10.14 – The Wandering Inn

10.14

Seats.

The seat they offered Lyonette in The Adventurer’s Waystation, one of Invrisil’s best restaurants, was an exclusive booth in a private room. Not pristine; it had well-worn leather. But leather without cracks and with a strangely pale-yellow color.

Lightning Wyvern leather; it actually had the opposite effect you might expect. Instead of generating static electricity, it mitigated the effect. The seat itself was very comfortable; it had been recently reupholstered, but the restaurant itself was careful to maintain its origins—a place where famous adventurers had used to eat.

They had turned a local eatery into a high-class establishment as their reputation had grown and by the sheer virtue that a Gold-rank team who’d just cleared a mission threw around gold like water.

Lyonette didn’t need to know all this; the [Manager] enthusiastically explained it to her and the Stitch-woman [Diplomat]. She saw autographed Mage-Pictures or illustrations of famous adventurers on the walls.

“—And here you can see Masmak herself. Illustrated six days before the tragedy at Chalence.”

A Named-rank adventurer was posing with a giant fly, of all things, behind her. A Named-rank who rode a fly? Lyonette had grown up knowing a lot of Terandrian Named-ranks and even famed ones abroad.

This one must have been before her time; she certainly wouldn’t have forgotten…Masmak the Pestilence Rider.

Lyonette’s stomach growled. Appetizers were coming out already; it seemed the waystation was known for fast delivery of food. Indeed, the entire place reminded her of her inn, and she couldn’t help but compare the pictures to Erin’s statues. Then again—the statues were tragic. The pictures were closer to Erin’s pink flames of glory.

She had to admit—the [Chef], or perhaps owner of this restaurant, had a few nifty tricks up their sleeves. One of them was actually advertised on the menu.

 

Feeling hungry? Our famous bistro is under the effect of [Remembered Hunger] as a Skill! Please inform the [Manager] if you feel too faint! Worried about eating too much? Our [Chef] can prepare a [Nourishing Meal] that won’t add to your waistline when you get back to adventuring*!

*Additional fees may apply. See back for details.

 

“That’s quite clever. No wonder I feel rather peckish.

Lyonette grudgingly turned to Ushar with a look of approval. Even the Thronebearer gazed longingly at the appetizers, but declined when Lyonette indicated one.

“I shall have a word with the [Manager], Your Highness.”

She could hardly eat while on duty. Lyonette resolved to ask for a to-go box afterwards. There would certainly be enough food.

“For me as well, Ushar?”

The Thronebearer nodded, then saw Lyonette daintily pick up some Griffin Wings—crisped Yellats drizzled with sauces, a fast food before Erin had introduced french fries to Izril—and insert altogether too much of it into her mouth.

Across the table from her, the [Diplomat] was whispering to her escort; the [Guards] stood well back, covering the entrances to the booth, but she had several servants at hand. Funny—Lyonette noticed one of the Stitch-folk [Guards] was breathing slightly hard.

Had they run here to get to her? They even looked a bit scuffed up. Well, she was meeting with a foreign nation. A big one—but a new one.

The Empire of Sands. That they were on the rise wasn’t in doubt to Lyonette; a full escort for a city in Izril? A [Diplomat] being here? She was garbed in a very Chandrarian outfit that probably played on what foreigners thought Chandrarians dressed like; veil, light, colorful clothing, not showing skin so much as beautifully layered cloth meant for warm lands.

The fact that the Stitch-woman wore that in the dead of winter meant the clothing was enchanted with heat spells, and Ushar had indicated the guards all had enchanted weapons too.

Lyonette didn’t know what they wanted, but she was interested. Especially since the Quarass had sent an agent already. Talking couldn’t hurt. And one other detail fascinated her and had prompted Lyonette to accept:

The [Diplomat] was made of Cotton.

That was unheard of in Stitch-folk diplomacy. If Lyonette had been in Calanfer, she would have thought it was a snub, but in Izril? The [Diplomat] hadn’t been sent purely to meet with Lyonette, and most non-Stitch-folk wouldn’t understand the nuance anyways.

Cotton. At any rate, the [Diplomat] had flowing black hair that defied the laws of physics; a blade of hair was flicked up from her forehead, held in place by a Skill, amazing hair gel, or just the fabric of her hair. Her eyes were as sharp as her makeup, though, and three Silk servants brought the dishes into the room, despite the [Waiter]’s best efforts to justify their tips.

Lyonette, on her side, had her posture perfect. Ielane had drilled into her the best manners for the table. Just as Lyonette tried futilely to teach Mrsha, she moved with deliberate grace, met each person’s eyes without staring overlong, kept her posture and cadence polished—a [Princess] at negotiations.

The mitigating factor was, uh—an entire Griffin Wing sticking out of her mouth.

The [Princess] tried her best to pretend this wasn’t undercutting her dignity. The [Diplomat] was very good; she pretended there was nothing wrong. One of the [Waiters] stared at Lyonette trying to swallow the entire fried Yellat like a giant snake.

The problem was the Skill. Lyonette supposed it was an excellent way to incentivize bored nobility or other guests to eat and pay for more. However…[Remembered Hunger] clearly worked based on a guest’s experiences.

And Lyonette? Lyonette had been close to starving to death in Liscor when Erin had left the inn. The desire, the need to eat food was overwhelming.

Ushar quickly got up and hurried over to the [Manager], and the feeling lessened after a minute, but even the memory had Lyonette digging into the plates before her.

“I believe the full course for lunch? I would like to try the, ah, ‘boba tea’ here. Forgive me, Your Highness. I did not anticipate Skills would be used on us. I have, of course, [Secured the Room]. With your [Knight]’s permission.”

Diplomat Zaltha bowed her head, and Lyonette patted her mouth as Ser Dalimont strode into the room, bowed, and murmured into Ushar’s ear.

“Not at all, Diplomat. Thank you for your hospitality. I simply recalled an upsetting moment in the past. Peckishness, you know?”

“I…well, I quite understand, Your Highness.”

Here was the thing about diplomacy as Lyonette understood it. It was a game where everyone cheated. Politics was a poker table, and as Ielane had once taught her children—everyone had cards under the table.

She had once bet them their entire month’s allowances at a card’s table. You’d think royalty would never learn to gamble? Ielane had given the delighted princesses dice, magical cards, and a ten-times stake of their allowances to bet against the house—the crown—and anything they walked away with they got for the month as extra spending money.

Guess what had happened? Lyonette remembered blubbering in a corner after losing her entire allowance and going so far into debt—

Anyways. The point was that diplomacy was the clash of arms between individuals. Politics was the grand movement of entire armies and nations. In diplomacy, yes, you kept your secrets close to your chest. You were careful with what you promised—very careful if they could enforce your promises or were recording what you said—but it was also a dance of charisma.

Lyonette had seen exceptionally intelligent people who knew what they wanted and were going to walk into a room and rationally lay out their demands and give nothing away, who operated in what they thought was the airtight confines of Golem-level logic—be destroyed in Calanfer.

Diplomacy was about having people like you. You, the individual. It didn’t matter if you represented a powerhouse like Ailendamus; if you were unlikable, that mattered, because the people who set policy might do something stupid for the kingdom because they really liked Negotiator Limhe, that fellow who could balance a bottle on his nose at parties, over that ass who kept threatening them every two sentences.

That was why Nerul was so good at his job: the Drake was sociable. In the same way, Diplomat Zaltha was representing her Empire.

So Lyonette turned up the mystery.

“It was only a brief period of—starvation. Who hasn’t suffered something like that?”

“Indeed? I confess, I did not think I had lived with a silver spoon in my mouth all my life. But it is clear you have—a far more severe memory of hunger pangs than I.”

Even some of the Stitch-folk [Guards] had looked impressed. Zaltha glanced at Lyonette, and she was off her guard. She was doubtless good at her job, but she had come here expecting a [Princess]. What she got was Lyonette.

“This crisped Yellat is delicious—it actually strikes me as healthier than french fries. Ushar? Ask the [Manager] for the recipe, if you would. Ah, Manager!”

The man had come back, looking slightly nervous.

“I do apologize for the Skill, Your Highness? We didn’t think—some Named-ranks have the same problem.”

“I quite accept your apology, Manager Laisellemon. This is a delightful restaurant. Tell me. Does it have Colthei on the walls here? Saliss of Lights?”

The sweating man brightened up at once.

“We do have Colth the Supporter’s picture. He even studied with our [Chef] and [Waiters]! A friend of—of your inn, is he?”

“Of the Horns of Hammerad. I have no doubt I’ll see their pictures here one day. If you should be so lucky. But I wonder if Diplomat Zaltha recognizes any of the adventurers who have graced these halls?”

Now, Lyonette had control of the conversation, and Zaltha’s lips quirked slightly. She made a show of studying the room’s walls, then a [Servant] leaned over to whisper to her.

“—I believe the ever-famous Orchestra is well known to me, Your Highness. The World-Pact Adventurer, Gadiekh, and Courier Netzhe, Zeres’ Seaserpent, have both graced my homeland. I even had the honor of meeting the latter, if only briefly.”

Zeres’ Seaserpent? I’ve never heard of that particular Courier. What was he—she?—like?”

They were as famous as Named-ranks, so it made sense some of them had their pictures up on the wall. Zaltha was only too happy to mention a few details as more food, and an apologetic bottle of wine, appeared.

Lyonette barely touched the wine and only made a show of sipping. She was still a bit tipsy from the Brothers’ toasts.

“—So you were a [Tradeswoman] before you consolidated into a [Negotiator], Zaltha? That’s fascinating.”

“It’s hardly a distinguished career path compared to my contemporaries in other nations.”

Zaltha demurred, but Lyonette gave her a winning smile.

“[Merchants] and [Shopkeepers] probably fight more viciously than royal courts. It also speaks to the Empire of Sands that a ‘mere’ Cotton Stitch-woman might rise to represent a kingdom. Your level should trump your cloth, shouldn’t it?”

She had calculated that and saw Zaltha’s eyes light up, and even several of the other attendants glanced at Lyonette with a favorable start. The [Diplomat] smiled as she sipped from her cup, and Lyonette thanked her stars she had Dalimont and Ushar.

The two had been taste-testing her food, mostly to assuage their own hunger, but also so they could whisper to her or show her notes they’d stuck into a gauntlet that only she could see.

The Empire of Sands is not as strictly caste-based as other Stitch-folk nations, Your Highness. They have assimilated nearly two dozen nations. Even their mysterious Emperor is said to not be ‘totally Silk’, whatever that means. Playing into that may help.

That was from Ushar. Dalimont’s was more direct.

Ser Normen is with the girls. I noticed a huge brawl on the way here. Multiple envoys appear to be interested in you. The pile in the [Garden].

Wonderful. Lyonette had expected [Thieves] to suss out the inn’s wealth in time; it was part of the reason no one was being allowed anywhere but the portal room unless they were an actual guest. But she had forgotten that nations were kith and kin to [Thieves]; they just secured goldmines with armies instead of a few [Thugs].

“You know quite a lot about the Empire of Sands, Your Highness. I am gratified; I must introduce my nation to most in Izril. We are newly-formed, I admit.”

Barely over ten years old. A warlord’s nation, Lyonette would have called it in private, but it seemed like they had an amazing ability to take over existing administrations. Rather than being a group of shattered kingdoms, the Empire of Sands seemed organized.

“I am always delighted to learn more about other nations, Diplomat. It’s part of the reason you find me here rather than—”

Lyonette waved a hand as if to indicate Calanfer, and she saw Zaltha’s eyes flicker. Everyone knew Lyonette was a [Princess] of Calanfer. However, no one knew why she was in Izril. Far better to imply she was representing Calanfer’s interests here.

“Indeed, few [Princesses] I have ever met have left me with such a striking—perspicacity at your age, if I may say so, Your Highness. I can see there is no dissembling around you.”

Lyonette twinkled at Zaltha.

“Oh, you are charming, Diplomat. But I’m sure I’m eminently predictable to others. How else would you have found me? And the Quarass of Ger? I’m sure you both have something I desire above all else or you wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of inviting me to such a pleasant meal.”

Ah. Zaltha paused, sipping on a cup of boba tea that didn’t really fit the far more sumptuous spread. She gave Lyonette an apologetic smile.

“Do forgive me for being so nakedly straightforward, Your Highness. When one is called upon to serve their nation, tact is sometimes optional.”

Lyonette’s brows furrowed slightly in a frown.

“Just so long as that apology extends to Lady Reinhart. She does not approve of brawls in her city—and it is her city that I respect—even if you are doing everything for the Empire of Sands. I trust this meeting has proper teeth?”

Another blink. Lyonette guessed Zaltha was probably over Level 30, but not over Level 40. Even if she’d made this position due to her talents, you didn’t send a Level 40 [Diplomat] to Invrisil unless you had something you really needed. Nerrhavia’s Fallen or another Stitch-folk nation would get a higher-level [Diplomat].

That meant Zaltha was in striking range for Lyonette’s own talents. With Thronebearers as backup—the [Diplomat] was having trouble controlling the conversation.

“The Emperor of Sands themselves is aware of our conversation. Indeed, they hope for a splendid answer.”

Zaltha answered after a second, and Lyonette blinked. That—was more than she expected.

“Indeed? I confess, I don’t know much about Their Majesty of Sands. I am, of course, honored. How should I address…him? Her? Do forgive me.”

She was hoping for a bit of a rise out of Zaltha, actually. The woman seemed fairly patriotic. But it didn’t work. Zaltha’s lips quirked slightly.

“You may refer to them as the Emperor of Sands, Your Highness, or the Empress as you prefer. There is only but one—their name, like everything else, may change, as we Stitch-folk do.”

Was that obfuscation or some nuance, like the Minotaur King’s gender not mattering? Lyonette sipped on her winecup as Ushar adjusted a dish for her. A card on her wrist:

 

We have no idea who they are, Your Highness.

 

Well, that was fascinating. Calanfer knew almost every royal in the world, from their habits to their intimate secrets. Lyonette decided to push ahead.

“Then they are monitoring this discussion? What could I have done to warrant such august eyes, Diplomat Zaltha?”

How much do you know? Lyonette’s [Basic Negotiator], [Charming Smile], and [Imperial Aura] were going up against a seasoned [Diplomat]’s Skills.

However, Zaltha had come to her. The [Diplomat] tried to juke into a more hospitable opening for herself.

“The Empire of Sands is one of Chandrar’s major powers, Your Highness. Of late, we are one of the few nations with a functioning navy, let alone the ability to trade between continents. We received inquiries as to shipping material from Baleros to Izril, for instance?”

Ah, they were good. Their spy networks must have caught wind of Hexel’s inquiries via the Merchant’s Guild or something. Lyonette kept her face smooth, though.

“Yes, that is a small project one of my contractors has taken on. But it seems the Empire of Sands has some desire from me, specifically. Come, come, Diplomat Zaltha. I have no doubt offers may flood in rather quickly following our meeting. I could offer the Empire of Sands the chance to strike a lucrative deal now. In a day’s time? I am easily persuadable, I fear.”

She gave Zaltha an apologetic smile and activated a Skill.

[Trifling Incentive]. All things being equal, Lyonette was a [Princess of the Inn], Level 31. She didn’t quite steamroll Zaltha, but a worried look from one of the [Diplomat]’s servants and a shift from two of the [Guards] said it all. Zaltha smiled into her boba tea, then chuckled.

“One should not duel with words against a Calanferian any more than they dance with swords against someone of Kaaz. Your Highness has me at a disadvantage. I would indeed be forced to beg forbearance from the Emperor of Sands if I failed to present my offer fully. Servants? Bring it in.”

She clapped her hands, and her servants vanished from the room. Zaltha turned back to Lyonette, speaking quicker.

“The Empire of Sands has been searching for a…buyer of late, Your Highness. Be it so indecorous, we were aware of your interests, but circumstances have elevated you to rise to the top of our interests. Even Their Majesty would quite like to offer you a small deal to ensure the goods you desire for your inn arrive promptly and on time.”

Ah, like the trade deal Magnolia had held with Admiral Seagrass. Lyonette hid a grimace with a bite of a quesadilla loaded with toppings. It wouldn’t be impossible to buy the Empire of Sands’ help. But if that was all and they just wanted to gouge her to get some goods from overseas, she wasn’t happy.

If they actually control shipping lanes, they could make getting Hexel’s supplies difficult indeed. How much are they going to charge me for the ‘luxury’ of getting something from Baleros with the seas all amess?

However, the servants brought something into the room that was quite heavy judging by the way four [Guards] had to help them. They cleared a second table in the private room and placed something on it covered by a pale-white shroud of cloth. Lyonette blinked as the covering was removed to show her…

Black rock, cracked in places, forming a solid—more or less solid—rectangle of stone. Pieces had crumbled off of it, and many were in tiny fragments. Yet Ushar’s breath caught after a second, and Lyonette’s eyes widened.

This was no ordinary black marble. The strange rock caught the light and seemed to hold it and let it spread across the surface of the stone before reflecting it outwards. She knew in a moment it was magical. Zaltha confirmed the suspicion at once.

“If I may be so bold, Your Highness—are you in the market for some Chemath Marble? One of the world’s rarest building materials. A small amount of it has fallen into the Empire of Sand’s custody, and few buyers in the world have the funding…or discernment…to acquire it.”

Her eyes glittered, and Lyonette blinked at her. Then she stood.

“May I?”

Zaltha nodded at once, and Lyonette walked over to inspect the odd stuff. Chemath Marble. She knew it was valuable. Even Calanfer didn’t have it in the Eternal Throne; Samal had some, Khelt…

The sample in front of her was about two feet high and four feet wide. It must have filled a Chest of Holding, and it probably spoke to how much the Empire of Sands had that they could send Zaltha with a sample this large.

Yet—the first thing Lyonette noticed was the quality of the stone.

It was a rather large block of black marble, which, Lyonette realized as she bent to inspect it, was really made up of many smaller chunks carefully assembled to give the impression of a solid block.

However, Lyonette noted, the finished product really wasn’t that smooth; even the individual chunks of stone were unevenly quarried. Terrible work, really! She doubted you could make anything approaching smooth stone without shaving each chunk into paper-thin plates, and even then…

Zaltha noticed Ushar wrinkling her nose and broke in quickly.

“The—quality of the marble is far from that expected of later shipments. True, royal quarried stone will soon be available for purchase. However, the effects of Chemath Marble will still appear, regardless of the cut quality.”

Ah. Now Lyonette saw why the [Diplomat] had a [Tradeswoman]’s background. She made her voice innocent.

“It looks slightly rough. Is that normal, Dame Ushar?”

She pretended not to know, and Dalimont answered for Dame Ushar.

“A rather, ah, crude cut of the marble, Your Highness. I have no doubt the effects will still manifest. Whatever they are.”

Zaltha broke in urgently.

“It is the first Chemath mined in decades, Ser Dalimont. Until now, it was a curio that could only be bought as a hand-sized stone. Utterly useless. The Empire of Sands has acquired eight hundred tons of marble.”

That was a lot! No, wait. That was nothing! Lyonette oscillated between the two concepts. It was not a lot for the purposes of building anything. It was, given she’d heard Chemath Marble couldn’t be acquired; the mines were closed.

“Fascinating. Is there, ah, higher-quality marble coming soon?”

“In time. These things do take time, Your Highness—but we have a rather large quantity of excellent stone at the moment.”

Only, I doubt it’s the right quality for you to sell, and you want a buyer. Now, Lyonette was recalling the Empire of Sands had been involved in something else. Namely, a two point four million gold piece purchase of the Helm of Fire.

Add that to funding armies to conquer more nations and this all made sense. It amused her that she had hit the top list of potential buyers for the marble.

“Well, Diplomat Zaltha, I can see why you approached me. And I do thank you for your discretion. Am I to assume that any purchase of Chemath Marble might incur the Emperor of Sands’ goodwill?”

Zaltha gave her a secretive smile.

“It would incur my personal goodwill, Your Highness, for what that is worth. I would labor diligently in your interests in any small way I could for this boon—and the Empire of Sands looks quite kindly on its friends. Why, our newest Admiral, Duke Seagrass himself, might well take to the seas once more to ship whatever was needed to Izril.”

Admiral Seagrass was working for the Empire of Sands? Lyonette, Ushar, and Dalimont pretended to exchange polite looks while Lyonette’s alarm bells rang.

“That, ah—that would not be an inconsiderable thing, Zaltha. But friendship? The Wandering Inn has many friends, and with due respect to my employer, Erin Solstice, she is sometimes wary about acquiring more friends. They—sometimes pay for that friendship.”

Lyonette tried to stall, but she realized she might have pushed too far. Zaltha leaned over the table.

“The Empire of Sands is quite aware of what friendship with The Wandering Inn looks like. We have never fled confrontation. Nor are we to be swept away for the cost of any goodwill—especially to someone who might do us a sincere bargain.”

“Can you buy friendship so easily, Diplomat?”

Lyonette tried to chuckle, and the [Diplomat]’s eyes glimmered.

“For the right amount that enriches the citizens of sands, pays for arms, becomes the paved streets and sewers of our cities, the full warehouses in times of hunger? Friendship can be a pile of coins, Your Highness.”

Well, drat. They really wanted this deal. Lyonette exhaled and turned her tone slightly exasperated.

“I appreciate that. But I do think a contract can enforce what is often nebulous, Diplomat.”

“I can have this one adjusted, Your Highness. If you would care to inspect it?”

Oh dead gods, they were prepared. Lyonette saw a contract, and Ushar bent over it. The [Princess] ran her eyes down the list of clauses.

 

Eight hundred tons of Chemath Marble…in whatever shape or form…that had to mean a lot of it was cracked like the sample.

every ship bound for Izril is bound to allot at least one tenth of its hold for goods so desired by The Wandering Inn or Lyonette du Marquin under a threshold of two hundred tons per month?

 

“Dead gods!”

Even Ser Dalimont blinked at that part of the clause. They really wanted her to buy this damn marble!

“I cannot enforce some of the nuances of our friendship in the contract itself, Your Highness. Magical wording is difficult. But you have the word of the Emperor of Sands that they will not forget an ally.”

—And a promise from Zaltha’s lips that she’d follow up gratitude in more than mere words. All of it was actually tempting. Lyonette had to ask Hexel what Chemath Marble actually did, but she was nodding along.

“Very reasonable, Diplomat. May I hold onto this? I can see this deal going forwards, at least in principle. The trading terms are very generous.”

In theory, the Empire of Sands could get around it by never sending a ship affiliated with them to Izril, but the language seemed to indicate even contractors working for them would have to carry goods meant for the inn.

If they had any navy—and Admiral Seagrass’ presence said they did—this was amazing. Two hundred tons of free goods shipped per month! Lyonette could see buying the stupid marble for that.

“Let’s just see how much this would c—”

Her eyes finally found the price. The word ‘cost’ caught in Lyonette’s mouth. Ser Dalimont’s lips moved. The [Princess] swayed for a second and stared at the commas. Counted the zeroes.

Diplomat Zaltha rose to her feet, wine cup in hand, a desperate smile on her face.

“As you can see, the cost of friendship can be high—but the Chemath Marble is authentic and—we have not even finished our meal. Let us sit, Your Highness. Do you care for, ah, the amenities of Invrisil? Drake plumbing is such a modern convenience. The Empire of Sands has modernized all of its sewers of late.”

She tried to draw Lyonette back into the conversation. The [Princess] just took another look at the number on the contract.

Was Chemath Marble really worth five point eight million gold p—then she smiled at Zaltha.

“Of course, friendship is worth the total amount listed, Diplomat Zaltha. But Chemath Marble is worth so much less than the friendship of the Empire of Sands.”

She leaned forwards, and her [Flawless Attempt] activated. Zaltha was too good to sweat, but she determinedly switched her wine cup for water. Even if Lyonette had no intention of paying this amount—

She had always wanted to learn to haggle.

 

——

 

Lyonette got the list pricing down to two point five.

Million.

Gold pieces.

It was sort of funny. She’d never thought she’d see a Stitch-woman die of dehydration, but both she and Zaltha were out of their depths and playing with numbers even Ielane would have blinked at.

For Lyonette? It had been fun, and she had the notion she might have levelled in the negotiations themselves.

For Zaltha? Every hundred thousand gold pieces she gave up was a hundred thousand gold pieces she had to explain to the Emperor of Sands. But she also had to even get Lyonette close to agreeing to the deal.

When Lyonette walked out of The Adventurer’s Waystation, she had an amended contract for that sum…but no deal.

Obviously, she hadn’t signed it. She spoke to Dalimont and Ushar after the two confirmed they weren’t being followed or monitored.

“I quite enjoyed that.”

“Your Highness is a shark, even to other [Diplomats].”

Dalimont looked quite astounded. Lyonette frowned at him, and Ushar cut in.

“They were quite desperate for the gold, Your Highness. Either they spent unwisely for the Helm of Fire…”

“…Or they’re aware the Chemath Marble isn’t that valuable, broken up as it is.”

Zaltha had even given Lyonette a small chunk of it as a souvenir. It wasn’t nearly magical enough to do anything as a small rock she could hold in the palm of her hand. Still, a memento like this might have gone for a hundred gold—until now.

“Friendship with this nation might be costly, Your Highness. They are a warmongering nation at odds with the King of Destruction.”

“Far from The Wandering Inn. It’s the trade deal that annoys me, Dalimont. It’s everything we need.”

But could she rationalize paying that much for Hexel’s goods? Yet—Lyonette turned to Ushar.

“Get me everything Calanfer knows on the Empire of Sands. Was this a fluke? Do they often reach out to people like the King of Avel does? How trustworthy are they when it comes to deals or ‘friendships’? And how dangerous is their nation?”

Ushar bowed.

“I will have a full report by the evening, Your Highness. I do caution you: Zaltha will be after the closure of the deal. And from her words, we have attracted altogether too much attention for the pile. Something must be done. I advise leaving Invrisil. Now.”

That was certainly true. Now that Lyonette was aware other rulers could sense her relative wealth, she saw more troubling signs as she strode towards the door.

Lady Lyonette! Lady Lyonette! I represent Maelstrom’s Howl—my leg!”

A Centaur tried to gallop towards her until someone accidentally moved a cart into one of their legs. Lyonette winced.

“Miss Marquin! A word, if you p—”

Two Drakes striding towards her. A huge Dullahan body-checked them into the crowd. Then turned.

“Your H—”

His head toppled off his body, and a Stitch-woman caught it, put it on the Dullahan’s body as it toppled over, and bowed to Lyonette.

“Dead gods. ”

It was a war to get at Lyonette! She began to run as more potential emissaries and diplomats came her way. Lyonette heard Ushar cursing.

“Your Highness! I’m—”

A Lizardman jumped out and got a full-body-check from Ushar. The Thronebearer snapped as they saw the door.

“We’re not going to make it!”

Dozens of representatives were coming for them. Lyonette turned her head, saw it was true, and spoke.

“Ser Dalimont?”

The Thronebearer slowed, fighting off a Garuda trying to land on them from overhead. His face smoothed, and he gave her a smile. She kept running, but her head was twisted back.

Dalimont! He stopped, giving her a bow, and turned. Lyonette and Ushar ran as Ser Dalimont raised his voice.

“I—would be happy to take any inquiries on Her Highness’ behalf!”

Every eye swung to him. Lyonette saw the Thronebearer lift a hand and smile at her as a flurry of people leapt at him.

A shrieking Lizardwoman raised her clawed arms and ran, arms flailing, frothing at the mouth. A Minotaur bellowed a challenge as he charged like a Draugr—civilians were screaming and fleeing a gibbering man bounding at Dalimont like a Ghoul—

She shouted his name—and saw his proud countenance, facing down the horde—

And that was the last time she ever saw him.

…Okay, Lyonette did peek back through the door and see Ser Dalimont standing amidst a crowd of various species, trying to write down notes all at once. He wasn’t dead like Sest or crippled like Lormel.

This was better. Yes…Lyonette sighed.

This was better.

 

——

 

You know what really ground Mrsha’s gears? Not being a child. Being a child was awesome.

Not a bunch of [Necromancers] in her inn. [Necromancers] could be awesome.

Not having a bunch of gold and not being allowed to spend it. Mrsha and others were spending it, even if Lyonette didn’t know.

What Mrsha didn’t like was when adults tried to be cool. Like kids. Here she was trying to show Rittane and the other Rheirgest kids around the inn, get them feeling like they were safe and everyone was friendly—and you had Lyonette.

Nice mother. Decent mother. 6/10 on most days. But dead gods, she wasn’t cool. She needed to stop trying to be Archmage…as Mrsha assumed the kids said.

Mother, please. There is no such thing as a horde of ravening [Diplomats].

She held up a card wearily as Lyonette gesticulated back towards the portal room. Lyonette’s voice rose indignantly.

“There is! They were all over us! If Ser Dalimont hadn’t sacrificed himself—”

Mrsha rolled her eyes, and Lyonette stomped her foot. The Gnoll jerked a thumb at her mother as she turned to Rittane and the others.

Can you believe her?

Rittane was a pale, blonde-haired girl with big brown eyes and a clear case of nerves. She was tongue-tied in front of Lyonette and even Mrsha. She only spoke to Ser Normen and the other Knights of Solstice.

“I—I believe you, Miss Lyonette!”

Thank you, Rittane! Mrsha, they’re literally just outside the door. Dead gods, we have a problem with the pile. I need to confer with Yelroan; his precautions worked on that dratted Merchant’s Guild, but not on foreign nations. There may be no helping it. Oh—and something is up with Ylawes’ team.”

‘The pile’ was how they were referring to the gold these days. These people and their slang. Mrsha made a note about the Silver Swords, but she nudged Rittane.

Adults, am I right?

Rittane read the note, then gave Mrsha a nervous smile.

“Yes, Miss Mrsha!”

“It’s just Mrsha.”

Someone piped up, and Rittane jumped as Ekirra scratched an ear with one of his legs. He was rolling around on the floor, bored, and Visma, Kenva, and even Sammial were all here!

The gang. Well, Sammial wasn’t one of them, but he kept showing up. Hethon was somewhere else, and so was Nanette; sometimes, they didn’t hang out with the others. They were too ‘adult’ and did things like watching the news. Or Nanette would begin discussing Izrilian politics.

She could be a bit boring, but Mrsha had summoned the gang now that school was out, possibly forever. Because, obviously, Rittane was going to join them.

“Yeah, call her Mrsha! And I’m Visma, Rittane. Do you have dolls?”

“Me? No…”

For some reason, that sounded like a lie. Rittane’s eyes flicked around nervously, and Mrsha stared around the inn.

Day two of Rheirgest being here, and they were mostly—well, sitting around with books from the library, reading, watching the news, eating—and looking out of sorts.

The protestors were still blocking their village site, and everyone was getting a bit tense. Apparently, the Watch had tried to move out the Liscorians again, and there had almost been a riot.

Those poopsicles. Mrsha had almost gone down there to give them a piece of her mind, but Dalimont had run off to help Lyonette, and she’d been confined to the inn. To enforce that confinement, they had called on the only babysitters they trusted.

Ser Normen for security.

Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle for minding. The Vampiress was chatting with Elosaith and the other villagers, keeping their spirits up, and she wasn’t even looking at Mrsha. She didn’t even seem anxious about Mrsha doing something dastardly.

Perhaps—because she’d told Mrsha that if Mrsha ran off or caused trouble, it wouldn’t be no dessert for a month. Instead, she had given Mrsha a big, pointed smile and told Mrsha she’d be shoveling manure out of the barn and weeding the fields all spring. Four months. A hundred and twenty-eight days.

That…was an actual threat. So Mrsha condescended to hanging around the inn. She’d already shown Rittane Bird’s tower, the rooms, the theatre…the girl had been suitably open-mouthed, but Ekirra was bored.

“Mrshaaaa. Why can’t we go to the garden? The door won’t open for me!”

Silence, Ekirra. The garden is off limits. For now.

“It’s boring! Rittane needs to have fun!”

“I don’t mind! You’re all awfully generous to us, Miss Mrsha. I don’t want to be a bother.”

The girl was too timid. Mrsha flapped a paw at her and took Rittane by the shoulder. She was a good kid! Mrsha had cried all over when she’d heard about how Rittane had starved. She had to have a good time in Liscor.

She had to.

Listen, Rittane, let’s go to the playground in Liscor. Don’t worry; no one will even know you’re a [Necromancer]! No one knew when Ekirra had fleas.

“Mrsha, you promised not to tell!”

Ekirra whined, and Mrsha strode for the door to the portal room. She had the idea that with Ushar around, she’d be allowed to go to Liscor.

There was a line of people waiting to transfer to another city, as always, in the hallway. Mrsha was about to cut it when someone threw himself against the window of the inn, clawing at the glass.

Funding! Diplomacy! Argh!

Nerul Gemscale, face wretched, mouth open, fumbled at the door, and Mrsha and the children screamed. He staggered into the inn, arms raised like a zombie—then adjusted his suit.

“I heard someone didn’t believe [Diplomats] can properly form a horde. I haven’t seen a scrap like that since they were selling off the old Ambercrystal Mine deposits. Club in one claw, contract in the other.”

Wh—Nerul! Mrsha stared open-mouthed at him as the big, boisterous Drake beamed at her.

“Wait, there was a brawl?”

Nerul jerked this thumb-claw over his shoulder as Visma stared.

“Yes! I stayed out of it; this morning was hilarious. Stitch-folk kneecapping the Watch and everyone getting in their way. Dead gods, that Empire of Sands doesn’t play around. And the House of Minos is just—”

He blew a kiss with his claws.

“Ever seen a [Diplomat] throw a Drake over a crowd’s heads? That’s one way to stop an [I Go First] Skill! Toss them to the back of the line and watch them skid!”

Mrsha’s was aghast. And she’d missed that? Nerul, for his part, just offered her a hand.

“Hello, Miss Mrsha. Do you think your mother has time for me, young lady? I realize it must be busy around the inn, and the only reason I got in is because of Ilvriss—frankly, I’m not after a deal. Just information.”

She pointed him towards the common room, and he beamed.

“Excellent. Say—are you rich?”

Me? No, sir. Poor as the day I was born.

Mrsha handed him a card, and his eyes twinkled.

“You lie as readily as a born Calanferian, young lady. Try not to smile when you write, or exaggerate.”

Then he was gone. The coolest adult in the inn—and he wanted Lyonette.

Life wasn’t fair.

 

——

 

Everyone was in a kind of holding pattern with Rheirgest’s ability to build their village uncertain. Even the exciting stuff with Hexel…Mrsha was told she couldn’t go into Liscor right now since both Thronebearers were busy, and she sulked her way over to Lyonette, who was talking exasperatedly with Hexel. Nerul had appeared with Bird as part of a conference.

“What do you mean you can’t get any Antinium, Bird?”

She was still on the labor shortage. Bird folded her arms defensively. Nerul really was a good [Diplomat]; he barely even commented on Bird’s new form.

“I am not the boss of the Antinium, Lyonette. If they are busy, they are busy.”

“Couldn’t you ask the Free Queen to give us some more? There have to be spares.”

Bird hesitated.

“Yes…but due to reasons that are definitely not concerning, she wishes to have more Antinium in the Hive than usual.”

That was definitely not concerning. Lyonette hesitated.

“How—not concerning is it? Facestealer not concerning?”

“Oh no. Like a tenth of Facestealer concerning.”

That was still fairly concerning. Mrsha gulped, and Lyonette turned to Hexel.

“Fine, fine. We have an easy solution. [Builders] in Celum and Invrisil. Let’s hire the Mason’s Guild in Invrisil—”

“Er. No.”

Nerul coughed into one claw, and Lyonette turned to him.

“Why not, Nerul? Don’t tell me Ilvriss took all of them!”

He gave her a toothy smile.

“Funnily enough, he took barely a dozen, Miss Lyonette. My nephew sourced most of his workers from Liscor and Celum and hopes to have more workers where he is—he’s actually broken ground up there.”

“No one’s given him trouble?”

“Every single noble let him pass without doing more than showing off their militias. It’s rather suspicious—he’s hoping you can visit.”

Lyonette had an exasperated smile on her face.

“Later, I surely will. Why not Invrisil’s Mason’s Guild?”

“Two points for guessing?”

That made the [Princess] think. Hexel knew the answer. Mrsha scribbled a note as the children tried to think.

“Is it because…they’re all racist?”

Ekirra wondered aloud. Nerul laughed.

“That’s not it, but it might have been a problem!”

Then it’s because they suck at their jobs!

Mrsha held up a card, and Lyonette rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, Mrsha—”

She blinked as Nerul gave Mrsha a thumbs up.

“Wait, really?”

The [Diplomat] shrugged, conceding.

“Half a point. The truth is that they’re quite good at putting up buildings—in Invrisil.

“Ah. Oh. Oh no, they’re not going to like having to break ground in the Floodplains, are they? Much less with the snow or rain?”

Lyonette groaned as she saw the problem. They were urban construction experts. Nerul tapped the side of his snout.

“None of them were exactly keen on excavation work. I imagine Architect Hexel foresees the same problem.”

“Human workers need more warm clothing. They complain about dirt, snow; they need shovels and breaks. Antinium don’t have these issues. Listen, if you let me pull the ballista crew, I convinced a dozen Antinium from my jobs to shift over. We can begin work on the tower and foundation and move from there.”

Lyonette could only agree. Glumly, she glanced out the window, then turned to Hexel.

“Regarding your materials shortage, Hexel…there is a solution, but not a good, er, cheap one. How likely is it you could get everything without support? If we gave you gold, for instance?”

He shrugged.

“It won’t stop me from getting what I want. It will simply delay everything a few months.”

“Argh. Well—let me consider my options. Ushar, who else wants a piece of us?”

The Thronebearer consulted a list and read off some names.

“Let me see. Pallass, Zeres, Fissival, the Maelstrom’s Howling company, the Raised Ground company, the Taimaguros Dominion—are all the confirmed nations Dalimont has interviewed so far.”

“The House of Minos, too. I recognized their diplomat.”

Nerul added. He rubbed his claws together as Lyonette groaned.

“I don’t know what’s going on—no, don’t tell me, I love a good mystery. The reason the [Diplomats] are so worked up, Miss Lyonette, is because they don’t either. I can tell genuine panic from uninformed panic, and they have their leadership shrieking at them to make a deal with you. But the leadership is probably acting off of Skills that have highlighted you as a person of interest.”

“Can we get rid of the problem?”

Good luck. A thousand Chests of Holding wouldn’t do that! Mrsha smirked, but Nerul was oblivious to the exact nature of the gold and nodded.

“Oh, of course. Get rid of whatever’s tripping everyone up, and they’ll vanish. But I would be wary—they want to know what’s up.”

“That is a concern, Lyonette. We have spies again. I tossed two out of windows this morning.”

Ishkr appeared in his new suit, looking mildly exasperated as he adjusted his tie, which was perfectly straight today. Lyonette groaned.

“At least you’re working. Is the boon gone, Ishkr?”

“It keeps coming back.

The Gnoll had a hint of a whine in his tone, but Mrsha thought it was hilarious. Apparently, Erin kept reapplying it on him. Maybe there was a reason for that?

Lyonette rubbed at her brows.

“Alright. I will…I am entirely full. Have the children had lunch? We have a massive amount everyone could eat. It was a lovely restaurant. I am going to meet with Octavia now, then inquire again about Rheirgest’s situation. Mrsha? Please stay out of trouble?”

Mrsha rolled her eyes. As if she were that untrustworthy. She turned to Rittane and gestured.

Why didn’t they all go find something fun to do? Of course, that was easy enough in a big inn. All they had to do was go to the theatre and start a movie. Rittane would love—

 

——

 

Get. Out. Of. My. Seat!

Mrsha shoved. She huffed. She puffed. But she couldn’t move Grimalkin as he sat there writing notes in his notepad.

Grimalkin, Salamani, Viceria, Valeterisa—all the [Mages] were here. They’d commandeered the theatre.

“This is entirely more practical than flying in person.”

Hedault sounded too pleased with himself as he strode around a deposit of glowing pink gems in a cave in the High Passes. Grimalkin lifted a quill.

“Exactly. I think this is an ideal spot for the academy, frankly.”

“Are you sure? It’s in a cave. I don’t like caves. They hold Dragons.”

Valeterisa absently wandered around the projection of the High Passes, looking slightly displeased as a roly poly-like Rockmite crawled past her. She leapt into the air, and Mrsha shoved again.

It’s movie time! Move, Grimalkin!

“Mrsha. I requested the use of the theatre from Miss Lyonette. Please stop shoving.”

Even when the entire team of children, minus the shy Rittane, joined in, it was no good. Grimalkin sat there, and Mrsha stomped away.

 

——

 

“Nanette! We’re bored! Do something interesting!”

Sammial marched up to Nanette and Hethon, and the two barely looked at him. Nanette was reading a newspaper over lunch—leftovers from The Adventurer’s Waystation—and Hethon was sitting across from her.

“—like House Reinhart is taking a side against House Veltras and the other people who were hunting down the Circle of Thorns traitors. They claim the hunt has gone too far. Did you know that was happening?”

“No. Father didn’t mention it.”

Hethon looked alarmed as Nanette pointed to a map in front of them. The [Witch] clicked her tongue authoritatively.

“Well, he’s in Baleros, isn’t he? Did you not see the news about a grain silo going up in flames?”

“That’s happened a lot.”

“Yes, well, this time, a bunch of [Hunters] were called for. This war against Vampires means they’re fighting back.”

“I didn’t know that.”

Hethon hunched his shoulders and frowned determinedly at the map. Nanette gave him an exasperated look.

“What, didn’t your teachers tell you anything about that?”

“About places, yes! We’re not involved in politics. Father doesn’t like them either. What about the Oswens? They’re…is anyone helping them?”

Nanette frowned as she leaned over the table.

“I don’t know. Is anyone helping them? We should ask Jericha and Ullim about—”

Hethon! Nanette! We’re bored!

The two older children barely glanced at Sammial until he shook their table. Hethon glowered at his brother.

“Get lost, Sammial. We’re busy!”

“Doing what?”

Nanette answered for Hethon.

“Thinking about Izril.”

“That’s stupid. Help us find something to do! Or I’ll shake everything off the table!”

Sammial bent over to upend the table, and Nanette pointed at him.

“Don’t. Or a witch’s grudge on it!”

He hesitated, then stuck his tongue out at her. Nanette was outraged and tried to lean on the table to prevent Sammial picking it up. Rather than help her and encourage his younger brother, Hethon leaned over.

“Hold on. I’ve got a way to chase him off. Take this, Sammial!”

He pulled something off his foot and shook it at Sammial. Instantly, the boy recoiled.

Stop it! Stop it!

Nanette stared at Hethon as the boy fled back to Mrsha. Mrsha stared at what Hethon was holding.

“A sock?”

“He’s afraid of them for some reason.”

Hethon grinned and threw his left sock at his brother. Sammial kicked it away, then stomped off. Mrsha held up a note.

What’s wrong with socks?

“It’s not socks. Socks are stupid. It’s the big one.

Sammial muttered darkly. Mrsha exchanged glances with Visma and Ekirra and Kenva, and Ekirra twirled a finger around his ear. He was afraid of a big…sock?

The children wandered around the inn, growing increasingly more desperate to show Rittane something cool. But Calescent was busy cooking and didn’t have time to dish out free food or let them cook. Ishkr had work to do; he was chasing a Drake across the second floor. Jelaqua had taken all the dead bodies out of the basement—

Rittane was very shy and kept assuring Mrsha she didn’t need anything and everyone was too kind already. She had only shown a spark of real interest when Mrsha mentioned the bodies.

“What do you do for fun, Rittane?”

Visma turned to Rittane, and the girl hesitated and turned red.

“I—um—play with my dolls?”

“I thought you didn’t have dolls.”

Visma narrowed her eyes with the cutting insight of a [Lawyer] spotting a logical fallacy in the defense’s argument. Rittane gulped.

“I—I—”

Before the Drake could tighten the thumbscrews, Mrsha held up a card placatingly.

Visma, Visma. Rittane’s new and shy. Let’s show her something cool, okay? I figured it out!

She began to lead them out of the inn, and someone caught her by the scruff of the neck.

“Where are you going, Mrsha? Breaking our promise?”

Colfa was sharp. Mrsha gulped and shook her head.

No! Just showing her—

Colfa read her notecard and sighed.

“What? Oh, very well. You can show them…in the inn.”

In the inn? Lyonette would never allow that! And there was no space! Mrsha groaned—then brightened up as she recalled one of Erin’s new Skills.

 

——

 

Five minutes later, Mrsha was standing in a hallway connecting the common room to the other private dining rooms. It should have been a short, narrow passageway. Instead, it was generously twice as wide and so long that puzzled villagers kept walking down it to the rec room, seeing how far they’d have to jog, and deciding to go elsewhere.

But Mrsha and the kids had something fun. Rittane stared as Mrsha tried to climb onto the seat of…

“What is this, Miss Mrsha?”

Kenva’s eyes lit up.

“A bicycle! Mrsha, you didn’t tell me Lyonette had one!”

“It’s a really nice one, too!”

Visma added enviously. Mrsha tried to adjust the seat and write at the same time.

It was a gift from Solar Cycles! I’m gonna ride it! Push me!

The pedals were meant for Lyonette’s height, but Mrsha reckoned she could get going if she could just…

Visma, Kenva, Sammial, and Ekirra all looked at each other, then shrugged and decided it was worth a shot. They held the bike up—then ran it down the hallway and shoved.

Amazingly, the bike kept itself balanced for about fifteen feet, and Mrsha kicked at the pedals with her too-short legs. She grinned, looking over her shoulder at Rittane’s open-mouthed look of delight.

This was a great idea! I’m a genius!

Then the bike wobbled, and Mrsha changed her tune.

Oh no!

The crash brought Rittane’s parents, Dorkel and Leiithe, running along with several other people from Rheirgest. Colfa appeared and just shook her head as she saw Mrsha, holding her arm, silently howling, trapped under the metal bicycle.

Get a healing potion! I’m hurt! I’m hurt!

The Vampiress walked over and checked Mrsha over, tsking as she saw where Mrsha’s fur had been torn out.

“You poor dear. That has to hurt. You don’t need a healing potion, though. Did you learn a lesson from that?”

She rubbed Mrsha’s head, and the Gnoll girl wailed.

Get my mother!

“Mrsha, are you okay?”

Ekirra dashed on over, and Colfa nodded.

“She is.”

I’m not!

The agony of children aside, once the adults were sure she hadn’t broken bones and wasn’t bleeding, they were more fascinated with the bicycle than anything else.

“I saw this on the scrying orb. Dead gods, it’s so…intricate. Like a Drake puzzle. So it moves you as fast as a horse? But how?”

Dorkel moved a pedal experimentally and stared as it translated the force into a wheel.

“Amazing.”

It’s our gift from Kevin. It’s great and stupid.

Mrsha sniffed, alternating between pride and sadness and anger. This was the most interesting thing for the villagers of Rheirgest, though, and after a second, Leiithe looked at Colfa.

“Could we try it? Just to see—”

Clear longing was in her eyes, and Colfa smiled.

“I think you have a better chance than Mrsha at moving it. Just—I think Lyonette showed me how it works.”

The next few minutes were figuring out how it worked and deploying then undeploying the kickstand. Leiithe was very unsteady on the bicycle, not trusting it would stay level of its own accord, but when her husband tried it, he went down the corridor at good speed, yanked on the brakes after getting nervous, and fell off the bike.

Mrsha had never known it, but if you pulled too hard only on the front bicycle tire, you could actually throw yourself off the bike and get it to flip.

Grandma’s bones!

The sight of her father doing a three-hundred-and-sixty degree flip, then desperately catching himself with his feet, had Rittane’s hands over her mouth. But the instant she saw he was fine, the girl burst out laughing.

Your face! Nahahahahahahaha—

Her laughter was different than anything Mrsha had heard. Rittane stopped and turned red, but then she saw Mrsha and Sammial clutching their stomachs, laughing at her. She was crimson—then smiled shyly.

“I think I nearly joined my family. I’m not ready to till the fields yet.”

Dorkel was holding his hand on his chest as his wife ran over, giggling with the same curious laughter. He passed a hand over his eyes, then grinned himself.

“If we had one of these, we wouldn’t have to walk the last few miles into market each day instead of hiding the horses. I think it’s smoother and faster than a horse too!”

“Well, if you can afford to buy one—”

Leiithe teased her husband, and Dorkel sighed. He gave her a wounded look, then peered at the bicycle.

“Is it magic?”

He asked Mrsha, and she self-importantly shook her head.

Nope! It’s enchanted, but you can do it with just gears and stuff!

“Dead gods, really? You don’t think we could copy it, do you?”

It wasn’t the first time Mrsha had heard that, and she knew the wheels were straightforwards. But the gear system? She gestured at that. Good luck.

Kevin had made a simple bicycle without what he called a ‘six-gear system’. This one only had three gears, and Mrsha supposed you could approximate the way the chain from the middle bit wrapped around the back wheel and even the pedals.

But as countless [Blacksmiths] had probably told clients—smithing those perfect gear teeth was heinous. Let alone the chain! Mrsha had been in earshot of Maughin one time when he’d told Chaldion flat out he’d rather eat iron filings than make the bicycle chain by forging each link perfectly so that it wouldn’t break under stress.

“Oh, I see. It’s so complex, this spinning bit. Reminds me of stories of Pallass’ moving platforms.”

“Maybe we could see those too. If we can stay. The [Princess] is being very hospitable, but all those angry Gnolls and Drakes…even if they clear out, they’ll be back, Dorkel.”

He avoided his wife’s look, and Mrsha hesitated as the adults began to speak of depressing things. As they did. Dorkel met Leiithe’s gaze, then his eyes slid to Rittane.

“Let’s let Rittane have fun for a day or two. We’ve got [Knights] on our side and a [Princess]. It’s better than any other time, hey? I suppose it’s not easy to copy this thing, is it? Or else anyone would. But it just looks like a simple frame and this weird thing. If you took this…what did you call it? This gear and this one, does it still spin?”

He reached down, and Mrsha reached for his hand lest he break the bicycle. But Dorkel didn’t do something as magnificently stupid as prizing the gear off the bicycle. Instead, he just bent over the gear—and pulled a piece of bone out of a belt pouch.

Mrsha watched as the piece of bone melted, as if the ivory were water, then flowed into the shape of a disc.

Her jaw dropped as Dorkel concentrated and spokes began to appear around the edges. It wasn’t…accurate. Not at first.

“You’re not making it perfectly circular, dear. Just [Copy Shape]. Let me.”

Leiithe reached for the piece of bone, but her husband held on with wounded pride.

“Some of us can do it by eye.”

She rolled her own eyes expressively, then pulled out another piece of bone, and it morphed into a smaller gear. Dorkel fit the two together, continuing to adjust his, and then connected the two like the bike, with an axle rod of ivory.

They locked together! They clicked as they moved! He smiled in satisfaction.

“Dead gods, it’s not the worst! I thought it was like repairing a wheel’s axle. Making a mold of those gear-things must be how the [Smiths] do it. Miss Mrsha, does this look—”

They turned to the little Gnoll girl and saw her mouth was completely open. Mrsha stared at the gear, which she’d seen Pelt’s apprentices swearing over and filing down to perfect points after casting molds—replicated in about half a minute.

By [Necromancers].

Dorkel looked worried he’d done something wrong, but Mrsha just lifted the gear from his hands. Then she ran, screaming silently, to find someone.

 

——

 

There were people who belonged to The Wandering Inn and people who did not. Or had yet to become part of it. Some of them were mere acquaintances, which was hard.

It was hard to stay away from the things Erin Solstice got up to. Because—often, you believed in what she did.

You wanted to help her. Even if some of the things she did were crazy, annoying, or too dangerous—

She was there. A young woman from Earth who took a stand. Who could get world powers, at least, as Rhaldon Flemmens understood it, to listen to her.

You had to admire that. At the same time, he hadn’t been back to the inn since the Solstice.

He’d come back today because his route had taken him back from the north. Because he wanted to see how it was. Because Lyonette had hinted to him there was something he might want to be part of. Because Saliss was his teacher and fellow [Alchemist]—and Octavia was waiting on another glassware shipment.

Because Rhaldon did want to help. But he had heard what happened to Liscor on the Solstice. He had seen that image of Erin Solstice at sea. He got it, he really did. He didn’t understand the six, not fully, but what he did get terrified him by implication. Rhaldon was not religious, but he’d grown up in a household that believed in…and now Erin Solstice was on another continent, people wanted her dead, and the inn remained.

There were cute kids in the inn. Good people, or so Termin said. Brave people. Rhaldon should have gone back earlier.

But a question had emerged in the chemist’s mind. To him, it defined the entire allure of the inn and the reason he stayed away. It was this:

Who was Kevin?

No, to be more accurate—

Who had Kevin been?

Rhaldon didn’t know him. Oh, they’d met. Kevin had seemed like a nice—dude. Relaxed, the kind of person who could walk into a party and be welcomed at the door. Rhaldon imagined Kevin walking up with a pack of beers and handing them out.

He’d been more than that, of course. He’d founded Solar Cycles. He’d lived in this world longer than Rhaldon. Kevin had seen enough to be happy not going adventuring. Had he been particularly dangerous? Rhaldon didn’t think so.

So why had someone murdered him?

The answer was obvious: Kevin had known too much. The man who’d invented bicycles had been deemed a threat by association with Erin Solstice as much as anything else, and an [Assassin] had shot him dead.

With a gun.

Rhaldon’s own bullet wound ached. He shivered as he stabled his two horses at the Driver’s Guild in Liscor and walked out the gates towards the inn.

After twenty minutes, he realized the inn was gone and went back to the city for directions. When he was told it would take hours to get to the inn, he lined up instead.

Who was Kevin? A brave guy, Rhaldon decided. Maybe he hadn’t known…no one had given Rhaldon all the details. Lyonette had been practically incoherent when she’d appeared to tell him what had happened.

Maybe he’d just been in the way when they were going after Erin. Either way, it told Rhaldon he was in danger associating with the inn. He could have just walked off. Even if Erin had leased him a room, he could find another magical carriage.

Or just talk to Saliss and avoid the inn. But Rhaldon came back.

He felt he owed it to Kevin, a man he’d never known. Rhaldon had never felt particularly patriotic. But someone from Earth was dead. That guy—Rémi—had scars all over his face from an undead attack.

On the Solstice. Rhaldon hadn’t been attacked; maybe they hadn’t known he was here. Or maybe he’d rolled past whatever it was in the night. Clearly, he hadn’t been a priority target. But he felt like he had to at least try to do something.

Besides, Octavia was a guest of the inn. And he didn’t want Octavia, the first [Alchemist] to give him a chance, to die.

Next! Remember. Prices for each city are listed! You don’t pay, you don’t enter!”

Rhaldon had his silver coins ready, but when the Gnoll at the door saw him, she blinked.

“Hey. I know you. You’re that [Alchemist]. Termin’s apprentice. Go on through!”

“Oh. Thanks.”

Ignoring the envious stares, he shuffled into the inn. There were lines of people waiting, sitting or standing, to be moved to another part of the world.

It makes my silly wagon look slow by comparison. Termin’s right; the Driver’s Guild is lucky Erin doesn’t turn this into mass transport or we’d all be in trouble. 

When you saw someone step into Invrisil from here, you had to wonder what the hell the point of riding for weeks in the snow was. Doing the manual route from Invrisil to Celum had been, uh, eye-opening to say the least.

These days, Rhaldon was a full [Driver], albeit new, and an aspiring [Alchemist]. He hadn’t put anything on the market yet; he’d sold all his stuff through Octavia’s and even Xif’s shops.

The money was good. But as the other [Alchemists] and even [Drivers] had warned him, the money was never enough.

A hundred gold pieces? Rhaldon would be overjoyed. Food and drink forever! But that meant he could finally buy a magic-shielded containment box; literally just lead and magicore that kept magic from leaking into an experiment. A tiny box, mind you.

Or—did he have twenty gold pieces? Wonderful! Let’s get some better wheels on that wagon, eh? His current wagon was boxy and could roll over at the drop of a hat; if he splurged, he could have it remodeled with better wood that didn’t have a leak. Or something lighter and make half again as good time! And the horses! What about faster horses or an enchantment on—

Rhaldon had a, uh, a proposal for Saliss, or maybe Lyonette, if she was interested. He’d been working on it all the way south. He’d spent eighty gold coins on purchasing the vital ingredient to his idea and a few gold coins on spare wood and scrap metal. He was no woodworker or metalsmith, so he’d fumbled his way through the prototyping, but he knew the principle was solid.

He didn’t want a handout. His idea would work. He just didn’t know if they’d go for it. Rhaldon muttered.

“Excuse me, excuse me. I’m heading for the inn.”

One of the Drakes in line turned towards him.

“The inn’s closed. Bunch of [Necromancers] in it.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Ancestors, right? No one gets in unless they’re one of the inn’s guests. Fine by me.”

The Drake spat. Instantly, Liska threw a half-eaten bagel at him.

Don’t spit on my floors! Clean it up!

“With what?”

The bagel! Then eat the bagel!”

Rhaldon took advantage of the two shouting at each other to duck into the long hallway. He hurried down it and opened the door cautiously.

“Uh, hello?”

No one but guests or [Necromancers]!

Someone strode up to Rhaldon and shrieked in his face. A short Goblin glared at Rhaldon. He held up his hands.

“Sorry. I—”

“Wait, Asgra! I know that Human! Come in, come in!”

Peggy stopped Asgra from throwing Rhaldon out and grinned at him. Relieved, Rhaldon walked into the inn and found a bunch of, well, villagers standing or sitting around, chatting, looking weatherworn as he was.

Oh, and some of them had skeletons who were serving them food.

Rhaldon stared. Peggy explained as she patted snow off his coat and took it.

“We have [Necromancers]. They is very nice. Don’t mind them! Come in, come in! Lyonette is busy today. You want to see her?”

“Um. Yes. I have a delivery for Octavia in my bag of holding.”

“Good! She’s with Lyonette. Can you wait? Let me get you a burger.”

Peggy strode off authoritatively, and Rhaldon had to catch up to tell her he’d actually just eaten. She looked crestfallen.

“You sure? Is always time for eating.”

As if to prove her point, Asgra took the burger Peggy had just gotten and took a bite. Rhaldon blinked at Peggy—then saw she had something in the pockets of her aprons. Peggy noticed and offered it to him.

“How about donuts instead?”

“Um. No thanks.”

“You sure? We bought four dozen.”

The entire Goblin staff was chewing down on food as they waited tables, Rhaldon saw. It didn’t even look like the inn’s food; he saw a bag marked Barehoof Kitchens open on another table. Peggy caught his eye and grinned.

“Don’t worry. We have lots of money. You, uh, you talk to Lyonette. I’ll get you when she’s done, okay?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

The inn was different each time he came to it. Rhaldon nearly went to sit down, but then tried to wander around the room unobtrusively.

Goblins snacking on food like crazy was one thing. He passed by Ishkr and saw the Gnoll had a suit on—and a shorter Gnoll he was dragging by the scruff of the neck.

“Just tell me what’s going on! It’s worth a hundred gold coins to you and me!”

“Nope. [Emergency Evacuation].”

Ishkr tossed the Gnoll out the window. He dusted his paws off, then hurried upstairs. Behind him, Rhaldon saw a group of Antinium standing around a very nervous Worker sitting at the table.

All the Antinium on their feet were clearly staff of the inn. Rosencrantz, Goldbody, and Silverboots were all standing around a plain Antinium.

“I do not understand. What is my job?”

The Worker was speaking to the other three. Rosencrantz answered happily for them.

“We have hired you.”

“Yes. What is my job, please?”

The other three Antinium looked at each other. Rosencrantz shook his head.

“Your job is to sit here and eat food. Do you have an apartment?”

The new Antinium shook its head instantly.

“This—this Worker is not a Painted Antinium or high-level.”

“Then we will get you an apartment. A nice one. Do you want a cat or a dog?”

Silverboots broke in energetically. The Worker stared at him.

“A cat or dog? What is my job to earn an apartment? Am I meant to fight Draugr?”

He stood up as if ready to do that, but Rosencrantz shook his head.

“No. We are paying you to live in an apartment.”

“With a cat.”

“Dog.”

Rosencrantz interrupted Silverboots and Goldbody.

Both—and to eat good food. We will go shopping next. Do not worry about the cost. We have…”

Rosencrantz touched a fat purse of coins.

“…A lot of money. Come, come!”

Happily, the three Antinium chivvied the very confused—and concerned—Worker out of the inn. Rhaldon just whistled.

Either his eyes were broken or that was all gold he’d seen in the purse. How much did Erin pay these guys?

There was definitely something different about the inn today. Rhaldon hesitated, then headed upstairs. Erin had promised he’d always have a room here, even though he’d told her he didn’t need one and wouldn’t stay long. Was it…?

 

——

 

Rhaldon Flemmens. A brass nameplate no less. Rhaldon pushed the door open and blinked at the tidy, lovely room. He stared at the bed. He lay down on the bed.

“Why didn’t I stay here?”

Rhaldon stared at the ceiling.

Oh, right. I didn’t want to get killed. He exhaled. After a few seconds, Rhaldon sat up.

“Someone’s got to do something. If she’s in danger from being murdered. They were airstriking her—”

He paced around the room.

“She did knife that guy in the back. But he was also trying to kill Rabbiteater, who’s probably…”

His lips moved.

“And she was kidnapped by Roshal. She might have done something to Roshal. Roshal are [Slavers].”

Rhaldon did a bit of basic math.

“…I can’t see how Erin’s in the wrong here. But what am I supposed to—”

He’d make his pitch, do his best to deliver, and let them be, well, them. That was cowardice, but it was all he could manage. He didn’t know how to fight. He probably could, with time, develop a moving cart that had enough alchemical ingredients in it to blow himself and anyone attacking him sky high, like that time with the [Bandits].

But Rhaldon preferred to survive that kind of situation. He couldn’t be a Saliss.

Rhaldon wondered if he had the courage to be a Kevin.

That thought prompted Rhaldon to leave his room and walk down the second floor. Was it here…?

Of course it was.

Kevin Hall.

“So that’s his name.”

Rhaldon thought he wouldn’t ever forget it. He wasn’t good with names, but those simple words…it was strange. He’d read warning labels on hydrogen peroxide in the normal course of his job about how getting it in your eyes would literally bubble the water out of your very eyeballs.

Those two words struck him harder. Rhaldon stood at the door for a second and was almost about to go back to his room or go downstairs and greet whomever he recognized when he heard a voice from within.

—trying.

Hm? Rhaldon stopped. There was someone in Kevin’s rooms. He paused, looking down the hallway, but no one was ab—

Come back here!

Ishkr ran down the hallway and chased a young woman with a recording crystal down into the common room. Rhaldon backed against the door. He heard someone inside pause.

—no, Adetr. It’s just Ishkr. He’s throwing another [Spy] out of the inn. They’re like cockroaches. I told you, I can’t say what it is—but it’s big. Like, big enough to justify me returning. Listen, how’s the Steelfur tribe doing?

Who was this? It was a female voice in the room. Rhaldon hesitated, then opened the door a crack. He saw a young woman sitting on the bed, looking out the window, holding a speaking stone.

She listened as a growling voice replied.

“What? Really? It’s no good? It can’t be that hard to—well, yeah. You can’t make a blast furnace overnight. No, I can’t convince Master Pelt to—he’s a grumpy Dwarf. Yes, worse than you.”

She grinned at a harrumphing growl.

“Listen. Tell Honored Deskie that Lyonette is really interested in the fabric. It’s just that she’s got a lot on her plate right now. And I’m gonna help. Do…there are no Merchant’s Guilds in the Great Plains, right? Yeah, I thought so.”

She was laughing along with someone, and Rhaldon thought he knew her. Not the young woman herself, with reddish hair and oddly tribal-looking winter clothing, tanned furs and actual fur down. But the way she talked.

He hadn’t seen her before, he was sure, though. So who was…?

Rose half-turned, perhaps sensing the draft, and saw Rhaldon peeking at her. He jumped. She dropped the stone and screamed.

Argh! Spy!

She leapt from her bed, fumbling at her belt for a knife—Rhaldon held up his hands.

“No, wait! I’m sorry! I’m just—”

“Get out! Get—”

“I’m from Earth! I’m a friend of the inn!”

Rose stopped, pointing a sheathed dagger and her unbuckled belt at him—and stared. She blinked at Rhaldon. He gave her a tremulous grin. Rose’s mouth worked.

You’re from Earth? Who the heck are you?

That was his question.

 

——

 

They moved to Rhaldon’s room, and Rose introduced herself to Rhaldon, and he apologized for eavesdropping on her. When she’d seen his nameplate, she’d stopped.

“Wait, you’ve got a room here?”

“Um. Yeah. Erin promised me a place. I guess she kept it for me. I’m always on the road, so I haven’t seen you around.”

Rose stared at the nameplate, hurt.

“I don’t have one. They just put me in a guest room.”

She saw his expression and clarified.

“It’s because I was with the Gnolls. They knew I was gone. It’s just—yeah. I’m the new girl, again, I guess. Erin didn’t mention me?”

Rhaldon wished he hadn’t told her that. The young woman visibly tried to look cheerful after a second.

“It’s okay! She was super busy, and me and Inkar were also doing our own thing. So you’re an [Alchemist] then?”

“Chemist. I guess [Alchemist] is my class, but—”

“No way. Really? Can you make stuff from home?”

Rhaldon tried to temper her expectations at once.

“I can’t just whip up anything from home. The industry is different, I don’t have any of the equipment from home—I don’t even know if the periodic table is the same. Plus, it’s not like I memorized formulas or anything.”

His biggest regret was not having a single book or, better yet, just a working internet connection. But Rose grew instantly excited.

“No, this is perfect! This is amazing! A real life chemist! You could make, like—oil and stuff!”

“You mean gasoline? They have oil.”

She pointed at him.

“Exactly! You need to talk to Adetr! That’s the guy I was talking to. There’s this big Gnoll tribe down south that I’m helping. They know about Earth too! They even have—”

She glanced around the inn and checked the door, then lowered her voice.

“—well, I can’t tell you here. But if we can get into the [Garden of Sanctuary], I’ll tell you. It’s huge. It could help you too!”

Something huge? Rhaldon blinked at Rose and had the feeling of being swept into bigger things again. He tried to clarify.

“So there’s an entire tribe of Gnolls who know all about Earth?”

“Yeah. Well, I sort of helped tell them more, but they already knew! They found some of us. Oh my…the plane crash. Did anyone tell you about…?”

Rose was all over the place. She seemed excited to meet anyone who had time to talk to her, and she began explaining how the Gnolls had found a crashed plane—or half of one—and Rhaldon’s heart sank.

“You mean Flight M9244?”

“You know it?”

Rhaldon just stared at Rose and realized she didn’t know.

“I’m from 2023. The entire world knows about it. It was flying in open air over Luxembourg when it crashed. Half of it went down—the other half was never found. Including the black box.”

“Holy shit.”

Rose looked shaken. But that was nothing compared to how Rhaldon felt. He looked at her and cleared his throat.

“What—what did you say your name was?”

“Rose Cinevoy.”

He didn’t remember her specific name, but the list of the Spirited Generation was long, and the first ones like Erin Solstice or Ryoka Griffin were famous. Rose was horrified as Rhaldon began catching her up on news from Earth.

“It’s that bad?”

“It was—pretty bad. I got shot at a protest.”

He showed her the scar on his right shoulder, and she stared at it. She looked shaken, and he recalled Kevin—and guiltily adjusted his shirt.

“Sorry. I know I just appeared after a month away. I’ve been meaning to come back to the inn, to help out. It’s just—a lot. I’m not Erin Solstice, you know?”

She heaved a huge sigh and gave him a tremulous smile.

“No one’s Erin. I don’t blame you. After Kevin—you know about him, right?”

The chemist nodded, and Rose wiped at her eyes.

“Oh no. I’m not going to…he was a great guy. He made bicycles. And—and he was a [Mechanic].”

“I know. I…wish I’d gotten to know him more. I’ve just been doing deliveries. Trying to figure out what some of the new reagents I found do. Nothing major. I came back because I had an idea and I was wondering if Lyonette wanted to back it.”

Rose’s eyes lit up as Rhaldon said this, and she grew excited again.

“You mean, financially? I’m here to help Adetr’s tribe. Well, in part. I came back mostly to help—that’s another thing. But you don’t know what’s going on, do you?”

She bounced on the bed, delighted, but it was another thing she didn’t think she could say with the possibility of [Spies]. Rhaldon, despite himself, was growing very interested about what was happening in the inn.

“Can you tell me about what’s going on with the, uh—[Necromancers]?”

Rose explained the Rheirgest situation to Rhaldon, and he was getting that sinking feeling he sometimes got. A new world and there were just more and more ways for people to hate other people. In a way, his skin color was barely remarked on, which was a plus for him; no one gave him an odd look for just walking down the street. Which was great. He didn’t even believe it sometimes.

By the same token, your class got you the full monty experience. He exhaled.

“Wow. That, uh—I wish I could help with that.”

“Maybe you can. Would you be willing to use the [World’s Eye Theatre] to talk to Adetr? Maybe even travel down there? I know it’s far…”

Actually, the prospect of travelling to Izril’s south was appealing, especially because Termin said the roads were a lot more well-patrolled. If you factored in the potential of getting on the good side of Gaarh Marsh and getting access to their yet-uncatalogued alchemy reagents…Rhaldon grinned.

“I can do that. I’d love to help the Gnolls. They seemed like they’re good people.”

Rose looked relieved to hear that and nodded vigorously.

“That’s super. Erin’s not a big fan of helping any one side too much, except maybe Goblins, but I’ve been trying to get them tech. From home? They’re working on it too, and if you gave them some pointers with your expertise…”

“I can’t do more than talk about my field, which is sort of limited.”

“No, no, that’s great! And obviously, nothing big. We’re not trying to share, like—cars or anything.”

Rose laughed, trying to be reassuring. Here, Rhaldon paused and frowned.

“Why not?”

The young woman opened her mouth and gave him an odd look. Then she grinned and explained.

“Oh, you must have missed meeting Ryoka. She’s super intense, and Erin agrees. We can totally help people and bring stuff like crepes or ice cream here. People are doing that all over. But stuff like, I dunno, gunpowder? Engines and electricity? Way out of line, right?”

The chemist blinked at her.

“It is? Gunpowder isn’t something I’m keen to work on—”

He rubbed at his shoulder again.

“—but why not a car? Or at least, a precursor to that. It’s not impossible, and if that [Assassin] had a gun—”

Then there were people who were already leaps and bounds into Earth’s technology, assuming someone just hadn’t brought a gun over wholesale. What was wrong with a car?

Rose spluttered, trying to represent and recall Ryoka’s exact position.

“Well, it’d be so destabilizing! Guns would be super bad for all the war crimes people could commit with them, and cars would be polluting, gas-guzzling nightmares! Do we really need more of that?”

She was searching for a receptive audience in Rhaldon, and he granted her, he might have been on board with Rose’s statements a few months ago. But Rhaldon had been watching the news.

“Didn’t they nuke Pomle? Or close to it. War crimes are still happening here. Just with magic. And I don’t want to make guns. But a car?”

He had been on the road in the freezing snow, his wagon’s wheels slipping in the mud, with two miserable horses moving at a plodding pace. If you had given Rhaldon a four-wheeler with a snow plough, he would have done a backflip.

Rose sat there giving Rhaldon a bug-eyed look, and then she slapped her cheeks.

“Okay, I’m sold. Ryoka made sense before someone shot Kevin. I don’t know why I was still arguing her point. Adetr is trying to build all kinds of stuff from home. Even Kevin had tons of blueprints he worked up.”

Rhaldon wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad sign he was swinging Rose’s opinion around so fast. He looked around.

“Is there anyone else from Earth in the inn?”

“Just Joseph these days. There’s Troy, in Pallass, but he sucks. Imani lives in Liscor with her Centaur boyfriend.”

“Her what?”

Rose led Rhaldon downstairs, growing more and more excited. She paused and yanked a door open, and Rhaldon saw a pile of bright yellow metal illuminating the [Garden of Sanctuary]. His eyes widened. That was not what he thought it was. Or the entire floor would implode under the weight.

“Hurry, come on through! Let’s talk in here!”

“Wh—what is—”

Rose pushed Rhaldon into the [Garden], and then her eyes were lit up with what Rhaldon had sensed.

Gold. Gold! Gold!

Rhaldon stared around open-mouthed as a Gnoll girl tumbled into the [Garden of Sanctuary], waving a weird piece of ivory. She raced up to Rose and then stared at Rhaldon and offered him a high-five. He high-fived Mrsha absently as Rose bent over.

“Hey, what’s that, Mrsha? Is that a gear? What metal is…”

She straightened with a look of dumbfounded surprise on her face. Rhaldon was just breathing in and out.

“Okay. Did someone find an actual Philosopher’s Stone? I need explanations, because I am about to lose it.”

Mrsha beamed at him and began smugly writing, but Rose was too fast.

“Let’s just say Erin has a new Skill. A box that copies anything.”

Rhaldon thought about that. He thought about the implications. His mouth worked.

“…And you didn’t put healing potions in it?”

“That’s the next plan! After we do gold. You can’t go back after you do something once. Think this will fund your experiments, Rhaldon? A bit of alchemy? Want a new wagon? What were you going to pitch to Lyonette, anyways? I have a feeling she’ll say…‘yes’.”

Rose and Mrsha were both posing with their backs to the pile of gold. Giving him smug looks and savoring the complete disbelief on his face. Rhaldon blinked, and suddenly, ideas were exploding through his mind.

I could buy all the pillows I want. And a new damn wagon! But then he began staring at that ivory gear.

Another piece of his mind lit up, and Rhaldon’s ideas that had all revolved around Pelt or Dwarfhalls Rest…suddenly shifted. He murmured as he gestured back the way they’d come.

“Oh, nothing much. I spent all the money I earned from helping Saliss and selling my recipe to Calidus on this. I wanted to make something if Lyonette could finance, like—nine more.”

He pulled something out of his pocket, and Mrsha blinked with interest and delight. She knew what it was; Rhaldon’s hand grew hot as Rose stared at a small, cylindrical object in it.

“What? A candle?”

The chemist shook his head. He slowly lifted the candle up; it had ignited the moment it left the Bag of Holding.

“Nope. An Everburning Candle. I was going to ask Lyonette for funding to try to build an infinite steam engine.”

He savored Rose’s dumbstruck expression for a second. Rhaldon had finally built a little contraption that involved merely boiling water into a rotating drum with little cups that used the steam to move the drum in a circle. The Everburning Candle couldn’t produce that much heat, but it never consumed fuel. Never ran out.

Why in the name of mad science wouldn’t I build an engine out of that? Mrsha waved the gear overhead.

[Necromancers] can copy bicycles! Maybe! Also, what’s a steam engine?

 

——

 

The secret was going to get out.

Gold.

Lyonette saw the cracks already. Ishkr was chasing out [Spies] nonstop with Ushar, and Dalimont had presented her with a list of over forty groups who all wanted to talk to her.

She was aware the staff were also potential leaks. In hindsight, Lyonette should really have mitigated how much gold came out of the box. But she’d been too excited and, well, here they were.

What she could choose to do was tell people in advance. Nerul, now, he was a dangerous Drake. Lyonette fancied he’d be flattered by the compliment; even if Lyonette trusted Ilvriss, he was a Wall Lord.

Like Saliss, he represented the powers that be, and both Saliss and Ilvriss could be too influential on their own.

Until she lost control of the situation, Lyonette was determined that this was still the gold of The Wandering Inn. So she had someone sit down. Dame Ushar secured Stitchworks, looking tired from spy-chasing as Lyonette’s guest fidgeted in her chair.

“Listen, Lyonette. If this is about Numbtongue, I’m sorry he’s never around. It’s—he’s having a rough time.”

Octavia was slightly nervous as she stroked Reagen’s head. The orange tabby was almost always around her shop, and he rubbed himself against her hand.

“It’s not, Octavia. In fact, this is a bit of a secret that I’m sorry I didn’t let you in on earlier.”

The Stitch-girl smiled faintly. Octavia’s hands were dyed from the reagents she handled, but she looked more confident, more relaxed than before.

“It’s fine, really, Lyonette. I totally get it.”

“I want you to know, though, Octavia. It’s an utter secret, you understand?”

Absolutely.

Both of them glanced at the door to Stitchworks, but Ushar had checked for spies and spells, and Lyonette nodded to Octavia.

“Something is going on in the [Garden of Sanctuary].”

“Oh, is that why I can’t access it any more?”

“Yes. It’s got to do with Erin, and we’re not quite sure what it does, but—suffice it to say we’ve come into quite a lot of gold. You know how Erin’s garden had Relic-class items just sitting around in it? Er…imagine another one had some money in it.”

It was a lie, but the best way to explain things. And if people leaked this version of the truth, well, that was fine.

Octavia’s eyes went round.

“Is that why Mrsha tried to buy a Potion of Gigantification from me last week?”

For answer, the [Princess] just sighed.

“Most likely. It’s caused some problems. However! You are a part of this inn, and I wanted to offer you, well, gold. In exchange for you working for the inn, Octavia. Whatever you needed. Reagents to experiment, improvements to your shop, glassware…”

She waved a hand about the decently prosperous little store. Octavia’s eyes went round, but then she visibly pulled herself back. Octavia fiddled with her braided hair, flushing.

“Oh, gee, Lyonette. Thank you for trusting me. I don’t know if I’m worthy of all this, though. Remember last time how greedy I was?”

Lyonette reached out and grabbed Octavia’s hand. She looked the [Alchemist] in the eye as Reagen tried to eat Octavia’s finger.

“Octavia, you’re part of the inn. Honestly, I wanted to show you, but I was afraid it might get to Saliss.”

Or that you’d go crazy buying things. Octavia nodded reasonably and hesitantly picked up Reagen. She stroked her cat’s head.

“I mean, if you insist, Lyonette. I don’t want to take away from the inn’s bounty, but maybe—IwantanAlchemyGolem.

“Hmm?”

Octavia said it slower. Barely.

I want an Alchemy Golem! One that can stir and mix ingredients! And I want a recipe manual from Nerrhavia’s Fallen! Not a new one! They sell these old ones from masters that are a hundred thousand gold pieces—a lot are fake, but I want one of those. And a Phoenix. Now, you may think that’s a waste given the cost, but that’s infinite Phoenix feathers—”

She saw the look on Lyonette’s face and began laughing. The [Princess] realized Octavia was hamming it up a tiny bit and chuckled in relief. Then Octavia hugged her.

How much gold do we have?”

“Quite a bit. More than I’m willing to say, even here. I’ll show you the garden if you promise not to tell anyone?”

“Swear on my lifestring.”

Lyonette opened the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She blinked when she saw Rhaldon and Rose and Mrsha inside. Then she beamed and waved at them.

“Well, we can do the explanation twice, Octavia! Octavia…?”

The Stitch-girl was in Dame Ushar’s arms, fainted dead away. Reagen was yowling as he climbed all over Ushar’s armor, trying to protect his master from her attacker.

That was the good part of Lyonette’s day. Octavia waking up, running around, throwing gold pieces in the air—then running because falling gold pieces hurt like hell—Rhaldon being back and explaining his ideas, and even Mrsha’s revelation about their [Necromancers]’ abilities?

All splendid.

The bad part began a bit past midday. It began when Lyonette realized the staff were going a bit insane.

 

——

 

Gold. Gold, gold, gold.

You could have too much of it. Lyonette did not miss the sudden appearance in the inn of a bunch of sweets that Calescent hadn’t made. When she saw the multiple deliveries of confections by Street Runners, she snapped.

“Peggy! What are you doing, buying all this?”

“Sorry, Chieftain. It’s just—is good, right?”

Peggy was trying not to look too defiant, but the [Floor Boss] had an apron stuffed full of donuts. She had learned from Ishkr’s example yesterday. The problem was that Ishkr’s example had been a lovely, one-time thing that even Lyonette had approved of in hindsight.

Goblins, though, were like Lyonette. Actually, she’d only almost starved once. Goblins knew privation, and giving them an all-you-could-spend pass was a bad idea.

Lyonette pointed at Sticks. The Cave Goblin was lying on the ground with his belly so bloated it visibly hurt him.

“How much did he eat?”

“…Sixteen donuts?”

Even Peggy began to realize that was a problem. She hesitated and bent over.

“Sticks? Is you breathing?”

He garbled something at her. She nudged him in the stomach with a toe. His cheeks bulged—

Lyonette covered her eyes until the horrible sounds had stopped. Then she saw Sticks on his hands and knees and a pile of vomit. The Cave Goblin looked ill, but then brightened up.

“Stomach empty! Time eat more.”

He reached for a donut in Peggy’s apron, and Lyonette cried out.

Stop.

This wasn’t just indulging oneself! This was hedonism! She had a flash of warning in her mind.

He might get a Crimson Class if he overdoes it.

Peggy was just scolding Sticks about wasting food. She tried her best Lyonette voice.

“You don’t waste donuts, Sticks! You eat that—then you have another.”

She pointed at the pile of puke, and Lyonette raised her voice.

No, thank you. Clean that up, Sticks. Please. Peggy, please. No more unauthorized purchasing? Promise me for a day or two. Promise on Goblins?”

She’d learned that was a good thing to get them to do. Peggy squirmed, clearly unhappy.

“But…is not much gold! Inkpaper bought books!”

“Yes, and he shouldn’t have done that. Peggy, we have to be careful. Too much gold can be bad for you!”

“Why don’t you spend some, then?”

Peggy challenged her, and all the Goblins nodded. Lyonette took a deep breath.

“I…don’t feel the need to spend it frivolously, Peggy. I suppose I, er, rather had a lot growing up.”

She realized that was the difference between them. Lyonette had been here before, even if the amounts of gold were completely different. Peggy was excited about newfound wealth. Lyonette had spent the money on wasteful things. Like a pony. It got old.

“Dead gods. Did my mother actually teach me well or not?”

She put a hand to her head, shaken by the thought. However, she fixed the Goblins with a stern eye.

“No more food buying. Swear on your tribe.”

Peggy spluttered unhappily.

“I—fine! We swear! But we is not the only ones! What about Antinium buying other Antinium? Eh, eh?”

She folded her arms defiantly with the air of a co-conspirator determined to bring the entire team down with them.

Lyonette’s eyes opened wide.

Buying other Antinium?”

She was exceptionally worried—until Peggy clarified what that meant and relaxed. Only slightly.

 

——

 

“Rosencrantz? Are you funding other Antinium’s retirement?”

The Antinium was gathering gold pieces into a bag when Lyonette snuck up on him. He jumped, waved all four arms, and a bunch of Antinium ran and tried to hide behind piles of gold.

“N-no, Miss Lyonette.”

Rosencrantz shook like a leaf as Lyonette—and Peggy, arms folded—faced him. She stared at the bag of gold. Rosencrantz kicked it away.

“Rosencrantz, I’m not angry. I’m simply telling you to stop. Agreed?”

Lyonette didn’t intend to punish either group. She felt it was understandable, and she hoped she sounded calm and reasonable. That was why she was really shocked when Rosencrantz’s mandibles lowered and he spoke.

“No.”

“…Huh? Rosencrantz—”

“We will not stop.”

In a second, the terrified [Adjunct Manager] went from shaking in terror to standing there, one pair of arms on his hips, the other pair folded. Lyonette was aghast. Then a bunch of Antinium, her entire staff, stood up and backed Rosencrantz up.

“What? You can’t just pay for Antinium to—”

“Be happy? Yes. We must. We will not stop.”

The Worker’s voice was completely frightened, but he had a backbone like mithril. Ushar blinked and put a hand on her sword.

“It’s treason, then. Against the inn.”

“Yes. No. We are only doing what Erin would do. Please do not kill us. We must pay for all Antinium to be happy.”

Defiantly, Rosencrantz bent to pick up the bag of holding, and Lyonette felt her grip on the inn slipping. Oh no.

“Chieftain? You want me to beat them with stick? Sticks, get stick.”

Peggy looked uncertain, and Lyonette hissed at her.

“Absolutely not! We are not solving this with force! Rosencrantz!”

He was running out of the garden, and Lyonette pursued him. Now, there was a kind of warning in her head.

You really didn’t think of what this would do to the inn, did you? Gold. Lyonette had grown up in the Eternal Throne and been surrounded by it. What had it done to the others?

“Rosencrantz, stop! Let’s talk about this!”

A cluster of Antinium were running out of the inn, pursued by a very worried [Princess]. But they halted before they could get out of the inn.

“Miss Colfa, please move. We are rebelling.”

Colfa had put a hand out to stop Rosencrantz and the Antinium from leaving. The Vampiress shot Lyonette a glance, and Lyonette waved her arms desperately.

“I think you should reconsider, Rosencrantz. Ve are all on the same side, yes?”

The Vampire gave Rosencrantz a huge smile, and her eyes glowed. To Lyonette’s relief, Rosencrantz and the other Antinium hesitated. Then they stared down at the bags of gold they were holding.

“Yes. We are. So you will not hurt us.”

That golden glow overpowered Colfa’s magical eyes. They began to—politely—push past her, and she blinked. Her arm flexed, and the Antinium halted as her fingers dug into the doorframe. What might have happened next, Lyonette didn’t know. The villagers from Rheirgest were looking at each other, and if they’d helped or seen all the gold the Antinium carried—

It didn’t come to that. Because someone came the other way, shouting, and a howl was so loud that the Antinium recoiled and broke up.

A panting Gnoll, wide-eyed, looking horrified and guilty, pushed into the inn. It was…Jeva! Ekirra’s mother, holding Ekirra by one arm. Rosencrantz backed up a step as the Gnoll woman shouted.

“Miss Lyonette! Miss Lyonette, I am so sorry! I came the instant I—I can’t apologize enough.

“Jeva? What’s wrong?”

Lyonette hurried forwards, and the Gnoll woman lifted her son up by one arm.

“Ekirra! Here, it’s everything—the moment I saw him with—Lyonette, I can’t tell you how ashamed I am. He had an entire bag of gold. From your inn!”

Lyonette’s heart sank. Ekirra was howling, tears in his eyes.

Mom! Mom! I didn’t steal it! Don’t call the Watch! I was given it!

“Ekirra, don’t lie!

She snarled at him, and he fell silent. Jeva turned and pressed the bag into Lyonette’s hands. It was indeed…full of gold. A fortune in gold; more than Jeva’s family might make in months. Jeva was panting.

“He keeps saying he was given it—Lyonette, please don’t make this a matter for the Watch. It’s all here, and if you think anything is missing…”

Lyonette was calm. No, she wasn’t calm emotionally. There was a small part of her that got the hilarity in this situation. But not a large part. The rest just felt terrible for Jeva. The poor woman was horrified. She was giving her son a look as if she thought he was a thief, and Ekirra, the boy, was actually innocent, but frightened to tears. It was a huge mixup and—

The [Princess]’ head slowly moved, and her red hair flashed in the light, but her eyes were gentle. Still—a little Gnoll girl flinched and looked at her, wide-eyed with horror.

“Jeva, Ekirra didn’t steal a thing. I think my daughter gave the gold to him. This is all a huge misunderstanding. Please, sit.”

Jeva finally caught her breath and gave Lyonette a look of incredulity. Lyonette beckoned, and Mrsha hesitantly walked over. Lyonette took a breath, then gave Mrsha a gentle hug.

“Mrsha? We’re not angry, but please tell me Ekirra didn’t take the gold and you gave it to him because you thought it was a good idea. She has a rich aunt, Selys, Jeva—”

She had to lie. That was the best one that came out, and Mrsha instantly nodded. Lyonette was relieved she actually was telling the truth. The alternative…

The Gnoll woman collapsed into a chair and then began to apologize. To Ekirra as much as anyone else, and he howled at Mrsha, who gave Lyonette a horror-stricken look.

Yes, you didn’t think this would happen, did you? Lyonette raised her eyes and saw everyone was looking at her.

“Alright. Ser Dalimont? To me. I suggest that Mrsha go to anyone else she’s given gold to and avoid this happening. Right now. Jeva, sit. Someone get her something to steady herself, and get poor Ekirra something too.”

At least here Peggy was helpful; she handed both a donut. Lyonette rose to her feet as Octavia, Rhaldon, and Rose all turned to her, and she hoped they were getting some of the warning from this.

“Staff meeting. Now. Rosencrantz—Rosencrantz?

Some of the Antinium had frozen, but he was halfway out the common room door. He began to run, and Lyonette chased after him, cursing, Ushar right behind her. The Antinium was almost at the [Portal Door], and Lyonette was shouting for Liska not to let any of the Antinium through when he stopped.

The Antinium was holding the purse of gold with two hands. But the other two suddenly rose straight overhead, and he backed up. Silently, two more Antinium did likewise, and Rosencrantz spoke.

“We surrender, Guardswoman. We knew our crimes would catch up with us.”

Trembling, he looked at the Drake who had halted in the doorway. Watch Captain Zevara opened her mouth and stared at Rosencrantz—then Lyonette. The [Princess] raised her head.

“Oh, what now?”

“Er…if this is something the Watch can help with, I would be glad to, Lyonette. However, we were rather hoping you could help us? We have three Aberrations—or close, I don’t even know what to call it—in the city, and all three claim it’s due to your inn. I request your presence at once in 3rd District.”

“Aberrations?”

Lyonette’s eyes widened, and then she looked at Rosencrantz. The Antinium stood, stiff and petrified, and then Lyonette began to run.

 

——

 

Aberrations was not the right word for it. But Zevara was correct; Lyonette had never seen an Antinium go crazy short of being an Aberration.

“It started just this morning. Three new renters, one of them today. The first fellow, well, he grabbed a broom and started sweeping. At first, one of the local [Shopkeepers] thought he was the Antinium she’d hired to clean. But then the real [Cleaner] showed up and chased him off. So he tried to clean another store, then the street. No one thought it was too bad, but he started sweeping out places without being asked to. Then—he got violent when they tried to take the broom away from him.”

The Watch had cordoned off the area. However, walls of magical light had actually done a better job than a [Guard] shouting for people to move on.

This was because the apartment complex with the three Workers who’d gone crazy was under the protection of a Gold-rank team.

Todi’s Elites looked bored as they waved people on, but they were actually efficient; they’d boxed in a Worker swinging a broom at a bunch of Painted Antinium, and a huge crowd was dispersing as the adventurers forced them back.

“So this is Selys’ apartment?”

Lyonette stared up at the trendy, green-coated building with open verandas stretching out from rather large apartments. Todi nodded reasonably.

“Yep, Miss Lyonette. My team and I are hired to run security for all her properties. We were the first ones she called.”

“Your cooperation is appreciated, Captain Todi.”

Zevara looked annoyed at adventurers trying to do her job, but she took over the explanation from him.

“Apparently, this Worker refused to stop sweeping and grew agitated. People left him be; it wasn’t like he was harming anyone. But he kept sweeping all night. At some point, a citizen tried to stop him out of concern, then called a Painted Antinium patrol over. He began screaming and attacking once they tried to take the broom away from him.”

She jerked a thumb at the Painted Antinium. Lyonette half-turned; Peggy and Rosencrantz and the Antinium were with her, as was Ushar.

“Why?”

Todi grimaced.

“No one knows. He just kept shrieking that he ‘had to justify the cost’. Or something. The second fellow was even weirder.”

An Antinium was curled up on the ground, lying on his back. He was alive—but not moving, and a [Healer] was gingerly trying to get a response. Rosencrantz was shaking.

“What happened?”

“He walked out of his apartment and began to hurl gold coins onto the street. Caused a damn riot. Now, the last fellow we checked on because I can see a pattern.”

Todi pointed to one of the apartment buildings, and Lyonette saw a cluster of people, [Guards], including Antinium and Yellow Splatters, banging on the door.

“Worker. If you are in there, open the door! We would like to inquire about your health!”

Todi leaned over.

“We checked on the fellow by having our [Rogue] sneak onto the patio. He’s just sitting in a corner. Not violent, but he’s shaking like that new jello stuff.”

Three Antinium. Three breakdowns. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on, but Lyonette confirmed her suspicions anyways.

“Excuse me, um, Worker?”

He had no name. It was one of the Workers for hire who had no class, name, or even defining role in the city. The Worker was sweeping, desperately, trying to avoid the Painted Antinium who were calling out.

“Put down the broom.”

“You are not a bad Antinium. Put down the broom, please. Talk to us.”

“Please do not become Aberration.”

They weren’t the best at their job, and the Worker flinched away as Lyonette approached.

“Hello?”

“I am working. Please let me work. I must work.”

He was not well. Lyonette had never seen sleep deprivation hit an Antinium, but his arms were shaking, and he seemed unsteady on his feet. Lyonette looked around; where was her backup?

“Worker. I gave you money to be happy. What are you doing?”

Rosencrantz approached, and the Worker flinched away.

Do not give me more! Please! Please…I must work or else it makes no sense.

He pulled at his antennae, and that confirmed it, as far as Lyonette was concerned. The Worker began to sweep even faster until Lyonette heard a buzzing sound. She looked up, and all the Antinium stopped. People gasped, and Bird—

Slammed into a snowdrift. The Antinium’s attempt to fly towards them ended less gracefully than she had clearly hoped. She got up slowly.

“I am very dignified if I say so. Lyonette, Yelroan has locked the you-know-where. No one is getting in or out. I gave him a sandwich in case he starves. And a bucket for pooing in. Who is this?”

The Worker looked up at Bird, then began to sweep faster. Lyonette explained, and Bird reached out.

“Ah. I see. Hello, Worker. I am Bird. You must stop panicking now.”

I have to work. I have to work. I have to work.

Bird stared at the Worker and patted him again on the shoulder.

“Stop working.”

When the Worker didn’t respond, Bird scratched at her antennae.

“Is violence the answer now?”

No. Thank you, Bird. Let me try.”

Lyonette pushed her aside and bent over. The Worker had a dustpan as well and was trying to sweep up pieces of snow into it.

“Excuse me? Worker? Um…”

I am not Painted Antinium. I have no class. I am not worthy. I have to work. Please, give me work?

His head rose, and Lyonette offered the Worker a smile.

“You must rest.”

“N-no. I must work. I have been paid. Too much payment.”

“I told you to rest.”

Rosencrantz cried out, and the Worker turned and shrieked at him.

And do what? I sat in the room! Alone! I ate food that tasted better than anything ever! I did not earn it. I sat and sat, and the walls grew small in my head, and a voice told me I had not paid for it—”

Air was rushing in and out of the Antinium’s mandibles. The Worker was having a panic attack. Bird gave Lyonette a helpless look.

“I would be happy if someone gave me free money.”

Lyonette knew Bird would. But she thought the Worker was having a justifiable reaction to, well—being sent to heaven. Which is what Rosencrantz and the other Workers had intended. But a heaven without a purpose?

That…could be like Rhir’s hells. So Lyonette thought, and the [Princess of the Inn] spoke after a moment.

“Worker…are you afraid of being asked to pay all that gold back?”

I did not earn it. Why did it happen? Makes no sense, makes no sense.

He grabbed his head, and Lyonette turned to the other, comatose Antinium. Her voice firmed, and she stared at the quivering Rosencrantz.

“Well, I am here to tell you, Worker, that it doesn’t make sense. I am, in fact, Rosencrantz’s employer. His Queen—er, Princess. And you didn’t earn the gold. So I would like it back.”

The Worker froze. Todi’s head came up with the mention of ‘gold’, but the Worker stopped sweeping frantically and turned to Lyonette.

“Give it back?”

“Yes. Absolutely. I know some gold was spent on the apartment; well, I’ll call the sweeping fair for whatever gold was spent. But I’m taking the apartment back. And the food. And firing you.”

“Me?”

It was like cutting a puppet’s strings. The Worker relaxed, and Lyonette held out her hand.

“The gold, please.”

He handed her a bulging pouch full of it. Then the Worker stood there, swaying.

“I am no longer employed and rich?”

“Absolutely. You are now an ordinary Worker. So go back to your Hive and, uh, rest. That’s an order. From the Watch.”

The Antinium stared at her. His mandibles moved.

“Thank you.”

Then he dropped the broom and collapsed backwards. Several Painted Antinium ran over and helped pick him up. One of them turned to Lyonette.

“Heartbreaker Lyonette, thank you for helping him. Can you help the other two?”

Lyonette squared her shoulders, ignoring the nickname.

“I can try.”

 

——

 

The second Antinium was harder than the first—until Lyonette pretended she’d gathered all the coins up and was taking them back. Then he uncurled and sat up.

“This Worker was more frightened of today than Skinner. Please never hire this Worker again.”

He ran off, and the final Worker opened the door when Lyonette served them the notice of dismissal and demanded the gold back.

The last Worker was holding a puppy with a spot over one eye. Lyonette saw him stroking the sleeping puppy’s back, and the Worker offered her the puppy.

“Er—no—you can keep—”

The other Antinium, including Yellow Splatters, were giving her looks as if she were a monster, but the Worker gently handed Ushar the little puppy.

“I do not know how to care for this. I am not Furfur. If the puppy-thing died, it would be my fault. I…I would like to go now. I would like to learn from Furfur. He is right.”

The last of the Antinium made Lyonette blink. He stood there, and Yellow Splatters took one look at the Worker, then reached out.

“You have become Autonomous.”

“Yes. I have.”

The last Worker, at least, had changed—and the puppy was alright, but three traumatized Workers had left Rosencrantz a mess.

“I do not understand. I do not understand. I paid them to be happy.”

“You cannot just give them gold to make them happy, Rosencrantz. At least, not Antinium Workers.”

“It will work on other people. Sometimes.”

Bird added as they went back to the inn. Lyonette herself wouldn’t have turned a bag of gold down at any point since coming to The Wandering Inn. And yet…

It was so heavy in her hands. What a weight. What a responsibility. She stopped as they headed down one of the main market streets.

“I need just a moment, would you? Bird? Why didn’t Yelroan stop them from doing this?”

She knew she sounded petulant, especially because the gold in the [Garden of Sanctuary] was so overflowing that anyone could sneak in, grab some, and be off. Bird saluted Lyonette.

“That is because Yelroan is deflecting hundreds of people trying to locate where the pile of you-know-what is. With math and numbers. He says he has bounced the location with the power of math, but we are surely doomed in time.”

Everyone turned to Lyonette. She stared at them—then calmly walked into a store that was selling a variety of furniture.

“Welcome to Whorled Woods! Nothing’s curved but our rocking chairs, hah-hah! How can I help you, Miss?”

A Silverfang Gnoll called out as Lyonette walked over to a chair. She smiled at him, then picked the cushion up from the chair and put it to her face.

Then she screamed.

Outside, several people turned at the odd sound. Bird, Ushar, and the inn’s staff all stared as a [Princess] with a pillow for a head uttered a muffled shriek.

“Princess Lyonette! Have I got the deal for—”

Ushar held out her arm and checked a man off his feet. Bird pushed the flailing figure down the frozen street with one foot.

Lyonette kept screaming into the pillow. Then she drew breath and screamed some more.

 

——

 

After a while, she raised her head from the pillow. Her face was red. She sniffed, looked around. The [Shopkeeper] was staring at her. People were gathered around in the street. Lyonette put the pillow down and made a show of inspecting the chair.

It was a very lovely chair. She could imagine sitting in it all day. It had splendid rose-white paint that had melded with the wood; it had an amazing varnish, and the chair itself had several artistic sweeps across the back that made it fit for a [Lady].

“I like this chair. This is mine now.”

Lyonette du Marquin announced to no one and everyone. She got up and walked over to the counter.

“How much to go, please?”

The [Shopkeeper] stammered out a number. Lyonette pulled gold coins out of the bag and added three.

“A tip. Thank you. Ushar? My chair.”

The Thronebearer walked over with her bag of holding. Lyonette turned to the others.

“Peggy, Rosencrantz. Let’s have a staff meeting at the inn. Please.”

“Yes, Chieftain!”

“Yes, Queen.”

The two ran off. Bird gave Lyonette a salute.

“Today has been highly amusing to me, personally. But very stressful for you. Would you like my assistance?”

“If you think you can help, Bird, I’ll never turn it down.”

Lyonette smiled at Bird as they walked back. Bird stared at the sky for a while, then patted Lyonette on the shoulder.

“Sometimes, Lyonette, life is filled with suffering and is the suck.”

“Thank you, Bird.”

 

——

 

YELROAN’S WAR

 

 

Gold. You could have too much of it. While Goblins and Antinium and little girls took gold out of the [Garden of Sanctuary] to spend wisely or not, there was one person who didn’t do anything with the bounty of gold still raining down from the box above.

That was Yelroan. [Mathematician]. Not because he’d been the Plain’s Eye’s functional treasurer, oh no. Gold still had an allure to Yelroan, and he had been wondering how to bring up to Lyonette that gold could buy a lot of meals for hungry Gnolls in tribes that had suffered after the battle at the Great Plains.

Rather—he didn’t have time to spend any gold. Even Mrsha, running in with a mask and a bag to try and haul out as much gold as she could carry, didn’t matter. Firstly, because gold was heavy and she was weak.

But also, because Yelroan was trying to divest the inn of this gold. Lyonette had realized it had made them a target at around the same time Yelroan had.

“I just never expected them to come for us so fast!”

He knew how he should be doing it. His tactics in buying into other businesses, creating numerous fake identities, and putting money around the world had been working. The problem was…

Ping! Ping! Ping!

The gold coins kept falling. They weren’t as fast as they had been some days during the fifteen days of gold accumulation, but Yelroan couldn’t keep up.

If he had an entire team of [Secretaries], [Accountants], [Couriers], or just a hundred [Knights] like Dalimont and Ushar, he might have managed to spread enough gold around the world. But he didn’t.

And the sharks were circling.

No, it felt to Yelroan like—hands reaching for him in the [Garden of Sanctuary], trying the doorknob, feeling around blindly; sensing the gold, but trying to open a window or bring a scrying orb in. Some of the hands had eyeballs embedded in the palms to extend the analogy further.

They were using [Appraise Wealth] as a basic, initial attack vector. However, most were using it on Erin. The smart ones were using it on Lyonette.

Yelroan could handle that. He was a math-based specialist, but he’d picked up enough tricks as the Plain’s Eye’s personal accountant. It wasn’t his favorite field; the numbers were boring and had to add up each time. But still. He checked a scroll that flashed every few seconds with light, the magic words shimmering.

 

Whereupon Lyonette du Marquin, by the authority vested in her Acting Liaison to the Merchant’s Guild, Yelroan, commits to the following action bound by Tier 4 Magical Authority (Galnvanis’ Solemn Oath), this contract duly witnessed by Invrisil’s Guildmaster…

 

A lot of frankly unnecessary wording. Merchant’s Guild contracts were old magic. Specialized and enforced by Skills; the magical ones had an authority to them that even nations respected.

The Merchant’s Guild of the modern era drew its roots back from antiquity; it had once been little more than an actual guild of [Merchants]. Its reputation as a contract-broker and even lender of monies came from reforms instituted in the era of the Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia.

Thus, the wax seals and signatures that Yelroan had requested from Lyonette had teeth. His first move?

 

—contents of the gold in the [Garden of Sanctuary] belong to The Wandering Inn itself. The current owners and Acting Managers shall have the right to spend, divest, or otherwise…

 

Make the inn the owner of the money. It was an old tactic; it meant the [Appraise Wealth] Skills were bouncing off the inn like stones thrown from slings. Yelroan’s hunch was correct: the [Garden of Sanctuary] really didn’t like revealing secrets.

However, that was just the constant salvo that had been coming all morning. He almost ducked at his writing desk, and someone shouted urgently.

“They’re coming again! Get ready!”

Nerul was wiping his face with his handkerchief. The gold shining around them had lit his face up with delight—before he’d understood the problem. Now, he looked like he’d been fighting for hours. Because he had!

This time, it felt like something hammered down on Yelroan for a second. He felt his arm shaking, and a sense of intimidation ran through him.

[Royal Will: The Weight of Treasuries]. Someone was trying to do an even more basic check—to see if their nation was richer than the inn! He gasped, clawing at his throat. He couldn’t breathe! This was out of his purview, but the Drake [Diplomat] slashed a claw.

“[An Uncourteous Act, Rebuked]!”

He shoved something out of the air, and Yelroan gasped, collapsed onto his desk, and kept writing. Nerul was holding a quill in the air, inkless, slashing with it as if fencing.

“[A Polite Inquiry]? Hah, no thank you! [Insider Information]—doesn’t even work if we have no idea what the sum is ourselves.”

“I do—”

Nerul swore and slashed.

“[Cancel That]! Yelroan, there are some heavy hitters coming our way. Most of them don’t even seem to realize it’s the inn yet. It feels undirected.”

“How? Even if some of them caught onto Lyonette’s wealth because I was careless—”

The Gnoll snapped, and the Drake flashed a grin at him.

“No one cares about that! You probably just appeared on a bunch of lists! Someone that rich appearing, unwarded? People think you’re adventurers who found a bunch of treasure! Normally, Dragons or eclectic [Archmages] defer the payments into art and artifacts. Because—”

“—because that’s not a quantifiable number!”

He should have turned this all into something else! Yelroan threw up his hands, then dashed an emergency order out. He ran for the garden’s door.

Salamani!

The Mage Runner was thankfully in the inn. He raised an eyebrow as Yelroan explained what he wanted.

“That’ll take me and Ci half an hour. Are you sure?”

Yelroan tossed a bag of gold down.

“Yes, please!”

The Mage Runner hesitated, narrowing his eyes. He was no idiot.

“How much trouble is this getting us into, Yelroan?”

“Nothing actionable. It’s all underhanded [Merchant] stuff. No one will come after you if you’re in and out. Just bury it? Five feet deep would do, but if you sink it a bit—”

Salamani heaved a huge sigh, but he sprang to his feet and snatched the rolled up contract. He whistled, and Ci trotted away from the bar.

“Alright, I suppose we owe you for backing Valeterisa’s idea. To Pallass!”

They clattered out of the inn. When Yelroan got back, Nerul gave him a respectful look. The Drake mopped at his brow.

“Dead gods, that did it. How did you divert them? I swear, I had three royals trying to break in here. If it weren’t for a certain [Queen] I could swear was backing me up—”

“I distracted them. With, well, stupid math and contracts.”

He wasn’t proud of it, but it was beyond the ken of most people in this world. Nerul leaned over.

“Mind showing me how?”

It was simple. Yelroan had actually come up with the idea ages ago when trying to teach Mrsha some math. Lyonette had gotten it into her head that her daughter should be better at math than even a regular [Student], so Yelroan had tried it.

Mrsha was actually fairly receptive at times, and he’d explained the concept of variables to her. You know…

x = y + 10?

y = 5

Solve for x? It wasn’t something a lot of people liked, even though it was very intuitive. Yelroan hadn’t used x and y as he knew Earth math liked; he’d invented his own symbols when he was growing up to account for variables in his head that had no set number.

However, even that basic notation was something you could actually put into contract form. So Yelroan had written something like this, couched in the more flowery language of the magical contract.

 

1. The wealth of the inn = x.

2. The Wandering Inn agrees to sell the value of ‘x’ to the magical contract this is written on; the contract therefore owns the entire value of the inn. However, The Wandering Inn may draw from the value of ‘x’ for any purchases it deems necessary.

3. This contract is nullified and the entire sold value is to be returned the moment this contract is opened, The Wandering Inn makes a purchase, or five days elapse. No money may be taken from the contract, and the ownership of the gold may not pass to any other entity.

 

Lots of safeguards in the third clause. Nerul’s eyes lit up, and he laughed.

“The old Gem-in-a-Cup shell game, eh? I’ve never seen anyone quantify the value of the inn like that.”

“It’s not really math, just contract fighting. They’ll be aiming at Salamani, and he’ll dump the contract in the ground.”

That meant people would think someone in Pallass had all that gold, and if they sent agents out—Nerul was nodding, albeit warily.

“There are other ways to track us, though.”

“True.”

Yelroan reached for another contract, and Nerul gulped down a glass of water. They put their backs to each other, as if the opening salvos had barely been a warmup. Here came the heavy hitters.

Hair rose all over Yelroan’s arm in a wave, running up one arm, along his back—he stared at it.

“What was that?

“Hmph. Spells are getting intercepted by the [Garden] and the [World’s Eye Theatre]. You can’t scry this place; it doesn’t even have a location. Looks like we’re clear from half the trouble. Skills are—”

[TRACE CONNECTIONS]. [IDENTIFY OWNE—

Yelroan’s head blared with a Skill like thunder, and Nerul slashed.

Who was that?

“I don’t know! Divert them!”

“Uh—uh—”

Someone was burning down the links Yelroan had put out. The anonymous owners of Prelons? The gold spent in other accounts in the Merchant’s Guild? They were coming, seeking them—but Yelroan had minutes as Nerul spoke.

“[Delay the Deal]. Hello, sir and or madam. I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t answer your questions at this moment.”

He actually grabbed something in the air, which looked like—a letter? It was bright pink, and he hissed at Yelroan.

“Reinhart! They’re trying to initiate contact! Here!”

He stuffed his sweaty handkerchief into it, and it vanished. Yelroan kept writing.

“Almost—done—”

He stamped a contract fast, then another one.

The Wandering Inn is now a subsidiary of White Gnolls Markets, a completely real and legitimate [Merchant] group! Owned by—

“Mrsha, sign this!”

She didn’t even ask questions and signed the contract happily.

—Owned by Mri! Who in turn signed away her fortune of fortunes to None of Your Business Industries, a company in Salazsar who was owned by a Balerosian enterprise in the Merchant’s Guild in Invictel, but who had fifteen shareholders, all Goblin and Antinium in—

The sense of impending doom lessened as Yelroan created a network of fake identities that someone would have to trace through. The second layer of attacks was hard and fast and came like [Knights] charging against the gates, but Nerul and Yelroan hunkered down behind a gate of contracts.

“Hand me that contract. I can certify it with a Skill. Anonymous owners who cannot…be…verified! There! Always helpful when you strike a deal and some of the parties don’t want to admit they signed it.”

The [Diplomat] and [Mathematician] high-fived. Yelroan sat down, gasping, and Nerul collapsed into a pile of gold. Yelroan turned to him.

“Lyonette has to get rid of this. Even if everyone had Bags of Holding and we were just throwing it into a ditch, we couldn’t divest ourselves of the income!”

The Drake shook his head.

“Buy her a week. There are ways to spend it. Salazsar, for instance. You could buy a smaller company, even a few mining shafts.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Let me just—”

Yelroan was fumbling for another contract, thinking, naïvely, like some fresh-blooded [Soldier], that the war was over. Even Nerul hadn’t seen fighting this hot since he was younger, and he sat up slowly.

“…Uh oh.”

Yes, they’d stopped the first two waves of assaults. Put up heavy defenses so basic, casual inquiry Skill wouldn’t work. But that just meant the real monsters were coming.

And when they did come? They came through the numbers.

“—Someone’s verifying each new account at the Merchant’s Guild. Give me that [Message] scroll. Excuse me, whomever you are, we don’t have to answer anything—”

Nerul snatched a [Message] scroll that began lighting up as pressure began rising on the fallible, mortal components of the inn’s gold network. Yelroan was busy with that, checking over their glowing scrolls to make sure they worked.

The power that Nerrhavia had instilled in the Merchant’s Guild was beyond their enforcement clauses. A Tier 4 scroll would activate if you violated the terms, but the authority of the Merchant’s Guild itself could match even the Blighted Kingdom. No one ruler, nor even any three, could just overpower the guild and reveal the contents of the scroll.

Very clever. But Yelroan noticed, out of the corner of his eye, something happening to one of the pieces of paper scattered on his desk.

“What the—”

He snatched it up. This wasn’t a scroll! It was his working notes and expense sheet for, well, the inn’s finances! He’d neatly tabulated where all the gold was, including the gold in the inn. It shouldn’t have had anything to do with the inquiries—but something—someone was coming.

The numbers were running down the page. The ink was shifting, and the [Mathematician] saw sums dripping down out of the boxes he’d noted them in.

 

2,533. A sum of gold in Lyonette’s principle account with the Merchant’s Guild.

12,216. The amount of gold in Prelons in the Marwsh account.

51. The gold pieces that Mrsha had stolen.

 

They flowed down the page. As if each one were being summoned. Or spoken. Suddenly, Yelroan thought he heard a voice.

 

——

 

“One. Two. Two. One. Six.”

The numbers poured down out of the world, drops of ink falling from a curious instrument. There were ten numbers in the sand bowl divided by sections. The ink droplet fell as an old hand—the body was not that old, but the hand belonged to an ancient soul—shook a curious censer.

Only, instead of smoke, ink leaked through the tiny holes, and Thatalocian counted.

[Numerologist]. He was a different kind of expert in the world of numbers. He belonged to a field as heretical and foreign to Yelroan as blood magic was to healing magic.

But they were connected. Thatalocian’s eyes were closed, but he noticed a drop of ink miss the clean sections of sand.

One splashed against the wall, and he stopped. He wrote the second number down, then watched ‘5’ and ‘1’ fall.

“Someone is hiding between identities. Hiding the true value.”

He mused as he noted down the numbers. If he wished, he could find out where 12216 belonged. He suspected it was a sum of this new power, hidden away.

“I care it not. Show me the grand number, the one hiding in fog.”

An ancient monster from old days grinned. He was amused; there was someone on the other end trying to erase the numbers off his sheet. Someone who did know sums—but who didn’t understand them like Thatalocian. You couldn’t erase the truth he wanted; the number had been articulated.

Now, like a primordial creature swimming through a swamp of reason and logic, he was divining the truth, wading through the lesser numbers to arrive at the one he wanted. From that number—he would ascertain the how and where and who.

Well, he already knew how. The very first number he had found in the rolling of a die corresponded to an ancient [Philosopher]’s chart of elements of the world. From the properties of air to Truegold, an old thinker had tried to quantify each material with a value.

Thatalocian had rolled the dice in turn, and the number had landed on ‘9’. His eyes flicked to the chart.

“Gold.”

Whose and where? The [Numerologist] had a hunch, but he contented himself with the hunt. His opponent was young; there were other seekers, so the old man lit a candle and smiled as he lowered the ink censer. He picked up a folded piece of paper and inserted his fingers into a delicately made little toy children loved. He opened and closed it until another number appeared, folding up a flap of paper, noting it down.

Two. Six. Five…

 

——

 

Yelroan set his balance sheet on fire and nearly took himself out with it. The Gnoll’s sunglasses were askew. He was as terrified as he’d ever been in his life.

Obviously the war against Plain’s Eye was the worst—that was a literal war. He didn’t know how to fight, and dying terrified him. But this was his realm. Something—someone was seeking him out.

“That’s not math. What are you?”

“Yelroan! Do something!

Nerul was ripping files out of the Gnoll’s folders. Yelroan hoped he could recreate them, but the [Diplomat] had no choice. He stared at a glowing line of ink and cursed.

“Someone’s reading your files!”

“She’s got access. It’s—Salii.

The world’s greatest [Secretary] was one of the people coming for him, and he didn’t even know how she had accessed the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Now, Yelroan was backed against a wall.

Hounds at the gates—and they have the keys to the gates. Final stand in the keep. They’d been betrayed from within. The [Majordomo] had been a turncoat. It was always the [Majordomo]. Or the [Butler].

“How many files do you have?

Nerul swore, and Yelroan dug through his files like a madman.

“I’m a responsible person!”

“Well, they can gain access to your files!”

How?

For answer, the [Diplomat] pointed, and Yelroan saw several lines of ink appearing on a sheet he’d been using to track payments to Marwsh with the Prelons.

There were multiple intruders, and he saw them writing Skills all over his papers.

One was a fast, neat scrawl, in huge, bolded words.

 

[Elevated Authority]. [Copy File]. [Link Documents]. Please cooperate with all inquiries. Thank you.

 

They were about to pull in every document linked to it when someone slashed across it like the rogue she was. A bright, green line of ink and a hand that wrote even faster in her own untidy shorthand.

 

Quiteil, is that you? Salii! You had me for shrimp once! [Quill of the Severed Contract]! Sunglasses, what have you gotten yourself into? Answer my memo, and I’ll clear out the rest of the trash if you give me access.

This is an inquiry from the Merchant’s Guild of Terland, [Executive Authority: Contracts]. Please forwards all complaints to—

I would like to make an inquiry to the owner of this document. My employer has a quite lucrative deal to—

Do not interfere, Salii. [Lock Document].

 

The writings froze as Yelroan swore and tried to set fire to this one—then he saw the flames eating at the paper go out. Inky chains covered the entire piece of parchment, and Nerul tried to tear it and gave up.

“Damn! They’re worse than Mister Superior! We’re in trouble! At least they’re fighting amongst themselves!”

It was true. The reason none of the others had pulled his files apart yet was because they were busy throwing elbows at each other. The chains on the document shattered, and drops of ink sprayed Yelroan’s fur as a new hand wrote in massive letters.

 

I DEMAND ANSWERS. BEGONE, PESTS, OR FACE MY WRATH. I AM THE VIZIR.

 

Another scroll levitated upwards and then exploded in a flash of green light. Yelroan guessed the ‘Vizir’ had tried to abscond with it. Salii had blown it up.

“You have to stop them. You have too many documents, and even one can be used against you!”

It was true. While Nerul tried to set fire to an entire box of them, Yelroan thought. He had mass-scribing Skills, but the problem was that it seemed like Salii and the other experts could give themselves access to his files.

Which was just unfair. This was the [Garden of Sanctuary]! He guessed they had found a contract or connection that was letting them bypass Erin’s Skill legally. He had to do something—Yelroan’s mind sparked.

What did he have?

Math. It was always math. If they wanted to play games…he grabbed a contract.

“[Mass Revision] time! Conversion to applicable units—”

12,216, one of the numbers on the balance sheet listing the total sum with Marwsh’s guild, flickered, and all the quills stopped writing at once. Yelroan’s sunglasses gleamed as he gave them a toothy snarl.

“Try copying that!

The new number instantly switched into place. It read:

0x2FB8. 

“What the heck is that?

Nerul blinked at the numbers, and Yelroan gave him a triumphant grin.

“Hexadecimal. An idea from Erin’s world.”

It was simple, really. Okay, not simple. It was also known as Base 16, a concept that involved translating the regular decimal system of numbers into binary. 0s and 1s. Then you translated that into hexadecimal by using the alphabet to make up for the lack of numbers beyond, well, 0-9.

The end result was something that looked like gibberish to anyone who didn’t understand what was going on. Yelroan himself was rapidly changing each number into a new, essentially ciphered version in his mind.

It was…well, it was easy. For him. It was just a formula, but once again, it played havoc with the Skills trying to work on his notes.

[Scribe Number], [Value of Sum], [Map Profit Motive]—many Skills that [Merchants] or numbers-experts had required them to still understand the numbers themselves.

 

WHAT TRICKERY IS THIS?

 

Outraged messages began flooding across Yelroan’s files, and he grinned. He and Nerul high-fived as they relaxed.

After about a minute, a calm scrawl dashed across the page.

 

Fascinating. I will be copying this for my own uses. Thank you, [Mathematician]. 

 

Yelroan’s smile vanished.

Bastion-General Quiteil. He couldn’t have figured out Base 16. That fast? Then a second hand wrote.

 

[Codebreaker’s Insight]. Nice try, Yelroan. ♡Salii.

 

Yelroan and Nerul looked at each other. The [Diplomat] pulled something out of his pocket, tossed it into the crate of files, and whirled.

“Contract-destroyer. Duck!

The whumph of the alchemical charge detonating spat ash and magma up—not in a huge geyser, but rather a burning pool that filled the box and obliterated the papers inside.

Our files!

Yelroan ripped at his hair. Nerul just dusted his claws off.

“We’ll encrypt them with magic later. You need a vault, Skill-nullifying papers, a cipher—the contracts are next. They’ll have a hard time getting in, but the numbers fellow is still coming.”

It was almost gratifying to learn there were other people who understood math. Gratifying—if they weren’t still coming!

Nerul and Yelroan had collapsed the back door of the keep, destroying valuable hallways, but the final assault was on the treasury, and the locks on each vault wouldn’t hold. The Gnoll knew he was running out of options.

All he had were a bunch of lower-level contracts, Nerul, and his math. Yelroan fumbled for a final weapon.

“I have to—I have to hide the gold somehow!”

Disguising where it was, trying to put up fake identities, wouldn’t stop the hunters. It just prolonged the chase, like someone pulling in a long net. In theory, Yelroan could make the net too long to haul in or too ‘heavy’ to pull up with the weight of authority and contracts.

But these people wouldn’t give up. And the one muttering numbers didn’t even care about the rules. He was tracing Yelroan through—mad divination. The Merchant’s Guild’s protections might have been dust to him!

Math time. Hexadecimal hadn’t even lasted a minute in the face of codebreaker abilities. He had to hit them with something way beyond what Salii and Quiteil and the [Numerologist] could handle.

Yelroan ran for his contracts. Think, Yelroan. How do you hide the impossible? His eyes rose to the huge sum of gold, and Yelroan delved into the world of math, the impractical side of it that Xherw had never cared about, deeper than before.

I must hide this in a way the contracts allow me to. And from that—man.

There was a formula.

Yelroan had run into the world of Earth’s math and frolicked there, in happier times, in the [World of You And Me]. He had not the time to become an expert or reach the heights he knew were there, but he’d seen—concepts.

You couldn’t easily ‘hide’ a number. There was no such thing as, say, making ‘5’ not be 5. However, how you defined ‘5’ was where things got interesting.

Real numbers were wonderfully…solid. Ever hear of imaginary numbers? Number fields? Yelroan began writing, and Nerul, sweating, claws covered in ink, stared over his shoulder.

“I think we’ve got to either give it to someone or prepare to be found out, Yelroan. Wait. What are…what is that?

“Real math.”

 

σxσp ≥ ħ/2

 

It was called Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle and was, frankly, above Yelroan’s current understanding of math. He’d been working on the concepts, but to summarize it in a way Nerul could understand—

“It’s about position and momentum. You can’t always, precisely, know what the two variables mean.

“…What?”

“You can’t know what the two numbers here are! If you have two variables, one for a location, the other for something like movement, it’s impossible to actually pin down any one number! I just need to marry that into our finances!”

Nerul gave Yelroan the blankest look in creation, then he snapped his claws.

“You’re writing an impossible statement into the value of the inn’s gold.”

“Uh—yes. Don’t say it like that. It makes it sound trivial.”

Actually putting this into practice—was not.

Yelroan’s idea was this: if he was allowed to quantify the value of the inn in legal language in the contract, couldn’t he also put it in mathematical notation? Therefore, if he expressed a concept that could stymie the searchers…could he even do that? Yelroan’s quill scratched on the contract, setting up the procedure.

 

Yeah, could he even do that?

 

—For a second, Yelroan feared the magic of the contract wouldn’t allow it, but then he began to write. The problem was—the equation he was looking at didn’t work as is.

“Think, Yelroan. Think…this is actual math.”

Let’s see. Insert the value of the inn as…he’d have to throw in a third variable. So they were going three-quantum. That meant he needed to balance the other side of the equation. But he had no time.

They were coming. Yelroan actually felt the [Numerologist] in his head beginning to write down the true amount of gold contained in the inn. Or rather, the numbers were reading themselves out of his mind.

Think! I just have to—

Salii was taking an inventory of Izril’s gold! Comparing the local amounts in Liscor and her new appraisal to get a clean net increase! All she had to do was sift through the investments in Liscor—

And there were others. Rhir? The Empire of Sands? Yelroan could almost see a neat man wearing a Brigadier-General’s uniform working with an abacus, a slight smile on his face. Then he had an idea that was not Yelroan-grade, but rather, Mrsha-grade.

You want numbers, you damn bastards? Take this!

 

x = The Wandering Inn’s net worth.

The amount of money in The Wandering Inn shall be divested among the owners of The Wandering Inn as follows:

x = x + ∞ – ∞.

 

Mrsha-level math. She’d gotten really tickled when he told her that you could account for infinity, but never define it. Of course, you could divine the answer easily.

Unless you were suddenly trying to account for a number larger than creation itself.

The contract lit up as Yelroan stamped it, and his sunglasses flashed. Across the world, half a dozen of the finest number-crunchers, [Secretaries], and bean-counters suddenly developed blinding headaches.

Yelroan wasn’t proud of it. He was frankly surprised it had even worked; it was rather like tossing a barrel of poop at a charging unit of [Elite Soldiers] and watching them back off because it stank too hard.

Nerul, though, just laughed.

“Hah! I can see them backing off! Well done, that’s bought us—”

He and Yelroan were high-fiving when the Gnoll saw something happen to his contract.

∞. The symbol for infinity, that looping sideways eight, the eternal cycle—a concept with weight behind it? A mathematician’s unassailable mountain?

Infinity snapped in half. And the sheer contempt from the [Numerologist] poured over the contract.

The parchment turned black, like mold creeping over it. Yelroan leapt away, and Nerul grabbed a candle with an oath. He tried to set the contract on fire, but it curled up—then disintegrated.

“Oh dead gods. He doesn’t respect—

Somewhere, a [Numerologist] had run into the symbol on his hunt. Rather than stymie him—he’d destroyed it.

That was not a number he acknowledged.

This was profane. This wasn’t right! Yelroan’s chest inflated with outrage as he drew breath. This—he felt like he was fighting some kind of idiot who thought numbers were things that mattered on their own!

As if ‘seven’ were more auspicious than ‘nine’! The kind of person who never sat at a table with thirteen people and who thought a four-leaf clover had an inherent value!

It ran completely contrary to the [Mathematician]’s understanding of the world. Numbers were ways of defining and understanding reality around them, even magic! They did not rule or influence the world!

Slowly, Yelroan sat down at his table. He pulled a new contract to him. His mind was lighting up. He wrote, his paw shaking, doing a swift conversion in his head.

Three variables, then. Which means you altered the uncertainty principle like so—

 

σxσpσz ≥ (ħ/2)3/2

 

The equation was a relationship between three variables.

σx, σp, and σz. Yelroan’s quill tip nearly caught on fire as he defined the three for the equation.

σz was easy. That was the value of the inn’s finances. But the other two needed to be actual places and concepts.

To answer this equation, you’d have to calculate the value of the inn’s finances. And marry that to—

He thought of the first thing he could and wrote in the values σx and σp. The exact coordinates of an electron particle on the High King Perric’s crown. And that meant the value of the inn’s gold was a relationship of the crown’s position in the world! Good luck trying that one—if you even understood the problem!

It was ridiculous, but that didn’t matter. The point was that Yelroan had just created a snarl in the definition of the inn’s finances. But could he actually execute on this crazy definition?

His eyes narrowed as he signed the contract. His paw hesitated as he attempted to stamp it.

“It doesn’t—like—my math!”

Perhaps the Merchant’s Guild’s vested authority, or even the—the nature of reality—didn’t like binding a real concept, the monetary worth of the inn, into an equation that had no answer that could be divined. Yelroan couldn’t stamp the contract. He began to despair as that voice tolled the numbers—and then a Drake seized the stamp.

Math? Who cares? I’ve signed worse contracts. [Close the Contract: Unreasonable Demands]!”

His eyes flashed. The wax seal pressed down—and something kicked Yelroan in the chest.

He had never done a backflip in his life. He didn’t really do one now—Yelroan raised his head and realized he was covered in blood.

His nose was bleeding. On his table, the contract was flexing, magic and authority and—mathematical concepts at war with what he had just said was a truth that the Merchant’s Guild had to enforce.

It makes no sense! The contract was shrieking at him, but the [Mathematician] growled.

It does make sense!”

He understood it! It didn’t matter if it was unsolvable by his mind or any other’s—the equation worked. He pushed with all the outrage in his being and the logic he believed in against the contempt of that other man. Against reality.

It bent—and Yelroan collapsed, blood running nonstop from his nose, as Nerul lay unconscious on the ground. And the value of the inn—

Vanished.

 

——

 

“Hm. I didn’t expect that.”

Salii slowly put down her quill, her excitement visibly fading. The cheering squad of [Martial Artists] around her, even Orjin, looked at each other.

“What do you mean?”

“The gold’s gone. I think it was gold. I…it’s just gone. How did they do that? Move it into an unshielded vault? Sell it all somewhere?”

The [Secretary] was astonished. She sorted through her files, baffled, but, to Orjin’s eyes, almost gratified.

He’d come to watch her fight a worthy opponent for the first time. He had no notion what was going on, only that she’d been racing to uncover some truth, an anomaly in her world that she had noticed. A vast ‘kingdom’ of wealth that had begun disrupting the world. Once she’d noticed other people hunting for it, she’d joined the search and been almost victorious.

And then someone had bested her. Salii sat there, then sat back and grinned.

“Well, whoever did that has a trick up their sleeves, and I think I know who. Sunglasses and I need a word.”

“You’re fine?”

The Drake nodded at Orjin, slight frustration crinkling her vision, but amusement making up for it.

“I am, nevermind the headache. But whoever that numbers-man is, he really isn’t happy.”

 

——

 

Victory. He’d done it. He’d hidden all the gold in the inn.

He could almost feel the rage, shock, or even appreciation of the other hunters as they backed off. They had nothing to find. They could either take on the Merchant’s Guild and break the contract—or find it via physical means.

Their Skills were worthless.

“A victory…for math.”

His finest hour. He couldn’t have done it without Nerul. All the gold—Yelroan tried to rise and fell back. A pile of coins showered down around him.

Oh. Right.

The gold. It wasn’t really gone. It was still here. He’d just hidden the concept of it away, legally. Yelroan grinned upwards.

He’d beaten that strange numbers-man. It was just a shame—it was going to be his final act.

It was a bit embarrassing, but the strain of pushing through that mathematical contract had definitely had a backlash effect. Nerul was splayed out, eyes rolled up in his head. Yelroan had a nosebleed.

A really—bad one. He was pretty sure all that red wasn’t good. It covered the gold coins and his clothing. And it wasn’t stopping, even when he weakly held a paw to his nostrils.

Is this how I die? It’s so uninspiring. 

“Help? Anyone?”

Yelroan croaked, but the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door was closed to all but the most vital guests. And he’d told the staff to stay out so they wouldn’t pilfer more gold. Lyonette? She was in Liscor.

He was actually going to die of a nosebleed. The Gnoll was passing out in a pool of his own blood and gold coins.

Mrsha? Nanette?

Neither one showed up. Nerul didn’t wake, and as the world began to vanish, Yelroan hoped he’d get a statue. Without the nosebleed. His eyes fluttered, and the cracked sunglasses on his face showed him a gleaming world of gold. So much money. So useless to him…

No one else in the garden—except a faint buzzing sound. Yelroan saw a little shape fly down towards him. The forgotten, the ignored, the often-stoned…

“Apista?”

The Ashfire Bee landed in front of Yelroan, holding something underneath her. She flicked an antenna at the Gnoll as he weakly raised his head. She didn’t speak, but she gave the impression that if she did, she might say…

Hello, good sah. Might you be in need of this?

A glowing vial rolled forwards into Yelroan’s paw. A healing potion. The Gnoll stared at it—then grinned, and his sunglasses flashed.

Today was a good day for math.

 

[Mathematician of the Fundament Level 46!]

[Skill – Mind Guard: The Fortress of Equations obtained!]

[Skill – Item (Spectacles): Skillblocking Flash obtained!]

 

——

 

When Lyonette got back to her inn, she found Mrsha and Nanette standing over Yelroan, who lay in a pool of blood, an empty healing potion next to him, an unconscious Nerul, and both girls swore they hadn’t done anything.

The [Princess] didn’t believe them, but it didn’t matter. She lined everyone up in the garden and gave a speech.

“Everyone. I understand the gold is exciting. I know you want to do something with it. But I am asking you, please—to not go out and spend it like you have been.”

The Antinium were very subdued, and the Goblins shifted uncomfortably. Even Liska and Ishkr were present, and Liska avoided looking at Lyonette. Octavia, Colfa, both exchanged glances as Mrsha drooped. Nanette just folded her arms.

“Miss Lyonette, I don’t want to be rude, but—”

“You are.”

Nanette looked outraged, but Lyonette was tired. Ushar pulled out Lyonette’s new chair, and the [Princess] sat. Blessed relief. She frowned at Nanette.

“I know you’ve taken gold out of the inn, even if I don’t know how you’ve spent it, Miss Nanette. The only person I think hasn’t spent gold is me! And poor Yelroan!”

“I’m alive.”

The Gnoll groaned as he sat up. Apista buzzed her wings on his head. And me!

“Why shouldn’t we spend it, Miss Lyonette? It seems to me that you’re the one being hesitant!”

Nanette protested, speaking for the staff as a whole. Lyonette frowned at her. The [Princess] was about to snap back when she stopped, sighed, and realized she really needed to explain.

“I haven’t been holding back from spending, Nanette. Well, I have, but I’ve been giving Yelroan time to hide the gold. Which, ah, hasn’t worked perfectly.”

“We’re safe for a while.”

But not forever. Lyonette looked around and pointed at the pool of his blood.

“People were just after the gold in the inn. There are a horde of diplomats in Invrisil—if I have been cautious, it is because I feared this exact scenario might happen. These last few days, I have surveyed the inn, checked in on our allies. Our problems. Our enemies.

She hadn’t spent gold, had sat and been lectured or snubbed, all because she had to see it first. Nanette’s outrage faded a bit as Lyonette looked around, meeting Peggy’s and Rosencrantz’s eyes.

“I suppose I didn’t want to start spending money as, well, because…once we begin, we won’t stop. The inn will change. Again and again. That’s—terrifying. I’ve seen it happen. It may be better for it, but I liked it this time. I liked it—but—”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“I have a new <Quest>. I should have told you yesterday, but I didn’t want to worry everyone. It’s from Erin.”

Mrsha’s head rose, and the staff stirred. Ishkr’s eyes lit up as Lyonette told them about her <Mythical Quest>. When Nanette heard the clause, she drew in a breath, and Mrsha flinched.

“No one we love dies. Can it even be done?”

Octavia muttered, then looked around guiltily. However, the sad weight was in every expression. Nerul, as an observer, just stared at the two girls as he raked a claw through his neck spines.

“Ancestors. You could age a child into an adult in a month here. Children shouldn’t have to…”

Lyonette agreed. She gave Mrsha a sad look, then squared her shoulders.

“It’s…I don’t know how to do it. I have a vision for the inn. I’m figuring out what we need. But the taking-gold and spending it randomly stops, agreed?”

Nanette wasn’t happy, but the rest of the staff nodded more or less willingly. The [Princess] paused, then nodded.

“Good. It doesn’t help, you see, when we spend it like that. But that’s not to say I can’t admit I’ve been…stingy. Mrsha, why did you give gold to Ekirra?”

The Gnoll girl flinched. She wrote hurriedly, still almost in tears about Ekirra’s torment. It had been a very bad scene. Nanette read for Mrsha.

“Because—because he wanted to give some to his mother so she didn’t have to work so hard! And buy all kinds of nice things! If we have gold, we should give it to him, or else I’m the only one who has it! And that’s no fun!”

Lyonette kept her face grave as she listened, then the young, red-haired woman inclined her head.

“And you were right to want to help. Just not in how you did it, Mrsha. Miss Jeva and Mister Evink Silverfang probably don’t want us to just hand them a pile of gold—”

She thought about it and hesitated.

“—no, they’d take it. But it would make things complicated. If you’d found a way to pay for a new apartment for them, or new furniture, that would have worked. Rosencrantz, if you want to help Antinium, giving them an easy, nice job will make them happier than paying for them to do nothing.”

Mrsha’s head came up, and Lyonette saw a hopeful expression on Nanette’s face.

“Do you mean—?”

It was time. Lyonette exhaled, then pointed.

“Mrsha, Nanette, I appoint the two of you as leaders of the—Helpful Inn Fund. You two will use the gold and pay for things, in smaller amounts, to help everyone we like. Like more bread from Garry’s shop. Something for Relc to wear outside of his uniform when he’s not working.”

Ointment for Visma’s dad’s hemorrhoids?

Mrsha held up a card, and Lyonette stared at it.

“Yes. That.”

She shook her head and turned. Her chair was wonderful, and she thought of the plain, wooden ones in the inn. They were worn and lovely, but Lyonette looked at Peggy.

“We need new chairs. And new clothing for everyone in the inn. In fact, we’re still on candles and lanterns for the rooms. We’ve got no rugs, the blankets are lovely—but they’re not silk, are they, Peggy?”

The Hobgoblin had begun to smile the moment she heard about the Helpful Inn Fund. She offered Lyonette a toothy grin of puzzlement.

“They make silk sheets?”

When Lyonette nodded, Asgra whispered to Sticks, and he raised a clawed hand.

“Can we get silk sheets?”

“I think we can, Sticks. In fact, I think every member of the inn can have a budget to buy things for the inn. Not food. That’s Calescent’s job. You may suggest things for his list, but no one will run out and buy it. You’ll write things down on a list that Peggy and Rosencrantz will take to me, and Ishkr will make sure whatever we approve is bought.”

Everyone turned to Calescent, and the Goblin’s eyes lit up. Now, Lyonette was getting into it. She pointed.

“Sticks, what is something you want?”

The Cave Goblin answered instantly, much to her surprise.

“Silk toilet paper for wiping!”

“—We can probably get that! Rosencrantz, if you and the Antinium have things you want us to donate to the Antinium in the Hive, we can do that. Books—”

The little witch’s head rose with excitement.

“We can keep our library?”

Lyonette saw Nanette jumping up and down with Inkpaper and sighed.

“Yes—”

A cheer began to rise from the staff, but she waved her hands.

“We will do this! I promise. Do you think I was going to just sit on all the gold like some Dragon?”

She smiled around, waiting for laughter, but the staff, even her daughters, avoided making eye-contact. Lyonette scowled.

“I want you all to be happy. I just don’t want the gold to—change you. It did change me when I was growing up. Most importantly?”

She looked at Yelroan, dried blood on his fur, and she murmured.

“—I want you to be safe. We must get rid of the gold. It seems we don’t have the time to be careful. I’ll begin buying things, actual things, soon. But not a word to anyone, please?”

That made everyone turn to Yelroan, and several Goblins and Antinium patted him on the shoulder and head. He grinned weakly.

“I think we’re safe for now. But Lyonette’s right. We were hoping Hexel would begin building the new inn by now. They’re coming.”

“Maybe—maybe we hire some more Hobs from Chieftain Rags? If she can spare them.”

Peggy licked her lips nervously, and Mrsha glanced around, as if counting how many people they had left who could fight. They couldn’t even rely on the Order of Solstice; they wanted to build a keep away from the inn. Lyonette sat there, sighing. Her morning’s anguish had turned into a deep worry.

It was not spending gold on silk toilet paper that worried her. It was the big things. How did they stop…? She talked with the staff in the garden a while longer until Bird, who didn’t really seem to care about their gold, came back through the door after leaving to use the bathroom.

“Lyonette. Lyonette. Another amusing thing is going on outside.”

“Dead gods.”

“No, this time it is a funny good thing. You should use your gold to help them, too.”

Bird pointed, and everyone followed her. Lyonette remembered something. Erin had told her to protect the inn. To try and make sure no one they liked died. She had given Lyonette no advice about hiring or security or anything else.

For she and Lyonette both knew—The Wandering Inn always found new friends.

The inn simply had to be worthy of them.

 

——

 

Poor Hexel. Here he was trying to build a grand new inn with a fraction of the workers he needed.

He’d done his best. The Antinium had already begun digging out the foundation, and the two dozen he had could move dirt around with a will, even with all the snow. His Lizardfolk apprentices were helping too, using Skills to make the ground warmer and more movable.

But he’d really suffered from a lack of hands to grind up stones for the basis of his first objective—the Tower of Bird. From that tower, he could form the rest of the inn; Lyonette had indeed requested he make security a priority. He’d offered to even upgrade the trap hallway between here and the common room—but he just didn’t have the hands to do it all at once.

He’d told Lyonette not to expect miracles. And she had fully anticipated him at most getting the tower up and the foundations laid by the spring unless she found him more workers. So it was to her surprise when Lyonette saw people already laying the foundation in the ground.

“Huh?”

The foundation of the new inn wasn’t just concrete or stone. Yes, Hexel wanted a very sturdy one, so the framing was going up to outline the foundation and basement. However, instead of a dozen Antinium trying to put up a small section, Lyonette came outside to see hundreds of people working on the scaffolding.

Or rather, a hundred and some people. And about two hundred…skeletons. Lyonette breathed.

“Rheirgest.”

A skeleton with a bucket full of nails was trooping over to a very bemused Worker, who was nailing the wood together. The skeleton put down its burden, picked up a nail, and began to clumsily drive it into the wood.

“Hey, Dorkel! Your skeletons can’t do nails!”

A villager shouted as the nail bent, and a [Necromancer] strode over, sighing.

“Who put them on nail-duty? I said they won’t fall over even in the mud or snow. See? Their feet and balance are perfect.”

“Well, mine can do nails. See?”

The other [Necromancer] jerked his thumb over his shoulder and stroked his black beard with smugness. A skeleton was driving nails into the wood with decent accuracy. Dorkel growled as the rest of the inn’s staff filed out to watch.

“Well, make them do all the nailwork!”

“Can’t. We need at least twenty on nails at any given moment, and I’ve only got authority over four.”

Four? I’ve got nine!”

“Yes, but mine are a quality four—”

They were arguing good-naturedly before they caught sight of Lyonette and bowed.

“Your Highness! Good evening!”

“Mister Dorkel. Mister Anham? What are you doing?”

The two exchanged glances, looking slightly worried, and Dorkel raised a cap frosted with snow.

“Well, I was talking with one of your guests—a fascinating young man called Rhaldon about those ‘bicycles’. I’d love to try and copy one with your permission. When we heard the [Architect] complaining about the lack of help, well—since we were all sitting around, Elosaith had the idea to offer some help to Master Hexel. They’re not the smartest lot, but when we watch them—it’s good practice for the village.”

Anham nodded as well, looking pleased at Mrsha’s and Nanette’s jaw-dropping amazement. One of his skeletons turned and flexed a bony arm.

“I have to admit, those Antinium dig like a storm. But if we can make up for them—”

“You needn’t have done this, truly! I’m—thank you!”

Lyonette was gratified and embarrassed. And shocked! She’d completely forgotten, but undead?

Toren!

That nasty, wretched skeleton might have been a murderous traitor, but in the old days, Erin’s entire inn had been kept mostly by him! How could she have forgotten? Well, Erin’s inn being destroyed—twice—by Toren had moved the two away from undead labor.

Yet Hexel was sold on it. When she found the [Architect], he looked like one of Elirr’s cats getting a head rub.

“Day and night labor. They’re not the smartest, but half of Rheirgest is nocturnal. If I rotate my apprentices on shifts, we can have them working around the clock. I’ve done that with Antinium on shifts, but even they need lunch. And there are still noise complaints to think about, injuries. This lot?”

He turned as a group of eight skeletons hauling a log tripped. A shout went up—and Lyonette saw the log roll down the hill and send all eight flying into pieces. Sighing, a [Necromancer] waved a hand, and they reassembled.

Tireless. Hungerless. Without need for pay or breaks or even concern about their injuries. A manager’s dream employee.

It actually seemed like some of the Antinium were working harder, as if nervous these undead would take their jobs. Lyonette protested as Leiithe walked over with a beaming Elosaith.

“But we can’t make Rheirgest do all this work!”

“Why not? Master Hexel has agreed to employ us, and it’s quite good work—especially because I took a look, and the protestors are still at our village spot. Let us help you, Miss Lyonette. And be paid for it!”

The old [Necromancer]’s statement was accompanied by a nod from Leiithe, and the woman murmured, more hesitant.

“So long as you don’t mind people seeing the undead, Princess Lyonette. We understand if you’d want us to stop because of that. We do want to be a credit to our class. To prove we’re [Necromancers], not the Necromancer.”

Lyonette saw a few people waiting for teleportation staring out the inn’s windows with horrified looks of disgust. A few were making gestures out the window, and one Drake clearly pointed at his eyes, then at Anham. A warning.

That made her—angry. Before she could think, Lyonette snapped.

“Dalimont? Shutter the windows. And Liska! Anyone who has something to say about my guests can go back home without using the door. I am delighted to have Rheirgest helping me! In fact—in fact—why don’t they just build their village here if the spot near Colfa’s farm is still occupied?”

The words slipped out of her mouth, and Elosaith blinked. Hexel turned, surprise on his face.

“Are you sure, Lyonette?”

The moment she said it, she wasn’t. Yet the look of gratification on Leiithe’s face…Lyonette blinked around.

“Well, maybe not here here. The inn attracts trouble. But what about—there?”

She pointed just a mile or two away at a large area set near the base of the mountains. She turned to Hexel, and the [Architect] shrugged.

“Not a bad place, though I’d move it slightly up, build into the mountain. Liscor doesn’t have any plots of land around there that anyone’s bought—it’s too far from the Watch.”

“Who needs the Watch? Bird has her ballista, and she’ll be in the tower. Would—would that work, Master Elosaith?”

“Build the village here? The val Lischelles are so welcoming…but it’s close to the city, and we’re not liked. Frankly, I was wondering if we had to scout somewhere else after all. But here?

The [Necromancer]’s voice warmed to the idea with every second. He stared at the inn, then around the Floodplains. Liscor and other settlements were dots in the distance. Lyonette cautioned the villagers.

“You’d be out of range of the Watch. And going to market would require using the inn or a long hike. I could let you use the door.”

“It would keep people from worrying about the undead as much. And we’d be next to the inn.”

Leiithe said that like it was a good thing. Now her head was rising, and Elosaith turned to Lyonette.

“May we have a day or two to think on it? Let’s pull up a group and check that spot out. We could do it like home. A nice bridge we can collapse in case we run into more monsters—”

“That bridge gave everyone conniptions, Elosaith. What about something new? More open?”

“You children and your newfangled ways.”

“What about castle-houses with black, pointed spires? If they know we’re [Necromancers], an archway of bones enchanted with defensive sigils?”

“…I’m listening.”

Lyonette’s smile had twisted as the [Necromancers] enthusiastically began describing their ideal home—which, as she’d noticed, was more at home with an evil villain than, say, something tasteful.

Worse, Hexel slithered over.

“Are you all fans of the old Evil Empire style of architecture? I studied that when I was in training, but I never thought I’d find a client who actually wanted it. I have some sketches if you want—”

And it was happening. Word spread from Leiithe to her husband, then from him to four villagers, and then Lyonette heard the buzz. Rittane, who’d been hauling a bucket of nails out to the Workers, looked up, and an expression of delight spread over her face.

“We can live here? Really?”

Mrsha stared at Rittane and held up a card.

I’m going to have neighbors?

She handed one to Lyonette, who nodded.

[Necromancer] neighbors?

Lyonette bit her lip. Oh dear. This might lead to problems, but Mrsha’s third card just read:

Cool!

They were not bad people. In fact, Lyonette’s doubts fled as she saw Normen emerge and give her a smile of relief. When she thought of how Liscor had welcomed Rheirgest—after all they’d seen and done—she made her resolution.

“We’ll buy a land permit at once. I’m sure Liscor’s Council will allow it. We have undead permits—why, why, let’s do this thing! And build my inn!

A great cheer arose, and then Lyonette was striding over to Hexel, who gave her a toothy smile.

“That’s half of my problems. Got a way to magic some goods from across the world to me? Valeterisa’s offered to let me use her delivery service once they get to Izril.”

He was slithering around the ballista, double-checking how large and heavy it was for his tower. Lyonette lowered her voice.

“About that…Hexel? Could you do anything with Chemath Marble? Say, a few hundred tons of it?”

Hexel smacked into the side of the ballista and turned.

“Excuse me? Did you say Chemath Marble?”

Lyonette gave him an uncertain smile.

“Yes? Eight hundred tons?”

“That’s…more than it would be with regular marble. You’d only get two huge slabs of it, but Chemath Marble’s a bit lighter. What condition is it in? Who’s selling it? Samal? Khelt? Don’t tell me the mines are open again.”

“It’s in rather bad condition. Many pieces…”

“It’s got to be worth a fortune, even so! Are you asking me if I can do something with it?”

The [Princess] nodded, and Hexel studied all his blueprints.

“Absolutely, I can! I’d have to research it and figure out how to use it. Can I inspect a sample? We need to be careful if you’re buying it. Bad-quality Chemath Marble is hard to work with. To lay out, you know.”

“I’m sure it’s well within budget, Hexel.”

He stared at her.

Chemath Marble. Within budget. Are you sure it’s not fake?”

She just gave him a mysterious smile as some ideas coalesced in her head. The rest of the day was spent organizing the Rheirgest idea, from payment to their new land grant—but it filled Lyonette with satisfaction.

Not least because the staff were now buzzing with ideas and running them to Peggy or Rosencrantz, who kept whispering in Lyonette’s ear.

“Chandelier?”

“I don’t see one fitting in right now. But certainly. You want a chandelier, Peggy?”

“Yah. One we can swing from.”

“Oh. Er…why not?”

“The Antinium are requesting a beach, Miss Lyonette.”

“…We could try.”

What couldn’t you buy with enough gold? Lyonette added a request to buy up all the land around The Wandering Inn, just in case. She was only reminded of her final problem after night fell.

The sock puppet.

 

——

 

Lyonette was making a list late at night and was grateful Mrsha slept elsewhere these days. It was a crazy list. Absurd.

But it was based on ideas. Names of people she remembered.

It scared her.

Am I doing this? She had crossed out a bunch of names. Circled others.

Elosaith’s name was on there. She understood, after chatting with the other villagers, that he was a powerful [Necromancer]. How powerful?

“I don’t want to do this, Ushar. Going out and making an appearance like my mother wants? That I can do. This is…dangerous. Even rehiring Tessa might invite more trouble than not.”

Ushar was a golden sentinel standing by the desk. She refilled a cup of tea for Lyonette.

“With respect, Your Highness, Queen Ielane is of the opinion that one can run a secure household in two ways. First, with high-level experts, who are difficult to manage and satisfy. The [Prince] and his [Warlords] theory. The second is to have a well-equipped, well-trained force. They may fail at times, but they can be replaced and relied upon.”

“Thronebearers.”

“Exactly. You have no time for the second option.”

“Is there a third?”

Ushar smiled and brushed at her own short-cropped hair.

“The third option is to be so competent as to need neither. No one save Queen Marquin herself could be said to embody that ideal.”

“I see.”

Lyonette closed her eyes, then had a moment of worry. She had taken for granted how useful Ushar was. The Thronebearers had been so annoying at first. Now? They were invaluable.

“Ushar? Are you and Dalimont going to stay?”

“I cannot speak for Dalimont, Your Highness. I am loyal to the crown. And to you.”

“…What do you want to do? Just serve?

No one just wanted that. Even Ishkr was the best Gnoll because he loved seeing the stories and being part of them. Ushar hesitated as Lyonette fixed her with a clear-eyed gaze.

She fiddled with a ringlet of hair and murmured.

“I…if you would like me to be completely honest, Your Highness, an elevation in my rank is something I was promised for this service.”

Career advancement? It was so—normal that Lyonette almost laughed. However, she noticed how keen Ushar’s eyes were, at odds with her mellow voice.

No, maybe she truly does have lofty ambitions. It was something to remember. What did that look like afterwards, though?

“Would that…lead you to becoming a Knight-Commander of the Thronebearers? Grandmaster of the Order of Thronebearers? The Lightherald?”

“Such ideas are too lofty for me, Your Highness. I have yet to take more than a single step.”

Ushar turned, blushing, but Lyonette didn’t buy it. Thronebearers had excellent control of their expressions.

“You left Vernoue’s side for me, and being a champion of a [Princess] is already a good path. Those three things aren’t anything you want, are they? What does your ideal path look like?”

“Your Highness—”

“Dame Ushar.”

The Thronebearer squirmed, then dropped her voice.

“I—I am past my prime, so the point is moot in regards to me being named a true champion of arms. If there were a position in Calanfer I sought, it might be recognition as a Great Knight of Calanfer.”

Great Knight? It was a standard term—Lyonette blinked. Ailendamus had named a number of them, but no individual Thronebearer had been given that title in…that would be one step below the Lightherald themself.

“Why that particular position?”

A Grandmaster of the Thronebearers was more powerful. Ushar glanced past Lyonette, speaking calmly.

“A Great Knight would be…according to Calanferian law, landed nobility, Your Highness. Equivalent to a [Baroness] by default.”

Oh. Oh. Lyonette saw it instantly. Thronebearers weren’t drawn always from the nobility, and even those that were were second-sons or daughters at best. If you did envision a future for yourself outside of the confines of your armor, a retirement

Ushar wanted a barony? Or something more? There were any number of reasons she might angle for that. Lyonette didn’t push. At least, to Ushar’s face. But she filed that away and turned back to her work.

“As long as it’s something I can assist you with—even gold can’t buy a barony in Calanfer. An unlanded title, no doubt. I want to make everyone working for me happy.”

“I can see that, Your Highness.”

Lyonette was about to throw in some more bait and see if she could get some hints about Dalimont or other Thronebearers when she felt something. Abruptly, she dropped her quill.

“He’s back. Ushar!”

The stranger was back in her inn. This time, she felt the intrusion via her class and spun. Ushar—

The aspiring Great Knight of Calanfer was slumped on the ground. Lyonette’s heart pounded in her chest. Oh no.

She was perhaps too used to the inn being attacked. But the sight of a Thronebearer being taken out so easily was horrifying. Lyonette drew her sword. If her conclusion was right, the intruder would be coming for this room.

For what it had been searching for in Ryoka’s room.

The damn wand. She tip-toed to the door, cracking it open a hair. Was the strange sock-monster in Ryoka’s room? She couldn’t see a light from under the door, and it was closed—

“It’s not in Ryoka Griffin’s room. So you know where it is. Give it to me.”

A gigantic, blue sock puppet head whispered in her ear, and she shrieked. Her voice never left her room; a muffling spell caught it, and Lyonette whirled and slashed as the sock puppet leaned out of the way.

It was a giant sock with buttons for eyes. Tall as a person—taller than her, and horrific.

“Get back! What are you?”

“None of your business. Tell me where the wand is.”

“Ryoka’s wand?”

“Yes, yes, hers. I’ll deliver it to that idiot. Since V—that other fool isn’t here, someone has to be remotely competent around here.”

The voice that came out of the sock puppet moved more or less as the mouth did, but it was clipped, even refined, enunciating each word carefully. Male—Lyonette narrowed her eyes.

“This is The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice’s inn. Begone and don’t come back unless you want to die.”

“Oh, I’m so scared of an [Innkeeper]. What is she going to do? Serve me poisoned spaghetti? Please. Your little security detail can’t do a thing. Don’t bother waiting for the other fellow. He’s taking a nap too. Now, hand it over or I’ll have to get unpleasant.”

He loomed over her, and she backed away, keeping her sword raised.

“Lay a hand on me and I’ll ensure you regret it.”

The sock-puppet paused a second, and then she saw what might have been an expression of shock or chagrin; its mouth fell open, and it visibly hesitated.

“—I meant violence.”

Oh. Was that better? Lyonette blinked, and the sock puppet headbutted her.

It hurt. She swung at it, but it just hopped back.

“There’s more of that. Don’t make me marr your precious head, [Princess] Lyonette du Marquin.

Well, he knew who she was. Lyonette swung again, then pointed.

“[Flame Arrow].”

A flaming arrow shot forwards, and the sock puppet watched it hit its robes and vanish.

“…Seriously?”

A second headbutt put stars in her eyes. The sock puppet regarded the swaying princess and muttered to itself.

“Either she’s got a harder head than I thought or—you can cry all you want, but I won’t stop until I get the damn wand. Hand it over!”

He seemed to be expecting Lyonette to scream and whimper. The old her would have turned over the keys to the kingdom by now—the new Lyonette just went on the attack.

[Flawless Attempt]! She executed a series of cuts and slashes, and the sock puppet cursed as it backed away from her in the narrow room. It was way too fast, but Lyonette caught it mid-lean—she stabbed, and it opened its mouth and caught her blade!

“That was interesting. My turn.”

The third headbutt made her sit down.

I may puke. Lyonette’s voice was calm.

“I shall call Symphony on your head. Begone.”

The Sock Monster tilted its head, staring at her, and she instantly realized it wasn’t Izrilian—or at least, not familiar with Izril’s gangs. But it did figure out what she meant and began to laugh.

“You’ll call—? Oh, how cute. That’s a good one. Listen, I’m being nice.

The puppet loomed over Lyonette and leaned forwards.

“You wouldn’t like to meet me when I’m…annoyed. Last chance before I begin casting.”

She stood and tried to force him out with her aura. However, whatever was manipulating the sock-thing, remotely or from inside of it, was as strong in that regard as every other way. She got a derisive laugh and had a vision of Tessa. If she had Tessa…

For a second, she imagined Tessa was on the roof outside, blades drawn, ready to come to her rescue and wished she’d done more for the Drake. Then the image vanished.

Bird stood on the snow-covered roof instead and fired an arrow from her bow. The [Piercing Shot] went through the window without shattering the glass; it left a neat hole, and the sock puppet swore.

Aaaaaah—

It whirled, and an arrow was sticking out of its eye. That scream was genuine; it tried to recover and look unfazed.

“Oh, Bird the Hunter. How tiresome.”

“Bird!”

Lyonette threw open the window, and Bird loosed a second arrow right past her head. The sock puppet leaned out of the way—and the arrow curved into its side, nicking the fabric. It tsked, then spoke.

“[Slumber], pest.”

A blue haze of fog engulfed Bird. The Antinium wavered. Then her mandibles closed.

“No.”

“Hah?”

The third arrow struck the sock puppet straight between the eyes, and it reeled back. Lyonette rammed a sword straight into the chest of the sock puppet—and felt only a bit of resistance.

“Bird, it’s just a Golem or something!”

“Ah. This would be a splendid time to use my [Dragonbreath Arrow]. If I knew how it works. Back up, Lyonette. I am going to shoot a more reliable exploding thing that should not kill you.”

Bird pulled an arrow from her quiver. But before she and Lyonette could continue attacking, the sock puppet cursed.

“—waste of my time!”

It leapt out the window and landed with billowing black robes on the roof. Bird shot her arrow; she missed as it leaned sideways. She raised her bow, and the sock puppet headbutted Bird.

Hard. The roof tiles cracked under the blow, and Bird staggered. She swung her bow up, but the sock puppet snaked around her and gave her a sideways headbutt that sent Bird skidding down the roof.

“Ow. I warn you. I know Bird-fu.”

The Antinium swung her bow around, trying to clip the sock puppet, but all Lyonette heard as she tried to scramble onto the roof was a sneering laugh.

“If that’s how the Antinium fight hand-to-hand, I’m shocked you ever had a chance in the Antinium Wars.”

Bird fired an arrow as Lyonette lunged, but it was too fast. The [Hunter] loosed another arrow at close range, then cursed as she was knocked flat.

“What am I supposed to do when they get close? Hold on, I need to get to the outhouse—and a bucket—”

“Let me help you.”

The sock puppet bent and heaved, and Bird went flying off the roof. Bird twisted and loosed a wild shot; Lyonette saw the arrow vibrate in the roof next to her. She swung at the sock puppet, and it grabbed her sword and tossed it off the roof.

“Listen. I’m actually tired of murdering people right now. I want to be reasonable.

It spoke to her as she windmilled her arms, about to slip off the roof and fall down towards the parked wagons below. Lyonette cried out as she slipped—and the sock puppet sighed and caught her arm.

“Pathetic. I can see we’re going nowhere. Why don’t you [Sleep] and I’ll just sort this out? I should have just done that anyways. But the entire inn’s a damn bag of holding…and if it’s in that garden…”

Lyonette felt herself sagging, and blackness gnawed at her vision. But she forced the spell off her—grabbed the sock body, and tried to punch it.

This is my inn. You can have it, or anyone in it, over my dead body!”

She punched at it twice, realized the sock puppet felt nothing, then tried to pull one of the button-eyes off. The sock puppet recoiled from her. Then tossed Lyonette onto her back on the roof. That put the wind out of Lyonette as she gasped up at the giant mouth of the puppet.

“But you’re so weak. You can’t protect anyone.”

The power behind this apparition sneered down at her. Lyonette knew it was right. Angry tears sprang to her eyes, and she snapped back.

Then I’ll die before you touch my daughters, whomever you are. If I have to, I’ll annihilate you and anything in my way.”

An idea sprang to her mind, unbounded. A truly dire one, and she bared her teeth.

I can kill you. Begone!”

The sock puppet stared down at her, bemused. But then it lost the smile on its face.

“The weak have no right to threaten me. You can’t save anyone. I can’t.

It stopped, standing there, and looked around at the snow drifting down. The inn. There was a catch in its voice.

“I can’t.”

Lyonette stared upwards, and the sock puppet shook itself.

“I’m not after your daughters, idiot! Just give me the wand and—”

Then its head exploded. Lyonette felt a blast of heat wash over her and went deaf. When the ringing stopped, Bird buzzed onto the roof and gave the limp half of the burnt sock a few kicks.

“Hah! That was mostly luck. How did you distract it, please, Lyonette?”

Lyonette just sat there as Dame Ushar leapt out the window and the people in the wagons woke up. Dangerous things were lurking around the inn.

What was new? Oh. Right.

There was no Erin.

 

——

 

The next morning, Lyonette had little sleep. Rheirgest was hard at work as its villagers alternated between working on her inn—and their village. They had found a spot they liked, and undead were everywhere outdoors.

She was having a call. With her mother.

“Give up the item.”

“I can’t do that, Mother. It’s insanely valuable.”

“That was not a statement for discussion. Relinquish it or send it via Courier to Calanfer. You cannot protect it.

“Yes, I can. If I—”

Shriekblade is an insufficient protector on her own. You have no means to combat that intruder. You are not a second Queen Marquin. If this was a battle of contracts or agreements, I would give you some credence. Your death will serve Calanfer not at all.”

So glad you have my best interests at heart, Mother.”

Lyonette snapped sarcastically at Ielane, and the woman replied without missing a beat.

“That was not a question for debate, either. Know your limits. You cannot suborn a foe that many levels higher than you with a sword. I could not.”

She was brisk and impatient as ever, but Lyonette stopped as she stabbed at a breakfast scone.

“—You know who it is?”

A pause, infinitesimally small.

“I have a guess, based on the description and other reports. It does not concern you at this moment.”

“It does, Mother. And I can handle this! I just need—”

She needed a way to stop that sock puppet. Lyonette had no doubt it would be back. It didn’t seem as hostile as many threats, like Facestealer.

“You will write a report on the item in question and submit it to Ushar in the next half hour. Then—”

Lyonette turned the speaking stone off. It was very satisfying. Ushar winced as Lyonette handed it back, then scrubbed at her face.

“Your Highness, Her Majesty does have a point.”

“Does she, Ushar? My mother has never seen half of the threats The Wandering Inn has faced. Erin took them all on; I’ll do the same.”

It was just that she wasn’t as gifted as Erin at, well, killing things. Lyonette paced around. Then turned to Ser Dalimont.

Who is the sock puppet’s owner?”

“I, er, have a good guess as to which nation he comes from. Even who it might be. The Ryoka link is also established, Your Highness. I will say that if it is whom I believe it to be—it would make for a credible threat. Level 50+.”

He already knew? Lyonette stared at Dalimont. Then saw him hold up a Mage Picture of a certain show that was the most popular thing in…her eyes popped as she saw a miniature of the same blue sock.

“No. No, I saw that broadcast, and I thought—him?

Her sense of foreboding increased. A prideful, dangerous man, then. How was she supposed to keep someone like that from the inn? And why did he want the wand?

Maybe to help Ryoka? Lyonette had sent an urgent request to talk to Ryoka, but she was guarded by the Forgotten Wing at the moment, and the theatre couldn’t instantly reach her. Besides…it was Lyonette’s damn wand. Well, Ryoka’s, but it was her problem to solve!

Lyonette had begun to shift into problem-solving mode, but this last concern was currently top of her list. And it wasn’t the only one.

 

——

 

The villagers of Rheirgest were weird people, Mrsha decided. Her kind of people.

Why?

Well, because she had concluded after a while that aside from the weird laughter, their funny jokes about dead people, and necromancy, the biggest trait that they shared with her was…

Laziness.

They were hard at work this morning building the new inn and their village. Rittane, as a kid, was allowed to play, but she wanted to help, so she was mixing some potash and other stuff together for the concrete Hexel was going to pour.

Her parents were finishing the scaffolding. Or rather, their skeletons were.

Dorkel was a funny man. He’d shown up in workman’s clothes and importantly paced around his area of the scaffolding, making sure the skeletons were hauling the cut timber over. He’d aligned one piece of wood with the marker and drove in a nail after a few good hits.

He wasn’t the most coordinated. He got one nail in, then two, then handed the hammer to a skeleton and went to get a cup of coffee. He then drank the coffee over the next hour as Mrsha watched him, lingering over breakfast and some of Bird’s cake.

Dorkel chatted with his wife, talked to Rittane, walked over to stand with a bunch of villagers. Adjusted a helmet he’d worn in case of debris. Corrected a skeleton drawing from the wrong pile of cut timber.

Cracked open a book and leaned against the scaffolding and read for thirty minutes.

Then he’d noticed the skeletons doing the work weren’t driving the nails in that well. Dorkel had stopped, inspected several bad spots, and had them pry the nails out. At this point, a reasonable person would probably have sighed and grabbed a hammer.

Not Dorkel. He’d bent over the wood and made a skeleton hammer a nail in so he could see how their less-agile hands and clumsiness had them missing or bending the nails. The man had thought—then pulled a piece of ivory out of his belt pouch and walked off.

He’d come back five minutes later. One of the skeletons had pulled off a hand, and he’d given it a new one. Mrsha had stared as the skeleton lifted a hand with a single slot in it; the rest of it was designed to grip the nail.

It hammered away, and Dorkel had watched several nails go into the wood with less satisfaction; the skeleton could still bend the nail left or right.

He’d stopped the skeleton, taken the nail-holder hand, and walked off. After conferring with two other [Necromancers] for a while, Dorkel had come back with the Nail-Holder Hand 2.0.

This time, it was designed to act like a thin cylinder that held the nail perfectly in place. The skeleton would drive the nail in, then a piece of the cylinder would peel back, allowing the nail to be driven down without fear of bending it left or right by an unbalanced blow.

That increased the precision; the skeleton could line up the hand straight over the spot the nail needed to be. However, Dorkel had then noticed the hammer-hand was the real problem. He had taken an arm, walked off, and came back with one only capable of executing a single swing.

Mrsha was about to run out and tell him that was all very well and good, but the skeleton would only be able to do one kind of swing, and he’d need nails to be hammered in every which way—until she saw he’d given it a ball joint so it could reposition and swing from any angle!

The [Necromancer] finished his cup of coffee as his Nail-Skeleton started driving nails into the scaffolding with ease. A few villagers had seen his work and come over.

Within ten minutes, there were a dozen Nail-Skeletons stealing Antinium jobs. And when Dorkel entered the inn, he instantly gravitated towards the cake that had been put out for the villagers.

“Father, Father! How is the construction?”

They’d made Rittane go in out of the cold after a bit, and she bounced up from watching the news on the scrying mirror. Dorkel took his helmet off and wiped at his sweatless brow.

“Hard work, Rittane. But don’t worry—I’m giving it everything I’ve got.”

He jumped as he saw Mrsha staring at him, but the Gnoll girl only handed him a note.

You’re my hero. I want to grow up to be just like you.

He gave her a puzzled, gratified look, but that was the sense Mrsha got from Rheirgest. Not a single one of them was a farmer. If they swung a hoe, it was just to see how to do it better. Indeed, it seemed like the only limiting factor on them had been their need to hide their identities and the ambient mana in the area.

“This place is wonderful. Everyone’s animating twice as many undead as usual. Elosaith’s even created his Guardian of Ivory! See? He normally only did that to haul chunks of ivory out of the mines we had.”

Leiithe pointed something out to Rittane, and Mrsha ran outside, mouth open. A giant undead, ten feet tall, was leashed to a sled, which it was pulling over to the construction site! It was nothing like a skeleton; it was closer to a Golem; it had a huge, humanoid body, like a man in armor, but a horrific, carved deathmask on its face.

Mrsha stared at the open beak, snarling teeth, and tendrils on the Guardian of Ivory’s face. That was style. She even noticed the Guardian of Ivory had long, segmented arms, like a centipede’s body, rather than humanoid ones; it allowed it a lot of flexibility when picking up blocks of stone off the sled.

Even some of the other people watching had to give the undead credit. Most of the people using the inn for teleportation were horrified by the undead and stayed well inside. But one man with his hands in his pockets was standing outside. He had a bright yellow helmet on, like the other [Builders] in Liscor, and work overalls. Another of Hexel’s [Builders]?

“Artistic. I’ll grant you, they at least decorate their undead. Maybe I was too harsh on them before. They’re still living shadows of what [Necromancers] were.”

Mrsha passed a note up to the man.

You and me both, buddy. I thought they were pitiful. But this is super cool.

The man glanced down at her piece of paper and met Mrsha’s eyes. His gaze was a pale golden, and he seemed to know Mrsha. Well, let’s be honest—who didn’t.

“Cool? Ah, impressive. It’s…quaint. In the old days, you’d have an undead forty feet tall lifting blocks of stone from any halfway decent [Necromancer].”

Archmage.

“Yes, those too. They tended to do things with magic. Djinnis, Cloth Golems—everything’s so short these days. People don’t build anything to last.”

Mrsha nodded, sighing at the lax standards of the modern age. She saw this man was also taking the Rheirgest approach of slacking off and decided to do something nice. She padded into the inn and came back with a cup of coffee.

“Ah. Thank you, Good Miss.”

He tipped his hat to her and grinned, revealing two pointed ears. A half-Elf? Mrsha blinked; Liscor was getting all kinds of new people.

Are you a new worker here?

“Me? No, an old worker. Molveilouka at your service.”

The half-Elf winked at Mrsha, and she held out a paw. Rather than shake it, he bent over and peered at her. Then stared at the inn.

“You’re part of that [Innkeeper]’s family, aren’t you? Tell me, Miss…Gnoll. What did someone like you do to become a Direherald so young?”

A what? You mean Doombearer?

“Hm? Yes.”

Mrsha didn’t have time to give her life’s story to all her fans, but she scribbled an abbreviated version, and the half-Elf read it.

“And they thought your kind was causing it? Hah! That’s hilariously tragic. Direheralds, Fatehowlers—whatever you want to call your people these days—don’t cause it. My, my. What will those Drakes think of next?”

You think they were the ones who made the Plain’s Eye tribe go evil?

Mrsha was outraged, but the half-Elf tapped the side of his nose.

“When in doubt, look at the Dragons. Or their children. So, your name is Mrsha and you were an orphan of a Goblin Lord attack. And that flying Human with the wind brought you here.”

That’s correct. If you like, you can have my autograph. I’m Mrsha the Great and Terrible!

He chuckled even harder at this, holding his sides. Mrsha debated kicking him, but she was pretty sure that it would get her in trouble.

“Well, you are amusing. Would you humor me with another question, Good Miss Mrsha? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, procrastinating, and a bit of healing this last month. But I just had to make a decision.”

If she could help him with weighty matters of the mind—she was as good as Nanette at that! Mrsha told him to go ahead.

Molveilouka knelt in the snow and looked at Mrsha. He still smiled, but for some reason, the hair rose on Mrsha’s body, and she felt something running through her…fur?

Luck? Fate? Perhaps all his weird names for her kind had brought it out, but it felt like a howl was caught in Mrsha’s throat. She coughed, and the wind picked up around her. As if something important—or very bad—was hanging in the balance. A mountain on a needle.

Could she move it? The Doombearer’s eyes crossed, but the half-Elf’s question made her focus on him.

“Would you say, on the whole, that you’re a net positive for this world, Miss Mrsha? Do you make the powers that be, your Walled Cities, your Five Families, more secure—or less—by your presence?”

Mrsha stared at him and thought for a longer time than usual. Then she wrote a note and handed it to him.

I would like to posit, sir, that on the whole I am a very good girl and do little things wrong in the world. Everyone likes me. Most people like me, and I am cute and adorable.

“I see. That’s not a bad thing, to be a cute, little brat.”

For some reason, he looked regretful about that and hesitant. But then he saw Mrsha pointing and turned the card over.

However—I suppose I’m not that well liked by the Walled Cities or these powerful people. Because I belong to The Wandering Inn, and we cause trouble. We do the right things or stupid things, I don’t always know which. Things that matter. Everyone thinks the Antinium are evil, but they’re friends. So, on the whole, I think the powers that be may think of me as a great foe. And if they do, they can suck on rotten eggs.

Molveilouka’s eyes widened as he read the back of the card, and when he threw his head back, his laughter was booming. He wiped a tear from his eyes.

“That doesn’t make it easier, you know! Ah…”

He stood over Mrsha, and his face was calm. The half-Elf put his hands in his pockets and looked down at Mrsha.

“I don’t hate you. It would be easier to do that. But if I owe anyone in this world a debt, it’s your [Innkeeper]. I haven’t felt outmatched for a long, long, long time, and there’s that to consider. But a promise is a promise, and your [Innkeeper] is far from home. Today’s a fine day. What am I to do with you?”

Mrsha gave the man a blank stare. She wondered if offering him a slice of cake would move him one way or the other. She reached out for his hand to lead him into the inn, get his life’s story, and figure out how to manipulate him into giving her something cool when Molveilouka stiffened.

“You can walk away, stranger. Gently and slowly.”

No one had noticed the half-Elf, not Ser Dalimont, not even Ishkr or the staff. He’d loitered while talking to Mrsha, unnoticed—right up until the moment Rheirgest’s village head, Elosaith, calmly stuck a blade under Molveilouka’s throat.

Or rather, a skeleton holding a sword did that. The [Necromancer]’s eyes were black, and Mrsha backed up in alarm.

All Molveilouka did was exhale as heads turned.

“Strange. How did one of your lot even notice me?”

“I have a good memory from when I was summoned by that woman. You didn’t do that much with your face. There’s a whiff about you, fainter than anything. But it’s there. Plus—Leiithe remembers an annoying [Merchant] with pointed ears right before the fields burned.”

Elosaith motioned, and Mrsha backed up. Whoa, whoa—what was this animosity? She was writing a card to tell him to chill out when she stared at the ground.

A giant bone head was buried in the dirt, maw open, aimed towards Molveilouka. Mrsha backed up as another group of skeletons rose, armed to the teeth.

The half-Elf didn’t look alarmed at all. He smiled at Elosaith even as more undead and Rheirgest’s villagers began to walk towards him.

“Young man. I was on the fence about doing anything other than visiting, and that little girl actually swung me back a bit. Now I think I don’t feel bad at all about what comes next.”

“You were warned. We’re a peaceful village. We buried our enemies deep—then dug them up.”

Elosaith’s eyes seemed to blaze a deeper black, and the skeletons around him tensed. Molveilouka sneered and raised a hand as Lyonette strode out of the inn.

“Mrsha!”

The girl was already running on all fours towards her. Molveilouka reached out for Elosaith—and both men stopped.

A second blade, slimmer, silver, was resting on Molveilouka’s neck. Another half-Elf, silver-haired with silver eyes, was holding it.

Taletevirion! Mrsha whirled, and an old man coughed into one hand.

“Now, now. Let’s all be civil here. We wouldn’t want to cause a commotion, would we?”

Demsleth leaned on a walking stick on Molveilouka’s other side. Elosaith whirled, and a skeleton spun—but the old man just winked a mismatched eye at Elosaith, and the skeleton froze. Molveilouka’s smile had become a snarl.

“Do you two just…loiter around here all day?”

“The food’s good. We’re welcome guests. Why don’t you leave? Before your welcome wears out even further?”

Taletevirion’s voice was as sharp as his blade, but Molveilouka made a show of plucking the blade off his shoulders with two fingers, as if it were a soiled rag.

“So you know, the girl is more fascinating than the three of you. Be careful who you threaten, old men, young man.”

“Be careful where you walk.

Taletevirion barked back, but Demsleth stopped him from advancing as Molveilouka sauntered in the other direction. The half-Elf flipped his helmet up. His eyes were pits in his head for a second, and he grinned. Mrsha thought she saw something writhing between his teeth, which were grimy.

“I fear nothing and no one here. If you were so concerned, dear fellows—why don’t you take me aside here and now?”

Neither Taletevirion nor Demsleth moved, though Elosaith shifted, looking from the two of them. Molveilouka strolled away, laughing.

“That’s what I thought. Good day, good Miss Mrsha! Keep causing trouble and, one day, these two will come for you.

He raised a hand, moving faster and faster until, as he descended one hill, he abruptly vanished and never appeared again. Mrsha stood there as Taletevirion cursed and Demsleth exhaled in what she thought was relief.

Of course—then her mother went crazy.

 

——

 

First one. Now two unknown threats to the inn.

Lyonette had been mostly fine when the danger was confined to a headbutt and the injury was to her. One of the reasons was—she hadn’t actually had the instinct she was in mortal peril.

Whomever that was had Ushar shouting her [Dangersense] was going off. And that was only after they’d noticed him! Thank goodness for Elosaith!

Lyonette was in the [Garden of Sanctuary] for a few minutes before going to meet Taletevirion and Demsleth in the Drathian [Garden of Sanctuary]. She was standing before a special place in the inn, in the hill of mists, that she wouldn’t forget.

Erin’s bier. The frozen place where she had lain so long. There were still frozen gifts about it. Two dead bodies had lain here.

Erin—and Major Khorpe.

That brave Drake [Rogue] still lay here. Hands clasped at his chest, smiling upwards. Gone.

They’d wondered if he might come back. Then they’d wondered if someone else might come back—but then they’d just waited.

He was dead. Lyonette had wanted to bury him, but Salazsar had asked her to keep his body so they could give him a proper funeral. Snows had delayed their group coming by way of Pallass to pick him up.

She’d said it was fine.

He could wait.

“I’m sorry. Thank you.”

She often said those two things when she found him here. Mercifully, the hill of mists didn’t always provide her with a view of him. The Drake smiled upwards, and she thought—no, she knew that he had done something amazing.

She just wished she could tell people what it was.

The red-haired [Princess] straightened. Khorpe was a reminder of what it cost to stop Kasigna each and every time. To stop…

“I’ll kill him. If he lays a hand on Mrsha, I will kill him—and that Duke—and all of Ailendamus. No more. No more!

Her eyes swung down the hill to the box hanging from a rope and letting gold coins drop out of it. She’d destroy the entire dungeon under Liscor if she had to. No more of it!

Her only question was why she had to do it herself? Lyonette stormed into the Drathian garden, and two old men looked up.

Taletevirion and Demsleth, no, Teriarch.

Unicorn and Dragon.

She knew them. She should have been awed, and she quietly was, many times they visited. Demsleth on his weekly visits, often with Alber, and even when Taletevirion drank a keg of ale and left without paying—

“Who is he? Who is he, and why didn’t you stop him?

“His name is Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. And we have been watching him for a month now. Taletevirion has, and he summoned me the moment Tolveilouka appeared. We did not interfere because he is as old as we are. And as powerful.”

At least they spoke straight to her. Demsleth was eating a huge slice of Bird-cake, and Taletevirion had a cup of Rxlvn. Lyonette threw herself into her seat as Ser Dalimont bowed and offered Demsleth some coffee. She didn’t have his awe.

She was angry.

“Teriarch, don’t play games with me. He was after Mrsha!”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps he was questioning her. We warned him off; if he returns, we’ll be more forceful.”

The old man was hunched slightly in his seat, eating the cake with a will. Taletevirion’s eyes glittered as he drank.

“The villagers noticing him could be bad—for them. He’s a spiteful little piece of forest manure. Still, he knows they’re under our protection.”

Protection? What are you two—fly out there. Turn into a Dragon and vaporize him!

Lyonette shouted. Demsleth jumped, and he gave Dalimont an appalled look, and the Thronebearer gave Lyonette much the same. But she was incensed. The Dragon lifted a stern finger.

“Miss Marquin, I remind you that our natures are a secret vested in you and few others. And given our names, a bit of respect—”

She slammed her hands on the table, and the cake plate jumped. Teriarch recoiled as she snarled at him.

“Why. Is. He. Alive? If he’s so dangerous, why don’t you stop him?”

“Because we might die.”

Taletevirion interrupted Teriarch’s spluttering outrage. The Unicorn drained his cup and sighed. He was as straightforward as Teriarch was not. He gave Lyonette a huge blink, turning his head as if he were still a horse.

“There. It’s not pretty when I have to say it, Teriarch, is it? The truth is we’re both cautious, Miss Marquin, and starting a battle with Tolveilouka at your inn would destroy it and everyone around us.”

“Then why not when he’s gone? You know where he is?”

“Home ground advantage.”

Demsleth muttered, and Lyonette’s voice rose.

Then ambush him! There are two of you and one of him! Is he really stronger than you?”

Teriarch looked offended at the thought, and his back straightened.

“Certainly not! That is—he’s a considerably powerful immortal who predates Taletevirion. But I wager that I have more fire in my body than he has…gall and bile in his.”

“So you are stronger. He’s alone. Right?”

If there were more of them—to her relief, they nodded. Teriarch fiddled with his work.

“More or less. He’s got other…minions that might lurk around, but the only other strong ones were taken out.”

The Unicorn muttered darkly.

“As far as we know.”

“Then—?”

It seemed like the obvious course to her was to gird their respective loins, march out there, and take out a threat to Izril and, most importantly, her family, right there and then. But Teriarch’s eyes shifting and Taletevirion sighing were her only reply.

“Here’s the thing, Miss Lyonette. What that old bag of scales doesn’t want to say, and what I’m reluctant to admit is…you’re right. We have the numbers on him. We can most likely get the drop on him. We’re probably stronger than he is, especially if we combine our strengths. 90% likely, right, Teriarch?”

“99.999999999% repeating. He has a miniscule chance of…”

The Brass Dragon grumped under his breath. Lyonette saw Taletevirion lean over as a petal from one of the trees drifted into his cup of Rxlvn. It instantly turned black and began to melt.

“—But we’re not certain. Even if victory is certain, one of us might be mortally wounded. And we don’t want to, well, risk it.”

He took a sip from his drink, and Lyonette blinked. She stood there, then spread her arms and smiled in relief.

“Oh, I see. Thank you for clarifying. You’re cowards.

The Unicorn just gave her a toast with his cup. Teriarch sat up.

“I most certainly am not! I’m pragmatic! I have a mission of such insurmountable challenge upon me that stumbling now—”

“He’s a monster. You’re afraid you’ll get hurt.”

The silver-haired half-Elf kept drinking, then poured himself a refill.

“We’re afraid we’ll die. We’re both old. We’ve seen this before, Lyonette. Two-on-one ambush. Six-on-one. Often it goes well. Sometimes the other side walks out. Or you see your best friend staring at his own entrails. We don’t know how good he is at killing. He had a master…but sometimes the servant surpasses the master.”

When Lyonette turned to Teriarch, the old man bent over his cake.

“That’s often the case with necromancers, actually. He’s rather pestilential too. A victory might see our demises weeks afterwards. I…don’t mean to sound cowardly. But this particular fellow isn’t even as unknown as my dear friend Taletevirion makes him out to be. I know of him by reputation. He beat a Dragon—consistently—in his heyday. He has killed my kind.”

“He—he has?”

Some of the bravado and confidence that she could do anything about Tolveilouka drained out of Lyonette. She licked her lips.

“But you’re the greatest Dragon in the world, right?”

Taletevirion laughed so hard he fell out of his chair. But he kept his cup upright in one hand. Teriarch kicked it out of his hand, splashing it everywhere. Taletevirion got up and tossed the cake into the koi pond.

Dalimont brought them back replacements before they could continue fighting, and an embarrassed Teriarch turned to Lyonette.

“That’s…a very nebulous claim, Miss Lyonette. If we’re talking about pure battle strength, then I am confident I am one of the top three most dangerous Dragons…in this current era.”

She stared at him. Humility and Teriarch were not words one naturally associated, but he seemed so embarrassed that he was being honest. Teriarch cleared his throat.

“I know I have a reputation, but many of the tales about me were from my prime. I’m older now, and being old, well, rather means you’re guaranteed to be good at aging. Do you want the truth? Yes, I fear coming to blows with him. He has a sword meant to kill me.”

Teriarch’s head dipped, and he whispered.

“I rather fear I’m the one at a disadvantage.”

Silently, trying not to look at that very mortal fear, Lyonette turned to Taletevirion. Teriarch answered her question.

“Taletevirion can match him—in his current form. He has at least one more.”

And there was that uncertainty neither of them liked. The Unicorn muttered as he chewed on some peanuts.

“At least one. He could have as many as three, depending on how weird the Putrid One was. And each time he probably heals.”

The Dragon nodded, though he grew a bit more animated as he reminisced.

“I once saw someone with five. Rather embarrassing. He and this [Hero] were down to their last reserves, fist-fighting in the surf, each step their last until one or the other fell over. You know, grudging admiration for the foe? Then he clearly recalled he’d forgotten all about his final-final-final-final form, and he had to pretend it was all part of his grand plan.”

“Dead gods, that sounds stupid.”

Awkward, more like. I was watching with a [Bard] at the time, and that poor woman had no idea how she was going to retell that properly…”

Lyonette’s head bounced between the two. She slowly tried to unsheathe her sword, and they looked at her.

“Why…won’t you at least try? Please? It sounds like you know he’s done terrible things. Is it worth letting him continue to roam around and endanger people over making an attempt?”

They fell silent, chastened, and Teriarch exhaled.

“Let’s assume the two of us walked off with as many preparations as we could muster, Miss Lyonette. He isn’t someone we can use a Relic on, even if I still had the ones that could do enough damage. His very nature defies that kind of thing. What’s the worst-case scenario? The worst case scenario is that we vanish. Then…you see a Plague Dragon flying back towards you. And a Zombie Unicorn.”

Taletevirion kicked Teriarch under the table, but neither one smiled. Teriarch looked earnestly at Lyonette.

“He is making up his mind. That is not an excuse! But it is a reason. If he were not, you and this city would have noticed his wrath by now, our presence or not. He does not fear obliteration, I think. Trust that the Dancer can change his mind.

The who? Teriarch’s gaze wavered.

“I mean—Erin Solstice. She convinced him to take our side at the Solstice. If we can seek an ally, however unpleasant, or remove the need to do battle…”

He picked at his cake.

“If he attacks, I swear, we will do all we can and not relent. But there is a chance of him changing his mind too, however small. And he is grieving.”

Grieving? That thing?

Taletevirion was the one who was outraged, now, and he whirled to Teriarch, but the Dragon just met his gaze levelly.

“He has a right to his loss. Nothing more.”

The Unicorn snorted and stood, and Lyonette looked from face to face. Her eyes narrowed.

“Very well then. I understand your positions, gentlemen, and I thank you for explaining. Let me warn you two of this.”

She leaned forwards, and both leaned back slowly. Lyonette hissed at them.

I’ve thought of a way to stop him. If I have to. And I will not let my inn, my people, my daughters, go undefended with random sock puppets and snide half-Elves running amok. If you won’t do anything, I will, and I won’t stop even if I have to melt half of Izril into glass.”

She stood up. Then whirled and called over her shoulder.

Dalimont! I’m going into Liscor. Get me a meeting with Invrisil’s [Mayor]! Now!

She stormed from the garden, hair flying behind her, and the two immortals watched. The [Knight], far from looking apprehensive, had a smile on his face as he bowed to the two of them.

The [Princess] had begun to move. Deliberately, she’d thought out her moves, but she had seen the threat well and truly now. And she was going to bury it in gold.

But was there gold enough for…? Lyonette visibly hesitated at the door, but she still stepped through. After she and Dalimont were gone, Teriarch tried the door handle. He only got the inn.

“Teriarch, what are you doing?”

The Dragon jumped.

“Nothing…just, ah, checking. I sense something interesting about. But this is excellent cake.”

He hurried back and gave the Unicorn an innocent look. Taletevirion snorted again. Something fell out of his nose, and into his drink. He took a gulp anyways.

“Now there’s a fiery kid. Not quite at the [Innkeeper]’s level, but I can see where she got it from. Reminds you of Marquin herself, eh?”

Teriarch was rather less complimentary; he was sick of uppity young women shouting at him of late. He folded his arms.

“There’s hardly the same resemblance. Marquin wasn’t even red-haired. All that genetic inbreeding with the Hundred Families—”

“Oh, come on. You’re telling me you don’t see a [War Princess] getting ready for a fight?”

“Hah! If you want to talk about [Princesses], then she doesn’t even hit the top fifty. Top one hundred, maybe. When the Princess of…what’s that kingdom with the spinning castle called? The one on the Continent of Glass? Well, when she got angry—”

The Unicorn rolled his eyes as the two old immortals sat there. Bickering, nostalgic…Taletevirion stared at Teriarch and wondered how long they could do this. He almost got up to—

No. He sighed and sat. The problem with being old was…you were really good at doing the same thing. Over and over. It was hard to change.

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn was subdued after Tolveilouka’s appearance. Ushar had caught Mrsha up on the other threat, and the girl sat there, morose, nursing a glass of warm milk.

It wasn’t the immediate near-death experience that bothered Mrsha. It was Rittane, really. Mrsha had promised Rittane that she’d be safe and happy. Mrsha didn’t need to tell her she’d nearly been here for the bad times at the inn.

But was it responsible for Rheirgest to be here? They were only a few miles away.

And when the [Princess] emerged from the inn, the Goblins, Antinium, Gnolls, they all saw it.

That heavy weight of Erin’s quest on Lyonette’s shoulders.

What a monster their [Innkeeper] was, wasn’t she? She had bestowed Lyonette with a terrible burden. The likes of which had made heroes out of the Horns. Like her fire…Erin Solstice could be terribly cruel.

The [Princess] kept her head held high. Her chin raised. One look at her and Mrsha knew that Lyonette had gotten no good answer from the two immortals. It was the face she had when things were bad and she was being royal-like. Ishkr frowned.

“Lyonette? Is there anything we should do?”

“I have been informed…there is very little to prepare for. Taletevirion and Demsleth have our intruder in hand. And if they do not—apparently—no one else can.”

The [Princess]’ words made Peggy slowly cross ‘Super Killer Crossbow with Tier 5 Bolts’ off a list.

What did you do when you found something that not even a mountain of gold might shift? Mrsha’s heart sank, but she realized that this was what Lyonette had been so focused on to the exclusion of her love of doing smaller things with gold.

What was coming. 

Her mother slowly approached the table and gave Mrsha a little cuddle.

“Mrsha? I know you feel worried.”

Er, not really, Mother.

“No, no. I know you’re afraid the same things will happen again. I just want you to know that I promise they won’t. I’ll do something about it. Just don’t be worried, okay? Sometimes, things change, and that’s okay. The inn will be safe.”

Lyonette squeezed Mrsha tightly, then gave Nanette a big hug, lifting her off the ground. The young witch looked like a girl, then, and Normen raised his voice.

“Lyonette. About our discussion. In light of recent events, I feel we could all stay at the inn—”

Ser Normen, Jewel, Antherr, Vess, and Durene got up, but Lyonette just gave them a slightly sad smile.

“No, you were right, Normen. Leave this to the inn. If you could just stay with Mrsha and Nanette while I’m out—that would be all. Dalimont? You and Ushar with me.”

She turned to them, and the two stepped forwards, armor shining. The [Princess]’ hair flickered in the morning light like it was catching fire, and Mrsha saw Lyonette smile calmly at her. Then she walked for the door. The Gnoll girl sat there, then raised a trembling note in her paw.

Someone stop her. She’s going to do something crazier than Erin. Stop her!

She leapt from her seat. She knew her mother. Mrsha ran for the door on all fours, but it was too late. Liska turned to Mrsha as she pointed to the open door to Liscor.

“She’s just through there, Mrsha. What?”

Oh, fate. Oh, heavens and destiny…Apista solemnly rested on Mrsha’s head as the Gnoll clasped her paws together like Pawn.

Have mercy on that poor city. Then Mrsha ran upstairs and hid under the bed. When Sammial came to ask what kind of game this was, she just made Hethon, Sammial, and Nanette hide with her.

The [Princess] was on the move.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

Witness my madness. If you think this is actually a reasonable chapter, let me tell you a story.

There are 3 days to write the chapter. pirateaba writes.

The end result is 65,000 words. I think I worked 10+ hours at least two days. I sat back, after it was done, and I thought ‘this is a good chapter’.

It was too long. And I wondered how I’d ever edit it, exhausted as I was. Naturally, the only thing to do would be to split it up, releasing a bit of it now, the rest, Tuesday, and write a half-chapter on Saturday to compliment the rest.

Then, after my beta-readers screamed at me for a bit, I realized that was what old-pirateaba would do. New-pirateaba? That’s a healthy person.

…Who writes too much. But I can take that whole chunk, split it in half, and have a week to edit and not explode from exhaustion.

So yes, the few hundred…or thousand-some stream-readers might know there’s a big second half to this chapter. But I think for the sanity of a reader, and me, this is a far more manageable thing to read. I will take the time to rest for a day or two, then put in more scene, more words, and fix up the chapter.

This is healthy. This is fine. If I can’t write in healthy chunks, I can at least take breaks more often with this new schedule. I hope you liked the math section. I had to get help from math people—and I might have made mistakes or not considered the Galvanatronic Idesman Machinal-Theorem, so let me know.

Math. Crazy stuff. Almost as crazy as that [Princess]. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy this and the next bit. Healthy pirateaba. I’m still working on it.

 

Stream Art: Rittane’s Lies by Fiore!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/atlasphenomenon

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/fiorepandaphen

 

MrshaThief by BoboPlushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Erin and Numbtongue, and Lyonete and Pawn by LuckyLuca!

 

Violetta and Afiele’s Tomb by jawjee!

Instagram: https://instagram.com/jawjee_draws

 

Saliss by Wing [Rune Artisan]!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wingedhatchling/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/wingedhatch

 

Apista’s Use for the Box by ercaned!

 

MechaApista by Enjoyment!

 

Wyrm by Yootie!

K0Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yootie

 

New Bird by Yura!

K0-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/yurariria

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
73 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments