Halfseekers were all dead. Selys had run for the northern gates. Run and run and found Tekshia. Lying down, surrounded by half-dead men holding their hats in their hands. As if she’d decided to take a nap—

“—Selys?”

Besoid was talking. Selys looked up and realized she hadn’t heard a word.

“I’m sorry, Besoid. I—”

“Not at all. It’s been a long month, Selys. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours here. I know you have business—why don’t you take the day off?”

“I can work.”

Selys answered reflexively. Her [Heiress] investments didn’t require that much…she had someone who managed the day-to-day work. Not just Todi; her friends and acquaintances in Pallass had helped set her up.

She was rich. Not just from the Heartflame Breastplate, but from investing in Liscor’s future. It had annoyed Tekshia no end. Selys had even offered to buy her grandmother a new place at one point, and Tekshia had tossed tea all over her.

Tekshia. Selys didn’t remember everything after that. Only that the world had stopped for her. Erin gone, Bird and Numbtongue fighting [Assassins], everything—

She had attended Tekshia’s funeral.

No one from the inn was there. It had been a day after the battle; they had said Erin was still missing.

No one from the inn had come. Not Lyonette. Not anyone. Nanette didn’t count. They had all been at the inn, while she…they had all been focused on Erin. Not her. Not her grandmother.

Selys had gone to the Halfseekers’ funeral with Seborn missing and Jelaqua almost crawling onto the pyre.

She had gone to Halrac’s and never said a word to anyone as she stood in Riverfarm. No one said a word to her for weeks afterwards. Then Lyonette sent a letter asking if Selys was well. Was…well. Asking to talk to her. Sending her deepest condolences.

That was half of her anger. Half of it. All her animosity towards Lyonette for supporting Erin after all this. For not seeing how much it cost Liscor.

The other half was due to the last will and testament of Tekshia Shivertail:

She had left Selys with nothing.

No spear. Not one of her collection. No gold; Selys hadn’t expected that. But not even furniture. Tekshia Shivertail’s will had been read a week later, and Selys had seen her possessions go to her friends in Liscor. No relatives; they didn’t speak to the other Shivertails. Tekshia had explicitly included a clause forbidding any of them from getting anything; her gear should be passed to random adventurers before any Shivertail except Selys or Zel.

Except Selys. And yet, the contents of the will had been read out, and Selys had gotten—nothing.

Understand, this wasn’t like Humans. Drake wills meant something. You gave people a piece of you, and it mattered. Tekshia? Selys had gone straight to the officiator afterwards, and he had awkwardly apologized. He had told her the will had been amended two months ago. Tekshia hadn’t even bothered removing the part about Zel.

But she had cut Selys out of her possessions.

Why?

“Selys? You’re looking unwell. Maybe you should lie down.”

Besoid was looking at her face. Selys jerked, gave him a smile, and shook her head. Then nodded.

“I—maybe you’re right, Besoid. I should rest. I just don’t want to look—look bad. For the Council. Did they make a ruling on who’ll be the next Guildmaster?”

His face crumpled up a bit as he half shook his head. The old Drake glanced at Selys and then cleared his throat. He glanced at his desk, folded his claws together, and hesitated.

“Not yet. I think—they’re quite aware of your record, Selys. Krshia, Lism, Guildmistress Alonna, they all know you.”

“Not well enough to take my request seriously.”

Selys let a bit of bitterness enter her voice. She faced Besoid, unable to keep her feelings inside.

“You know I can do it, Besoid. I know you’re better—but you don’t have to do this job. I’m willing. I’m experienced. I know I was never an adventurer—not one with any experience, but you don’t have to be. Is there someone applying with that much experience?”

“A few applicants. I shouldn’t talk about the process, but then again, I’m not the one deciding. No one overwhelming, though.”

The Drake looked highly uncomfortable, but Selys pressed harder.

“Then why would I be ignored? Do you have an inkling?”

Again, his eyes slid sideways, and Selys, who had been oblivious until now, suddenly narrowed hers. Besoid had many good qualities. His poker face was not one of them.

“Guildmaster?”

“I’m sure they had good reasons, Selys. Why don’t you take that rest? You can use one of the rest rooms for adventurers.”

He gestured towards the door, and Selys frowned.

“I’ll do that.”

She stood up, and he looked relieved. Selys walked towards the door and half-turned at the entrance.

“—I’m glad you’re on my side for the Guildmaster position, Besoid. You’d tell me if I was doing anything wrong, wouldn’t you? I’m willing to do anything for the position.”

He closed his eyes and gave her a wretched look.

“Selys…”

“What? Unless you know something. Is it a bribe? Did I make someone mad on the Council? What is it, Besoid?”

“I can’t say. I shouldn’t. Ancestors damn it. Selys—”

He raised shaking claws, and Selys strode over to lean on the desk.

“Tell me. You know something.”

Suddenly, it clicked! Of course! Someone was scheming against her. It was—the younger Drake’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s Lyonette.”

“What? No! It’s nothing like that, Selys.”

“It has to be! Someone’s putting pressure on the Council. It’s Lyonette or—Pallass?”

Selys was going to go right up to the Council and demand answers. How could Krshia not tell her? They were friends! She’d—she’d—

“Selys, stop! Selys! It’s not the Council! It was Tekshia! Her will!”

The old Drake tried to get up from his desk, and he called out. Selys was out the door this time, and she stopped. She backed up, tail-first, and gave him a wide-eyed look.

“What? You have to be lying.”

The old [Guildmaster] was in it now. He tried to look away, but the cat was out of Elirr’s bag, and he broke.

“It’s not—I’m sure she had her reasons, Selys. I understand. I wish she’d talked to you, but I don’t think she actually planned on dying for another thirty years. That Tekshia—”

His smile grew, died—he wiped at his eyes. Selys just stood there, feeling like someone was striking a bell with a hammer right behind her.

“What will? She didn’t give me anything.”

Besoid fidgeted under her stare. He looked at Selys, past her—

“Yes. Well. That—there were a number of conditions in her will.”

“I never heard them. What conditions?

“You weren’t meant to. Ancestors, Selys. It was hard for the Council too!”

“What. Conditions?”

The old Drake resisted for a minute longer, then gave up. He reached for his desk and pulled something out of it. A wrapped scroll. Selys stared at it, and Besoid spoke, sounding almost relieved.

“I debated giving this to you. Tekshia was a forceful, grand adventurer. She thought she knew what was best for everyone and ran her guild like that. It…she was thinking of you, Selys. Remember that when you read—Selys?”

The Drake didn’t hear him. She wandered off, scroll in her claws. The will had a lot of dry parts to it. Subdivisions of goods by name. Clauses in case someone died. Last words. But Selys had never read it—nor read the part at the end.

It was a clause added in fresher ink addressed to Liscor’s Council. Selys could even hear her grandmother’s voice. But it made no sense.

 

‘I, Tekshia Shivertail, petition Liscor’s Council or the ruling body of my city to make the following choice upon my death: if Selys Shivertail, my granddaughter, is acting Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild, or has been seconded for the role, I urge you to give her my fullest support in her position.

However, if she maintains her [Heiress] class and has only maintained her [Receptionist] class, I urge the Council not to allow her to take my old position and to select any viable candidate in her place. In the interim, I recommend Besoid, if he is alive, and that my replacement would be best suited to be a Drake or Gnoll outside a Walled City with a flexible attitude towards…’

 

“Not to let her take my position? What?”

Selys stared at the will. Her claws shook. Her grandmother was the reason she had been passed over for the job? She half-turned back to Besoid’s office when she began seeing that fresh ink on the will. Everywhere.

Wait.

In the event of my death, my spear, Flamestriker, shall go to Selys Shivertail if she maintains the post of [Guildmaster] or has taken a job in adventuring or any other dangerous profession. In the case she remains an [Heiress], it should then be deferred to Embria Grasstongue in hopes it will one day be a [Spearmaster]’s weapon again…

Her spear. Her gold. Even—even her rocking chair all had that clause in it! Selys’ eyes grew rounder and rounder, and she left the Adventurer’s Guild in a daze.

Why? Why had Tekshia done this? Selys read through the entire will this time, and her eyes caught a single, final message at the bottom.

 

‘If Selys Shivertail should be [Guildmistress] of the Adventurer’s Guild as of my death, or maintain any other class than [Heiress]—’

 

The officiator of the will had asked if she was still doing business in Liscor. She had thought he was making small talk. Selys’ eyes blazed down the paper.

 

‘—Tell her to look under the padding in her claw blade box.’

 

“She didn’t.”

Then, Selys was running. Running, shoving people aside, cursing at a guardswoman who told her to stick to the crosswalks, until she surged into her mansion.

A group of beavers in the foyer were building their giant fort in the water area. They slapped their tails at her, but Selys barged past them. She ignored a pair of rats who squeaked at her as they ate lunch on a table.

“Not now, Haldagaz, Rhata! Where are the claws? Where’s…when did she sneak in and leave anything here?”

Tekshia had been here more than once. Selys tore around her mansion, wondering where the heck it was. Her walk-in closet? No. Her jewelry? Her souvenirs or—

She had a lot of stuff. She wasn’t hoarding! It was just that she was wealthy enough to buy clothing and—Selys turned and almost stepped on Rhata. The grey rat was dragging something out from behind the shoe rack.

It was a familiar, battered box with a velvet lining that had a set of steel claws you wore over your actual ones. Selys stopped when she saw it—it was the same box her uncle, Zel Shivertail, had given her when she was fourteen.

A gift for an aspiring adventurer. He’d taught her how to use them. She hadn’t worn or practiced with them in…

Zel. Someone else Erin had stolen from Selys, from Liscor, from all of Izril. Part of Selys hesitated. That wasn’t true. It wasn’t just her—Selys forced the thought away.

“Thank you, Rhata. Under the lining? What…”

Selys picked up the claws. Then shook the lining out of the box. And right under the velvet, folded and tied with string, was…

Haldagaz, the white rat, was sniffing at the paper, and Selys put him aside and slowly unwrapped the piece of paper. There were two notes, actually. One read:

 

To Selys, the [Heiress].

 

That one was on top. Selys unfolded the note, and the first thing it said was:

 

Selys, if you’re reading this, you snooped around and read my will and you’re throwing a tantrum. Congratulations.

You don’t deserve to be [Guildmaster] of my Adventurer’s Guild.

 

Even in death, Tekshia Shivertail somehow managed to kick Selys so hard the Drake had to sit down. She kept reading, in a daze, as Haldagaz read over her shoulder and squeaked to Rhata and the Beavers, who occasionally chittered in dismay or awe as if they understood what was going on.

 

I told them not to tell you anything, but here we are. If this is the Selys who became a [Guildmistress], ignore the rest of this—I’m speaking to the hatchling I have to deal with right now, and you and I can both look back on who she was and laugh. Or sigh.

If it’s the [Heiress], the one who has the Heartflame Breastplate and enjoys hobnobbing around with Pallassians and renting apartments to Antinium and patting herself on the back for being the most progressive, understanding Drake in Liscor, you may have my spears and guild when you wrest them from my cold, dead claws.

Yes, you’re qualified. Yes, you probably can run it well. You don’t deserve it. Take your gold, buy your precious cakes, and eat them. Have a life like you wish, and I do hope it is a good one. But I have told the Council multiple times that if you have your [Heiress] class, you are not fit for my job. You think you need it. Well, you’re not me. You never will be, and the faster you get over that, the better your life will turn out.

 

Selys nearly ripped the piece of paper up. But she couldn’t. She was being excoriated by a dead Drake, and it hurt far worse than any time Tekshia had done it lately. Selys read every word because it was the last time it would hurt like this.

 

If you’re still reading this, Selys, I’m not angry at you. Or even that disappointed. Gold does things to anyone. You can be a fine [Heiress]. If you reassemble the Heartflame Set, you’ll have done more for Izril than I did in my life. But you’d be a terrible Guildmistress as you are.

My conditions are these. I know you want my job. I don’t think you really want it, though. But if you’re still intent on having it, go ahead. Tell the Council you’ll take my position. My condition is that you have to give away your gold.

 

“What? Grandmother—”

 

All of it. Give the Heartflame Breastplate away. It’s not meant for you. It was meant for an adventurer, a warrior, a soldier. Not for someone to rent out. If you want my job, sell your mansion and my gold, and at least one of my spears will go to you. Even my favorite chair.

Otherwise, go and be that Selys Shivertail, not Tekshia’s granddaughter or Zel’s niece. Just don’t turn out like the rest of our family who can’t get past clinging to Zel’s shadow for all they spat on his back or I’ll rise from the dead and kill you.

 

The words stung. Worse than that time she’d run into a wasp’s nest and her grandmother had applied a painful balm to her scales while scolding her. Selys was gulping for air, and one of the beavers pushed over a chair for her. Her eyes searched down the parchment for something. Anything.

Tekshia was a mean, crotchety, old Drake. But not a cruel one. And there it was, like her taking Selys out to eat a fruit pie afterwards, or begrudgingly complimenting Selys after complaining about her new class for an hour.

 

I told them to give you a month before the officiators or whatever you call them hand you the rest. Assuming you’re still an [Heiress]…I had to dig up a pile of names, so don’t blame me if some of them are dead.

It’s a list of people I used to know. Gnolls and Drakes in various cities. Good people, some of them. I’ve marked who you should actually like. Even some Humans from when I was in the north. 

All of them are better than a bunch of Pallassian Wind Dragon blowhards. If you’re going to use all that gold, put it behind something real, not just a few apartments. Look at your relatives and do the exact opposite of what they did.

They should remember they owe me favors. It’s been a while, but I did have some connections from back when I was an adventurer. Use them. Don’t make the mistakes I did.

Oh, and if you find someone to love, don’t marry an adventurer. Or at least, not a Named-rank one that you didn’t know before they got to Named-rank. 

 

The page was swimming in front of Selys, blurry, but she read the last words in a haze, and thought she heard that old Drake sigh. She pictured Tekshia leaning back at her desk, sighing up at the ceiling, and writing the last words without flinching or running.

Just as she always did.

 

If you’re younger than forty, I’m sorry that I left too soon. I had a long run, but I like to fancy I was always an adventurer.

—Tekshia Shivertail

 

Selys only realized she was crying when a rat pulled over a handkerchief for her. Selys wiped her face, blew into the handkerchief, and sat there.

“Thanks, Grandmother. What am I supposed to—”

She stared around her mansion. At her rats, her pet beavers, and down at the letter. Selys the [Heiress] sat there. Another path lay in front of her, guarded by Tekshia’s will. If you want to be someone else…

Choose.

Choose and choose again. There was a bitter tang in Selys’ mouth. It reminded her too much of Erin. Choose and change and—

For a moment, she wished she could talk to Erin. Or to Lyonette. Or someone who knew her. To Pisces, who had chosen, to Ceria, to—

They were all gone. Gone or dead to her. Selys sat there and then wondered if anyone else she knew was available. A friend in Pallass? Tekshia hated them. Who else? A friend. A…

She wandered around the mansion, lost, pale as a sheet, as two rats squeaked at her, concerned, and then sat down at a table. Selys poured herself a drink. Then she read the will again. And again.

And poured another drink.

 

——

 

One thing overlooked by Selys Shivertail was the magical suits of armor in the dungeon. They were indeed…more active of late.

But not aggressive. No, rather, they were exploratory. One had run into adventurers and let them go. They didn’t appear in waves like the monsters. They watched the monsters die in the Antinium’s trap corridors.

They seemed to—observe. As if noticing something.

The monster populations came and went in the dungeon, despite the adventurers, but a limiting factor seemed to have allowed more suits of armor, bigger and more magical than the ones hitherto encountered, the boldness to roam.

Perhaps a lack of a certain obstacle who was foe to even other monster denizens. A traitor who collected heads.

And the suits of armor had fancy heads. Drake helmets, even Gnollish ones, which peered at Antinium who had been clearing the trapped killzone of monsters for their parts to sell to Liscor.

“Alert. Alert.”

A Worker was trembling as it shouted the word. Arrows rained down as the hidden Workers tried to kill this suit of armor, but the animated piece of metal in the shape of a long-dead Drake warrior had a shield raised.

Not that it needed it; the metal wasn’t even deforming under the weight of the Antinium’s arrows. It had de-limbed two Soldiers of their arms, and the Soldiers were staggering away after biting at the armor. It stood there, head tilting, as if memorizing the corridor. Then there was the crunch of more footfalls.

Six more giant sets of Drake armor were marching at the Worker. The one shaking blood off its sword raised its blade for a perfunctory strike.

Then an arrow pierced straight through its armor. The suit of Drake armor staggered. It raised its shield instantly, and a second arrow blew its helmet off. The suit of armor staggered back, and the oncoming group slowed.

A third arrow swerved over the shield, punched a hole through the armor’s chestplate, and bounced around inside. The suit of armor backed up, shielding its chest.

“Alert—al—”

The Worker stopped chanting in a panic. It turned and sensed/saw a group of Antinium moving down the tunnel at a run. They had paint on their carapaces, and the lead one was larger than the rest.

Yellow Splatters.

“Hold! Do not advance too far! Some have bows!”

He cried out, and the Painted Antinium secured the corridor. The suits of enchanted armor were backing up, and the one with holes in it deflected another arrow. Then they were fleeing rapidly into the tunnels.

“Hm. How troubling. They are empty. I shot them, and they did not die. Much like Garbichugs. I have encountered the Garbichugs of the dungeon, Free Queen.”

A bright voice spoke from overhead. The Worker looked up in awe as it realized its savior was none other than one Antinium in particular. The highest-level in the Hive, perhaps, save for maybe Pawn himself. The legendary—the only—

Bird stood in one of the sniper alcoves, their new body making all the Antinium turn to stare. They waved down and called to Yellow Splatters.

“They have run off. My instincts tell me we will be muchly-dead if we follow.”

“I concur. Bird.”

Even Yellow Splatters stared up at Bird. But the Revalantor of the Free Antinium, Bird the Hunter, the greatest [Archer] of the Antinium of Izril, just waved down merrily. With two arms.

Bird had only two. The Worker stared up in awe as Bird shouted.

“Well, I must be going! My inn misses me! If the armor-things come back, um…I’ll help! Maybe. I must grow stronger.”

Bird’s voice grew troubled.

“Much stronger. Farewell. I shall bring snacks!”

Yellow Splatters waved, and Bird turned and hummed a song. The Worker stood there as the rest of the bodies were cleaned up, and after a while, the Worker began to try and hum the song. For if anyone could become Bird…

Why, anything was possible.

 

——

 

Lyonette was thinking of all the things she had wanted to buy as a girl as she half-dozed after breakfast by a window of The Wandering Inn.

“A horse. I mean, a pony.”

Why, yes, she had wanted one of those as a girl, hadn’t she? The thing was…

Princess Lyonette du Marquin, 6th Princess of Calanfer, had gotten a pony. A beautiful Walchaís sable—coat like fresh snow in the winter. It had neighed at her, pooped, and been antsy like a horse shipped overseas would be, and she had hated it.

How much did that horse cost? The older Lyonette wondered guiltily. The younger one hadn’t cared. She’d had an allowance.

Dead gods. Not like a Mrsha-allowance, which was still ludicrous at times. Young Lyonette had had more money than The Wandering Inn spent most weeks. So wasteful.

Why did her mother allow it?

Probably because it was something expected of Calanfer to be seen to spend money. It kept us busy and out of her hair, and Calanfer is rich. 

Not the richest of nations, but few kingdoms were hurting for coin, even relatively poorer ones like Avel. Even if a nation was close to destitute, the wealth of an entire kingdom of people could set up one person or an entire court in lavishness.

Now, Lyonette had the wealth of kingdoms at her fingertips. She was just…trying to remember what she wanted. An Archmage’s wand? The most handsomest (she hadn’t had good grammar at the time) [Knight] serving her? A flying carriage?

She’d ridden in Magnolia’s carriage and seen Ryoka Griffin and Felkhr flying. Lyonette had stood on Pallass’ walls. No thank you.

No one else shared Lyonette’s hesitation. Ishkr’s breakfast bonanza had gone down a treat; even Calescent had been happy to stop making food to eat someone else’s. When Lyonette stared at him and asked why, he gave her a reasonable explanation.

“If I eat my food, I have to make more food. This is someone else’s food and suffering. Tastes better. Also, it has fresh smell instead of smelling it for the last hour. Like someone else’s poop smells worse than yours.”

“Huh. Ah—not the analogy I’d prefer at—you know what? It makes sense, Calescent. Thank you. Keep the donuts. Mrsha doesn’t need more.”

The Hobgoblin happily saluted her and hid the bag of donuts behind his back. Lyonette went back to staring out the window. She did have an idea of what the money would go towards. The big-picture stuff. The inn, staffing—she even had a candidate list as Ielane had demanded. But those weren’t interesting to her in the same way as spending gold on…Lyonette’s mouth moved.

“A…personal serving Golem. No. Drat! New jewelry? It’ll catch on things, and I’ll have it stolen in the night. The latest fashions from home?”

She thought about it. Hadn’t the latest fashion trend been lace? Experience told her it was going to change soon. Lace to, what—ribbons? What a waste of money it would be to put down a thousand gold pieces on a new dress. She knew she could do it. But what a waste. Plus, who was she going to show it off to?

Colfa? Well, that was a good reason. Lyonette brightened up.

“Colfa! She and I will have a private bathhouse day and something fine in Liscor to eat. Mrsha, Nanette, they can both visit that Adventure Room in Invrisil, and maybe we’ll visit the bazaar.”

If she saw one of those fancy, magic pillows with a heating spell on it or a blanket like that, she’d buy it. And higher quality ingredients for the inn! True wealth, then, was not worrying about how much butter cost and buying it, whether it came from Celum or was an expensive variant shipped from Oteslian farms.

Lyonette knew she was letting the side down a bit. And by ‘the side’ she meant her royal family who would have a thousand ideas. Vernoue would be buying spellbooks already, and Aielef would have already bought a dozen paintings…she liked to fancy herself an artist. Shardele would already be in the stratosphere, and Seraphel—

Lyonette didn’t know what Seraphel would do with her money. She’d had a lot after her failed marriages; most had gone right into Calanfer’s coffers, but she could have spent it.

“What did Seraphel want when I was…let’s see. She was eighteen or something after the first one. Or was that when she was still married? I would have been—nine? I went up to her and asked what she wanted, and she said…‘either a way to forget or to undo things’.”

Lyonette stopped. She stared out the window, suddenly, with a thousand-yard stare.

“Dead gods. That’s so—”

She was almost relieved when she saw, in the reflection of the glass, Mrsha trying to tip-toe out of the [Garden of Sanctuary] with a sack of gold over her shoulder. It didn’t work well—probably because gold was heavy.

“Mrsha, why aren’t you putting that in a bag of holding? You’ll hurt your back. Also, why did you paint the fur around your eyes black?”

The girl had added a mustache in ink as well. She jumped—and Dame Ushar took the bag of gold from her.

“I suspect because her bag of holding is full as well, Your Highness. One second.”

She chivvied Mrsha back through the door as Nanette innocently strode out and got caught too, despite having nothing visible on her.

“Mrsha, you loser!”

The two began fighting as Lyonette shook her head. She hoped Seraphel was well. That was the kind of thing she should spend gold on, honestly. Helping the inn’s people. Or at least—

Lyonette was glad to have something break up her oddly cyclical thoughts. She was looking out the window when her breath caught. She stood suddenly.

“There they are. They didn’t even send a—”

“Hey. Rheirgest is arriving.”

Ishkr appeared behind the counter of the bar. Lyonette jumped; Mrsha and Nanette poked their heads into the common room.

“It’s time! Everyone, best behavior! Mrsha, get that ink off your face. Calescent! Food!”

She beamed and pointed out the window. In the distance, she had just seen a bunch of wagons cresting one of the snowy hills coming in their direction. They were slow-moving, especially since the roads had ended way back, and she wished she’d told Normen to use the door in Esthelm or Liscor to save people the walk.

Then again, it had taken ages for them to get here on foot. You couldn’t teleport that many people and goods from Celum; well, you could, but it was faster and more economical to walk.

Either way—Rheirgest was arriving. Lyonette grabbed a coat and began buttoning it up. She put a huge smile on her face as the staff left the garden.

“They’re likely to be hungry when they arrive. Let’s get them greeted and feeling warm, hospitable—dead gods, aren’t there over a hundred and fifty of them? Well, Himilt was putting down some stakes for the village near him. Oh. Ah. Whatever you do, don’t mention the Necromancer, everyone. Understand?”

“You want us to hide, Boss Lyonette? So we don’t scare them?”

Lyonette turned to Peggy in astonishment. Then stared.

“Peggy, where did that uniform come from?”

A brand new black-and-white server’s uniform like Ishkr’s suit—but maybe a bit less formal—was on Peggy. She adjusted the tie nervously.

“Um. Ishkr?”

Ishkr waved at Lyonette. The [Princess] stared for a second.

“No, you don’t have to hide. Goblins are part of the inn. Same for you, Rosencr—they make suits for Antinium?

“No. Threadshell adjusted them.”

“Who is Threadshell?”

“An Antinium who makes clothing for Antinium.”

They said these things like they were obvious. Lyonette paused.

“Okay, you look excellent. Peggy, that’s a male waiter’s uniform. Tuck the white shirt into your pants.”

“I know. Is better for kicking people with.”

Lyonette didn’t bother arguing that point. She noticed only Peggy and Rosencrantz had the new uniforms and gave Ishkr a look—he was munching on some fries and seemed vaguely apologetic.

“It’s Ulvama’s influence.”

“I’m sure. Okay, you two will be fine. Rheirgest knows about Antinium; one helped deliver food! Peggy, just remember not to smile with all your teeth—they’re Humans. Just don’t mention the Necromancer. Az’kerash. Oh, and don’t mention the Goblin King! Or the Antinium Wars. Got it?”

Everyone nodded as Rosencrantz wrote that down. Rose was standing to the side, watching and smiling at Lyonette with amusement.

“Are you doing a bit?”

“No. What bit?”

“Oops. Sorry. I’m just sort of—it’s this Earth thing—”

Lyonette rolled her eyes. The last thing she needed was Joseph coming in and laughing his butt off at something unique to him. She whirled.

“Alright! Places! Wait. Where’re Mrsha and Nanette?”

Her motherly instincts pinged her a hair too late. The staff looked around, and Lyonette drew upon her inn-senses borrowed from Erin.

“Second floor. Ushar—”

“They haven’t left the building! Argh, I take my eyes off them one second and—”

Ushar, who’d been inspecting Rheirgest with a spyglass, whirled as Lyonette began to chivvy everyone outside. The snow had largely been swept away from the front of the inn, but her boots crunched in the newest deposits, and she saw wagons in the distance.

“They might have to turn around to go to Himilt’s farm. We could have brought food to Normen! What is the man thinking? I—oh my. They didn’t get rid of the, um—”

Peggy stood on her peg-leg and shaded her eyes. The Goblin’s look of apprehension became a grin.

“Skeleton horses.”

Ah. Lyonette had to own, if you wanted a steed to cross the terrain here without worrying about it falling and breaking a leg—she realized it wasn’t just one skeletal horse either.

Oh my.

Her palms began to sweat a bit. The entire group had undead horses, even a few skeletons pushing one wagon from behind. She’d known Rheirgest had [Necromancers]. But she hadn’t realized exactly how necrotic the village was.

She could see people standing up or peering out of covered wagons already. And—her heart leapt—there was a man in blue armor riding with a Drake, a gigantic woman with grey skin and steel armor pacing alongside them. A woman with lighter armor and a magical sword was hurrying to catch up to the azure [Knight]. Last but not least, a gigantic bone cat was pacing next to a wagon.

The Order of Solstice. Vess, Normen, Durene, Jewel, and Ama. The only five members still here…

Lyonette waved at them, trying not to smile in exasperation at the thought of having to tell these poor, doubtless cold people they had to turn around to get to Himilt and Colfa’s farm, which was far closer to Liscor. It had taken hours to get here on foot, no doubt, to this edge of the Floodplains! Still, she put a good face on it, reflecting that they could use the door for the children…until she saw something odd.

“Hold on. What’s that?”

Dalimont had taken Ushar’s spyglass, and he grunted at the same time as the Goblins began whispering.

“Looks like damage to some of the caravans, Princess. Scorch marks on two—”

Lyonette saw it too. Holes in the covering of another caravan. Dalimont’s commentary was matched by Peggy.

“Uh oh. Someone attacked them. Lightly.”

Lightly? Then Lyonette saw stains on the wagons and blinked.

“Is that blood?”

Peggy shook her head.

“Nope. Looks like…tomatoes. And bits of trash. Moldy apple.”

Some of the wagons were covered in trash, actually. Lyonette stared—then heard a voice from inside the inn. Liska wandered out, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.

“Hey, I know I’m supposed to be working, but, uh—are there some [Necromancers] here? The ones who’re coming?”

Everyone turned, and Ishkr frowned at his sister.

“Yes, they’re here. Did you turn them away at Liscor? Liska—

“What? No! Hey, what’s with the suit—I’m asking because there are a bunch of people waving signs and shouting about [Necromancers] in Liscor. The Watch is keeping them from getting at the door, but they’re shouting ‘necromancers go home’.”

Lyonette’s heart sank. She said a name like an oath.

Selys.

“I didn’t see her there, but they were throwing things at my door. Mostly, they just hit people in line. Trash, rotten potatoes—the potatoes look like they hurt.

Suddenly, Lyonette had a bad feeling. She strode forwards and saw, as Ser Normen rode at her, a familiar, grim expression on the burned man’s face. He lifted a hand, and Lyonette saw nervous people peeking out at her. Staring at the Goblins, who were waving. One of them piped out loudly.

Goblin Lord Reiss was good Goblin Lord!

Oh, dead gods—who was that? Peggy hit Asgra on the head as the Cave Goblin tried to shout again. Lyonette turned and then saw something in one of the windows of the inn. It looked like…a fight.

Two girls and two boys, Hethon and Sammial, were wrestling, running from Dame Ushar—the Thronebearer was too late. The two girls hurled something from a pair of windows, and Lyonette saw a banner, handmade from one of the bedsheets and drawn in huge, inky letters.

 

Welcome to The Wandering Inn! We like [Necromancers]! Our best guest is a [Necromancer]!

 

Every head craned up to stare at the sheet fluttering in the cold wind. Lyonette covered her eyes. Somewhere behind her, Rose began laughing so hard she started hiccuping.

At least Ser Normen was smiling. And when she turned her head—she thought she heard laughter from Rheirgest’s folk.

 

——

 

“Miss Lyonette. We ran into a bit of trouble at the val Lischelle-Drakle farm. As you didn’t have a speaking stone, I thought it would be best to take everyone here and sort the rest out later. I apologize for being late; the snows were higher than we thought.”

“Normen!”

He looked as awkward as ever in his new armor, but the mace at his side, made of Demas Metal, fit the man. He sat upon a horse, a [Knight] in shining mail—until you saw his burned features, scarred from his encounter with the Bloodfeast Raiders. To Lyonette, it only made him the best warrior she knew. A reassuring man; a bearer of honor’s flame.

Ama, Jewel, Vess, and Durene were helping organize the wagons; it was hard to even park them on the hills without danger of them slipping. People were getting out, and Lyonette stared at Normen in dismay.

“What trouble?”

“Drakes. Gnolls. Even some Humans. Throwing trash and even rocks when we tried to get near. Master Himilt kept them clear of his farm, but he was wary of causing a fuss. As were we. It wasn’t the kind of thing we could fight our way out of—”

Jewel rode over, a smear of red on her arm. Not blood; tomato. She looked upset.

“Unlike the Snow Golems. We bashed in nearly a hundred’s brains to get here. Lyonette, there were more people trying to stop Rheirgest from moving in than villagers! It looked—organized. What’s going on? You didn’t mention this.”

“Selys.”

The two blinked at her. Lyonette was too furious to explain.

“She probably wasn’t there, but I’ll bet she and her friends set this up. There was anti-[Necromancer] sentiment before, but no one knew about Rheirgest until…I suppose the undead would have given it away. You, ah, didn’t ride like that the entire way, did you?”

Jewel nodded crisply and unapologetically. She was a Gold-rank adventurer at the top of her profession, or had been. As a [Knight], she didn’t look that different—aside from the fact that she and Normen were a couple and she’d quit her team to join the Order of Solstice. She seemed happier, at least compared to the depressed adventurer Erin had brought in.

“Had to. The roads were covered in snow; without Rheirgest raising undead to literally shovel our way through, we’d still be on our way to Celum. Even with Vess and Normen’s flames…neither one runs hot. It is not the time to travel from rural spots.”

Remembering Normen’s fraught journey here, Lyonette had to admit that was true.

“Alright, I understand. Argh, what a disaster. Normen, I’m sorry.”

“Just so long as you have a space for Rheirgest to set down tonight, Miss Lyonette? And food? I promised them they’d at least have a place to relax.”

He had a smile on his face and a worried expression in his eyes. Lyonette bit her lip.

“Bedding them down will mean filling the common room and the basement and the theatre—”

“No worries about that. They have the wagons. But food?”

Absolutely. Of course. Who am I—?”

This was already disastrous, but Lyonette was determined to put a good face on things. Instantly, Jewel and Normen pointed to an old man that Ama was helping down from a wagon. Even the young, snooty [Necromancer] looked respectful.

“That would be their Village Head. Elosaith. He doesn’t have the class; each household is rather independent.”

“Excellent. Anything I should know, Normen? Anything else, rather?”

He scratched his helmet, then took it off to scratch at his regrowing hair.

“Uh. They’re all [Necromancers].”

“I know that.”

“No, they’re all [Necromancers], Miss Marquin. Better ones than you think. They were nervous about coming here; they’re used to privacy, but their home is gone, and they were hoping to continue mining the giant of bones. Ah—and Celum’s got Golems.”

“Lord Xitegen’s? How many?”

Jewel and Normen traded a look. It was an offhand question, but Jewel answered rather breathlessly.

“Er—at least two hundred? They’re tearing up the streets, rebuilding the walls—it’s insane.”

Dead gods, is nothing around here normal? Lyonette just glanced at them.

“We shall talk later, then. For now—Headman Elosaith! Welcome to The Wandering Inn! Has your trip been long? Welcome, welcome! Please, the inn is open, and we have hot food!”

She strode towards the man, Dalimont at her side, Ishkr, Peggy, and Rosencrantz following her in tight formation. Lyonette projected her voice and saw the old man wasn’t as frail as she thought. He looked maybe…late sixties? Seventies? White-haired, but without having gone bald. He wore what might either have been a more official set of travelling clothes or, depending on how you saw it, black robes, clearly padded for the winter.

For all that, Elosaith appeared somewhat normal; he had admittedly bright yellow eyes, but his face was refreshingly personable. His look of apprehension turned to a tentative smile as he limped towards her, and Lyonette saw the reason for Ama’s assistance.

Ah.

His left leg was made of bone. She saw a clawed foot pushing through the snow and hesitated. But Elosaith was walking with a black staff, and he bowed as soon as they got into earshot.

“Your Highness, it is an honor to be welcomed to your domain. Thank you for greeting us. As you say, I am Elosaith, Headman for Rheirgest—formerly Rheirgest. We throw ourselves on your hospitality, Your Grace.”

“Oh no—no, please don’t bow—”

Lyonette threw up her hands, embarrassed, giving Normen a look. Elosaith was ready to prostrate himself in the snow. He gave Lyonette a confused stare.

“But you are a [Princess]?”

“No—yes—only officially. I am just Lyonette, uh, acting [Innkeeper] for The Wandering Inn! Please don’t bow. On behalf of Erin Solstice, we welcome you! Do come in out of the cold!”

More of Rheirgest disembarked, and Lyonette saw a familiar girl clinging to her parent’s hands and staring wide-eyed at the inn in terror. Not just at the inn; the Goblins made her shrink back, yet Peggy was smiling desperately. Lyonette turned.

“Have you met my staff? This is Ishkr, my [Head Server], Peggy and Rosencrantz, our floor managers—don’t mind them! We are friendly to everyone here, from [Necromancers] to Goblins. The Antinium Wars were long ago, and I never met Az’kerash. Or the Goblin King! We were only attacked by a Goblin Lord once, and I assure you, it’s not that common, no matter what you hear.”

Her mouth was running riot. Lyonette wished someone hit her to shut her up. Mrsha and Nanette had come running out to meet Rheirgest’s people, and they slowed. Mrsha facepalmed instantly; Nanette gave Lyonette such a stare that the [Princess] added spitefully—

“—And here is our resident witch, Nanette. And my daughter, Mrsha.”

Oh pigeons in the Eternal Throne, she’d done it now. All of Rheirgest had begun to gather towards the inn, and they’d heard it. Lyonette squeezed her eyes shut. What had possessed her? She was normally good at being hospitable as a function of her class. Was it Erin’s influence, messing with her head? Was she going to be walking around pointing finger guns at everyone?

Please, no, I’d rather de-level! However, when she looked back—Normen was smiling for some reason, surprised, but smiling. And Elosaith?

He gave her a wide-eyed stare and then turned as what might have been his daughter walked over. A woman was strolling forwards, wand in hand, as four skeletons lugged over packed goods, and she stopped. The middle-aged woman, with a motherly smile, plump frame, a tied back bun and handkerchief in her hair and two boys spilling out after her, turned to Elosaith.

“Granddad’s bones, I was all worried for nothing, Father! Now that’s a proper introduction. Goblins, Antinium? And our own Bone Giant looming over yonder as if it’s ready to slaughter us all? This is the inn? There’s a ballista over yonder! Now that’s a proper evil inn. Could use more blood and gothic architecture, but I like it! Look at that smile!

She pointed at Calescent’s toothy grin with approval, and Lyonette’s mouth opened. Elosaith himself wore a huge smile as he bowed again to Lyonette.

“We were told you wouldn’t mind our peculiar ways, Your Highness. And that you didn’t mind the undead. I’m relieved to see Ser Normen wasn’t lying. It’s been too long, and we’ve been too sheltered, thinking no one would accept Rheirgest’s own, peculiar as we thought we were.”

He patted his chest, relieved, and Lyonette’s lips moved.

“Not at all. Let your hair down, Master Elosaith. I’m terribly sorry about the Liscorians—but come in, come in. We have hot food, and everyone is dying to meet you.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll reanimate the lot. Thank you!”

Then he was shaking her hand and then Ishkr’s, Peggy’s, Rosencrantz’s, and moving down the line of the inn’s staff, greeting each one. Elosaith seemed completely overjoyed at the welcome, and Rheirgest’s people actually let out a sigh of relief.

The woman came over with her two sons and a very nervous man, who bowed profusely. The wife did all the talking.

“How d’you do, Your Highness? Moire Holevec. My father is Elosaith Soulbound. Father, you didn’t even introduce yourself properly. I apologize for my lack of manners. We’re a small household. Here’s my boys, Reneid and Ichorum, and Lamast—he’s a Celumite, don’t you know. There’s only the four of us and six skeletons. We have a tribute if you want it, but Ser Normen said you’d refuse.”

“Delighted! Did you say Moire? Is that—is that your family name? And no, no tribute necessary, I insist. Thank you.”

Moire beamed at Lyonette.

“I wanted to keep it, but Lamast insisted we change it. I got to name Ichorum, though. I can’t let the old ways die. Thank you, thank you for your hospitality.”

Then she was moving on. And her husband nearly threw himself on his hands and knees in front of Lyonette—then another villager approached. As they moved down the line, Lyonette saw Elosaith shaking hands with the Cave Goblins.

“Elosaith, [Necromancer]. Are you a [Minion]?”

One of the Cave Goblins, Sticks, gave him an insulted look.

“No. Am Sticks. Is you?”

“My great great uncle was. Hello. Elosaith.”

“Asgra. Goblin Lord Reiss did nothing wrong. At beginning.”

The little Cave Goblin was determined to be a problem today. Lyonette gave Asgra a look of pure outrage. Elosaith? He paused, then shook her hand.

“Elosaith. Neither did Az’kerash. To begin with.”

He grinned with all his teeth, and Mrsha’s mouth dropped open as she held a paw out in line. Then Lyonette knew that she had some trouble coming her way.

 

——

 

“They can be subtle. And they wanted to be recluses—when we first came to the place they were supposed to settle, there wasn’t an undead in sight except the horses, and they had them covered up. They’re used to hiding whenever a [Trader] comes, saying little—I think your inn is one of the few places they feel comfortable being themselves.”

Twenty minutes later, Lyonette had a quick meeting with Normen and the Order of Solstice. The inn was full of cold, wet, tired villagers who were eating hot soup, dipping fresh bread into it, and walking about the inn.

Mrsha was being helpful there; she and Nanette were giving the villagers tours of what they deemed most important. Not the gardens; more like places Mrsha had personally fought off Face-Eater Moths or where Raskghar had attacked.

To give them credit, their audience was—well, they were people. They looked relieved to be out of the cold, they seemed worried about Liscor’s reception, but they were also [Necromancers].

Like Ama, they had quirks. And one of those quirks was a distinct pride in being, well, [Necromancers].

Lyonette realized she’d never seen that before. Pisces and Ama had always been snooty, but ashamed in some way, defiant against the world. Not casual about who they were.

“I see. I need to figure out how to deal with the necromancy aspect. I know they’re safe—and they were just going to set up temporary homes! Can’t we go back and just let them begin building their village?”

Durene was scowling hugely as she folded her arms. The half-Troll girl jerked her head back the way they’d come.

“If it were that easy, I’d have picked up some people and moved them so we could start, Miss Lyonette. They’re not attacking…but they made all the villagers nervous. They’re standing right where we need to build. The Watch is trying to move the crowds away, but they can’t. They said they’ll be there until Rheirgest leaves. ‘No [Necromancers] in Liscor’.”

Cursing, Lyonette wondered how much of this really was organic. Liscor had just suffered a huge attack on the Solstice; it wasn’t hard to imagine the regular citizens were just unhappy at the idea. Even so!

“Couldn’t Rheirgest just settle after they move on and, um—not show any undead visibly?”

The Grandmaster of the Order of Seasons visibly hesitated, which was not a good sign.

“They want to till their fields come spring, Lyonette. Or fish first, I suppose—it might be hard.”

She gave Normen a blank look, and he muttered.

“They till the fields with undead. Fish, too.”

“Aaaaaah. Alright. Then in that case—I need to have a word with Liscor’s Council. Dalimont? Get me a meeting.”

Lyonette massaged her brows. She should have anticipated this. She should have, but the gold had addled her brain a bit. At least they had wagons. She had an idea.

“Well, Hexel’s due to be back soon to begin work on the new inn. Maybe he can have the Antinium throw up a barn-type space? They can do it overnight. Otherwise, we’ll let anyone who wants to sleep inside, and food isn’t an issue until we sort out this protestor problem.”

Normen looked relieved.

“I wondered if the inn could afford that—”

“Oh, yes. Absolutely.”

Lyonette tried to keep amusement off her face. She glanced at Normen. Then looked around for Mrsha, Nanette, Sammial, or Hethon. They were introducing themselves to some of the new children, including the one that she recognized.

Rittane, a girl with dusky blonde hair in a ponytail, nervously bowed to Sammial. She had started all this by writing a letter to Santa. Lyonette whispered to Normen.

“—I have a task for you once you’re able, Normen. Something slightly pressing? For the Order of Solstice to handle.”

He blinked at her, but nodded.

“I can hear you out, Lyonette. If I may ask—can we rent rooms for everyone? Antherr has already gone to the Free Hive to visit his people, and Durene will head to Riverfarm. But Vess, Jewel, Ama, and myself…?”

She gave him such an outraged look he blinked.

“Normen, your room is just as you left it! Rent? Absolutely not—you have done a tremendous job. Rest! I’ll be in Liscor as soon as I have a meeting. Likely tomorrow.”

She pointed him towards the food tables and made it her goal to take the burden off him. People needed all sorts of things after such a trip. A way to wash their linens, to bathe, stretch out, warm themselves—it was good they had multiple fireplaces, but their small bathing area would get a workout. Lyonette wished she could send the Rheirgest villagers into Liscor, but she held back for a moment.

“Is Numbtongue here? We could use some entertainment.”

She halfheartedly asked one of the staff, but she knew he was never around these days. Instead, she saw several villagers glance up questioningly and called out with a smile.

“Rose? Don’t you have some music on your, uh, devices? Why don’t you put on the scrying orb or get some music going? Let’s have a party! We even have a cake for tonight.”

“We have food too, Your Majesty!”

“Please don’t with the titles!”

Lyonette waved a hand as a man called out, and Ser Dalimont nodded.

“It would be ‘Your Highness’, anyways, sir. Your Majesty refers to the sitting monarch, you see—Your Grace is also for a Duke. Princess is rather informal, so Your Highness—”

Groaning, Lyonette heard someone ringing a bell. Someone at the front door?

Because of the trapped hallway, they’d added a bell you could ring; you’d never hear a knock. She hurried down the hallway as noise spilled from the common room. At least Rheirgest’s folk seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“Hello, welcome to The Wandering Inn! Come in, come in—”

She opened the door, expecting to see a straggler from Rheirgest. Instead, the person who raised a hand, standing in the doorway, bow in hand, lifted their mandibles up in a smile.

“I am back!”

An Antinium stood in the doorway. Lyonette stared at the bright, silver bow in one hand. A slightly familiar voice? An ant-like head, a far slimmer, more bipedal design than Workers or Soldiers. Close to Xrn’s form, but off—four bright, jade-green translucent wings that fanned outwards.

“Bird?”

And there he was. Bird had returned. He stood in the doorway, different in form but the same as ev—Lyonette blinked. Bird lifted a hand and beamed at her.

“Hello, Lyonette. I am hungry. No, wait. I have returned! From the dead. I did not see Heaven, but I did see a lot of my own insides being grown. Which is not nearly as good. I have been sad and lonely, even with Xevccha to keep me company. But Klbkch was gone, so that was good.”

Bird began talking as, inside the inn, Mrsha’s ears caught his familiar name. She raced down the hallway in delight. His voice was higher than before, but she was beaming. She saw a figure in the doorway—

Then Lyonette closed the door. Bird’s voice was muffled.

“Hello? Now the door is closed. Lyonette? Lyonette, you must close the door after letting me in.”

Mrsha skidded to a stop. She stared up at her mother, and Lyonette’s mouth was open. She looked shocked. Mrsha was outraged.

“Hello? It is me, Bird. Am I being pranked upon? It is very cold out here. Why are there skeletons all over?”

Bird? Mrsha yanked the door open, wondering what had made Lyonette—

Bird was standing in the doorway. But not the familiar Worker she remembered. Instead of the Worker who sang songs and trundled around the inn, she saw a taller Antinium. Not too much taller, but like Klbkch, far more traditionally humanoid.

Bird had a yellow-green carapace, bright green wings—four that opened and closed behind them, unfolding from a pair of beetle-like elytra instead of the shell on their back. Mrsha’s little brother…

She stared up at only two arms. A compact body, a curve along the hips, long legs—a pair of breasts rising from the chest—as the Antinium smiled down at Mrsha with a distinctly feminine voice.

Bird smiled at Mrsha as he—they—she held her arms out.

“Hello, Mrsha. I am alive. Huggy?”

Mrsha slowly closed the door and stared up at Lyonette. The [Princess] pointed without a word. Mrsha lifted her paws up and down. Lyonette gestured at her chest—at the door—

“Hmm. This is very hurtful. Is it my new form? I thought it looked very nice. It has wings.”

The door opened slower, this time. Mrsha and Lyonette peeked at Bird.

It had to be Bird. No one else talked like that. The cadence was right. The voice was not. The body was definitely not what they remembered. Neither was the bow. It took Lyonette a second to realize she had seen it; it was the new one he had been awarded.

It was the same color as Klbkch’s swords. The same material, even. It looked like someone had forged the bow from metal. Or…something like metal? If you had a beetle made out of silver chitin and turned that into a bow—

It was beautiful. It wasn’t a long curve, but one of those fancier designs. A recurve? Lyonette’s mind was more focused on the rest of Bird.

“Bird? Is that you?”

“Yes, this is me. I am Bird.”

The Antinium sounded overly-patient as she took her bow off her back to lean on it. She clacked her mandibles together.

“I see. You are seeing if I am some cunning imposter. Very smart. Well, I can prove I am Bird. There is a slightly wormy bird carcass under the left floorboard next to my bed. Mrsha, you once turned yourself orange and tried to make yourself look like a tiger to scare Joseph.”

Mrsha’s mouth fell open. That was a secret! Lyonette glanced at her.

“You said that was one of Octavia’s experiments gone—a wormy—

Definitely Bird. After Lyonette had finished gagging, she decided there was nothing for it.

“Bird. That is you. What happened to you?”

“I asked for a new body.”

Bird replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which Lyonette supposed it was. Bird had died during the Solstice. Then come back. She had even expected some changes, but more in line with Yellow Splatters.

“Yes, but—this?”

At last, Bird seemed to understand their problem and glanced down at her body.

“Am I too tall? Is it my legs? I told the Free Queen I did not want toes. I am not a sock person. Is it my two arms? She said that giving me two arms was more optimal for the new muscles. I wanted six.”

Self-consciously, she indicated her custom Antinium-designed boots, and Lyonette exploded.

Your chest, Bird. Why do you have breasts?

By now, Nanette had arrived, and she was blinking at Bird. Liska popped her head out of the [Portal Door] room.

“Hey, can you keep it down? They’re still shouting, and I—hah.”

She stared at Bird. Bird poked at her breasts.

“Ah. Yes. The Free Queen was unsure of what they should be for. So she turned them into energy reserves. I wanted them to spray poison, but it was too much work.”

“Why do you have them?”

Bird spread her arms wide happily.

“I wanted to be female. The Free Queen said that gender was a silly concept. We were based on Galuc the Builder, who occupied a greater degree of shaping based on non-Queen genetic material. I didn’t know what that meant. So I asked to be female, and she said she would try out her newest techniques and damn whatever the Grand Queen said.”

It was the most Bird answer ever. Lyonette didn’t have a headache. She had the opposite of a headache. She had a head-empty. The entire world was unimportant; she had to get past this mental block before she could get on with her day.

“Yes. But why…”

Rose, Ishkr, and even Calescent and Normen had all come crowding to welcome Bird back. They were all staring. Bird answered Lyonette happily.

“So I could see what it was like. You are female. Mrsha is female. Erin is female. I wanted to see if it made me different. So far, I do not feel very different for being female. Except for my body, which is very nice. People are very admiring of it. Or terrified since they think I am a new Centenium.”

With that, she decided she was cold and stepped into the inn, stomping her boots and looking around.

“Oh, the inn did not blow up. This is slightly disappointing to me since I would have liked a new inn to go along with my new body, but at least my ballista is still here. So Erin is alive.”

Then she spotted Nanette and spread her arms.

“Hello, Nanette. Are you going to be extremely odd instead of hugging me? Am I not the same Bird you remember?”

Nanette smiled and instantly hugged the taller Antinium. Bird gently squeezed back. The witch replied thoughtfully, looking up at her.

“You’re the same Bird, Bird. But you are changed, in looks if nothing else. You might change more.”

Bird nodded gravely, her emerald wings fanning slightly, and one of her arms touched the bow at her back.

“This may be true, Nanette. But I made up my mind before the Solstice, and I must change. If nothing else, so I can shoot that strange person with too many bodies. Now. Where is my welcome cake?”

She trundled forwards a few steps in that old rolling cadence, then stopped and twisted her waist around, which made the other Antinium stare. None of them could do that!

“…I do have a cake, do I not? Because if I don’t, I may go back to Xevccha instead. I must have standards. Also, where is Numbtongue?”

She looked around expectantly, then waved at Normen. Rose began choking on her own saliva.

Then the welcome party really began.

 

——

 

Rheirgest brought out their own food after the drinks started coming out. The drinks appeared because Lyonette needed one. She was wrapping her head around Bird’s new body. He had wings.

She had wings!

Lyonette almost took a bite of something Elosaith handed her and then stopped.

“Er. What is this?”

“A Rheirgest specialty, Your Highness! A Shepherd Pie!”

You mean Shepherd’s Pie, right? Then Lyonette stared down and realized Rheirgest cooked like they lived.

Like [Necromancers].

It was the most unappetizing collection of long-dried, dead herbs like thyme and rosemary mixed with shriveled Yellats and all-too-bloody meat. Half the ingredients were dead. The other half were rare, if cooked; Lyonette felt the steam rising from the pie and realized she had to take a bite.

It was going to be disgusting. It was the same stuff regular Shepherd’s Pies had, but the peas were beyond wizened. She smiled weakly.

“I am delighted to partake. But I assure you, Calescent has meals well in hand.”

They ate this and they weren’t dead? She reached for a fork—and Elosaith gave her a look of horror.

“One second, Your Highness! It’s not done! Animus—now it’s ready for consumption.”

He waved a hand over the pie, and the ingredients changed. The peas, long dead and frozen, suddenly grew brighter—not bright green, but that off-green. A paler shade that Lyonette had learned to associate with—

Undeath. She recoiled a second, then saw the spices, the plants, everything but the meat change. She stared at Elosaith. Then the pie.

Did he just animate her meal? Was this—undead food?

What on earth was that? Did you just make a zombie pie?

Mrsha the Apprehensive stared at the pie. Then at Elosaith. He smiled proudly as he explained.

“Just a bit of Rheirgest cooking. It’s not an undead, don’t you worry, Miss. Death magic can go into rock and plant just as well as bodies. It doesn’t work the same. If there’s such a thing as an undead carrot, well, it doesn’t obey my orders. This is what we call ‘reanimated ingredients’.”

That made Lyonette breathe a bit easier. She saw more dishes being brought out, all with the same theme. She gingerly raised a fork to her mouth, and Ushar offered to do a taste test for her. For the first time in her life, Lyonette was tempted, but she had to show she was a good host, so she gingerly took a bite.

‘Reanimated food’ was an oddity. For one thing, the dead vegetables didn’t magically regain their texture or crispness. The Shepherd Pie definitely relied on the actual fresh ingredients like the potato and meat to keep it from being horribly mushy. However, there was a quality to reanimated food that was familiar.

What did a zombie have that a regular person did not? Well, aside from being a mindless killing machine…it was slower, yet simultaneously often stronger than it had been in life. As if you had shifted the nature of the body around.

Similarly, reanimated food took on the same properties. It was like a single flavor was ultra-concentrated. In this case, well, the essence of thyme. That blended, faintly aromatic, clove-like taste was now distinct and strong.

The peas were extra pea-tasting. It was like someone had taken a half-brick of flavor and hit Lyonette in the mouth. Her eyes widened, and she chewed…swallowed, and coughed.

“That’s—quite a fascinating mouthful!”

Not the worst in the world! Not the best. Instantly, all the Goblins and Antinium wanted a try, and Elosaith beamed at Lyonette. He turned and offered the pie to someone else.

“I’m delighted you find it interesting, Your Highness. I imagine it’s nothing like what the inn produces, but we’d be honored if you tried as well, Lady Lischelle!”

He was speaking to none other than white-haired woman with a very amused look on her face and who was being fawned over as much as, if not more than, Lyonette.

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle had come by, as she often did these days, to see what was going on. Even Valeterisa had returned, windblown and tired, and she was sitting and staring at all the [Necromancers], clearly wondering what was going on.

But Rheirgest almost ignored the Archmage of Izril in favor of a real celebrity. Colfa tried a bite of the pie.

“Dead gods, the flavors are strong. You could do something fascinating with that…”

“Shame you can’t animate salt, eh? I’m pleased to offer it to you, Lady Lischelle, and I’m truly sorry about the disturbance to your farm.”

Colfa waved a dignified hand, and she shot Lyonette a glance as her voice grew a touch heated.

“I apologize for their incivility, Master Elosaith. Rest assured, we will find a solution. And I am hardly ze Lischelle. Just a girl who married into the Drakle family, you see?”

She gave them a hint of a pointed smile, but it seemed her other family was still impressive. Elosaith’s daughter half-bowed to Colfa.

“A real Lischelle. Is it true one of your headwomen once slapped a charging bull aside?”

“True. But the story and the bull grows with each telling. Come, come, let’s not tell stories until we’ve had a drink—and some merriment! Is there no singing to be had? No welcome songs?”

Colfa gave Lyonette a half-surprised look, and Lyonette realized that must be customary. She began to apologize for Numbtongue’s absence when one of the Rheirgest villagers snapped his fingers.

Rittane’s father, Dorkel, bowed to Colfa and brought out an old fiddle as he placed a worn sack on the ground. But he just shook his head sadly.

“My late, great aunt was the last person to play a fiddle well, Miss Colfa.”

Mrsha reached for the fiddle, and Colfa stopped her with one leg. She gave Dorkel an expectant look, and his eyes twinkled.

“—Thankfully, I brought her with me.”

Then the [Necromancer] snapped his fingers, and a figure arose from the bag. The skeleton stepped upwards, took the fiddle, and Rittane added a bowler hat with a long-dead flower embedded in it.

Lyonette was tired of doing the open-mouthed thing after Bird. So she just sat there, eyes wide, as the skeleton took a seat—and began to play.

Instantly, people around the fiddler began to clap and stomp, and after a moment, Dorkel looked at Colfa.

“Any songs you’d like to hear, Lady Lischelle?”

Colfa was as startled as Lyonette, but she covered it well.

“Can—your late aunt do any song? How about Down Out of Ogre County?

“She knows that!”

The skeleton obligingly set up a hair-raising high note, and someone began to sing—it was a song about escaping the territory of Ogres with nothing more than a haversack filled with sticks.

Country music. Lyonette had thought she’d encountered that in the few villages and places she’d been. But the sight of Colfa instantly joining in with a group of [Singer] villagers and someone pulling out some equally-worn drums immediately had a party atmosphere going.

Numbtongue is going to hate missing this.

Even so, the sight of a skeleton playing the fiddle made Lyonette think Pisces would be astonished to see this. Certainly, Ama was!

“I’ve never seen a skeleton able to play an instrument, sir!”

She was speaking to Dorkel, and he gave the old skeleton a fond look.

“Not many can do it. If it weren’t my great aunt, I couldn’t just click my fingers and have any ordinary bag of bones do that. It’s down to Skills, too. [Corpse: Remembered Activity]. [Binding: Quickivory Bones]. She always did say she’d play better dead than alive.”

Lyonette had never heard of those Skills, and her family had a record of all Skills and spells that Calanfer knew of. But then again, they hadn’t known many [Necromancers]—indeed, she saw another skeleton hauling water in from the well.

Dead. Gods. Lyonette shrank back from that one, trying to seem fine with them, but she remembered Toren’s purple-eyed stare; none of these skeletons did more than avoid her, and they were not intelligent like he was. It was obvious. Nevertheless…she edged away from the villagers singing and taking drinks from a platter and towards what was familiarly unfamiliar.

Bird.

Lyonette had to get back to Bird. Thankfully, someone had initiated the conversation to figure out Bird’s change in more than just appearance.

Rose looked very serious as she stood there, offering Bird a drink, which the Antinium accepted. Bird sipped through a straw as Rose took a deep breath.

“Let me know if I’m being pushy or anything, Bird. I just want to get things straight so I can be respectful and understand what’s going on, okay?”

“I will let you know if you are being hurtful, stranger.”

“…Rose. I’m Rose. Remember, Bird?”

“Ah, Rose! Hello, Rose, whom I definitely remember! When did you get here?”

“Earlier this month—nevermind.”

Rose sighed as Valeterisa floated over the heads of the villagers and tried to inspect the fiddler skeleton. It went still as she put a finger on its head, and people shouted at Valeterisa for silencing the music, so she flew off to harass a different skeleton instead.

People were arriving at the inn. Not all the guests; Menolit took one look inside, blanched at the skeletons, and backed out. Relc just strode into the inn, stared at the undead, then saw there were free drinks and made a quick choice. When he noticed Bird, he walked into a table and fell over it.

Lyonette was waving at Valeterisa, who floated over so she could accept a bag of holding from her.

“Valeterisa, this has more gold for your little project—”

“Gold? More gold? As in free gold?”

The Archmage of Izril gave Lyonette a very sharp, very suspicious look; Lyonette gave her a bland smile.

“Well, I do hope you’ll consider my daughters once your academy is running. Have you located a good spot?”

Valeterisa frowned as she poured gold into her own bag of holding.

“I am to discuss this with Grimalkin and my other associates later. I see. Your bribe has been registered, Miss Lyonette. Thank you—”

More people were coming into the inn by now, and Lyonette saw her second sponsored project manager among them.

“Hey, when people throw things and shout ‘get lost’, they normally just mean me. Where’re the [Necromancers]? Are we getting free gold? Give!

Saliss of Lights made a beeline for Lyonette as well, and she gave him a happy smile as she signaled Ishkr to get another bag of gold out. Saliss had even brought his friend, Mirn, who already had a mug of ale.

“Saliss! How does Liscor look?”

“I only got a little peek—they really hate some weird [Necromancers] who just showed up. I’d hate to have to deal with that as a problem. Thank you. This is mine. See what happens when you ask nicely, Mirn?”

The other Drake stared at the gold Saliss had just been given, then nodded to Lyonette. But both were looking around, and Saliss paused, and his eyes narrowed as he spotted Bird.

“There’s our Rose. Who’s the new Antinium?”

He strolled over, and Lyonette called out.

“That’s Bird.”

Saliss tripped. Mirn choked on his beer, and Saliss faceplanted onto the floor. His feet kept moving; he slowly kicked forwards, staring at Bird as the Antinium glanced down.

“Oh, hello, Saliss. As I was saying, Rose, I am me. Bird. What is there to get?”

Rose was giving Saliss the side-eye, and she raised her voice.

“Yes, but I—I’m all in support! I just wanted to know…so, did you always know or feel you were female inside, Bird?”

“No.”

Rose faltered.

“But you asked for a different body.”

“I am Bird. I was male. Now I am not.”

“But—did you—what I’m asking is, were you uncomfortable in your previous form?”

Bird considered the question.

“I was not overly so unless I sat on something unpleasant, but I did not have wings, and so in hindsight, I was always uncomfortable. Saliss, are you okay?”

The Drake lay there, staring at Bird with wide eyes. He blinked, jerked upright as he noticed Lyonette staring, then rose with a huge smile.

“Bird! Hi! Hello! I was just trying to remember who you were.”

“This is all very hurtful. This must be hurt-Bird day, not welcome-Bird-back-from-being-dead day.”

Bird turned back to Rose, who was rubbing at her head.

“So you really…just did it on a whim?”

“Not a whim.”

Bird sounded indignant as she raised a finger. She gestured at her body.

“I wanted to know what it was like. Would you not do the same if you could?”

Rose opened her mouth, hesitating as her eyes swung around to Saliss.

“I…it seems like such a big change.”

Bird shrugged, unconcerned.

“If it was easy, it would be very fun, or so I think.”

Bird seemed to feel this closed the conversation and took another sip from her drink. Rose half-nodded at that. She looked at Bird with a strange mixture of emotions in her eyes, but Bird just turned.

“Oh, hello, Saliss. Why are you still staring at me?”

The Drake gave Bird a huge grin.

“Just staring at the inn’s newest lady and wondering how to prank her. Don’t you feel poor Numbtongue is going to get outnumbered? Say, can the Antinium do this with anyone?”

Bird scratched at her head; she still had two antennae. She shrugged.

“No. The Free Queen said that it was expensive and required too much of her time. It was only for me. Not even other Antinium got new bodies, let alone the Rite of Anastases. Which means I am special. Ha. Hahahaha!

She threw back her head and laughed hugely. Then stopped.

“Silvermop is dead. I am incredibly sad.”

Bird went back to sipping from her drink. After a moment, Mirn towed Saliss to the side.

“Excuse Saliss. Don’t you have an apprentice to get to?”

 

——

 

Even Octavia came out of her shop to meet Bird. In the midst of that, Lyonette kept running into skeletons who were helping the inn’s staff do mundane chores. It was good, especially since there was such a huge crowd, and some of the staff were still helping Yelroan with the gold—but every time, Lyonette froze or jumped out of the way, and the villagers noticed.

“We aren’t—bothering you after all are we, Miss Lyonette?”

Rittane’s mother, Leiithe, was apparently one of the stronger [Necromancers] in the village. When she’d been told about the [Field of Preservation] they could access, she had hauled in a lot of perishables with a team of big skeletons, but she saw Lyonette’s pale face.

The [Princess] quickly tried to clarify her nerves.

“Not at all, Miss Leiithe. I just—I have a thing about skeletons, specifically. A bad incident with one.”

That, of course, required clarifications. Leiithe looked worried, doubtless expecting a rogue skeleton had nearly killed Lyonette. But when she heard about Toren—she had the most horrified look on her face.

“Do you mean to say you and Innkeeper Erin Solstice had a—a rogue sentient undead just wandering around, performing tasks? Without the [Necromancer] himself present? And he never gave anyone a Writ of Sealing? No death-word?”

“A what?”

One glance of horror from everyone in earshot said it all. Leiithe spoke slowly.

“A death-word. Something you use to destroy a skeleton should the worst come to it. Undo their magical bindings. Alacask.

Instantly, one of the skeletons walking past her lost the magical glow in its eye sockets. Its bones dropped, and Leiithe pointed. Lyonette’s mouth opened.

“Pisces never did that.”

“A Writ of Sealing, then. Ama, you said you trained with him. He uses them, doesn’t he?”

The [Knight-Artisan of Bones] instantly developed a shifty look as all eyes turned towards her.

“Pisces? Yes, of course. Definitely…Sillias has one…of Sealing. Written down in his bones. Absolutely.”

Her bluff failed. The villagers stared at her. Then someone got up.

“That cat’s outside. Deconstruct it now—

“Waitwaitwaitwait—what’s a Writ of Sealing?”

Ama leapt to her feet, and Leiithe strode over to the skeleton she’d de-animated. She flipped up the skeleton’s skull along a thin incision, revealing…a neatly wrapped scroll of green velum with a purple bow on it.

“Rules. Things it cannot do. You can issue the commands verbally and clarify and give new orders, but these are inviolable rules. This skeleton cannot do battle; that’s why I trust it around Rittane. I’d never just let one walk around without being able to see the command rules. And your skeleton had…?”

She turned to Lyonette, and the [Princess]’ look of outrage was all over her face. Leiithe shuddered.

“Untrained [Necromancers]! I know he’s a Gold-rank adventurer, but maybe someone should have a word with Pisces Jealnet? You can do without, but anything I raised longer than a day, I’d want some protections on. It’d be like having a wild dog about. Maybe safe, but I wouldn’t risk it!”

Her husband nodded seriously.

“I thought they kept some basics of necromancy, even in Terandria. Any basic spellbook would have some version of this. Which school of undeath was he using?”

All eyes turned to Ama again, and the [Necromancer] swallowed.

“I, uh—I think Pisces was self-taught. Like the rest of us. We had two older [Necromancers] who shared what they knew, but no one had a spellbook.”

“Polish my bones.”

Leiithe breathed in horror. Lyonette saw every eye turn to her, and then everyone was introducing their personal skeleton and showing her their Writs of Sealing. It made her feel a lot better, actually.

 

——

 

They were honest people, Lyonette realized. Honest. And desperate.

Everyone was laughing and smiling as they ate food, from little Rittane and the few dozen children to the adults. But the smiles weren’t…they weren’t forced, but they were conditional.

They would disappear when someone stared out the window at the snow, glanced at a hole in the tarp of their wagons, or eyed the staff or Lyonette furtively.

As if expecting one of them would draw a sword and shout ‘[Necromancer]’!

It wasn’t an unwarranted fear. That was why they had rushed to assure Lyonette their undead were safe. She realized she had a lot of this trust on credit from Normen.

They adored him. Rittane clung to his leg at first, and her parents stood with Normen as he assured them—again—Liscor was safe.

“The Watch is very fair. I can swear that on my hat—helmet. They’re not the sorts to haul someone off because a [Mayor] tells them to.”

“But necromancy is illegal? Perhaps we should have found somewhere else.”

Leiithe’s voice was strained with nerves, at odds with the proudness with which she showed off her undead to Lyonette. She had travelling robes on; they seemed to be ancient, well-tended, and maintained robes that might have fit some long-gone [Necromancer] of old—adapted with fur and wool to be far more homey.

That was it, Lyonette saw. Pride. Like Colfa, who treated them like equals. It was in a bone-white shawl a grandmother wore around her neck as a skeleton helped her walk. A flash in Elosaith’s eyes as he spoke.

“We wouldn’t be welcome anywhere, Leiithe. Nor can we go…anywhere. We had to follow the Giant of Rheirgest. If we are not welcome…”

The if hung in the air, and Elosaith glanced around.

“…We may need to split the village. At least, until our reputation doesn’t follow us.”

“We have done nothing wrong. If they attack us, what then, Elosaith?”

Dorkel, Rittane’s father, spoke softly, and the villagers nodded at that. Some of the undead around them seemed to shiver, and Lyonette did accordingly.

“No one will attack your village. I swear that on the Order of Solstice, and Miss Lyonette will make sure you have a place to settle.”

Normen dispelled the strangeness in the air with a word, and they looked at him, relieved. Lyonette strode forwards, smiling, and added her voice to the assurances.

“Absolutely! And I thank you for your patience, Master Elosaith, villagers of Rheirgest.”

They relaxed, and a vision of furious [Necromancers] defending themselves—what fools Celum or another town might have been if they attacked them. What fools Liscorians might be for doing the same. They’d get their [Necromancers], alright.

It said something that Rheirgest had chosen to starve before doing something far darker; that which everyone thought of them. Elosaith turned, and Leiithe bowed deeply.

“Thank you, Your Highness. I—we—would have offered you something far better if we’d had the time. A dress, perhaps. Something properly regal. Bone white cloth and midnight black.”

“Ooh, that would have been lovely, if only we had some cotton. Something in Noelictus’ grand style?”

Lyonette tried to keep smiling, but their fashion sense was another thing entirely. Colfa’s eyes lit up, but Lyonette just remembered Noelictus, which loved the positively austere clothing, as if you were attending a wake. Rheirgest wanted her to dress like some evil [Queen]?

No accounting for taste. Yet she took Leiithe’s hand, and the woman had soft fingers. Lyonette smiled.

“I assure you, I will do everything in my power to help Rheirgest.”

“Then we shall do everything to return our debt, Miss Lyonette. If there is anything you need? Anything?”

They looked so eager, but Lyonette assured them, rather hurriedly, that she and the inn were fine. She wanted them to keep from alarming Liscorians any further at the moment. But she did wonder what Rheirgest could do. Undead. Lots of undead…

…But she had people waiting the tables. Lyonette shook her head. Feed them first. They were hungry from the road and this long winter. She wished she didn’t hear Dorkel murmuring to Elosaith in the background.

“If we do find a home here, all the death magic in the land will make farming a breeze. I swear, I’ve seen battlefields with less. It makes you want to raise something interesting.

What did [Necromancers] find interesting? Oh dear. Oh dear indeed.

 

——

 

By the afternoon, Rheirgest’s people were fed, sitting around, or visiting Liscor in careful ones and twos, without any skeletons, and Lyonette was happier.

The inn was full again. True, full of [Necromancers], but more guests had appeared, and it had that familiar feel. Like it was alive.

Not just that. Things were happening in the background. If Lyonette turned her head, she could see Saliss, Mirn, and Rose arguing in one corner of the inn over what looked like blueprints.

Blueprints were the theme of today. Lyonette was expecting Hexel, and she hoped he’d be able to get Rheirgest some help with their village. They were ready to go, but as Elosaith had told Lyonette, they still needed that cleared space.

“And some supplies. We have ivory from home, and we could mine more, but not enough for more than one or two buildings. I’m told we need to move fast for spring.”

Lyonette had assured him Hexel would be able to spare some time, and she had the thought that the Antinium could help too. A thousand of them could do anything. They’d moved the inn across the Floodplains with less, and you could still see where the inn had used to be: a huge, flat area of ground where they’d created massive fortifications in a day or two.

On the other side of the inn, though, were more guests that made Lyonette smile happily and signal Calescent. She saw him bring over a plate of complimentary fries loaded with cheese and condiments, and someone absently took a fry and missed her face.

The Archmage of Izril was in the air at one of the dining tables. She was floating over geography—half a mountain to be precise. An illusion spell was rising from the table, and Mrsha, Nanette, and the other children were staring at it in awe as the Archmage flew around it.

The miniature mountain was four feet tall, craggy until it met some grasslands, and the ground sloped up at increasingly alarming gradients until nigh-impassible cliffs terminated midway up the mountain at the level of miniature clouds.

The fact that this was half a mountain and the projection didn’t even show the rest of the geography told Lyonette how huge this one mountain was. Valeterisa was, at this moment, placing glowing markers in the mountain and tracing lines of multi-colored light that ran through it.

“Natural earth magic leyline here. And I believe the natural magicore vein here intersects beautifully at—”

She was running rapid, excited commentary to someone who interrupted.

“A chasm.”

Grimalkin was moving his clawed hand through the mountain itself, peeling back the illusion to expose caves and interior geography. At a certain point, the details vanished and the illusion became smooth, grey stone. Valeterisa peered at the ravine and tentatively stuck a glowing pin at the bottom.

“Those can be filled in. No, wait, we’d just have to, um, change the geography. If we remove all the rock here and here….then I suppose you need a drainage site in case of waterflow…”

She had placed a suspiciously Wistram-shaped academy at the bottom of the chasm where the lines of magic met.

It seemed…slightly unsound to Lyonette, as a layperson, to place a magical institution of learning there. Someone else clearly agreed.

A third hand plucked the glowing pin out of the chasm. Hedault stowed the pin, and Valeterisa stopped.

“Ah, well, how about this spot?”

The [Mages] traced another strand of power, arguing the entire time. But in an engaged way. Grimalkin was stabbing a claw at another site, and Salamani emerged from the kitchen with salsa and chips for all.

The Mage Runner himself had arrived. He brought the chips and salsa over, and instantly, a horse stuck her muzzle into the bowl of chips. Salamani stared at Ci, and the horse snorted at him—he went over to the fries instead.

Yet another [Mage] leaned over the table, speaking in a low voice. Viceria brushed at her hair as she frowned at the leylines of power.

“I just don’t see why we’re dead set on being on a leyline. Can’t we route the power around? I studied that in my class on magical architecture. Place a reservoir here and add a router here—”

“Good doctrine from my studies states that securing a leyline should be the paramount objective, Magus Viceria.”

Grimalkin’s voice was authoritative, and his set expression instantly made Valeterisa place a pin at another spot around the ‘earth leyline’; a glowing, brown line running through the mountain.

However, Viceria smiled calmly and politely, as if she were speaking to her husband.

Wailant, incidentally, was sitting with Relc, neither of whom wanted to take part in the magical discussion. They were treating Vok, a new Gnoll, to a beer, and Lyonette had already introduced herself. She had wondered why he gave her a look as if she were a Mothbear. Probably just Relc exaggerating things.

Viceria retorted back at Grimalkin with a reasonable but straightforward tone.

“Drake doctrine is based around controlling a resource in the expectation another Drake will want it, Magus. Since this is the High Passes, I suggest that might not be our principal issue, especially if another venue can be more defensible? At least, more convenient.”

Amazingly, Grimalkin flushed, and after a moment of hesitation, the Sinew Magus ducked his head.

“I cede the point, Magus Viceria.”

“Grimalkin, please. Let’s all be more informal. And I do think we should inspect these sites in person for the actual vibe of the place. Flying over it and magically mapping spots is well done on Valeterisa’s side, but there is something to be said for seeing where we’ll build before we commit.”

More nods. Hedault sighed as he removed his spectacles and pinched at his nose.

“Driving a proper foundation into the earth will require the right techniques and material. I almost wish I hadn’t been told about the nature of Lifewood; it would have made for a perfect material. Building the initial site will have to be done by familiar, Golem, or by spell. I doubt any mundane workers could reach these locations, even Antinium.”

“We could hire some anyways? Antinium put up Liscor’s new district, and it blew my mind when I saw it.”

Salamani suggested, and even Grimalkin hesitated, but Valeterisa absently shook her head.

“That is not feasible at this moment, Salamani. Familiar spells it is. Do you all know them? I’ll teach them to you. We could rent a Golem or two, but magic is probably the simplest.”

Salamani rolled his eyes.

“Says the Archmage.”

“Yes.”

What did she mean about Antinium not being feasible? Maybe she just meant working with all the complex things this academy of magic would need. Lyonette saw the door open and two people come in. The first was Ser Dalimont, who had several stains on his armor. He grimaced, but made a beeline towards her.

“They were throwing mud at me as I believe they recognized me, Lyonette. I’m happy to say they didn’t notice Rheirgest’s people, but it’s only a matter of time. Liscor’s Council is aware of the problem, and they will hear you tomorrow as early as they can. I also suggest reaching out to Invrisil and the Merchant’s Guild there.”

“Thank you, Dalimont. Why those two groups?”

He gave her a serious look.

“—Because Liska just informed me there is a ban on [Necromancers] in Invrisil, and the Merchant’s Guild has disavowed working with them, including lending money to Rheirgest. Word is spreading.”

When he saw Lyonette’s eyes spark, Dalimont spoke urgently.

“I don’t think Miss Shivertail had anything to do with it. Gossip is like a wildfire; I have petitioned both for meetings.”

“I will…speak to them. Thank you.”

Lyonette forced her ire down. She knew the villagers were getting increasingly worried about their stay in Liscor. What was Magnolia doing in Invrisil?

Was she even in Invrisil these days? Demsleth and that other one, Taletevirion, were around. In fact, the latter had shown up, and Peggy ran over.

“That stupid, silver-haired half-Elf drank another barrel, Lyonette!”

“Charge him for it and cut him off—Mister Taletevirion?

He was already half out the door, and chase after him as she might, Peggy was too slow. Lyonette sighed—then brightened up as someone entered the inn.

“Architect Hexel! Dalimont, get a private room.”

 

——

 

Some good news at last. Lyonette ushered him into the room and offered Hexel an early dinner, beaming, but the Lamia wore an uncharacteristically grave expression today.

“Thank you for waiting, Lyonette. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

“What? What kind?”

Lyonette’s heart sank. The Lamia sat there, sighing, and didn’t beat around the bush.

“I have two major issues. It never occurred to me this could happen, but—well, let’s start with what I predicted. Beginning your inn’s construction may take longer than I thought. The issue is material. Specifically, non-Izrilian material.

He held up a clawed hand as Lyonette opened her mouth.

“No matter how I do it, I need supplies from overseas. The glue I mentioned? I can’t source all of what I want locally. From glass to the right quality copper in bulk; I can try to get Pelt to do all my smithing, for instance, or Dwarfhalls Rest, but invariably, it’s cheaper to actually ship from overseas.”

“Of course, Architect. Supply and demand locally can be precarious. What’s the issue?”

He gave her a long look.

“The sea. As you may recall, the greatest naval war in decades just took place at sea, and Admiral Seagrass, the lead supplier for most of the world, is now a disgraced renegade. Shipping of anything, let alone exclusive goods, will take months instead of weeks. I can pay for faster, exclusive Courier deliveries, but even Couriers are overbooked.”

Lyonette’s heart sank, but her chin rose.

“I can look into perhaps striking a deal with some [Captains] of good repute, Hexel. Just give me a lead, and I will do it at once!”

His brows rose.

“The cost might be high—”

Lyonette almost laughed.

“The cost is one we can bear, Hexel. Dalimont? Put out inquiries.”

Hexel breathed easier when she said that, and Lyonette added it to her growing pile of concerns. The Lamia looked even more regretful at this next part, though.

“The second issue is completely on me. Mea culpa, I believe they say. It’s…well, it’s embarrassing, but I cannot shift my workers onto new projects, Lyonette. They’re occupied with a lot of Liscorian projects while I can manage with your inn! But that means I just need new laborers to do the job.”

“More Antinium? It’s fine if they’re not as experienced, Hexel.”

He twisted around unhappily.

“Yes, I think so too. Antinium are ideal. They communicate splendidly, they have tremendous work effort, and for the first stage of the project, their digging abilities are crucial. Which is why I instantly went to the Free Hive to hire as many as a thousand. I was told they had…four…they could send me.”

“Huh? That’s impossible. There are always more Antinium.”

Lyonette just blinked at Hexel. He gave her a wretched look.

“That’s what I thought. But it appears that between 3rd District, my projects, and the fact that they’re working in the Watch, as [Cleaners], taking care of the city’s tasks, enlisting in the army—if you can get me even a hundred, I can begin Bird’s tower. But I was told flat out the Antinium are overbooked.”

Antinium. Overbooked. What a time to be alive. Lyonette forced a smile onto her face. She assured Hexel she’d do her best, then got up.

She had a [Druid] to see.

 

——

 

Shassa Weaverweb kept her presentation short. She showed the parents a collage of things their children had done, from shooting at targets to making their own hats out of leather to learning spells. She pointed out their grades, which were fairly simple—Oteslia more measured whether a student was acceptably learning things than exactly how well they’d done.

“—And I hope you can support and participate in Liscor’s school, which I believe should open next year with the backing of the Council.”

Everyone applauded, and Lyonette shifted on her seat. It wasn’t the most comfortable, as it was a children’s chair, and the ‘classroom’ was a converted warehouse.

But Mrsha had come back bubbling with excitement some days and had not been lounging around, bored. Frankly, Lyonette had hoped Nanette might be able to get classes here when they were offered for older children.

Instead, Shassa was leaving. Ekirra’s own mother raised a nervous paw.

“Miss Weaverweb, are you sure you must go? This is Ekirra’s favorite class—this school, I mean. He went to Pallass for a bit, but he was too lonely, and he said it was boring.”

“I’m delighted to hear that, Miss Silverfang.”

Shassa was an energetic young [Druid] with a spider motif—she brushed at her cobweb robes as she bowed to Ekirra’s mother. But she held up a claw.

“I’m afraid I was only here on loan from Oteslia. I do have a city to get back to—”

She smiled apologetically. She was a [Druid]. She had a home. Lyonette knew what that was like, but she wondered how long it would be until a proper school was built and funded.

“Can’t we ask you to stay? Just for the spring? The children will be cooped up even if they can run around in other cities thanks to the door.”

Visma’s own mother pleaded with Shassa; the [Painter] looked apprehensive at the thought of her daughter without anything to occupy her.

“Otherwise, I might have to take her on the job with me as an apprentice! Ancestors!”

Everyone chuckled, but Shassa was adamant. Lyonette didn’t even try; she just stood up and shook the Drake’s claw.

“Will you be going right away, Druid Weaverweb?”

“This is my last week, Miss Lyonette. But rest assured, your daughter is an intelligent, slightly precocious girl full of talent!”

Lyonette searched Shassa’s gaze; she seemed honest and genuine.

“You don’t have problems with her creating chaos? Leading gangs? Threatening people with hot sandwiches?”

Shassa gave Lyonette a puzzled glance.

“Oh, she gets up to mischief sometimes. But I do have a [Teacher] class along with my [Druid] one, and I’m good with children.”

“She doesn’t run off and lead small armies against…sewer rats?”

Shassa decided Lyonette was joking.

“Not once, Miss Lyonette. She’s a very good girl and loves her friends. I am sorry to be going, but you understand, Oteslia is my home. Liscor is wonderful, but—Miss Lyonette? Will you let go of my hand? Miss Lyonette…?”

 

——

 

Begging the [Druid] didn’t work. After Ushar and Dalimont had wrestled her away from the parent-teacher meeting, Lyonette returned to the inn and saw the first signs that she might have a problem.

…Aside from the problems with building the inn. Aside from the issues with Rheirgest, of course. And aside from the damn wand.

She was surprisingly calm, actually. You see, Lyonette had a secret weapon: the box.

She had activated the box after things began getting difficult. She had problems? She had gold. Everything was going to be fine.

It occurred to Lyonette a bit belatedly that she wasn’t the only person with access to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Yes, Ishkr had been a bit off this morning. He was still serving people in his suit. Saliss had vanished sometime after getting his gold, and Onieva had popped into the inn and had followed Ishkr around for a good hour.

That wasn’t the problem. Peggy deserved a new suit. Rosencrantz? The entire staff would get a wardrobe update! Of course! Naturally!

—It was just that Lyonette wasn’t making the purchasing decisions.

Rheirgest’s people had mostly retired to their wagons at night. They’d been offered the inn, and a few had taken the remaining rooms, but the rest had claimed they had comfortable wagons. Lyonette was determined to let them begin building their homes tomorrow. She’d been overseeing the cleanup, and as she’d been walking around, she’d entered one of the spare dining rooms.

She pointed into it now.

“Um. Dalimont?”

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“When did we get a library?”

“A wh—ah.”

The [Knight] poked his head into the room, and Ser Normen and Vess looked up. They were both sitting in chairs, books in hand. Lyonette stared at them. She stared at a worn sofa, chairs, and books sitting in bookshelves. She counted.

“Miss Lyonette? Are we in the wrong room?”

Vess, the young Drake who used wands, shot to his feet in alarm. Normen sat up, but Lyonette smiled at them.

“No, no! Relax anywhere you please. I, uh—just didn’t know we had a library.

She shot Dalimont a significant look. Normen and Vess exchanged a glance, and Vess whispered when he thought Lyonette was out of earshot.

“How do you not know you have a library?”

“Vess, my friend, it might be one of Erin’s new Skills. A fellow lets these things happen.”

Lyonette knew this wasn’t an Erin-Skill. She stood in the corridor and then pointed to another dining room. She and Dalimont snuck into it and waited.

They did not have to wait long. After only three minutes, someone came walking down the corridor. The culprit.

Inkpaper. The Hobgoblin had a mask over his face and an accomplice. He looked vaguely suspicious with a scarf and cloak around his body, but you could mistake him for a traveller. It probably let him get to Invrisil or Liscor with ease. But for Pallass? You needed an agent.

Like a certain little witch who didn’t see Lyonette and Dalimont peeking at her as she pulled books out of a bulging bag at her side.

“Don’t forget to lock the door when we’re gone, Inkpaper. Or else—”

Both jumped as they opened the door and saw the two [Knights] had found their hideout. They relaxed, and Nanette waved a book happily at Normen and Vess.

“Look! More adventure books! We have nearly the entire Lightning Thief saga here—there are tons of bookstores in Invrisil!”

Normen was very surprised.

“I say, Miss Nanette. A fellow would be worried about you, even with Inkpaper as an escort. Invrisil isn’t always a safe place this late as it were. And isn’t it expensive to get that many books?”

“Don’t worry, Normen. It’s all paid for. Hee, hee—argh! Miss Lyonette!

The [Princess] had snuck up and grabbed Nanette’s ear. Inkpaper spun, saw his accomplice had been caught, and tried to run for it. He got down one hallway before Peggy stuck out her leg.

Inkpaper! No wonder you kept being eager for night shift! Asgra, get a stick! We’re beating him!”

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn had a library. It had books. Nearly eighty. Reading was a good thing, Lyonette told herself.

Outside, Rittane and the villagers were watching Inkpaper and Nanette being punished. Namely, being forced to shovel a path to the outhouse while Goblins and Antinium hurled snowballs at them.

“We’ll have a head start on a proper library soon, Miss Lyonette.”

“Yes, I suppose. Just keep an eye on the garden, Dalimont? And the gold?”

“…All of it, Lyonette?”

He gave her a worried look, and she knew it was futile. Lyonette had gathered all the staff and lectured them about spending gold wantonly. She hoped it stuck. True, Nanette having a lot of money for books was a splash in the pond; they could have easily afforded that before the box. It was just—

Lyonette had a late night of it, mostly taking food and blankets out to Rheirgest’s people until they chased her away, making a list of things they needed, putting a library sign on the door, and selecting two books she herself wanted to read.

She often stayed up late to make sure all was well, and the [Mages] were up till the last vestiges of the sun had vanished from the sky, planning on all of them going for a ‘walk’ later. They were a bit shifty about their plans, even with Lyonette bankrolling the project, but that was fine.

Maybe Mrsha could learn from the magical school? But that’s just magic. She needed to learn manners.

One look at Mrsha doing a handstand competition in her kilt with Sammial and Hethon made Lyonette glad she’d made Mrsha adopt undergarments. After all three had been chased to bed, Lyonette checked to make sure Nanette was also asleep.

“Miss Lyonette, I’m sleeping.

Lyonette stopped poking the body in the bed with a broom. She’d learned very quickly that Nanette and Mrsha could fake some hair and pillows in place. She gave Mrsha the evil eye as the girl pulled her blankets up to her chin.

“Have a good night, you two. No midnight wandering for that cake or I shall become the consequences.”

Mrsha sighed loudly, as if she hadn’t had a double helping of cake. Lyonette walked off.

Bird was the last person she checked on. The Order of Solstice was tired, but she found Bird not in his—her, Lyonette had to remember her—tower, but outside the inn.

“And where is Ballistonia? Get them all back. I have just looked in the [Garden of Sanctuary], and I believe I can buy more ballista bolts.”

At least Bird was being somewhat responsible. She was addressing several Workers that Lyonette recognized as part of the crew that had run the ballista last time. It was still, amazingly, in one piece after the Solstice. A bit battered, but the Workers had maintained it, and Bird was studying it.

“Bird.”

“A tower? This is muchly good, Lyonette. I think I need two towers.”

“…Why?”

“One for the ballista. One for me. Not that I shoot birds as much these days. I have become a conscientious bird hunter. Now I just hunt the ones who get overpopulated. Too many Dinobirds eating small birds. A hawk gets too annoying. Garbichugs. All the Garbichugs. I will make the ballista crew do that.”

She nodded and patted the ballista, and Lyonette breathed easier, looking at it.

“I know Rheirgest will be too far for you to guard once they set up. But if you can watch them tonight…”

“I will. It is good to be back, Lyonette. I am glad you are not too upset.”

Lyonette smiled as she stood next to Bird, shivering in the cold. The wagons were quiet, and the inn had gone dark. Bird’s bow, though, gleamed in the moonlight. She looked at it.

“I’m just happy you’re here, Bird. Even if you wanted to make a big change like this.”

“…I just wanted to know what it was like. I’ll change back the next time I die.”

Lyonette laughed out loud at the idea. Then she patted Bird on the arm.

“Don’t do that, Bird. Worrying if you won’t come back is too hard.”

Bird patted Lyonette on the arm and head. The Antinium shook her head as she sighed.

“It is not very fun. I lost my [Wings of Escieda] Skill. These new ones are very nice, but all I can do is glide with them. The Free Queen says I am still better than most Flying Antinium.”

Her wings buzzed indignantly, and Lyonette expected to see Bird doing just that in the days to come. But rather than climbing into her tower, Bird just took the bow off her back.

“Do not mind me, Lyonette. I am going to be over here. My bow can be loud, sometimes. Where did all the coins come from, by the way?”

“Erin’s Skill.”

Bird drew an arrow as she walked down the hill towards another one. She stood on it and shot an arrow as Lyonette waded through the snow. Bird paused. Shot another arrow.

“Oh.”

That was the thing about Bird. She got it. Though…she was different. And not just in pronouns. Lyonette frowned as she saw Bird shooting arrow after arrow at something in the distance.

“Bird? Why aren’t you in your tower? And what are you shooting at?”

Bird sighed.

“Climbing my tower after getting my arrows is too much work, and I do not wish to alarm the villagers. I am just shooting at targets. There.”

She drew another arrow and pointed with it; Bird was very fluid, but grumbled to herself as she clacked her mandibles.

“Only two arms? I am so much slower than my old body. The Free Queen lied! I am going to throw some of my cake at her when I bring her a slice.”

Lyonette tried to see the target Bird was aiming at. The Antinium had a much slower rate of fire than before. When she squinted…nope.

“Let me try. What is this bow, Bird?”

“The Free Queen calls it ‘hope’. I call it ‘my bow’. It is made of Chitrx metal. The same thing Klbkch’s blades are made of. It is a very good bow. I do not think anyone will break it, and if they do, I have bigger problems. Just shoot over there. That snowflake.”

“What—that—wait a second.”

Lyonette was wrestling with the bow. She realized what Bird was pointing at as the Antinium slowly traced a finger down through the air.

“You were too slow. Okay, that one.”

“Bird! I can’t—wait. I can’t even pull this bow back!”

Lyonette’s arms trembled as the bow moved, but she could barely even move the string. Bird laughed.

“Silly Lyonette. Pull harder.”

The [Princess] tried! But even with her sword practice…what draw weight was this bow? No wonder Bird was slower! Bird took the bow back and smoothly drew an arrow and loosed it.

“I missed.”

Lyonette saw Bird take another shot at a snowflake.

“Is there a point to this, Bird?”

Bird didn’t look back at Lyonette.

“Yes. Training. I have lost ten levels. I must get them back. I missed again. Damn.”

She began stomping off towards her arrows, some of which were incredibly far away, then swiveled back to Lyonette. Bird’s green-yellow body was indeed beautiful. Her eyes were a faint purple, but the same multifaceted insect eyes. Lyonette felt Bird’s gaze grow intent.

“Is he training? Is that why Numbtongue isn’t here? That would be good.”

“Training? No. I’m doing a bit of sword training in the morning, but I haven’t seen Numbtongue joining me.”

“Hm.”

Bird put her bow on her back and shook her head. She had mobility in her neck and even torso. She spoke to Lyonette a second.

“I thought he would have been with Erin. Erin is different.”

“Yes, she is. Badarrow went.”

“It should have been Numbtongue. Then again, we are all weak. I hope you are training up your levels. I am Bird. I shoot arrows. What does a [Princess] do to train?”

“…We don’t.”

“Hm. Your class is stupid. But I have said that before.”

With that, Bird hopped off through the snow, her wings spread, and she glided down the hill. Lyonette blinked at Bird’s back.

“So that’s what it is. She’s focused.

Bird had come back, but not to rest and sit around. Maybe it was the effect of her new nature? The female intuition and incisiveness and will to work that trumped the male mind?

…Lyonette thought of Ulvama and shook her head. Nope. Bird was just focused.

 

——

 

Lyonette was almost back at her inn when she saw something odd from outside. By now, almost everyone was asleep, and a reluctant Inkpaper had night shift. But someone had a lantern and was slipping into the inn.

One of the villagers? Lyonette almost called out, but remembered that spy from earlier. Without Shriekblade—

I’m sure Dalimont and Ushar will nab them if they’re not supposed to be inside. But on a hunch, Lyonette stole into the inn.

Liska was asleep, but there was a light coming from the portal room. Lyonette peeked into the inn via a crack in the front door and listened—someone was muttering to themselves.

“…the best door, but I suppose it’s valuable enough. Pah. What is this hallway? Wait. Wait—arrow slits on the wall? Clever. Is that a murder hole?”

She didn’t know that voice. A hooded figure was moving down the corridor, and Lyonette caught her breath. She didn’t open the front door; that was a dead giveaway. Instead, she slipped into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“Dalimont? Ushar!”

Maybe it was just a villager. But something about that figure and the way it had moved made Lyonette uneasy. She stole into the garden and found Yelroan snoozing on a pile of gold. That had to be bad for his back.

No Thronebearers. Lyonette hesitated, then reappeared inside the inn, along the hidden corridor you could attack intruders from.

She didn’t take a weapon, but crouched down, hoping no one noticed. She heard the figure moving through the hallway again.

“—bad. I suppose they’re good for something. Hm. And what’s this, now?”

Lyonette peeked her head up and gasped in horror. She saw two figures sprawled out at the intruder’s feet.

Dalimont! Ushar!

Both Thronebearers were unconscious. They didn’t look hurt, but—

The figure bent its head down right in front of the arrow slit. Lyonette leapt back with a shout of horror. She saw the flicker of a face, turned—hesitated—

Her [Knights]! Did she run to the garden? No—the Order of Solstice.

Intrud—

Lyonette began to shout, but someone caught her arm. Somehow, the intruder had gotten past the hallway and behind her in an instant. She saw the secret entrance to the side rooms had been wrenched open, and the hooded figure stared down at her.

“Hmph. So that’s where the 6th Princess of Calanfer has got to. And this is the inn she talked up so much? The [Innkeeper] isn’t even here. You there. Be silent.”

Something had a hold of her arm. Lyonette stared up into a shadowed face and reached for her sword.

“Harm my people or me and the wrath of the Archmage of Izril will be on you.”

It was her best threat. The figure just sneered down at her.

“Please. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Tell me—where is Ryoka Griffin’s room?”

For a second, Lyonette just stared up at the stranger. Then she shouted.

Help!

She drew her sword. It was aimed up when a bit of moonlight caught the figure’s face. Lyonette stared at a huge, wide, flat face.

Two rolling eyes, all white, with a black bead bouncing around in the middle of each spaced on either side of the head like a crocodile or a horse. The mouth was flat, wide; the creature had no nose. Just a wide, fabric head—

The [Princess] gaped in horror as the giant sock puppet’s mouth opened.

Fool.

Then it headbutted her. Lyonette sat down as the stars came out indoors. By the time Relc, Normen, and a sleepy Valeterisa crashed down the stairs and she could see again, the intruder was gone.

Ser Dalimont and Dame Ushar had only been put to sleep. Lyonette had no idea who or what that had been. A Cloth Golem…shaped like a giant sock?

All she knew was that she blamed Ryoka Griffin.

 

——

 

The next morning, Lyonette lay in as long as possible because her head and neck still hurt from being headbutted last night. She only got up when she remembered she had to meet with Liscor’s Council.

When she tried to walk downstairs, she found something new instead. Lyonette had stumbled out of her rooms and begun to walk for the stairs. Her room was literally next to the stairs, so after five steps and not reaching the stairs, she’d opened her eyes and seen…

A corridor. A long hallway stretching out and out and out. Lyonette’s eyes widened. Her breath caught, and she whirled—but her room was still there. She was still in the inn.

“A trick? An illusion? Palt—no. Erin.

This had to be what Hexel had mentioned yesterday. Lyonette hesitated, then strode down the hallway. She thought she saw something familiar far, far away and realized this hallway was long.

After a few seconds, Lyonette began to jog. Then run. Then she got tired and jogged—but stopped when she saw the first message written on the wall in ink.

 

Adventurer’s Log. Month 16, Day 15, Year of 23 A.F. I have been marooned in this strange hallway for a day now, I believe…

 

Lyonette began walking. After a while she came across another message.

 

It would appear the hallway loops at times. There are windows, betimes, which I may glimpse the outside world thereof. But like the entrance to the World’s Eye Theatre, they correspond to no known window outside the inn, and I cannot open them…

 

Lyonette kept walking. More scrawls on the wall—she wondered how hard it was to get ink off wood.

 

My mind plays tricks on me. I long for sunlight once more on my fur.

 

She rolled her eyes. Then she finally got to one end of the corridor where a pile of white fur was propped against the staircase. A final message in ink was scrawled on the wall.

 

Adventurer’s Log, Unknown Month, Unknown Date, Unknown Year. This may be my final entry. My food has long since run out. To any who follow, I pray you have better luck than I. I bequeath my possessions to you, doomed adventurer, as I…

 

“Mrsha. Do you have to write on the walls? Even for a new Skill, someone has to clean it up.”

The ‘dead body’ was sticking out her tongue and lying on the ground. She’d even drawn an outline around herself in ink. Mrsha opened one eye, then popped to her feet. Lyonette read her notecard with a sigh.

“Let’s see what the excuse is. ‘I’m adding ambiance to…’. Very funny, young lady. We had a break-in last night, you know. I’m not in the mood. Did you activate the Skill?”

Mrsha followed Lyonette downstairs, writing urgently.

Break-in? What break-in? I just found this hallway when I woke up! Sammial says he ran into it when we were playing hide-and-seek. He was in there for ten minutes, then he got scared and ran out. Erin’s new Skill, right?

“Hm. Most likely. It’s not very useful to me, but according to Hexel, the hallways can split and branch. Even between floors. I don’t know who it was, Mrsha. But we’re taking precautions.”

Indeed, this morning, Dalimont and Ushar were doubling all their wards, and they’d even persuaded Valeterisa to inspect the premises. However, the real security Lyonette wanted offered her a rare problem.

“I can’t go back to work in the same way, Lyonette. Of course, I’ll look out for an intruder. But Rheirgest has my attention. After that, setting up a keep somewhere.”

Normen looked up from breakfast, and Lyonette’s heart sank.

“I don’t want you to go back to being a guard, Normen! Not at all! But if you’d just stay with the inn? For a week or two? I have another issue I need to take care of.”

Ser Normen put down a cup of coffee and gave Lyonette a frown. He half-touched the mace at his side, then nodded to her.

“Ser Dalimont had a word with me last night, Lyonette. If something attacks the inn, I will, of course, defend it. But it occurs to me that Erin warned me this moment might come. I cannot be your [Knight]. No more than I can pledge the Order of Solstice to fight mysterious foes who command nature. It seems to me that if these fellows saved the children, they deserve to be heard out before being confronted.”

Mrsha and Nanette spun around in their seats, and Lyonette groaned a second before Nanette burst out.

You wanted to send the Order of Solstice against Hethon’s friends?

“Just as insurance! Don’t take that tone with me, Miss Nanette. They might be quite useful if, um—”

They use fire! You can’t—Normen, they’re good people! Lyonette doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In fact, if you went with us—”

An argument broke out at the table. Sammial and Hethon appeared and began banging on the table as well until Lyonette’s glower made even Normen decide breakfast would be better had in silence. However, his refusal to help her with the wand situation was now set in stone.

Lyonette had never been more glad to visit Liscor. At least Bird was acting normal; she had a plate of five eggs she was slowly eating one by one that morning when someone came stumbling into the inn.

“Bird?”

Numbtongue looked like he’d been out all night. He seemed, as he often did when Lyonette saw him, still intoxicated. The [Bard] had stubble on his chin, and Lyonette guessed it was Salkis. Again. It was either Salkis, Garia, or Octavia, but the latter of the lot had been less often in his company.

“Numbtongue, guess who’s come back? That is Bird, by the way.”

“Bird?”

The Hobgoblin stared at Bird. He stared at Bird’s new body. He stared at Bird’s feminine parts. Then at Bird’s open arms for a hug.

“This is silly. I’m going on a run with Garia. Delivering something.”

He shook his head. He let Bird hug him and patted her on the back. Then turned. He went for his rooms, and Lyonette’s brows rose.

“As you are? Without a disguise?”

“Why not?”

The Hobgoblin shot Lyonette a challenging glare from the stairs. The [Princess] opened her mouth, then threw up her hands. He vanished upstairs, and she wondered if he’d even seen the damn garden.

She didn’t tell him. Bird stared thoughtfully at Numbtongue, then turned to Lyonette.

“Is he often out having the sexes with the people he knows?”

“…That sums up my understanding of his activities, yes, Bird. And the drinkings and the foods.”

Bird nodded to herself.

“That is stupid and a waste of his time. Unless it levels him up, in which case only his class is stupid. I am going out to train. Mrsha, you may help me if you wish. I have heard of a William Tell, and I am sure it will level up either my class or your [Survivor] one.”

Mrsha got out of her seat until Rose grabbed her—at least someone was being useful today. Lyonette headed out of the inn and went to Liscor.

 

——

 

Thus began a day that revolved around a notion that Lyonette had never conceived of as being important, much less a kind of relevancy for her understanding of political and social dynamics. Today was a day that revolved around…

Chairs.

Seats.

Butt cushions. Whatever you wanted to call them, chairs were a peculiar thing. You took many for granted, but the moment you sat in a hard-backed chair that decided your rear end was in need of new bruises, it became a problem.

A good chair should be seen and not felt. A great chair could undo the fatigue of a day. Lyonette was no chair aficionado, even in the inn. She had custom-made Drake chairs with the backrest swept to the side so Drake’s tail could exit, but they were wood and serviceable.

But like thrones…well, she’d sat on the Eternal Thrones, just to feel what it was like, and her parents had lovely thrones. With cushions and back support. Some [Kings] and [Queens] lacked those, and that was a terrible thing for them to have to sit in day in, day out.

However, the first chair she sat in was…uncomfortable. It was wood, flat-backed, with a tail-gap, but no curve for the buttocks. It wasn’t an affront, but it made you uncomfortable. You didn’t want to sit in this chair long.

Liscor’s Council had chairs set around one of their rooms so they could face and surround the people petitioning them. It was a good setup; they looked down on the person in the center of the room, and they had the high ground and tables for papers and whatnot.

Of course, in this case, Lyonette was known to the Council, so the first thing Lism did after she’d been admitted was notice the chair.

“Ancestors, that’s the chair we have for the obnoxious people we don’t like. Anyone got a pillow?”

One was tossed at Lyonette by Elirr, and she gratefully inserted it under her backside. She nodded at Lism and got a nod back.

Strange how old enemies became allies, if not friends. Ser Dalimont stood next to her as Lyonette spoke.

“Thank you for hearing me so fast, Councilmembers. Can we resolve this Rheirgest situation?”

Lism drummed his claws on the table. It was just five of them today. Alonna, Raekea, Lism, Elirr, and Krshia.

Jeiss was…and the other two weren’t always welcome. Lism replied shortly.

“Yes and no. The protestors camped out there. Overnight. Someone—and I blame the old Council or Selys’ friends—has given them some money. Some—a lot, rather—are just civilians who don’t want another undead in Liscor. I can’t blame them, Lyonette. We’re hearing you out, as we said after the public forum, to give you a chance to speak.”

“About…what? The land was paid for. Rheirgest have a right to settle.”

“But not a right to use undead to farm. Which is what we hear they want to do.”

Alonna sighed. She was nursing a cup of tea, and the Council looked tired. Lyonette had some sympathies, but she gave Krshia a meaningful look. The Gnoll took that as cue to speak.

“Hrr. It’s not you, no, Lyonette. It’s…fear. I did not survive Az’kerash at Liscor. Many have. Pisces has proven his undead can be good, yes? It is why Rheirgest wasn’t run out instantly, I think. But after the Solstice—”

“They’re capable [Necromancers]. I can bring their leader here and show you what they have. Have you heard of Writs of Sealing? Death-words?”

Lyonette had prepared for this encounter, of course. She ran the Council through what she’d learned, and Alonna looked interested, Elirr relieved. The oldest member of the group nodded several times.

“That would be excellent to have a copy of that list of words in the Watch, Lyonette. But still. Unregulated undead? I know, I know, they have protections, but think of it how Liscorians feel. We had a Greater Zombie attacking people on the road just yesterday, and I’m only shocked we didn’t get someone from the Adventurer’s Guild here already. You know who.”

He grimaced, and Lism took a sip from a cup of coffee with a wince. Lyonette thought she knew who that was and had little sympathy for Selys, but the Council’s words made her frown.

“Rheirgest has to use undead. It’s their specialty.”

Alonna fiddled with a quill.

“Not…around Liscor. It just doesn’t seem feasible on our side, Lyonette. Say we allow it. Any person who sees the undead who isn’t in the know will panic and shout for the Watch. We announce it to the city, and you might get ten times that many people protesting the [Necromancers].”

“But they’re…good [Necromancers]. Not that we’ve had many bad ones. Any! There’s a precedent for this in other nations, you know, Lism. Rhir? What about Khelt?”

The Council mulled it over. Lism just scratched at his neck.

“It’s an ugly thing to push past Liscorians. Can’t they just…farm or do what they want without necromancy?”

“They want to cut bones off the Bone Giant. Which will reduce it as a threat and, I think, make everyone safer.”

“Ah. Right. Elirr’s cats are out of the bag either way.”

Elirr complained loudly.

“I don’t put my cats in a bag! This is slander, and I don’t know why Erin started saying that!”

Lyonette frowned. She looked to Dalimont for help. The Thronebearer thought and leaned over.

“Your Highness. What if we offered Liscor a mulligan?”

“We can’t offer the Council that, Dalimont! That would look shockingly bad for the elections—”

“Er, no, Your Highness. Rather…this is a Drake city. You know how they are. It may not be in vogue now, but I’m sure if there was ever a time, there would be something on the books. In regards to [Necromancers]?”

Lyonette’s eyes lit up. Now this was Calanferian diplomacy. She gave Dalimont a grateful look. Her mother was still monitoring her affairs, and Lyonette hoped she could prove she at least remembered her training from this.

“Councilmembers, I have a suggestion!”

The Council looked up, and Lyonette stood from her seat, which wasn’t that fine without the cushion.

“Let me summarize our problem. We are all cordial here. I represent The Wandering Inn and Order of Solstice on behalf of Rheirgest. You represent Liscor. Citizens are concerned about the undead Rheirgest may use. But Rheirgest requires those undead to survive.”

Or at least to play music and do any number of things. They’d be very unhappy without. And they needed a home. It was either let them use undead or they’d probably leave, which was another mess given their reputation was spreading. Lyonette spread her hands reasonably.

“I could ask for their representatives to come by and demonstrate to you and the citizens of Liscor how safe their undead are. But I promised them a place, not to have to fight to justify their presence. They’ve come a great distance just to get here in the dead of winter. I propose we settle this now.”

“With what, a unilateral ruling from us? It could get overruled if the next Council isn’t made of people sympathetic to Rheirgest.”

Lism growled skeptically, and Lyonette sighed. Then adopted a pleasant smile.

“Absolutely not, Councilmember Lism. Why, that might even be a breach of the Council’s authority. And I would hate to give our shared detractors ammunition.”

“Says who?”

Krshia kicked Lism under the table and shut him up. She was giving Lyonette a half-smile of anticipation, and Lyonette rubbed her hands together, then composed herself.

“I suggest we do this legally, fairly, and, in the spirit of Drakes, with money. Which is why I request you issue a hundred and fifty-six…undead-owner licenses for the Villagers of Rheirgest. I think we’ll need a hundred Class C permits. And a few Class B permits for the better ones among them.”

“Class C…”

For a moment, Raekea looked blank, and she half-turned to Alonna—before she caught the Drake’s wry smile. Then the Mage’s Guild’s Guildmistress chuckled, and Lism swallowed a gulp of coffee.

“You what? Issue a license for owning undead?”

“That’s right. The Wandering Inn will cover all costs. In exchange, the city issues us a permit.”

“A permit to animate and control undead.”

Elirr clarified, just to make sure he had it. His paws drummed on the table, and he grinned. Krshia and Lism weren’t sold on it and were muttering together.

“It won’t be popular, Lyonette.”

Lism shot down at her from his seat. She eyed him.

“But it will be legal. And there’s a precedent.”

“With what city? The lost City of Graves?”

He scoffed at her, and she rolled her eyes.

“Lism, Drake cities have laws for everything. Do you not think that someone had a clause for owning undead on the books in Manus or Pallass? Seriously?”

He had to hesitate at this. Plus, Lyonette had a gold coin in her pocket. She took it out and slipped it into her money pouch.

“I know setting up the paperwork will be difficult. The Wandering Inn will, of course, cover the costs and hassle of getting the permits to us by—this evening, say? Tomorrow at the latest? I think a gold coin per permit would be reasonable. For a higher-grade permit, more gold? Ten for a Class B permit? That’s at least six hundred gold coins, which citizens of Liscor will be happy to learn will go to the sewers or walls. Per year.”

Six hundred gold coins. That drew Lism’s attention as she knew it would. Alonna raised her brows.

“We don’t intend to gouge you for the price, Lyonette. If we were to vote ‘yes’.”

“Who would gouge whom, Alonna? Isn’t a higher price better so you don’t have rogue [Necromancers]? Why, you might want location spells on undead, Watch inspections—we’re good for the money.”

“It’s not about the money.”

Lism put a fist against his cheek and sighed, and Lyonette blinked. Of all the Lism things to say—she never thought she’d hear that. Krshia sighed and nudged him, but smiled at Lyonette.

“I think your idea works, Lyonette. And we will take six hundred gold coins, hrr, yes. Lism is referring to the larger issue facing Liscor.”

“Ah. All these foreign investors?”

Lyonette had heard the problem before, and Lism snapped his claws together and sat up.

“I like that term. Who came up with that?”

“I’ve just heard it tossed around. Is it that bad to have gold rushing into Liscor?”

The Council gave each other dark looks, and Raekea spoke up with a growl.

“It is if prices rise as a result. Housing, even food—it’s also the door. No offense, but we never thought a [Lady] coming via Invrisil and spending a small fortune on a night on the town would be a bad thing.”

“What’s the problem with that?”

Lism drawled as if Lyonette were an idiot, and she resisted the urge to toss a gold coin at his head.

“The problem, Miss Marquin, isn’t that they spend gold. If they leave a ten-gold tip at a restaurant? Everyone’s happy! The problem is that restaurant then decides it wants another [Lady], and since they can afford it, they raise prices and begin selling expensive dishes no regular Liscorian can afford. The problem is having a bunch of Wall Lords and Ladies buying up land in Liscor with no intention to move in, just to own and rent it out.”

Krshia nodded seriously.

“Wall Lord Ilvriss was bad enough. If you can afford to employ a hundred Gnolls, Humans, or Drakes at a rate no one can match, you can run a business. Buy out the local [Hunters] and gain a stranglehold. I hear a Wall Lady from Fissival has bought up half the Fisher’s Guild in preparation for the rains.”

“I liked Wall Lord Ilvriss.”

Lism grumbled, and Krshia poked him.

“You would. Anyways, Lyonette, it’s becoming a problem, and the fears of someone owning an entire Guild has even the old Council worried.”

They all turned to her, and Lyonette got the feeling they were telling her out of shared concern…but also perhaps because she could do something about it?

“I’m no Erin Solstice.”

Instantly, they all coughed or looked the other way, and Lism grinned unconvincingly.

“What? Perish the thought. We just wanted to keep you informed while we had you. Liscor has an uneasy relationship with The Wandering Inn at times, Miss Lyonette. We won’t deny, even the Council has lost members due to Erin’s actions. But…”

He paused, and every head turned towards that empty seat. Lyonette’s stomach hurt, and they all fell silent. But Lism just cleared his throat after a moment.

“Elections are coming up, and it’s better in general to have the inn as an ally rather than an enemy. You’ll get your permits. [Scribe Contract]. Elirr, don’t we have permits for this kind of thing already?”

Lism raised his hand, and a quill rose and began writing on a piece of paper in front of him. Lyonette blinked. She’d never seen a [Councilmember] Skill before, but as one, the Council began to move.

“Golem owners need one, I think. I’ll get some, if not from our records, then Pallass will definitely have a few. Let’s put it up on the list of weekly announcements. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll [Assess Public Opinions] on the matter. I think Lyonette’s idea will work; Liscorians won’t mind the undead if they’re paid for, especially if I put it in the context of not being in the city. Or the fact that our sewers are still clean thanks to Pisces’ rat undead. Krshia? Can you make the permits more…official?”

“The trade contract with Esthelm is almost done. Hrrr. I doubt you need my Skill.”

Krshia brandished something as she lifted it onto the table. It was a little case. She opened it and checked the contents inside, and Lyonette saw a magical contract sitting on a velvet lining. She blinked and remembered a Skill Krshia had gotten thanks to her.

[Appreciating in Value]. Whatever grade the magical contract had been—it was now a royal purple with flashing words underlined with considerable force behind it.

Krshia winked at Lyonette. The [Princess] felt a stirring of newfound respect. It had taken a year to get to this point, but the current Council had some force and authority behind it. She hoped they’d win this year’s elections.

In fact—she would make that happen if she could. That first meeting went well, and Lyonette marched out of it full of hope for the future.

 

——

 

The Antinium Recruitment Office had a nice chair. There was a Drake who worked the front desk, and he helped assign Antinium to jobs in the city.

After you paid for them. Gone were the days Antinium would do odd jobs no one wanted. These days, you wanted a good [Cleaner]? If you weren’t in Silveran’s good books, you had to get a regular Antinium; Silveran’s Cleaners had a waiting list.

Lyonette felt comfortable here—but then she realized the chair was for anyone. Not just her. In fact, when she sat down, the Drake already had an apologetic look on his face.

“I’m afraid if you need a hundred Antinium, let alone more, you’ll need to wait for two weeks, and when the rains come in the spring, they won’t be working outside Liscor, Miss.”

“But I’m—ah, I’m from The Wandering Inn, Receptionist Ahse. Surely we can change things around? I don’t want to cut the line—”

But I have enough gold to buy your entire waiting list. Lyonette sat, confident in her ability to overpower this obstacle with sheer gold.

—Right until she saw the Drake twist and call out to the back rooms.

“Captain Yellow Splatters! Are there any Antinium who could take a job for The Wandering Inn? Miss Lyonette?”

Her heart sank. Tactical, unforced error by Calanfer. She could almost feel Ielane slap the back of her head with a fan. Lyonette should have sent Nanette. She should have sent Mrsha. She should have sent Apista with a bag of gold tied to her leg.

Someone slowly opened the door to the back room, and there was Captain Yellow Splatters. He and another Antinium were apparently playing darts in the back room; they must have the job of running the actual orders to the Free Hive. Yellow Splatters stared at Lyonette. She gave him a desperate smile.

“…No.”

The Drake shrugged helplessly at Lyonette. She protested.

“Oh come now, Yellow Splatters. What if you told Pawn—”

“Pawn does not need to be bothered by non-Antinium acquaintances.

Give this to Yellow Splatters—he was looking better than he had before the Solstice. The weight of his lies had left him, and he seemed to be enjoying a new lease on life. He turned, tossed a dart at the board, and then spoke again.

“I will mention it to him. Because I am Yellow Splatters, and honesty is now my goal in life. But too many Antinium are in the 7th Hive. Or on Crusade. Or working. The Painted Antinium might be able to take the job. But we do not work for heartbreakers.”

“B—I—”

Lyonette felt a tug on her arm. Ser Dalimont knew when it was wise to retreat, and Lyonette hesitated only a moment.

“Well, if you’d just mention it to Pawn—”

“I will. Then, after he finishes lamenting, I will offer him a box of tissues.”

Lyonette decided to flee. The Worker next to Yellow Splatters added as he shook a fist at Lyonette.

“We do not like her. She is a beautiful, heartbreaking, bad person.”

The Drake stared at Lyonette and opened his mouth. Rather than explain, Lyonette just backed out of the building.

 

——

 

Things only went downhill from there. Lyonette had a big smile when she went back to the inn—for Rheirgest’s people.

Rittane was nervously scuffing the snow with a boot as Mrsha and Nanette tried to get her to play in Liscor.

“But what if they don’t like me and throw stones at me? I could promise not to raise any undead.”

She was speaking to Mrsha, worry all over her face, but Mrsha seized her by one shoulder and held up a card.

If they do, I, Mrsha the Doombearer, will shame them! Don’t be afraid about being a [Necromancer]! Undead are sort of cool! Not the smelly ones, obviously.

“Yes, no one will bully you or chase you away from Liscor!”

Nanette was also puffed up with anger, and she turned to Lyonette.

“Right, Miss Lyonette? If they can’t be themselves here, what was the point of offering them sanctuary? No one should dictate who you are.”

The two girls’ fierce protectiveness of the villagers made the shy Rittane look up, and a tentative smile bloomed over her face.

For once, Lyonette and Nanette were fully aligned, and Lyonette went over to Rittane’s parents to assure them no one would hunt down Rittane at the playground.

“Mister Dorkel, Miss Leiithe, I think I’ve actually sorted out the legal aspect of having undead. The protestors—less simple, but I hope the Watch can clear them out by the end of the day. I’m going to Invrisil to sort out the travel restriction and Merchant’s Guild there. And I’ve bought licenses for you all to own and animate undead!”

Leiithe’s mouth opened in surprise, and the villagers who heard Lyonette gasped and ran to spread the good word. As Lyonette walked towards Liska’s door, she saw Dorkel staring at her back. Then he leaned over to whisper to his wife.

“…They sell those? Dead gods, in all our years, why did not one of us think to buy—

 

——

 

Seats, seats. Her first two seats had been good.

You know what a bad seat looked like?

A bad seat was a stool. A stool, not padded, which you couldn’t even rest your back against. It was an insulting seat. You had to try at that seat, and Lyonette sat down and realized someone had taken the time to balance the wood so it unevenly grated against your bones.

It was a seat that would bruise your bottom harder than a butt-kicking contest with Joseph. It was a seat that was almost criminal in nature.

They gave it to her at the [Mayor]’s office in Invrisil, and he took his sweet time arriving. The moment the door opened, Lyonette felt the energy of the day swing against her.

“Ah. Miss Marquin. Welcome to Invrisil. I don’t have long. Please, would you explain why my city, the City of Adventurers, should allow undead to waltz into our domain?”

He had a pin on his jacket with a familiar twining series of vines from flowers, like snakes. Lyonette frowned at it. The crest of House Reinhart? She tried to smile at the man and didn’t get one back.

“I was hoping to resolve this issue quickly, Mayor Curle. Rheirgest’s folk wouldn’t take undead through the door. They just wish to enter like anyone else. This ban seems rather abrupt and premature.”

He made a show of shuffling papers that she was sure were blank and gave Lyonette an irked look. She shot a quick glance at Dame Ushar.

Ushar had briefed her before going into the office that Curle was a yes-man who kept Invrisil running smoothly. Lyonette had prepared a bribe…but she hadn’t thought she’d need it. He was firmly in Magnolia’s pocket. The [Mayor]’s voice was dripping with hostility, which was odd because Ushar had definitely let his office know who she was.

“Word spreads quickly, Miss Marquin. We don’t truck with [Necromancers]. A Zombie Giant attacked our city. We’ve seen the Solstice—your door is the only reason we’re hearing out your request. Do you have any reasonable offerings to make?”

Lyonette’s instincts told her the bribe was not the move. She frowned at Curle.

“Only that I’m sure if we discussed this with the [Lady] of Invrisil, Magnolia would agree that until proven guilty, Rheirgest’s people have done nothing wrong.”

She knew it was going to trigger something, but she had to know. At that, Curle smirked, and his hand moved to the badge pinned to his lapel.

“Lady Reinhart. You must not have followed the news, Miss Marquin. I remind you that this is a city, not some singular holding of Magnolia Reinhart’s. We do have the backing of House Reinhart, but even the head of House Reinhart must obey the laws of the city.”

Lyonette translated that so fast that her smile never wavered. But a note of alarm rang in her chest.

He’s wearing the crest of House Reinhart, but he’s definitely not acting in Magnolia’s interests. Oh no, the rest of House Reinhart has flipped him.

One look around the significantly more lavish office than Ushar had led Lyonette to expect told her how they’d done it. For a moment, she wondered if she could out-bribe the man…but crossing House Reinhart was a dangerous move.

“And where is Lady Reinhart right now? Perhaps she could illuminate both of us on the issue.”

She asked sweetly. Mayor Curle’s smile flickered out for a second, and he hurriedly brushed at some paper and gave himself a papercut.

“She’s very busy. Meeting with Drakes and flitting around Izril. Is this pertinent to our discussions, Miss Marquin? Because I don’t appreciate you wasting my time if all we’re going to do is rehash facts. My decision stands.”

He gave her a supercilious look, and at this point, Lyonette experienced a second awakening. Curle was no masterful bureaucrat. He was a petty one. He was throwing around power someone else had given him by taking him off Magnolia’s leash, and he had no tactical thought in his head other than that either he or someone else didn’t want [Necromancers] in Invrisil.

But his words brought something out in Lyonette she’d thought was lost: her inner child. A younger Lyonette bloomed into being and spoke in Lyonette’s heart of hearts.

You pathetic worm of a peon, I should have you hung by your pantaloons from a tower. How dare you speak to me like that. Magnolia, too busy for Invrisil? If she’s too busy, it’s too busy to have Ressa turn you over like a brat and spank you.

Lyonette’s smile was sweet as Magnolia’s tea.

“Can I pay for a permit of entry, Mayor?”

“I doubt you can mitigate the significant damage such—people—would bring to Invrisil. The ban includes Antinium and, of course, Goblins.”

Lyonette’s eyes widened slightly.

“And why would that be, Mayor?”

“They’re a disturbance to the peace. No one wants to look at them. What is this discussion? They’re monsters, the lot of them. My—there are those who have petitioned very hard against their entry into the city. Tens of thousands of complaints, you know.”

He blustered at her. Lyonette’s eyes widened.

Who? Which ones?”

I will have Ser Dalimont stuff those papers down your throat, you jumped up Wailer Frog.

“That—doesn’t need to be discussed. Thousands! And I will thank you not to glower at me. Young lady.”

“I’m not glowering, Mayor. Perhaps something is wrong with your eyes? You’re looking a bit blotchy. Is your perfume off, perchance? It’s very strong.”

Ushar nodded worriedly and leaned forward.

“A hint of lorcel leaves, Your Highness. I hear that’s highly toxic to some. It might lead to swelling up of the throat.”

Mayor Curle paled and half-sniffed at his voluminous coat. He stood, flushing red.

“I think my time is up. Don’t hesitate to leave, Miss Marquin.”

She stood; her butt hurt from the stool, and she accidentally knocked it over on the way out. She even saw the [Secretary] hurrying in with a real chair as she strode out of the office. Ushar kept her face bland, and Lyonette smiled—only when they were a good distance away from the office did Lyonette hiss at Ushar.

Which Reinhart is paying him?”

“I will find out at once, Your Highness. I deeply apologize for the oversight—”

“My mother would have known. She’d have known the moment she walked in that he was already in someone else’s pay. Dead gods. I do need more staff! Do you think she noticed?”

Lyonette groaned. She put her head in her hands and looked around, as if fearing a royal observer. Ushar, the nominal observer, looked more embarrassed for her failings. And it got worse from there.

 

——

 

Merchant’s Guild. Uncomfortable chair.

Not as deliberately bad, but neglectful. It was padded but not in good shape. Someone had once made a decent chair to sit in, and so many people had sat here in monetary distress it had begun to stink and had a terrible sag. Lyonette perched on the end of it and tried not to show how mad she was getting.

“Yes, well, we’ve reviewed our policies on [Necromancers], and the entire business isn’t of interest to us in Izril, Miss Marquin. I believe you had a second inquiry?”

“Multiple inquiries, Master Fahstrader.”

Lyonette was polite, but one haughty snort—it was definitely not a sniff—told her she’d offended the man.

Merchant, Miss Marquin. Let me just see here. References for capable people over Level 30? Access to the auctions in…Miss Marquin. The Merchant’s Guild is not some Mage’s Guild to connect you to others. Do you think we have lists of high-level people we just hand out?”

You do, and you hand them out and could put me on the list of magical item auctions in a second. Lyonette tried not to snap at the man. Not a [Merchant]; man.

A [Merchant] wasn’t speaking to her. [Merchants] were successful people who were almost always over Level 30. She was speaking to a flunkie who thought the Merchant’s Guild’s power rubbed off on his face if he brown-nosed hard enough.

He barely looked at Lyonette as he read from his notes. Lyonette kept her voice cool and tried to imagine how much gold it would take to bury this man alive.

“I assure you, Merchant Fahstrader, I can very reasonably employ anyone I might find useful, and I do intend to participate in several auctions if the right item comes up. Couldn’t you add me to the list in light of my heritage? And the location I come from?”

Calanfer? The Wandering Inn? The man gave her a blank look, then selected a page from his desk.

“Your account with us does not appear to be…lucrative enough to cover even a tenth of the cost, Miss Marquin.”

Fahstrader. What a name. After a brief glance at her numbers, he smirked at her in the manner of someone who believed he had more wealth than her and it conferred him a great deal of power. Was he even aware she was a [Princess]?

If not, the Merchant’s Guild didn’t care. That needed rectifying, but the final matter he had to oblige her on.

“Then what about the Silver Swords? And the Consortium of Enterprise?”

“The—”

Fahstrader flinched, and the puffed-up flunkie visibly froze for a moment.

“I wanted to inquire about buying their contract out.”

It was something Lyonette had thought of. The Silver Swords might not like guard duty, but there were more than a few ways to use a Gold-rank team’s help, and Ylawes had only taken the contract out of financial necessity.

She expected to get a sneer; instead, Fahstrader turned pale, then red and barked at her.

“There is absolutely no need for that!”

“What? I simply meant—”

Lyonette leaned back, but Fahstrader half rose, then sat back down. He gave her an unconvincing smile, but his voice was too rushed, and suddenly, sweat was on his brow.

“I don’t know where this is coming from. Interfering with a contract with well-guarded [Merchants] in our Guild? Ridiculous!”

“I only meant that they were friends of mine—buying out a contract is—”

Everything is well in hand! I won’t hear of it, and I will thank you, Miss Marquin, to mind your own business. The answer is no. When the entire matter is settled—”

He fished out a handkerchief, wiped at his brows—then noticed her watching him in utter confusion. Fahstrader closed his binder with a snap and frowned at her.

“Miss Marquin, the Merchant’s Guild has spoken. No [Necromancers] are to do business with us. Pallass’ Merchant’s Guild likewise. Liscor’s may be different; local guilds have their little quirks, but the matter of the Silver Swords is not open to discussion. Good day.”

He stood, pointedly looking at the door. Lyonette stood with a sigh and made a show of shaking his hand as he swept his files into a briefcase.

 

——

 

She paused outside to rub at her bottom. Four hours in total of sitting already, and Lyonette wondered if you could take a cushion with you when you went to meetings.

“Ushar, I am about to explode.”

“Calm, Your Highness. A [Princess] does not rub at her rear end in public.”

You sit in that chair, then. I swear, the one in the Mayor’s office was the product of a Skill! [Posterior Damage]!”

Ushar had to smile slightly as she whispered back.

“That is why Thronebearers stand, Princess.”

Lyonette closed her eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t call anyone a peon. After a moment, she cracked one eye open.

“We’ll make a plan back at the inn. As for the Merchant’s Guild—!”

The nerve of that man! Ushar grimaced.

“I apologize, Your Highness. The Merchant’s Guild must truly not have put together who you are—or the ones at a low level here didn’t recognize your name. Disgraceful. At any rate, they clearly believe our current finances are the ones Miss Solstice left them with.”

Which was to say respectable for anyone, but insignificant for the Merchant’s Guild, who dealt with Ilvriss-level clients. At least it proved Yelroan had done a splendid job. Lyonette had ways around that, but she had a bigger concern.

“What was that all about? When I mentioned the Silver Swords, he freaked out.”

At least there Ushar had more intelligence than Lyonette. She smiled slightly.

“You may well be happy that Fahstrader was incompetent, Your Highness. I got a full look at the report he had on his desk. It seems there’s trouble in the New Lands.”

Lyonette’s head snapped up.

“Monsters? Are the Silver Swords…?”

“They are fine. However. Magical artifacts are going dead. It appears the New Lands sucks the magic out from them.”

Dead gods. Lyonette’s mouth fell open, and she turned to Ushar in horror.

“Why, that’s a disaster!”

“For the Consortium? Yes. There was a huge, red line ordering him not to tell anyone.”

Given how intelligent Fahstrader was and how many people were headed to the New Lands, Lyonette doubted that information would be secret for long. It was going to be a huge blow to the Merchant’s Guild, though, and countless other groups. How many artifacts had they poured into their expeditions? Wait, forget even that—what happened to preservation spells and bags of holding?

Utterly disastrous. Lyonette shook her head.

“Now I think Mrsha’s little check-ins were even more perspicacious after all. My daughter is so thoughtful—very well, we’ll check in with the Silver Swords ourselves. But what is the Merchant’s Guild going to do?”

The Thronebearer sighed as she glanced over her shoulder.

“I didn’t see the entire report. I would assume the Consortium must press ahead. They need to set up the mine or they’ll be ruined. The Merchant’s Guild is prepared to back their contract with the Silver Swords. They even had a note about sending a team of their own or hiring [Bounty Hunters] if it’s broken.”

Lyonette looked up sharply.

“What? Dead gods, why?

“Protecting their own. I didn’t have a full view of his notes, but I saw a note from a Merchant Lolsed about possibilities of ‘Necessary Contract Enforcement’. Her Majesty may know what that means. And to warn other [Merchants] about the problem without advertising the issue—lest they start a panic. They have too much money invested in the New Lands.”

Lyonette began to stomp down the street as Ushar kept running commentary. She didn’t like any of this at all.

“If they harm Ylawes or his team—not that they could. But if the Merchant’s Guild so much as tries, I’ll bury them. We won’t let them get away with anything! If it’s a dozen [Merchants], they can’t outspend us.

“Indeed not, Your Highness. Should I send word to your mother for help with—”

Absolutely not!

Heads turned down the street, and Lyonette hissed at Ushar.

“I can handle it! You haven’t mentioned anything else about the inn to Ielane, have you?”

Ushar shook her head instantly and didn’t flinch under Lyonette’s glare.

“No, Your Highness. I am loyal to you as well as the Crown. Although…she may well know. She is a [Queen] of quite a lot of expertise.”

Lyonette gave Ushar a dark glare, but she had to concede that one was true. She headed towards her next rendezvous. Gold. Gold…she could have paid Ylawes’ entire problem away. She could have bought that stupid [Mayor] out.

But gold was in how you used it. Once you used it publicly…Lyonette ground her teeth together as her butt screamed about painful chairs. She was a [Princess]. Being sneered at or mocked didn’t sit well with her.

Think of the gold. Think of what to spend it on. Lyonette walked through Invrisil, little aware that more than one [Thief]’s head snapped around to follow her, then grew incredibly disappointed for reasons they couldn’t articulate.

Ushar was more nervous. The Thronebearer had lied to Lyonette. Not about telling Queen Ielane about the gold.

Her Majesty of Calanfer already knew. And more than one person couldn’t help but figure it out, despite Lyonette and Yelroan’s precautions. And those people had begun to move.

 

——

 

Queen Ielane of Calanfer had problems. Her daughters were often some of them. Right now, her problem was figuring out how to spin a dance between Vernoue and one of Ailendamus’ young [Dukes] into a good thing.

She’d had it captured on scrying orb, and Vernoue had done the dance well; it was a flowing, elegant set that she had been forced to practice for two weeks straight with their best instructors from Nadel.

The [Duke] had done almost as well; the boy was handsome, a tan-skinned half-Elf. Ielane paused the recording and tapped the image as she smoked on a cigarette.

“This image. It will play very well in Gaiil-Drome. A half-Elven noble. Don’t broadcast this with Ailendamus’ name anywhere on it. Just his rank and name. When outrage spreads, have the [Bards] run a counter-narrative that the [Duke] was so besotted with Vernoue he journeyed here to see her.”

One of her staff bowed and took notes. Ielane considered if she needed more as she smoked.

“Vensha. How did their meeting actually go?”

Vensha, Ielane’s right hand, reported.

“He passed the ‘do you read books’ test, I believe, whereupon Princess Vernoue recounted the tales of Ser Solstice defeating [Generals] of Ailendamus for the next thirty minutes.”

Ielane rolled her eyes.

“No desserts for Vernoue for a week. Remind people Ailendamus has one of the highest half-Elven populations in the world and recite some of the old poetry about charm so great even nigh-eternal half-Elves are besotted. Next?”

She was working. And one of her jobs, like it or not, was to make Ailendamus more appealing to Calanfer. They were still technically at war, yes. Neither Reclis, the majority of Calanferians, nor the royal family liked Ailendamus.

But they might have to. Ielane ruled the opposite way Reclis did. He was, for all he was extremely savvy in politics, an idealist. The Dawn Concordat was his first child; he had dedicated himself to keeping it alive and keeping Ailendamus, whom he saw as an existential threat, at bay. All so the Kingdom of Calanfer might endure and be strong as it could be.

Ielane cared for Calanfer and the crown’s survival. One of the things she was calculating right now was public outcry when Calanfer and Ailendamus made peace. Or even if Ailendamus became an ally and other nations enemies.

She could count how many had died in the war. She could also count how alarmingly fast Ailendamus was replenishing its losses. Throw in a plus or minus for House Shoel—she still couldn’t guess what had motivated so many to fight at sea with Erin Solstice.

Erin Solstice. Ielane’s fingers went back to drumming, and she inhaled deeper on her puffer stick. It always went back to her in surprising ways. And her headache of today—she glanced back at her first report.

Calanfer’s royal palace got all kinds of communications. Some were the flowery missives you expected, double-speak and hidden meanings in the way Lyonette had been taught to write.

Other times, it was just refreshingly direct, sound talk between nations, which still had meanings and subterfuge baked into the words.

This was one of the latter ones, and Ielane read it again as Vensha brought something over. She placed it down, and Ielane picked it up.

“We had the [Scribes] reprint the [Messages], Your Majesty. It’s the third time. There is no spelling error.”

“Hm.”

Ielane du Marquin’s face didn’t move. She was a master of her expressions, but she did puff harder on the vice few Calanferians even knew she had.

The missive was a simple one from the Kingdom of Bitorm, a Lantocracy. The correspondence was neatly labeled and dated and had been going on for eight months now; recent. But the last few messages were…well…

 

Bitorm: Respectfully querying Calanfer regarding the subject of bride price.

Calanfer: Calanfer is ready to respond.

Bitorm: Regarding the hand of the 6th Princess, our [Bridal Price Estimates] by our [Matchmakers] have become rather erratic. Can you confirm the following sum? It may be unsuitable for Bitorm at this moment.

 

The number was below, circled with commas attached, and several clarifications from their side that this was, yes, in gold pieces. An estimate; it was just supposed to be a rough number.

 

Calanfer: We cannot confirm any bride price for the 6th Princess until a suitable offer is made, of course.

Bitorm: Of course. We would like to renew our interest in the subject, but Calanfer’s [Diplomat] referred us to the Crown.

Calanfer: Some matters are best discussed in person between crowns?

Bitorm: Naturally. Please tender our regards. His Majesty of Illumination is appraised of the subject.

 

Translation time. If she were teaching Ellet how to read this, Ielane would have pointed out a few details. Firstly, Calanfer’s people were trained not to confirm that ludicrous number. Bitorm could ask, but it didn’t even matter if Calanfer knew the answer; secrecy was best.

The [Diplomat] was a good woman; she’d instantly sent Bitorm away rather than give them any clues. They’d further deflected by mentioning crowns. That was a signal that this had to be a discussion by royalty, reserved for high-level topics.

Bitorm had, naturally, concluded that this was the case as well and signaled that their [King] was willing to be the one discussing the matter.

As one might when you saw a [Princess]’ bridal price shoot past anything your kingdom could afford. Ielane blew a puff of smoke out of her mouth.

Here was the thing. [Estimate Bridal Price] took into account a lot of factors. It was a culturally-dependent Skill and was interesting to Ielane because of it.

What level your bride was, her status, the connections you made, yes, her status as virgin, and her own personal achievements, all factored into giving the [Matchmakers] a rough guess as to what they needed to win a hand in a bid.

Something had changed. Ielane had a more refined version of the Skill, and she’d known Lyonette had been changing—but around two weeks ago, something had completely upset every single calculation.

And Ushar was refusing to say what. Typical. Ielane glanced at a report being written to her side.

 

Meeting with Merchant’s Guild; unproductive…interference within the crowd. Multiple observers of significant level. May be forced to break off observation.

 

“Tell them to break off. Ushar will say what is necessary. But keep an eye on Lyonette.

Ielane’s fingers tapped faster on the desk, and ash fell from her cigarette’s tip. What had Lyonette done?

Ielane understood how people acted. She understood politics, economics, the movement of data, and even how armies lived and breathed and died, influencing everything around them.

This? This smelled like high-level magic or Skills. She hated that.

 

——

 

Rheirgest was an ongoing problem. Past midday, Ushar got a [Message] from Dalimont saying that the land meant for Rheirgest was still occupied by stubborn people who’d gone as far as to use the land as a latrine.

“They did what?

It was effective, childish, and Lyonette turned to Ushar.

“Okay, have Ser Normen go over there and make them eat it.”

“Er—Princess?”

Make them eat it. That is Rheirgest’s land. Have the Watch rub their faces in it. Do they think this is acceptable? Do they think there are no consequences? I am them—if Erin was here, she’d have an army ready to break their kneecaps!”

“That, ah—may be true, Your Highness. But that would be a bad look. Optically.”

“Someone has to remind them they can’t just throw their weight around!”

Dame Ushar’s brows rose as Lyonette strode to their final destination, and the crowds lessened.

“By…throwing our weight around?”

“Well—yes! But we know what the consequences are for taking stands and doing what’s needed! I’m not saying that I’d be watching out for a giant skeleton with a club when I slept, but I would if I was a villager from Rheirgest!”

Lyonette was making less sense. But the truth was she was not going to have Ser Normen attack the people…even if he’d have done it. He wasn’t under her control. Nor was Saliss nor Valeterisa…Lyonette felt like one of those yapping dogs that was the size of your foot. All bark, no bite.

Erin was bite. She was actually more bite than bark; people thought she talked a big game until they saw her shooting lightning bolts from her inn. That was the secret Lyonette envied. Behind every silly comment the [Innkeeper] made, behind all the smiles and snubbing the mighty was the sheer fact that Erin was Erin. She could kill a [Prince of Men]. She could defy a dead god.

She was Erin Solstice. Lyonette? What did Lyonette have? Not Erin’s Skills. Lyonette had to hire help. So she strode through Invrisil, out of the high-density tourist districts into a poorer section.

There was an interruption on the way. Someone kept shouting and running through the crowd.

“Princess! Princess!

Lyonette rubbed at her eyes.

“Oh dead gods.”

It had finally happened. Someone had put two and two together and seen the obvious. Someone was running with wide eyes through the crowds, shouting, attracting attention. Lyonette instantly grabbed something from her bag of holding and swirled it around her.

The Cloak of Balshadow was an artifact she had taken from Calanfer and seldom used. Mostly because she was no roving [Assassin]. But it had a useful number of concealment tricks. Ushar instantly murmured.

“[Public Decoy]. [Camouflage Armor]. This way, Lyonette.”

She turned, and a fake Ushar marched ahead through the crowd, down another street, armor glowing brightly; accordingly, Ushar’s real armor dimmed, and she and Lyonette dodged whoever wanted her.

Princess Lyonette—

Whomever it was ran off, and Lyonette exhaled. Too much to hope it wasn’t a random [Princess] or someone else with a pet title. She shook her head.

“Thank you, Ushar.”

“All the more reason to go visit our prospective hires for the inn. Between last night and today—we are undefended, Your Highness.”

Neither had spoken about the sock puppet. Frankly, Lyonette was a bit desensitized to getting attacked in her inn, and even she felt ludicrous bringing up their attacker. She muttered.

“Any idea who it was?”

“Anyone, Your Highness. It was clearly an illusion. A rather obvious one, too. Their spellcasting was fast; Dalimont tried to apprehend them, and I was ready to sound the alarm. Both of us were taken out in a moment.”

“Wonderful. Well—these are the only people I can think of. Do you have a list of counterintelligence agents?”

“What about some of our inn’s spies? There was that Drowned Man that Miss Solstice favored.”

One of Ushar’s ideas was to hire the spies who’d been besetting the inn as part of her new staff. It wasn’t bad—but Lyonette’s face fell as she studied a candidates list.

“Nollesc? I remember him. [Spy of the Captured Moment]?”

“There’s also a Garuda [Scout] and a Drake [Snoop] I could offer…”

They were definitely in a seedier district now, and Ushar broke off as Lyonette swished her cloak around her. It was a sign you were in a gang’s territory when they started eying you despite an [Invisibility] spell. However, one look at Ushar’s armor and they decided they didn’t want the fuss. Yet.

“I’ll consider it.”

The problem was that none of the names, even Nollesc, made Lyonette as…well, as excited as she wanted. She could hire a hundred Nollescs, make an army out of [Spies]. Same for servers. But Lyonette felt, instinctively, that it wasn’t the right call.

The Wandering Inn was not Larracel’s inn. It wasn’t like any other inn. It could be a soft job. At times, it was. At other times, you were up to your eyeballs in Crelers with Draugr coming at you, and you could run—but there were moments when the real employees, like Ishkr, like Liska, even, and Peggy and the rest?

They didn’t run. Lyonette was one of those employees. She hadn’t always done it right, but she thought of her guests.

Dead.

Halfseekers. Half gone.

Griffon Hunt. Halrac and Ulrien paying the price of friendship with the inn.

The <Quest> from a day ago hit her again, and Lyonette heard the words.

 

Optional Condition (Impossible): Don’t let anyone we love die.

 

Oh, Erin. It would be so easy to hire an army of faceless, nameless people and hope they stood between the next Facestealer and her family. But they never would. They’d do what normal people did and run.

Lyonette needed a Gershal of Vaunt.

She didn’t want one. She never wanted one again. That’s why she didn’t want Nollesc. She could imagine she’d get to like some [Spy of the Captured Moment], get to know some charming feature of him or be annoyed by this or that—

Watch him die in place of her when a monster came tearing through the inn. Or, if he was lucky, he’d become an adventurer and go off because that was safer than being a guest at the inn.

Lyonette wanted someone to work at her inn who either wouldn’t die…or whom she could rely on and trust, but not care about.

Difficult, impossible things to ask. Was this why Erin was so bad at hiring people? Lyonette had only one group in mind, and she shifted the cloak as she came to a set of stairs that led downwards between two dilapidated buildings. A steel hatch snapped open as Ushar knocked on the door, and two old pairs of eyes stared at Lyonette, spell or not.

“G’day, ma’ams. Do you have an appointment?”

The accent was older, but Lyonette swore she saw a hat rise, and she dipped her head.

“I believe we’re five minutes early.”

 

——

 

The final chair was plush and soft. Meant for friends. It was inside a den, which was the only way Lyonette could describe a club meant for only men. She hadn’t been given a tour; they were secretive about this place, but they’d let her past a high-level [Doorman] and were plying her with snacks.

All of them stood around, tipping their hats, staring at Lyonette and Ushar, and she began to realize why the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings didn’t let women into their bases; if this was how they acted, they’d never get work done.

She felt—bad coming here. She sipped from a drink of brandy and felt very guilty because she didn’t know the polite trio of men who led this chapter of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. But she knew their type.

Crimshaw, Wilovan, Ratici, Alcaz, Normen—once again, she asked them to join her inn.

To protect or die.

“This time, we can offer you artifacts. Much higher pay.”

The three men in front of her had aliases. Jack, Ace, and John.

Jack was a huge man with scarred, bare knuckles. Ace was very tall and had no weapon Lyonette could see. Ushar had leaned over at one point and muttered garrote wire. The last, John, was plain-faced and so unremarkable that Lyonette had to keep telling herself he was some kind of infiltrator.

“I see, Miss Marquin. It’s a handsome offer. A hand-some-offer.”

Jack spoke for the lot and repeated himself as the other two nodded. They stood there as Lyonette cleared her throat again. This was the hardest meeting yet.

“I—I—came to also mourn Alcaz. I know this is mixing business with…”

“It always happens, Miss. Don’t you worry or fret. With respect! We’re well aware of the peculiars of our lives.”

Ace interrupted, and the heads nodded. Lyonette gave him a grateful nod.

“I…we…are in need of some assistance. And you are the best we know of. The bravest. Your brothers in Liscor—”

“Fools they were. Brave fools. The fellows that lived are a right mess. I can’t say the Brothers do that sort of thing, Miss Lyonette. Certainly, we’d never order it.”

John put in calmly, and Lyonette met his eyes.

“But you do every time. That’s why Erin trusted you.”

The plain-faced man shifted and looked away from her as if scorched. Lyonette glanced around, and the Brothers turned their heads, coughed, reached for a cup, fanned their faces with hats—as if she were the scary one.

As if she made them uncomfortable. Here she was, and if they were bad men, Lyonette would have been terrified despite Ushar and her artifacts. She knew they ran protection rackets and murdered. But she wanted them.

Yet. Jack let the silence grow as he glanced at the bar.

“If you’re willing, let’s have a drink for Alcaz, Miss. I know it’s a rather rough drink, if you’ll pardon us, but we don’t have anything refined…”

“Oh, no, I’m quite fine.”

Lyonette lied. She hadn’t actually drunk a brandy she could really remember. Maybe at a party when she’d snuck drinks? But she remembered Alcaz liking the stuff when he worked as a bartender on long nights. She missed him.

They all poured a drink, and Lyonette watched them knock down a double shot and did likewise. It was strong stuff, and she saw Ushar wince, but she put her cup down.

“I can’t promise you that it will be—easy. I know the Brothers’ specialties. I am simply asking if anyone—any chapter—is willing to oblige me. They might…I am looking for…”

She paused. The drink wasn’t what made the world spin. She swallowed hard.

“I am looking for a Crimshaw. Another Alcaz.”

The word provoked glances around the room. One of the Brothers was leaning over a billiards table—they must have had one made and brought it down here—and he stared at Lyonette until she glanced over, and he looked down.

“A fine fellow. The finest of the lot.”

Jack said after a while. He cleared his throat, and for some reason, all three men looked at each other. At last, Jack spoke slowly, and Lyonette’s senses told her something was off.

“I can certainly put in a few fellows, Miss Marquin. We can certainly do. I—if you don’t mind my asking, would those fellows have a chance to apply for the Order of Solstice? Or is this an exclusive sort of deal?”

Ace was glancing at Jack, and John was netting his fingers together. They glanced at her, and Lyonette saw Ushar’s eyes tighten. She hadn’t taken more than a sip; Lyonette colored as she suddenly realized something.

Oh no. She spoke hesitantly, following a hunch.

“I—wouldn’t stop any of them from hoping to become a [Knight]. And another Normen would be a fine fellow as well. But he doesn’t fit in the inn, does he?”

Jack refilled his glass and sipped. He did it for Lyonette, and she reflexively took a gulp. Ace’s brows rose.

“Any man might want to be such a fine fellow, Your Highness.”

“…Does the hope of being that fine fellow mean you’d send Brothers to my inn? Or are you afraid that if you refuse, I won’t recommend anyone for the Order of Solstice?”

Lyonette lowered her cup, and her gaze was direct. Jack met her eyes and ran a finger across a thin mustache.

“—Nary a thought would cross our minds, Princess.”

She nodded, sighing hard.

“The Order of Solstice has nothing to do with The Wandering Inn for recruitment, Jack. If none of you come to work for us—Ser Normen won’t take my orders for who should be a [Knight]. He is the Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice. Not me. Nor even Erin herself.”

The three leaders of Invrisil’s Brothers exchanged a look of hidden relief, and Lyonette tossed down the second double shot. She gave them a sad smile.

“I think the number of applicants suddenly dried up, am I right?”

Jack had the good grace to chuckle and look embarrassed.

“With respect, Your Highness…a fellow thinks in twisted ways, sometimes. May I be so forthright as a fellow like me is? I can’t think of how to say it fancier.”

Lyonette sighed.

“My dear Jack. You are the fanciest fellows I’ve ever known, and Calanfer’s courts look shamefully boring compared to you. Be plain as you like.”

He grinned at that, and he had a lot of his teeth left. Then he sombered.

“Well, thank you. I’ll cherish that compliment under my hat. The truth is, we’re not of a mind to join up, Princess. It’s not just the good fellows who’ve gone. It happens. The truth is…we’re not the right sort for the inn. We don’t defend. We go out. We don’t scrap with monsters. We scrap with people like us.”

He got nods not just from Ace and John, but from around the room. A depressed [Princess] reached out for the brandy and refilled the glass.

“But what if I told you that you were the best—the best men I could think of? No one else can walk into the inn and tell me their group and let me trust them.”

Jack’s voice was soft, hurt, and pleased all at once. He gave Lyonette a long stare.

“That’s part of it, Miss Lyonette. Part of it. You’ve met fine men wearing our hats and names. I’d hate for you to meet anyone less. Sometimes you shine a coin up, and my, how it sparkles. Some of us you rub on and it sticks to you.”

That was a refusal outright. The [Princess] took a third gulp of her drink and stood.

“Well then, I insist you at least let me toast Alcaz again. And if I may be so bold, as it were, I could use a tiny bit of help with at least one associate? Please?”

They stood and took a cup in hand.

“Friendship we can do, Miss Marquin.”

John sounded relieved as they clinked glasses. Lyonette gave them a watery smile.

“But then where am I supposed to meet men as fine as this company?”

They laughed at that as if she’d told the best joke in the world.

 

——

 

Mrsha decided yesterday had been a good day after all. She’d been happy about yesterday. Bird came back, even if he—she was different than Mrsha expected. Rheirgest’s villagers were sort of fun.

9/10 day on the basis of those two things. Minus a point for people in Liscor being horrible. Minus a half point for not being allowed to use all the gold in an exciting way. Plus one for the Order of Solstice coming back in one piece. Plus one for a cake.

Minus twenty since Erin and Ryoka were gone and they weren’t the same. Minus a hundred billion because Moore was…and Halrac…

Minus five because Numbtongue was still being a dinkus, a new word Rose had taught Mrsha.

Plus zero point two for Rose being a poor Gnoll’s Kevin.

Minus a billion because Kevin was dead.

On the whole, a better-than-average day. The numbers didn’t lie; Yelroan sometimes taught Mrsha math, or attempted to, and she was learning it in school. She reckoned if she divided everything by zero it was all a wash.

She was just glad Bird was back. Now she had an older sister. Funny how life worked out. Two older sisters if Nanette counted. They were sort of like roommates, no matter what Lyonette said about Nanette being a second daughter.

However, today was shaping up to start out as a real 6/10 day. Plus one for the funny [Long Hallways] and Lyonette might do some good out there, which would boost the score, but Mrsha was perplexed.

Because…Bird was back. But Bird wasn’t Bird.

She was still out there, shooting arrows in the snow. Not in her tower or singing silly songs or chasing Mrsha around. Normally, she’d do that, especially if she were back from the dead. True, it hadn’t happened before, but Mrsha felt this was the kind of thing Bird would do.

Instead, Mrsha had to bundle up and waddle into the snow to find Bird pulling arrows out of a bunch of snow-targets she’d made. A few Antinium were watching; they ran off when Mrsha stared at them.

Bird was topless. That was to say, she only had a loincloth on, but it became a bit more inappropriate given her new form. She had a slightly ant-like butt, Mrsha realized. The Antinium was so intent on her target practice she only saw Mrsha scribbling.

“Oh, hello, Mrsha. Good morning to you. Are you being a mischievous scamp today?”

Morning, Bird. Why aren’t you in your tower being fun? Want to play tag?

Bird read the card and lowered her mandibles, another odd sign.

“I am training. I have lost ten levels, Mrsha. You go and have fun. I must learn the most economical way to shoot arrows with two arms. I suppose the Free Queen is right; it is hard to even get to maximum draw without using my new strength.”

She flexed her arms, and Mrsha raised her paws. Bird obligingly picked Mrsha up. Then she turned and threw Mrsha through the air.

I regret this! Mrsha howled in a panic, and Ser Dalimont broke into a run.

Rittane, emerging from her covered wagon with her parents, looked up as a flying Gnoll passed over a hill and a Thronebearer charged after the Gnoll.

 

——

 

Mrsha was still wiping snow out of her face when she returned, rubbing at her back. Bird was indeed stronger. The Antinium fired another arrow, then paused.

“Hm. It doesn’t curve right because it’s too fast. I must shoot from further away.”

Do you also have better eyes?

“Yes. I do not have all of Klbkch’s upgrades because the Silent Queen has more resources and everyone worked on him, but the Free Queen says I am the most advanced Antinium since they arrived on Izril. Apparently, I am derived from Klbkch’s form, which the Silent Queen had worked on for ages. Because she is obsessed with him.”

Why’s that? She liiikes him?

Mrsha saw Bird glance down at her.

“Apparently.”

Oh.

The Gnoll girl stood there, wiping snow off her face as Bird went back to target practice. There it was again, that sense of wrongness. It wasn’t the funny, unpleasant feeling Mrsha got when she saw Erin on the scrying orb. This was still Bird. But Bird was different.

Helplessly, Mrsha looked at Dalimont. Nanette wasn’t here; she had gone to the [Witches] in Riverfarm to check on Alevica. That was her school as well. Dalimont paused, then handed Mrsha a flask filled with hot milk and honey. Mrsha sipped it and gave him a thumbs up.

“May I offer you refreshments, Bird?”

“No thank you, Dalimont.”

Apista buzzed down as Mrsha drank and watched Bird. The bee was lazy in winter and sulking because she wasn’t allowed to follow Lyonette into cities. She landed on Mrsha’s head, and Mrsha let her have some milk. After a while, Mrsha wrote on her card.

Bird. Why are you so serious? I thought you’d want to hang out with your favorite little sister. Numbtongue’s grumpy all day and only wants to hang out with his lady friends. Are you going to be nasty and busy all the time?

Bird came back from getting her arrows again and looked down at the card. She stared at Mrsha’s worried expression and patted Mrsha on the head.

“I will not be nasty. But I will be training, Mrsha. You go have fun. This is what Mrshas should do.”

But not Birds? Birds are the masters of having fun.

Bird sighed.

“It is true. But you know, Mrsha…you have seen Erin in the scrying orb, yes? I watched while I was recovering.”

Duh.

“Then you have seen Erin’s new fighting Skill. And heard her.”

She’s weird and won’t talk to us. I don’t like it.

The Antinium leaned on her bow and stared at a half-destroyed snow target.

“…Neither do I. But I understand. She is training. I am taking my lessons from her. She must feel she needs to be stronger. I know I must be. Mrsha. If I had been better with my bow, maybe Halrac would not have died.”

Mrsha inhaled sharply. Her paw stopped; it was cold, and she blew on her mittens, then used her wand to make the quill dance about. But what to say? She saw Bird’s arms were shaking a bit as she leaned on her bow. Then she understood.

Bird hadn’t been there for the funerals. Or the month it had taken to…

Have you seen his grave?

“Yes. It is a very nice grave. I wish they had not needed to be made. So you see, Mrsha—”

Bird’s shoulders rose, and she lifted the bow again.

“—I do not have time to be silly.”

Ser Dalimont was giving Bird a look of feeling. Mrsha was too, but she hugged Apista, and her feelings were different.

But if you’re not the Bird I know, then I’ll be sad.

“If you die, I’ll be so sad I won’t be able to come back, Mrsha. I have made my choice.”

Slowly, the Chitrx metal bow rose. Bird sighted down it, and it thudded through the air. She paused, and her voice was frustrated.

“I do not understand how to get better. I will think. Can you make arrows…do [Sword Arts]? How do you shoot an arrow…?”

Mrsha was still standing there as Bird loosed seven more arrows, then glanced down. The [Bird Hunter] paused, then whirled abruptly. Mrsha followed her, and Bird spoke, staring down at her hands.

“…There was once a boy. Playing baseball or doing something silly. The boy is gone, Mrsha. I promised to protect Erin. This is what getting old is like. It is something I swore would never happen, but it became something I wanted. That is the scariest thing of all. Please go inside and be happy.”

She gave Mrsha a slightly desperate look, and Mrsha shook her head. She felt at Bird’s arm, then tugged on her shoulder.

You’re all cold. Shooting arrows all morning will just make you sick. There’s more to Bird than just shooting arrows. I won’t go in until you do something fun.

“Mrsha. I will rest and do what I must to relax. I am not a silly Ksmvr or Yvlon. But this is something I can do. You are small. You can run around.”

Bird was not trying to be hurtful, but Mrsha’s eyes narrowed a bit, and she punched Bird in the arm. Ow. She rubbed her paw.

You think so? Silly Bird. I can do important things too. You’re not the only person who can change. Come with me. Or do you think Erin was strong because she went out and swung her frying pan every morning a hundred thousand times?

That worked. Bird stopped and then knelt in the snow for a good half a minute. Abruptly, she straightened.

“Let me get my arrows. And I remind you that Erin has a silly class.”

Then she followed Mrsha and witnessed what the little Gnoll did in between her school, her friends, and laundering millions of gold pieces. For what could a silly, little Mrsha do?

 

——

 

Mrsha had asked that question too. She had asked it after nights when she woke up and hugged Nanette in tears or curled up by the fire or just sat by the graves. Every day, she did three important things.

Firstly, she watered the Faerie Flowers in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. The cloud could do it, but Mrsha made sure the gold coins weren’t burying them, and sometimes she replanted them. It was getting harder; their roots were getting deeper, and the latest crop hadn’t given her any yellow flowers. They’d just gotten taller and taller.

Anyways. The second thing she did was shovel a path to the graves with Nanette and tell everyone how her day had been.

Then Mrsha had school or a playdate, or she tried to steal food from Calescent or just spun in circles with Sammial until one of them fell over. She plotted with Nanette how to get the wand back or watched the news about Erin. But that wasn’t really important.

Mrsha knew that. She was a little girl. She didn’t swing a sword around every day like Lyonette. No matter how much she might want to, she couldn’t imagine swooping down from the heavens like Valeterisa, even if she studied magic every day, and she did study it at school.

So. Later in the day, in the evenings, even at night, before she went to bed, Mrsha would pull something out of her bag of holding. It was something that Yelroan had helped her make. She showed it to Bird, and the Antinium stopped as Mrsha halted at her destination.

“Oh. I see. That is indeed something more important than me and my silly arrows. Well done, Mrsha.”

The Gnoll gave the Antinium a proud look and took the little spreadsheet back. It was just a few columns and rows. Every morning, she would move down a row and add a little note under each name with the date.

After, of course, she did this.

Mrsha stood in the [World’s Eye Theatre] and closed her eyes. She didn’t need words; the glass dome overhead blinked, and the world shifted around her. She was transported across the world in an instant, and someone looked up from where he sat, studying some maps in a tiny room with a window that showed the sea.

“Go away, Mrsha.”

Seborn Sailwinds growled, and Mrsha waved at him. Then pointed. The [Rogue] paused.

“Who is that?”

Bird.

Seborn stared at Mrsha. Then at Bird. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled bitterly. His throat worked, and Mrsha studied the stubble on his cheek. She peeked at a pile of dirty, wet clothes, then tried to see if he’d lost weight. After a while, Seborn replied.

“I’m…glad someone made it. Hello, Bird.”

“Seborn. You look terrible. I am very sorry.”

“—Thanks.”

Seborn looked away. Mrsha raised a few more notes she’d prepared, but he didn’t want to chat. So after a moment, she closed the connection and wrote in her little spreadsheet. Her last two entries read as followed:

 

Month 16, Day 14, Year of 23 A.F. Port City, Tangecel, Izril. The Marooned Sailor. Drunk. Has he lost weight? Cheer up song did not work. Learned new bad word: ‘shiteating bilgesnail’. Alive.
Month 16, Day 15, Year of 23 A.F. Same port, same inn. Seems okay today. Introduced Bird. Alive.

 

She moved to the next entry in her little spreadsheet. Yelroan said it was smart to take notes about things in case you forgot. He was a smart guy, so Mrsha had made this up. It had taken her ages to draw the lines right before Nanette told her to use something flat—that was [Witch] wisdom for you.

Next. Mrsha waited for a flicker, anything. She stared at the air as Bird shifted from foot to foot, then just wrote in her document.

 

Month 16, Day 14, Year of 23 A.F. New Lands. Location unknown. Condition unknown. No new news. Alive. No statue.
Month 16, Day 15, Year of 23 A.F. New Lands. Location unknown. Condition unknown. Mother is going to ask about the Silver Swords in Invrisil today.

 

She left the cell of the fifth column blank. Mrsha tried again, switching from her first target of Ylawes to Falene, then Dawil. She repeated the entry.

“Mrsha. Do you do this every day?”

She half-nodded. Apista buzzed around her and surprised the heck out of a City Runner, who yelped and nearly leapt into a snowdrift. Garia Strongheart swore, then grinned.

“Apista! Mrsha, you scared me! Is it my daily check in? Have you, uh, seen Numbtongue around?”

Mrsha scribbled on a notecard as Garia kept running. The Gnoll girl didn’t take long; she just gave Garia some highlights. Asked how things were.

“Oh, just another run to Remendia. I swear, I don’t know how Ryoka did it back in the day. She’s fast, but she was guzzling stamina potions. I might go further afield after this. Or swing by the inn if anything’s happening! Is my mother still hanging around with the Archmage?”

Mrsha nodded. Garia sighed, and Mrsha cut the call. She moved on. Next…sometimes she did things alphabetically. Sometimes not.

She didn’t spend too much time on any one call. She had too many entries to get to. After a while, Mrsha realized Bird had sat down and was watching her.

Every single day, Mrsha checked in on The Wandering Inn’s guests. Not all of them. Not the ones in Liscor or the ones she couldn’t reach, like Erin. But the rest?

Someone had to. Every day, Mrsha wrote a little word in the box on the right. And if she didn’t know, she went up the hill into the mists. She was so preoccupied with her job that she only turned around when Fetohep had flickered into view. She wrote ‘dead, but okay’, in the box, same as always, and saw something new.

Water was leaking from around Bird’s eyes. They glimmered, and a droplet ran down the Antinium’s smooth face, dripping off a mandible.

“I asked her to make crying easier.”

Bird’s voice didn’t shake or wobble like other people’s did. But when Mrsha saw that, she went over and gave Bird a hug. Apista had already landed on Bird’s head. The Antinium pulled Mrsha up and gently embraced her.

“I am sorry I said stupid things. I am only a Bird. Of course you can do things that matter so much.”

Like a dreamer waking, Bird’s head slowly rose as Mrsha nuzzled her cheek against Bird’s face. Then Bird stared around the inn, and Mrsha heard a strange sound from Bird’s chest.

“I am hungry. What am I doing? I should have at least bought food for my Workers in the Hive. And there are many guests I did not meet. Is Menolit around? Where is Selys? I did not see her yesterday.”

Mrsha giggled in relief, then sighed. She began to write a long explanation as Bird picked her up, but her heart lifted, despite the sadness about Selys.

Bird hummed as they walked back into the inn, and the first thing she said was—

“We must have cake for breakfast, Mrsha. It is only right. Then you can explain why there is gold all over. Then I will do something silly. And then…I can train in the evenings. Right?”

Right. For once, Ser Dalimont didn’t even argue, but brought two big slices of cake out. Bird waved at Calescent, and the [Chef] came out and sat down with them. Then Mrsha saw Bird smile and begin to sing.

Oh, it is a day for cake. Like every day. We would never have it if Lyonette had her way. But I am Bird, and so I say: it is cake day today.

Then, at last, things were right, no matter what Bird looked like, and Mrsha relaxed. There. Without Erin and Ulvama—someone had to take care of all these silly people. She reached for a fork and wondered how soon Bird would get on board her plan to buy an Adventure Room for The Wandering Inn.

Then she wondered which new people her mother might bring back to the inn and who else she’d have to add to that painful list. She hoped she’d never have to expand it or write a different word in that little column on the right. But the list of names made up pieces of her heart.

Growing up was so complex indeed.

 

——

 

Lyonette was still drunk an hour after the round of toasts, but given that she’d taken down at least six shots of brandy in quick succession, Ushar was amazed the [Princess] was upright.

“Your Highness has a tolerance for drinks. That’s the Marquin liver for you.”

“Ushar. Is that true?”

Lyonette walked somewhat unsteadily out of the bar with Jack and Ace leading the way. Ushar raised her brows.

“It’s a staple of the line of Marquin all the way back to Marquin the Radiant herself.”

“…I would have preferred some other signifier of royalty. But I’ll take it.”

Lyonette sobered up faster in the cold air. The Brothers weren’t in that desolate a district, and while there might be unsavory sorts around, one look at the men with hats meant they weren’t going anywhere near this lot.

Indeed, they were quite convivial around Lyonette, if adamant they wouldn’t join the inn. She was maudlin about it, but she at least had access to their friendship, which was a significant thing.

One of the things it did, for instance, was get her in touch with an information broker of a different sort than Fierre’s. Fierre did gossip, news, intrigue. There were experts in…other fields.

Like people. Missing, alive, or if you paid enough money, you could arrange for any number of statuses to be appended to their condition.

Lyonette was surprised it was a woman with a gap-toothed grin who sat behind a fortune teller’s stand two streets over.

“Are ye looking for someone, Princess Marquin?”

“Yes, thank you. You’re Crookfingers?”

The woman held up a hand and shrugged. Her fingers were only slightly crooked, but she grinned.

“Honored to meet you. May I ask who you’re about? If it’s someone important, news might be hard to come by. I’m mostly Izrilian. Then again, if you want to sell information, I can make that work.”

Lyonette snorted lightly.

“Buy is all I want to do, today. I’m looking for a Drake. She goes by the name of Tessa. Her alias is—”

Shriekblade?

Crookfingers’ brows rose, and Jack and Ace glanced at Lyonette with real interest. Lyonette nodded.

“The very same. She was at our inn and ran away—”

“Oh, I know all about that. Let’s see. Five and a half sticks should do all I need for. That’s whereabouts, condition, the lot. Just for you.”

Crookfingers did a fast calculation. From the way Ushar and Jack grimaced, this was not actually a good deal.

“Sticks?”

“A marker for larger sums, Your Highness. Each gang has some.”

Jack broke out five lacquered sticks with what looked like gemstone particles crushed into the handle with glue and then a half-stick. Crookfingers swept them into her dress in an instant.

“Shriekblade’s at Tenbault.”

“I knew it.”

Lyonette groaned. Ushar gave Crookfingers a severe look.

“I hope you have more than that, Miss.”

The [Information Broker] looked insulted.

“More? A’course I do. She’s on the tear of drug tears. Out of her mind with it. My informant knows a thing or two about it, and they say she’s taken enough to kill an ordinary [Assassin]. Healer of Tenbault or no, she’s in bad shape. Mind you, the Healer’s why she’s alive. Seems like she’s doing all kinds of dirty work for the Healer. Not just guard duty like Crowdcaller Merdon. She’s even taken monster contracts like an adventurer—but guess who the coin goes back to?”

Lyonette was getting angrier and angrier with each second, and the remaining alcohol in her veins was turning to fire. She leaned over the fortune teller’s stall.

“The Healer? Why would she do that?”

“Well, aside from the healing, it’s hard to cost more than a Named-rank’s worth. ‘Specially since you’re apparently easy to drug up when you just get healed by the Healer. Rich folks will come down bad on something, then have her heal them up so they can do it again. Stands to reason Shriekblade’s doing the same.”

Crookfingers’ voice was too patient. She read off a list of notes.

“Lessee here. Well, Merdon is making her do all the heavy work, but maybe the lad’s swamped. There are more riots these days; the Healer’s doubled prices. She’s also raised how many people she heals per day. Almost like something’s got her spooked, eh?”

Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril had let some very interesting things slip now and then, especially to Nanette. She had a bunch of projects in the works. Lyonette’s eyes narrowed further.

“So she’s acting as security while drugged out of her mind? How’s she doing? Mentally? Is she eating?”

That threw Crookfingers.

“Mentally? Like, uh, someone taking an egg and kicking it in a game of football, I’d guess. Eating? She’s looking thin, but she’s still wicked as a razor. Named-ranks are until the second they drop dead.”

Lyonette could just picture it. Tessa sometimes forgot to eat, and she would sit in the rafters or obsessively get into a funk. Her on drugs? Drugs far worse than Shardele had ever touched?

What was this Healer doing? Lyonette spoke, for once not considering the impact of what happened next.

“Can you get a message to her? Do you have people in the area?”

“Do I have people in—”

Crookfingers looked at the two Brothers and then at Lyonette, insulted. She spoke like she was talking to a girl.

“Yes, Your Highness. Plenty. You want a message on Shriekblade’s desk in the morning? I can’t promise it’ll be read, and we have to wait till she’s out of the room, but I can do it.”

Lyonette almost said ‘yes’, but she had a good idea of how well that would work. She half-shook her head.

“Can you bring her back? To Invrisil, I mean.”

Crookfingers twitched at that.

“You want me to kidnap a Named-rank?”

“No. Just bring her back.”

The broker sucked on her teeth hard and gave the two Brothers a look. Jack was counting his sticks in his pocket, and Ace muttered something to Ushar. She muttered something back and handed him her bag of holding. He stared into it, then nudged Jack and began pulling sticks out of his pockets.

Crookfingers noticed all that and turned to Lyonette with a smile, but a slightly apprehensive one.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done. But I’m not a Roshal. You ask me something that big and I’ll want lots of protection. For myself, you understand? Let alone you. Not just in sticks. That kind of thing is a favor owed, and that’s a big thing with us.”

“I’d caution against, Miss Lyonette.”

Ace interrupted, and Lyonette chewed on her lip.

“She’d probably attack, anyways. But this Healer is letting Tessa go wild? Do I have that right?”

“Seems like the only thing she’s got on Shriekblade, yeah.”

Lyonette’s eyes flashed.

“Then…can you get a message on her desk?”

Kevin had met the Healer of Tenbault briefly. Rags and the Goblins? Longer. None of them had a particularly good impression of her, especially Calescent, who looked depressed each time it was brought up. Crookfingers’ eyes lit up.

“Now there’s a challenge. It’ll cost you more’n even Shriekblade. She’s got Merdon around her, and she’ll kick up an unholy fuss if she gets a note she don’t like. That puts my people in danger. But say I can and you’re good for it. What does it say?”

When Lyonette paused, Crookfingers added.

“Y’gotta tell me, anyways. No sense writing it down; I have to communicate it to my people. Let’s be honest which secret’s which, right?”

“No, it’s fine. I was just composing my thoughts.”

Lyonette gave the other woman a thin smile. She didn’t like Crookfingers, but the woman was apparently the best in her ‘business’, so Lyonette spoke as Crookfingers produced a magical quill that dictated her words.

“Put this on the Healer’s desk. ‘Return Shriekblade. Do not let her take any more drugs. Do not enable her suffering. Let her go home and stop healing her and using her to make money. If you do not, I will personally call Symphony down on your head, you wretched pile of pus. You worthless peon—Magnolia Reinhart won’t protect you. If Shriekblade isn’t out of Tenbault by the end of the week, tell Merdon to get reinforcements’.”

Halfway through her message, Crookfingers’ mouth fell open, and Jack and Ace twisted around to stare at Lyonette, Jack with an increasing look of delight.

“I—you—what? I can’t write that!”

Crookfingers blustered, nervous now, and Lyonette loomed over her. She reached into her bag of holding and slapped something down.

“Yes, you will. And you’ll put a notice out.”

“To whom?”

“To the gangs. To anyone. Any broker—if they touch Tessa, if anyone gets a smart idea or sells her anything, they can look forwards to this.”

The woman took a look at what Lyonette had slapped down and then blanched. She picked up a signed card with two fingers, grabbed a stone from her shawl, passed it over the front; when the plain, cream-colored parchment blazed with a network of colors, she dropped it.

“Dead gods! How do you have one of these?

It was a card signed by none other than the Maestro of Symphony himself. It was a simple little note to Erin. A 50% discount on their services.

Guess. Now, this card means I get half off. I’ll pay full price. I’ll pay full price several times if I have to. Tell your other contacts that. No one sells anything to Tessa. I’m going to write a letter to her. I want you to put it on her desk every day until she reads it. And the one I sent to the Healer.”

“You want me to threaten Izril’s most beloved [Healer]? Listen, Princess, people talk! That’s not worth the coin you can pay me!”

Now, the woman was looking really worried, and she tried to push herself back from the stall. Lyonette reached into the stall and grabbed her.

“Do it! Or I’ll be calling Symphony tonight!”

“You can’t threaten me!”

I am threatening you.

Jack, Ace, and Ushar were trying to pull Lyonette back. She shouted at the woman, who gaped at her, fingers clasped around Lyonette’s hands. The [Princess] was having a rotten day. She kicked the stall, shouting as they dragged her off.

On her desk tomorrow, Crookfingers! My hat on it! Every hat in Invrisil on it! Put a dead rat on the Healer’s desk! With a bloody dagger through its heart. You think I’m joking? If anyone keeps poisoning Tessa, I’ll hire another assassin group! I am the consequences…!

 

——

 

A few minutes later, Lyonette finally let them stop dragging her away, got to her feet, and brushed her clothes off. Her cheeks had stopped flushing scarlet, and she nodded at Jack and Ace.

“I think that convinced her I’m serious, don’t you? Dame Ushar will cover all your costs, gentlemen. Rest assured, we are good for it.”

Jack gave her a look of astonishment. One second, the [Princess] was ready to breathe fire, the next, she was sipping from a tonic for her throat her [Knight] had given her.

“Wait, was that an act, Miss?”

Lyonette put Symphony’s card away.

“Only partly. I rather think an alarmingly insane [Princess] is rather more of a threat, don’t you? Crookfingers should convey the risk well.”

Lyonette was still genuinely furious at the Healer, but she wasn’t about to lose her head. She turned to Ace.

“Now, Dame Ushar believes that sort of warning is likely to go down well with the gangs. But if you believe I have gone too far, you may go back and have a word, as it were, with Crookfingers and deliver a less bombastic message.”

Ace blinked, then smiled as Jack smoothed his mustache with a look of admiration. The man thought, then grinned.

“I haven’t seen old Crookfingers look so shook as long as I’ve known her. I’d almost cover her costs myself for the pleasure, Miss Lyonette. I think I’ll go back and say we had to drag you off before you called Symphony on the Healer there and then.”

Excellent. Then we’d better split up before her agents see me so calm. Thank you, Jack, Ace.”

They tipped their hats to her and watched her vanish with her cloak. Lyonette walked for a good twenty minutes through Invrisil before she thought she would have reasonably calmed down.

Very well done, Your Highness. Nothing unnerves gangs like someone unpredictable. Normally, they like to remove that sort of influence, but the Brothers and your connection with Symphony, along with your status, makes that difficult.”

“Just so long as Tessa comes back. If the Healer doesn’t move, we’ll have to send someone after her. But who could deal with a Named-rank?”

That was what worried Lyonette. Crowdcaller Merdon was the Healer’s bodyguard, and if he tried to stop whomever she sent, Dalimont or Ushar or even Normen would be in trouble.

Though, speaking of Named-ranks, Lyonette had an amusing encounter with one in the City of Adventurers on the way back towards the door. She stopped for a boba tea they were selling here—Imani’s influence had reached Invrisil—when they saw an altercation at a restaurant.

Invrisil was a famous city, and while many adventurers had gone to the New Lands, Lyonette should not have been surprised to see a Named-rank here in this city; there was almost always one or two.

But this particular Named-rank made Lyonette stop and scowl. Elia Arcsinger was standing in front of the restaurant, speaking with a very angry-looking [Head Waiter] or maybe even the owner—and a half-Elf, two half-Elves, were being tossed out.

Capoinelia Arcsinger and Angest flew refreshingly far as they were tossed out. Both looked disheveled from being in a fight, and Elia was shaking her head as the [Manager] tried to advance on her. But he didn’t quite manage it, despite a quartet of big [Waiters]. Mostly because Elia Arcsinger had her bow.

…But her bow. The golden one was gone, and in its place was just a bow. Made of wood. As Lyonette stopped and listened in, she saw Elia’s clothes were not the rich adventurer’s garb she’d last seen her in, attacking Riverfarm to kill the Goblins. She looked rather haggard, and she was pointing the bow at the ground. Nevertheless. She was a Named-rank, so the [Manager] used his words.

“They’ve run up a tab of five hundred gold pieces!”

“I can’t pay it. Take it up with the Merchant’s Guild.”

“We did! Which was when we discovered—this is fraud, Adventurer Arcsinger!

The [Manager] raised his voice, as if to shout to all of Invrisil her crimes. But if he was hoping to embarrass her—Elia just stood there. Her face was red, but she didn’t react. Nor did the news look like the biggest shock to the passersby.

They were murmuring and eyeing Arcsinger’s Bows—what was left of them—derisively. Capoinelia struggled up, hand reaching for a scabbard that Lyonette realized was empty.

“If I had my blade—”

“You’d do what? Cut us down? Some Named-rank team! I thought the rumors had to be false, that Arcsinger’s Bows weren’t even good for food. I should have known when Elia herself didn’t even appear.”

The [Manager] gave Elia a half-angry, half-embarrassed look. Hurt, and Lyonette wondered if he’d been a fan.

That made her vicarious enjoyment of the situation somewhat lessen, but only by a bit. Elia’s ears drooped slightly as she flushed harder.

“I’m sorry. My daughter and teammate can’t pay the fee. Please, take it up with the Merchant’s Guild. Capoinelia—”

She reached down, but her daughter was drunk and slapped her hand away.

“I’m done. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me, Mother.”

Elia paused, then hissed down, but the silence let Lyonette hear every word.

“You’re a disgrace. Get up.”

I’m the disgrace? We’re a laughingstock! You’re the one who couldn’t beat a single Gold-rank adventurer. Look what you’ve done to your legacy! To the team. I’m a Gold-rank adventurer, and now I—I—”

They were missing their gear, Lyonette realized. The [Mage], Capoinelia, Elia—why?

“Ushar?”

The Thronebearer whispered back, and several people leaned in to hear.

“Debts, milady. Arcsinger’s Bows always had them. They were famous spendthrifts, and I imagine after their reputation collapsed—one drinks hard after a defeat like that. Gambles, or so I heard. A few instances of their team doing that and the debts come back. Even Named-ranks might have to pawn their gear to pay for it. And once one is out of work…”

And a famous fake, the debts compounded. Small wonder they were already in trouble after so long. Elia yanked Capoinelia up after several tries, but the half-Elf just stumbled away.

“I’m going home, Mother. If we even have a home. Don’t follow me.”

“Capoinelia, we’re adventurers. You can’t live like you have unless you at least keep—”

Who am I supposed to learn from? You?

The half-Elf swung around and pointed a finger at her mother. Her face was pale with outrage, anger—Lyonette moved forwards as Capoinelia stumbled away.

The [Princess] stuck her foot out and looked the other way when the half-Elf went sprawling. She was tempted to start kicking, but Ushar had already moved her back.

How dare she look so outraged and betrayed after what they did? Goblins were dead because of Elia. Lyonette tossed a look at the famed half-Elf and saw someone toss a piece of snow at her. Several people were booing, and someone else was calling for a scrying orb.

Invrisil’s opinion had, like the world, turned on Elia Arcsinger. Lyonette searched for the half-Elf, hoping for something else to fuel her brief taste for vengeance. She wished the Goblins could have seen this—

All she saw was Elia Arcsinger, hair golden, beautiful features—and she was a striking half-Elf, it was part of her reputation—standing, facing the restaurant. She was bowing from the waist, holding her bow, as the [Manager] walked away, shaking his head. She kept her head down, then turned with a lost look and began to walk back through the crowd.

It soured Lyonette’s pure satisfaction a bit. She wished she could just enjoy seeing the Named-rank at her lowest. But she had little time to focus on Elia. Because here came that damn shouter again.

Princess! Princess Lyonette!

Someone was running down the street again. Elia never turned back; crazy shouting people weren’t actually that rare in big cities, but Lyonette sighed. She began to stride away with Ushar when the person leapt forwards.

Ushar whirled, fast as a snake, with her shield raised in case he had a projectile, but the man stopped. He was, Lyonette realized as she recoiled, a Stitch-man.

A [Beggar]? He was clearly homeless; he wore a bundle of rags in the freezing cold, and he looked thin and hungry. Yet his eyes roamed the crowd. They rapidly got out of his way, and someone called for the Watch, but in Invrisil, the Watch was hardly as responsive as in Liscor.

“Lyonette! Lyonette du Marquin! A Princess has duties! A Princess is important!”

He kept shouting and walking forwards. Lyonette looked at Ushar, confused, but the Thronebearer was set on the danger, glancing from left to right. No one seemed to be flanking them—Lyonette tried to hide her face with a cloak, but he’d seen her.

“Princess!”

“Back! In the name of the crown! [Summon Reinforcements]! To me!

Ushar drew her sword, and a piercing whistle from the Watch split the crowd. However, the strange homeless man hadn’t advanced. He stood there, arms raised, face comically delighted and relieved. Then he pointed at Lyonette.

“Princess! You are a [Princess].”

He said it without a doubt in the world. Lyonette felt compelled to respond and called back.

“What do you want?”

“A [Princess] is important. Even if she is no [Queen]! A [Princess] has rights, even far from home! She can name bodyguards, claim wealth, and even exact decrees on her land! A [Princess] is a [Princess], Lyonette du Marquin!

The [Beggar] began shouting nonsense at her. At least, the crowd thought so as they hurried away. But to Lyonette? She blinked at him, and the man’s eyes darted to Ushar, then to a group of [Guards] coming through the crowd.

“A [Princess] may declare a child a successor and make her royalty. A [Princess] may call upon Royal Skills. She may convene a ball fit for the monarchy. A fête? If she satisfies the conditions, she may create a royal event, even if she lacks the Skill! It is a Skill of the Hundred Families, you see? Even a Calanferian Princess qualifies.”

“What on earth?”

Ushar breathed. She stared at Lyonette, and the hairs on the back of Lyonette’s neck rose. She could do what? Declare a successor? Why…that did make sense. Mrsha? And—and Royal Skills?

“Who are you? How do you know that? What Skills?”

The [Beggar] backed up, seeming delighted. He smiled with a set of bright white teeth, and Lyonette blinked. He was a Stitch-man. Of course, he could just replace his teeth—then she heard him laugh once. He pointed at her as the Watch began to jog reluctantly at him, not really in the mood to tangle with a crazy man in the snow.

“The Quarass knows your name, Lyonette du Marquin! She knows everything! Ask her! Ask for Germina’s wisdom!”

Then he fled as the Watch broke into a run. Lyonette was rendered speechless for a moment.

“The Quarass? Of Germina? That snake of snakes? Did she send that man here? Does she even have agents in Izril?”

Ushar looked rattled. Lyonette knew the Quarass by reputation, of course. She was one of the few rulers Ielane spoke highly of, and Reclis had dozens of books on her.

“Do you think she’s right about Royal Skills, Ushar?”

“If anyone might know…besides Her Majesty, of course. But why would she—?”

The two looked at each other and said one word.

“Gold.”

When you got down to it—everyone wanted gold. Lyonette glanced around. The Watch was pursuing the man, but they’d remember her quickly. It wouldn’t be good to draw that much attention.

“To the inn, Ushar.”

They had a lot to think about without the Brothers. And there was Rheirgest and—Lyonette and Ushar turned. The Thronebearer had been sheathing her sword, but she whipped it back out and cursed.

A second Stitch-man was standing in the plaza behind them. No—Lyonette saw Ushar’s eyes move, and a dozen figures smoothly bowed. A Stitch-woman held a medallion up in her hand, and Lyonette saw a [Diplomat]’s amulet, the kind Nerul wore, shining from her grip.

Ushar didn’t relax. Lyonette frowned at the woman and decided they had to be from the same street Nerul worked down. [Emissaries] did come to Invrisil—likely to petition Magnolia Reinhart in the past.

“Who are you?

“Your Highness. I am Diplomat Zaltha. My people and I mean you no harm. I apologize for the alarm; we were uncertain if that madman meant to harm you.”

The Stitch-warriors behind Zaltha fell back and fell to one knee. The woman held up the amulet and then showed Lyonette an unfamiliar ring. It flashed in the light, and Ushar squinted at it.

“I come on behalf of my ruler and nation. I understand you are seeking goods from overseas. In their wisdom, the Emperor of Sands bade me seek you out.”

Gold, gold, gold. It became a song in Lyonette’s head. She stared at the [Diplomat], then forced a smile onto her face.

“Me? Are you sure you’re not confusing me with a more—respectable and lucrative client, Diplomat? I am hardly Wall Lord Ilvriss.”

In response, the woman just gave Lyonette a knowing smile.

“I assure you, Their Majesty of Sands is never wrong about such things. Please, we will swear before any spell or witness we mean you no harm. May we speak?”

She gestured at the restaurant that Elia’s daughter had just been kicked out of. On cue, Lyonette’s stomach rumbled; she’d missed lunch and only had liquor. She gazed at the [Diplomat], then eyed Ushar.

“Princess…”

“No, I will hear her out. Summon Dalimont and Yelroan.”

Lyonette exhaled. Sooner or later, she had to spend money on something. But…the Empire of Sands?

She’d never heard of them. The [Diplomat]’s smile grew wider, and she bowed as Lyonette glanced over her shoulder at where the mad beggar had been.

In all honesty…she was slightly hurt no one from Izril, Terandria, or Baleros had gotten to her first.

 

——

 

What Lyonette failed to spot as she walked into the restaurant was a brawl just around the corner of the street. Three Lizardfolk, two Centaurs, a Drake, three half-Elves, a Dwarf, and nearly a dozen Humans—all wearing different uniforms—and some very unhappy [Guards] were lying on the ground as a panting group of Stitch-folk hobbled off.

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I have a problem, and it cannot be solved by more writing, for once.

Hello and welcome to another long chapter! It’s half.

Half of the planned arc I had for the winner of the poll. I realized while writing that I wasn’t going to hit the ending. One big clue was having 10,000+ words…of notes.

Part of that was the Puerto Rico trip; this is the last chapter that has scenes and notes from that trip. In fact, I cut 80% of my notes, including entire plot points and scenes, and reworded a lot of the rest. Why?

Well, partly because the vision for the chapter changed. Partly, because I could do better. What I realized as well is that I need to relax.

I’m rushing a bit, I think, because I’m down to one chapter a week, and I want to deliver the same content as usual. I always want to put something in each chapter that matters, but I realize I’m allowed to take things slow, no matter where we are.

Even when Frodo is climbing Mt. Doom, he’s allowed to stare at a flower. I dunno, the analogy is getting away from me here but the point is, I’m going to keep trying.

Trying to remake my writing style a bit. Moving out of my notes from my vacation should allow me to do that. I am still enjoying the benefits of my new schedule. I don’t stress about having to do work calls for a few hours or spending time revising things.

I’m gonna try revising The Last Tide’s next chapter this coming week. I wrote it years ago, but the revisions halted, and I just never picked it up because I didn’t have time. That’s the kind of thing that gets dropped. Obviously there are other things that piled up that slowed progress, but that one’s on me.

Back to less work so I can do more work! Thanks for reading, and I hope you like the winner of the poll. Shame about the other options, but I may select more from that list if I feel I can swing it this month. No promises about which. Thanks for reading and remember…um.

What’s the moral of this chapter?

Gold. Something about gold.

 

 

The First Knight of Solstice by AVI [Deathbane Artist]!

 

Mrsha-Cara and Imani HowTo by ArtsyNada!

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Ishkr Pour by Bobo Plushie!

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Bird, Twisted Queen, Yellow Splatters, and More by Lime!

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Liscor, the Holy City, by Relia!

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Antinium by Moerchen!

 

Gold by katiemaeve!

 

Aftermath of the Erin Brawl and Feremont by jawjee!

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Perfect by Brack!

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