10.15 – The Wandering Inn

10.15

(I am on my monthly break! I’ll be back on the 1st of June!)

 

 

A [Princess] was murdering people with her bare hands. She was crushing heads to paste, choking out her enemies. When they screamed, ‘no, please, have mercy!’ She beat them down with a frying pan.

The bloody carnage was sickening. More red blood kept spattering the ground and the dresses of her victims—

“Mrsha! Don’t put blood on the clothing! It doesn’t wash out!”

Visma screeched as Mrsha daubed more blood onto the scene of doll carnage. The Drake lifted her dolls out of the blood splatters and worriedly patted at them. Then she used a Skill.

“[Good as Today]!”

Some blood marring one of her dolls, a Human with red hair, vanished, and the Drake girl turned a smirk on her other friends.

Kenva, Mrsha, Rittane, and a horrified Ekirra were all playing with Visma’s dolls. She’d brought them over while they waited for Lyonette to get back. They were, at this moment, outlining a scenario that Visma thought was the likeliest.

Nice Skill, Visma! Where did you get that?

Mrsha was excited, and Visma puffed out her chest.

“Two days ago. I got it from playing with my dolls! I’m a [Hobbyist Puppeteer]! Now I have four classes just like you, Mrsha! Mom didn’t make me a cake, though.”

She and Mrsha high-fived. Kenva looked on jealously while Ekirra, who had only three classes, scoffed.

“Too many classes is stupid.”

“Oh yeah? Look what’s happening to Duke Homeguy!

Visma narrowed her eyes, and ‘Lyonette’ turned her bloody wrath on a Gnoll puppet. Ekirra whined.

“No! Not Duke Homeguy! He’s a war hero! Don’t! Visma! Vismaaaa—”

Mrsha watched as another doll was beheaded by the frying pan. Ekirra didn’t like playing with dolls. Partly because it was ‘for girls’, but mostly because Visma often enacted ‘real stuff’ like this. Sometimes, it was all politics and tea parties and infidelity. Sometimes, Crelers overran the tea party and murdered everyone.

It was very real. Kenva was a new member of the doll club, and Mrsha kept sneaking peeks at Rittane, seeing if she was into it.

Sammial and Hethon were not. Neither was Nanette, who just said that playing with dolls was something ‘other witches did, and I don’t want to be one of them’.

“D’you want to take over Lyonette, Rittane?”

Visma graciously offered the doll of destruction to Rittane, and the girl fidgeted. Ekirra whined.

“Do you like dolls, Rittane? We can have a snowball fight instead.”

Rittane’s head shot up.

“I—I like dolls. What if Miss Lyonette is in Liscor and—and she runs into a bunch of mean Drakes?”

“Like Selys? Yeah! Then they all try to stop her, but she grabs a knife and—Mrsha, where’s my knife? Put all the Drakes we have in a line!”

They were setting up another moment of horrible carnage, and Kenva covered her eyes eagerly with her claws, peeking through her fingers. But Mrsha saw Rittane edge away.

“I have to use the bathroom. One second!”

Mrsha was reattaching some doll heads when Rittane came dashing back. She had something behind her. A box.

“I—I have my dolls if you want to play with them?”

Aha. No-dolls Rittane was showing her true colors. Visma and Mrsha exchanged a look, and Mrsha slipped Visma a card.

Don’t be a snooty snoot about her dolls if they’re not as cool as yours, Visma.

The Drake scoffed.

“The old dolls are the best. I’m not a bad person. Put your dolls out here, Rittane! Do you have any Drakes? I’ll trade you some of mine later.”

She was being grandly nice, and Mrsha expected to see some potato-sack dolls, hand-carved, or just made of some old cloth with paint on them.

What she was not prepared for was to have Rittane open the box and speak.

Arise, minions!

A clawed hand rose from the edge of the box. Then—a Drake in miniature, seven inches tall, scales bone-white, pulled herself out of the box and walked onto the table where the children were playing.

Ekirra fell out of his seat in shock. Kenva’s mouth dropped open as she saw a sculpted Drake made out of ivory, with functional joints and all, walking on the table. There were tiny green flames in her eye sockets. And she was a Drake!

When you heard ‘bone doll Drake’, you’d assume someone had made a miniature skeleton of a Drake. Not so. This one had tiny carved scales. It looked like an actual Drake, only, the doll was moving! She even had a blood-red dress on!

Visma made a choking sound. Mrsha’s eyes popped as a pair of Humans, one with a huge executioner’s axe, also marched out of the box. A Gnoll, another Drake, a Minotaur—Kenva gasped.

“Rittane! Your dolls move? You’re a [Necromancer]?”

The girl was shyly blushing, stealing glances at Mrsha, clearly afraid of being censured. But Mrsha was agog with delight, and Rittane relaxed slightly.

“My mother carved them for me. They’re my training dolls. I’ll be allowed to make my own undead when I’m fourteen. I made this one.”

The more clumsy Human waddled forwards with a bad leg. It seemed like six dolls was Rittane’s limit. They lined up, and Rittane shyly turned to Visma.

“What if Miss Lyonette fights all of them?”

Instantly, one of Rittane’s dolls drew a sword as another swooned into the arms of a third. The fourth and fifth cowed and prostrated themselves in front of Visma’s doll.

Rittane’s face was so hopeful—Mrsha stared at Visma’s blank face. Then the Drake girl exploded.

“But that’s not fair! Your dolls are so much better than mine!

She shook her inanimate doll at Rittane, alternating between outrage and delight.

“Make one of them Lyonette! Your dolls are amazing, Rittane. Is that ivory? I want ivory dolls! You can paint them! I want to be a [Necromancer]!”

Rittane brightened up in delight at once. Instantly, she called over some other Rheirgest children who’d been furtively watching, and they ran to get their training dolls, even the older ones.

Soon, they had a Lyonette with a squad of [Knights] ready to sack Liscor, filled with hapless victims. Visma and Rittane placed dolls in line for an executioner’s block with a miniature, real headsman’s axe, and at this point—

Mrsha felt compelled to defend her mother. It wasn’t gonna go like that. Right?

“Don’t worry, Mrsha. If she’s too evil, they can always execute her.”

The Gnoll girl’s mouth fell open. She began to wave her fists around, then gave up. At least Rittane was having fun. Mrsha sulked over to a second table where Ekirra was solemnly petting Apista. He looked up as he sipped from a cup of milk. Sammial was also there, and the [Lord] was hearing Ekirra out.

“Dolls are scary.”

Mrsha gave Ekirra a nod and sat with a huge sigh. She wondered if her mother was doing better than projections. She hadn’t heard anything explode—yet.

Things were probably going to be fine, right? Right? Sammial patted Ekirra on the shoulder.

“My mom could explode houses with her aura when she got angry. Mrsha’s mom doesn’t have one, right?”

The Gnoll girl began to sweat. She ordered a double-shot of milk, with whipped cream.

 

——

 

Liscor was her first destination. The [Princess] strolled through the crowds, ignoring the people eying the two golden [Knights].

It said something that in a city like Liscor, two Thronebearers merely stood out rather than being the talk of the town. It was a city of commerce. Industry.

Adventurers. There were a lot fewer since the New Lands had pulled so many, but teams like Bevussa’s Wings of Pallass could still be seen flying overhead today. On the ground, newer teams like the Pithfire Hounds were leading two dogs out of the city on a hunt for Shield Spider nests.

Lower-ranking adventurers in Invrisil, even, had begun to migrate to Liscor or Celum because it was cheaper to live here. And there was gold to be made in the dungeon or just from the mobility the door offered.

You had to have an adventurer. Lyonette looked ahead, stopping at a crosswalk where an experimental, hanging box of metal was flashing red at several [Drivers]. She looked at it, at the future.

And the past.

You had to have a grumpy [Marksman]. A half-Giant. But—she wiped her eyes as the light flashed green on her side and she continued walking.

They were all gone. Or shattered. Or on an adventure. At least, the ones the inn had known well. But it was Erin’s inn.

It deserved adventurers. She needed someone capable. A group—maybe not one she loved. But a few people for Ser Dalimont to turn to in an emergency and rely on.

Lyonette needed a team like—

 

——

 

Todi’s Elites were bored today, like every day for the last few months. Working security for Selys didn’t pay nearly as well as proper Gold-rank work. But it was reliable, and as he’d said to any number of other Gold-ranks, you could sit on your ass and have all the drinking money you wanted for months at a time.

It was a solid gig, but lately, his employer had been—a bit erratic. She’d begun asking him if other Adventurer’s Guilds had openings for Guildmasters, and then she began feuding with the inn. Well.

Loyalty mattered. Todi wondered how much loyalty he had; Selys paid well, and he liked her smart business approach. He was actually doing his job, inspecting the apartments for ne’er-do-wells, trouble, or any other problems this morning.

One of his jobs was to handle renter problems, at least, the kind an adventurer could handle. That meant he or the Watch got to break up fights between neighbors or domestic disputes.

Dead gods, but those were hard. If a family wasn’t holding it together, you got to be the emotional outlet. Todi was steeling himself for complaints when someone called out his name.

“Captain Todi! A word?”

He almost pretended he didn’t hear the voice until he recognized it. The [Princess]?

“Miss Marquin. Er, how d’you do? Any more trouble with the Antinium?”

Actually, Todi hoped for some. If one shut down the area for a few hours, he could just watch and talk with the Watch; Antinium seemed to resolve their own problems. However, Lyonette just pointed at him. She looked oddly intense this morning, and both her fancy [Knights] were behind her.

“No, Captain Todi. You’re the man I was looking for.”

“Me?”

Ah, she had to have a message for Selys. Todi didn’t look forwards to being the intermediary, but again, to his surprise, the [Princess] just studied him.

Captain Todi. She looked him up and down. And he felt—scrutinized. Naked. When he looked at her—Todi averted his eyes.

She hadn’t been at the inn during the Solstice, but he’d heard she’d survived an undead horde. He? He’d been in the city. They’d seen some undead, but they’d mostly been restoring order. He was no Halrac or the damn glorious Halfseekers. Heroes, the lot of them. They should have never kept going.

That was why they were dead. Todi knew he’d get over it in a few months. The memories would fade…but he felt like every time he added names and faces to that list of people he’d no longer see again, he grew a year closer to retirement.

Forget that. He gave Lyonette an unconvincing smile.

“What can Todi’s Elites do for you today, Miss Lyonette?”

“How many people do you have in your team, Captain Todi? I know it rotates.”

“Right now? Uh—eight. Four Gold-rankers, four Silver-ranks. All decent!”

Not a single one over Level 34. That was the hazard of being a team that relied on its equipment, tactics, and a single leader over, say, the Horns who never switched things up. Lyonette half-smiled.

“Are you still using your Wands of Fireball? And Scrolls of Lesser Teleportation?”

Yes, and they cost gold per shot. One of the reasons Todi was never as rich as he liked was that his team used artifacts liberally. It worked, but every time an idiot fireballed a Shield Spider nest by accident, he was down multiple gold coins.

“My team’s always well-equipped, and Miss Selys has kept us in good employment, Miss Lyonette. Don’t worry. Are you concerned about safety around here?”

Maybe she wanted to put some of those [Necromancers] in the apartment complex? Selys might go for it…she had looked a bit guilty about the entire situation at their last meeting.

It was amazing a man could be so wrong so often. But Lyonette just looked at Todi again with those piercing eyes.

“No, I’ve heard Selys’ apartments are some of the safest in the city. All thanks to one team. But it isn’t a team, is it? There’s no permanent members in it but you. Todi’s Elites is just…Captain Todi.”

Dead gods, when she said it like that—was she trying to hurt his feelings? Todi narrowed his eyes at Lyonette.

“I like to think I can keep a team running.”

“You can. And you do. You’re not the bravest man. But you fight well, or so Mrsha says, and you use tactics even the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings respect.”

Okay, it was hurt-Todi’s-feelings day. One of his teammates sniggered, and Todi hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.

“Miss Lyonette, if you’re just here to insult me—”

“No, Captain Todi, I’m doing the opposite.”

He paused suspiciously, and Lyonette nodded as if confirming something she’d been thinking of.

“Captain Todi. You can organize a group. Keep a ledger. You can turn disparate adventurers—whom we all know are lazy, unreliable, and uncoordinated—”

“Hey.”

She ignored the hurt look from one of the Gold-rankers.

“—into a competent team. If anything, you’re too cautious to be a Gold-rank adventurer.”

That made him flinch. He’d heard that before from Named-ranks. But what was he supposed to do, bet his life in a life-or-death gamble? He’d done that when he had to, but a smart man didn’t take those risks to begin with.

“I…appreciate the compliments. What’s all this in aid of?”

The [Princess] took a deep breath.

“I’m simply laying out my reasoning, Captain Todi. I don’t like you, if I’m honest.”

He flushed, and the sniggering grew louder, but the hair on Todi’s neck was rising. He just waited, and Lyonette studied him up and down.

“You’re not that pleasant to be around, you were rude to my friends—but you are good at your job. You’ve defended the inn at times.”

Not successfully. He remembered meeting horrors in the hallways and said nothing, and Lyonette went on.

“—Selys thinks you’re trustworthy. She doesn’t work with idiots. And I might get to like you. It would be easier if I didn’t, and I could just trust you. But either way…how much does Selys pay you each week, Captain Todi?”

“That’s between her and me.”

Why was she talking like this? Lyonette met Todi’s eyes, and he flinched.

“I’ll triple it. Take your team, Todi’s Elites, and guard my inn, Captain Todi. I don’t care if you have to switch out members. I don’t care if it’s just you—I want you, Todi, to be Head of Security for the inn. I will pay three times Selys’ price to you and cover your team’s costs and arm them better. But I need an adventurer. You’re the first.”

She pointed at him, and Todi calmly pulled something out of his belt pouch before he thought about it.

It was his Scroll of [Lesser Teleport]. His emergency lifeline. It was unconscious; when you saw a wagon rolling towards you loaded with explosive alchemy vials, you dodged.

“You want to hire me?”

He said it to buy time, and Lyonette’s eyes gleamed. Like that [Innkeeper], that madwoman.

“Yes, Captain Todi. You’re a competent man. You’d make a decent Thronebearer.”

Both of the Thronebearers winced, which hurt, but Todi lifted his hands with a smile.

“I’m sorry, Miss Lyonette. But I’m under contract.”

“I’ll buy out the severance clause.”

“—You don’t even know how much that—”

“Selys didn’t put more than two thousand gold on it, I’ll wager. I will buy it out, Todi. And I will give you the same amount as a signing bonus.”

The severance clause was actually only eight hundred gold pieces, but—Todi’s mouth worked. How much gold was she working with? Even so.

“I’d have to think it over.”

“No, you don’t. You know The Wandering Inn, Captain Todi. You know me.”

“Yeah. That’s where good adventurers go to die.”

The words slipped out of Todi’s mouth. Angrily. He couldn’t help it. Lyonette flinched, but she kept her eyes on him. Blue gaze unblinking.

“Yes, they do. Or they level up. The Horns of Hammerad were the first adventurer guests that Erin ever had. They went into the Crypts of Liscor, and almost all of them died. Then they formed again and became adventurers who were first into the Crossroads of Izril. Halrac was a good adventurer when he came here. He was a [Knight] when he died. You know it, Todi.”

Dead gods, but he did. Todi was trying not to visibly sweat or shake. His heart was pounding too fast.

You can’t do it. Selys will kill you. You’ll get murdered in a moment fighting Belavierr. Two Belavierrs. 

“I stood over Halrac Everam’s coffin last month, Miss Lyonette. Why—why do you think I’d take a job that killed him? He was tough as shit. A Gold-rank adventurer among the lot. Why me?

She pointed at him, and he twitched as if she held a Wand of Lightning Bolts.

“Because you’re one of the last adventurers I know. Because you have been at the inn and defended it and didn’t run.”

“I’ll run if an army comes knocking! Let alone Facestealer! I’ll shit my britches and leave them on your inn floor!”

He retorted. He knew he sounded like a coward—he didn’t care. He wanted her to turn that spotlight gaze off him. The [Princess] just smiled.

“That’s fine.”

“It is?”

“If you take my daughters with you, it is, Captain Todi. And I think if they do arrive, those horrors, you will run like a sensible man. But I don’t think you’d go without my daughters. That’s the difference between a Gold-rank adventurer and a coward. I am asking you to do a hard job. An insane job. Come with me. Take my hand. Or you can guard a bunch of apartments and retire as you are.”

She held out a hand, and he tried to laugh it away.

“Are you promising level ups as part of my contract now? You can’t guarantee that.”

“My [Head Server] is a higher level than you are, Todi. I promise you an adventure, even if you never stray a mile from my inn.”

Oh, dead gods. Now he saw it. He should have known from the start. Those eyes. That smile. If she put a flaming hat on her head or just turned that hair to fire…

She had something like Erin Solstice’s smile on her face. But the [Innkeeper] was different. Her, Todi would have run screaming from her if she tried to recruit him. Because she was like a great wave sweeping over land. The glow of a flag at dawn—the kind of wild, all-or-nothing gaze that made you want to get up and follow her because it mattered.

Todi could ignore that gaze. Could claim, rightfully, that he had kinship to rats and he was no hero.

He knew what he looked like. To understand who Captain Todi was, in appearance to personality, you had to understand where he stood.

Captain Todi stood under the shadows of the new apartment complexes going up, tall buildings with sculpted balconies. Elegance; more than mass-produced concrete. Splashes of color from newly planted green walkways, a ramp leading into a courtyard with a well for the entire apartment complex to draw from.

It was no Invrisil, but it was good enough. That was Todi. He was a Gold-rank adventurer. He wore visibly enchanted leather armor with a sheen to it, similar to soap on water, and he could afford a cologne, spent the time to comb his hair, and put some alchemical goop on his skin to make it look better and deal with the acne that had plagued a younger man.

—But he was no Ylawes Byres, who looked like he had walked out of a storybook, that perfect [Knight]. Todi’s nose wasn’t shapely. It was rounded, like his belly, which an adventurer was allowed to have. No one could beat Todi in the 100-foot run for their life.

He was a stockier man with a few scars and muscle enough to take out anyone in a bar fight, but he wasn’t a freak of muscle like Calruz or covered in old injuries like Shriekblade. He didn’t have Halrac’s glower and stare, which did—had done—a lot for the rest of the man.

Dead gods, he predated Halrac by a good five years. The man had been a soldier when Todi was a Bronze-rank. But they’d gotten to Gold-rank at the same time. They were old, in the business. But he’d never had Halrac’s intensity, Yvlon’s determination, Saliss’ insanity…

He had qualities of these things. But the end result was that you could mistake Todi not for a Gold-rank adventurer, but an above-average [Mercenary] or [Guard Captain] running escort duties for merchant caravans.

Todi hated it.

He embraced it. He liked to hire at least one half-Elf or someone attractive for his team and make them introduce Todi’s Elites. When he was around someone he wanted to impress, he stood with perfect posture and used as much dignified language and etiquette as he studied—and he did study it!

When he was around other adventurers, he’d catch himself slumping. Leaning on people’s shoulders. Being the one who sought out younger, newer adventurers, giving out advice and trying to convince them to join his team. Like a toad. Todi the Toad, he knew they called him. He wasn’t jealous of newbies like Jewel the adventurer, who had the look, the fast advancement, the talent. Those were rookies.

He was jealous of the Horns of Hammerad or Jewel the [Knight]. The ones who kept going, passing him like brilliant shooting stars, leaving him only chasing after sparks in the gloom.

Of course, there was more to Todi than just his rank. When his back was up, like now, as he faced Lyonette, he looked like a puffed-up buffoon. Spluttering. Arguing in a loud, brash voice.

A toad with poison fangs. He had enchanted mithril chainmail hidden under cheaper, enchanted leather armor. It was light as a feather; he forgot he was wearing it sometimes.

Todi had more than a Wand of Fireballs. His shortsword had no ridge nor fuller to the blade; it was a long, oblong blade that had made more than one Ogre smirk. It was enchanted with Evercut.

The armor and blade he had bought over his entire lifetime of adventuring; real, truly valuable items. They were weapons he hid, never even used in most battles, because when you saw his tricks, those were all he had. And now?

Now, the toad, the rat, was facing down a real royal from Terandria. And he felt like she could see all those moments of glory he’d ever had.

Besting three Ogres in a battle by virtue of his sword. Letting them bleed out by prolonging the fight. Holding his ground against a nest of Crelers as a Silver-rank. Babies. But the Horns weren’t the only ones who’d ever done it.

I can’t do it twice. He’d used up all his luck on those moments, and he was terrified he was about to run a deficit. The man gave Lyonette a bleak look, searching for her imperfections. Everyone had them. That’s why he had liked Elia Arcsinger. And this woman had flaws, tons of them. Her inn was all flaw to work for.

But the [Princess] was different. Her deep, blue gaze was like someone staring into the future. At what she had seen. At what you could be. As if she had gone through that process and knew it could be done.

It was one thing to blow a horn of the world’s ending and call a rat to battle. The rat would hide under a rock. It was another to look at a rat and tell him he could be a champion.

Todi was laughing, he realized. Laughing and shaking his head.

“I’m not your man, Miss Lyonette. I will never be as good an adventurer as Halrac. I can’t beat Seborn with blades, and I’m not half as sharp as Ceria.”

“No. Maybe not. But you can be one of my people. Come now, Captain Todi. You have to choose your employers well. Selys merely has a fortune behind her. I have fortunes upon fortunes without end.”

Grinning, looking at his team and waiting for them to seem—

Their eyes were on him. Not a single one was—no, they appeared apprehensive or surprised, but they didn’t seem ready to laugh at the deal. Some of them seemed jealous.

What am I supposed to be? Some newbie like Jewel who gets beaten down by Erin in a wheelchair? Then—polished into a [Knight]?

It took all the effort in his body to shake his head. Her aura. She was definitely using it on him.

“My answer’s the same no matter what, Lyonette.”

He made a show of whirling around. Back straight—no, slouched. Scuffing away like the fool he was. Even if it ruined his reputation.

“Captain Todi. Fifteen thousand gold pieces upon signing to you.”

The [Princess] called at his back, and Todi stopped, foot raised. He squeezed his eyes shut.

“That’s not—”

“Thirty thousand. And I’ll buy you a crossbow from the House of El.”

He stared at the sky. Snow was falling down from it. Soon, they’d bury a man named Todi. When he turned, he tried to sneer. But he was afraid.

“If that’s how you negotiate, it seems like I could jack my price up even higher. Not exactly smart, Miss Lyonette.”

Her laughter was like a funeral song in his ears. Because she flashed him a grin with all her teeth now.

“Well then, you’d better raise your prices before we get ink to paper. I dread the haggling. Come on, Captain Todi.”

She gestured, and then he was walking towards her as his brain screamed at him that he’d be dead in the week. The month! But what was he supposed to say?

No to that opportunity?

No to the inn that Halrac and Moore and Ulinde thought was worth dying over?

No to that smile?

No to at least thirty thousand gold pieces on signup?

Curse you, Todi, you fool. You worthless rat. She had you dead to rights the moment you met her. She knew she could get you with money.

She just wanted to see if you were worth it. The Gold-rank adventurer beckoned, and his team glanced at each other and fell in. After a moment, Todi cleared his throat.

“Just so you know. I’d need a full staff, not those Goblins and Antinium you had with you. At least another group who can fight. And your corridor’s shit if all the enemies get past it.”

“We have Architect Hexel at the inn right now and a number of very interesting minions from Rheirgest. I’m sure he can redesign the defenses.”

“I’m no good with spies—”

“I assure you, we will be getting our best spycatcher back momentarily.”

“—Then if the staff or your kids hate me—”

“Mrsha seems rather taken. I, myself, could use a few lessons in dirty fighting.”

She rubbed at her forehead, and Todi gave up.

“Do I have a budget at least?”

She and the Thronebearers started laughing then, and because this was crazy—and so was he—he joined in. He called at Lyonette as he waved for someone to tell Selys the news.

“I don’t deserve this, you know. I’m not worthy even of those expectations.”

“Captain Todi?”

She swung on her heel and laughed at him, cloak flashing around her in the snow.

“No one is. Including me. We become worthy, if we’re lucky.”

 

——

 

Todi was the first. He was not the last. Lyonette had made inquiries and sought out another group she thought could fulfill multiple purposes.

She’d been told that their captain alternated between Invrisil and Liscor, but for the purposes of rent, she’d elected to live in Liscor.

She was having a late breakfast at The Drunken Gnoll, and Timbor Parithad himself pointed out Lyonette’s target.

“I don’t want any trouble today, Miss Lyonette. Not that I’m suggesting you’re about to start any—”

The [Innkeeper] got a puzzled look from her.

“Master Timbor, why would I start trouble?”

Timbor opened his mouth, then waved one hand all over his face. Lyonette didn’t get what that meant, so she just shook her head. Her quarry seemed just as shocked to see Lyonette, who had a welcome expression for a familiar face.

Even if they hadn’t been the most common guests—

“Lyonette! Captain Todi? What can I do for you? Hey, is this about Ceria? We don’t have her gold yet, but we’re looking for buyers!”

Captain Earlia of Gemhammer, a bluff woman with a huge warhammer leaning against the table, got up, and Lyonette blinked.

“It’s a delight to see you again, Captain Earlia! You’re just the woman I wanted to meet. No, Ceria doesn’t have anything to do with…what?”

“Oh, the sale of her dungeon stuff. The Runes of Insanity. From Albez. It took longer than we thought—always does. But we’ve got the whole damn lot on the market. A bunch of stuff from Liscor’s dungeon too.”

The runes from—the trap in the Dungeon of Albez! Now that Lyonette recalled, hadn’t Ceria indeed commissioned Gemhammer to break down the trap? Her eyes lit up, and an idea shot into her mind.

“Have you had much luck selling them?”

Earlia heaved a huge sigh, but pulled a chair out. She blinked as Ser Dalimont pulled Lyonette’s new, favorite, upholstered chair out of his Bag of Holding, and she sat in that instead.

“Not yet. Buyers’re scarce. All that New Lands hoopla means people are lean with their gold, even nobles and whatnot. No one likes dungeon stuff; they say the traps can be unpredictable, nevermind that my team’s deconstructed everything! If you see Ceria, let her know it’s fine—we’ll get a bite soon. There are already a few offers on individual runes, but I want to see what the going price is. Say, uh—did she really marry a [King]?”

“No.”

“Right. This entire city’s crazy. We’ve been camped out by Albez for ages. We come back and Celum’s got Golems.

Earlia laughed, but with delight rather than dismay. And as Lyonette recalled, her team had survived Facestealer, hadn’t they?

“Earlia, your team are mostly [Miners], right?”

Former [Miners]. We survived two bad mining incidents, both with monsters, and got sick of working in bad conditions with no safety and said that if we’re going to watch out for cave-ins or bash in a Creler’s head, we might as well get paid properly for it. I’m…sorry we missed the Solstice.”

Her face fell, and Lyonette assured Earlia that it might have been better to miss it. She caught Earlia up on a few of the highlights, confirming what the Silver-rank Captain had heard about via the news, and then spoke.

“You know, Hexel is building the new inn right now.”

“Really? What’s he using to build it? Must be some fancy stone. Corundum ore? That stuff can make a steel pickaxe dull in seconds. Could we check it out?”

Earlia was powerfully interested, and Lyonette shrugged casually.

“Potentially Chemath Marble.”

Earlia choked on a cup of water.

“Chemath Marble? Get out. No one’s mining—unless they are? Those beetles are the most horrific things in existence! I might go up against a Creler nest instead!”

Lyonette reached out and patted Earlia’s hand.

“It’s all moving very fast. But I have a proposition for you, Captain Earlia. What is the quote for your, uh, Runes of Insanity? And all the traps from the dungeon?”

“Oh, that’s a huge fortune, Lyonette. Lemme find my balance sheets. Those Merchant Guild bastards keep trying to charge us fees for listing them on auction even though we’re storing them. Timgal, hey, Timgal. Go run upstairs and grab another copy of our inventory for Miss Lyonette!”

Captain Earlia began to dig around in a pack of her things next to her, and Lyonette took that moment to give Earlia a more full appraisal.

She’d forgotten what Earlia and her team looked like. They all wore armor, yes, plain steel that was well-made and tended to, augmented by padded cloth, because they were Silver-rankers. But they knew metal.

They were former [Miners]. So each one of them had forearms like iron. They weren’t as stocky and stout as you might expect; Earlia’s teammate walking upstairs was long and lanky, but he had a pickaxe he still used in a fight.

No, that wasn’t what made Gemhammer’s team somewhat unique. In her plainclothes, Earlia looked like, well, a realer adventurer than when she was in gear.

In armor, she might have been mistaken for a [Warrior]. Or, like Todi, for another of the many [Guard] or [Mercenary] classes holding that massive, scratched warhammer, face obscured by a huge helmet with a long noseguard. A [Soldier], even.

Out of armor, she looked younger. She had a huge, leather pack, rounded, which she’d been about to put on her back after breakfast. A massive buckle secured the main flap, but there were at least eight smaller sections on the backpack, each one secured, and a scroll case attached.

Earlia had flaxen hair, cropped to her neck, and a blue ornament like a feather secured amidst the locks. She would have been…5’11, and her hands were rough and calloused from work, but she looked less like a gristled, scarred veteran of the mines, rather than a work-experienced scholar.

The Silver-rank captain was festooned with gear. Lantern, magnifying glass, firestarter’s kit—she pulled them all out, flustered, then realized she was in the wrong pocket of her bags. She sorted everything back up, and Lyonette realized—Earlia was embarrassed because she didn’t have a Bag of Holding.

And yet, and yet. She had an entire rucksack of her gear and looked as though she could set off on an expedition in a heartbeat if you asked her to.

“I’m surprised you didn’t go to the New Lands, Captain Earlia.”

“Ah, well, we thought about it, but we had steady work with the traps. Plus, I don’t think we were nearly prepared enough! That sort of thing takes months to gear up for, you know? I can’t believe how many people rushed off. I’d have been getting soil samples and having a camping tent hand-sewn for me to deal with the local weather. Soak the fabric in an oil for the bugs and to make monsters think I wasn’t there, you know?”

Lyonette shot Todi a glance, and he gave Earlia a grudging nod; he was clearly trying to pretend he had come up with the same idea.

Miners. She would have experience with bushwacking and expedition survival. More than even most Gold-rank teams! Earlia finally found what she was looking for and snatched it out of a sheaf of organized documents with a relieved air.

Lyonette took the piece of paper, glanced at a few sums, and smiled. She made a show of scanning down it, and she did read it. But her attention was on the woman herself. She barely glanced at the bottom line before turning to Earlia. Her mind was made up.

“I’ll take it. Can you begin delivery by midmorning, or are the runes in need of special transport? Next, Captain Earlia…would your team be interested in a contract both guarding The Wandering Inn and potentially working on construction?”

“Hmm?”

Earlia wiggled a finger around in one ear. She gave Lyonette an uncomprehending stare, then grinned.

“Wait, you want to buy some of the traps? Really? How much?”

“I want all the traps. All the runes. I can pay up front as soon as we get to my inn. But I want your team. Captain Todi?”

Oh, come on. Them? They’re—”

Captain Todi stood there, then eyed Earlia and folded his arms.

“Well, they’re strong. [Miners] can get [Enhanced Strength]. That’s…got potential.”

“Wait, wait. Hire our team? As guards?”

“Guards, minders for Mrsha and Nanette, anything else the inn needs. Will you at least think it over?”

Earlia kept blinking as she sat there, open-mouthed. She reached for a burger, then dropped it.

“This is going too fast. You want all the—it’ll cost you over forty th—

She bit her tongue, and Timbor’s head swiveled from where he was innocently polishing a table. Dalimont casually blocked him as Lyonette gave the number a moment’s pause.

“I will take them. At whatever the market price is. I hope your team spends some of that on gear. If not, we can discuss that in our contract.”

“Which we have to sign with Captain Todi, Your Highness. Let’s not make promises before we do.”

Ushar murmured tactfully in Lyonette’s mind, and she stood up.

Absolutely. We should hand the gold over for Captain Earlia’s traps before making other promises. That’s only good business practice. Captain Earlia, could I tempt you to at least walk with me to the inn? I promise free cake and drinks. You needn’t make any other arrangements, and I think Mrsha would be delighted to see you again. Plus, you haven’t even seen the theatre!”

“I—uh—let me just grab my samples, and—I can do that!”

Clearly worried she was dreaming, Earlia leapt to her feet, then gave Lyonette a wild grin. She dashed upstairs and came clattering down as Lyonette stood there.

Serene. Calm.

Her chair. Her posterior had never been in better condition.

Timbor was giving Lyonette the side-eye, but Earlia was laughing as she came back. Yes, she’d do. She strode over as Lyonette got up and Ushar picked up the chair. Todi muttered.

“This is crazy.”

“No, Captain Todi, this is called brunch at The Wandering Inn. Any objections if we head straight back, Captain Earlia? I have a meeting in Invrisil I wish to get to. Several.”

“I can wait as long as you want so long as that offer’s on the table! I missed the entire inn thing! Is the beach still there?”

They were striding out into the street as Lyonette debated going for the final team on her list. But the Pithfire Hounds only knew the Horns, so the connection wasn’t as strong.

Plus, they had dogs, and she had a feeling Reagen and Mrsha might not get along. Or that Mrsha would boss them around.

Lyonette was halfway towards the door when someone screamed her name.

Lyonette!

Selys. The Drake was striding towards her, scales flushed crimson. Lyonette whirled to face her as the [Heiress] pointed a claw at Todi. He hid behind Ushar.

“You can’t do this! Do you want a war? If you think—”

It was a [Flawless Attempt]. And a right hook. Selys went over so fast that Earlia was half-turning with a smile of recognition on her face. Lyonette shook out her hand.

“That’s for Rheirgest. Come on, let’s not waste time.”

She strode for the inn as Earlia pointed at Selys, then Lyonette. One of the [Princess]’ Thronebearers turned; Ser Dalimont put a hand out, then changed his mind. He blocked Dame Ushar instead.

“A [Princess] must fight their own battles, Ushar.”

Huh? What did—

Selys tackled Lyonette with a howl of fury, and the [Princess] realized she might have underestimated Tekshia and Zel’s relative. Lyonette threw Selys off her and raised a fist.

“I don’t have time f—”

She had never known Selys could execute a jump kick.

 

——

 

Mrsha was almost convinced nothing crazy would happen to Liscor after an hour or so of waiting. She was slurping from a bowl of noodles when the door opened.

“Miss Lyonette! See, I told you it would b—”

Nanette froze, and Mrsha saw Lyonette du Marquin come in. Or rather, be helped in.

The [Princess] had a gigantic black eye, scratches from giant claws on her arms, and her clothes were covered in snow. Captain Earlia and Captain Todi were escorting her in, Earlia looking stunned, Todi slightly respectful.

What happened?

Nanette asked in disbelief. Everyone rushed over, and Lyonette panted.

“I took her out. And I’ve got…traps. For the hallway. Someone get Hexel!”

Peggy looked delighted as she rushed over with a healing potion, and Lyonette applied one drop to her eye.

“Don’t waste the rest. In fact, go and buy any healing potion under a hundred gold pieces you can, Ishkr. Peggy, Earlia and Todi are guests for the day. Anything they want? They have. Mrsha, can you show Captain Earlia our new theatre? We’ll talk. Later.”

“Miss Lyonette? Everything alright?”

The villagers from Rheirgest were all staring, but Lyonette just gave them a wide smile that Mrsha vaguely recognized.

“Everything is perfect, Mister Dorkel. But if Headman Elosaith has time this evening, I have a separate arrangement I’d like to go over.”

“You’re hiring him?

Todi blurted out, and Elosaith blinked from where he was enjoying hot noodles and sweating profusely. The [Princess] just stood up.

“This evening, if you please. I have…several more meetings to attend to. Ushar, the [Mayor] first, I think, then line the others up in order of importance and availability. Put the Quarass second if you can.”

Todi’s mouth opened wider.

“Huh?”

The [Princess] was already going for the door. But she paused.

“I almost forgot. Apista! To me!”

The bee buzzed over, and Lyonette turned and blew a kiss at her daughter. Her daughter was sitting there, open-mouthed, and Lyonette beamed.

“I’ll be back by dinner at the latest, Mrsha! Hopefully lunch, depending on if any of my appointments drag on and whom I have to murder. Make sure you eat something healthy! Dinner will be a feast.”

Then she was striding out the door, and Nerul called out after her.

“Miss Marquin? You wouldn’t need backup, would you? A cheering squad? An audience? No? Damn.”

He shook his head as the Thronebearers followed Lyonette. Ushar was adjusting her belt and checking her mace and shield as Dalimont put a hand on his sword hilt. Nerul sighed longingly.

“Damn. On a Marquin warpath and she still has proper diction. Whom. If I were a few decades younger, I’d be courting her.”

He fanned himself as he sat there, and Mrsha stared at Earlia, then Todi. Wait. Wait. Him? She stared at Todi and realized he could teach her how to kick someone in the underthings so hard they popped out their mouth!

It might be a glorious day.

And it was only getting started.

 

——

 

“Damn. I forgot about the school. And I still need to figure out our guests.

Lyonette paused outside of the office as an affronted [Secretary] rose to her feet. The woman stared at the [Princess]’ scratches and torn clothing.

“Mayor Curle is not expecting you for another twenty-five—”

“I’m sure he won’t mind. Dalimont?”

The Thronebearer swung the door open. Mayor Curle was, in fact, taking a nap when the Thronebearer drew breath and bellowed.

Presenting Her Highness, the 6th Princess of the Eternal Throne, Lyonette du Marquin of House Marquin of the Hundred Families!

The man screamed, fell out of his chair, and was rising from the ground as Lyonette glided into the room.

“Wh-what is the meaning of this?”

Mayor Curle recognized the red-haired young woman from yesterday, of course, but something was different about her.

In fact, everything was different about her. She sucked the oxygen out of the room, and not in a good way. Her aura rammed straight into him like someone ramming a chair into his kneecaps, and Lyonette spoke brightly.

She had on her winter cloak, slightly torn clothing, and one cheek was bright red as if someone had slapped her across the face with a hand—or tail. And yet she had a jaunty hat on her head, and she beamed at him.

“I believe we have a meeting, Mayor Curle, regarding the Rheirgest villagers?”

“The what? The—nothing’s changed!”

“I would like to clarify Invrisil’s position, Mayor. And I am on the books. Thank you for having me.”

Now, Curle might not have been a [Mayor] of the highest level, but he did know this song and dance from serving Magnolia Reinhart for so long. He caught himself and took a breath.

She was trying to intimidate him, was she? She’d pay for that. He decided trying to force her out and make her come back later wasn’t a good idea. But there was more than one way to make her suffer.

“Of—of course. Secretary? Bring a chair for our guests.”

He meant the Stool of Torment, his private name for the specialty-commissioned, bottom-destroying stool. The [Secretary] brought it out and placed it between the two Thronebearers, who were standing like golden statues.

“Sit, Your Highness. Sit.”

The [Mayor] swung himself back into his chair, smiling nastily. He saw Lyonette eye the stool and knew even if her face was completely smooth, it would hurt. Magnolia Reinhart herself had taught him this trick.

“Ushar.”

She turned her head and spoke a name. Mayor Curle stared as the female [Knight] turned, bowed—then drew her mace.

“Wh—wh—

The mayor saw the Thronebearer lift her weapon overhead. She wasn’t going to—this was murder! Of an official! He raised his hands as the male [Knight] drew his sword.

The mace fell like a hammer, bashing in the head of its target. Ushar brought her mace down again and again, then kicked over her helpless victim. Ser Dalimont hacked down with his sword as well, smashing his shield into the defenseless, prone—

Chair?

Curle stared over the edge of his table. The Thronebearers were beating down the chair!

It was horrific furniture carnage. Once they’d bashed it into the floor, they began kicking it! Then one of them ripped a leg off—

They kept beating a hole into his carpet for a good minute as the [Secretary] opened the door, stared at the [Knights], and closed the door fast. Curle’s [Guards] did the same and stared at him, but he didn’t know what to say.

“My chair.”

One of the Thronebearers produced a broom, and Dame Ushar swept the splinters to the side. Ser Dalimont produced Lyonette’s chair, and the [Princess] sat down.

“Thank you, Dalimont.”

She looked down at Curle, and he began to shout at her. The Stool of Torment was a work of art! Custom-made! How dare sh—

Lyonette took off her hat. The largest bee that Curle had ever seen in his life fanned its wings. Then buzzed at his face.

Dead gods! What is that thing?

“What, Apista? She’s just my pet. Don’t mind her, Mayor. Now, I believe we were discussing the ban on Rheirgest’s people?”

A bee larger than his hand was buzzing around overhead, and she had a huge stinger! Curle ducked every time she passed overhead, and he nearly screamed when she settled on the back of his chair. He still managed to point a trembling finger at the [Princess].

“You—you can’t threaten me to change my mind! I am the [Mayor] of Invrisil! I have the backing of House Reinhart!”

Ushar swept the splintered remains out the door as Ser Dalimont leaned over to whisper loudly.

“That is an elected position, Your Highness.”

“Is that a threat?

Curle hissed at her, and the [Princess] blinked.

“What? Oh, no, no. Dalimont was just informing me about the peculiarities of your class, Mayor. So fascinating to someone from a monarchy. So am I right in hearing that you refuse to let Rheirgest’s villagers through? I assure you, they won’t cause any harm, and we have a permit system for their undead we’re trialing in Liscor—”

Get out of my office! I’ll have you arrested! Billed for my chair!

Curle was howling, searching for something to throw at the gigantic bee or [Princess]. Lyonette just sighed.

“If you insist. Thank you for clarifying, though, Mayor Curle.”

She stood, making a show of dusting the snow clinging to her cloak onto his floor. He stared at her and sensed the trap.

“Wait, what?”

“A man must do what a man must do, isn’t that right, Ser Dalimont? We have to accept Mayor Curle’s words. Good day.”

The [Princess] strode towards the door. She paused at it dramatically as Curle felt his stomach do a flop. And on cue, she glanced at Dalimont.

“I say, it’s rather stuffy in here. Dalimont, could you give us a breath of fresh air? Mayor Curle looks rather red.”

He was about to burst a vein—but Dalimont instantly strode over and opened a window, letting in a freezing breath of fresh air. Apista buzzed out the window, and Curle heard the sounds of the city outside. People calling out, milling about, the clip-clop of horses, rolling wagons—

The sound of Dame Ushar’s voice.

Hear ye, hear ye! By order of Mayor Curle, all access to The Wandering Inn and the [Portal Door] of Liscor has now been suspended! There will be no travel to and from Invrisil save for exclusive guests of The Wandering Inn!”

“What? Wh—

Curle choked. He ran to the window and saw a [Knight] marching down the street.

“I didn’t say that! Lies! False!”

He shouted, but his voice was not nearly so operatic, and calls of dismay rose from below. He whirled to Lyonette.

“I gave no such order! We have a contract! I’ll penalize you for breaking it!”

She raised her brows, perplexed.

“But you banned the villagers of Rheirgest from Invrisil, [Mayor]. The villagers are my guests, and I have employed them as my workers pro tem. In fact, I intend to hire at least one as my personal security and spellcaster. Under my deal with Magnolia Reinhart, it very clearly states my guests and staff have access to your city. Your order has, regretfully, closed the contract. I shall issue you the penalty clauses later today. Good day.”

She was striding out the hallway as he chased after her.

“No, nono—you can’t do that! The nobility love travelling—”

The damn Thronebearer was still shouting.

Please direct all inquiries to the [Mayor]’s office!

Lyonette turned at the door, and there was already a crowd. She raised her voice.

“I’m truly sorry, Mayor, that you feel there’s no other way but to ban us. We’ll have the door deactivated as soon as I’ve finished my business in Invrisil. Have a splendid day.”

She blew him a kiss. Then Dalimont slammed the door on Curle’s foot.

 

——

 

The Merchant’s Guild of Invrisil was a short stop that really needn’t have taken any time. But Lyonette, while waiting for the Quarass to set up a speaking stone, decided she had time to pop in.

They matched her with the same [Merchant] Fahstrader again. Delightful! Only this time, he had a senior [Merchant] with him, who looked quite upset.

Especially when he saw her enter, flanked by her Thronebearers, and the senior [Merchant] shot to his feet.

“Your Highness! Welcome to the Merchant’s Guild!”

“Your High—”

Fahstrader rose and stared at her. Lyonette smiled.

“I don’t have long, Merchants—”

“Senior Merchant Tonget and Junior Merchant Fahstrader. Your Highness, I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience. We have had—uh—numerous complaints from fellow Merchants. Merchant Vells, Merchant Etola, the—the Merchant’s Guild of Khelt—”

Tonget was wiping at his brow. Lyonette just raised hers.

“I trust we can sort this issue out quickly?”

Of course, Your Highness. Please, have a seat. Can I offer you any—

They offered her a seat. Lyonette smiled briefly. She watched the two men react as Dalimont unsheathed his sword.

She shouldn’t enjoy this as much as she did. But if she was going to throw caution to the wind—

Well, she might as well enjoy it.

 

——

 

The Merchant’s Guild was only too happy to add Lyonette to a list of their exclusive clientele. Mandatory minimum gold investments? She had the full amount dumped on the table as they were assuring her they could waive it.

Lyonette was out of the guild in sixteen minutes; Ushar was timing her. She didn’t have time to waste on them.

The Quarass, the Empire of Sands, and the other nations interested in talking to her—

Yes.

Lyonette was not blind to her problems. For every person who had the foresight to seek her out, there were dozens who were still catching on. The smart ones were the Quarass and Emperor of Sands. She had enough gold to draw real danger down on her head.

Yelroan had done his best and staved off the immediate threat, but the reality of the gold itself couldn’t be easily wiped away like numbers.

She had…an idea. And the idea was what led her to sit and smile at a young girl with too-ancient eyes.

“Your Majesty of Ger.”

“Princess Lyonette du Marquin. We greet you. Or should I say, ‘I’? For it is my hope Germina and The Wandering Inn may cultivate…closer ties.”

“May I ask in what respect that occurs? You have certainly gained my attention, Quarass. May I ask clarity on that rather dramatic message you had recited to me?”

The child flicked her fingers out, amused.

“The knowledge of Royal Skills that exist, independent to their holders, is known to the older members of the Hundred Families. Many have forgotten. Many would prefer such knowledge lost. I am the multitude of lives, which includes royalty from Terandria. I offer my services as mentor, guide, and even teacher if you need it.”

Ushar shifted, looking uncomfortable. She didn’t like the Quarass. As Lyonette understood it, the being in front of her was one of the few people in the world who could lock horns with Ielane—and best her.

That made her dangerous. But Lyonette also knew the Quarass wanted something of her. The same thing they all did.

“Might I assume that this generous association with Germina would come with a small fee?”

“The Quarass of Germina cannot speak to all beings at once. A traditional remuneration is customary. In the past, visitors came to Germina, but we live in modern times.”

Lyonette smiled evenly.

“I see. May I then ask, with greatest humility, what amount would be appropriate?”

The Quarass’ lips curved upwards. She spoke a number. Ser Dalimont twitched, and the Quarass spoke smoothly.

“That would, of course, include information on your enemies and wisdom so…specific as to constitute a threat to your foes.”

“I have no foes, Quarass.”

“Really?”

Those painted eyebrows bounced upwards.

“Then I assume Selys Shivertail does not count? Nor Erribathe’s agents, two of whom used your [Portal Door] six times yesterday? Erin Solstice lacks for enemies who might seek you out as well?”

“Those are minor concerns, one supposes.”

The Quarass sighed and put a hand to her cheek.

“The Duke Rhisveri and Tolveilouka must be boon friends, then, and I am simply misinformed.”

She was good. Lyonette stirred and almost licked her lips.

“—I would assume the Quarass of Germina has an idea of how to, ah—mitigate the dangers of such beings?”

“This Quarass might. There are means, and I am surprised your mother, Her Majesty of Calanfer, did not communicate any. But then, perhaps it simply does not occur to her. Or perhaps this is a test?”

The Quarass closed one eye, lazily smiling at Lyonette, and the [Princess] made a show of feeling for her belt pouch.

“The friendship of Germina is not something one can buy. But perhaps goodwill—and the Quarass’ wisdom is appealing. I, in fact, would love to hear more, Quarass. Indeed…would you be open to a simple contract?”

She pulled something out of her bag of holding, just for show; the Quarass’ eyes flickered, and she gestured, and a [Message] scroll was brought over. She flicked her eyes down the page and blinked. Once.

“Intriguing. Your [Mathematician], Yelroan, conceived of this? He instituted similar ideas within the subtribes of Plain’s Eye. This is rather more ambitious. I accept. I shall send a Courier at once.”

Well, the girl moved as fast as a striking snake when she wanted to. She must have predicted Lyonette was going to take her offer; not hard. But the [Princess] wagered she’d surprised the Quarass with the second offer she’d made.

She hoped this next bit would actually catch the Quarass off-guard.

“Actually, Quarass, I would prefer to pay you now. If possible. I would hate for a Shield Kingdom of Germina to take my payment on trust, and Couriers can lose their burdens.”

Plus, Germina is known for assassinating anything it doesn’t like. The Quarass raised her brows.

“Magical teleportation, even by the Archmage of Izril or Wistram Academy, can also be subject to interception. However, if you are willing to incur their fees, I shall of course accept.”

“Teleportation!”

Lyonette laughed, and she was rewarded with the barest narrowing of the eyes. The Quarass doesn’t know! She didn’t think of it!

Lyonette grew a tad bit hysterical, then calmed herself. She smiled at the orb. She was no genius of classes, no ancient immortal, and certainly no Yelroan.

But she was probably the world’s second-greatest authority on something that did matter:

<Quests>.

She’d had an idea when Yelroan had vanished the gold in a conceptual sense. Lyonette had seen Erin assigning quests. Her eyes flashed.

“Quarass, I am about to post a <Rare Quest>. Would you be interested in accepting…”

 

<Rare Quest – Mentor the 6th Princess of Calanfer and Hold Onto My Gold!>

Limits: The Quarass of Germina.

Please agree to mentor Lyonette du Marquin with the wisdom of the Quarass, without ulterior motives to harm, endanger, or suborn her or anyone else connected to her! Goodwill is essential, and the Shield Kingdom of Germina is so trustworthy Lyonette du Marquin is willing to send even more gold!

Gold is, after all, so difficult for her to use. But if Germina agrees to borrow the gold and repay it whenever asked for, The Wandering Inn will accept a magical contract for the debt! Without interest!

Conditions: Both parties must agree to a magically-enforced contract witnessed by the Merchant’s Guild for both the mentorship of Lyonette du Marquin and the conditional lending of gold to Germina.

Quest Reward: 417,000 gold pieces to the Quarass of Germina for mentorship, 1,000,000 gold pieces for the purpose of the loan.

 

——

 

In the [Garden of Sanctuary]—Asgra was sweeping gold coins covered in blood into a pile, sighing. Silk sheets.

Silk. Was it even allowed, the Cave Goblin wondered. For her? Was it too much? Was someone going to come and beat her up for being too happy? She wanted silk sheets and fancy clothes and—

She put her claws to her cheeks, trying to hide the blush at the thought of dressing up like a fancy Human or Drake or Gnoll—when she felt a rumble. She looked down and yelped.

“Aaah!”

A pile of gold began to glow. Then, as the Cave Goblin leapt away, it vanished, and Asgra went rolling down the hill.

The much…smaller hill. She looked around, and the main hill was still there, but gold coins had vanished! Millions of—she looked around, then ran screaming over to Yelroan.

“Magic thief! Magic thief—

But Yelroan was just laughing. Laughing and laughing with the hoarse sound of someone who had just seen someone take a fundamental of reality and twist it.

 

——

 

<Quests>.

Even the Quarass looked impressed. Lyonette was aglow with smugness.

“You will level from that. You may have destroyed the Runner’s Guild. Mm. Perhaps. There must be limits to this.”

The Quarass had mused for a while, then nodded.

“At least for now, you have revolutionized more than one idea. Let us negotiate the contract.”

And for some reason, she’d muttered under her breath.

“And I have the right class.”

It had taken nearly an hour, and Lyonette was certain the Quarass had thrashed her on the terms; she was sweating down her back when they were done. But as soon as they signed—gold coins had begun pouring down on the Quarass’ side.

“Quarass? It’s working! Q—”

The sight of the ruler of Ger taking cover under a sofa and then running, arms over her head, as a shower of gold coins dinged down, hitting [Assassins] who threw themselves in the way, was something that Lyonette wouldn’t forget.

Gold coins, dropped from a dozen or more feet in the air, had some weight to them. They had actually taken chunks out of the old stone floor. When it was done, the panting Quarass had stomped back into frame.

“That is also something to consider. For now, I shall grant you a solution to your issues with your…intruders.”

She outlined a crazy idea that made the [Princess] laugh, then give the Quarass an incredulous look.

“That’s something Erin would come up with! Are you sure? I can actually think of two others I could invite…”

The Quarass flicked her fingers as people behind her began to gather up gold pieces.

“The idea itself can be molded as you see fit. The concept is something entirely Calanferian. If your mother doubts the idea, tell her it was something Queen Marquin did. You would do well to remember that for all she is thought of as a barbarian, she was the greatest [Diplomat] of all. She had no enemies.”

The Quarass paused.

“Save for Crelers.”

 

——

 

That was the first meeting. The second and third were just as productive, in a sense. The Emperor of Sands didn’t appear themself, but Diplomat Zaltha ushered Lyonette into her consulate building, little more than a converted apartment, and spread a contract on the table.

“I don’t have a <Quest> to, ah, offer at this time, [Diplomat] Zaltha. If Their Majesty waits, I should be able to complete the deal in…a week’s time?”

For the Emperor of Sands, Lyonette hoped it was only a <Rare Quest> that was needed. She knew a <Basic Quest> wouldn’t work here. Though it had on her second client.

The King of Minotaurs was only too happy to accept the same deal as the Quarass. Free gold with the only stipulation being she had to lend Lyonette the amount? Yelroan had said even a brain-dead [Trader] would take the deal.

That much gold worked for you. It would make more gold…just by the fact that you had it and could use it. Lyonette had already lined up meetings with other people she wanted to contact.

Qwera, the Golden Gnoll, obviously. But also Gnoll tribes—and maybe Valeterisa, though she struck Lyonette as a bad ‘borrower’, which was what Rose was calling them. The House of El was risky, but—

The Empire of Sands was different. They needed reliable shipping, and the Chemath Marble didn’t hurt either. After over a dozen meetings, Lyonette gratefully sipped from some grape juice, and she didn’t even look at the contract.

“Your Highness, we are gratified to host you in this humble abode once more. Their Majesty of Sands hopes for a gratifying response.”

Diplomat Zaltha was stressed. As one might be when your [Emperor] had countless gold pieces on the line. Lyonette gave her a brisk smile with zero stress on her side.

“I believe we can do business, Diplomat Zaltha. The Chemath Marble is a very heavy incentive. Though, of course, friendship with a nation that can keep trade flowing in these difficult times is even more valuable.”

The [Diplomat] chuckled weakly as a glowing stone on one earring flashed. She tilted her head, half-bowing apologetically, and Lyonette didn’t hear the voice, but Zaltha clearly did.

“Their Majesty of Sands…wishes to convey their respect for your foresight, Your Highness.”

The [Princess] kept her smile polished as she’d been taught, wondering if they had a way to see her. This next part might not be best for the Emperor of Sands to hear…but she was tired, so she went for it.

“I am honored to hear it! Though I did have one small concern regarding an arrangement between The Wandering Inn and the Empire of Sands. I hate to disturb Their Majesty with such trivialities—”

“N-not at all. Can we clarify any issue on shipping?”

Zaltha urgently waved at her servants to bring over quill, ink, ledgers to assure Lyonette about the trade deal. But Lyonette didn’t have a problem with that.

“My issue is…Admiral Seagrass.”

“Ah.”

Zaltha froze up, and the [Princess] saw Ushar and Dalimont both shift behind her. A calculated move, and she let some of her real emotions bleed onto her face.

“He is a new servant of the Empire of Sands, isn’t he?”

“A—recent member of our aristocracy, yes.”

Now, Zaltha was speaking very carefully as the earring flashed once or twice. Lyonette gave her a serious look.

“I am sure the Empire of Sands has very excellent reasons for giving him such titles. As I regard him, though, the man is a traitor to my nation. Not just my nation; all of Terandria abhors him as much as the Bloodtear Pirates. Working with such a man is—”

Appalling? Reprehensible? Politically damning? Lyonette didn’t fill in the blank. She just let Zaltha and the Emperor of Sands figure it out.

It was probably a sign of Zaltha’s weakness; she was a [Merchant] and viewed Seagrass as an undeniable asset through that lens. Any [Diplomat] like Nerul would never have brought him up initially.

Zaltha clearly realized her mistake because she went dead white, but the earring slowly flashed, and she ducked her head. Then responded.

“The Emperor of Sands understands your clear grievances, Princess Marquin. They assure you that Seagrass’ loyalty will not be a question; anything you desire shall come to you through storm or banditry or war at sea.”

A heavy commitment. Well, given the reputation the Empire of Sands wanted to cultivate, Lyonette was sure it was a matter of policy. She just bet that a turncoat like Seagrass would have a few ‘minders’ on his ship. However, that wasn’t her concern.

“My issue is less of—safety and more of principle, Diplomat Zaltha. I take the Emperor of Sands at their word! Naturally! But Seagrass…can it be arranged that his fleet does not touch a single piece of cargo bound for Izril? Some—amicable solution be found?”

In truth, she didn’t know what she wanted. She needed goods for The Wandering Inn. That man had sided with the [Pirates] and doomed so many. She was dangling the threat of the contract over their heads, and what Lyonette really wanted was some kind of punishment for him, but she didn’t want to say it outright.

The Emperor of Sands must have understood implicitly what she wanted, though. Because when the earring stopped flashing, Zaltha gave Lyonette a too-wide smile, and the [Princess] saw her lick her lips before speaking.

“The Emperor of Sands hears your clear grievances, Princess Marquin. In the name of this great contract, they offer you a hand.”

“Oh. Um. Thank you?”

Ushar’s breath caught, and Zaltha saw Lyonette didn’t understand.

“Right or left?”

The [Princess]’s heart fluttered in her chest.

“P-pardon?”

“Admiral Seagrass’ hand. Which would you like? He is right-handed. If it will assuage your desire for vengeance in any way—the Emperor of Sands cannot remove him at this time. But they are willing to—arrange matters.”

Diplomat Zaltha’s voice was breathless. Her eyes were wide, and her hands trembled slightly. Lyonette kept her body still as her heart began to pound faster.

Are they serious? 

Of course they were. That—that wasn’t what she’d anticipated at all. A hand? Seagrass would rebel twice! Unless they had such a hold on him that he’d rather lose a hand than—

He was no Stitch-man. Was it because the Emperor of Sands was one and they didn’t underst—

Lyonette glanced at Zaltha’s trembling lips. No. They definitely knew what they were offering.

Say yes.

Something cold inside her told her to accept. All the people who’d died. The [Soldiers], innocent colonists, [Sailors]—a hand was the least of what they deserved. But another part of her rebelled at the idea. She would not wield the sword, but she’d know she was the reason to lop off his hand. That wasn’t like Lyonette killing him while defending her family or friends or nation.

It was closer to torture. It was a kind of torture. Lyonette hesitated, and Dame Ushar broke in.

“Diplomat Zaltha, Her Highness does not wish to make a potential enemy of a servant of the Empire of Sands. Admiral Seagrass is a dangerous man. If such word should come back to him as to who requested such a deed…”

The stone didn’t even flash, and Diplomat Zaltha answered swiftly.

“The knowledge would be sealed to those present and the Emperor of Sands themselves, Your Highness. Accidents happen.”

Dead gods. There went her escape route. How badly did the Emperor of Sands want the gold? Or—how little did they value Seagrass after all? Or how confident were they that Seagrass would keep working for them after losing a limb?

“I—I don’t think I am minded to ply the Emperor of Sands with a request that drastic at this time, Diplomat Zaltha. I request a lesser punishment.”

Lyonette answered the only way she could after a moment. She tried to find an acceptable solution without, well, looking weak. Her mother would have probably taken the hand and sent it to the nations who’d lost the most.

The earring began to flash as the Emperor of Sands spoke, forestalling Lyonette offering a compromise. Zaltha relaxed slightly, and one of her servants dabbed at her forehead. She twitched a smile at Lyonette.

“The Emperor of Sands understands, Your Highness. Half-justice short of Seagrass’ head is a poor balm, in their own words.”

They were giving her an out, but Lyonette wasn’t fooled. They’d read and tested her, and she’d told them exactly how far she was willing to go. She exhaled as Zaltha’s lips moved. Now, she seemed to be reciting some of the words being spoken to her directly.

“—Admiral Seagrass’ position in the Empire of Sands will be kept secret. Yes, Your Majesty. They will faithfully serve Princess Lyonette for her contract. ‘If one enemy of House Marquin and The Wandering Inn will not suffice, then another will. The Empire of Sands shall give no ingress to any ship or Trader of Roshal for a month’s time.’ Will—that suffice?”

She squeaked at Lyonette, and the [Princess]’ mouth almost fell open. The Empire of Sands was in the northwest of Chandrar, wasn’t it? Roshal, on the western coast, was far further south, but the two had very close territories. The Empire of Sands controlled every friendly harbor for—

That wasn’t just inhibiting their ability to trade and collect slaves for a month. That was a hostile act between two powerful empires. It would set Roshal against the Empire of Sands. Yes, the Emperor of Sands could explain or smooth things over—

They knew about Erin. They also knew about the kidnapping. 

Lyonette couldn’t understand the Emperor of Sands’ mind. She glanced at Dalimont, and he subvocalized something for the first time in her ears via Ushar’s Skill.

Your Highness, the Empire of Sands has ties with Roshal. This will not inhibit them, but it is a stringent blow. I cannot fathom the decisions at play here.

Nor I, Your Highness.

Ushar spoke out loud after that brief warning.

“To be clear, this would also be an act solely of the Empire of Sands’ volition?”

“Of course, Dame Ushar. Will that satisfy Her Highness?”

Zaltha instantly nodded at her, and Lyonette felt a crawl down her back. She was about to say yes. Then she changed her mind.

“Six months.”

Zaltha froze.

“Six?”

Lyonette gave her a sweet smile. She couldn’t just let the Emperor of Sands walk over her at the negotiating table.

“A single month will not hinder Lailight Scintillation greatly, especially as their harbor is defunct. As messages go—six months is a great pound of flesh, like the hand of Admiral Seagrass would be, wouldn’t it? Or, cognizant as I am of the Empire of Sands’ time, would not a smaller rebuke towards Admiral Seagrass do? And a small favor recognized by Their Majesty suffice?”

That was the most expedient way to end this tricky conversation. She heard an approving sound from Ushar in her mind and relaxed slightly. Six months was a ridiculous amount of time if they had any actual trade dealings—

The Emperor of Sands accepts. Six months and no Slaver of Roshal shall be offered sanctuary in their lands. If the deal is struck today, the proclamation shall be read across the Empire of Sands by nightfall.”

Zaltha spoke, her voice overly loud in the smaller room, her eyes wide. Then she looked like she was about to projectile vomit. Lyonette sat there, stunned.

Well.

She had just incited two major powers of Chandrar to come to odds. She saw Zaltha give her a sick smile.

“W-would Your Highness like to review the contract now?”

Please? Lyonette nodded. She sat there, uncertain as to why the Emperor of Sands had given away all that for her gold. Roshal was rich. The Emperor of Sands had just agreed to a deal that would cost them more gold in the long run than they made now.

Unless—her mind sparked suddenly.

Unless they had been intending to do something like this all along. You didn’t offer a deal this incredibly disadvantageous without a reason. Could it be something was impelling the Emperor of Sands to disavow their connection with Roshal? The only thing she could think of besides their kidnapping of Erin or Earthers was…

…ghosts…

There are said to be four new, powerful Slave Lords of Roshal, Your Highness. It would appear not all nations of Chandrar regard this as a positive thing.

Dalimont whispered in her ear. Either it was that or the Chemath Marble needing to be sold—Lyonette didn’t know. She barely glanced at the contract as it was put in front of her. For once, she wished she were a fly on the wall of Ielane’s chambers when Ushar communicated this to her mother. Then again—probably not. Flies died fast in Calanfer’s palace.

“The terms have been drawn up just as you indicated.”

Zaltha placed a scroll in front of Lyonette, and the [Princess] half-turned in her seat.

“Ushar, you looked over them?”

“Yes, Your Highness. But the amount—”

Lyonette glanced down the contract, her mind buzzing, an adrenaline rush in her veins. This was practically a triviality after the negotiations. The gold amount was just—gold. She had a lot of it.

She scrawled her name across the parchment, and Zaltha gave her a look as if Lyonette had turned into a Demon.

“Th—The Empire of Sands shall not forget this, Your Highness.”

“Nor I. As I said, if you wait for just a week’s time…”

Lyonette half rose, relieved she didn’t have to do the royal protocols with someone else. But Zaltha raised a finger as her earring glimmered. She backed away, bowing, and exited the room.

It only took her a minute to return, and when she did, her eyes were sparkling.

“No need for a…<Quest>, Your Highness.”

Lyonette’s brows rose, and the woman explained.

“The Emperor of Sands shall claim what is theirs, Lady Lyonette. Have no fear; they are very pleased by this transaction.”

“What does that—”

Then Lyonette felt something, multiple somethings, brush past her, as if dozens of hands were reaching across the world. She flinched; she had never felt that, even from another royal aura! Who was—

The [Emperor] of Sands reached across the world and spoke a Skill:

[Royal Transaction: Instantaneous Delivery, Instantaneous Reward].

Nothing happened to Lyonette. She untensed, stared at Zaltha after a moment, and then it was her turn to reach for a [Message] scroll that Dalimont handed to her.

 

Lyonette? Did you, um—buy something just now? Yelroan wants to know. There’s a lot of marble just outside the inn, and Hexel’s freaking out.

—Octavia

 

Lyonette stared at Diplomat Zaltha and saw the Stitch-woman’s lips curve upwards. That…wasn’t a <Quest>. That was just a Skill. A Skill that had just moved how many tons of marble—and gold?

What level were they? She stood up, and the [Diplomat] bowed.

“The Empire of Sands shall consider The Wandering Inn a great friend for this service, Your Highness.”

“Oh, no. Trade partners are welcome. And I, ah, have a list of goods we need—”

“I shall convey everything at once to our navy. But rest assured, we will not forget this boon.”

“Really, the terms of the contract are fine!”

Lyonette tried to beam at the woman, and it occurred to her, belatedly, that she might have wanted to do more research into some of the nations she’d partnered with. Or rather, this one. At least they were now against Roshal in no small way, and the more distractions the nation of slavers had, the better, right?

And Lyonette was walking away with an amazing trade deal. And Chemath Marble.

Ah.

She’d completely forgotten to ask what it did. But that wasn’t a problem.

…Right?

 

——

 

For a while, Lyonette du Marquin was soaring. Flying on wings of gold. She was changing the world, having rulers of nations come to her. And it felt wonderful.

Then, as she stepped out of Diplomat Zaltha’s apartment and glimpsed more snow falling down out of the sky, that rabid rush of energy in her veins began to drain away. She felt shaky, the nervous energy turning to exhaustion.

That was familiar too. Sometimes you felt like you could do anything and you were pushing past every limit and still finding more nervous adrenaline in your veins. But when it wore out?

“Your Highness, that’s the final meeting you had planned for today. There are a few others, but I would wager that our ‘pile’ problem in the garden is quite reduced. Well done!”

Dalimont was still looking spritely, delighted. He was glancing at her with respect, but Lyonette just walked forwards slowly. Her boots crunched in the snow.

“That’s good, Ser Dalimont. Truly. Eternal Throne, we still have to set up for tonight.”

“We could delay?”

Ushar had sensed the [Princess]’ sudden switch in moods first. She gave Lyonette a concerned once-over, and the [Princess] shook her head.

“No, no…we have to try. Set up a call with you-know-who, Ushar. I’ll take it in…”

It might even work. It was the Quarass’ idea, not hers. But if it did? Lyonette stood there.

“Dead gods. It’s all just Erin, not me.”

Why was she feeling so proud about all this? All the gold, all this craziness—it was still just an Erin Solstice event in the end. Not a Lyonette du Marquin original.

“Ah, but you spent all of the stuff, Your Highness. Not Miss Solstice. The way you dealt with those chairs—I’m composing a description for Thronebearer doctrine!”

That made her smile faintly.

“Thank you, Dalimont. I appreciate that. It’s just—I suppose I wonder if I’ll ever leave her shadow. Or, if she weren’t here, if I’d be able to help anyone.”

The [Princess] knew she sounded ridiculous complaining all of a sudden about this fortune. But it scared Lyonette. Dalimont and Ushar exchanged raised eyebrows, and Lyonette turned to them.

“What? What?”

 

——

 

Perhaps she didn’t know how she looked. She was still wearing a winter’s cloak, blue cloth given to her by Krshia for a Christmas gift. Business-like travelling clothes underneath, not suitable for meetings with royalty, let alone a [Princess]. But what sold her look were the scratches on her cheeks. Her hair was a slight mess, and not one of the Thronebearers had produced a comb.

Mostly because she looked like she’d just walked out of a fistfight—which she had—and up till now, those lapis lazuli eyes had practically been aglow. She had been smiling like the murals on Calanfer’s walls that Ushar had grown up with as a [Squire], ready to throw down with a [Mayor], the Emperor of Sands, or anyone else who came her way.

“Your Highness. You spoke with the Quarass of Germina. You met her eyes. The King of Minos? Impeccable courtesy, and you negotiated with both.

“So?”

Another exchange of glances. Dalimont said the obvious part out loud.

“I rather doubt, with the exception of perhaps the 4th Princess of Calanfer, that any of your siblings could reliably be said to do the same.”

Lyonette gave Dalimont a puzzled look, and that was why she had changed. She laughed as she continued walking, softly amused. So old compared to even Vernoue in Ushar’s mind. Even Princesses Aielef or Shardele.

“Oh, please, Dalimont. Anyone can meet someone’s eyes. Erin would throw things at them if they got her mad.”

She looked ahead, and the wisps of vapor left Ushar’s mouth as she exhaled. Ah.

That explained the curious lack of self-confidence. Sometimes, the [Princess] still walked as if she were in the shadow of the inn. Ushar nudged Dalimont, and he nudged her back. Ushar scribbled on a Mrsha-card and held it up.

I’m out of compliments besides approbation. You do it.

Dalimont’s eyes crinkled up, and he cleared his throat.

“Lyonette. If I may. Our trained sycophancy aside, I do genuinely mean that you did something today that Erin Solstice herself could not.”

“How so?”

Lyonette turned an amused head as they walked past the [Mayor]’s office besieged by an angry crowd. They took a turn and headed down a familiar, seedier street as Dalimont spoke.

“Miss Solstice would never have had the idea to copy that particular metal to begin with. Or even if she had—she would be extremely reluctant to use it.”

“That’s true. If she really pushed herself, she might buy a new mug or something. But she’d give it away when it mattered.”

Dalimont, like a trained sophist, raised a finger.

“Ah, but she wouldn’t spend it on a new chair! She wouldn’t spend it, er, selfishly.”

Thank you, Dalimont. I’m glad I can be more selfish than Erin.”

The [Princess]’ voice was wry, but she sounded a bit better. Her pace picked up, and Ushar kicked Dalimont in the shins. He raised his hands.

Alright, he’d messed that one up, but how was he supposed to articulate the difference? The difference was…selfishness was such an indiscriminate word. It was something else.

Crookfingers actually ducked back into her stall as she saw Lyonette approach, but the [Princess] just gave her a sweet smile.

“Crookfingers! I have two pieces of business for you today. How much for a note on the [Mayor]’s desk?”

“You’re mad. I’m working on the Healer! Now you want to threaten—? He has ties to the Reinharts and the gangs!”

“Well, tell the gangs that he’s bad for business. I’m excellent for business. I haven’t stopped a single one of your people going through. Put the word out. Now, I’ll expect a lovely note on his desk by morning. Be inventive. I’ll settle up later. The second is another person search. I could ask—oh, Bloody Secrets, but I’m doing you a favor.”

Crookfingers licked her lips, regaining some of her bravado.

“Bloody—she’s just some up-and-coming rookie! You came to the right place. Who is it this time?”

This street was devoted to transactions of an illicit nature, and Lyonette had caused such a fuss that Ushar and Dalimont knew they had some tails.

[Thieves] who were trying to suss out how wealthy Lyonette was—looking dismayed that their initial estimates had downgraded her from ‘you must rob her right now with a half-brick even if you die’ to ‘only ludicrously wealthy beyond your wildest dreams’.

However, there were also two Brothers pointedly cleaning their nails with knives, at least one Sister of Chell—and those were only the gangs that Ushar recognized. Actually, all the pedestrians on the street smoking, walking dogs, cleaning a window in the winter—were probably spies.

Todi would do his best, but they had to deal with the problem. So Lyonette gave Crookfingers a huge smile and raised her voice.

“I would like to find—and get in contact with—Invrisil’s best [Assassin].”

Once more, the woman behind the stall froze. The figures behind Lyonette, including a few [Spies]—glanced up slowly. A Drake writing in a notepad edged back a few steps.

“Uh. For what?”

“You mean, ‘what for’? My own business, Crookfingers. I’m quite willing to pay them.”

The woman behind the stall clearly warred with her conscience, if she had one. It might have just been self-preservation. She leaned over and hissed.

“Here’s some free information, Miss Marquin. Listen, you don’t mess around with them. The Assassin’s Guild is gone. Half are amateurs, the other half are rogue [Assassins]—”

“Are they trustworthy? Is the best [Assassin] in Invrisil someone who I can rely on?”

“Sure! Maybe? Don’t be so loud! You think they want to be named? If I introduce you and a deal goes south—”

I would like to hire an [Assassin]. The best one.

Lyonette raised her voice and leaned over the counter. She stared down Crookfingers.

“So long as they’re trustworthy. Or I’d have to kill them. And you.”

She beamed at Crookfingers, and the woman opened her own less-toothy mouth to stare at Dalimont. The Thronebearer didn’t have a chair to beat down, so he just waggled his eyebrows at the woman.

 

——

 

“You see, Erin would have just pulled her out of her stall and said something horrific. Like—‘I have only one frying pan and I blew up the Assassin’s Guild, so I’m all out of frying pans’. But clever, you know?”

Lyonette was trying to explain why she was still feeling so semi-useless today to Dalimont and Ushar as they walked away from the stall. Dalimont smiled.

“Ah, but she wouldn’t have hired an [Assassin].”

“True…I suppose she just can’t give a job interview.”

“Is that what this is?”

Ushar twisted, and her mace was halfway out of its sling as Dalimont jerked his sword out of his scabbard. But the figure wearing a black mask, covered in clothing that left no visible flesh save for an oddly elegant mask that only revealed red eyes—

“Oh my. You found us quickly.”

“Crookfingers and I go back. I also know Bloody Secrets.”

Ah. Vampire? The [Assassin] walked next to Lyonette, not so close; Dalimont had interposed himself between the two, his shield casually half-raised. But the [Assassin] had snuck up on them fast.

“May I inquire as to your name?”

She heard a chuckle, and the figure wove around a pile of horse manure frozen to the street. Lyonette blinked; his footwork carried him around the pile and back towards them like a breeze, as if a patch of colored wind were whirling towards them, until he stopped and became a person again.

In many ways, the Vampire looked like any assassin ever. In his case, he covered all his features in black cloth by taking a long length of black fabric and wrapping it around his arms and hands to complement his midnight clothing.

A mask like a bird of prey gave him a sinister or silly face, depending on whether he was walking down a sunlit alley trying to look cool or holding a dagger to your throat as he stood over your bed in the dead of night. The only part of him not covered was his hair. Like his mask, it was pale silver in color. Lyonette supposed style had to count for something.

However, save for the hair, he was the spitting impression of a generic [Assassin]. A reputation as much as the blades they carried. But this man was also…

A Vampire. It was not just in his eyes or what Lyonette assumed—sharp fangs, paler skin, and an aversion to sunlight, garlic, silver, and mockery about the faint accent some had.

It was a reserve he, Fierre, and Colfa had that struck you. An aloofness that translated to a brusqueness of words, a sense of distance between them, both literal and metaphorical. But most of all?

He was just walking down the street, dodging patches of ice and snow. He moved like a whisper, flitting around obstacles like a flowing shadow. Any high-level class with a bit of speed could do that, of course. But this man moved as though it were second-nature. The twitches of his head, the way he switched postures in milliseconds—

This assassin had been born with the reflexes those who’d hit Level 40 had only years of practice with. Lyonette nodded to herself.

Oh, he’s definitely good at his job.

“My title is Vaulont the Ash.”

“Is that an official title? Do [Assassins] have those?”

“I was a Face in the old Assassin’s Guild. Is that a problem?”

The hairs were rising on the back of Lyonette’s neck, but she was tired. She’d just met the Quarass, and he had a polite voice.

“Did you participate in that nastiness around Tyrion Veltras’ children or the war thereafter?”

“No. Nor the battle in Invrisil.”

“I see. Do you have a grudge against the inn?”

Vaulont shifted and rolled his shoulders up.

“If I did—let’s say I’ve squared any resentments against other things the [Innkeeper]’s done. I wouldn’t meet with you if I had any objections to a contract. Am I interviewing? I can tell Crookfingers to get the second-best [Assassin] in Invrisil if you want. But they were just one of the Ranks—low-grade [Assassins]. I’m the last independent in Invrisil.”

Now that was fascinating. What had Erin done? Also…Lyonette half-smiled.

“So you know you’re the best?”

“Crookfingers knows it too. Any more questions for me?”

“Just one. How trustworthy would you say you are, Master Vaulont?”

The figure tilted his head as if trying to figure out the question.

“I’m an [Assassin]. I don’t reveal clients or I become the next target. I don’t have loyalties after the job is done.”

“But you don’t betray your contract? Do you have a code of ethics?”

“I don’t kill children. And I don’t like contracts that say to kill everything in a building. If you’re asking if I’ll keep all your secrets and never tell anyone—depends on how dangerous I think you are. I am an [Assassin], Miss Marquin. Who do you want dead?”

The [Princess] saw that red glare turn on her, and maybe it was supposed to be disconcerting, but it vaguely reminded her of Numbtongue glowering at her over breakfast. She smiled back.

“No one you can kill.”

He almost slipped on a patch of snow, and his shoulders hunched as the [Princess] went on.

“One week, to begin with. Free room and board. My inn is swarming with [Spies].”

“You want me to kill every single one of them?”

The voice was incredulous, and Lyonette waved a hand.

“No, no! I don’t even want their bones broken. That’s too extreme. Bruises aren’t even necessary—just keep them out.

“…You want me to guard your inn?”

Vaulont the Ash was clearly unsure if he should be offended or amused by the offer. Lyonette countered swiftly.

“I realize that’s not your exact skillset, but having an [Assassin] lurking around would send a message.”

Especially if a [Spy] wondered if the message was a one-time warning. The man thought about it as Lyonette sweetened the deal.

“I’ll pay you very handsomely. Name your price, Master Vaulont. But I do expect you to not have any problems with my guests, especially the Goblins or Antinium. If there are monsters, or other threats, I will, of course, ask you to kill them. And your discretion you may also list as part of your fee.”

She waited, and the masked figure made a grunting sound.

“So I’m a replacement for Shriekblade. Or the other security around that inn I’ve heard of. That’s not an easy job all the time.”

“Well then. I asked for the best [Assassin] in Invrisil for a reason. Until she gets back—I should be delighted to trial you. If not, I will happily take a recommendation for another trustworthy candidate; outside of Invrisil, maybe?”

He started laughing, then. A dry chuckle, but after a moment, he turned.

“We’re not trustworthy. Most of the good Faces are all dead or…not willing to be employed by third parties. Say I accept. How are you sure you can trust an [Assassin] under your roof? I’d be sleeping nervously if I were you.”

Lyonette smiled back blandly.

“Master Vaulont. If you were a duplicitous, murderous killer I couldn’t trust—you’d be the third one this week. If you want to take your shot at the inn, do your best. Bring two armies next time. One never does the trick.”

She met those eyes again and wondered what Erin would say. Something charming that had this [Assassin] on her side, no doubt. But all Lyonette thought was that she’d monitor him, and even if he wasn’t completely trustworthy—introducing him to Demsleth or maybe asking Colfa and Himilt if they had any intelligence on him would be a useful way to put a check on any questions of Vaulont’s loyalty.

It was a calculated risk. Ielane would no doubt be running her own checks, and the main thing was that Vaulont probably wouldn’t murder her for hiring him for an easy job. They could part after one week, no hard feelings.

He broke the silence.

“I’ll want four thousand gold pieces up front. I don’t know the inn, and there are high-level [Spies] who’ll be tricky to deal with. It’s my reputation on the line. That covers any other threats.”

That was pretty cheap. Lyonette nodded at Ushar.

“How does eight sound, Master Vaulont?”

He paused.

“…Is that how a [Princess] haggles?”

She treated him to another beaming smile.

“No! I just have an event tonight that might require your presence. Can you show up after dinner? You may show up for dinner. The four thousand covers any fighting, and it may require more afterwards. Ideally, there will be none.”

He really didn’t like that. He shifted from foot to foot, but Lyonette wondered if the freelance assassination markets were fairly dry after all the Circle of Thorns business.

“Any fighting I do, I’ll bill you for. It’ll be expensive. I’ll charge my full rate on anything, even if I don’t kill them.”

“Splendid.”

Lyonette held out a hand. Vaulont stared at it as Dalimont sighed. Then he just nodded to her and touched her hand, briefly, with the tips of his gloves.

“You’re as odd as I’ve been told. What’s the dinner?”

“Hetwattle chicken tetrazzini casserole with Yellats. Roasted vegetables and buttermilk biscuits on the side. Cake for dessert.”

Vaulont the Ash paused.

“…I’ll be there with a contract.”

He stepped back and did an amazing vanishing trick into an alleyway, literally melding into the shadows. Lyonette raised her voice.

“I have a royal one!”

Then she was actually…done. In Invrisil, at least. Lyonette exhaled and coughed, and Ushar handed her a water flask.

“Very well done, Your Highness. Your mother may disapprove of your hiring choices, however.”

“Please. So long as I don’t get myself killed or Calanfer embarrassed, she’ll be fine.”

Ushar paused.

“She does worry, Your Highness. Mothers do.”

“Ielane?”

Lyonette laughed, and Dalimont gave Ushar a side-eye, but the Thronebearer just took the water flask back. Lyonette walked onwards.

“Oh, I just had a splendid idea for tonight. Can you contact Rufelt, Dalimont?”

“I shall head to Pallass forthwith.”

“Mm. Ask him if he has time to tutor me, actually. I assume he’d be good at the more casual bar-games, wouldn’t he? The Quarass offered to, but I’m leery about taking up her time. She gave me an hour of her time per week.

“More than one might want, I would imagine, Your Highness. Be careful what you ask of her. Do you have a preference on what I should buy in regards to preparations? Drinks via Master Rufelt, of course. Cards? Dice?”

“Mm. Cards. I have a feeling it should be skill-based. Oh, and did those invitations work, Ushar?”

The female [Knight] checked a [Message] scroll.

All-you-can-eat cake and an unlimited option on drinks seems to have gotten both…gentlemen…Your Highness.”

“How did you get a message to them? Isn’t Magnolia’s mansion closed?”

Ushar coughed into a fist.

“I believe Ishkr walked over to the mansion and attached a note to a bottle of Rxlvn he threw over the gate. He claims it works every time.”

“…That’s extremely disappointing, Ushar.”

Lyonette tried not to smile. They were meandering on their way back towards the gates, mostly because the Watch were now trying to keep crowds back from the [Mayor]’s office. She hoped there wouldn’t be a riot. Mayor Curle wasn’t that stupid, one hoped.

“Oh! The Adventurer’s Guild! Ushar, Dalimont. One last stop.”

Lyonette saw a new building and wavered, but she had to take a look inside. Wasn’t there some group of older adventurers that the Horns had met? A delightful, old group of [Mages], right?

She was about to pop in and see if she could convince another Gold-ranker team to work, even temporarily, with the inn when she saw someone leaving the Adventurer’s Guild alone. Lyonette stopped, and her brows drew together.

“No.”

Dalimont had been giving the evil eye to a [Pickpocket] behind them. When he turned, he blinked at a familiar half-Elf who strode out of the Guild and down the street. He saw the [Princess]’ head rotate to follow Elia Arcsinger. But Lyonette’s face had frozen over.

“No, absolutely not. Not her.

“Your Highness?”

Neither Thronebearer had said anything. Lyonette half-turned. She seemed to be talking to herself.

“Erin would never.”

Ushar blinked, and her eyes widened slightly. Dalimont began rubbing at his chin.

“It’s your call, Your Highness.”

Absolutely not. She killed several Goblins!”

“She’s cheap. And—”

“No, no, no!”

Lyonette’s voice rose, and heads turned towards the [Princess] as she stomped towards the Adventurer’s Guild. Halfway towards it, she switched directions, going after the half-Elf. Ushar was already pulling something out of her bag of holding and flipping through it.

“I requested an appraisal when the Order of Solstice was set against them. I should still have the file. She used to have one of the world’s most famous attack Skills.”

“Now it just lights her on fire.”

Lyonette tried to smile vindictively, but Ushar continued in a careful, level voice.

“She’s at least Level 40. Very skilled in archer tactics. Less—able, as we all saw, than her reputation suggests.”

“She’s a coward. A fake! How many requests has she failed?”

“…Less than you’d think, Your Highness. She actually has an above eighty percent clear rate.”

Hah! That’s—

“Above average for Gold-rankers. As you noted, she often sequesters help or reinforcements, but she gets the job done. There are no actual accounts of her breaking and running when lives were on the line.”

Dalimont had a thought and leaned forwards to whisper in Lyonette’s ear as he kicked the [Pickpocket] in the shins.

“Your Highness. Didn’t Bird complain she was in need of training with the bow?”

Lyonette squeezed her eyes shut.

“There is no way she’s better with a bow than Bird.”

She stomped forwards; Elia was walking at a swift pace, probably because she was not getting very friendly looks or comments from people who recognized her. And she was famous. Ser Dalimont let the comment go, and Lyonette muttered under her breath.

“How good could she be? Bird’s a natural.”

Ushar murmured.

“Half-Elven training, Your Highness. She studied in Avel, and she’s toured around the world. One imagines Bird might steal her techniques.”

Lyonette stared at Elia Arcsinger’s back as the half-Elf came to a stop in an outdoor market reserved for adventurers close to the guild. Lyonette’s eyes blazed, but she had had the same thought as Dalimont, Ushar…yet her face was set.

“She’s not worthy of it.”

The [Princess] heard her own voice, and her head turned as a few snowflakes drifted past her face. She blinked at them, as if she had only seen them for the first time, and held out a gloved hand.

Some snow fell onto her palm, and the [Princess] stared down at it. It seemed, then, as if she were four hundred miles and a year ago away. An angry [Princess] in the snow…

Lyonette squeezed her eyes shut.

“She’s not worthy.”

That decided her.

 

——

 

Elia Arcsinger was standing in one of the upscale stores at the market, ignoring the murmurs of people behind her. She had snow in her hair; a kid had thrown a piece at her and then run off.

That kid had been Grev.

The half-Elf was sorting through a very small number of amulets at the front counter. A [Jewelry Merchant] had brought them out, and the [Merchant]’s [Guards] were on high alert, because this was magical gear.

Artifacts. The best quality stuff you could get short of an auction. In fact, when Lyonette entered, one of them gave her a glare—before they saw the [Knights] and bowed her in. They’d have run off someone who didn’t look like they could afford anything inside in a moment.

“Miss, are you shopping for anything in particular? Earrings? Rings? Sorcerous Apparel is pleased to serve you, and our owner will be right with you.”

A [Shop Clerk] rushed forwards, and Lyonette murmured to her.

“I’d like to browse for a moment, please.”

She pretended to study some of the rings on display as she bookmarked this place for later. But all her attention was on Elia Arcsinger.

 

——

 

“This one. Are you sure the price can’t come down for it?”

“We do not negotiate on the price, Adventurer Arcsinger. Nor do we accept lines of credit.”

“It’s not the best artifact for this grade of enchantment.”

Elia was trying to haggle with the owner, and the [Merchant] wasn’t having it. She pointedly swept a bright red ruby amulet cut in a hexagonal pattern off her counter as her [Shop Clerk] hurried over and whispered excitedly in her ear.

The [Merchant] turned and peered at one of her new customers and brightened up. Brusquely, she turned to Elia.

“I believe that’s all, Adventurer Arcsinger. Please come back with the gold to purchase something. I cannot accept any more payments via the Merchant’s Guild.”

“That was my daughter. The money did reach you.”

“After two weeks. Adventurer Arcsinger, I have a business to run.”

Then she brushed by Elia, striding over to a client. Elia stood there for a second and put her head back. She spoke to the woman’s back, a trace of bitter irony in her voice.

“You know, Melda. When I stopped in here eleven years ago, you wanted to offer me your best amulet at the time for free. Now you’re Invrisil’s best [Jeweler]. Can’t you give me a hand? Once?”

Ten years. Not a long time for half-Elves, unless they lived in the real world. For Elia, and Melda, the time had changed so much. The woman now in her middle years froze, and her cheeks turned red.

Elia wearily gestured at a smaller tiger’s eye amulet.

“If you just gave me this one, I could pay it back in—”

“No, Elia. How many favors do you think it’s been?”

Melda strode forwards and poked a finger at Elia. Her guards shifted nervously; she was still arguing with a Named-ranker, but Elia frowned.

“I’ve never asked you for a single one.”

“Your daughter has. Your team has. How many times do I have to vouch for you among the Merchant’s Guild or cover for you with my friends? It didn’t use to be like this. Four years ago, I would have given you all these amulets. It’s only been ten years since you could have had a parade thrown every single day you were in Invrisil just for existing. Now what?”

The [Jeweler] stared up at Elia, and the half-Elf’s head lowered.

“Capoinelia? Again?”

“She called in all your favors before she headed north. You’re just lucky I told some of the other people I knew what she was doing or they’d be laying the blame at your feet.”

“I see. I’m sorry, Melda.”

The half-Elf exhaled. She put the tiger’s eye amulet down. The [Jeweler] stared at Elia angrily. Her eyes searched Elia’s face, and a grimace of pain filled her expression as she stared at something that made Elia avert her features.

“Why didn’t you just—? You’re her mother and the leader of Arcsinger’s Bows.”

Elia said nothing. She stared down at the ground, and Melda rubbed at her eyes impatiently.

“I have work to do. See yourself out, please?”

Melda turned and put on her best fake smile to greet a very important potential client, and Elia stood there a second. The very awkward [Shop Clerk] and some of the guards kept shooting glances at her. She was still the Named-rank adventurer who’d killed the Goblin King. A beautiful half-Elf.

With a wooden bow. Yet she still looked as if it were part of her body. She even seemed oddly more relaxed than when she had been celebrated in Invrisil. As if what she was afraid of had happened. She didn’t look like she was enjoying life right now. But that faint sense of relief…

That disgraced adventurer’s greatest crime had been revealed to the world. It was not that she was a craven, a murderer, or even a cheat or anything else like that.

It was simply that she wasn’t the legend she had presented herself as. Her team hadn’t been filled with adventurers worthy of the name and her title.

That alone was enough for someone like Melda to be bitter about. But as Elia began to trail towards the door, she got a real look of animosity from someone.

A young woman with flare-red hair accompanied by two golden [Knights]. Elia stepped aside swiftly and recognized the Thronebearers of Calanfer, of all things. In Invrisil?

It…vaguely raised a memory, but she just retreated to the side, brushing at her hair, so as not to run into any of the displays.

“Thank you, Miss Melda. I am interested in…what’s this large ruby amulet here? It’s quite lovely.”

The young woman had a sword, but she was no adventurer or warrior. Elia’s head turned, and Melda looked guilty only for a second before hurrying around the counter.

“That would be an Amulet of Fire Resistance, Your Highness. My best work! You needn’t fear even standing in flames. I don’t know if it’s, um, as applicable to you as some of my other works, but it complements your hair very well, doesn’t it?”

Her [Shop Clerk] chimed in with agreements, and Lyonette held up the amulet. She glanced to the side, and Elia paused as those eyes found her.

“Fire Resistance. Oh. Of course. Your Skill. [Line-Ender’s…Heat]? Inferno? That might actually allow you to use it, right, Adventurer Arcsinger?”

The [Princess] turned, holding the amulet in hand.

“Then again, you might need an even better amulet than this one.”

“You have me at a disadvantage, Miss. Your Highness?”

Elia sketched a bow, unsure of why a foreign [Princess] would be in Invrisil. She assumed, at first, this was another former fan of hers. Most had this reaction; Lord Xitegen had been the best at merely disappointed. He’d even paid their team.

However, the [Princess]’ eyes flashed.

“You don’t remember me, Adventurer Elia?”

Remember…? Elia stared at the young woman again, and Elia vaguely recalled her. Mostly the two [Knights].

After a few seconds, it was clear that Elia didn’t really remember, and the young woman’s nostrils flared, but she smiled.

“My name is Lyonette du Marquin. Of House Marquin.”

“The Eternal Throne. Greetings, Your Highness. Forgive me for not remembering you. When did we last meet?”

“Oh, at Riverfarm. When I hired the Order of Solstice to stop your team.”

Elia froze in the midst of a full bow. Her eyes snapped upwards, and one of the [Knights] shifted. However, Elia just completed the bow.

“I see. Forgive me for interrupting your shopping.”

She began to retreat, but a second [Knight] was casually blocking the way, and Elia’s hand twitched towards her bow. A fight in here would be bad—she was not welcome in the city, and Melda was one of the last shopkeepers willing to even have her here.

But if this was for revenge…

“Your Highness! Adventurer Arcsinger was just leaving!”

Melda tried to get between Lyonette and Elia, but the [Princess] just walked forwards as one of her [Knights] blocked the woman.

“I have some business with Adventurer Arcsinger, Miss Melda. It won’t be long. Do you know where I currently work, Adventurer Arcsinger?”

This rang a bell, and Elia frowned.

“That inn which has Goblins. The one with the [Innkeeper] that let one of them go.”

She remembered that full well. Lyonette’s smile widened.

“The Wandering Inn. The very same. The Goblins in Riverfarm, the ones you killed with your Skill, are friends of the inn. You’re lucky you didn’t kill more. And that Lord Xitegen took care of you after—”

She paused. She clearly had a lot to say, but she had noticed the obvious. Elia grimaced, but she knew there was no hiding it.

On her cheeks, her hand, when she brushed at her hair—

Her skin had faint burn scars. From head to toe. They weren’t noticeable from a distance; the [Healers] that Lord Xitegen had hired had done a very good job. But the flames had been made from a Skill.

Her Skill, forever altered by the arrow Halrac Everam had shot. Lyonette fell silent. Her mouth worked.

“—I detest you. Not just for taking that contract. Goblins are not monsters.”

“I see.”

The [Princess] looked more outraged, but what did she expect? Elia tried to back up.

“If you’ll excuse me. I think neither one of us have more to gain from this exchange.”

“On the contrary. I think you’re down on your luck. I saw your daughter being thrown out of a restaurant. Penniless, is she?”

Gone for Terandria. The Merchant’s Guild had mostly settled Arcsinger’s Bows debts by selling off their gear. Elia felt a flash of something hot in her chest, but she kept trying to back up, now trying to shove the female [Knight] back.

“Yes, Arcsinger’s Bows has disbanded. As you can see, I don’t even have my bow. Are you satisfied?”

“No. You fought both Griffon Hunt and the Order of Solstice. All of them my friends. Zanze died because of—”

That was it. Elia was trying, but she snapped. She whirled faster than the [Knights] could react and pointed a finger at Lyonette. The [Princess] recoiled as Elia raised her voice.

So did Toreel! Your friend died? My teammate for nearly a decade died as well! I was the one who burned! Believe me, it could have been worse. I could have killed that archer. I could have tried to kill them all, and I didn’t. I’m out of money, disgraced, and you can mock me. Is that enough?”

The [Princess] didn’t back down. Her [Knights] were tensed, and Melda and her guards moved back, but even Elia snapping didn’t faze…

Who was this? The [Princess]’ eyes narrowed.

“There is still a grudge, Elia Arcsinger. The Goblins as well. I won’t forgive you for it.”

“I’ll watch my back, then. I don’t intend to get anywhere near that place. Or your inn.”

Elia whirled back. She didn’t like the nervous feeling that stole over her at the [Princess]’ promised enmity. If she sent more of her [Knights] while Elia was on a mission—maybe she should head north or south?

However, the [Princess] wasn’t done. She herself strode around Elia and blocked her path.

“Wait. I didn’t come here solely to yell at you. As relieving as that might be—I should be content to let you wallow as you are. But you are still a Named-rank adventurer. Do you know anything that’s happened to The Wandering Inn of late?”

“I saw your [Innkeeper] stab the Prince of Erribathe. I’d wager you have more enemies than I do.”

Elia noted Lyonette’s wince with some satisfaction as Melda gasped. The [Princess] exhaled.

“Yes. Well, Erin is indeed gone, and the inn has suffered—damages. I’m actually in Invrisil in part to hire people for my inn. Adventurers. Other specialists. I am…willing to employ you.”

What? Elia almost reached up to rub her ears. That was not how she was expecting this confrontation to go. But the [Princess] just lifted the amulet in one hand.

“Miss Melda? I’m buying this. Dalimont, pay her.”

The [Knight] fumbled for his bag of holding and began placing bags marked ‘one thousand’ on the counter. Melda’s eyes popped, and Elia stared at Lyonette. The [Princess] dangled the amulet in one hand.

“The Wandering Inn is short on security personnel. Rich in, well, gold. Do I understand you have some substantive debts in the city?”

“They’re paid off.”

Mostly. No one wanted to send a [Debt Collector] after a Named-rank, and she was taking Silver-rank requests. She could handle killing monsters, even a pack, alone.

Lyonette caught Elia’s lie, and her eyes flashed triumphantly.

“I’ll cover them. And offer you a generous stipend. This is a signing bonus.”

She handed Elia the amulet, and the half-Elf lifted the Amulet of Fire Resistance disbelievingly.

This costs 3,150 gold. Yes, the woman was a [Princess], but she was working at an inn, and she could just purchase this with gold on hand?

All Elia’s debts? She stared at Lyonette.

“You want me to guard your inn?”

She’d heard of ludicrous contracts, but this? Then she remembered the rumors about the inn, and her stomach twisted into a knot. But Lyonette was counting on her fingers.

“Not alone. In fact, you’d have manifold duties. Part of them would be lookout. But I would also want you to escort my daughters around and teach an Antinium living in my inn. Bird the Hunter.”

“What?”

Also, I have Goblins in my employ. They won’t be happy to see you. But they are also to be protected. If you can agree to that, I’ll pay you enough to begin setting you up with your old equipment. At the very least, I’ll buy an enchanted bow.”

She gave Elia’s current bow a dismissive stare. For a few seconds, Elia didn’t know what to say. This angry [Princess] wanted to hire her to teach an Antinium? Run security for her inn?

“I assume your inn gets attacked often if you need a Named-rank.”

The young woman’s glower became a look of apprehension.

“Not often. But when it happens—”

Elia recognized that, and her instincts kicked in. But Lyonette shook her head.

“You won’t be alone. I have a Gold-rank team and a Silver-rank team I intend to hire. In time, I hope to have at least one more Named-rank adventurer, and other Gold-rank level specialists.”

What kind of inn was this? Even Larracel’s Haven could only boast that number of adventurers as guests on special occasions. Lyonette scribbled on a piece of paper.

“This includes free room and board and covers all the costs of arrows and potions and whatnot. We do have healing potions left and a resident [Alchemist]. With all that considered, I could offer you…”

Five thousand gold pieces per month. Elia’s eyes popped at the number. That was about ten times what you paid even a Named-rank for casual guard duty. Her mind raced. It wouldn’t put her back on track to getting her old gear; adventurer gear was exorbitant. But she wouldn’t have to worry about expenses for a year, even if she worked at the inn for a month!

And if this woman covered her debts, Elia could start over. The half-Elf thought of all this, crossing her arms. Goblins in the inn? They’d be terrified of her. Antinium?

She could do it. Elia Arcsinger nodded to herself as the [Princess] stood there, eyes bright, chin raised. She was shorter than Elia by a good head, and the Named-rank adventurer looked down.

Then Elia shook her head.

“Thank you for the offer, Princess Lyonette. I refuse. Good day to you.”

Bu—what?”

Lyonette sputtered, and Elia had the immense satisfaction of seeing the [Princess]’ face as she strode out into the street. She made a beeline back towards the Adventurer’s Guild, but the sound of running footfalls made her sigh.

“Wait! What do you think you’re doing?”

Elia swung around as Princess Lyonette caught up. The young woman was furious. But Elia was too; she just didn’t look it. She had a decade of practice hiding her feelings.

“I believe I gave you my answer.”

“I heard it. Why? You’re in debt. You need a paying job.”

“I do.”

The half-Elf was reluctant to say it in the street, but anyone could probably find that out. She fixed Lyonette with a hard stare.

“But I’m not going to grovel and work for someone who hates me as much as you. I am the woman who shot the Goblin King. Do you expect me to just work for your inn and smile at Goblins?”

She drew herself up slowly, wishing her shoulders didn’t ache. Her bow always felt heavier in her hands, but she drew it and saw the [Knights] tense. Elia put an arrow to the bow and saw the street duck away. She shot the arrow straight up at eighty percent of her strength, and the [Princess]’ eyes widened. Was she crazy? The arrow was going to land—

Elia drew the second arrow in an instant, put it to the bow, and aimed straight up. She waited a beat—then pulled at maximum strength.

Both arrows exploded in the air overhead as they collided, the first overtaking the second. Elia’s eyes searched the air, and she almost smiled as Lyonette’s mouth opened.

Where was…

Ah, there. The spiraling pieces of wood weren’t a hazard, but the two iron arrowheads had met and fused into a falling bit of metal. Elia drew a third arrow and fired it.

Ping. The arrowheads jumped and bounced as her third arrow hit them a dozen feet up, just over a trader’s stall. The two arrowheads rolled into a sewer grate, and Elia walked over and picked up the final arrow.

Damn. I just wasted two arrows on that trick.

It was still worth it to turn all those people in the street’s heads and get them to stop sneering at her. Elia whirled on her heel.

—The [Princess] was blocking her path.

“Now I really want to hire you. You are a high-level [Archer].”

“Not the one you want. Go hire another one.”

Elia tried to side-step Lyonette. The [Princess] side-stepped her side-step.

“Name your price.”

Elia was afraid to, both because it would give the [Princess] an idea and because she might have been tempted if the [Princess] agreed to a ludicrous sum.

“No.”

She kept her head up. She met the [Princess]’ gaze. She had her pride. It wasn’t much, but it was real. Realer than her title and reputation.

“I am the woman who killed the Goblin King. Call it a fluke or lucky shot, I did. Maybe I should have told everyone the truth, but no one believed me.”

No one but the Titan of Baleros. Elia lifted her bow.

“Even so, I did it. And that was never a lie. I wasn’t ready to fight Adult Crelers; I refused to go to war against the Demon King. I might not even be worthy of being a Named-rank. If they take away my title, I won’t fight it. But I am gifted with the bow. And I don’t need you to survive, or for you to pay for my debts or buy a fancy amulet for me. You can’t buy me, Princess. Good day.”

With that, she took two long strides and began heading towards the guild again.

Fancy words. I’m going to have to make turnip soup tonight. Her stomach growled, but she meant it.

She was determined not to rise to the bait or let the [Princess] get a word in edgewise. Nothing could be achieved by engaging with Lyonette but wasting her time. Even so—the [Princess] hit her with a question and reeled Elia back in.

“Why did you kill the Goblin King, Velan the Kind?”

Why? Elia tried to stop herself, but she swung herself back around and was striding for Lyonette.

Why?

In all her years, no one had ever asked her why. The half-Elf bent over and stared at the [Princess]. She was about to shout. Then she took the question seriously.

“Why did I enlist? Why did I leave my home? Why didn’t I run when he charged through Archmage spells at us?”

A nod. Elia blinked at Lyonette and began to take in more details about the young woman now.

Has she been in a fight? She was scratched all over, and she looked like she had a faint trace of bruising around her right eye. She looked—tired. Determined. Most [Princesses] that Elia had met just looked vaguely exhausted with social niceties or fending off courtships.

This one had a sword, and she stood like she actually knew how to use it. Calluses on her hands—

Elia answered after a moment.

“He was going to slaughter the entire world. I saw it in his eyes. His Goblins were massacring armies, and the entire north of Izril was burning. I never regretted that. If you’ve met Goblins who talk and speak—well, so have I. I saw what they did eleven years ago. Bring him back from the dead and I’ll do it again.”

If I can. 

She was not that heroine. It really was a lucky shot when he was already dying, and for some reason, he stopped…

The [Princess] looked Elia up and down. Elia knew that she wasn’t impressive anymore in cheap, ill-fitting leather armor and with a plain bow. But—there was some strange knowing in Lyonette’s eyes.

A weary recognition that annoyed Elia until she tried to find the falsity in Lyonette and just saw another woman who had seen monsters far more dangerous than her.

And survived. That wasn’t surprising or new to Elia. She had met more Named-ranks and Gold-rankers with those eyes than she could count. That woman, Yvlon Byres, had had the expression that made Elia think she might become Named-rank.

In Lyonette du Marquin’s gaze was something else. Not the determination to face down the Goblin King, no. If Elia could do it, then she had met thousands with the same determination. They’d been around her and fought in the same war.

Rather, it was that weary apprehension, the nervous fear of someone who wondered if she’d be strong enough to protect anything the next time it happened. The desperate eyes of a mother, and she was so young.

Elia had seen those eyes in a mirror. She stopped, and the two recognized one another, loathe as either one was to admit it. Lyonette collapsed her hands together. She studied Elia, and her ire faded, as if looking at her for the first time. Then she spoke.

“My daughters are in danger. That’s why I need you to guard my inn, Elia Arcsinger. I could try to run away with them. But they’ll never leave. And I don’t think—even if I run back to my kingdom—that it would help. Someday, something terrible will come for us. I need to stay. Stay and level. But I am truly, utterly, exhaustedly tired of seeing my friends die. No more. Work for me and teach my silly little [Archer] how to shoot like that.”

She pointed at the sky where Elia’s arrows had flown. The half-Elf blinked down at Lyonette, and the [Princess] held out a hand. The half-Elf shook her head.

“You’ll never get them under the same roof as me. Your Goblins.”

“My Goblins will hate and fear you. But if they stay—they’ll surely level. If you can face the Goblin King, they can face you.

Elia had never thought about herself like that. Nemesis of Goblins, but never that the ones who took arms against her had courage.

“I don’t trust Goblins. Or Antinium, for that matter.”

Elia hedged, and Lyonette just nodded.

“Then take a shot at the next Goblin King who emerges. Or the next Goblin Lord. Be my guest. But the ones I know can dodge.”

Just to confirm, one last time, Elia Arcsinger took a huge breath as she studied Lyonette. Not for money. Or even curiosity. Just because she had a damn daughter. Two, no less.

Elia knew what that was like, and she was as young as…

“I don’t like you. I’m positive you don’t like me. Of all the adventurers in Izril, why me?”

The [Princess] offered Elia a smile that was too old for her, as sad as the passing of time. Filled with memories.

“Well. You’re one of the few I can ask around me. The others are all pursuing things. Saliss. Colth. Eldertuin. You’re the lost one. And the cheap one. I got a second chance, once, and it saved my life. I became someone else. Someone I think is better. It’s the end of winter; even you might change.”

Lyonette glanced up at the skies, and they didn’t magically part to show blue skies, but she smiled at the snowflakes anyways. Then her eyes had a bit of water in them.

“Mostly, though? You’re an archer. The Wandering Inn always likes adventurers with bows. I’ve never met a bad one yet.”

That’s your reason?

Lyonette shrugged, and Elia laughed despite herself. She raked a hand through her hair. How long since she laughed? Was this a good idea?

“If you start tonight, I can offer casserole for dinner. And a chance to possibly die.”

The Named-rank adventurer stared at Lyonette with narrow eyes, and an [Assassin] tailing the [Princess] raised his head.

Gold. The reputation of the inn. The [Princess]’ own charming smile and offers. All these things were considerations.

The last was just pride. Elia Arcsinger grudgingly took that gloved hand and shook it once.

“Show me. I’ll take a contract for one night.”

The [Princess] just inclined her head, and Elia Arcsinger followed her down the street. That was how she came to a magic door and a crowd of protestors that the two golden [Knights] pushed through. She noticed an [Assassin] slip through the door and almost drew an arrow on him, but Lyonette told her that he was the latest hire before her.

That stumped the half-Elf so much that she followed the [Princess] into a crowded waiting room where people stared at her—and she stared at a group of undead skeletons walking past her with hammers and nails.

A Lamia was inspecting the walls of the long hallway that gave her shivers; she stared at arrowslits, and a little Goblin hiding behind the walls shrieked her name. The Lamia was too busy arguing with a group of adventurers holding a wrapped object in one hand to even pay attention.

They led her into the common room of the inn, and it was just an inn—except it had multiple species. A Goblin in the kitchen holding a bag of something and a knife with a dozen smaller Goblins behind him.

Elia almost drew her bow. A screaming Hobgoblin with a pegleg ran at her with a sword until Lyonette tackled her. A gang of kids stood on a staircase, and a white Gnoll girl that Elia vaguely recognized pointed at her in horror.

The Named-rank adventurer just stood there and saw a bunch of Antinium, horrifyingly different, lined up with a bunch of chairs they’d been arranging. One of them had an apron on that said ‘Hug the [Cook]’.

The half-Elf was rubbing her eyes when a Gnoll popped into existence behind the bar and did a double-take at her. Then he grinned and joined the huge argument Lyonette was having with the Goblins.

One of them shouted at Elia and threw a mug; Elia caught it. She waited as the [Princess] pointed at her, and then a female Antinium with an amazing metal bow buzzed down from the staircase and slammed into a table. The Antinium scrambled up, and Elia realized she’d instinctively offered it—her—a hand up.

Shouting. Fighting. Golden [Knights]. And the Order of Solstice. Elia flinched when she saw the [Knight] in azure armor, but he just tipped his helmet at her after a moment. The [Princess] was running to and fro, gesticulating, pointing at the [Assassin].

He was giving a tall woman with similar red eyes to his a very nervous look, and Colfa walked over and linked arms with Vaulont the Ash. Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle beamed at him, and Lyonette pointed at a trained killer—and Elia.

The angry Goblins and the two girls that must have been her daughters, a Gnoll girl and a witch, whispered to each other. At this point, Elia leaned forward and got confirmation that they were not biological daughters, because she would have had huge concerns given how old both were.

After a while, the Gnoll girl walked over and solemnly shook Vaulont’s hand, handed him a notecard of greeting, and offered him a slice of cake with a glass of warm milk. She gave Elia two digits and a glare.

The fighting continued, but the Goblins seemed to take it as a personal challenge. As the [Princess] ran about, talking about ‘the night plan’ for some reason, demanding her people find decks of cards, talking to a Gnoll with weird sunglasses—Goblins kept swaggering up to Elia before running away.

She recoiled from them each time one appeared, and she was worried that they’d attack, but the one with the pegleg, named Peggy, just jerked her head at Elia in a challenge.

“Soldier. You soldier. I am. Then someone cut foot off.”

It was the most accurate description of Elia that anyone had ever given. That was what she had been when she met the Goblin King in combat. The fact that a Goblin said it…

There was a Gold-rank Captain that Elia swore she’d met before. He seemed to think they’d met quite often. There was also a Silver-rank team who introduced themselves to her as Gemhammer. And a lot of [Necromancers].

Just…over a hundred. Every time Elia stared out the window, she saw them building in the snow, undead skeletons by the hundred. Of course, she’d visited nations with [Necromancers], but they were so scarce that she completely missed her face and just poured her mug of milk onto the face of a Gnoll girl giving her a sinister look next to her table.

Since the Gnoll girl had apparently put spices in the milk, that turned out to be a good thing. Then a young boy sat down at the table across from Elia and demanded she teach him how to shoot a bow. When she asked who he was, he introduced himself as a [Lord] of House Veltras.

A giant Ashfire Bee chased him off. At this point, Elia let the Gnoll named ‘Ishkr’ lead her onto the third floor of the inn and lay down in a bed for a second to check if she was having a fever dream from eating bad turnip soup.

She came downstairs after twenty minutes, feeling determined to roll with anything like a Named-rank should.

Grimalkin, the Sinew Magus of Pallass, Hedault, the famously reclusive [Enchanter], Salamani, the Mage Runner, and Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril, were sitting around a table with what Elia swore was a [Pirate] and another [Mage].

Elia went back upstairs. She heard the inn getting busier. She got up when she heard scuffling and saw the white Gnoll girl and a Cave Goblin were trying to open her window. They had a bucket of water. When they realized they’d been caught, they tried to run. The Cave Goblin leapt away, and the girl went tumbling down the roof.

Elia opened the window with a shout and saw a golden Thronebearer leap out a window and break the girl’s fall.

Elia closed the window.

The boy, Sammial, was back. She pushed him outside and closed the door. When she heard the lock being picked, she strode over to the door and yanked it open.

Saliss of Lights stood there, naked.

 

——

 

When Elia Arcsinger came downstairs, they were having dinner. And a [Princess] was dancing.

Her staff were angry, bemused, or amused.

There was a pile of Chemath Marble in the snow. New hires were looking around the inn, and ‘Captain Toad’ had his head in his hands. The inn was filled with merry villagers of Rheirgest, [Mages], and guests, like a Drake [Guardsman], the Councilmembers of Liscor, even an old Drake who just stared at Elia until she realized it was Chaldion of Pallass.

There was music playing. Someone had activated some song crystals from the Singer of Terandria, and a pair of Humans were teaching a skeleton with a fiddle more music.

Lyonette du Marquin was dancing in the center of the room. She had to be exhausted, but she swung a surprised Thronebearer, Ser Dalimont, into a waltz. She could dance. Elia watched, eating some spicy chicken casserole that tasted delicious—and saw the [Princess] switch partners.

Next, she danced with the Antinium, Rosencrantz, then the Gnoll with sunglasses, Yelroan, who blinded Elia with those flashy spectacles. Then even Peggy—before doing a dance with her daughter, Mrsha.

“Some inn.”

“It grows on you, Miss Elia.”

The Named-rank adventurer jumped at her table in the corner, and she saw the little witch girl, Nanette, smiling around the inn.

“Oh. You’re Lyonette’s other daughter?”

Nanette Weishart blinked at Elia, then sighed.

“Me? No. My mother is dead.”

Elia stopped eating. Nanette adjusted a non-witch’s hat on her head, a bowler, and looked at Lyonette.

“She’s trying. Lyonette’s not bad. 4/10. Compared to Witch Califor. That’s very good, you know. Also, Calescent put spices in your casserole.”

“Is that why it tastes so good?”

The witch opened her mouth, then suspiciously asked to try a bite of Elia’s dish. Her face turned bright red, and she ran off. Then Elia realized a Goblin had made her dinner.

Her mind exploded for the umpteenth time. But all the while—you had to give it to her.

She had an amazing poker face. Elia Arcsinger sat there until the excitement in the inn began to fade. She accepted a note from the girl, Mrsha.

I’m watching you. You better wash your butt.

Then the girl yawned, and people were filing outside, and the night grew deeper. Then—someone handed Elia a uniform to wear, and she found Lyonette to ask if she was being pranked again.

“No. You said you were just working for a night, right? Come now, Vaulont. You took the same offer. It’s just for a night. Keep the mask.”

Elia and the [Assassin] traded glances as the Lamia, Hexel, dashed to finish his work. A great anticipation ran through the inn, and she felt a tremor going up and down her spine she hadn’t felt in a long while. Her bravado from before, her incredulity that Lyonette could back up her claims, began to become riddled with doubts.

Then the final act of the night began, and Elia Arcsinger finally beheld The Wandering Inn.

 

——

 

The Wandering Inn was quiet just past midnight. All through the house—well, inn—not a person was stirring. Not even a mouse. Or bee.

The point was, no one was awake. The [Mass Slumber] spell took care of that, even the villagers of Rheirgest outside.

He was coming. He had arrived. The figure grinned to himself as he adjusted his hood. A walking sock puppet shuffled forwards, then cursed.

“This hood is hot. Is this the best the [Tailors] could do on short notice? Really?”

A giant, blue, bobbing sock with huge buttons for eyes, the ever-popular character Rhissy from the hit television show in Ailendamus—paused—and threw back the hood.

Duke Rhisveri, or rather, the artifice that the world knew as Rhisveri, fumbled with the ridiculous costume. Honestly. He felt like he should have just animated another cloth puppet. But the problem with the Rhissy puppet was that it had crucial weaknesses.

It was even weaker than ‘Duke Rhisveri’, who was rated as a Level 57 [Duke of Supreme Sorcery] in Ailendamus’ records. Using his actual puppet body let Rhisveri sense things, smell, and react even faster than usual.

More importantly—the good [Duke] had hands. He could open drawers. Rhissy had a lot of problems with doorknobs.

The costume was stupid. But Rhisveri felt like he had to wear it the third time. He shuffled forwards in the full-body puppet outfit. A blue sock hopping through the snow towards The Wandering Inn wasn’t the most menacing. However! It would show that stupid Antinium and that uppity [Princess].

He was hoping one or the other took a shot at him. He had cast the spell over the entire inn, and the Antinium and [Princess] were the only one who’d ever actually held it off, but a [Princess] could have annoying powers to shield groups. Rhisveri had an entire plan.

Gently beat them down, castigate them with a few one-liners he’d written up, grab the wand, point out, sarcastically, that if he had been a foe, they’d all be dead and that he was on Ryoka’s side, then get the wand to her.

Since Visophecin was out-of-contact, someone had to hold the Wind Runner’s hand for her. Not that he was helping! No, it was just that she’d never get anything done with the wand if he didn’t get it to her.

Besides, this was just…an amusing distraction. He wasn’t running away from his duties or House Shoel’s deals. Or Dionamella. Or Fithea…

Enough of this. Rhisveri kept hopping forward, waiting for that arrow. Then he’d dodge, leap onto the roof, and that Antinium would find out what happened when ‘Rhissy’ started throwing hands.

Rhisveri was so busy thinking about it that he almost didn’t realize there was a faint glow coming from the shuttered windows. Or that someone else was watching him with their mouth slightly open.

“I don’t think I’ve actually seen that in my entire life. Which is amazing, in hindsight.”

The sock puppet froze. It spun—and Tolveilouka leaned against one wall of The Wandering Inn. The half-Elf had a curved blade at his side, blood-red, and was bare-chested, pale-white robes.

Who the heck was—he was dangerous.

The Duke’s hands tore out of the sock puppet in an instant, pointing a glowing finger at the half-Elf as he conjured a magical blade into his hand. He was an adept fighter, even with this fake body.

“So, the [Princess] hired a bodyguard. Name yourself before I give you a light thrashing.”

Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer just stared at the talking sock puppet with the muffled voice of Rhisveri coming from inside. He delicately rubbed at his eyeballs with two fingers.

“For the sake of your dignity, let alone mine, I suggest you hop away, sock-sorcerer. I have a little date with this inn.”

He grinned with all his teeth.

And I hope they’re prepared.

Who was this? Rhisveri, the Wyrm, was in no real danger since he was puppeting the Duke, but his warning bells were going off like crazy. Then he realized he was still in the costume and began to dismiss it—until he thought better. It was a good disguise, however silly.

“I have business with this…place as well. Don’t disrupt my activities inside, and I won’t interfere with yours.”

He sneered at the half-Elf. He needed to get that wand. If this fellow was here for a fight…

Wait, didn’t this inn have children in it? How irresponsible! Rhisveri didn’t care for mortals. But Ryoka Griffin did, and if she blubbered and died of dehydration from tears…

He groaned.

Okay. No playing games. Get in, get the wand, throw the children out the window—the snow would probably cushion their impacts. Get out. Have House Shoel find out who this half-Elf was.

Tolveilouka was just leaning against the wall, smiling. He hadn’t moved nor responded to Rhisveri’s generous offer.

“Well?”

The Duke snapped at him, and the half-Elf looked past him.

“I don’t negotiate with socks. Begone, you amusing little thing. I don’t even think you’re really here, are you? I’m no master-mage, but you remind me of all those Archmage cowards who used to strut around with fake bodies. As if you can’t hurt the real thing. So long as there’s a link—I found a way.”

Okay. Rhisveri really didn’t like that. The Wyrm snarled and began enchanting both his main body and his fake one.

“A battle here benefits neither of us. I have work to do. Begone.

The half-Elf pushed himself up, and Rhisveri backed away a step, but Tolveilouka just fished in his robes and pulled something out.

“As it happens, I was invited.”

What? Duke Rhisveri stared at a bright yellow letter with a golden sunburst on it.

That’s the seal of Calanfer. And if I don’t miss my guess, that’s some kind of invitation Skill. Tolveilouka pulled the door of the inn open.

“It seems someone here has a backbone, even without that woman. Ready or not? Here I come.

He strode inside, drawing his sword, and Duke Rhisveri hesitated. Oh—damn!

He charged in after Tolveilouka, ready for an attack from the half-Elf. But all he found when he entered The Wandering Inn was—

A door.

The front door was open, and Rhisveri knew the layout well after two entries. There should have been a long hallway leading to the left where the portal room was. But instead, there wasn’t. Behind the front door was a small space where Tolveilouka stood. And another door.

The [Portal Door]’s room was off to the left, but someone had walled off the corridor. And the new door—it was very new; Duke Rhisveri could smell the fresh varnish—had a sign on it.

Welcome to The Wandering Inn! If you’re here to travel, please stay within the inn! The main inn is closed to uninvited guests, and we are undergoing construction outside! If you have to poo, the outhouses are directly outside on the right.

A slightly more ominous line was scrawled below the friendly writing.

Don’t go past this door. You have been warned.

The wooden sign was hanging on a nail. Tolveilouka half-turned as Rhisveri stopped.

“Well, you’re a slow learner. I wonder what will happen? Tag along then, you silly sock. My sword tells me I won’t have much trouble with you. I wonder how many little [Necromancers] she’s lined up?”

Rhisveri didn’t say a word. Tolveilouka pulled the second door open. The half-Elf and Duke Rhisveri blinked.

There was…a third door beyond the second one. Another little room.

Hello! If you’re reading this and you’re a member of staff, please use the secret entrances to enter the inn! If you’re not, you’re stupid and you can’t read. Turn around! Bad things await!

Right, the secret entrances. Duke Rhisveri surreptitiously felt at the fake walls and tried to open them with a cantrip. It…didn’t work.

“Hm. Right here?”

Tolveilouka turned and kicked the wall where Rhisveri was, and the Duke swore and dodged. He was fast! The sound was tremendous—but muffled.

“Someone’s enchanted the walls. Not bad.”

It was barely dented by the impact. Rhisveri was sure he could get through the magic…in time, but Tolveilouka just turned back.

“This is amusing. I wonder wh—”

He pulled the door open, and his smile vanished. This time, Duke Rhisveri sniggered as the half-Elf’s eyes flashed.

There was…a fourth door. The Wyrm was down with this sort of humor.

Seriously! We mean it! We don’t take responsibility for horrific things that might happen to you if you keep coming! Are you a Creler? Crelers can’t read. If you’re something nasty that deserves to die, keep coming. Stupid.

Tolveilouka pulled the door open so hard it slammed against the wall. He strode forwards, and guess what?

Fifth door.

Okay! You asked for it!

This time, the half-Elf ripped the door off its hinges with one arm. Casually. Duke Rhisveri strode after him, finger raised with a [Disintegration Ray] spell. He assumed the doors were meant to warn him. Ryoka’s ally of convenience or not, the [Princess] couldn’t stop him with a few arrowslits. Her staff were passed out, and if she had a hundred [Knights]—

He and Tolveilouka found themselves in a long, long corridor. Far longer than the inn should have allowed. The half-Elf’s lip curled.

“Skills. Pathetic.”

He shot down the corridor towards the next door. Rhisveri followed more slowly. He’d knocked everyone out in the inn…or so he’d assumed. He hadn’t actually verified that. And his internal sense of danger didn’t like long corridors.

The arrowslits are gone. Someone’s boarded up the murderholes—what was going on? He didn’t want to let the half-Elf get ahead of him, so the Duke’s body strode ahead, confident he wouldn’t be harmed even by an attack that bypassed his shields. He only realized what was odd after the third second of being in this hallway.

Wait a second. The walls are fake. The walls are—

Then, along both sides of the hallway, someone pulled a string or moved some contraption—and the walls slid back and revealed what was truly set into this trapped corridor.

Magical runes of [Insanity].

They flared to life the instant they were revealed. Bright magic. Tier 5 spells! Not just one, either—hundreds—

Who made this? Who had the time and resource to—Duke Rhisveri threw up his hands, but the runes were burning their magic through his arms. Trying to affect his mind—

 

——

 

“Argh!”

Across the ocean, the Wyrm convulsed a second as the spells assailed him en-masse. However, his mind was not that of a mortal; his own eyes unfocused, and he began to bury the spells trying to disorient him. He took control of his mortal body and cast a counterspell.

 

——

 

“[Mind of the Tranquil Monk]!”

Panting, the Duke Rhisveri recovered. He stumbled and wondered if the half-Elf was going to go crazy. That had worked on the Wyrm! The half-Elf didn’t have a hope of—

Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer was frozen in the corridor, bathed in the glow of the insanity spells. He was not immune to them, not fully. His eyes were wide, and there was a snarl on his face.

And both his eyes were open wide, straining. Both eyes—and an eye on his cheek. And forehead. And one staring out of his ear—

Duke Rhisveri recoiled as he saw eyeballs opening up all over the half-Elf’s body. They were pupilless, pale-white, and swiveled towards the attacking magic. They opened, blinking, and the half-Elf stared at every single Rune of Insanity assailing him at once.

What in the name of the Great Forests is he? Even the Wyrm was unnerved by the self-defense mechanism. Tolveilouka took in one huge breath, and his head twisted around on his shoulders a hundred and eighty degrees.

“Clever. Now I’m annoyed.”

The two were frozen by the unexpectedly powerful trap. They had both fought the effects off, though—

Light illuminated the two.

Tolveilouka spun his head back towards the far door leading to the common room. Rhisveri blinked. They should all be asleep! They should be—

An arrow pointed down the corridor straight at Tolveilouka’s heart. The half-Elf raised his sword, blinking in the light, and saw a Named-rank adventurer raise her famous bow.

Elia Arcsinger, the Named-rank adventurer, held her bow, fully drawn, hair shining in the light coming from the common room. For a second, she looked like that heroine Rhisveri had seen on the scrying orb.

Ambush. He sensed other people behind her, but the half-Elf didn’t loose. She just stood there as Tolveilouka recoiled, then set himself with a snarl.

She could have hit us while they pinned us down with the runes. Rhisveri realized the runes were angled on the walls, too. Such that if you were coming into the inn, you’d see them, but Elia was afforded a shot without worrying about the effects.

Slowly, the half-Elf lowered the bow as Tolveilouka and Rhisveri waited. She stepped sideways, and to both’s surprise, she held a hand out.

“Welcome to The Wandering Inn, guests. You’re both right on time.”

“Hm.”

Tolveilouka moved first. He strode forwards, and Rhisveri walked after him. What was going on? He saw Elia staring at him and realized he still resembled a giant, walking sock puppet.

—That was Named-ranks for you. She didn’t even blink. Rhisveri, for his part, did a double-take when he saw her.

Was she wearing a maid’s outfit? Then he saw a figure to his right and recognized a Vampire when he saw one.

Vaulont the Ash was on the other side of the door in a butler’s uniform, though he’d kept the mask. He was staring at the two of them, but holding his hand out like Elia.

Two high-level fighters. The [Princess] had bought a lot of muscle since he’d last been here. He could have taken them. With preparation. Duke Rhisveri had to admit, it was a good trap, but the [Princess] had shown her cards.

She’d never stop him. Nor the sneering half-Elf who looked around the empty common room.

“Where to now?”

“Down the hallway, over there. Can I get you something to drink first?”

A light illuminated someone behind the bar. Ishkr, the Gnoll, was polishing a mug with a very nervous Rufelt. Rhisveri and Tolveilouka stared. Then they pointed at a hallway on the far end of the common room to their right.

That doesn’t lead to any part of the inn that should exist, based on its structure from the outside. Rhisveri, as a Wyrm, had a very acute geosense, and he instantly spotted another place made out of a Skill. Tolveilouka just snarled.

“I received your mistress’ taunt, Gnoll. ‘I challenge you to appear tonight at my inn’. Here I stand. How many more little games?”

“Just one. Please, gentlemen. You two are the last to arrive. A drink? No? They’re all on the house.”

Ishkr put the mug down, and Tolveilouka stared. Then stormed down the corridor. Rhisveri followed slower.

What the heck was going on?

 

——

 

The hallway that led to the [World’s Eye Theatre] was dark, but there was a light coming from the far end. Not a bright one; when the two emerged into the vast, domed auditorium, they saw the light was due to a single spotlight from the eye of the glass dome overhead.

The rest of the dome allowed those below to see clear starlight above, and Tolveilouka halted as he saw what had been set up in the center. Rhisveri walked forwards as well, then came to a dead standstill.

It was an ambush, a trap, a scheme. Both had known it the instant they’d seen the second door inside the inn. But here was the thing about a Wyrm and an undead monster of yore.

Neither one cared. They were both supremely confident they could murder their way out of any situation. A challenge from a mere [Princess]?

They had to take it. And the [Princess] had known that too.

So, here was the question for all the gold in The Wandering Inn: how did you stop a Rhisveri or a Tolveilouka?

Yes, you could buy a Named-rank’s support. But five Elia Arcsingers, even ten?

These were the most dangerous beings in the world. How could you stop one, even with a hallway of Runes of Insanity? Even with a Vampire [Assassin]? Even if you hired Elosaith, got the Order of Solstice, and a Doombearer—how did you keep the inn safe?

It was the question that Lyonette had put to the Quarass of Germina. And that other old immortal had given her an idea. The twists were Lyonette’s.

What the two beings saw in the center of the theatre, in that circular stage, under a pool of yellow light, was…

A table. With a ring of chairs around it. A young woman with red hair was sitting with long, white gloves on her hands and a dress of blue puddled around her. A circlet was in her hair, a Cloak of Balshadow around her shoulders. Two [Knights] stood behind her.

She was shuffling a deck of cards.

“What.”

Duke Rhisveri stared down at Lyonette du Marquin. Tolveilouka just exhaled.

“And now I murder her. She gets one point for novelty.”

He stood there cheerfully, sword resting on his shoulder. The [Princess] riffled the deck of cards expertly, using a [Flawless Attempt].

“Good evening, Duke, Tolveilouka. Would you care to sit anywhere? A drink? We have an excellent [Bartender] for the night.”

Your Highness! You’re as arrogant as many I’ve met. Tell me why shouldn’t I just murder you for wasting my time? If you wanted to protect this little place—this was not how to do it.”

Tolveilouka strode down the stairs two at a time like a beaming gameshow host. All energy, style, and murderous hatred. Rhisveri hurried after him, wondering how many senses the [Princess] had taken leave of.

“I don’t believe I invited you to a duel, Mister Tolveilouka. I challenged you. To this.”

The cards splayed across the table. A magical deck. The half-Elf sneered and loomed over her as he came to a stop in the center of the theatre.

“You think I’d deign to play with you? This reminds me of the old Djinni game. Where fools try to win a game of chess or something against a Djinni. I always laugh when I watch the Djinnis rip their arms off. What’s stopping me from doing that right now?”

He leaned over, his mouth open in a smile revealing more and more teeth as his gums and lips pulled back impossibly far. Lyonette didn’t move.

That would be—

Duke Rhisveri began to speak when a figure suddenly stood. They had been hidden, invisible in a seat, but the old man shed the illusion spell as Tolveilouka whirled.

“That would be us. Come, come now, Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. What’s the harm in a small game between equals?”

Teriarch, Dragonlord of Flames, stood there, and Rhisveri choked on his words. A second figure stood up, cup of rum in hands. Taletevirion, silver-haired, flicked his gaze up the stairs.

“And me.”

Tolveilouka was full snarl now. His eyes flickered between the two.

“So she has you two on a leash, is that it?”

Neither immortal rose to the bait. Teriarch, wearing the old, august form of Demsleth, put a cigar in his mouth and lit it by tapping one end. He grinned with pointed teeth.

“Hardly. I simply received an invitation. I’m not the only one who accepted.”

“Oh. Um. Is this where I reveal myself?”

Another voice. A woman, a Human woman, floated down, looking vaguely uneasy, but Archmage Valeterisa joined the table. Lyonette du Marquin’s smile widened as Taletevirion turned. Then she gestured as the air flickered to her right.

“And as our second guest, aside from the inn’s regulars, may I present Her Majesty of Calanfer, ruler of the Eternal Throne, Queen Ielane du Marquin?”

A woman appeared in one of the chairs. Rhisveri had seen Queen Ielane of Calanfer numerous times via spying spells, on tour, or even in person. He thought he’d never seen the blank look of surprise on her face before.

It vanished after a few seconds, but Lyonette wasn’t done.

“Next, His Eternal Majesty has graciously agreed to spend some time with us. I present the ruler of Everlasting Khelt—King Fetohep!

He walked into frame as her voice rose like an announcer, and the undead ruler of Khelt sat down, his robes shimmering around him. He lifted a cup in hand and sipped.

“A splendid introduction, Your Highness. Your Majesty of Calanfer.”

“Your Eminence of Khelt.”

Ielane breathed. She might have stopped as Lyonette, smiling like a madwoman, continued.

“And finally, our last guest among equals—the ruler of a Shield Kingdom, the Immortal Quarass, ruler of Germina!”

A girl appeared in the chair across from Lyonette, legs crossed, a look of amusement on her face. Her brows were raised, her eyes fixed on Tolveilouka.

“I am here at your request, Princess Lyonette du Marquin.”

“For what?

Tolveilouka hadn’t flinched away from the other faces, but now his guard was up, and he was angry—but there was a spark of curiosity in his eyes. For answer, Lyonette picked something up.

It was a golden…stick. A thin bit of crude metal—poorly cast, but Rhisveri’s eyes locked onto it.

Pure gold. She tossed the stick down on the table.

“These are our…chips, I believe they’re called. I invited you all here to play cards. With your own funds, of course. I have had some rather rude guests here of late, and even my established ones grow rather uppity.”

She gave Teriarch and Taletevirion a pointed smile, and Valeterisa seemed hurt when the smile included her. Lyonette shuffled the cards again ostentatiously.

“Shall we? I apologize if you thought it was a challenge, Tolveilouka. I merely meant an amicable pastime. Between equals. With teeth. If you don’t wish to attend or, of course, if you can’t afford to participate, feel free to leave. You may stay and watch, of course. Drinks and snacks are on me, though I cannot provide the same to my other guests.”

That struck a nerve. Tolveilouka’s eyes lit up with a smile.

“You are insolent. Do you think I’m a pauper, perchance?”

He strode down the table and made a show of picking up one of the little golden sticks.

“How many gold pieces are you playing for?”

He pulled out coins and let golden ones shower over the table. Not just gold, Rhisveri saw.

Ones made of platinum, steel, even gemstones! Lyonette didn’t blink as Fetohep tsked quietly and the Quarass’ gaze sharpened. The [Princess] picked up a beautiful coin made out of mithril—then flicked it over her shoulder.

“Please, Tolveilouka. Individual coins? What are we, peons? The sticks are representative of larger sums, of course.”

“What sums?”

Demsleth was smiling as he drifted over to the table. Taletevirion was still staring up at Duke Rhisveri and checking his drink for some reason. Lyonette spoke as the Dragon sat down.

“One hundred thousand gold pieces.”

Ielane made a sound. The Quarass kept smiling, and Valeterisa twitched—but Fetohep of Khelt chuckled drily.

“Ah. Small stakes. Appropriate to begin the night with.”

The others were playing into it! Rhisveri was frozen on the stairs. He knew it was a trap, but then he saw Ishkr marching down with the tray of drinks, and as heads turned, Rhisveri tried to saunter down the stairs.

Teriarch noticed the final newcomer as Taletevirion walked over, nudged him, and pointed. He had doubtless sensed Duke Rhisveri already, and he murmured.

“Ah, and here comes Rhisveri. Good evening, friend. Hail. I thought you knew better than to meddle in—”

His eyes rose, and his mouth fell open. Rhisveri sneered back.

“Teriarch. If we’re going by names, I suppose you don’t mind me mentioning yours?”

Ielane’s eye snapped to Teriarch, but the Quarass just nodded at the Dragon as if confirming what she had suspected. Fetohep’s gaze narrowed at Duke Rhisveri, but even the Quarass stopped and rubbed at one eye.

What? What?

Oh—Rhisveri suddenly felt a prickle down his back, and Fetohep coughed into one fist.

“It is…an unusual attire for a [Duke], but I am informed the show is so popular, even my subjects enjoy the tales of The Windy Girl and Rhissy. Truly, modern fashion boggles the mind.”

He was still wearing his sock costume. Rhisveri nearly tripped and tumbled down the steps. He threw back the hood of his costume hurriedly.

It didn’t help. Teriarch and Taletevirion were staring at him, and he very clearly heard the Unicorn lean over and whisper.

How badly did you say you hit him?

Not that badly. I swear! Maybe he thinks it’s fashionable? Do we have a word with—

Rhisveri dismissed the costume in a hurry and tried to sit in a chair and lounge. His real body was blushing crimson along its entire length. Damn the [Princess]!

“Cards. Right. I suppose I have a moment. I was simply advertising the show. National pride and all that. A hundred thousand gold pieces? My, we are playing for chump change, aren’t we?”

He tried to sneer at her, and in response, Lyonette just beamed at him. She reached down, lifted a small metal bucket onto the table—and poured a pile of golden sticks down in front of her.

At least thirty. Teriarch stopped reaching for a cup and plate of fries. Ielane seemed to have stopped breathing. Even Rhisveri’s eyes bulged.

“I don’t believe we need to enforce anything with a contract at this moment. We’ll settle the amounts later. Do let me know if you’d like to back out.”

No one said a word for a second. Then someone began to laugh.

Tolveilouka. He sat back in his chair, looking from face to face, and his chuckle became him throwing his head back. When he stopped, he looked at Lyonette and grinned.

“Oh—very well. This should be fun. You think I can’t match this game?”

He reached for the bucket and scattered two dozen golden sticks onto his side of the table. Now pride was on the line. Teriarch was licking his lips nervously, and Rhisveri was suddenly, acutely aware of how much gold he had in Ailendamus’ treasury and his personal holdings.

Plenty! But each stick cost enough to arm legions of Hydra Knights! Was she mad? How did a [Princess] have this much money in the inn?

The [Princess] just lifted the deck in her hands and smiled.

“The Wandering Inn can cover all the costs of our players. Let’s play a variety of card games. I suggest ‘poker’ first. It’s very simple. Oh—our three remote players will have to use their own decks, but I’m sure we can ensure no cheating is done.”

Her eyes glittered, and Rhisveri, already casting a spell to let him see through the cards, felt the magic vanish as the Archmage of Izril lifted a hand. As did Teriarch.

“I would hate for someone to spoil the mood of the game, indeed, indeed.”

That old Dragon smiled so innocuously that Rhisveri knew he was about to cheat. Well, Rhisveri could sense anything that the Dragonlord did and call it out! He sat forwards, and a Gnoll placed something down. A basket of the golden sticks.

“Anything to drink, sir?”

“A Hydravenom Courser, on the rocks!”

“Bloodwine, no bones.”

Tolveilouka didn’t look at Ishkr. He was just eying Taletevirion as the Unicorn requested an entire bottle of Rxlvn.

“Anyone keen on not playing? Mother? How many sticks would you like?”

The [Princess] was throwing jabs out in every direction. She smirked at Queen Ielane of Calanfer, who was, incidentally, probably among the poorest of the players present.

Valeterisa and the Quarass had loans from the inn; the Quarass had fourteen sticks arranged in front of her. Valeterisa, seven, looking incredibly nervous. Taletevirion, after hissing with Teriarch, had taken out twenty, and the Brass Dragon was harrumphing as he demanded the same number, clearly covering the Unicorn’s costs.

Tolveilouka played with his sticks as Rhisveri took out thirty, just to match Lyonette. Fetohep had merely requested ten ‘to begin with’.

Queen Ielane?

Her face was back to a calm, even amused smile. She sighed and looked like she was dismayed, delighted, and even overwhelmed by such august guests.

And I thought I was related to snakes. Rhisveri glanced at Ielane as the Queen of Calanfer turned to her daughter.

“I do believe I would enjoy playing a few hands of this delightful game of…poker? If you will have me. I would so terribly hate to have to ask my husband to cover my silly costs at a casual game, though. I’m sure my daughter wouldn’t mind spotting me a few of her sticks, would she?”

Every eye turned to Lyonette. The [Princess]’ face went slack, then she grouchily flicked four sticks at her mother.

Then every head was turned towards a Gnoll with sunglasses, who dragged over a chalkboard and began to explain how the first game worked. And the world’s most devastating poker night—

Began.

 

——

 

Elia and Vaulont were just window dressing. They wore uniforms and watched as Lyonette gambled with rulers and immortal beings at a table, betting fortunes on each hand of cards.

This was her madness.

This was the [Princess]’ gambit, and even the Quarass hadn’t expected an invitation, much less for Teriarch or Taletevirion to show up.

Of course, they rolled up and played. Pride was on the line. Or they thought they could win. That was how they got you.

You know who wasn’t here?

The Titan of Baleros. And Magnolia Reinhart. Lyonette hadn’t forgotten about either. She had invited them, and both had bowed out.

Did you know why? Because both of them saw the trap and decided they wanted no part in it.

Of course, you had an ancient, undead Revenant, the last Wyrm, the Dragonlord of Flame, an Archmage, a Unicorn, and rulers of might and magic at the table.

The canny Quarass, the Eternal King of Khelt, Calanfer’s queen—

They thought they could win.

The fools. The house always won.

—Okay, Lyonette was down sixteen sticks of gold already, and she stood up to get some water.

They were really good at playing cards, it turned out. She stepped to the side, and Dame Ushar hurried over as Rhisveri crowed and swept more sticks of gold off the table.

To make things easier, they’d made a rule that you could put in little coins, which were worth ten thousand, or split a golden stick in half for a mere 50,000 coins. The Wyrm had already amassed a pile larger than the one he started with.

“Your Highness?”

Ushar made a show of blotting at Lyonette’s face, but the [Princess] wasn’t sweating that badly. She was making it seem to the others like she was panicking worse than she was, and she made a show of gulping down her water.

A touch of Calescent’s death-spice helped add to her flush. Lyonette murmured.

“Some of them may be cheating. I suspect the Quarass is with a Skill, but I can’t prove it. Do you mind making a call? Those two are destroying us.”

By ‘those two’ she meant Teriarch and Rhisveri. The two, Wyrm and Dragon, were either getting extremely lucky or they had a silent pact to cheat with magic. No one, including Valeterisa, was able to call them on it. Ushar smiled.

“At once, Your Highness. Whom?”

“Archmage Eldavin. Excuse me, guests! We have another player I believe is waiting to join. And I must step out for just one second—Nerul?”

The [Diplomat] slid over to the table like a shark in bloody waters. Teriarch froze as a half-Elf appeared—and the two gazed at each other and recoiled. Teriarch whirled to Lyonette, and she gave him an innocent look.

“Archmage, hello! Let me just summarize this delightful night—”

“Quarass, I am a fan.

Nerul was bowing to the Quarass, who gave him a faint smile.

“Diplomat Nerul of Salazsar? You are known to us.”

He visibly puffed up at the table.

“That is an honor. A complete honor! I would love to ask you about some of the famous maneuvers you’ve pulled off. The inventor of Umbral Throne diplomacy herself!”

“Er. Yes.”

Fetohep, Ielane, even Eldavin and Teriarch turned in their seats abruptly and stared at the Quarass. None of them had known that. Nerul beamed at the ruler of Germina and leaned over.

“This is a fascinating game. Full of cheating, no doubt, with Skills and magic aplenty.”

“Not while I’m here.”

Eldavin calmly spoke, reaching for a cup and locking gazes with Teriarch.

“Nor with me.”

The Dragon growled, eyes alight with malice. Nerul chuckled.

“Ah, but the best cheating is just the sleight-of-hand stuff. I’m just here as another player for a clean, lovely game! I’d hate for someone to accidentally play another four-card hand because she forgot they’re hidden under a pillow.”

Every eye turned to the Quarass, and the girl gave Nerul a cute smile, acting entirely innocent.

“Why, [Diplomat], I’m just a child eager to learn this game. I am terribly influenced by my new form.”

“One imagines, one imagines…”

“Why don’t we all move to chairs, then?”

Teriarch gave the Quarass an evil look, and she rose from a pile of pillows that Lyonette had thought was a bit off to want to play in. Lyonette rubbed her hands as she watched.

Oh yes. Now it began.

 

——

 

The trick was not to try and beat the players. They were all damned good.

Fetohep had an unbelievable poker face. Valeterisa was a genius; the other immortals were cunning, excellent at reading faces, and Queen Ielane could act with the best of them.

Lyonette had to take a break to freshen up. She was sweating like a cow. She assumed cows sweat a lot; she actually had to change out of her clothing into a fresh dress.

“You is sweating like a Carn Wolf in the summer. Here, here!”

Peggy and a group of female staff surrounded Lyonette. They had damp cloths and sprays of perfume; Octavia offered Lyonette a drink, and the [Princess] gulped it down.

“How much gold are we down?”

Goldbody handed Peggy a towel, and then Lyonette was getting dressed again. Rosencrantz called out from behind a curtain.

“We are within Yelroan’s projections, Miss Lyonette.”

So I don’t want to know. The [Princess] was still sweating; it wasn’t the alcohol or the heat around the table. It was the stress.

“Calming tonic?”

Octavia handed her a vial, and Lyonette tossed it down. That helped—a bit.

“You got this.”

Lyonette took a few breaths, then went out, all smiles. Half the gamblers didn’t even notice the change in apparel.

They could do this.

Nerul was calm at his table; everyone else was on edge, especially as multiple wills collided around them. The [Diplomat] showed no visible signs of unease, and only Ishkr was as relaxed as Nerul. He was enjoying this, damn him.

Lyonette was, in some vague sense, but terror was mixing with her sense of excitement. It was working, mind you.

The trick was to play them against each other. Lyonette let the main table go on without her; Nerul played three games, and she came back to lose two more handily.

She had taken lessons from Rhaldon, Rose, and Rufelt about some of the card games, but she was out of her league. What Lyonette noticed was how the other players, well, played.

Valeterisa was probably the weakest by far. When she had lost all but one stick, she freaked out and began only using smaller denominations. She won her way back up to six sticks, got to eight, then alternated sitting out games and gambling with tiny sums of money. If she won, she took only a fraction out of the pot—Lyonette summoned Relc and offered the two of them a bottle of wine and the use of the Drathian Garden.

Get lost.

Taking out someone who would lower the tempo of the games mattered, and nursing the egos of the other players was important.

 

——

 

Fetohep, for instance, was actually too rich. He didn’t bat an eye after losing and was playing for the love of the game; Lyonette spun him into another table with lower-stake hands. He was only too content to chat with players not keen on betting huge sums.

“It has been a while since your visit, Adventurer Arcsinger. I trust your injuries have quite healed?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you.”

Elia played a card. The second table used regular gold coins, even silver. A sweating Gnoll girl with a mustache tossed down a card and instantly regretted it. Nanette was actually doing alarmingly well, as was a blind [Emperor] that Lyonette had sent for as a distraction.

“Adventurers are a delight upon nations. Or a curse. What would be your view upon their presence, Your Majesty of Riverfarm?”

Fetohep turned his head to Laken, and the younger man glanced up.

“Given how the last visit from Adventurer Arcsinger went, I rather regard their presence as unwanted, Your Majesty of Khelt. Without my express permission.”

“Indeed. I take the same approach. Do you cultivate much art in your empire, perchance, Emperor Laken?”

“Totems. Carved trinkets, mainly. The Unseen Empire deals in symbology, it seems. I have less of an appreciation for them—I prefer music.”

Laken passed a hand over his face and smiled. Gamel whispered in his ear as he fiddled with his cards. Fetohep leaned back.

“Naturally, naturally. I believe the phrase is…‘go fish’.”

 

——

 

Once she got rid of Fetohep and Valeterisa, the table really heated up. It was about rivalries, Lyonette realized, and there were a lot to go around.

Eldavin intensely disliked Teriarch. Teriarch felt the same, and both had enmities with Rhisveri and played aggressively, bidding him up even at the cost of their own hands at times. Actually, the entire table seemed to have it out for Rhisveri.

Queen Ielane should have been out from the start, having only four sticks to work with and no inclination to continue playing, but she played exceptionally conservatively until she thought she could win. She was on seventeen sticks and counting, and Lyonette was annoyed to realize Ielane really was good at gambling.

Taletevirion and Tolveilouka were another duo who hated each other. But here the, uh, balance of power wasn’t so fine.

“Psst. Teriarch. Lend me another ten sticks.”

The Unicorn reached for some, and Teriarch hissed at him.

How are you out already?

The Unicorn was drunk. And a bad gambler. He had an unusual lucky streak; for instance, he’d literally pulled a full house on the first try in poker. Mrsha had told Lyonette that he had some kind of luck powers.

However, lucky or not, Lyonette had let him slide because he was horrifically bad at the game. Tolveilouka had twenty-nine sticks, mostly due to Taletevirion. He was a good gambler, held his liquor well—

Lyonette strode over, voice sweet.

“Taletevirion, why don’t you have a seat in the audience? You’re looking rather tired. Ishkr? Bring him a bottle, would you?”

When the Unicorn saw Ishkr trotting out with a bottle—and Rosencrantz—and Peggy—each with a bottle on a tray, he decided he was done gambling and took all three bottles. He was worth the effort and cursing from Rufelt, who was making drinks to take him out.

After all—when it was down to Eldavin, Teriarch, Rhisveri, Ielane, Lyonette’s seat, the Quarass, and Tolveilouka, the real knives came out.

The Quarass was clearly determined to make money today. And she was probably the finest gambler, both in Skills, cheating, experience, and her ability to read her audience in the entire room.

Everyone lost gold sticks to her. She was social as well, playing them against each other.

“How long has it been since we had a meeting like this, Teriarch?”

“I can’t recall, Quarass. You are looking in rather good shape, though.”

“I can recall.”

Eldavin stared at Teriarch, and the Dragonlord’s eyes flashed. The Quarass merrily watched as they bid up her winning hand, then turned and innocently spoke to the side.

“You do have fine taste in clothing, Tolveilouka. From what area of Drath is this from?”

“The ship [Captain] never said. I suspect the Satoreni islands. You’ve…been to Drath? You sound like you’re old enough. But I don’t remember you.”

Tolveilouka stared suspiciously at the Quarass. She gave him an innocent look.

“Well, I have never heard of your master…? Is he a contemporary of the Immortal Tyrant, perchance? Some lesser figure at the time?”

A vein popped out in Tolveilouka’s temple. Rhisveri leaned over, scattering a few golden sticks into the pile. He had started out winning, and despite being back to where he’d started, he looked confident, pleased at besting the others and ‘beating’ Valeterisa, Taletevirion, and Fetohep.

“These names come and go. I’m sure you’ve heard of Ailendamus’ rapid rise to the forefront of Terandria, haven’t you, Quarass? Youth and innovation triumph over age and nostalgia every time.”

Everyone turned to look at him, and the Quarass frowned as she put a hand to her cheek.

“Yes, I am glad you could attend the game, Duke Rhisveri. I would have thought Ailendamus might need to husband its wealth, even as large as it is, due to the reparations from the war.”

“Reparations? What repar—we’ve paid nothing. The war is ongoing, and I resent the insinuation we’ve lost! Battles happen. Raise!”

It was actually a bit horrific. Lyonette had used a rotating group, including Nerul, herself, Rufelt, and Ishkr, to play the hands. They mostly lost, but they kept their losses small after her initial run of bad luck, and by the time two hours had passed, they had recovered half of their defeats.

At this point, Ielane, the Quarass, Eldavin, and Teriarch had emerged solidly as the ones getting ahead from where they’d begun. Tolveilouka was getting angrier and angrier as he fell behind. So was Rhisveri.

“You have to be cheating. Another Hydrablood!”

“It’s called natural talent, young man.”

Teriarch rifled the cards as Ishkr instantly produced the drinks. Rhisveri made an inarticulate growl.

“Don’t lecture me. If this wasn’t a civil game—”

“You’d what? Send your Viscount out to fight?”

Eldavin was leaning over his chair, and Rhisveri half got up.

“I don’t walk out to deal with pesky flies. I delegate.

It was Tolveilouka who laughed derisively and made Rhisveri flush.

“The entire room is lucky I remember what style looks like. Don’t waggle your tongue in front of your betters.”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen! Let’s all have another drink on me. Another game? Give me one second to put my daughters to bed—I see that yawn, Miss Mrsha! Who’ll take my place? Oh—Yelroan?”

The Quarass’ head rose, as did Ielane’s, but the immortals didn’t notice. Rhisveri, Teriarch, Eldavin, and Tolveilouka just grunted or nodded as the Gnoll sat down, sunglasses on his face. Smiling.

There was a story that Rhaldon had told Lyonette. She hadn’t been sold on asking Yelroan, of all people, to gamble. But Rhaldon had explained to her that when you got down to it, a lot of games like these were all about numbers. And she had one of the world’s greatest experts at them in her inn.

Yelroan began to run the table. He did it slowly at first, getting a feel for the game, but he was counting cards in a way even the Quarass couldn’t—even if she knew the technique.

At around four hours in, Yelroan was up big, and tempers were starting to flare. He’d been accused of cheating more than once, but since no one could call him on it, the mood at the table grew ugly.

 

——

 

In the end, nerves took the [Mathematician] out before Lyonette judged he had exhausted the others’ patience. He was on his fifth ‘Octavia drink’ when the [Alchemist] pulled Lyonette aside.

“He’s had too many Calming Tonics, Lyonette. And he looks ready to throw up.”

He did, at that. Lyonette sent a round of drinks and food to the table and got Yelroan out of there. He collapsed ‘backstage’, in the common room.

“Sorry. Sorry. My stomach is in knots. I need the outhouse and—”

“You did great, Yelroan. Take a break. You’ve set me up for the finale.”

The [Princess] assured him, and Rosencrantz ripped open Yelroan’s tight-fitting suit so the Gnoll could breathe. The [Mathematician] panted as Octavia hurried over.

“Okay, you’re a bit over your potions limit for the calming tonics. Drink this neutralizer. Good news? You’re going to have the calmest poop in the world. Bad news? You’ll be hitting the restroom all night. Lyonette, you need one for the table?”

Lyonette rolled her shoulders and gazed around at her team. They were all stressed, but they’d survived thus far—she glanced back at Elia and Vaulont and wondered how those two were handling things.

“I’m good. I’ll finish things. Get Mrsha and Nanette to bed, and Yelroan, send over the contract as soon as you’re out of the restroom. Nerul needs to have it ready if you’re busy.”

“No fear. I’ll take the contract in the restroom. Just tell me when.”

Yelroan got up, and Lyonette passed by the staff, giving them high-fives or getting pats on the back.

 

——

 

Then Lyonette returned. She sat down as they went back to her best game: poker. Rhisveri brightened up at the return of a weaker player.

“Enjoying yourself, Tolveilouka? You’re looking mightily in debt there.”

The half-Elf had pulled golden sticks out of the bucket three times so far. Rhisveri? Five. They were probably both still liquid, but Rhisveri had a desperate look in his eyes, and he kept betting larger sums. The half-Elf didn’t dignify the Wyrm with a reply.

“I said, you’re looking a bit—”

“Shut. Up.”

A throbbing vein had appeared sometime on Tolveilouka’s temple, and another had appeared on another part of his face with increasing regularity through the night. He was on the edge—Lyonette stared at a three-of-a-kind.

“Very well, I can see we’re all getting tired. Let’s begin wrapping things up, shall we? All in.”

She pushed fourteen golden sticks into the center of the table, and the room went quiet. Ielane stared at her daughter; she had dropped the act after a few hours and begun chain-smoking.

Rhisveri folded after a second’s hesitation. Tolveilouka called. The Quarass called. Eldavin folded. Teriarch folded.

The Quarass had a straight. Tolveilouka had a pair and lost dreams. Lyonette hadn’t expected to lose. She blinked as everyone chuckled at her empty side of the table. Then, blank-faced, she reached into the bucket of golden sticks and placed twenty on her side.

The laughter—

Stopped.

 

——

 

The final act of the night was the terror of immortals. They’d all lost money on this game at times, or counted how much was actually being spent and bet lightly, trying to get ahead.

They were rich.

Oh, so rich. From Eldavin to Teriarch to Rhisveri, they’d learned to accumulate wealth, to grab it and hold on. Lyonette?

Lyonette put nineteen golden sticks into the pot on the second big hand she had and took it all. Whenever she got a hand that she and Yelroan had worked out to be ‘worth the risk’, she threw golden sticks into the pot.

That scared them. She didn’t care if she lost it. She hadn’t had ‘it’ long enough to freak out over losing ten golden sticks.

Lyonette had a box that spat out as many golden sticks as she needed. The aggressive gambling began to freak out the others.

Ielane was the first to step out, then the Quarass. Eldavin was next, having begun to lose gold he couldn’t afford. Lyonette’s pile of gold only grew after that; and now, it was only the players who had everything to lose.

Teriarch, Tolveilouka, Rhisveri. No, that wasn’t right. Teriarch was still pulling gold sticks into his pile now and then. The other two were in a spiral. They were in the hole or the well or whatever gambling term you wanted. The water was rising, and there were sea snakes in the well. And Creler eggs.

The mood was dark and dire. The rest of the audience—the children had gone to sleep—were watching the horror show as a glassy-eyed Wyrm reached into the bucket of golden sticks the eighth time.

“Running out of gold, Tolveilouka? I’m good for anything.”

Sweat was making Rhisveri’s brow drip. Tolveilouka was slumped in his seat, staring into the distance.

“It’s just metal. Who cares what comes and goes? But I’m getting sick of the other people at the table. The [Princess] is the most agreeable of the lot. The two of you? I’m adding you to my list of things to do.”

The Dragonlord of Flame’s eyes were glowing.

“What a splendid line of reasoning, Tolveilouka. Your master’s foes and killers, if any live. The Horns of Hammerad for the effrontery of their bravery. Myself for having a splendid cardsense?”

The half-Elf half-rose from his chair with an ugly expression on his face, but Rhisveri drained his cup.

All in! Come on, you pathetic old-timers, show me what you’ve got!”

Tolveilouka took the round; Lyonette had folded. She winced as she saw the blood drain out of Rhisveri’s face. She couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit bad for him.

“Watch your tongue, Rhisveri. I like to have fun and threaten people. But you are truly, utterly upon my nerves.”

Tolveilouka’s voice was very calm as he shuffled. Too calm. Rhisveri reached for his cup, found just melted ice water and dregs, and tossed it at Tolveilouka.

“Talk is cheap, and all you do is pose, you—poser.”

Liquid splashed on Tolveilouka’s chest and face. He stopped shuffling. The theatre went quiet.

“Gentlemen? Outside.

That was all Lyonette got out as Tolveilouka rose to his feet in a flash. Rhisveri surged upright, sneering.

“Fine by me.”

“I think that might solve some things.”

Teriarch rose, and the three of them headed for the stairs. Elia gestured, clearly wondering if she should—Lyonette shook her head warningly. However, someone had come back for a refill of her wine bottle, and the Archmage of Izril swooped down.

“Is this fisticuffs? I’ve heard that’s what happens outside of bars after you drink. I never did that when I was studying. Let me join in~”

Valeterisa floated after them, and Lyonette winced. She made a gesture, and Ishkr tried to grab Valeterisa. He slowed her down a bit, but she just flew out a window when he barred the common room door.

 

——

 

Rhisveri strode out of The Wandering Inn and waited, swaying a bit. Thanks to the sympathetic link, the Wyrm was experiencing drunkenness, but he was still enchanting himself.

“[Lion’s Strength], [Haste], [Fists of—]”

The following moments were fast as Teriarch emerged, fists ready for a brawl, and Valeterisa floated overhead and Ishkr tried to catch her with a net. Rhisveri turned and began to throw a punch as the door opened and the half-Elf stepped outside.

Tolveilouka grabbed Rhisveri as Teriarch began to stride forwards, fists raised, and cracked his head into the wall of the inn.

“You—”

The half-Elf kneed the Duke in the chest, then began dashing his head against the wall of the inn as Rhisveri flailed. Tolveilouka’s face was completely blank.

Rhisveri lunged with a swinging fist and ate a counter that made his Human body’s nose crunch. He tried to pivot—Tolveilouka had two legs tangled around one arm! Tolveilouka had the Duke down in a hold, and then he began punching the Wyrm in the head.

“St—d—

Teriarch took one look at the violence ahead of him and hesitated. Valeterisa looked down, blanched, and instantly sobered.

IquitthefightIapologize!

She fled indoors. Rhisveri tried to react, but Tolveilouka punched an eye into its socket—and even with his magical body, the Wyrm couldn’t fight back. He tried to get up and ate a kick—

The half-Elf fought without hesitation, and after a while, a horrified Nanette put her hands over Mrsha’s eyes. They were watching from their window. The two children had taken a look, and the fight behind the inn never turned into a brawl. The horrific impacts of Tolveilouka taking out his temper on the Duke Rhisveri went on for a minute.

“I think he’s had enough.”

At last, Teriarch and Taletevirion managed to pry the half-Elf off the Duke. Tolveilouka turned and walked back indoors. Teriarch, wincing, stared down at the Duke Rhisveri…or what remained of him.

“At least it’s only his fake body. Come on, Taletevirion. You don’t need to heal that. I don’t even think you can.”

“Dead gods, he destroyed him. I haven’t seen a back alley fight that bad since—he didn’t have any sensations linked to his body, did he?”

“Don’t be stupid. He didn’t polymorph or do a simulacrum.”

The two hurried back inside. It took a long, long while before Duke Rhisveri got up.

 

——

 

Well. Lyonette reckoned she’d had the final gambit of the night in a literal sense. When Rhisveri finally did return to the inn, he didn’t look different. But he was very quiet and very sober.

“That was entertaining. Remind me again how this stops me from hanging around the inn?”

Tolveilouka and Rhisveri had lost a fortune in coin, and the tally Yelroan had kept told Lyonette that unless Tolveilouka was as rich as, well, the Quarass now was, he was going to have to sell off a lot of his master’s artifacts to make up for the cost.

Somehow, judging by how he lounged with a final cup in hand, she doubted he was in any hurry to settle his debts. Rhisveri, on the other hand…

“Germina is quite content to wait till the end of the week for the Merchant’s Guild to begin sending transactions.”

The Quarass was delighted as could be, and she smiled around. Her eyes said—if you don’t pay up, I will be sending [Assassins] to collect.

“The Wandering Inn will begin sending the gold immediately.”

The Duke stared at his tally as Yelroan presented it to him. He went a shade paler, and Teriarch closed his eyes when he saw the bill that Taletevirion had racked up. The Unicorn was already gone with five more bottles of wine for the road.

The suffering of the other players wasn’t Lyonette’s concern. She turned to Tolveilouka, and the half-Elf was smiling.

“Quite a lot of fun. It reminds me of the times before, when my Master and I did such things. Feel free to try and collect.”

He looked pointedly at the players he’d lost coin to. They all stopped, and Lyonette’s voice was sweetly surprised.

“Why, Master Tolveilouka! You don’t intend on honoring your word?”

“No.”

He laughed. Then pushed himself upwards.

“Why did you think I would? I’ll tell you what, put on another night like this and I’ll come by again. It might even earn you a bit more time. Especially if you send someone like that for me to teach a lesson to.”

Rhisveri’s eyes gleamed with fury a second, but he said nothing as he sat there. Lyonette would deal with the good Duke later. She leaned over the table as Yelroan wrote something down and signed it.

“Tolveilouka. Your welcomeness as a guest—a good guest—is something I may allow. But a threat to my inn? Unacceptable. I hereby bar you from appearing near my inn at any time in the future unless you are without malice or motive to harm me or anyone I am connected to in any way.”

The half-Elf stopped draining his cup of wine and set it down. He exhaled.

“My. You were doing so well. Am I to assume our lovely guests will stop me?”

He bared suddenly sharp teeth.

They can only come after me after the fact. Now, why don’t you leave it at idle, useless threats? Or should I give you a small reminder that yon Teriarch was never good at keeping his mortal friends alive?”

He stepped towards Lyonette, casually reaching for her. Dalimont and Ushar were behind Lyonette, and Elia raised a bow as Vaulont tensed—but Lyonette held out a hand.

Tolveilouka’s fingers stretched for Lyonette—and stopped as a network of glittering, golden chains appeared in the air. Crisscrossing—snaring his hand. He blinked—yanked a hand—and Lyonette spoke.

“Master Tolveilouka. I believe you owe The Wandering Inn a substantive debt. As it so happens, I anticipated you wouldn’t be willing to cover your gambling. So I covered the full cost with our other players. Which means you currently owe me…well, I shan’t even like to say.”

“What’s this?”

The half-Elf tried to touch Lyonette again—and frowned as he pulled at his arm. The Quarass was smiling.

“I thought so. He predates Nerrhavia. He’s never seen a contract Skill before.”

The half-Elf looked up, and then he figured it out. His eyes flickered to the golden sticks, and Lyonette wondered how powerful millions of gold coins of debt could make a Skill. Even one far below his level.

“You can’t stop me fr—”

He was about to breathe something at Lyonette when his jaw locked up. The [Princess] smiled as the half-Elf’s eyes bulged.

“Unfortunately for you, Master Tolveilouka, I can, actually, force you to stay away.”

His pupils narrowed until they were tiny pinpricks of rage in his face. Tolveilouka tried to take a step and couldn’t. Then he frowned.

“—You’re not doing it. Who is—?”

“That would be me.”

The half-Elf slowly turned his head around, and there she was. Queen Ielane du Marquin was calmly smoking on her puffer stick. Lyonette gestured.

“I’m not the best with contracts. But my mother is. She has graciously decided to hold your debt for me.”

“Oh, so clever. A [Queen] and a contract. On me. You think you can hold me?”

Tolveilouka switched back from ire to amusement at once. Queen Ielane just raised one brow.

“I am a [Queen], and I have a lever made up of gold enough to bury you, stranger. Stay away from my daughter. A debtor has no business around a [Princess].”

His eyes flashed, and Tolveilouka began to grow, skin bulging. Lyonette shoved herself back from the table, heart pounding, and looked for the Quarass. She had said that even with a huge debt, this part might b—

The Quarass was gone. Wonderful! Lyonette saw Tolveilouka’s face mottle, turning to dead flesh, and everyone backed up as his voice grew deep.

“You think you can best me, little [Queen]? I’ve eaten rulers far greater than you.”

Queen Ielane said nothing. Teriarch watched, tensed, and Tolveilouka began to grow into another form—

And stopped. Like something was suppressing him. Forcing him to shrink. To remain a half-Elf. His eyes bulged. They filled with blood.

He and the Queen of Calanfer locked gazes and didn’t look away. The air began to vibrate. The golden sticks rattled off the table, and Queen Ielane slowly, and ostentatiously, blew a trail of smoke from her mouth.

Abruptly, Tolveilouka stopped growing. He was a half-Elf again, beautiful, laughing, spreading his hands.

Well done! I haven’t been so thoroughly bested in ages. You win, you win!”

He slapped his chest, his thigh, and turned dramatically. Then glanced back at Lyonette.

“Tell your precious [Innkeeper] I’ll remember this, along with the rest of what she owes me. I have better things to do, anyways.”

He strode up the theatre, and Lyonette exhaled. Then she collapsed into a chair. Her mother just raised her brows.

“I suppose that was neatly played, Lyonette. Do send me my winnings soon. It was almost worth the time. And I shall remember what you owe me. Later.”

She vanished. Lyonette stared at the place she’d been, wondering if she’d replaced Tolveilouka with someone worse. But then she heard a sound.

Applause.

The Quarass, Fetohep, even Eldavin, Teriarch, and her staff were giving her a round of applause. The monarchs nodded at her, and Lyonette raised a weak hand to wave.

“Oh, please…”

She got up and took a bow. Then another and smiled. She did it. Did you see that? Erin would never have…and there was Rhisveri, still in a state of shock.

She did it. Erin couldn’t have done that.

Erin hated gambling.

 

——

 

Duke Rhisveri hadn’t had a night this bad since Fithea and Dionamella died.

So…he’d had a lot of practice recently. In a way, it was fine. Totally.

He deserved it. Playing a game, wasting his time—the Wyrm’s psychic damage from the beating his body had taken was only matched by the damage to his ego.

Let alone how he was going to explain the costs of all this to the others. Of course, he had his own funds, but he needed to use them for—

“Rhisveri, isn’t it?”

“That’s Duke Rhisveri to you. Peasant.”

He muttered. The card night was over. The staff were cleaning up or had just gone to bed.

A [Princess] sat down across from him, looking exhausted. She’d taken her tiara and cloak off, and she fanned herself.

“I never did ask what you intended to do with that wand.”

“Send it to Ryoka Griffin.”

“Truly?”

The Duke just stared at her, then glanced away. A mortal who bested me. He’d always laughed at the notions of Dragons losing like that, and here he was.

“Oh, just leave me alone. You can’t use a debtor’s Skill on me. I’ll pay.”

He winced at the thought. Ailendamus was not going to…

“I’ll cover it. We should have just enough gold.”

The Wyrm’s head rose slightly, and he gave the [Princess] an incredulous look.

“You’ll what?

At the end of her night, at the end of her rope, Lyonette was yawning. She looked tired and terribly exhausted. Perhaps that was why she didn’t mince words with him.

“I will pay it. I don’t intend to make you miserable. That wasn’t actually the point of the night. It was only to stop that thing.”

She nodded at the chair where Tolveilouka had been. Ishkr was carefully pouring oil over it. He struck a match and stared at the two of them.

“Sorry. I’ll do this outside.”

“I’ll help.”

Demsleth levitated the chair up, and the final act of chair carnage for the day was mercifully done out of sight. Rhisveri stirred a bit.

“How in the world did you get a monster like that after your inn? I can see why he—wait, you lumped me in with him?

He grew outraged. The [Princess] just sighed.

“You showed up at my inn dressed up as a giant sock.”

“Rhissy. He’s a beloved character. Children adore him.”

“Well, mine must be safe. I will do anything for that. If you really are here to help Ryoka—couldn’t you have just gotten her to vouch for you? Honestly. What did you expect me to do? I’m trying to keep my family safe. I don’t think I can after today. That Tolveilouka will be back. I don’t need…more enemies.”

Her voice was soft, intense, and the Wyrm looked at Lyonette. Strange. She looked so desperate. That was the expression he hadn’t recognized between the hospitality and all the bait of the night.

“You have nothing to fear from me. This inn…those inside it aren’t worth my ire.”

The Duke began, and the [Princess] slapped him.

It wasn’t a hard slap. But it was fast. She did it without blinking. Rhisveri rocked in his chair, and Teriarch and Ishkr turned to stare.

“You dare—?”

“Take it back. Or I’ll make you pay everything.”

“You—”

Take it back. This is The Wandering Inn. I am Lyonette du Marquin. 6th Princess of Calanfer. You will respect this place and me. Or I will ruin you a thousand times worse than I did tonight.”

Her head was in her hands, propped up, and she was smiling. But the Wyrm stared at her and felt like he was getting a threat from Fithea.

“I…recant my words.”

“Thank you. I’ll pay your debts. Does Ailendamus have any interest in banking gold?”

The Wyrm’s mouth worked, and he ate a [Charming Smile] from the [Princess]. It was, a still- quietly-applauding Dame Ushar thought, a classic Ielane tactic. The Duke sat there, ego mushed into the ground, and Lyonette du Marquin chuckled to herself.

There. Dame Ushar stopped recording on the magic crystal she’d propped up on a chair. She wasn’t sure when she’d ever be allowed to show it, but Calanfer deserved a copy of this. For posterity.

At last, she thought the Queen of Calanfer had gotten a good look at her daughter.

 

——

 

Queen Ielane du Marquin waited until she was sure she wasn’t being viewed in the [World’s Eye Theatre].

“Reactivate the wards. Relay anything Ushar sends at once. Handkerchief.”

She spoke in order of necessity, and her staff, who had remained unseen, calculating the odds of her hands, taking notes, bustled into action. The last request took a hair longer than normal; one of Ielane’s handmaidens gasped.

Your Majesty!

Everyone turned, and hands dropped what they were holding. Ielane calmly dabbed at the blood.

“I may need a healing potion. Someone fetch a towel before I stain my dress.”

It was running from her nose, of course. But also her eyes and ears. She knew what it was.

Backlash. Holding that thing back…

The next thirty minutes were a flurry of activity. It took that long before the bleeding stopped, and Ielane checked the time.

5:12 AM. 

She was sitting in her undergarments, smoking, as a bath was drawn, smeared blood on her skin. Her entire body hurt, and she had a blinding headache. The puffer stick barely helped.

It was then that her most trusted helper among the Thronebearers appeared.

Dame Vensha. She had a cup of sherry, the only drink Ielane had had all night, and another tonic.

“For the blood loss. A troublesome night for a troublesome daughter, Your Majesty?”

Ielane was chain-smoking, running down the sticks into glowing ash. She drank first one vessel, then the other.

“Not especially, Vensha.”

The Thronebearer’s brows rose into her grey hairline, but Queen Ielane just sat there. Staring at an image in her head. A smiling, desperate [Princess] taunting immortals and other powers. Whirling in a spectacle she’d made, lying through her teeth and dancing them all along on a string.

Even her mother.

“Did I know she could gamble, Vensha? Did I know she could smile like that?”

The Thronebearer said nothing, and after a while, Ielane rose to have a bath. She lingered in it for a while and slept in that morning. It had been a long time since she’d taken a day off, but she informed her staff she was not to be disturbed for the entire day.

It had been a long time since she levelled, too.

She wondered what her daughter had gained.

 

——

 

[Princess of the Inn Level 36!]

[Skill – The Treasury of House Marquin obtained!]

[Skill – Enforce Pact: The Chessmaster’s Wrath obtained!]

[Skill – Dance of Blessings obtained!]

[Skill Change – Charming Smile → Enthralling Glance obtained!]

[Skill – Enthralling Glance obtained!]

[Bound Spell – Summon the Throne obtained!]

[Skill – Declare Foe: Bane (Furniture) obtained!]

[Skill – Apista: Form Change (Ashbringer Scourgebee) obtained!]

 

[Title – Gambler of Treasuries obtained!]

[Title Skill – The Gambler’s Dice granted!]

 

 

“Five levels in a night? Five—

Lyonette fell out of her bed, arms and legs flailing. She kept shouting until Dame Ushar burst into the room, sword drawn. Then she did a backflip with [Flawless Attempt] as her daughters piled into the room to stare at her. Mrsha tried one too and landed on her face.

 

——

 

The next day, Lyonette du Marquin sat with a Drake over breakfast. Late breakfast, but Shassa Weaverweb was still delighted to have it.

“I wanted to have at least a few meals in The Wandering Inn before I left. You know, all my friends can’t believe I don’t come here more often.”

“We are something of a hazard. Fun and dangerous, Druid Shassa. I wanted to ask if you’d changed your mind about teaching here. My daughter loves you, and frankly, my other daughter could use some education.”

The Drake had expected this and sipped at some coffee apologetically. It had whipped cream in it! And syrup!

“You know, Lyonette. May I call you that? I see a huge future in Liscor. The school we have right now is small, but if we had more teachers, more classrooms, more lessons—you can teach horseback riding, farming, even skills like rock climbing. Oh, I know, many parents want their children to only take one class, but Oteslia’s always believed these things add to any class.”

“I think so too, Shassa. In fact—what if you had multiple teachers for multiple lessons? I have a list.”

Shassa peered at a list that Lyonette offered to her. She read from it.

“Oh my. Elia for archery? You don’t mean the—

She turned and spotted a half-Elf chewing on a plate of red spaghetti filled with red flakes. Calescent was staring at her from the kitchen, a look of outrage and delight on his face. Then Shassa read down the list.

“Math. Yelroan. Sports, Joseph—who is ‘Garry’ for cooking?”

Lyonette explained, and Shassa gave her a wary smile.

“It would be an amazing education, I have no doubt. If you had people only devoting an hour or two for guest lectures…the problem is finding a good schoolhouse.”

“One can be bought. The Council might allocate a large building for one, and they have a budget. If you took over running it, you might be responsible for all of Liscor’s education. And you could advance a much greener city at the same time.”

The Drake [Druid] had to think.

“I see your point. But Lyonette, that’s all very hypothetical. I can foresee a lot of time fighting for a budget. I…I do like Liscor. But I am a Drake of Oteslia. Leaving a Walled City for this place? No offense.”

The [Princess] smiled, ducked her head, and pushed something over the table.

“None taken. Would this change your mind, if I offered this as part of your budget on top of whatever Liscor can pay?”

Shassa felt incredibly guilty as she saw Mrsha and Ekirra peeking out at her. She smiled politely at Lyonette.

“Thank you, Miss Marquin. But I—I—I—”

Her eyes focused on the number on the paper. Lyonette gave her a helpful smile.

“Note the comma. I’m willing to pay you a salary beyond anything a [Druid] makes in Oteslia.”

“Wh—b—”

Shassa began to stand, but Lyonette ushered her into a seat.

“Sit, please! Take your time. Could you see delaying your return just one day or two, Shassa? I am sure you have questions. Ishkr! Another latté with all the works, would you?”

 

——

 

It was hazing how the staff treated newcomers. All things considered, it was a lighter introduction than starting work and fighting Crelers on your first day.

—But there was some cruelty to throwing a new member of The Wandering Inn straight into the deep end of the pool.

Sometimes they deserved it. Or just needed to be reminded that being part of the inn was, well, not what they expected.

If you had someone like Vaulont join the inn, he needed to respect the staff a bit. After last night?

The Vampire Assassin was carefully consulting with Ishkr as the Gnoll delivered Shassa’s drink to her table.

“So. They’re mostly getting in through the windows?”

“They can unlock them. It’s either that or they just come through the main doors. The Thronebearers are doing their best, but they’re running out of ward spells.”

“There are windows that seal from the inside with clever levers. Most unlocker Skills only work on the principal mechanism. A doorstop can foil an [Assassin] when the deadbolt and magical lock fails.”

“I can ask Hexel about that.”

The Assassin warily nodded and made a tick on his list. Someone else keeping pace with them was Todi, who was nervously adjusting his belt.

“I reckon what this inn needs is firing holes. For when a monster’s chewing on the outside of it. Maybe even wall spells. First thing I want is a place that has line of sight on anything coming towards the inn. Fighting in that hell corridor is all very well, but I pity any bastards outside when the next Facestealer comes knocking.”

“Bird’s tower is going to be immensely fortified. How about that?”

Todi and Vaulont brightened up at that.

“I can see making that a base for now. Do we get free snacks? My team doesn’t function well without regular treats.”

“Right. How many, uh, menu items can be claimed in a single day?”

Vaulont had that on his notes, and Ishkr had wonderful news for the two of them.

 

——

 

They were on board. Captain Earlia had shown up this morning and was deep in talks with Hexel about his work on the inn. Todi’s team was on guard duty, but given the free food they were allowed to have, they all looked way happier than they’d been even guarding Selys’ properties.

Yes…they had all agreed to keep working here long term. Vaulont being the notable standout who’d been on the fence.

And Elia Arcsinger.

The half-Elf was here, today, having a spicy breakfast. Well, decently spiced.

She could have not been. Last night, the Gnoll, Yelroan, had come over and handed her a huge amount of gold, her payment for a single night of guard duty.

But what a terrifying night. She had met each and every one of the rulers who’d been present but never seen them in the same room at once.

And the others? The one called ‘Teriarch’? Taletevirion? Tolveilouka and Duke Rhisveri?

She had met the Duke, of course. Tolveilouka was unknown. The other two struck her as familiar. Hadn’t she met the old man after the Goblin King was slain? With Magnolia Reinhart…yes, back then. And she swore Taletevirion had sought her out at some point right after she’d killed the Goblin King, but she’d drunk more on that night than she could remember.

So it wasn’t like Lyonette had won her over by introducing her to people she hadn’t met. It was just—that Lyonette had summoned them. She had brought them into her inn, tricked some of them, and held her own.

It had changed her. You could almost see she’d gained new levels overnight. Elia wondered how many; they had to be substantive, and they affected her class and even her aura noticeably.

Fine. Lyonette could back up all her claims about the inn being a hotspot for trouble. She still didn’t like Elia, that was clear. The non-Goblins were civil and kept warning her the Goblins would, at the very least, pull pranks on her, including the chef.

Elia was still waiting for the prank. She didn’t know what the hell she was doing staying in an inn with Goblins.

—Oh. Right. She knew why.

 

[Nemesis of Goblins, Ranger of Renown Level 43!]

[Skill – Repositioning Leap (30 Feet) obtained!]

 

She’d leveled up. Last night.

After not leveling for years, she’d done it. Hit a new level.

Yes, you could argue that she’d been building towards a new one for ages with her work with her team, even if it was usually less-than-dangerous questing. But Elia couldn’t deny the obvious.

Standing there, pointing her bow at the two intruders, playing guard duty for the inn, ready to fight, sweating and keeping her face and back straight as possible—

That had levelled her up.

“If I stay at this inn for a month or two…”

After her breakfast was done, Elia patted her mouth with a napkin and went for a walk around the inn in the snow. Her breath was so spicy it nearly knocked a flying bee out of the air; Elia stared at the bee.

“A bee for a pet. And Goblins. But if I can level from this—”

It was like her dream job. Guard duty had a lot of downtime, and she could practice, get paid well, and level, all without putting her life on the line on Named-rank assignments. Even if the [Princess] demanded something more dangerous, Elia wouldn’t be the Named-rank adventurer everyone called on to save the day. Assuredly not; Lyonette didn’t trust her.

It didn’t hurt that part of her actual duties included, well, archery training. After her second lap around the inn, someone began following her. Elia stared at a female Antinium as tall as she was with green-yellow chitin and a silver bow.

“Is this part of my training?”

“…No.”

Bird the Hunter stopped, and Elia faced the lower-level archer. She stared at Bird. Bird stared back.

Communication was neither one’s forte. After a moment, Elia drew her bow and placed an arrow to it.

“I was told to teach you how to shoot arrows. What did you want to learn?”

Bird thought about the question.

“How do you stop someone who is very close to you? And annoyingly fast? I cannot hit them with my arrows. Also, please. I have [Lesser Dragonbreath Arrow], but I cannot figure out how to fire it.”

Elia blinked. But her mouth answered for her, because it was actually a straightforward question.

“If they’re within melee range, you can use your bow like a weapon if it’s sturdy enough. There are ways—without risking them slashing through your bow—to do it. Avelian close-combat tactics.”

Bird folded her arms, then struck an aggressive pose, refusing to draw her own bow.

“That seems very inefficient. Also, I do not like you. Lyonette says you are a good teacher, but she lies. How is a bow supposed to stop me if I do this? Bird at—whoa!”

The Antinium leapt at Elia, and the [Ranger] reacted instinctively. She whirled across Bird’s leap, clipping the Antinium with the edge of her bow, and drew the string back in one movement. After the flurry of snow subsided, Bird stared at the tip of an arrow pointing at her face. Elia was kneeling on Bird’s chest.

“Hm. This did not go how I anticipated.”

Elia got up after a second, and Bird rose. After dusting snow off her carapace, Bird drew her bow.

“I bet you do not know how to activate a [Dragonbreath Arrow]. It is very complicated, you see; it does not easily activate like other Skills—”

The half-Elf raised one eyebrow.

“Have you taken an arrow and tried blowing on it?”

Bird stopped. She stared at Elia. Then at her bow. Slowly, she took an arrow out of her quiver and huffed on it.

Instantly, crackling lightning burst along the arrow. Bird stared at the arrow, then blew with a curious whiffing sound, and the arrow sparked. Elia decided to back away from it as Bird looked around for something to shoot at.

I still don’t like you. But I will allow you to teach me. Mrsha, Mrsha! Look what I made!”

Bird ran back into the inn, and Elia heard a shout of alarm from inside.

The half-Elf decided to keep walking around the inn. On patrol. If she recalled right—wasn’t Bird the archer who’d hit Wyverns in the eyes as they were attacking Pallass?

She might be a good archer. Self-taught, clearly; she doesn’t know any bow techniques. I can definitely teach her. But is she better than me?

Definitely not. The half-Elf was sure her archery skills were better. She’d had decades of practice. Only the masters in the old villages could beat her.

Still.

Goblins.

There was no getting around their existence. Even just seeing one and not being ready for it made Elia reach for an arrow. She had meant every word that she had said to Lyonette. She did not regret killing the Goblin King, even if she had so many unanswered questions about the moment that had changed her life forever.

Could she live in that new tower and just interact with the Antinium and non-Goblins? Could she justify that to herself, morally?

The half-Elf wandered through the snow until she realized, once again, someone was following her. She turned, and this time, she almost drew an arrow.

A Cave Goblin was following her. One of the ones from the inn. She didn’t know its name, but she recognized the greyer tint to its skin that Goblins sometimes had. They could adapt to different landscapes, like desert, caves—why, the ones in Terandria were especially hard to track down.

There were Goblins in Terandria; they just hid in places that still had fewer people, like Erribathe’s wildlands, or in spots no one would think of, like underground or in lairs.

What did this one want? Frankly, Elia was surprised they hadn’t tried to murder her in her sleep. Even after she’d collapsed into her bed, she’d made sure she’d barricaded the doors and windows.

The Cave Goblin wasn’t alone. Elia saw a Hobgoblin and several other Goblins peeking around the corner of the inn.

Peggy gave Elia a huge glower of distrust, and the look was returned in spades. Elia watched the small Goblin approach in the snow. And she realized he was holding something.

In one tiny claw, he held a little stick. Just a crude length of wood. Which was amazing in itself, because Liscor didn’t have that many trees.

But Sticks, the Cave Goblin, could find a way. There was something attached to the stick. Even Elia’s keen eyes had missed it for a second in the winter wonderland. For the piece of fabric was white.

It was a little white flag, she realized. The Cave Goblin waved it, stopped, and then advanced a few more steps.

To make sure she’d seen it.

“What do you want? Does the [Princess] want something?”

Elia called out, unwilling to let the Cave Goblin get closer. Her nerves told her that he might have a dagger. But he kept coming—so she backed away.

Sticks followed Elia for a good minute as she asked what he wanted. He had a determined, frightened look on his face.

So many Goblins she had killed looked like that. Little Goblins fighting when their Chieftains and Hobs had died.

Did a Goblin have a heart? Well, she had seen enough killed to say the answer was ‘yes’.

Did they speak? Could they think? Of course. They were deadly enemies. That was why the Goblin King had overrun Izril.

Did they feel? Were they people? Few people had ever asked her that. 

Did it matter? Elia Arcsinger finally snapped, drawing an arrow and loosing it into the snow.

“Stop following me!”

Sticks flinched. He cowered, one hand shielding his face, but then he looked up and saw the arrow buried in the snow. He checked himself, then waved the flag again.

“What is that?

At last, the Cave Goblin spoke.

“This? This flag. Is white.”

He waved it in her face, and the half-Elf ground her teeth together.

“I know. I can see.”

“Is white flag. You know what it mean?”

The Cave Goblin came a step forwards, and Elia backed up. Then nearly slipped down the hill. Her new, unenchanted boots crunched in the snow, and she refused to give ground in the face of a Cave Goblin.

“Yes. Wait. Do you?”

Her incredulous eyes found Sticks, and the Cave Goblin held the little flag up proudly.

“Yes. It mean ‘no kill. I not fighting. I want peace’. I made this one myself. Is big flag better?”

“Is it…no. It doesn’t matter.”

Elia had once seen an enemy [General] surrender using a handkerchief. A blown handkerchief. She felt a strange feeling coming over her. A lightheadedness.

“Oh. Good.”

Sticks walked forwards, and when she lifted her bow, he flinched again. But then he looked her in the eyes.

He was terrified. Goblins always were of her, even when she wasn’t using her [Nemesis] Skills. But the little Goblin stood there.

“This flag. Does you respect it?”

“A white flag?”

He nodded.

“Yah.”

“It’s—a truce flag. An accord of war. I’d be a criminal if I didn’t.”

She meant ‘in a war’, but the little Goblin brightened up. He smiled with all his teeth, and she shuddered when she saw those rows of shark teeth. But then she saw him hold the flag up higher.

“Good. That bad Human not respect it. You…I has this.”

He waved it again, and Elia nodded.

“I see that.”

“Yah. Then I keep this. So you know.”

Sticks awkwardly stuck the white flag in his tunic, poking it through the fabric. He puffed his chest out, and Elia saw him slap it and wince.

“Ow. This my flag. You do bad things to Goblins, you break promise to flag. You shoot me first if you do. Got it?”

“What?”

He grew angrier and jutted his chest out at her, and she almost fell down the hill again. Sticks shouted at the startled Named-rank adventurer.

I have this flag. You want more? I make more!”

Enraged, he pulled out what looked like a pillowcase he’d been cutting up and produced another stick. Elia stopped him.

“No, I don’t need another flag.”

The Cave Goblin let out a huge breath.

“Good. If you is not a monster, we is safe. You remember.”

He pointed at her, and it finally clicked. The Goblins. They were staring at Sticks and her. Wondering if she was going to draw that bow and shoot him dead.

Do you respect it? He met her eyes defiantly, then turned.

“I is going back to work. You is scary Kingkiller lady. Because Miss Lyonette says so, we give you a chance. Everyone gets one. Even poop-Tyrion.”

He whirled.

“You not get two. Chieftain Rags finds out if we all dead. Got it?”

The Cave Goblin pointed a trembling claw at her, and Elia responded.

“I’m not going to kill you.”

She didn’t want to, she realized. Even if Lord Xitegen appeared and vanished everyone at the inn forever and offered her a contract…they hadn’t murdered anyone. It was just a weird Goblin. One who had talked with her longer than most she had ever met in her life.

“Good.”

The Cave Goblin hunched his shoulders in a breeze of sudden cold. He had no outdoor clothing on; he’d clearly come out to make his point. He turned and began to walk quickly away from her, towards the inn.

The entire way, his shoulders were hunched, and the Goblins watched him and Elia. Waiting for the moment she drew that bow and proved them all right.

Elia did not.

She couldn’t have, even if he had mysteriously turned into the Goblin King or if someone had posted a million gold bounty on Sticks’ head.

For one crucial second, she would have hesitated. For, as the Cave Goblin waddled through the snow, Elia saw something sticking out of his waistband, strapped to his butt and fluttering in the wind.

A second flag. He’d stuck it down his pants just in case she forgot he had one on the front.

She almost laughed, then. But she didn’t. The half-Elf stood in the snow, afraid to laugh, because of what it might be if it came out. She stood there as Sticks high-fived the other Goblins and walked back into the inn.

She should have refused to stay another day. She should have taken the gold and run. Because she could have still quit yesterday.

Now?

If she left, Elia would have another question that would haunt her until she died. And this one…

This one might have an answer. 

The back of that little Goblin was so small. It was inconceivable that it could one day be the same as that of a Goblin King.

But perhaps he might. It could be any one of the Goblins here. Was the making of a Chieftain, or a Lord, in the Goblin called Sticks? What turned them into the killing monsters that ravaged Izril? Or was it a fluke, some cruel twist of fate that had nothing to do with who they were?

Elia stared at Sticks’ back. If he became that Goblin King, her arrow would find him before that tragedy could start again. But until the moment when she beheld that endless fury once more…she wanted to know why.

She had always wanted to know why.

The half-Elf realized she was trapped. She still hadn’t even seen that hill of statues. So she drew her bow and, frustrated, fighting something she couldn’t feel, she loosed an arrow straight up.

Accounting for the wind. An arrow flew upwards, perfectly vertical, proof of her mastery. Elia reached for a second arrow—and her first arrow exploded with a roar in the skies.

A crackling burst of electricity turned into a cloud overhead, and Elia flinched. She whirled—and Bird lowered her bow.

“I have seen that trick. That is easy. Making arrows go perfectly straight up is harder. Teach me that next.”

Elia blinked at him. Then, as so many visitors of the inn had done, she took a huge breath and exhaled. Inhaled again—rubbed at her eyes.

The world still continued to astound her afterwards.

 

——

 

Lyonette stopped looking out the windows when Elia beckoned Bird over and they began talking. All things considered, she thought hiring Elia might actually work. She’d been prepared to give the half-Elf the boot if things had gone wrong.

“Well, we’ll see how she and Tessa do together.”

There was so much to do. But for now, Lyonette walked over to where Rose was leaning on the bar. She was giving Shassa a while to think about her proposal.

Rose had control of another project. The Human girl was peeking at Shassa’s face with a huge grin as she waited for Lyonette.

“Ready for the [World’s Eye Theatre], Lyonette? Can I tell Adetr myself? He’ll freak out.”

“Just so long as you pass this to Honored Deskie.”

Lyonette passed Rose a note, and the young woman stared at it. Then she began to freak out.

“Whoa, whoa! Lyonette! You can’t do that! They’ll murder me! Chieftain Eska will murder me!”

“We’re going to reproduce that fabric, Rose. It only makes sense to—”

You can’t offer to move her to Liscor! She has a tribe!”

“Silverfangs live in Liscor. Just tell her that I’ll offer her this much and if she has helpers—”

They. Will. Kill. Me!”

Rose shook Lyonette’s shoulders, and the [Princess] gave Rose a happy smile. Mrsha beamed and held up a sign as her mother gave her a thumbs up.

9/10 mother. Needs more cake.

And for once, the [Princess] just laughed, turned, and pointed.

“Ishkr? Go and buy us a cake for dinner!”

Her daughter amended her score, and the staff cheered as Lyonette stood there. She leaned back on the counter, and there wasn’t much gold left in the garden. At all. But that was the thing about gold.

There was always more.

 

——

 

The [Box of Incontinuity] began to spit out more gold that morning, to make up for all that had been spent. Faster, the coins raining down.

Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! Pingpingpingpingping—

The noise woke a very sleepy, and slightly inebriated, bee from her nest in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Apista stumbled out of her nest, blearily wiping her antennae against each other.

She’d had fun last night. Though…she’d been all uncomfortable in her nest this morning. As if she couldn’t get situated, despite it being plenty big enough. She buzzed her wings upwards, then wondered why her legs hurt.

…Wait a second…one, two, three, four, five—when did she have six legs? Her prosthetics were gone. And her wings—Apista tried to turn around.

Did she have four? She swooped around in alarm and nearly slammed into a tree. She was going way too fast! Also, also—why did she feel like a peon? Less…majestic than normal? And what was that buzzing sound?

It was so loud. The bee flew urgently towards Lyonette, and there was a shriek as Rose, taking the [Garden of Sanctuary] to the [World’s Eye Theatre], saw Apista buzzing towards her.

The bee had no idea what was going on until she flew over a pond and saw a gigantic bee, fur bright orange, stinger like the death of faces, flying through the air.

Aaah! Monster bee!

Apista dove for cover and hid. Until she realized the buzzing had stopped. She crawled to the pond, then stared at her new body in horror. After a second—she glowed and became her cute, lovable, royal self again.

The bee stared at her reflection. After another moment, she glowed and became a bee from the nightmares of entomologists, the likes of which had once swept over land and sea, burning nations.

Then she turned into her cute Ashfire self. Then into an Ashbringer Scourgebee.

Apista had two thoughts.

One…she could definitely now carry a bottle of wine off from behind the bar.

Two. She wasn’t a royal bee in her new form! This was intolerable! Then Apista wondered how big a queen Scourgebee would be. She flew off to scare the daylights out of someone else with a happy buzz.

 

——

 

Lyonette had no idea what any of her new Skills did, but today was wonderful. Even Apista felt happy!

The Princess of Infinite Gold spread her arms and began to laugh. After a while, she noticed everyone was staring at her and stopped. Then she went about another day in The Wandering Inn.

 

——

 

Selys Shivertail realized there was no real good way to pack a spear. It took her ages to remember that if you didn’t just resign yourself to having a pointy spear around you at all times, you could put an enchanted bag over one.

It made it look sort of stupid, but she didn’t want to accidentally cut herself on her grandmother’s spear.

It wasn’t the flaming one that Tekshia liked the most; it was one of her backup spears, the one she’d nicknamed Fisherfriend. Not a relic-class weapon by far; it was wicked and barbed, and Selys had always been nervous around it. Ever since she was a kid. She’d once caught herself on the barbs and—well—she was lucky she didn’t have scars.

The spear was jet black, and the shaft slowly turned bluer towards where the harpoon-like tip was.

Selys had no idea how to use it right. She’d have to take lessons, but it was hers.

Not as in ‘hers because she had renounced her class, sold the Heartflame Breastplate, and was [Guildmaster] of the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor’. More like hers—because she had convinced Besoid to sell it to her.

Tekshia had left the spear to him, but he didn’t exactly need it either, retired as he was, even though he could use it. Selys had made him an offer that had convinced him to part with it.

He was also, probably, guilty about how things had gone. Selys didn’t want to think about it. She tossed her belongings into the bag of holding.

“Rhata? Haldagaz? Woodchuck? Are any of you coming?”

The animals, Beavers and two rats, milled about. The two rats scurried over with adorable little travel bags somehow tied to Rhata’s tail, but the beavers were less certain.

“I’ll send for you. Someone will feed and care for you, but I’m going. Understand?”

The Fortress Beavers didn’t really get it. They made worried, whining sounds, and Selys bent down, scratched them, and sighed.

“I’m not sticking around this—this place.”

She whirled, yet her angry glance wasn’t meant for her mansion, but—the city.

Liscor.

Lyonette.

That inn. And the Council. And everyone else! They’d refused to do a thing as Lyonette took Todi, Selys’ adventurers. It didn’t matter if Selys could hire people to take over—it just proved everything Selys did here didn’t matter.

It was always about Erin’s inn, even when she wasn’t here. And the Adventurer’s Guild—

Selys stormed for the door and forgot her bag of holding. She came back for it as a carriage parked outside waited for her to get in.

“I’m leaving. I’m going to find those friends my grandmother talked about. She had real friends in the north and south. And when I come back, it’ll be as an Adventurer’s Guild [Guildmistress] and—”

Her voice trailed off. The beavers lined up as the two rats squeaked at her. Selys hesitated and stood there, face twisted with indecision. But when she looked back into her apartment, she saw an overturned mess of furniture. A pile of wine bottles—a broken Mage’s Picture of her and Erin—

“I’m going to make something of myself, Grandmother. My way.”

Selys picked up the spear and used it like a walking stick. She slowly left the apartment, turning, as if hoping someone would call out to her as she walked towards the waiting carriage.

Someone like an [Innkeeper] running down the street with problems and apologies. But she was on another continent. Or a bossy Gnoll—but she was in Council meetings.

The [Princess] was busy at her inn. The cute little Gnoll girl was playing with the witch and her new friends and getting ready for school. The [Necromancer] was in the company of the King of Destruction.

Selys Shivertail was alone. She stood there, bleakly, and then wondered how The Wandering Inn had ruined her life this much. She spun on her heel and got into the carriage.

“There’s more to the world than Liscor. I’m going to see it. I’ll be back.”

For vengeance or in triumph—or however she returned, she didn’t know. Only that she couldn’t stand to be here. The Drake sat in the carriage as it drove out of the city. Mile by mile, heading north instead of south. She should have used the door—but that would have meant entering the inn. So Selys just curled up in one of Wistram’s new, magical carriages.

She wondered how long it would be until they noticed she was gone.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

It is I, pirateaba. I have just finished editing that huge chapter I wrote in one go. Well, I added thousands of words, and it is better for edits. I had a week off, in a sense.

So I used that to write.

I told you, this new schedule allows me to hit side projects while not dying. In this case, I took on a project that I had left for years because I kept saying ‘it’s almost done’. That would be…The Last Tide 2.

Remember the comic? I had written another portion that I wanted to translate into comic-form during COVID, and that caused delays, but I realized I should just do the ending portion.

For reference, it was about 40,000 words already that I had written, and I was going to write the ‘ending’. Guess how many words it is now at the end of the month?

82,000 words. Well, I need to run it by editing and a draft or two, but it’s an example of how I think I overcommitted. Some authors can write multiple books concurrently, but I just put all my energy into writing The Wandering Inn chapters, and that’s great!

But it means if I have other projects like Gravesong, The Last Tide, and other stuff I won’t mention now—I’m letting them lapse. All this to say that I have mostly finished all my writing projects and I’ll actually be ahead starting next month!

After a wedding I’m attending, I’ll be clear on projects. Clear on any big travel events. And then…then we’ll see what this new schedule does for my energy.

Well, I hope you can see an increase in quality, regardless, just from the extra time. Hope you’re enjoying these chapters, and thanks for reading! I’ll be back in June! We might have to look at the polls, though. They did occupy this entire month, partly because I wrote an arc, rather than a chapter. I’ll think about it.

(And yes, I still need a break per month. I probably wrote 40,000 words on top of editing this chapter. You’ll read The Last Tide Part 2 someday! In fact, the original comic is still around. I wonder if the original chapter can go up somewhere? I’ll figure it out.)

Thanks for reading.

 

 

This one is stream art…or Youtube art by the amazing Stargazer Selphid about a time when Youtube was newer! Better! With less trolls and bots! A time that never really was and will never come again, married with Innverse! Give them huge plaudits—it’s amazing!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/megawint/

 


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