5.10 E

“Ressa, how do you suppose an evil tyrant laughs?”

“I have no idea, milady.”

Magnolia frowned mildly as she sat on her pink couch, nibbling at a jam tart.

“It’s just that I’d like to be as authentic as possible. If I’m truly a—what did that girl call me? A ‘cold-hearted tyrannical bitch’, I might as well enjoy myself.”

“As opposed to how you loathe existence in general?”

Ressa stood behind Magnolia, hands calmly folded, watching her mistress snack. Magnolia smiled.

“Yes, well, I imagine tyrants enjoy excess to the fullest. One would hope that a tyranny allows for such indulgences. But enough about the children from another world. If they’re alive, they can stay that way. They may return to one of my holdings—if they can conduct themselves properly around my servants, that is. Servants are not slaves, Ressa. They are not expected to fawn over adolescent children as if they were royalty. I would remind them of that.”

“I shall make a note. Putting aside children for now, Lady Reinhart—we have received a quick response from all the nobles you have selected for Emperor Godart’s gathering in a week’s time.”

“Ah, yes, that.”

Magnolia paused in eating her tarts and a sour expression crossed her face. She half-turned in her seat to the second [Maid] standing behind her.

“Sacra, tell me. Do you think Laken Godart will refuse the invitation outright, or play along?”

“I can only speculate, Lady Reinhart.”

Sacra, clothed and looking like a perfect [Maid], bowed her head. She was not wearing her adventurer’s guise or holding the mace she preferred to use in combat, but Magnolia was quite sure she could use a vase or something similar to cause quite a bit of damage. Magnolia Reinhart smiled at her. The right [Maid] for the right job was something her grandmother had always said. As Magnolia recalled, her grandmother used to employ Selphid [Assassins] and had at least one Minotaur [Butler].

“Speculate away, Sacra. You have met the man in person. What was your impression?”

Sacra was silent for a moment. Magnolia saw her eyes flicker as Sacra recalled her time undercover, posing as the Silver-rank adventurer known as Odveig. She had many identities. It was a shame that Odveig had been outed as a spy, but such was the cost of her work. At last Sacra nodded.

“Laken Godart. He is quite intelligent and cautious. He is aware of far more than his blindness would indicate and he is willing to listen to others’ opinions. If he has a flaw, it is his inexperience.”

“As would befit someone coming from another world. If that is his identity. Go on.”

“I believe he would entertain the gathering simply to avoid offending so many noble families. However…he might be swayed if one of his advisors objected strenuously.”

Magnolia nodded.

“And of those advisors he has…a former [Farmer], a [Witch], and Lady Rie Valerund.”

Ressa grimaced lightly.

“It would be Lady Rie who would object. She was quite opposed to your presence when you two met, Lady Magnolia.”

Magnolia raised her eyebrows.

“You saw that too, Ressa? She hid it well, but she quite hates me, doesn’t she? Hates and fears—an unfortunate combination. However, she seems to have flocked to Emperor Godart’s camp so I doubt she would sabotage him quite so easily.”

“It might be for the best. Her aiding him is a part of your plan, isn’t it?”

Ressa stared at her mistress. Magnolia nibbled another tart and nodded absently.

“It is. Lady Rie is at least adept enough to know that cancelling the gathering outright is a bad move. She will undoubtedly attempt to help Emperor Laken deal with the situation. And therein lies the test.”

“Test?”

In some ways Ressa knew Magnolia quite well, having grown up around her all her life. But where the two differed were their skillsets. Ressa was good at serving tea, managing a household full of servants, and cutting throats. Magnolia was, when you got down to it, a people person. She played political games like she ate tarts—often, and with quite a bit of expertise. She could see how events would play together where Ressa could not.

Magnolia smiled as she turned to look at her [Head Maid].

“Of course. It’s all a test. Lady Rie will help Laken to spite me—or to curry herself favor. It doesn’t matter. She will do her utmost to prepare carefully for my trap. She will be quite poisonous to our good [Emperor], I think.”

“How? Did you threaten her? Manipulate her with a Skill?”

“I didn’t have to. It’s simple, Ressa. Lady Rie will cause more harm than good just by being as helpful as possible. The key is whether or not Laken Godart notices this, and how he represents himself at the party. That is why Sacra is going, and Lady Bethal and Thomast as well.”

“To evaluate him if he fails.”

Magnolia nodded.

“Or if he does too well. There is more than one way to fail a test. With that said—Sacra.”

“Yes, milady?”

Sacra stepped forwards as Magnolia gently pried a ring off her middle finger. She handed it to Sacra and Ressa eyed the ring with serious misgivings. Sacra, noticing, accepted the ring very gingerly.

“I’m giving you this ring in case all else fails. Twist it and aim, Sacra. It’s not hard—just aim at a target and ah, don’t stand too close.”

“Magnolia, that ring could destroy—”

“Ah! It’s just in case.”

Magnolia raised a finger as Sacra held the ring away from herself and looked at Ressa. The older [Maid] made a note to tell Sacra exactly what it did. She prayed no one would recognize it—Magnolia’s wearing it was an open display of power and a threat. Sacra wearing it would be a declaration of war.

Bringing a ring like that into another noble’s home was tantamount to bringing an elite [Assassin] in with you—worse, since all you had to do was point the ring and wait for it to destroy half the building you were standing in.

“Just in case. Worst comes to worse and all that. Either Laken Godart proves himself, or…”

Magnolia left it at that. Ressa nodded to Sacra and the other [Maid] edged out the door. Magnolia sighed as she hunted for another cherry tart on the tray filled with snacks. She mumbled to herself as she did, a sign of stress. She’d lost weight over the last few days with the Goblin Lord’s army on the march, despite her stress snacking.

“The Goblin Lord is headed straight for the Great Chieftain of the Goblins. If he joins his forces with this—this Tremborag, his army might grow strong enough to destroy major cities. You know this, Tyrion. Why are you hesitating to attack? This isn’t like you. What is your plan?”

“He might be building his army further, waiting for the opportune moment—”

Tyrion? Nonsense! He has an army. Why grow it unless he intends to completely crush the Goblin Lord’s army without a hint of a struggle? He could already win. And this [Emperor]—”

Magnolia broke off, sighed, and shook her head. She looked up at Ressa.

“I’m tired of dancing to other people’s tunes, Ressa. Truly tired of it. Laken Godart has one chance to prove he’s worthy of his class. If not I’ll destroy him and his empire where it stands.”

“Is that wise?”

Magnolia paused, a cherry tart halfway towards her mouth.

“I’d like to think so, Ressa. But we’ll just wait and see, won’t we? How long did I give him?”

“A week.”

 

Day 89

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We—”

 

“Emperor Godart?”

I wake up with a start. For a second, the voices keep going in my head, but they grow distant and I can’t recall what was spoken as I open my eyes and look around. That dream. I know it was important, but I still can’t recall what was said. And now I’m not going to. I sit up a bit and realize I was slumped over in my throne, dozing.

“I’m sorry, Wiskeria. What were you saying?”

Wiskeria smiles ruefully and adjusts her pointed hat. It’s late. I rub at my head and sit up straighter, although I’m not in the public eye for the moment. The ‘throne room’ I’m sitting in is empty save for Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. We’ve been discussing Magnolia Reinhart’s sudden invitation—well, demands, really—all day. For a little bit I’d hoped this was just a threat or trick of some kind. But apparently, Magnolia Reinhart means everything she says. This gathering is going to happen, whether I like it or not.

“How many letters have we received today, Lady Rie? Seventeen?”

“Twenty three. That would account for almost all the nobles attending—there are a few families—and I believe the rest will arrive tomorrow via City Runner at the latest.”

Lady Rie’s voice is strained from talking into the night, but she sounds far more elegant and composed than I feel. I turn my head towards where I sense Prost standing.

“So that’s where we are. Mister Prost, we have a small army of the local nobility descending on Riverfarm in a week’s time. They will be expecting a banquet and perhaps lodgings for the night. It’s a social gathering, which means they’re coming here to appraise me and my empire. All of this is taking place at Lady Magnolia’s request. Lady Rie believes it’s a trap or a trick of some kind meant to embarrass me. Your thoughts?”

I hear Prost gulp. It’s an unfair question to ask him, really. He might be a [Steward] but he was a [Farmer] all his life. Still, he rises to the challenge with awkward pride in his rustic voice.

“Trap or not, it seems you have little choice, your majesty. I’m not expert as to the games that nobles play, but Lady Reinhart is a powerful woman. If she wants a gathering, well, why not entertain them nobles and show them as much hospitality as they like?”

“The problem isn’t the gathering. It’s what Magnolia Reinhart has planned. She might be trying to embarrass Emperor Laken, or force an incident at the banquet. It’s risky, and I have no idea what she wants out of this!”

Rie cuts in, her voice frustrated. She’s been explaining this all night, ever since we got the letters. I sense Wiskeria shift and look towards her.

“Wiskeria?”

“We don’t know what Magnolia Reinhart desires. But we’ve debated for hours about the same thing. We can either accept the invitation—not that we have a choice—or cancel the gathering.”

“Which will cause trouble.”

I don’t bother to turn my head as I sense Lady Rie nodding. Wiskeria nods as well.

“In that case, what choice is there? As Mister Prost says, we must entertain the nobles.”

“Not as easily said as done.”

Lady Rie sighs. I nod, but Wiskeria’s summed the matter up nicely. I clear my throat softly and all heads turn towards me.

“I agree, but we have no choice in the matter, Lady Rie. The nobles are coming in a week’s time and I for one don’t see the merits in debating why Magnolia Reinhart has done this any longer, or what she has planned. For now we must ready Riverfarm. Can it be done?”

I have no idea. But Lady Rie nods decisively as all heads turn towards her. I wish I could make out all the details of her face with my not-sight. But I can hear the determination in her voice.

“It can. It will be difficult, but I am a [Lady] of the realm and I have hosted a few small gatherings at my estate and attended larger ones. I will begin advising your majesty on preparations for the gathering at once. I realize it will be an imposition, but there is much work to be done.”

“Ah, of course. Food to be prepared, entertainment, and so on. Not to mention—houses for the nobles? I suppose we could move people out or try and build a few in the week we have left.”

I grimace as I think of all that we’ll have to do. Not for the first time I find myself grateful that Lady Rie’s helping. I sense the woman shift and after a pause she speaks.

“Yes, your majesty. But not just that. I fear that Mister Prost will have to devote all of his workers to building a reception hall at the very least. This ah, throne room is all very well for audiences with other towns and cities, but we will need a building four times as large to hold a proper banquet.”

I hear Prost draw in a breath sharply and I sit up on my throne. Wiskeria mutters what sounds like a curse word. I turn my head towards Lady Rie.

“Are you serious?”

 

Day 90

 

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

 

She was serious. As soon as I rise with odd voices bouncing around my head, it’s all business. I find Lady Rie already coordinating people in the center of Riverfarm by the time Durene, Gamel and I reach the village square.

“We’ll need to clear a wide space for the banquet hall. It should be built out of the highest-quality lumber available. And furnishings—I will put in an order to Invrisil as I doubt any of the local cities will have the quality required for such an order.”

Lady Rie is talking to Prost, and from the way his shoulders are tensed I can already see that there’s a lot to do and not enough time to do it in. Both turn and bow as I approach.

“Emperor Laken.”

“Your majesty.”

“Do you truly believe we can build a banquet hall in seven days, Lady Rie? Let alone furnish it?”

I sense her pursing her lips.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’, but must, your majesty. Hosting a dinner outdoors would certainly be acceptable, but not if the implication is that it is due to lack of an appropriate facility to begin with. Not to mention, we must impress the nobles coming here. I am afraid an outdoor event with a village in view would not be…”

“Impressive?”

“To say the least.”

Lady Rie nods and I sense Durene shift by my side. I haven’t really asked Durene about Lady Rie—they haven’t talked that much as far as I know. Of course, Lady Rie is a [Lady] and Durene is often helping out around the village. Right now Lady Rie is too busy to speak with anyone but me and Prost hurries away to get her ambitious project underway.

“Speaking of decorations, Emperor Laken, I’m afraid we must consider a large investment in goods from Invrisil. Ordering so much so quickly will be costly, but I am told you have connections in the Merchant’s Guild that might be willing to offer you a discount?”

How does she know that? I nod, trying to keep up. It’s not an hour past dawn yet and my head feels stuffed!

“I do. But what will we be buying? Chairs? Cushions? Drapes? We have [Carpenters]—”

“—Who make chairs adequate for sitting, but not dining, your majesty. At the very least we should add cushions. The necessary goods will be everything from decorations to silverware, I fear. I did not bring more than a few sets of silverware from my mansion before it was destroyed, and there is nothing worse than a mismatched set so we shall have to order enough for all the guests—”

“Silverware?”

I turn my head blankly towards Lady Rie. I sense her nodding.

“Of course, your majesty. Have you—have you not attended a banquet before in your homeland?”

“I—”

I haven’t. Obviously not. And while I know that Durene knows the truth, I don’t feel like spreading the fact that I’m from another world. So I lie.

“I’m afraid that my memory of dining and so on is limited, Lady Rie. What I experience is ah, very little compared to others owing to my blindness.”

I gesture towards my face. Lady Rie starts.

“Oh! I most humbly beg your pardon, your majesty. I—I hadn’t considered.”

“No, no. Please don’t worry. But I lacked any sort of vision growing up, and my ah, ability to sense my surroundings did not manifest itself until this year, so…”

“I see. Please excuse me, your majesty. Well, I will gratefully fill in any—gaps in your understanding. You see, cutlery…”

Flustered, Lady Rie stumbles over her words and I breathe an internal sigh of relief. It’s not good to lie, but people do get uncomfortable when I bring up being blind for fear they might offend me. Good to know I can use that as an excuse for not being up to date with all the conventions of my rank.

However, as Lady Rie goes on I realize that there’s a lot I don’t know. Not just about the social dictates of hosting nobility, but everything from how many forks someone needs to eat a salad to how many waiting staff we’ll need to serve food—and how they should be dressed. I nod along desperately as Lady Rie goes on and on.

And now I find myself stuck. For the first time, I have no idea what to do. It’s like I’ve suddenly run up against a brick wall in my head. Because for all I’m an [Emperor], for all I have Skills and come from another world and want the best for Riverfarm and my people and so on, I’m lost. Because I have no idea how to host a party. Or a gathering. Or any kind of social event at all.

Let’s be clear: hosting soirees is not a skill most blind people acquire. Having a friend over? I can get snacks out, or make sure there’s a meal ready. I could host someone for a day or two. But this?

“Forks, Lady Rie? What’s wrong with the forks we have?”

“They are not what I would give a [Lord] to eat with, your majesty. We have a lack of good cutlery in general. I believe we’ll be able to get by with some well-honed knives for serving, but we simply must have appropriate utensils for our guests.”

“I understand it’s not elegant, but what’s the difference?”

Lady Rie pauses.

“…I believe it would be easier to show you in person, your majesty.”

She takes me to her home and brings out some of her silver cutlery while Durene gets some of the village’s utensils. I find myself holding a wooden fork, which is more of two long prongs, a metal fork more like the ones back home, and a delicate silver one engraved with detail.

“Damnit. I had no idea—I completely forgot about forks!”

It’s not like I have a habit of touching forks, after all! And while the difference in quality might be obvious to someone with eyes, it’s only the weight of the fork and the shaping of the metal that speaks to my fingertips. Lady Rie’s fork does feel far more expensive, but again, I can’t do anything but compare the metalwork of the forks with my fingers. I can’t see silver and appreciate how much better it is than pot metal!

Frustrated, I run my fingers along the fork, feeling the difference with my fingertips. And yet, when I compare the two in my mind with my [Emperor]’s senses, they’re almost indistinguishable. One works as well as the other, but it’s this kind of detail that I lack.

“It seems as though my lack of sight is a hindrance here, Lady Rie.”

“Only slightly, your majesty. But if you would advise me on your nation’s culture of dining and etiquette, I might adjust the banquet to suit your tastes.”

I pause and bite the inside of my lip. My culture? Back home I’d rather just microwave something than eat expensively. I choose my words carefully as I reply, handing the silver fork to Durene who takes it gingerly in her hands.

“The nation that was my home…honestly, Lady Rie, my nation was so different from this one that you would find it very alien. It is impossible to compare the things to which I was accustomed to here—especially because I was blind. Riverfarm meets all of my needs quite well, and I am content with that. However, if you think more needs to be done, I am willing to listen, although my input will be shallow.”

“I see. In that case, I would be delighted to go over my list of preparations with you.”

Lady Rie puts a soft hand on my arm. I sense Durene stirring and nod.

“Thank you. I hope we have the coin for all of this?”

“We may have to borrow, Emperor Laken. Or perhaps not. It depends on how many things can be done without. Tables for instance—I had a thought. If your [Carpenters] can design a long table and it can be engraved and polished in a week’s time, it might well serve in place of a purchased one.”

“No doubt. Can we do the same for chairs?”

“I will make inquiries at once.”

Lady Rie rises and leaves her cottage. I ball my fists up in frustration. Lady Magnolia Reinhart. If there was ever a good way to frustrate me, planning an elegant banquet I can’t see would be a good start.

“Laken.”

I turn as Durene gently puts the fork on the table. My half-Troll lover looks at me. I try to put a smile on my face.

“Durene? I’m sorry. I know you probably want to help out around the village. I’ll coordinate things with Lady Rie.”

“Well…I could stay with you today.”

“Huh?”

“Just for today. You know. While you’re with her.

There’s a possessive note in Durene’s voice that reminds me of when she met Ryoka. I pause.

“Durene, Lady Rie is—a subject.”

“And a [Lady]. Laken, she’s flirting with you!”

“Is she?”

I did wonder. It’s hard to tell. Someone touching me on the arm isn’t unusual, but Lady Rie did act unusual around me. But then, I’m not used to flirting in general. Back on Earth, the people I knew weren’t exactly adept enough to flirt. It was more straightforward. But Durene clearly thinks Rie’s flirting and isn’t exactly keen to let me stay with her.

“Durene, I’ll be fine. I’ll talk with Lady Rie, but it doesn’t matter.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m with you, remember?”

Durene pauses.

“Oh.”

“Silly.”

I hold her hand. Embarrassed, Durene squeezes my hand gently and flees. I stand up as Lady Rie comes back with a group of [Carpenters] only too willing to make however many tables I need. They just need, oh, instructions on what the tables should look like, how long they should be, how tall, what kind of wood they need to use, and so on. I sigh and get to work with Lady Rie. She doesn’t flirt. But she does touch my arm twice more throughout the day.

 

Day 92

 

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

 

Who’s in trouble? Why are they hurrying? Away? I open my eyes, annoyed that I can’t understand. I get out of bed with Durene, walk down into the village to see what’s happening, and immediately sense a problem.

Over the last day, the giant banquet hall that Lady Rie envisioned has been going up. Quite quickly too—they laid the foundations in one day and began dragging freshly-cut parts over to create a scaffold. That was how it was when I went to sleep, and there was a night team working on it. Only, during the night the scaffolding for the building has collapsed and I can already here shouting going on around Prost. He hurries over to me the instant he sees me.

“There’s trouble, your majesty.”

“What kind?”

“An accident at the site. Two of the night workers—a [Builder] and [Carpenter], were working on adding a section and it collapsed. Neither one was hurt, but they both claim it was the other’s fault.”

I rub at my hair, groaning internally.

“What happened?”

“One says it was an unsteady section that wasn’t checked properly. The other says that everything tore loose because the first fellow wasn’t paying attention. They both blame each other and got into it.”

“Can you tell who’s right?”

I hear Prost’s grimace.

“No, your majesty. I’ve told both of the men to take a break and let tempers cool. They’re both good workers and they’re both furious over the delay—it’s not so much the time lost as the fact that it could have been avoided. I’ll get everyone back to work, unless you’d like to judge the situation yourself?”

And do what? I have no idea who’s right and I’m no building expert. I had no idea what the difference between screws and nails were until I was fifteen, because my parents were too afraid that I’d hurt myself touching them! I shake my head.

“I trust your judgment, Mister Prost.”

He nods and hurries off. I sigh. I’ve been doing a lot of trusting of judgment recently. I don’t have a choice, but it means that I can’t do my one job—namely, deciding things as [Emperor].

Case in point. Later that day I find Prost and Lady Rie coming up to me with another problem, this one directly related to the nobles attending the gathering.

“A lot of the families are worried about having their daughters serve at the banquet, your majesty. They’re afraid that they might be asked to bed the [Lords] attending or be carried off.”

“What?”

I turn to Lady Rie. Her tone is acerbic.

“And I told Mister Prost and the other families that was nonsense, your majesty. They need not fear for their daughter’s chastity—”

“Chastity’s the least of it! What’s to stop one of the young lordlings attending the ball from carrying a young girl off—or a [Lady] doing the same to a young lad and having him murdered to hide the evidence?”

“Mister Prost! Those are rumors—”

“I know a village not two miles from here that had that happen to the [Headman]’s son—”

The two begin arguing and I have to raise my voice to get them to quiet down and explain what they’re arguing about. When they come out and say it at last I get a bad feeling in my stomach.

[Lords] carrying off village girls who catch their eyes. [Ladies] finding young men to have an affair with and killing them to hide the evidence. Apparently it’s happened in the past. I recall something similar from my world. Droit du seigneur in French, or the medieval ‘right to a first night’ practiced among the nobility. Apparently that law doesn’t exist in Izril, and Lady Rie is insistent that nothing else happens either.

“Your majesty, I understand Mister Prost’s worries, but they are groundless. Such events never happen—and if they did, it was one or two truly depraved individuals from decades past—and it would not occur on your lands, not when these nobles are coming to visit you! They wouldn’t dare offend you!”

“No? And what about if they used their privilege and station to force a girl into saying yes?”

Prost folds his arm as he glares at Lady Rie. For the first time he and she seem to be at odds, and Lady Rie seems exasperated by the argument.

“Any girl may refuse, of course—those rights are sacred, and these nobles live next to Lady Magnolia Reinhart herself! She does not stand for any coercion of the young or unwilling. That is one of the few things she does well. The Reinharts have always maintained order among the aristocracy and meted out justice.”

“Too little too late. That won’t save a broken-hearted girl and her love.”

“She can say no—

“To a [Lord]? Without bringing down wrath on her family?”

I have to hold up my hands to stem the argument again. When Prost and Rie are quiet, I look at Lady Rie.

“Lady Rie, can you assure me that the things Mister Prost is describing would never take place?”

She hesitates as Prost folds his arms.

“Well—I cannot pretend that some instances of this behavior never occurred, but at this gathering I am sure any young woman would be safe—”

“Hah!”

“Mister Prost. How often is it that this sort of thing occurs? Are there truly that many instances of it, or are all these rumors just that—rumors of someone in a village being carried off by a noble?”

“Well, sire…I never did hear the village’s name.”

“You see?”

Rie sounds exasperated. Prost flares up again.

“Just because it never happened in recent years, doesn’t mean it won’t at this gathering! There are young men among the nobles attending, and the families here are worried, your majesty. And with good cause!”

“I understand.”

What a mess. And again, I don’t know what the best solution is. I turn to Lady Rie.

“Could we address the issue? Tell the nobles attending that the serving staff are off-limits for…everything?”

Rie inhales sharply.

“Simply mentioning that would cause great offense, your majesty! I can assure you it will not occur, and I would stake my reputation on that fact.”

“But the people are worried. There’ll be more than one family that hides their daughters on the day, and I’ll stake my class on that fact too.”

Prost turns to glare at Lady Rie and I try not to clutch at my head. What am I supposed to do? Both are looking towards me.

“Emperor Laken, your decision?”

“Your majesty? What should I tell the families?”

I don’t know. I bite my tongue on the words again. In the end I tell Prost that the serving women won’t be touched and Lady Rie agrees to have older people wait the tables. It’s not a good compromise and I worry that more than one family might try and hide their sons or daughters on the day. If only that was the least of my worries.

As night falls I sense a fight breaking out between a group of men. I send Durene to break it up and sit up anxiously in the cottage, sensing Prost hurrying to the scene, Durene holding one man by the leg and gently slapping another man off his feet.

Trouble.

 

Day 93

 

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

 

Wait? Why wait? Why aren’t they supposed to be heard? Today I get up with a full migraine. It gets worse as I go about my day.

“The fight last night, Emperor Laken? It was between the two men who quarreled over the collapsed scaffolding yesterday. Never mind that we repaired the damage yesterday.”

Prost comes up to me with a sour tone in his voice. I shake my head.

“That was more than two men brawling, Prost. There were at least eight of them and more joining in before Durene got there.”

“Ah. Those would be the friends and other workers. They’ve started taking sides. You see, one fellow, Mister Horst, is a [Carpenter] from Windrest, and the other’s a [Builder]. Mister Wellim comes from Tunslaven. Since they’re quarrelling, folks have begun taking sides—”

“And now it’s a feud. I understand. Wonderful. Mister Prost, what do you suggest I do?”

I rub at my head as the man thinks, chewing at his lip.

“I’ll separate the building teams today—put Horst and his lot to building the tables and chairs with your permission. That’ll keep arguments to a minimum, but I’d better have some lads making sure there’s no fighting after work’s over. Or Durene. No one’s likely to throw a punch with her watching.”

“Good. Do that. I have to talk to Lady Rie about…everything.”

Prost hurries away and I find Lady Rie speaking with Durene of all people. They’re arguing too. I draw closer, listening. For once the two women are so heated that they don’t notice my presence. Durene’s voice is loud as she snaps at Lady Rie.

“I don’t see why I need to stand during the banquet! Why can’t I eat when everyone else is eating?”

Her voice echoes off the houses nearby and I sense heads turning. Lady Rie’s voice is much quieter, but waspish as she replies.

“You are neither nobility nor formally engaged to Emperor Laken. It would be an indiscretion of the highest order to seat you at the head table, and nowhere less would do! You have no manners—”

“I have plenty, thank you very much!”

I sense Rie rolling her eyes.

“—No manners suitable for formal dining and you are supposed to be a [Paladin], a defender of his majesty, aren’t you? You should stand in attendance! You wouldn’t want to embarrass Emperor Laken, wouldn’t you?”

I open my mouth and hesitate. Durene would never embarrass me, but I can imagine her struggling if she were sitting with me and chatting with other nobles. And yet—she is Durene. But Lady Rie knows this social world best and so I hesitate. Durene herself deflates at Rie’s word. She gulps.

“No. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him. But—”

“Good. Then it’s settled. We’ll see if Master Helm can put you in armor. Otherwise…we might find a [Tailor] able to sew quickly. But armor would be more impressive, I think. A [Paladin] would be quite impressive to our guests.”

Lady Rie claps her hands and turns brusquely away from Durene. She and Durene both jump when they see me standing behind them. I cough.

“You’re sure that would be the best fit, Lady Rie?”

“Emperor Laken! I do believe so. I am not familiar with the [Paladin] class, but it is impressive—as is Miss Durene herself. Having her stand at attendance at your side while a list of her achievements is read out would be most impressive. Don’t you agree?”

“Hm. Durene?”

I turn my head towards her. Durene smiles—she knows I can sense when she does it—and only hesitates for a second.

“I—yeah. I could stand next to you, right Laken? I’d be imposing and impress all those nobles. That’s the best way to do it, right?”

I pause. And perhaps it’s just as well that another argument breaks out—this time between a whole group of angry workers clustered around the banquet hall. Rie sighs distractedly.

“We’re far behind on the building without this sort of distraction! Emperor Laken, by your permission I’ll sort it out.”

She converged on the arguing workers at the same time Prost and Wiskeria do. I see Wiskeria break up the prelude to a fight with a burst of magic. Durene turns.

“I should go over too. Just in case. I’ll uh, see if I can get Mister Helm to make me some armor. You said I should have some anyways, right Laken?”

She hurries away. I stare at her back. The words in my mouth die unspoken. But I’d like Durene to sit with me. She belongs there. But what if it causes trouble? What’s the protocol? If I let her sit with me, what happens?

I don’t know. Wiskeria breaks up the fight and cools down everyone—literally, by shooting sprays of water everywhere. She’s declined to weigh in on all the preparations, claiming ignorance as a [Witch]. I wish I could do the same. I don’t know what to do. And the words keep repeating themselves as I go to sleep, dreading the half-formed dreams, hating my indecision, my inability to figure this out!

I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know—

I can feel my teeth grinding together as I toss and turn that night. I don’t know! And I’m afraid to tell Lady Rie she’s wrong, but something’s wrong! I can feel it.

It’s not right! This gathering is—flawed, somehow! It’s going to go wrong.

Damn Magnolia Reinhart. What did she do?

 

Day 94

 

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring—”

“And—”

 

Blank words in my head. Missing pieces of a puzzle. I get up blearily, eat, walk into Riverfarm with Durene, and listen to the day’s issues. Everything’s behind. Lady Rie frets while Prost talks the situation over. Wiskeria listens quietly.

“The arguments over the building are costing us precious hours, Mister Prost!”

“I know. But I can’t help that! We’re already rushing as it is—we’ll try to get a roof up the day after tomorrow, but every mistake sets us back—”

“We can hardly afford to wait until the day after tomorrow! The decorations are arriving and we must set to work making the inside presentable quickly!”

“We can sand and polish everything quick once it’s up. The tables and chairs look good at least—”

“Those are the least of my concerns. If another brawl breaks out, simply arrest everyone involved.”

“All forty of them?”

“If necessary! This petty feud between the two craftsmen must be resolved, Mister Prost.”

Prost shakes his head.

“Perhaps Emperor Laken could speak to the two men. They’ve been clamoring for a ruling, and both sides want to hear his opinion—”

“On what?”

I raise my voice. Both Rie and Prost fall silent. I look up, my head aching. I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice but I can’t. Not today.

“I’ve listened to the arguments, Mister Prost. Neither man can prove the other caused the problem and it’s far beyond that now. Both sides want me to punish someone, which I can’t do without proof.

“And truth spells don’t work if both sides think they’re right. Or if they don’t know to begin with who’s wrong. Not that anyone can cast [Detect Lies] here anyways.”

Wiskeria looks up as she fiddles with a pouch full of ingredients. She’s been riding patrols with Beniar, escorting City Runners arriving here with bags of holding full of purchased goods. She meets Prost and Rie’s annoyed looks calmly. Then she turns towards me.

“Emperor Laken, I’ll watch the building today and stop arguments from breaking out. That will let Mister Prost handle the rest of the village.”

“That might work. We’re baking and preparing as much food as we can, but it’s not enough, according to Lady Rie.”

Lady Rie sighs.

“Hardly. There’s a [Chef] I’ve been speaking to who could prepare all of the finer dishes we need to present, but he lives thirty miles north of here and is reluctant to make the commute. And I don’t wish to empty the treasury to purchase her services. But we must have a suitable meal ready. And then there’s the issue of gifts…”

I raise my head.

“Gifts? Don’t tell me we have to give our guests—”

“Oh no! That’s not the custom at all. Quite the reverse!”

“What, then?”

Rie smiles slightly, the first smile I’ve sensed all day.

“It’s a custom for visitors to offer a present to those hosting such gatherings. Especially those of high-rank. I imagine an [Emperor] would merit quite a large present, but no one knows what might suit you, Emperor Laken. You recall the gift I gave to you? Well, we’ve received a few tokens like that, but there have been a number of discreet inquiries as to what you might enjoy.”

“What I might enjoy? I get to ask for my gifts?”

The notion sounds ridiculous to me, but Rie nods seriously.

“Indeed. I was rather hoping for this, actually. In fact, this is how Magnolia Reinhart can claim she’s doing you a favor. If we approach the nobles the right way, we might come away with more than we spent to host the gathering.”

“I don’t follow. You mean…ask them for money?”

“A…monetary contribution. Or something similar. Minor artifacts, perhaps much-needed supplies…it all comes down to the phrasing and way the invitations are couched. I would like to speak with you regarding some of the ideas I had in that regard later. If you are willing?”

It’s wrong. My head throbs.

“Of course.”

I lie to Rie and sense her smiling. Prost stands up wearily.

“I’ll get back to work. There’s a few of our [Mages] and [Hedge Mages] willing to try and put on a show—that is, the first stage of entertainments. I’ll see to them.”

“And I will see to the attire.”

Lady Rie sweeps off. I sit on my throne, massaging my head. I sense Wiskeria getting up.

“Your majesty? Everything well?”

“Not really, Wiskeria. I’m not sure how well this party—gathering—whatever, will go.”

She nods.

“Lady Rie’s doing her best. But this was forced on her early.”

“It was. By that damn—do you think we’ll make it?”

“I’m not sure. But I worry that making it or not making it isn’t the problem, your majesty?”

“Then what?”

Wiskeria tilts her head, her voice thoughtful.

“I don’t know. But I don’t think how we impress the nobility is the point. Otherwise, wouldn’t Magnolia Reinhart have made the gathering a few days away and not given us enough time? No, I think it’s something else she’s after. I just don’t know what.”

I turn my head towards her. She’s right. There is something else. But what? What? After a while, Wiskeria gets up. And I, lost and confused, go after Lady Rie. I find her with Durene, consulting with Master Helm.

 

—-

 

“This armor’s too tight! And it’s not real armor, it’s far too thin!”

Durene complains as she models the new armor that Mister Helm, the [Blacksmith], has forged. It was a collaborative work given Durene’s size, and several other [Blacksmiths] are standing around her and consulting with Lady Rie. The noblewoman smiles and claps her hands together.

“Functional armor is not the point, Miss Durene. The armor looks quite good on you, although I see some parts that could be—ah, well, it will do. It only remains for us to forge you a suitable shield to go with your sword. And polish the sword, I think. Could it be plated, Mister Helm? With something akin to gold leaf? Silver? And I think…yes, I think we could add one more thing.”

She regards Durene thoughtfully as the half-Troll girl catches sight of me. She tries to wave, but the stiff armor doesn’t let her. Durene speaks distractedly.

“What else? I can barely move in this as it is.”

Rie’s voice is soft and thoughtful as she speaks out loud.

“A helmet, perhaps? Yes. That would be quite impressive. A helmet would be just the thing.”

“A helmet?”

Durene half-turns to look at Lady Rie. The [Blacksmiths] around her fall silent. My heart sinks when I realize where she’s going with this. Rie nods.

“Yes…with a visor? Can such a thing be done, Master Helm? It would be a grand spectacle, to see Miss Durene armored like a [Knight].”

She looks around brightly at the men and two women around her. Durene goes very quiet. I stand there, my heart suddenly beating very quiet. A helmet? A helmet with a visor. There’s only one reason why Rie wants that.

To cover her face. But no one says it. I sense Durene hesitate, her face grow angry—and then twist into uncertainty. She hesitates, and I see her look at me, and then at Lady Rie. She’s supposed to be quite beautiful. Lady Rie, that is. I’ve never heard Durene talk about what she looks like. She’s too afraid to tell me.

In the end, Durene’s voice is very quiet.

“I…guess so. I could wear a helmet.”

“Wonderful! There are quite a number of designs that might work. Mister Helm, I’ll sketch a few, shall I? You can tell me what would be easiest.”

“Ah. Yes, Lady Rie. We’ll do our best.”

Mister Helm’s voice is quiet as he turns towards Lady Rie. I sense him looking back at me. Durene’s staring at her feet. I take a step forwards and feel a hand on my arm. Lady Rie’s touch.

“Emperor Laken? What do you think? I imagine Durene in full armor would be quite a sight to see—ah, begging your pardon. Quite a spectacle, and certainly impressive, wouldn’t you agree?”

No. I open my mouth. Hesitate. I can tell that Mister Helm is looking at me. So is Lady Rie. She’s gripping my arm with her hand, trying to tell me not to object. She’s right. She knows how the other [Lords] and [Ladies] would react. I close my mouth.

To hide Durene behind a helmet. To not let her eat with me. To do things as they should be. Because a half-Troll doesn’t belong with Humans.

Things crystalize in that moment. I feel the same flash of heat I felt once before, listening to an angry [Farmer] shout the same thing. Not in the same way, not in the same words, but the same thing. And I think about a banquet, about entertaining nobles, about doing things just so.

And I realize what the trap is. I jerk my arm free of Lady Rie and open my mouth.

“No.”

The word cuts through the air, blissfully free. Lady Rie pauses. I sense Durene look up as every head turns to me. Rie’s voice is low as she speaks to me, too close to my ear.

“Emperor Laken, I don’t mean to gainsay your opinions, but I truly think—”

“I said, no, Lady Rie. No helmet. The armor can stay. But make it real armor. And Durene doesn’t need the armor for the banquet. She’ll be sitting with me at the head table. Give her a dress instead.”

Silence. My heart is pounding, my head feels clearer. Lady Rie draws in her breath sharply.

“Emperor Laken? I really don’t—”

Enough.

I snap the word and Rie’s mouth closes in an instant. I look around. Durene is staring at me. The [Blacksmiths] are staring at me. I stand taller. When did I start hunching my shoulders? I point.

“Mister Helm?”

He jumps.

“Yes? Your Majesty?”

“Thank you for Durene’s armor. It’s quite, well, I can tell it’s quite impressive. A showman’s piece, no doubt. But let’s aim for functional armor when it comes to that.”

“Of course, Emperor Laken. We’ll get right to work—”

I hold up my hand.

“Not necessary. There are more important things that we need for now. Nails, for one. Hinges—there’s a lot of metal that goes into houses. Let’s get our [Blacksmiths] back to work on those houses, shall we? Don’t worry about the banquet. Durene? Follow me. Someone get me Prost. And Wiskeria.”

I stride off and sense Durene shrugging out of her armor. Still muted, Rie follows. I can sense her eyes on my back and feel Prost and Wiskeria hurrying towards me.

“Mister Prost?”

“Yes, Emperor Laken? I heard you had the [Blacksmiths] working on construction materials for the houses. Should I—?”

“Get your workers back to building houses. We’ll keep a smaller team on the hall, but take it slower, Mister Prost. We won’t be using it for the gathering.”

I feel the electric shock go through the people around me. Durene exclaims.

“We won’t? But I thought—”

“Would we have gotten it ready in time? And would you trust the building not to collapse on us, Mister Prost?”

I nod at the half-finished building. Prost grimaces.

“It’d be close and that’s without furnishings, sire. But what did you have in mind if not that gathering hall?”

“Easy. Get the tables and chairs done. Then put them in a meadow. That one just past the new farmland sounds good. Clear us a wide space—we have plenty of folk who can do that and it won’t take us a day. We’ll serve our guests there.”

What?

This last bit is too much for Lady Rie and she manages to speak despite my order. She turns to me, aghast.

“Emperor Laken, it’s not proper. Your guests will be expecting the highest honors. They’re nobility, and if Magnolia Reinhart was hosting—”

“She’s not. I am. Be silent, Lady Rie. Thank you.”

I cut her off again. Lady Rie falls silent and I can sense her lips quivering as I turn my head. I can sense them there. Durene, Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. I sigh.

“I’ve made a mistake. Lady Magnolia Reinhart invited the nobility here, which forced my hand. But my error, the trick she forced me into was playing her game. I don’t think she expected me to put on a formal display for the nobles. Nor should I.”

“But that’s what they’re expecting.”

Durene sounds confused. I smile slightly.

“Yes, they are. That’s what’s traditional. But I’m an [Emperor], Durene. Why should I do things their way?”

“Um…I don’t know.”

“Exactly.”

I nod, almost laughing as I sense Rie’s dumfounded look. I look at Prost.

“Don’t worry about [Chefs], Mister Prost. Tell our [Cooks] to make the kind of food they know everyone will enjoy. As much as they can get ready beforehand and we’ll do a lot of cooking the day of. Now, I want you to have our [Carpenters] make more tables as quick as they can and lay them out in the village square. We’ll feed our people at the same time as the nobility.”

“With chairs and so forth, your majesty? That would take a lot more work.”

“Do we need them? No—in fact, have only a few chairs brought to the gathering place. We’ll have people stand and eat. They can socialize while we put on a display. We’ll have the trebuchets do some test firing—maybe let the nobles try them themselves. As for the issue of young women and men serving—”

I can sense Lady Rie shutting her eyes tightly. I look at Prost.

“Have we parchment? Large sheets we can use as signs?”

“I could have some. Are you planning on making a declaration, sire?”

“Just something posted on the main roads. Have it read as follows: ‘I, Emperor Laken, declare that anyone taking advantage of another person upon my lands without consent will be summarily shot and executed, regardless of their rank or gender.’ Or something to that effect.”

Wiskeria draws in a sharp breath. I see Prost shoot a glance at Lady Rie. Funny, he seems uncertain.

“That’s a bold statement, sire.”

“I’d think it would be the least of what you’d expect from me. Have the posters put along the main roads—on those handy totem poles Jelov keeps carving, for instance.  Make sure all of my guests see them. Just in case. Oh, and Prost? Add some images.”

“What? Sire?”

I’m enjoying myself now. I gesture.

“Images. You know, illustrations! A bloody headsman’s axe and a few heads lying on the ground, or a body feathered with arrows for emphasis. Be creative. You can have some of the children decorate them if you like. Now. Wiskeria.”

“Emperor?”

She’s smiling at me, I can tell. Wiskeria tugs at her pointed hat as I point towards the meeting hall and my throne room.

“Those two men who keep starting fights. Find them and put them in my throne room to wait for me. Tell them that if they start a fight before I arrive…well, just warn them what might happen.”

“Yes, Emperor.”

“Now. Lady Rie.”

She’s practically vibrating. When I speak her name she waits a beat as if she didn’t want to cut in and shout at me this entire time.

“Emperor Laken?”

“I take it you object to most of what I’ve just said?”

“Why, what gave you that idea, sire?”

Her voice is sweet. Too sweet. I turn to face her.

“I don’t disagree with your choices, Lady Rie. By all means, decorate and find proper utensils to serve our guests. But if we serve them, it will be my way. Riverfarm’s way.”

“And if the nobility take offense?”

“Let them. This gathering wasn’t my idea. It was Magnolia Reinhart’s. If it doesn’t have the amenities they’re used to, they can take it up with her. Speaking of which, I’ve decided what they should give me.”

“Oh?”

Lady Rie pauses.

“What would that be, your majesty?”

“Food. They can bring food. Tell them I would like for them to bring as many delicacies as they can carry—not just for themselves, but for my people. They’ll be feeding all of us, so advise them that a pack horse or wagon might be in order.”

I grin at Lady Rie and wonder if her face has gone pale. Durene laughs out loud in delight.

“Emperor Laken, are you quite sure? That would hardly be what they expect—although I’m beginning to realize that is quite the point.”

“Indeed. I don’t want money. I don’t need their charity. That isn’t what an [Emperor] needs. Perhaps a [Lord] might ask for such gifts, but all I need is something to amuse my people. Yes, food—and entertainment. Do they have [Jugglers]? [Bards]? Are there such things as [Actors] in this world or…or [Players]? Tell them to bring those too. And—”

Memory flares. A bit of a dream. I stop.

“Pudding.”

“Pudding?”

“Yes—pudding. Tell them I’m fond of sweet foods. Have them bring as much of those as possible. And while we’re at it, Durene?”

“Yes, Laken?”

“Why don’t we take a break for a bit? Let’s go for a walk in the woods. I’ll be back in an hour, Lady Rie. Let me know if the sky’s fallen when I return.”

I take Durene’s arm and smiling, walk away. Lady Rie just stares at my back. I walk off with Durene and laugh for the first time all week. She’s smiling too.

“Wow. What happened to you, Laken?”

“I stopped worrying about what other people might say, Durene. Remember? That’s the point. Lady Rie had her heart in the right place, but she did what people wanted her to do. What Magnolia Reinhart wanted to her to do. I’m doing what I want to do. Which is walking with you.”

“Oh. Right! Hey Laken?”

“Yes?”

She gives me a quick kiss as a reply.

 

—-

 

It was a nice walk and we stretched it out to two hours. The two hours came from me sitting down to rest my aching feet while Durene offered to carry me. In the end we just sat and talked, which was wonderful. So wonderful that I forgot that the two men were waiting for me in the throne room. When I finally got back and walked in, they jumped. They hadn’t been sitting, but standing at opposite sides of the room. I felt slightly bad that I didn’t think to give them chairs, but only slightly.

“Mister Horst. Mister Wellim.”

I look at both of them. They open their mouths, uncertain, and I walk past them to sit on my throne. I sit, and the two men shuffle forwards. They wait for me to speak.

I don’t. The uncomfortable silence stretches out as the two men shift uneasily. Actually, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I just sit, sensing them grow more and more nervous with each passing second. At last, one of them musters the courage to open his mouth. Quick as a snake, I raise a finger and he freezes.

I wait until he closes his mouth and keep sitting there. The two men stand in place, sweating. I can practically hear their hearts pounding. And I just sit. When I finally open my mouth, I think both of them nearly have heart attacks.

“Gentlemen. Why are you here?”

They stir. And look at each other. I sit there, a young man on a throne. Blind, probably half the age of either of the men in front of me. But it’s they who can’t meet my eyes figuratively or literally. I am blind. And young. But I am an [Emperor].

“Emperor Laken, about our uh—our—our quarrel.”

One of the men, Mister Horst, begins hoarsely. Again I cut him off.

“Quarrel, is it? A quarrel is two men fighting. It gets broken up and both men need a day to heal their bruises. The worst is a broken bone. This is a feud, gentlemen.”

Silence. I look from man to man, opening my eyes briefly for effect.

“Both of you claim the other made a mistake which caused the scaffolding to break. What was it, three days ago? Now there are brawls of thirty people or more. What, exactly, is the point?

They don’t have an answer. I go on, speaking calmly, shifting my attention to the man on the left.

“Mister Wellim, I know of you as a [Builder] who made or repaired half the homes in your village. You’re a community figure and a father of three.”

He starts. Yes, I asked Prost about all that before walking in here. But it still works. I shift my attention to the man on the right.

“And you, Mister Horst, are a [Carpenter] respected by everyone I’ve talked to. You’ve been running your own business for twenty years.”

He hangs his head at this detail, a representation of his hard work over the years. I turn my head to each man.

“Why are we here? If you, Mister Wellim, were dealing with a fight between two of your apprentices, how would you handle it? By smacking a few heads together? Separating the two? What if they kept fighting? What about you, Mister Horst? Would doing any of that do any good? Why are two of your best workers fighting, anyways? What is the point?

I slap the armrest of my throne. Both men jump. After a moment I sigh.

“No one can rule who caused the problem. Both of you were there, and both of you claim the opposite thing happened. You come to me as if expecting me to know the truth. Well, I wasn’t there and I’m no god. But again, I have to ask, why do I need to be here? Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t we be building houses right now?”

Neither man speaks, but I get the slightest nod from Horst. I go on.

“Construction is dangerous. Or so I’ve heard. If there’s an issue of one person not paying attention, that’s a problem. If it happens again and there are witnesses, there may be need for punishment—or maybe not. Accidents happen. But this feud has already seen violence. If someone dies from all this hatred and anger, who will be to blame? You, Mister Horst? Or you, Mister Wellim? If someone dies, I rather think it would be my fault.”

They both look up sharply. I nod.

“I am an [Emperor]. This is my domain. Shouldn’t the blame fall to me? If things get worse—only they won’t get worse. Because we will sort this out. One of you made a mistake, or neither of you did. Either way, it’s a matter between you two, not two villages. We are working together here, all of us. We are all part of this—this nation. And I expect you to remember it.”

A beat. For a second I open my eyes again and hold their gazes. Then I close my eyes. It’s hard not to blink. I should probably exercise my eyelids, but what’s the point?

“You’re not children. If you want to hold a grudge, hold it. If you know you’re right, watch the other man until he makes a mistake again and point it out for all to see. But the feuding ends now, as does the gossiping and sabotaging each other. You don’t have to like one another. In fact, if you want to start a fight, now would be a good time. I’ll turn my head if you don’t want me to watch.”

I smile at that and turn my head sideways. I can sense the two men looking at each other. Then one of them clears his throat.

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes later I walk out of the throne room as Horst and Wellim walk out. They’re not holding hands, but they’re talking to each other like people, even managing to smile. I find Prost waiting for me.

“I think we’ve come to an understanding, Mister Prost.”

“Good, Emperor Laken. Whose fault was it?”

“Rot in the timber, perhaps. A bad nail. Bad lighting. I think we’ll stop building at night. It’s efficient, but both Mister Horst and Wellim agree that night work leads to mistakes.”

“Very good, your majesty.”

Prost eyes the two men walking off. He looks at me and I sense a knowingness in his gaze.

“Did they brawl?”

“Not as such. They might throw a punch at each other while working, but I expect that will only be if one drops a piece of timber on the other man’s toe. They’re not friends, but they’re quite reasonable people when they get down to it.”

My [Steward] nods and I nod too.

“Only, you knew that, didn’t you Mister Prost? All of the times you broke the fights up and told them to work it out—or hinted to me that I should intervene—was to get me to do what I just did, wasn’t it?”

“Why would you say that, Emperor Laken?”

Prost bashfully looks the other way. I smile.

“A [Farmer] probably learns more than one or two tricks over the course of his life. A father likewise. Tell me, why didn’t you deal with it yourself?”

“I couldn’t do it, your majesty. Both men, well, they’re proud men and not keen to listen to a new [Steward]. An [Emperor] on the other hand…”

“Young as I am?”

“You saved their villages and drove the Goblins off. I don’t think either of them thought of your age while you were sitting on that throne, sire.”

I shake my head.

“All I did was ask them to settle things like adults, Mister Prost. It could have backfired or not worked at all. I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing. I just guessed.”

“But it did work, your majesty?”

I nod. Prost smiles.

“Then it was the right thing to do.”

“Yes, but what if it’s the wrong thing next time?”

He just shrugs at me. Prost speculatively looks across the village as the sun begins to set in the sky.

“Maybe it wouldn’t work any other day, and maybe it won’t work again. But it did work this time and that means what you did was the right thing, even if you didn’t know it was the right thing you were doing. And most of all, because it was you, Emperor Laken who did it, it was the right thing to do. Because [Emperors] don’t make mistakes.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re [Emperors], sir.”

“What if I made a mistake?”

“Then I’d suppose you weren’t acting much like an [Emperor] in that moment, sire. Or maybe it wasn’t your fault because things went wrong for no reason. Maybe it couldn’t be helped and it would’ve happened that way anyways. But [Emperors] don’t make mistakes because they know what they’re doing. Otherwise, why would they be [Emperors]?”

I frown as I mull over his convoluted statement.

“That’s circular logic, Mister Prost.”

He pauses, and then shrugs again.

“It may be circular, but I rather like it, sire. And it works. ”

I laugh.

“Good enough. Now, how’s Lady Rie doing?”

“Chomping at the bit, begging your pardon, sire. But she’s doing a good job, and now that there’s no need to worry about food—or a building—she’s got us figuring out seating arrangements and the like.”

“Much more manageable?”

“Much.”

We walk together, and for the first time I realize that Prost might not be in awe of Lady Rie as much as I was.

“I feel rather foolish, Mister Prost.”

“Do you, your majesty? I think you did a good job today. It was a hard decision.”

“But one I should have made, not anyone else. We wasted a lot of coin and time dancing to Lady Magnolia’s tune.”

“I expect the drapes and other things will make the great hall that much better anyways. And silverware’s good for entertaining folk, sire. It’s an investment for the future.”

“Were you always so optimistic, Prost?”

“No, your majesty. Not as smart, either. But I’ve changed a lot over the last few weeks. Done a lot of thinking ever since a young man pulled my son out of the snow.”

“Huh. Well, I hope I won’t make this mistake again. Mister Prost?”

“Emperor?”

“Let’s get to it.”

He smiles.

“Yes, sire.”

We walk back to work. Work being whatever I care to focus on. Lady Rie has her ideas, and I’m inclined to follow them. When I don’t have anything better in mind.

It’s a silly lesson I learned today. Relearned, rather. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like that all the time. But I do know something more important: no one else knows what they’re doing, either. And so I’ve got to make the decisions, even if I’m wrong. Even if they’re the wrong ones.

Because I’m an [Emperor].

Hm. I feel like I finally understand. All the little pieces are coming together. If I add all the fragments up, that nonsense dream I’ve been having, then—I have an idea. Or rather, I had an idea. I’m just a few days ahead of myself.

 

Day 95

 

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

 

Aha! I wake up with a smile. So that’s what it was all about! I stretch, walk out of my cottage after spending a leisurely breakfast with Durene and find Prost in good spirits.

“Emperor, we’ve got two more houses built and I reckon we can get another field sown today if we push it.”

“Excellent, Mister Prost! Any trouble from Mister Horst and Mister Wellim?”

“Not that I know of, sire. They’ve been working well. Not on the same team, but they go to each other’s sites and shout insults at each other. In a good way.”

“As opposed to a bad way?”

“It’s more like competition than it is anger, your majesty.”

“I’ll take that, then. Lady Rie?”

She bows her head, slightly…sullenly? She’s still not happy about my changes, but she’s working within my design and she’s stopped touching my arm.

“We have the clearing set up. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a few braziers up. I think [Light] spells would be more appropriate given the warmer weather, though.”

I nod.

“Good, we might actually do this. Now, I know we’re expecting the nobles to bring food, but have a few of our [Cooks] see me within the hour. I want some of Riverfarm and the local dishes on display and a lot of sweet foods.”

I turn to Prost as Wiskeria rides into the village, her [Hunters] carrying a dead buck between them. I wonder if a [Witch] has any party tricks? What am I saying? I wonder if she’ll agree to perform a few. I’d rather like to see her turn someone into a frog.

“I’ll also need some dry corn for an experiment, Mister Prost—we’ll make popcorn and a few other dishes from home. How good are your sausages, by any chance? Do we have any fresh pork sausages or could we make some?”

“Sausages, sire? Let me find you a selection…”

Back to work. Only this time it feels right. Uncertain, but right.

 

Day 96

 

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

Yes, yes. I rise, and feel a hum of anticipation in the village. Lady Rie’s pacing nervously before I have a chance to meet with her.

“I’m just not sure we have enough entertainment, Emperor Laken, I don’t know how long you expect us to be occupied with trebuchets, but at some point we will be out of diversions!”

I smile at her, noticing for the first time how stressed she sounds. I wonder how much strain she’s been feeling? I feel great, incidentally.

“We’ll make do, Lady Rie. Mingling and conversation will suffice if we have nothing else at the time.”

“Conversation? If you say so, your majesty. And will you tell me at last what the other seats are for? You aren’t intending to seat more of the villagers with the nobility, are you? Your Mossbear, perhaps?”

Apparently Lady Rie also gets sarcastic when she’s peeved. I like that—it’s more honest of her.

“Trust, Lady Rie. We may have some unexpected guests. Or not. Now, let’s go over my actual conversation topics one more time. Tell me about trade goods coming from the south. You say it’s rare for Drakes to sell their goods past Liscor? What items are in high demand around here and what role did Riverfarm and the local villages fulfill up till this point?”

She sighs, but proceeds to lecture me at length. I wish I could take notes, but my stupid phone is completely dead. I hope I can get it fixed soon. Didn’t Ryoka say that a [Repair] spell charges it up? How come no one in my entire empire can cast the spell?

I wonder how you recruit mages? Reel them in with promises of free room and board? Spellbook on a fishing line? Maybe Wiskeria knows some people. Heck, maybe she’s part of a coven.

One day left. And as I sleep, it all falls into place.

 

Day 97

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

This is what I dreamt, over a week ago. The voices stir and echo around me, not quite here, but not quite in my mind either. They’re…like real memories, if that makes sense. Memory that becomes reality as you remember it? There’s just one thing missing from the conversation, one little clue.

Today, as I wake up I feel the village come alive. I eat breakfast with Durene, smiling at her as she paces around nervously.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay, Laken? What if they get angry? Maybe I should wear a helmet! Or a hat!”

“I hate hats. Durene, it’ll be fine. Besides, your suit looks quite nice.”

“You wouldn’t know! You can’t see!

I laugh. Durene’s been dressed for today, against Lady Rie’s objections. She decided a dress did not suit her, and instead wore a suit—at my suggestion. If women can wear pants and suits, why not Durene? And apparently she cuts a rather bold figure with the cloth my [Tailors] had labored over.

“It’ll go well with my clothing, Durene. I’ve got enough cloth for a dress. We can say we switched roles for the banquet.”

“Laken!”

I’m not wearing a dress, but robes that are quite long and showy. All the better to give me some additional gravitas, according to Lady Rie. She tried to get me to wear lace and I refused. This was the best compromise we could come up with. I’d rather walk around naked than wear a suit with more lace than fabric.

“Looks like Lady Rie’s already pacing outside of the cottage. Prost’s here too. I thought the nobility were supposed to arrive this evening?”

“Maybe they’re early?”

“Not as far as I know. Pass me a fried potato, will you Durene? No, Frostwing, that’s not for you. Stop pooping so loudly, please? I’m trying to eat.”

This is how it goes. I go outside, tell a joke, and only Durene giggles. Gamel’s too uptight with his suit, Prost is distracted tugging at his, and Lady Rie’s far too high strung. Wiskeria just doesn’t like my sense of humor.

No one arrives in the morning, although we had prepared for a few early guests. Apparently I’m so intimidating, the entire group of nobles is arriving together. Or maybe that’s due to the presence of Magnolia’s servant, Sacra, and the famous Lady Bethal Walchaís. I sense a rather large caravan of people headed this way just after breakfast and Beniar’s riders report the nobles are coming in a train.

“A rather large group. They may arrive an hour late. I don’t think they were expecting to carry quite so much on the trip here.”

Lady Rie stares accusingly at me. I just smile.

“And their escort?”

“Light, for a group of nobles travelling. I counted sixty armed guards.”

“So two per noble? A bit less? That is trusting. If they’re staying the night, they can sleep in the houses for the nobles or outside. It shouldn’t rain today.”

“I doubt they’ll stay the night. And I’m surprised Lady Bethal isn’t travelling by magical carriage. Apparently Magnolia Reinhart lends it to all her closest friends. I wonder if it’s broken?”

“Magical carriages? Hold on, explain that to me? Someone?”

The day wears on. I try not to let my nerves get the better of me. I have a plan. It’s not a good one, and it’s based on guesswork and a dream I had. But it’s all I’ve got. As evening wears into dusk, the first nobles ride into Riverfarm, a group of laughing young [Lords] and [Ladies] and their retainers. They freeze the instant they see me.

“Lord Andres, Lady Cimeca, Lord Pattin, welcome to Riverfarm!”

Lady Rie calls out more names as the mounted nobility draw back, staring at me in alarm and awe. I smile, and gently let Frostwing flap her wings. Beneath me, my mount shifts and growls, making the noble’s horses back away skittishly.

That’s right, I’m riding Bismarck, my Mossbear. If you’ve got a Mossbear and you don’t ride it to meet people, what kind of [Emperor] are you? Durene stands by my side, practically vibrating with nerves. I try not to show anyone that my legs are trembling as they hug Bismarck’s sides.

A flurry. A torrent of bodies. Rich men and women dressed in finery, armored warriors—I can only rely on Wiskeria and Durene’s whispered explanations. Their voices sound like any other, perhaps a touch more refined and breathy—the nobles ride up to me on their horses while I let Bismarck snuffle at them. And then I hear a voice I recognize.

“Emperor Laken, I bring you greetings on behalf of Lady Magnolia Reinhart, who apologizes for the inconvenience of this small gathering.”

“Odveig. Or would you prefer to be called Sacra?”

“Either is fine.”

I turn my head to the [Maid] standing and staring up at me without a trace of fear. I can sense Wiskeria tensing besides me, but Sacra pays her no notice as she bows and introduces the last of my guests. I smell a floral perfume and hear a light voice.

“My, is that a Mossbear? Thomast, look! How exciting! Do you think I could ride it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Emperor Laken, may I present Lady Bethal Walchaís and Sir Thomast?”

The man and woman step forwards. I get nothing from my image of them in my head. Lady Bethal is wearing a dress and Thomast some kind of doublet. They’re attired much like the others I suppose—my [Emperor] senses don’t extend to color or detail well. But the two do have a kind of…presence in my mind.

Lady Bethal feels like a rose, or a bush covered in thorns. As if I could walk into her and be stung. It’s an aura about her, and Sir Thomast—just seems too poised. He stands as if he could leap into action at any moment and there’s a grace about his movements that makes me think he knows how to handle the rapier at his side. Both bow to me and Lady Bethal’s first words after her greeting are about Bismarck.

“Is he tamed, your majesty? I had heard there was an [Emperor] who commanded the hearts of both beasts and men, but until Magnolia told me about you, I was quite under the impression that it was all rumor! Oh, but do forgive me—I do forget myself. Thomast, why don’t you ever stop me?”

The [Chevalier] says nothing. I get the feeling he’s staring at me, not at Durene, for all Bethal is now gushing over Durene’s suit and greeting Lady Rie. From the way Rie goes stiff and quiet, I get the feeling that Lady Bethal’s spiky aura isn’t for show.

Big players. Large fish in small ponds, or however the saying goes. Bethal strikes me as a shark, though. The nobles wait for me as I finish greeting Lady Bethal. They’ve already spotted the clearing filled with food that their servants are busily unloading and I think their mood is—intrigued. Some of them appear dismayed from the way they shift and lean closer to talk to each other, but I’ve made an impression.

So here’s how it ends. I raise my hand and make a small speech in the silence as every eye falls to me. As the light fades I quell the butterflies in my chest. Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right thing to say? I’m an [Emperor]. It better be.

“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I greet you. I am Laken Godart.”

They stir as I don’t give myself any titles. I could have proclaimed myself ruler of the Unseen Empire, or any number of things, but I’m here to make friends, not scare them. I go on.

“I am aware that you are here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. I was unaware of this gathering until she arranged it in my honor, and I am grateful for her aid in doing so. For your enjoyment, my people have created a small setting in which we may mingle and talk. I look forwards to meeting each one of you in person. But before that—”

My heart skips a beat in my chest. Here it is.

“—But before that, I believe there are a few more guests I have yet to invite.”

Murmurs. I see heads turning and Thomast tense ever so slightly beside his wife. I ignore the confused nobility and look up.

“I greet the nobility of this land before me. I offer them the warmth of my hearths and the bounty of my lands. I would be remiss if I did not extend the same invitation to my own vassals.”

I look up towards the sky. Please be there. Please don’t be a dream.

“My lords and ladies of the court? I invite you to share this banquet at your discretion. My lands are open to all those of my empire on this day. Come, if thou would.”

I offer a hand up towards the heavens. And wait. There’s only silence. After a moment, a long moment in which I curse and wonder what the hell I should do next, I lower my hand. The silence around me is broken by a low voice muttering out of the group of nobles.

“What was that?

I hear a titter and someone shushing the speaker. I turn, keeping my face calm, not letting blood rush to my cheeks. It was a long shot. A perhaps. And I am an [Emperor]. So I keep up the charade, as I turn to look at my [Steward].

“Mister Prost? We may have visitors this night. Keep a place at the tables open should guests arrive. Now, I believe we are ready to be seated?”

“Of course, your majesty.”

Prost breaks the silence by gesturing. The young men and women dressed in fine clothing step forwards and quite elegantly lead the nobles to the tables. I dismount Bismarck and do the same, pointedly standing. It’s going to be a standing dinner, a time to chat. Less formal which means less risk of me making a mistake. I turn my head to the buffet and try to remember my lines? Thank Magnolia for her hospitality again? No, wait, maybe I should talk about the Goblins—

I freeze as I hear a giggle. It’s a soft sound, but it cuts through the quiet murmuring like a bell ringing in a snowstorm. The sound is bright and cheerful and makes every head turn in confusion. I feel my heart beating faster.

The giggling stops abruptly. But the air is suddenly warmer, and the sky brighter. The clearing illuminated by braziers and mage light warms, and it feels as though everything is lit by a subtle glow. I feel the wind blow strong for a second, and smell wet earth, flowers, the smell of nectar, growing grass—

Spring.

Oh, that’s what I was missing. I hear the voices overhead, crystal clear at last. Unearthly voices, voices that rustle and leap with life, the voices made of magic.

 

“Is it time yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”

“We’ll get in trouble!”

“Let’s go, hurry!”

“Wait!”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”

“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”

“And pudding!”

“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”

“Quick, let’s go! Before—”

 

A clamor of quick voices, arguing, talking rapidly and urgently. And then an authoritative voice, singing out above them all.

 

“Too late! It’s time!”

 

I hear laughter. And I look up and smile. The skies open. The nobles gape. Durene looks up and gasps. Lady Rie nearly swallows her tongue. I just laugh as the wind blows and they step downwards, step out of the forests, dance into the meadow. Of course, why would they be cold and frozen in the spring? I look at one of them as they wink and blow me a kiss. They bow, mockingly, and I shake my head.

“Took you long enough.”

 

“Same to you!”

 

And then my banquet really begins as they descend, bringing spring and chaos in their wake. The tricksters, the harbingers of spring and snow. The beings of myth and magic. The Fair Folk.

The fae.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.09 E

I dreamed I was sleeping in my bed, with worried voices speaking loudly overhead. I couldn’t tell who had trespassed here, only that they had come in secret and stood around me, speaking anxiously and quickly. As I was dreaming I missed most of what was said, but I knew it was important. I tried to remember, to grasp the words as they flitted by, but like memory and water they flowed away, leaving me only with an impression. Snippets of a conversation.

 

“Is it time…?”

“I don’t think so.”

“…sure?”

“….we’re early. We….here!”

“…trouble!”

“Let’s….”

“Wait!”

“…We’re not…”

“…remember to….”

“…!”

“And…! …okay? Remember!”

“Quick…before—”

 

And then I woke up.

 

Day 85

 

As dreams went, it wasn’t the worst I’ve had by far. Not the best either—it was mainly confusing. I’ve had good dreams and bad dreams aplenty. Of course, I don’t remember most of them and I never ‘see’ dreams.

Because of course, I’m blind. Hello, I’m Laken Godart, [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire. Protector of Durene’s Cottage, sovereign of the village of Riverfarm, Windrest, Tunslaven, Kiquel…and so on.

I’ve got a lot of titles. A lot of power. And yet, it feels like only yesterday that I was a normal young man walking around in San Francisco. Forever ago and yesterday. Strange—I sometimes forget what my friends’ voices sound like. There are so many around me each day, asking me questions.

“Laken, do you want eggs on your uh, weird potatoes, bacon and onions?”

Sometimes the questions are good questions and come from people you love. Nevertheless I roll my eyes as I get up.

“No eggs for me. And it’s call bratkartoffeln, Durene. Honestly, I keep telling you. How hard is it to remember?”

“Hey! I try, but—oh, you’re joking.”

I smile to myself at the sound of Durene’s voice. I can tell she’s in the kitchen, delicately stirring the fried potatoes with a long-handled spoon. She transfers the hot food to a plate and comes to sit by me as I dress and move towards the small table in her cottage. I have a chair—she uses the floor. We’re still pretty much on the same level because she’s a good bit taller than me. Bigger, too.

She’s half-Troll. And a [Paladin]. It’s a long story. I eat breakfast happily with Durene, talking about the day until a loud squawk interrupts us. A large and, apparently, blue bird is making a racket. She smells breakfast and wants in.

“Shut up, Frostwing.”

I toss some bacon at her and sense her catch the bit of meat and worry at it. Placated for a few moments, I turn back to Durene and keep eating. It’s wonderful to be able to sense where every part of your meal is on your plate. It’s what I always imagined sight to be like, but better, since I can sense everything in my domain. And that means I can sense everything from Durene scratching her leg to Frostwing behind me, to the Mossbear snuffling around our front door—

“Um, Durene. He’s back.”

“Is he?”

Durene gets up and I sense her opening the door. Feel it too—it’s no longer cold and the breeze actually feels quite nice. Spring is finally here. Durene shouts at the large bear outside.

“Go on, shoo! I’ll feed you breakfast later!”

The bear whuffs and I raise my voice.

“Bismarck—heh. Bismarck, go on, leave the door alone!”

I snort a bit as the bear obediently backs away. Yes, I named the bear Bismarck. I think it’s funny and it needed a name. Especially because it’s now my pet. Or something.

[Lesser Bond: Bismarck]. I received it yesterday after I finally came up with a name for him. Bismarck was just called ‘Unnamed Mossbear’ before that. Apparently I tamed him by feeding him and having him fight in a battle alongside my people. Now he lets me ride him, hangs around the cottage for food and in general pesters Durene.

“Shoo! I’ll give you potatoes later! And don’t you dare dig up my garden! It’s all growing, understand? Leave my plants alone!”

Possibly only Durene could push a bear off her property. She’s actually stronger than the Mossbear, and the Mossbear’s bigger and tougher than normal bears to boot. Durene chalks it up to her [Enhanced Strength] and her other new Skills, but I wonder. Trolls are said to be extremely strong and tough, but they can’t gain classes or level.

As a half-Troll Durene seems to have the benefits of both her Human and Troll heritage. Not that it helped her before she met me. She was an outcast, barely tolerated by the village. Only when I became an [Emperor] did everything change.

“Oh, how much it changed.”

I mutter to myself as I stroke Frostwing’s head. My lovely, stupid bird snaps at the meat I offer her.

“Soon you’re going to have to hunt for yourself. You can fly, and it’s a waste of good meat to keep feeding you cow and pig. How do you feel about rats?”

She poops in her nest. I sigh. Animals, Durene…what else? Well, there’s the young man waiting patiently outside the gate. I keep telling him not to do that, but Gamel is my [Knight] and seems to believe I should be attended at all times. Since the villagers agree with him, it’s hard to tell him to stop. Plus, it is convenient.

Time to start my day! I stride outside as Durene, grumbling, chucks potatoes at Bismarck. Apparently bears can eat potatoes and he chases after a spud as I walk past. I wonder if this is what it’s like having a dog?

“Good morning, Gamel.”

“Your majesty.”

Gamel bows. Quite smoothly too. He must have been practicing. I nod at him and square my shoulders.

“Time to start the day. Durene, I’m heading into the village.”

“Wait for me! I just have to—no, Bismarck, there are no more potatoes! Go eat some berries!”

Disappointed, the Mossbear ambles out of the cottage gates as Durene hurries into her cottage. I sense Bismarck heading into the forest now that breakfast has been served. He’ll scavenge for food until dinner or when I call him. I’m fine with that. I know some people would prefer me to ride him around everywhere but I like walking and Bismarck is not that comfortable to ride.

“I wonder if someone can make a saddle for him.”

“The bear, sire? I will ask Mister Prost about it right away!”

“No…”

I grimace and wave a hand. This is the problem with being an [Emperor]. Everyone takes my words as a command. And that can be a big problem.

“We have more important things to do than waste time with saddles for bears, Gamel. Maybe once we finish construction and get everyone settled.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Right.”

I wait until Durene comes out of the cottage. She’s got a greatsword and she’s tying it to her belt. It’s old and she doesn’t have a sheath—the greatsword is made of iron, not steel. Even so, she’s killed two Hobs with it and a score of Goblins.

Durene, my [Paladin], and Gamel, my [Knight]. Their lives were shaped by me. I saved Gamel’s life. Kept him alive when he was dying. I ordered him to live and he lived. He has never told me whether he resents that order.

The cottage that we leave behind is mine. The dirt road that we walk down is mine. The village we enter is mine, as are all the people inside. I claimed it. I claimed the land around here, marked it with totems proclaiming the borders of my empire. So I can ‘see’ the entire area around the village if I concentrate. I can sense the hundreds, no, over a thousand people in this area alone busy at work this early in the morning.

I sense houses going up, people carting timber to the areas under construction, the [Farmers] hard at work to the north in the new fields, the [Blacksmiths] at their forges, working to produce nails and hinges and so on for the construction. Riverfarm was a small village of just over a hundred people. Now it is turning into a city.

There’s a method to the chaos. It might seem chaotic at ground level—I wouldn’t know. The babble of voices greeting me, the sounds of horses and people shouting at each other is confusing for a blind man. But I can view the village from above and get a very reliable idea of how things are laid out.

“Good, we’re still on track. Gamel, is Prost supervising the building?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“We’ll go see him, then. Durene?”

“I’m going to help carry stuff, Laken.”

“I’ll see you later, then.”

I part ways with Durene, knowing she’ll be carrying trees around and helping people lift things too heavy to carry without a team. I’d like to stay with her, but I have my duties too. I am an [Emperor], and my job is to oversee…this.

An empire. Or the beginnings of one. It’s small, and by small, I mean that it only has a few thousand people in it, but that’s a frightening number of people to house, feed, and protect every day. They’re all villagers, the people of Riverfarm, Windrest—villages that were raided by Goblins. Oh, and a town. The town of Trottvisk declared itself part of the Unseen Empire just the other day. It happens.

So much to do. I wouldn’t know where to start—but I have some advantages. My Skills as an [Emperor], my knowledge from Earth, my home, and my counselors. I might not know how to take care of so many people myself, but if there’s one thing I know from Earth, it’s that delegation is key.

In fact, my coming from another world is probably my biggest asset. One day I just appeared in this world. And while all the scientific knowledge in the world wouldn’t protect me from monsters or starving to death by myself, it does help when I’m a leader of a large group of people. One of the things I brought from my world to this one was the idea of sanitation.

Obviously, people didn’t eat everything with dirty hands in this world before I came along, but they didn’t consider washing hands essential and they sometimes built their outhouses and latrines way too close to the water.

That’s changed now. I walk towards a man directing people to dig the latest public outhouses away from the river that gives Riverfarm its name. He stops, turns to me, and bows the instant he notices I’m here.

“Emperor Laken, sir!”

Prost, my [Steward] has also changed markedly since I first met him. He was a [Farmer] who barely tolerated Durene and couldn’t accept that she and I were living under the same roof. Now he’s my right-hand man who oversees construction, settles minor disputes, coordinates things like food, housing—all the things I’m bad at. I nod to him.

“Mister Prost, how are we doing today?”

“Another four houses built since you last visited, sire!”

Four? But I was here last night!”

Prost beams. I can sense it and hear it in his voice.

“Yes, your majesty. But we had a night team working and they’re quick! Don’t fear that people minded the hammering—we sleep like rocks unless there’s an alarm called!”

I have to shake my head. Another of my Skills is [Blessing of the Hearth], which allows people a comfortable night’s sleep even if they’re lying on the floor. I had no idea it could be used this way, but that’s the thing about leading, or so I’ve learned. It’s about combining multiple perspectives to achieve the best result.

“Well, carry on Mister Prost. I just wanted to see if there were any new developments.”

“In the construction? No, sire. We’ve been keeping to the directions you gave—it’s very simple to understand!”

“Is it? Good, good.”

My directions. As I said, I can see the entire village and my empire with a bird’s eye view. That means I’m uniquely able to visualize the layout of the buildings in my head and organize it as best I can. However, there’s a lot to take in.

“Just let me know if you see any issues arising regarding wells, proximity to the outhouses and so on. We want everything within reach and I’d hate to know that we didn’t build a large enough road or something.”

“Yes, sire. Don’t worry, I’ve talked it over with the other [Village Heads] and [Farmers] and so on. They all agree your plan for the city is sound.”

One of Prost’s new talents aside from all his organizational skills seems to be reassuring me. I leave him to it. The village does look good in my head. I tried to copy it over as best I could to a map, but sadly I still can’t read books with my [Emperor] senses. I had to describe it and trust that everyone understood what I was talking about.

Creating a village. Planning it out with access to water, food, keeping houses away from [Blacksmiths] who are noisy, and organizing a central road that splits off into smaller paths—it would be a challenge for an [Architect], and I have absolutely no training in this area. However, I did my best. In fact, coming up with a design for my new empire reminded me a lot of video games—or rather, what I imagine video games are like.

It’s hard to play a lot of games when you’re blind. Board games sort of work, but anything with a strong visual component? No thanks. I did have friends who told me what it was like, though. The friend I was hanging out in San Francisco with, Zoe, she told me about a game. Age of Empires II or something. She described it like this, where you direct people around, lay out your kingdom, and defend it from enemies.

In my head, I’m thinking of where monsters or bandits might come from, how we’re going to expand—because we will expand, I’m sure of it—the placement of other villages, and of course, how to patrol the entire area I’ve claimed to keep it safe. I get headaches just thinking of all the problems. And people do this for fun?

“Gamel, I think I’ll look at our crops today. I see Wiskeria and our guest are near the farms so we’ll visit her on the way.”

“Very good, sire.”

Though Prost is my [Steward], I’ve assigned him to worrying about construction and farming for the most part, which he knows the most about. However, I have two other people I regard as my counselors. I go to meet both of them now. They’re standing near the farms, talking with their own crowds of people.

One is a woman on horseback with a pointed hat and spectacles, overseeing the deployment of armed men and women. The other is a woman wearing a dress, out of place among the more simply dressed folk. But she is also in the thick of things, speaking eloquently as people bow to her and hurry off.

“Lady Rie, Wiskeria.”

I greet them as I approach. The two women break off immediately and come to me. Rie curtsies and Wiskeria dismounts to bow slightly. Wiskeria is a [Witch] and my [General] tasked with defending my empire. Lady Rie is a [Lady], formerly the landowner of some of the villages and towns around here.

After Goblins attacked her mansion, Lady Rie pledged herself to my service. I was the one who led an army to save her, but I was surprised by her request to become my vassal. It’s been three days since she came to Riverfarm and she’s already assisted in numerous ways.

“Good morning, Emperor Laken.”

“Morning, sire.”

The two greet me, Rie formally, Wiskeria informally. I nod to Wiskeria and incline my head to Lady Rie. There is a difference and according her the status of her rank is important. Lady Rie is good with people. She is a [Lady] after all, and as the last member of the Valerund family she knows how to organize and settle disputes.

“Lady Rie, thank you for your help. May I ask if there are any new developments?”

“None worth speaking of, Emperor Laken. However, I urge you once again to entertain the notion of an audience with some of the local nobility. I could arrange the meetings quite easily.”

I grimace and cut the motion short. Lady Rie has been floating the idea past me for the last few days.

“I understand your desire Lady Rie, but I have no desire to enter the political world just yet.”

“I fear it is far too late for that, your majesty. Your presence alone is significant, and I worry that the other nobles will take your expanding empire as a sign of…”

Rie hesitates delicately. I fill in the gap for her.

“Danger?”

She shifts ever so slightly.

“Perhaps. Which is why an audience may allay their worries. I have no doubt the other [Lords] and [Ladies] who own lands in the area have already investigated your presence, your majesty. They will be cautious, some afraid—but the truth is that there is a surplus of lands and not enough of the aristocracy to manage the land. Your presence may be quite beneficial so long as the other nobles are assured that their lands will not be encroached upon. And you are needed. Many villages lack a local [Lord] or [Lady].”

“Is that a bad thing?”

The practice of landowning seems medieval to me—not the act of owning land, that’s as common as landlords, but the idea of owning everything on a piece of land, including the people. I don’t see why anyone would want that, but Lady Rie seems surprised by my question.

“Having a [Lord] is quite beneficial, Emperor Laken. Some would consider a village or town not protected by some kind of landowner to be very dangerous indeed, or at the least, troublesome.”

“How so?”

Wiskeria stands patiently to one side, listening, and I sense the crowds of people either moving away on business or waiting for me to finish. I feel as though I’m interrupting important work, but I am the [Emperor]. Teaching me important facts is quite necessary if I’m to lead well. Rie explains as I stand patiently with Gamel behind me.

“When my family was alive we managed a huge area of land. It is not simply protection we offer, but justice. We enforced laws, settled disputes, collected taxes, and dealt with disasters and monster attacks as they emerged—ruled in short. Each [Lord] is a [King] of his own domain, or so it is said.”

“I see. And there’s a lack of nobility in the area?”

Rie pauses.

“The Second Antinium War was…devastating to put it mildly. Many of the aristocracy lost their lives defending their homes from the Goblin King. As such, there are many unattended lands that lack any local ruler.”

“I see. Well, if it will reassure the other [Lords] and [Ladies], I suppose I could consider an audience. But on the same note Lady Rie, would you prefer to stay elsewhere? I know Riverfarm’s accommodations are less than what someone of your station might expect. Several of the local cities and towns have offered to give you their finest lodging.”

I float the idea by Lady Rie, wondering if she’ll bite. She declined the offer the first time I made it, but will she have changed her mind in the three days she’s been here? Lady Rie shakes her head instantly, and then recalls that I’m blind.

“I am quite content here, Emperor Laken. I would like to see my home restored to me—but so long as the Goblin threat persists, I do not believe I would be safe anywhere but here. As to staying in a city or nearby town—if you will allow me to say so, I see greater opportunity in making myself useful to you here, your majesty. If you will permit me to stay, I would do so gladly.”

I nod.

“I won’t turn away aid, and I do consider you quite invaluable, Lady Rie. Your people are quite helpful as well. Although as I recall, your man—Geram?—was insistent on staying by your side.”

Adamant, in fact. He didn’t say so around me, but I got word of the argument through Prost. All of Lady Rie’s servants follow after her and treat me with the utmost respect, but it can’t be normal having an [Emperor] pop up all of a sudden. Rie’s voice is apologetic.

“Do forgive him, sire. He worries for my safety, but I assured him I was quite safe in the village.”

“I quite understand. I believe he will be quite an asset to Wiskeria’s army.”

Geram is one of Lady Rie’s more notable servants. He’s a huge bald man who fights with his fists. He’s apparently a former [Street Brawler] of some renown—an odd choice for a captain of the guard for a [Lady], but he does seem tough. He took down several Hobs himself while defending Rie’s mansion. I wonder if he’s romantically involved with Lady Rie, or the other one, Nesor, her [Mage] is. He’s a young man with a lot of anxiety and isn’t the best [Mage], but I’ll take any magic-users I can get.

“I’m grateful for all the soldiers I can get, Lady Rie. On that note—Wiskeria, how goes training the army?”

Wiskeria steps forwards smoothly. She’s in charge of defense, which is a lot simpler since I can tell if anything enters my lands. Wiskeria can send out a patrol to deal with most problems at once, which is why she devotes most of her time to actually creating an army to fight with.

We have a small core of adventurers and retired [Warriors] and so on, but I’ve had to rely on other towns and cities by using another Skill – [Imperial Levy]. I can request their soldiers to fight if a huge group of monsters or bandits come along, but I’d prefer to have a force at my disposal. Wiskeria’s been working in that area, but training [Soldiers] up from scratch is hard.

“We have a number of recruits interested in fighting, Emperor Laken. I suspect we’ll have less after the rigorous daily training, but then again, perhaps not. They are quite dedicated. However, we do have an issue.”

“Oh?”

She nods.

“There’s not enough weapons to train all the potential recruits, and many skilled workers—[Bakers], [Carpenters], and so on—don’t have the tools or space to ply their trade.”

“That was my observation as well. Too many villages fled without packing their supplies and lost them to Goblins or thieves.”

Lady Rie sighs. I nod. The Unseen Empire is comprised mainly of villagers who fled their homes and as such it lacks most of everything.

“I’m aware of the problem, Wiskeria, but I consider getting a roof over everyone’s head the first priority. Most of the villagers are still sleeping in barns—that can’t last forever. If they’re not training, send your soldiers to help with everyone else. That goes for our experienced craftspeople, Lady Rie. We have a lot of hands. Anyone can help lift or hammer nails, or help make rope and so on. We’ll use that to get everyone housed quickly, and then focus on specialized buildings and tools. Our [Blacksmiths] can only work so fast and I need them making nails before swords.”

Wiskeria nods reluctantly, but Lady Rie clears her throat softly.

“We may be able to procure some arms and tools without needing to forge them ourselves, Emperor Laken. If you will allow me to make a few inquiries, I believe I could obtain a good deal of supplies at a cheap price.”

“From the other cities?”

“Indeed. I could put in an order to Invrisil and further cities abroad as well. The transportation fee would be somewhat steep, but it would allow General Wiskeria and other craftspeople to begin working sooner. If you consider it wise? We have enough money.”

I shift uncomfortably.

“It is your money after all, Lady Rie.”

Perhaps it’s my Skill – [King’s Bounty]. Or perhaps it’s just how things worked out. But Lady Rie’s fortune is now part of the Unseen Empire. She told me it was mine to use and I reluctantly accepted it. That money could buy a lot of tools—I just wonder how I’ll repay Lady Rie.

I’ll think about it later. And Lady Rie seems to regard it as an investment.

“Consider it a gift for saving my life, Emperor. Very well, I will send a few [Message] spells with Nesor’s help. If you will excuse me.”

She bows slightly and moves away. She’s graceful, intelligent, and extremely helpful. I can’t help but think that I lucked out in having her pledge her loyalty to me. I wait until she’s out of earshot to speak quietly to Wiskeria.

“You’ve been watching her?”

“Yes, Emperor. She’s done nothing out of the ordinary. She uses her personal mage to send [Message] spells, but her people have settled in well. Fairly well. The [Servants] were arrogant until Prost settled them down and I believe Lady Rie had a word with them.”

“Sounds good. But keep a discreet eye on her. I will too. In my own way.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Saving Lady Rie was an easy decision. Accepting her as my vassal…well, I didn’t have any reason to refuse. She’s competent, in need of a home, and knowledgeable on things like politics and trade, something neither Wiskeria nor Prost know that well. I haven’t had any reason to doubt her and neither has Wiskeria.

However, after Odveig, neither of us are quite so trusting. Lady Rie seems perfectly willing to put herself behind me with coin as well as her help. Maybe she’s grateful. Or perhaps she thinks I’m a rising star and wants to secure as much influence as possible. I’m fine with either option, but I do worry.

“All’s quiet so far?”

“You would know that better than I, Emperor.”

Wiskeria’s voice is a little less formal without anyone else to hear. She treats me more like a person than Prost or Rie or anyone else besides Durene, which I’m grateful for. I smile.

“True, but I do worry. It might be my senses can’t detect hidden threats or…well, it puts my mind at ease to know your people are patrolling.”

“Of course, sir. I think it reassures the other towns and cities too. But I have only a limited number of warriors at my disposal and I prefer to keep most of them here in case you sense anything.”

“Right. Speaking of sensing—Beniar’s riders dispatched the [Bandit] group on the western road.”

“Ah. Any casualties?”

“None. They took them out in the middle of the night.”

I relay the news to Wiskeria with the utmost certainty despite Beniar being over fifteen miles south east of here. I sensed him attack the [Bandits]. I felt it. It was almost like I was there.

 

—-

 

Darkness. The night is pitch-black, so dark that the distant stars and obscured moon do little to provide light. It’s so dark that the few lazy sentries outside of the camp of [Bandits] can’t see much. And why should they worry anyways? They’re hidden well off the road, far from any settlements. They can hide and strike at people on the roads at their leisure.

Or so they think. But galloping hooves break the night’s silence. I imagine the sound of galloping, anyways. I can’t hear, only sense. What I do sense is the [Bandits] on watch looking up in sudden alarm. They reach for their weapons, peer into the darkness. One goes to rouse the others.

Too late. The first rider appears out of the darkness like a ghost. He rides down on a sentry who screams once—the sword takes him in the chest and he falls. Beniar, my [Cataphract] and [Captain], turns his mount and more riders appear out of the darkness behind him. They charge the sentries and into the camp of bandits.

The ragged men and women are ready for a fight. What they’re not ready for is for Beniar to scatter their torches and campfires, plunging them into darkness. Again, I have to imagine the shadows flickering and the riders streaming through the camp. I don’t have a problem with seeing since the images in my head aren’t really visual.

I sense Beniar and his [Riders] cutting the confused [Bandits] down as they flail at shadows. My riders have no problem seeing in the darkness, and as they cut down the last of the [Bandits] they cheer. I roll over in my bed miles away and go to sleep at last, relieved.

 

—-

 

[Blacksky Riders]. That’s the name of the last of my new Skills. After the battle at Lady Rie’s mansion I gained a new Skill that allows my soldiers to become, well, terrors of the night. It was hard for me to figure out what my Skill did at first, but after one exciting night it all became clear.

My Skill allows a group of chosen riders to see in the night. Not only that—the effect extends to their mounts and lets them dampen the light when they so choose. Thanks to that, Beniar’s group of mounted warriors have become night ambushers who can attack in the darkness with ease. It’s a powerful Skill and has already led to rumors that the people of my empire don’t need eyes to see.

Just like their [Emperor]. I was relieved that none of the riders were hurt, though, and Wiskeria seems equally relieved. Losing just one soldier or horse is dangerous.

“Beniar should be on his way back. I think he’ll arrive after midday, but I’d like to put a [Mage] with his group. Someone who can send and receive [Message] spells.”

“I agree. Unfortunately, that young [Mage] that Lady Rie employs can neither ride nor send [Message] spells reliably. There are artifacts that can do the same, but they are quite expensive.”

“More problems. We’ll put that on our list until later, Wiskeria. At least I can tell where everyone is. But keeping the lines of communication open is one of the key principles of war. I think I read that somewhere.”

“Hm. I agree. But aside from Lady Rie’s personal artifacts we have nothing of our own. And I would rather buy more swords and bows and so forth than purchase a single artifact.”

“They’re that expensive?”

“Oh yes. On that note, may I speak with you about the crops your [Farmers] are growing? Food is essential I know, but they could easily devote a few fields to growing some crops that [Alchemists] would buy. Or a few varieties of mushrooms? I’m familiar with what sells well and I could obtain some seed samples with enough coin…”

“You have my attention.”

The work never ends. There’s always something to do, which isn’t bad, but it means that I always feel like there’s more I could be doing rather than taking a break. I’m sure that’s unhealthy, but I have energy and it’s not like I’m running about. Just talking and listening.

In any case, the rest of my day is devoted to managing things with Wiskeria. She’s quite sharp despite only having been a Silver-rank adventurer before I made her into a [General], and I value her insight. We spend an entire day talking about how to use Beniar’s riders most effectively and hunting without depleting animal populations. It feels slightly wrong that I can tell where every deer herd is, but I have to keep my people fed. I work and then I go to sleep with Durene in the cottage.

It’s another day in the life of Emperor Laken. That is, until Nesor wakes up screaming and rouses the entire village.

 

Day 86

 

Zel Shivertail is dead. The army raised by Magnolia Reinhart at Invrisil has been defeated. The Goblin Lord is marching towards the city, only a few days away from this area. And like that, I’m facing another crisis. The same crisis I’ve always had to face, in fact. The enemy that has defined Riverfarm’s struggle, the nemesis of the Unseen Empire in my mind.

Goblins.

“Nesor, calm down and give me answers. How badly was Magnolia Reinhart’s army defeated? How did General Shivertail die? Where is the Goblin Lord’s army headed?”

It’s early morning. Rie, Prost, Wiskeria, and I are all standing in the large cottage assigned solely to Lady Rie. Nesor, a young man who failed to graduate from Wistram is sitting at a table, face pale, hands shaking. He’s stuttering, barely able to speak.

“I—I just got a message Lady Rie. It said General Shivertail was dead and the Goblin Lord had won! It was a warning to all the nobility in the area so I got it—”

“Nothing else?”

“N-n—”

He shudders. I look at Wiskeria. She has an impatient look on her face, the same one I’m trying to suppress.

“You can’t send [Message] spells, can you, Wiskeria?”

“I never learned. That kind of magic is more difficult for my class.”

“Nesor, calm down.”

Lady Rie is soothing Nesor. She looks at me apologetically.

“I apologize, Emperor. Nesor, send a [Message] spell back to—oh, First Landing? It must be chaos in Invrisil right now and I don’t know that we’ll get a quick response. This might take a while.”

I nod and step out of the house with Prost and Wiskeria. I turn to them and see the same worry and fear in their eyes that I’m feeling. Only they’re looking to me for help. I can see lights in the houses nearby and a lot of people are standing in the streets, looking worried. Time to do my [Emperor] thing.

“Okay. Prost, calm everyone down. Don’t mention specifics, but let people know there are Goblins near Invrisil and—leave it at that. Tell them there will be an announcement later and that we are still waiting for details.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Prost hurries off. I turn to Wiskeria and drew her aside.

“Wiskeria, explain what Nesor said to me.”

“What part?”

All of it. I know the Goblin Lord was marching north, but who’s General Shivertail?”

Wiskeria’s voice is surprised.

“You don’t know?”

“I have never heard of him before. Assume I’m from far away and have no idea of anything. Who is he, and why is this so important?”

I can sense Wiskeria looking at me. I never told her or anyone besides Durene that I’m from Earth, but Wiskeria isn’t stupid. She’s already expressed surprise at the things I know and don’t know. Right now I don’t care. I might tell her everything just in case—Ryoka would object, but I need people I can trust in possession of all the facts. For the moment, Wiskeria takes me at my word.

“General Shivertail is—was—a hero of the Antinium Wars and the highest-leveled Drake [General] in the entire world. If he’s dead, then this Goblin Lord is extremely dangerous.”

“Antinium Wars. Wasn’t there a book on the history of the Antinium Wars? I never found a copy to read. Please explain all of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

I walk with Wiskeria to her private house and she brews me some tea while she speaks, summarizing decades of history while the sun rises. Her home, like Rie’s, is hers alone. It’s a bit extravagant especially since a lot of people are still sleeping crammed together, but rank has privileges and as soon as we get personalized housing built Wiskeria will move out and let a family take this home. She wants a forest cottage with a garden for mushrooms and other alchemical ingredients. And a place to brew potions where there’s no one to smell it.

Anyways, her explanation of Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord fills me with dread. The news we get just after morning is no better. Nesor finally got through to First Landing and all the reports are of the battle, and the Goblin Lord’s army.

Tens of thousands. That alone is enough to panic me. I could muster a force of a thousand soldiers. Maybe two thousand if I pressed every city and town in the area to turn out their garrisons. That’s all. If the Goblin Lord comes here—

“What should we do, Emperor Laken? People will panic if word spreads.”

“It’ll spread.”

Wiskeria glances sideways at Nesor. I grimace. The young man sounds like he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. Funny, I’m probably only a few years older than he is.

“I won’t lie to people or hide the truth. Prost, we’ll tell them what happened. But when you do, tell them this: the Goblin Lord’s army is not headed our way just yet. They’re moving towards Invrisil, which is close by, but I haven’t sensed any Goblins in our radius and I will know if they approach.”

I sense Prost nodding in relief. I don’t talk about my abilities, but people need reassurance now.

“If an army comes calling we’ll evacuate or fight, but until then, there’s no reason to panic. Wiskeria will send out more patrols and alert all the settlements nearby in case they haven’t heard.”

“I’ll send riders now.”

“Good. Lady Rie, if you would keep communicating with First Landing?”

“Of course.”

I nod and stand.

“In that case, Prost, you and I will calm people down.”

And so we do. Prost shouts the news and I tell people what I just told him. It doesn’t calm them down exactly, but no one screams or runs. And once we get people moving about their tasks things calm down. I walk around the village, reassuring people, being there, and it does help. Everyone looks calmer when I’m around and more than one of Riverfarm’s original villagers recounts the battle in the village to the others.

Everyone’s calm. But me. As I lie in bed next to Durene I toss and turn and eventually wake her up.

“Laken, why are you so restless?”

“Why aren’t you? Durene, I promised them everything would be okay, but I have no plan if the Goblin Lord actually comes this way. We can’t fight and we might not be able to escape.”

“You’ll figure out something. If you can’t do it, no one can.”

I laugh in the darkness. How does she believe in me?

“I wish that were true.”

“It’s true! Now come over here.”

She pulls me over and I forget about Goblins for the moment. It’s nice to have someone with you who can take your worries away. For a while I’m not an [Emperor], and the cottage is intimate.

A bird screeches, surprising both Durene and me in the silence. Frostwing objects to being woken up. I throw my pants at her.

“Shut up, Frostwing.”

 

Day 87

 

Today I consult with Rie and Prost. Reassurances are all very well, but I want to be prepared for a fight if it comes to that. Ironically, Wiskeria’s not on my list—she’s training her forces and there’s little I can do to help her. I don’t want to be a distraction.

However, there are things I can control and one of them is my project that Prost’s been in control of. Siege weapons. Ryoka Griffin taught me the fundamentals of how they work and the rest has been trial and error. I have a few [Carpenters], one [Blacksmith], and three new [Tinkerers] on the job with some other eager young men and women.

Lady Rie stares at the two prototype trebuchets and ballista and I realize that she’s never seen them before. We keep the siege weapons far, far away from the town in case of more accidents.

“Prost, how are the trebuchets working?”

“Well, Emperor. I haven’t been here all day, so I’ll let Miss Tessia explain. Tessia?”

Prost gestures and a young woman steps up. She’s got red hair and loose work clothing. I first met her when I helped dig her out of the snow after an avalanche. She’s Gamel’s girlfriend and her timid personality has been replaced by what I can only consider an engineer’s mania.

“Emperor Laken! We’ve finally gotten one of the trebuchets working! We can throw a twenty pound stone over two hundred feet with each shot, and I think that once we make a new trebuchet we’ll be able to hurl a stone twice as far!”

She grins as behind her the people crowded around the trebuchet step back. It fires and I hear a creak as the arm comes up and a stone is hurled through the air. I stare at the sling as it releases a stone and sense it fly into the distance. The people cheer as two boys run after the stone to see how far it’s landed. Lady Rie just stares.

“Is that a…a catapult?”

“It’s a trebuchet, Miss!”

Tessia either hasn’t heard that Lady Rie is a [Lady] or doesn’t care. She begins excitedly talking about range and the ballista they’re building while I inspect the trebuchet up close.

“Amazing. And can you aim it?”

“We’re figuring it out now, sire. The lads—and lasses—have been firing it nonstop. I’d say Tessia’s got the best shot. She can hit a house from two hundred feet five shots out of eight!”

“Please tell me we’re not actually hitting houses, Mister Prost?”

“Oh, they built one out of spare wood, don’t you worry, sire. But I reckon that we could build two more trebuchets within the week! Those would make the Goblin Lord blink twice, don’t you think?”

“Indeed they would. But I want those trebuchets inspected carefully and tested thoroughly. The last thing we need is for someone to get hurt.”

“Yes sire. I had to knock a few heads together when some of the lads kept wanting to rush things. But don’t fear—after the second time, Tessia started doing it for me! The lasses are much more careful about making sure no one’s in danger of being thumped by the arm and standing back and so on.”

Prost beams with all the pride of a former [Farmer] now constructing weapons of war. Lady Rie looks dazed as she comes over to me.

“Emperor Laken—your majesty, may I ask whether this was your invention?”

I smile slightly.

“Not my invention, Lady Rie. I know about the theory, but the villagers of Riverfarm built all this.”

“I see. But you know how to build siege weapons?”

“Is that uncommon?”

Lady Rie stares at the trebuchet as people begin to load it again.

“Oh…slightly. I believe the Walled Cities have such devices. Pallass creates them, but the secret of such weapons is zealously guarded and they refuse to sell to Humans. Other nations have them…but they are not mass-produced. And you’re building them here?”

“And we’re training [Engineers]. We have [Tinkerers]—I hope they’ll level up when I get them building some other inventions. War chariots, maybe. Or an irrigation system.”

Lady Rie stares at me. I smile. The sight of the trebuchet firing again gives me an idea and I turn to Prost.

“Mister Prost, it occurs to me that most of the villagers haven’t seen the trebuchet in action. Maybe a test would impress them as much as Lady Rie and reassure them of their safety. Could you move the trebuchet to an open space and set up a target?”

“Of course, sire!”

“And why not make it a contest? Let Tessia and the other workers have a contest who can hit or get nearest to a target. The winner will receive…well, how about a few mugs of ale and a small coin prize? You decide.”

Prost smiles.

“I think that would motivate them greatly, sire. But could I extend the offer of ale for the entire team? They’ve been working like Demons to get the trebuchet done.”

“Of course. Lady Rie?”

I leave my [Steward] to set it all up and walk a few paces back with Lady Rie. She still keeps staring at the siege weapons.

“You know, that is the true treasure of your village.”

“Excuse me?”

“Those.”

Rie points to the trebuchet as Prost begins speaking and Tessia and the others mill about in excitement. She nods to the path to Riverfarm behind us.

“If you’ll permit me to say so, Emperor Laken, Riverfarm is hardly a rich village. With your help I have no doubt it will be quite self-sufficient, but planting cash crops as Wiskeria has suggested will only earn the people a modest income. However, building siege weapons? Exporting such devices would earn you a fortune.”

I nod slowly. I hadn’t considered it except as a form of protection, but…

“The war industry is always a profitable one. I don’t know that I’d like for my empire to be known for that, but at least we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”

“It is your choice of course, your majesty.”

“Choice. Yes, well, I’d like my people to have the same. I’m building trebuchets and teaching people to become [Engineers], Lady Rie. But I’d like them to be able to become [Alchemists] or [Blacksmiths] or [Scribes] or whatever they desire.”

“That is rather ambitious, your majesty. I suppose it might be possible, especially with your communal farming system. There will be less need for [Farmers].”

I shake my head.

“Less need for as many [Farmers], perhaps, Lady Rie. I intend to provide them with oxen, ploughs…Riverfarm used to consist of subsistence farming where each family tended a small plot of land. By creating large fields we can provide for a large number of people with only a few [Farmers].”

“And you intend to let the next generation grow up to become artisans instead?”

“That’s the theory. Or [Soldiers]. But to do that they need to survive and this place needs to be standing in a week’s time. The Goblin Lord’s army…I was hoping you had some thoughts on the matter. Is there any force that can stop them?”

Rie nods.

“Of course! There is already talk of Lord Tyrion’s army. He gathered one at the same time as Lady Magnolia and his is by far the superior one. I doubt Lord Tyrion Veltras falls far behind General Shivertail regardless of level.”

“Huh. Lord Tyrion Veltras.”

The name’s only vaguely familiar to me, like Magnolia Reinhart. There are so many influential people in the world and I feel like I’m a small fish in my corner of Izril.

“Tell me about Lord Tyrion, Lady Rie. He levied a vast army, but does he have his own private force? Do lords and ladies have armies of their own? I recall your mansion was defended, but…”

I can hear Lady Rie’s rueful smile in her reply.

“The Valerund family was…much diminished by the time I became its sole heir, Emperor Laken. Aside from the small number of guards I employed, I had no standing militia to speak of. I would have relied on the forces of towns and villages to root out threats. But my example is hardly indicative of more powerful nobles. Lady Magnolia Reinhart has many, many servants trained in espionage and combat. She often employs them to clean up…problems in her domain.”

I think of Odveig, the perfect spy masquerading as a Silver-rank adventurer.

“I can believe that. Does Lord Tyrion do the same?”

Rie shakes her head.

“The Veltras family has a conventional army. As do the Reinharts, although theirs is far smaller and guards their family estate. Most powerful [Lords] and [Ladies] train their retainers. For instance, there is a Lady Bethal Walchaís who commands a knighthood. Her Knights of the Petal are elite and quite, quite dangerous.”

“I see. Everyone has their personal force on top of regular garrisons.”

“Yes, your majesty. I see you have started your own army as well.”

“My own army? Oh—yes, Wiskeria is doing her best.”

“Not just her.”

Lady Rie puts a gentle touch on my arm and I jump. She withdraws her hand quickly.

“Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”

“It’s nothing.”

Is she standing closer to me? Yes, she is. I clear my throat and keep my head turned towards the trebuchet which is being pushed to another spot. I don’t have to look at it of course, but people get nervous when I talk about things behind my back that I shouldn’t be able to ‘see’.

“What were you saying, Lady Rie? My own personal force?”

“Indeed, Emperor Laken. Your ah, Sightless Riders have already developed a reputation.”

“My what? Oh—Beniar and his people? Yes, I could see that. That was due to a Skill, but perhaps I’ll obtain more.”

“One can only hope. But such specialized units are the hallmarks of any powerful ruler. And it is my sincere hope that your initiatives keep your empire safe. I know that I am eternally grateful for your intervention in my hour of need.”

She gently touches my arm again. I hold still and think.

Okay. She’s definitely flirting with me. That’s not hard to figure out. The question is—does she know Durene and I are an item?

I don’t get to ask, if I was intending to ask. Prost comes back and Lady Rie stands demurely at my side. I continue the inspection and watch the trebuchets being fired for an enthusiastic crowd without any more incidents. But I do recall the touch. Was it just a casual touch? Am I overthinking things?

Her fingers were very soft.

 

Day 89

 

Between my personal assurances and the trebuchet demonstration, my people are calm enough not to panic at news of the Goblin Lord’s army. They trust me, because I’ve protected them from Goblins before. However, that faith doesn’t apply to the other local towns and cities. They were all too willing to offer me a tribute so I’d protect their roads, but the Goblin Lord’s army is justifiably terrifying.

As such, I spend most of today entertaining audiences. I have no throne room, but one of the first non-essential buildings that went up was a meeting hall. It’s mainly a storage area, but someone decided it had to have a throne despite the lack of beds. So here I am, sitting on a wooden throne decorated with carved eyes. My [Carver], Jelov, is a famous man in the village. From a recluse who sold small trinkets, he’s now got eight apprentices and more work than he can handle.

“Of course my people will alert your town the instant Goblins cross my borders in force, [Headman] Filk. And I am committed to defending all the cities under my protection. My army will hunt down any stray monsters and bandits, as promised. Only an army could resist my forces.”

“Just as you say Emperor Laken. Forgive me for troubling you. It’s just that the Goblin Lord has an army and—”

The man standing and bobbing nervously is the leader of a town nearby. I forget which one. I hope he’ll mention the name again in conversation. I shift on my throne. Why did Jelov not include a pillow?

“Indeed. The Goblin Lord has an army and if he did march in this direction I would be unable to stop him. But consider this, Filk. Lord Tyrion Veltras and Magnolia Reinhart have both committed their forces to stopping him. Do you truly believe they would allow the Goblins to rampage unchecked?”

“Lord Tyrion? Well, your majesty—Lady Reinhart might—but Lord Tyrion does have an army.”

There’s a question in his voice. His town—what was the name again? Started with a ‘g’, I think—doesn’t have a [Mage] who can receive [Message] spells. I nod.

“He has been gathering an army for weeks now, Headman Filk. A substantial one that outnumbers the Goblin Lord’s army by all accounts. I would trust him to take care of the Goblin Lord. And if any raiding parties should head this way in the meantime…I will deal with them.”

That relieves the man. He raises his head, bowing again awkwardly.

“I had no doubts, your majesty! I’m terribly sorry to take up your time—of course Lord Tyrion’s got his army! And you’ve got yours.”

“Of course.”

I smile at him and he smiles back. Nervously. I feel his gaze on my closed eyes. I think the audience is over, so I gesture subtly to Prost, standing at the back of the room.

“You must be tired from your trip. Please, allow me to offer you refreshments before you go.”

“Oh—sire, I also meant to give you this!”

Filk nearly falls over himself as he rushes to the back of the room. He comes back with a small chest carried by several people from his town.

“It’s just a token of our appreciation, your majesty. Some of our local produce, a few bundles of cloth—rough stuff, but we wanted to show our thanks. The town of Gec isn’t prosperous as those big cities, but we’re grateful that we can sleep in our beds thanks to your men!”

Gec! Of course, how could I forget a name like that? I smile at Filk.

“I appreciate the gifts, Filk. They are not necessary—I have sworn to protect your town and I mean to keep that pledge. Please, tell the people of Gec that I appreciate their faith in me. I would love to sample their produce—are those apples in the chest?”

“A few, sire. We have this cellar with runes of [Preservation] and—oh, pardon me for taking your time! It’s just a small token, hardly—thank you once again!”

He retreats, embarrassed. I smile as Prost moves forwards to take the gift. This is the fourth emissary to visit me today. People are worried, and they’re coming to me to hear what they already know. There is a Goblin Lord, but Lord Tyrion’s got an army. I can defend them from everything but a massive force and…that’s it. But they feel better because I’m an [Emperor].

That’s people for you.

 

—-

 

My day is occupied by entertaining guests and appearing as confident—and dignified—as possible. Lady Rie takes over for Prost and it’s quite something when a [Lady] is personally greeting visitors and leading them into my throne room. It’s a long day, but I do get a pillow after my butt gets too sore to sit still.

“You may receive another pledge of loyalty from one of the nearest towns, your majesty. Headman Filk of Gec was quite taken with your village.”

“If they join, I’ll have to figure out a way to manage their town from here, Lady Rie. Perhaps I could send you to oversee it for a day or two? We can’t have more people coming here!”

The thought of my empire growing to encompass other cities and towns gives me a headache. Rie offers me a cool drink of water and I take it gratefully.

“I assume that the news of the Goblin Lord means that politics are on hold for the moment?”

“On the contrary, your majesty. It means that the aristocracy is even more desperate to find allies. You have a number of missives that just arrived.”

“More letters? I would have thought the City Runners in Invrisil wouldn’t dare venture out.”

“Mm. Apparently they’re willing to risk it for enough coin. And your lands are known to be safe for Runners. Would you like me to read them to you?”

“Please.”

I sigh and sit back on my throne. I want to see Durene. Maybe I can have a day off where I just go walking with her? The woods are nice and I could pretend to be inspecting it for valuable mushrooms or building spots or something. We haven’t had a quiet time to be together lately except at night. And sex isn’t the only part of a healthy relationship.

Lady Rie stands next to me as I sit on the throne. Her voice is soft as she reads through one letter.

To [Emperor] Laken, I am Lord Tilwa Petroms of Invrisil. I have heard of your recent accomplishments and must congratulate you on your newfound success. Hm. Lord Tilwa is a known schemer, but if he’s acknowledging you openly as an [Emperor] he must feel you have quite a lot of power already. It seems he wishes to meet with you in Invrisil.”

“Oh? I’m not keen on travelling at the moment.”

If I leave my lands I can’t ‘see’ anything with my [Emperor] senses. Lady Rie shakes her head. Is she standing closer again?

“An [Emperor] should not travel to meet a [Lord] in any case, your majesty. Lord Tilwa is testing you with this letter. Leaving him without a reply for a day or two should unsettle him slightly.”

“Oh? I’m good at ignoring [Lords] and [Ladies]. I think I responded to two dozen letters with polite nothings.”

“Including mine, Lord Laken?”

“You sent me a gift, as I recall. Are you saying I should demand something from Lord Tilwa?”

“Perhaps. He might send you a gift instead, if he hasn’t already.”

“I don’t recall. I think I left the letters lying around. It might be good to see if Prost remembers.”

A rustle. Yep, she just stepped closer. What is her game?

“I have no doubt that Lord Tilwa wishes the same thing from you that all the nobility do.”

“Which is?”

“Influence. Power, derived from your name. At the moment your financial and military capacities are unknown and you control very little land for someone of your class. Thus, your power is mainly in lending support, verbal or otherwise. However, if you can establish Riverfarm as a powerful exporter of goods or military might—”

“Defending areas under my protection or selling siege weapons?”

“As I understand it, Lord Tyrion himself lacks siege weapons. Your empire could be quite powerful economically as well as militarily. Lord Tilwa understands that and is attempting to test the waters, but he can wait. There are more important individuals to address. Now, the next letter—”

I hear the rustle of paper and then a sharp gasp. I sense the letter fall from Rie’s hands and her quickly bending to snatch it up with trembling hands. I sit up.

“Lady Rie?”

“My apologies, Emperor Laken. But this next letter—it must have been mixed up and not placed at the top. City Runners normally organize such missives meticulously by rank—”

“Maybe one of the villagers mixed it up when they were giving it to you. Who is the letter from?”

“Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”

I pause. Magnolia Reinhart. My stomach doesn’t exactly sink with dread, but it does flutter a tiny bit.

“Isn’t she in Invrisil? Right where the Goblin Lord’s army is?”

“She is apparently still able to send letters. And this one—I will read it with your permission.”

Lady Rie opens the letter without waiting for me to say yes. I hear the crinkle of paper as she reads in silence, and then what sounds suspiciously like a curse.

“Lady Rie?”

“The letter is—well, I shall skip the greetings. Magnolia Reinhart writes—To the [Emperor] Laken Godart of Riverfarm, I extend my warmest greetings. I had no idea such an august personage had arrived in Izril until this moment and must render you my deepest apologies for not contacting you sooner.

“That’s a lie.”

“It is. She goes on. I am so deeply apologetic in fact, that I feel the only thing I can do to express my sympathies in full is to host a small gathering of my fellow [Lords] and [Ladies] in your honor. Naturally, I would be remiss if I did not invite you, but I would hate for the pressing commitments of station or distance to dissuade you from attending. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to—that scheming bitch!”

“Lady Rie?”

“I—I am deeply sorry, your majesty. Please forgive me. Lady Magnolia writes—Thus, I have taken it upon myself to host this little gathering at your estates in Riverfarm.”

What?

No need to thank me. I will most likely be too busy to attend the gathering myself, but I believe about thirty of the local nobility will attend, as will a close friend of mine, Lady Bethal Walchaís. I have scheduled this event to take place a week from today. I trust this gathering will be most informative to all parties, and I hope that you will allow one of my most trusted servants, Sacra, to convey my personal regards.

Lady Rie paused.

“The name ‘Sacra’ is underlined heavily, Emperor Laken.”

“I understand what she means.”

I grit my teeth as I sit back on my throne. She’s sending Sacra? I mean, Odveig? Why? And a gathering? Here? For what reason? Lady Rie hesitates and I see her looking at my face.

“Ah—there’s a few more lines, Emperor Laken. I trust you will entertain this small soiree in your honor, Emperor Laken. I am mistrustful of [Emperors] and royalty in general, but I feel that we will all be more secure when we get to know each other, possibly over a few light snacks and conversation? Lady Bethal shall tender you my warmest regards. Sincerely…

Lady Rie folds up the letter without finishing. I sit back. The two of us wait in silence for a long time. At last, I speak.

“Lady Rie, how well do you know Lady Magnolia?”

“Not well, Emperor Laken. I have met her several times. The day before I travelled to your village, in fact.”

“Really? And what do you think of her?”

“As a person or as a [Lady], your majesty?”

“Either.”

“She’s dangerous, ruthless, and cunning, your majesty.”

“Do you think this is a trap?”

“Without a doubt. She might want to humiliate you by hosting the event here, gain more information about your empire, poison the other nobles against you, threaten you, or…”

“Or?”

“Kill you. It would not be unheard of in Izril.”

I sit for a long time on my throne. Lady Rie’s words send a chill down my spine. Goblins. Politics. I can’t decide which is deadlier. But I do know one thing. One or both is coming my way. The Goblin Lord or the hand of Magnolia Reinhart herself. And I’m not ready.

Not yet.

 


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Interlude – Flos

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“—And it looks like the rain has truly broken the spirit of the Face-Eater Moths. What a dramatic end! A simple climate change spell has reversed the entire battle and indeed, saved the city of Liscor, a stunningly intelligent move by that young mage, wouldn’t you say, Noass?”

“Indeed, Sir Relz. Although I would point out that it was destined to rain sooner or later given Liscor’s unique climate. However, actively encouraging the climate change was a smart move. I can see our fantastic [Soldiers] from Pallass finishing the last of the moths off now. No doubt this will be a hotly debated topic in the days to follow.”

“Without a doubt! This dungeon is unlike any I’ve seen before and it’s—I’m told that it’s being considered a Gold-rank dungeon, and that will play a major role into the politics of the Drake cities and perhaps the Human ones. Adventurers will be coming to claim the dungeon’s riches, but the strategic danger of the dungeon cannot be underestimated. I wonder if Liscor is prepared to handle the influx of both monsters and adventurers into the city?”

“They’ve certainly incorporated a few adventuring teams well. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, and the Horns of Hammerad—all names to watch! Now, let’s go back to the battle. I wonder if we can find someone to talk to? Ah, it’s the [Innkeeper]. Hello Miss, are you—”

Erin gave the two Drakes a bright smile and then slammed the door in their faces. The two chattering commentators went silent. The crowd from Pallass burst out into complaints. They tried to open the door again but it only revealed a brick wall. The magical connection had been severed, at least for the moment, and with it, the [Mage] in Pallass apparently decided his work was done too. The image of the Drake city disappeared and the connection broke.

Across the world, people looked up from their scrying orbs, scrying hand mirrors, enchanted magical pools of water and in one case, a shield enchanted with [Farseeing] and [Clairvoyance]. Some pondered what had occurred while others laughed and went about their lives, thinking of Liscor’s battles as a pleasant diversion, a distraction.

Magnolia Reinhart did not think of it that way. She was immediately in conference with Ressa and a few [Ladies] and [Lords] whom she trusted. Lord Tyrion did not speculate, but rather adjusted his plans slightly. The Walled Cities began arguing with each other and Pallass found itself defending its decisions as all five other Walled Cities blasted the Pallassian army’s lack of support for Liscor.

So it was in Izril. However, in other places, other continents, the reactions of those who had seen Liscor’s struggle was different. The King of Destruction put down the marble-sized scrying orb at last and stretched. Then he began pacing around excitedly.

“What a battle! Tremendous! Those are the kinds of monsters that live in Izril, are they? And they emerged from a dungeon? I had heard of legendary dungeons filled with monsters, but to think they could grow to such size! What treasures must they be guarding? What ancient nation constructed such a dungeon I wonder, and to what end? Gazi, you never spoke of the scope of Liscor’s dungeon!”

He turned, his eyes shining with excitement to stare at the woman sitting across from him. Gazi looked up. Two of her four smaller eyes focused on Flos, her king, while the other two moved around restlessly in their sockets. She opened her mouth and smiled at him with sharp teeth.

“I did not know the extent of the dungeon, my King. To my knowledge, Liscor’s dungeon was only a two-level crypt filled with undead. The true extent of the dungeon evaded my sight. Although I did note the Antinium Hive had dug extensively underneath the city. Their activity may well have concealed the dungeon from my gaze.”

“I see. Perhaps they were aware of the dungeon before now. Ah, but what a city! The Antinium, the fabled scourge of Rhir and Izril, living in peace with Drakes and Gnolls? I saw those—what did you call them? Soldiers? They were painted for battle.”

“Yes. That is new.”

“Intriguing.”

Flos grinned. His face was not as alien as Gazi’s. Where the half-Gazer’s skin was orange-brown and her face was loosely based on a Human’s, Flos was entirely Human. Gazi had no nose, four smaller eyes and one large central eye and ‘hair’ tied back into a braided ponytail. Flos had red-gold hair, a strong nose and features worthy of a statue. He was a [King].

Not just any king. The King of Destruction, a ruler who had once ruled over almost all of Chandrar and been poised to invade the other continents of the world. Flos’ name had been known by every nation under the sun until he had suddenly and unexpectedly given up his dreams of world domination.

He had entered into what many called his ‘slumber’ and his kingdom had fallen to pieces. Most of his vassals had left him and his lands had been reclaimed by his enemies and other nations. He had slumbered for over a decade until two Humans from Earth had appeared in his throne room.

And then the King of Destruction had woken up. He had called his vassals back to him, reclaimed his throne and found the spark of ambition to once again rule. He had called his most trusted followers to him, his Seven, a group of legends that had helped him conquer years ago.

Only three had responded. Of the seven, three were dead. Queravia and Tottenval had been slain before Flos had entered his slumber. Another, Drevish, had been killed by the Emperor of Sands. His head had been sent to Flos and the King of Destruction had vowed to slay the Emperor of Sands himself. And one more, Amerys, had not responded though she was known to live in Wistram, the home of [Mages]. Four of the Seven were absent. But three had come.

Takhatres, Lord of the Skies. The bird-man who led his tribe of Garuda against the Emperor of Sands at this very moment. The fastest being on Chandrar and perhaps, the world.

Mars, the Illusionist. A mighty [Vanguard] and a champion of Flos’ armies. Practically undefeatable in battle, Mars took the appearance of a beautiful woman with magical artifacts while concealing her true nature.

And finally, Gazi Pathseeker, known as Gazi the Omniscient. A Named Adventurer and [Scout] feared for her ability to spot any threat, deception, or spell from miles away. She had returned from Liscor blinded, her central eye damaged by an encounter with a certain [Innkeeper].  She sat before Flos now in front of the campfire.

It was night. In fact, it was so late into the night that it was closer to dawn than not. Liscor was far removed from Chandrar and thus evening in Liscor was deep night for Flos. His excitement had forbade sleeping however, and as the [King] walked around his fire more people sat up.

“My King, it’s late. Wouldn’t it be better to rest now? We have a long day in front of us and it will be dawn in a few hours. Why not lie down until then? My bed is open.”

A sultry voice spoke from the side. Flos glanced over and looked at a beautiful woman lying on the ground. She was half-naked underneath the stars and her skin was dusky and flawless. She looked like some vision of the sands, unreal under the moonlight and the surrounding arid desert. To look at her was to be entranced and one young man sitting around the fire gulped and looked away. Flos just stared blankly. Gazi rolled two of her eyes and tossed a bit of sand.

The image of the beautiful woman flickered just a hair as the sand struck her in the face. For a fraction of a second a shorter, less enthralling woman could be seen wiping sand from her face. Then the illusion returned. Mars glared at Gazi. The half-Gazer only smirked.

“Bad illusion. You need a new artifact.”

Mars the Illusionist narrowed her eyes. She drew the simple blanket more firmly around her body.

“Maybe I’ll get one tomorrow. What about you, Gazi? Going to get a new eye?”

There was an intake of breath from the two other people sitting around the fire. Gazi just grinned, not affected by the jest. She pointed to her closed central eye.

“Perhaps one made of gold. It would do me no worse than my current eye. And look better. Would you like to see what my eye looks like now? It has yet to recover.”

“Pass.”

Mars shuddered and looked away. She gestured alluringly to Flos. He was still staring at the scrying orb, as if hoping it would show Liscor once more.

“Well, my King?”

“What? I suppose you’re right, Mars. Why not, let us sleep for a moment. The bazaar awaits after all. Although I shall hardly sleep a wink after such excitement.”

He sighed but made to lie down. Mars scooted her bedroll closer and Gazi sat up as if to do the same. Flos ignored both and lay down on the ground. He closed his eyes and began snoring within minutes.

Mars and Gazi stared at him. They turned around and looked at the other two companions around their fire. Trey and Teres, the two twins from Earth looked at them. They hurriedly turned.

“Time to go to sleep.”

“Night!”

They rolled into their bedrolls which provided them sanctuary from the cold night air. Mars and Gazi eyed each other and then went to sleep as well. This was Chandrar and this was the King of Destruction’s camp. He was far from his Kingdom of Reim at the moment, having travelled for three days at speed. He was headed to the Jerios Bazaar. Trey still wasn’t sure why.

 

—-

 

Morning came too quick and too early. Trey woke up as someone kicked him in the ribs.

“Up.”

He shot out of bed. The kick hadn’t been hard, but the second one would be worse. The young man from England rolled out of bed and looked around blearily. It was still dark! But the smiling half-Gazer didn’t seem to care. Gazi nodded to the campfire where a pot was already simmering. Trey could smell the mild aroma of Yellats cooking with grain. It was a slightly spicy, filling soup and his stomach rumbled at the thought of breakfast.

But breakfast came after pain. Trey got up, grabbing the staff at his side and looked at Gazi.

“Training?”

“Training.”

She grinned at him. Trey groaned in mild resignation. This was always how his day started. At the break of dawn Gazi woke him up. He raised his staff as she led him to a spot just away from the fire.

“Now, cast.”

“[Flash]! [Sand Arrow]!”

The staff that Trey held was expensive and the orb held in place at the top flashed with blinding light as an arrow of sand shot across the desert. It flew past a group of three training with swords. Flos, Mars, and Teres looked up as Gazi nodded.

“More arrows. Hit that rock, there.”

She pointed to a hand-sized rock twenty paces away. Trey squinted to see it and aimed.

“[Sand Arrows]!”

More arrows flew and hit the ground right around the rock. It was a good shot; Gazi looked mildly disappointed. She thumped Trey with the flat of her huge greatsword.

“Aim better.”

Sweating already, Trey did. He kept shooting arrows of sand until Gazi made him switch to casting [Flash] and the other few spells he knew. Trey was a [Mage]. His sister Teres was a [Warrior] aspiring to become a [Blademaster]. Or perhaps aspiring wasn’t the right word.

They were the personal servants to Flos. Or companions. Vassals? It was hard to tell. Trey and Teres followed the King of Destruction around. They were hardly as useful as the rest of his servants like Orthenon, his [Steward], or the other vassals like the stern Venith or his wife, Maresar. But they had knowledge from another world and Flos claimed it was they who had given him the inspiration to wake from his slumber.

So for that reason they were indispensable. And Flos’ vassals had taken it upon themselves to train Trey and Teres to be worthy of accompanying the King of Destruction. There were few [Mages] in the Kingdom of Reim, Flos’ nation, so Gazi was training Trey in the use of magic.

He hated and enjoyed it. Trey wiped sweat from his face in the brief moment Gazi allowed him to rest. He hated Gazi’s strict requirements regarding his aim, the flow of mana in his body, and the speed at which he cast spells. Too slow or off-target and she’d hit him with her blade. But he loved magic.

“Good. You hit the target six times out of eight.”

Gazi didn’t have to turn her head to count Trey’s strikes on the tiny rock they’d been using as a target. Her four smaller eyes could all move independently and they were powerful enough to see through walls and indeed, her head. Trey wondered what her large eye was capable of. He also wondered who would have dared to blind Gazi. She was fearsome, unreadable, and very deadly.

She was also his only friend. If they could call themselves that. Gazi hung around Trey more often than anyone else. She was a loner, but she had formed a bond with Trey after he had objected to a practice the King of Destruction and his nation allowed: keeping slaves. He hadn’t realized it, but the entire continent of Chandrar kept slaves or sold prisoners of war and criminals to the Slave Traders of Roshal in exchange for coin.

Chandrar was the biggest exporter of slaves in the world and Flos had sold off the first army he had crushed to feed his impoverished kingdom. Trey understood the reasoning but he couldn’t accept it. He had argued—futilely—against Flos’ decision and the ensuing fight had driven a rift between both him and Flos and Trey and his sister.

There was still a gap, months later. Trey stared at Teres as she trained with Flos and Mars. The other two warriors took it easy on her despite Teresa’s skill with her sword—she had improved in leaps and bounds and was already a Level 18 [Warrior], soon to become a [Swordswoman] according to Orthenon, her teacher. Trey didn’t know how he felt about his sister becoming a warrior.

He didn’t know how he felt about being a [Mage] to be honest. It still felt like he could pinch himself and wake up from the dream he was in. The King of Destruction? Magic? Levels? He was in a dream—

Smack. Trey staggered as Gazi hit him with the flat of her blade.

“Ow!”

“Enough rest. Give me five casts of [Sand Veil] in quick succession. Change directions each time.”

Okay, maybe he wasn’t dreaming. Trey rubbed the back of his neck and did as she instructed. Training with Gazi was hard. Speaking to Gazi was hard sometimes. But she was a friend. She understood how he felt about slavery. She had been a slave, once.

“Breakfast!”

Flos roared the words at last and Trey sagged in relief. He trudged back to the campfire, already wrung-out by casting so many spells so early. He’d feel better after an hour and some rest; his internal reservoirs of mana would refill. It was important to keep pushing himself, though. According to Gazi, most [Mages] were lazy and didn’t use all the power their bodies were capable of. She intended to make Trey a [Mage] beyond all others. He feared she might succeed.

“What have we here? Yellats? Grain? Ah, what a familiar meal. It feels as if we’ve had it for the last four days in a row!”

The King of Destruction laughed in good humor as he peered into the cooking pot. He was a huge man, muscle without fat, and he always seemed to be bursting with energy. He was also, apparently, over forty years old. He looked more in the prime of his life than Trey did. Flos took a seat on the arid ground and looked around.

“Has the rest of the camp had breakfast, Gazi?”

“They are eating now, my lord. We’ll be on our way within half an hour. We should reach the bazaar just after morning.”

“Good! I haven’t been to Jerios’ Bazaar in over two decades! I hope everything has changed.”

Flos rubbed his hands together. Trey, sitting exhausted next to his twin sister, looked up.

“Your Majesty?”

“Yes, Trey?”

The [King] looked up, pleased to be asked a question. He had striven to bridge the gap caused over the winter and Trey’s willingness to ask him questions was a first step in mending their strained relationship. Trey hesitated.

“Are you—is it truly alright for you to leave your kingdom for so long, your Majesty? Especially right now? You don’t have much of an escort—”

Trey broke off, aware that he was in earshot of the other people sitting at campfires further away. They did not intrude on the King’s personal campfire, but they still sat close enough to defend their ruler at a heartbeat’s notice.

Their escort was a mixture of [Warriors] and [Mages], all of them elite. The band of String People warrior-mercenaries known as the Serpent Hunters and the small coven of [Mages] known as Parasol Stroll had joined Flos’ kingdom during the winter. Both groups of his former vassals were incredibly dangerous and they had been selected to follow Flos wherever he went.

Flos only smiled as he saw Trey looking at the robed men and women holding parasols over their heads and the silent men and women with stitch-marks around their arms and legs wearing dark green armor.

“My escort is more than enough to handle any [Brigands] or monsters by themselves, Trey. We could handle a small army with Mars and Gazi! Never fear that I’m undefended. Besides, we are travelling to Jerios and the Bazaar does not tolerate armies marching upon it. As for your second question—this is an important trip firstly, and secondly, my kingdom is well-attended in my absence.”

“But you just fought a war. Two wars—”

Trey had been there. He had ridden with Flos as the King of Destruction had fought off the first armies that had come seeking his destruction. After his grand defeat of the coalition army besieging his capital city at Reim, the King of Destruction had led his army north against two of the kingdoms that had caused him harm.

The Kingdom of Germina ruled by the Quarass and the Kingdom of Hellios. Both nations had sent an army to trap Flos by slaughtering his people as they fled towards the city and very nearly succeeded. In return, Flos had marched his armies into their kingdoms and destroyed both. The memory made Trey shiver and Flos saw it. The King of Destruction smiled gently, not quite looking at Trey.

“Orthenon is more suited to the job of managing the kingdom, Trey. He is quelling unrest in both nations and ensuring law and order. A [Steward] can do such things, oft times better than a [King] can. Besides which, my face would only spark more hatred in both nations at the moment.”

That was certainly true. Trey remembered the sight of Flos’ armies besieging the capital of Hellios and fighting Germina’s armies on the field. It had been a slaughter. With the defeat of the coalition army, no other nation had been willing to come to the aid of either kingdom. And in a one-on-one battle against the King of Destruction, no small nation had a chance.

It had been so quick. Before the winter had begun to set in, Flos’ armies had marched north at speed. He had taken Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi, leaving Maresar and Venith to guard the kingdom in his absence. The conquest had taken less than two weeks. Hellios had surrendered unconditionally as the King of Destruction’s armies had marched across their borders and crushed their army. The Kingdom of Germina had not.

 

—-

 

Blood. It ran hot on the dry ground, quenching it. There was smoke in the air, though there was precious little to burn. The kingdom of Germina built its city out of mud brick and stone. Now Flos’ army flooded through the streets, forcing frightened civilians back, pursuing the stragglers of the Quarass’ army.

Trey rode ahead, following Flos as the King of Destruction charged his mount towards the squat palace that was home to Germina’s ruler, the Quarass. It was an ancient building, grand because it was so old. It had been decorated with reliefs showing previous rulers over thousands of years. Flos rode into the building, his armor bloodied. Gazi followed, a swift shadow by her king’s side.

“Trey, come on!”

Teres’ eyes were blazing. She had fought in the last battle, though she had mainly been protected as she rode with the King’s vanguard. Trey had stayed with the [Mages] and thus not had to fight. He felt sick. The battle had been a one-sided slaughter. The King of Destruction had rode through the lightly-armored ranks of Germina’s army, cutting the [Soldiers] down by the thousands with his army.

The twins pursued Flos and his personal vanguard. Trey could hear shouting behind them as the rest of the army spread out to seize the city. Orthenon was overseeing the surrender and Mars was fighting the last of Germina’s forces that had refused to surrender.

It felt wrong. Too easy, almost. It was hard to call war unfair, but after seeing Mars fight, after seeing how helpless Germina’s army was against the high-level vassals Flos commanded…Trey thought Mars could have destroyed Germina’s army by herself if she had enough time. She’d slain the Quinfer, the Germina army’s champion, in a duel that had lasted only a minute. Then she’d charged into the ranks of the army, ignoring the soldiers as they tried to batter her with their weapons.

Unfair. But the Quarass had sent a [Mage] to kill Flos. He had slaughtered the civilians that Flos had rallied to fight the army that had ambushed him. Flos had given the Quarass one chance to surrender. She had refused, sending his messenger back without the hand that had delivered the message. Now Flos rode into her throne room, Trey and Teres following just in time to see the Quarass rise from her throne.

She was an old woman, older than Flos. For all that she had an imposing presence, an aura of authority. It was powerful and made Trey halt. But if she was a candle, Flos was the sun itself. He dismounted from his horse as Gazi slew two of the soldiers who rushed towards him. The King of Destruction strode towards the Quarass, his bloody blade in hand.

The Quarass didn’t flinch. She raised a hand as Flos approached her.

“Wretched [King] of Destruction, I would speak with you—”

She never got a chance to finish. Flos strode up the dais and beheaded her. It was so quick that Trey was left gaping. Flos turned as the throne room erupted into screams. The Quarass’ court threw themselves at the soldiers following Flos or fell to their knees. Flos raised his sword and bellowed.

“The Quarass is dead! Throw down your arms or join her! Her crimes are not Germina’s! Join her, loyal citizens or surrender!”

His words had provoked a bloodbath in the throne room, but the streets went quiet. Soldiers and citizens of Germina had fallen to their knees, weeping, and Flos’ banner had flown over the city. Trey remained in the throne room, just staring. The Quarass’ head had been placed under a shroud but her headless corpse sat against her throne where it had collapsed. He thought she was still staring at Flos.

Staring at him.

 

—-

 

“Trey?”

Trey jerked and realized he’d been lost, staring into the fire. Teres was looking at him. He knew his feelings were written on his face and turned away. It didn’t help. Teres had been born only moments before he had and the twins shared the closest thing to a psychic connection.

“Hey, it’s over.”

Hesitantly, Teres hugged Trey. He let her do it, although the contact was awkward. Everything was so much harder now. He hadn’t forgotten their fight and she hadn’t either. But she was comforting.

The King of Destruction had slain the Quarass. Trey didn’t understand Chandrarian politics, but he understood that it was a massive event that had scared and outraged the other kingdoms. However, they were loath to march against Flos and risk the same. So they had secured their borders and threatened war should Flos so much as sneeze in their direction. The King of Destruction had been content to simply claim the lands of Hellios and Germina for now and thus no further wars had taken place yet.

At least Hellios’ ruler was still alive. Queen Calliope and her son, Prince Siyal, were captives in their own castle. Their deaths would have sparked a bloody uprising throughout their nation. Their lives prevented the same—Hellios’ army had laid down their arms almost to a man rather than keep fighting. A good thing too—Flos had made it clear that he would behead both royals in an instant had they attempted to stir insurrection.

The image of Flos with bloody sword in hand was at odds with the man peering into the cooking pot and asking Gazi what seasoning she’d used. When he was not at war or enraged, Flos was full of life and energy, hard to anger and impossibly fascinated with the most minute details of his citizen’s lives. He seemed bigger, and drew the attention in any room he entered. Mars had once joked that Flos could pass wind and still appear more kingly than half the [Kings] on the continent. Trey believed her.

Flos was one of the highest-level [Kings] in the world. Perhaps the highest—his true level was unknown, a closely guarded secret. But his Skills were incredibly powerful. They were all geared to war, making his kingdom prosperous in times of strife and impoverished at all other times.

Hence their meal. Flos waved away a hovering Stitch-Woman who inquired whether he’d like a meat breakfast or lizard’s eggs or any of the other luxuries his people would be only too happy to provide him. He’d been asked the question every morning and his answer was always the same.

“I like simple food. I will be fine, Xeritha. Thank you for your concern.”

The Stitch-Woman withdrew. Trey, who sometimes thought his purpose in life was to ask the obvious questions to amuse Flos, raised his voice.

“What’s wrong with your breakfast, sire?”

It seemed that people really objected to Flos eating the stringy, spicy vegetable called Yellats. They were a staple of the Chandrarian diet and tasted a bit like sweet potatoes if you made them spicy. Trey quite liked them.

Flos exhaled slowly as he peered into the simmering cook pot. He took out a bowl—a wood-and-silver carved piece that Trey was sure was not standard for camping and filled it with a bit to taste. He replied as he gently smacked his lips together, savoring the hot stew.

“Yellats are considered a poor man’s food, Trey. They are filling and easy to grow on this continent—more so than any other plant in fact. This poor soil and the heat will kill potatoes in a drought, but Yellats can survive extended dry spells. They are ideal in my opinion and I have grown up enjoying them. But to other nations they are a symbol of poverty. Other monarchs would starve themselves before eating a meal such as this.”

Flos shrugged, not at all concerned by this fact. He began pouring the hot soup into bowls and passing them around the fire. The King of Destruction delighted in such things, apparently. To him, activities like serving others or cooking was a luxury to be enjoyed when he was travelling abroad. In his palace and with his subjects Flos was waited on hand-and-foot.

“Come, let us eat and be off quickly! I wish to be at Jerios soon!”

He began to eat his food rapidly and Trey quickly blew on his food and did the same. Life moved at Flos’ pace, which was to say, fast.

Within twenty minutes they’d struck camp. The String People loaded their bedrolls and supplies onto the pack horses and camels. Trey had been surprised that Chandrar had as many horses as camels—his image of the Middle East was limited at best. He was just as glad to mount the placid mare that Flos had picked out for him. He knew the camels were tetchy even with experienced [Riders] or [Animal Handlers]. He’d seen one spit right in the [Packmaster]’s face one time.

“To Jerios!”

Flos shouted in good spirits and his warriors cheered and set off. The King rode up and down the line of warriors and attendants, talking with them briefly, sometimes clapping a hand on a shoulder. His presence seemed to inspire regardless of whether he spoke for a few minutes or just a second. Trey watched the King of Destruction leave his subjects with glowing smiles.

“He is beloved. It isn’t just his Skills—a [King] who truly cares for each of his subjects is a rare sight in any land.”

Gazi rode next to Trey, at ease on her stallion. He glanced at her. The half-Gazer wore her brown scale armor like always. Her greatsword she carried around sheathed on her hip—but only when she rode. It was actually too long to carry that way when she was walking on the ground so Gazi kept it on her back. When Trey asked if it was hard to draw the sword, Gazi had just laughed and told him that anyone trying to catch her off guard would have to be very fast indeed.

Now the half-Gazer stared at her King with one eye, her other three scanning the desert landscape for danger. It wasn’t all desert of course—there were places with a lot of greenery and life. But the lands close to Reim had big arid spots due to the lack of water. Water was a resource prized as much as gold in Chandrar. Although gold was important too. Which was why their trip to the Jerios Bazaar intrigued Trey so.

“So this bazaar. Why are we going again?”

Gazi half-turned in her saddle although all of her eyes remained focused in other directions. Trey tried not to shudder as the half-Gazer smiled at him. It was her fake, small smile she always wore.

“Simple, Trey. The Jerios Bazaar is an annual gathering of [Merchants] and other sellers of goods. It has more treasures to be bought and sold than most nations will ever possess. It is an important place to visit should you desire valuable artifacts.”

“Right. So why does the King of Destruction want something from there? And if he wants something—why not take it?”

“His Majesty is not a thief.”

Gazi looked reprovingly at Trey. She turned and nodded to a speck in the distance.

“Besides which, if my lord wanted to seize the treasures of the bazaar he would have to send a very large army to take it. As it stands, we who have come with him are a capable escort of defending him, but little more.”

“You’re joking. Aren’t you a Named Adventurer? And isn’t Mars—”

Trey looked at Mars riding ahead of them, making ribald jokes with a [Mage] carrying a parasol. Gazi nodded.

“Mars is formidable. But the [Merchants] have many guards and artifacts to defend themselves with. She is only one person in the end. As for myself—I would not arouse the wrath of the entire bazaar at any cost. The sellers and buyers unite in the face of threat and there are most likely a number of individuals there that could best me.”

“Really?”

A nod. Gazi gestured to her closed middle eye. Trey had never seen it open, but he had seen the pus and liquid that had trickled from it in the first few days when Gazi had returned to the kingdom. He wondered if it could heal—Flos had talked about finding a healing potion strong enough to regrow Gazi’s eye.

“Without my main eye I would be considered a high Gold-rank adventurer, not Named. My lord as well.”

“Flos? But he’s—”

“Strong! But not that strong, Trey!”

Flos had overhead their conversation. He rode back, laughing as he gestured to the sword at his hip.

“I am strong, Trey, and an experienced warrior. I could best a Gold-rank adventurer with the strength of my arm alone, but that does not make me a Named Adventurer! To become a famous hero known across the world I would have to be truly outstanding in some way. Gazi obtained her title thanks to her eye—she is virtually impossible to ambush with it and she can cast spells with it. Her armor and blade is also of the highest quality.”

“But you’re the King of Destruction!”

Flos laughed again.

“What is a [King] without an army, Trey? The answer: he is still a [King], but again, without an army. And this king lacks both armor and sword. Had I my old arms I might have been a Named Adventurer, indeed. But I have neither armor nor sword nor any of my enchanted rings or other equipment. That is one of the reasons I ride to Jerios—to find a sword capable of surviving more than a few blows in my hands.”

He gestured at the steel sword at his waist. Flos did have a habit of wrecking the swords he was given. His remarks made Mars turn her horse backwards, frowning.

“What? My King, what happened to your old blade?”

“I gave it away.”

Flos smiled as Mars gaped at him.

“That was a national treasure!”

“I know. But I had no need of it and so I gave it to a [Soldier] when I went into my slumber. I wonder where it is.”

“But your sword—what about your armor? Your helmet? Your lance?”

“Those too. I gave each piece away.”

“Your rings? The [Ring of Health], the treasure that you took from the treasury of Armil?”

“And that. All gone. I regret it in hindsight.”

Flos laughed hugely as Mars spluttered. He waved a hand as if brushing away all his lost treasures.

“Mars, they served no purpose in my grief. Besides, it is more entertaining to rebuild my armory this way. I hated my old armor anyways. It was enchanted with a [Featherweight] spell and I hated having to strap it down or have it bounce about every time I moved. I’m in mind for some heavier armor, enchanted of course, but with a different focus…”

They rode on as Flos began talking animatedly about armor with Mars arguing for certain enchantments, vouching for armor enchanted with magical shields, disputing the notion that swords enchanted with [Sharpness] were better than swords enchanted with [Weight] and so on.

Trey listened with half an ear. It sounded like a discussion between people playing a tabletop game or a video game, but it was all real and those discussing it were deadly earnest. He watched as a collection of tents came into view.

The Jerios Bazaar was based around an oasis and it was a sprawling, noisy affair this early in the morning. It was also magical. Trey could see [Shopkeepers] and [Traders] displaying artifacts, showing them off by conjuring water out of the air or letting customers test their products. But he also saw signs of the visitors’ wealth—there were summoned servants flying through the air, djinni who appeared as sometimes humanoid, sometimes outlandish shapes that were half-corporeal, embodying the element of air or fire or some other aspect.

And beyond them? Trey saw someone sitting on an elephant arguing with a man on a camel on where he could rest his mount. He saw a magic carpet flying through the air and a screaming man drop—

The entire caravan groaned and Flos grimaced as Trey looked away.

“Ah. That’s why no one rides those things. Looks like the bazaar is just waking up.”

“You call that just waking up?”

Trey stared as a [Mage] arguing with a [Merchant] at a stall turned and vanished in a puff of smoke. The Jerios Bazaar was filled with amazing people and surprisingly, very few of them looked inclined to cause trouble. Indeed, if there was thievery it was only going on in an economic sense. Pickpockets and thieves were in grave danger in the bazaar. Trey saw a man turn as someone grabbed a pouch at his belt.

“Stop, thief!”

The cloaked figure ran with incredible speed through the crowd. He got fifteen paces before a man with a huge chest full of hair and a skullcap stabbed him in the chest. The [Thief] ran backwards, screaming, and was enveloped in flame, shot with two arrows and struck by a being made out of lightning. His corpse was quickly tossed out of the bazaar.

“Don’t cause trouble.”

Flos smiled as he approached the bazaar. Trey eyed him with trepidation because the King of Destruction was nothing but trouble. However, Flos touched an amulet on his chest and Gazi and Mars both twisted rings and they turned into different people as they approached the bazaar. Flos grinned down at Trey through a face ten years younger with dark skin and black hair.

“Surprised? I wouldn’t walk into the bazaar with my face, Trey. Believe it or not, I can be cautious.”

“Won’t the [Mages] be able to tell you’re under an illusion?”

“Oh, most definitely. But anonymity is prized at the bazaar—many of those visiting are wearing a disguise of their own.”

Flos flicked his fingers dismissively. He eyed Gazi—the half-Gazer had turned into a woman with long flowing locks of blue hair and starry eyes.

“Gazi, that illusion is ridiculous.”

“Blame Mars. She lent me the rings.”

“They’re for my use, not yours.”

Mars, a redhead dressed in impractically revealing armor shot back. She gave Flos a charming smile.

“Shall we, your Majesty?”

“Indeed. Let’s set up camp a ways away from the Bazaar. Hasil, Fellif—”

The leader of the Serpent Hunters and the [Mage] who spoke for Parasol Stroll rode towards him. Flos nodded to the bazaar.

“Don’t let more than eight of your people enter the bazaar at once. Keep the rest at camp—I will be going into the bazaar for the day.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Hasil, the dark-skinned Stitch-Man bowed, his hand on his poisoned scimitar. Fellif, the Human [Mage] with a sharp goatee nodded.

“Do you require an escort, your Majesty?”

“No. Mars and Gazi will be enough. Trey and Teres will follow me naturally; I will browse quietly. Weapon stalls I think, although Gazi will look for a healing potion for her eye.”

“We’ll split up? How much coin do you have, Gazi?”

The half-Gazer reached for her belt pouch.

“Hm. Enough. I have several thousand gold pieces and enough to barter with. My lord?”

“I have ten thousand gold pieces in my bag of holding.”

Ten—”

Teres choked as she stared at the small bag at Flos’ side. This one wasn’t the typical leather pouch that inconspicuously hung at Gazi’s waist—it was a black-and-ruby affair, taken from the Quarass’ treasury. As had the contents of the bag, Trey suspected.

“That’s not much to buy with, sire.”

Mars looked concerned at the small amount that Flos had brought. The King of Destruction smiled.

“I have a number of jewels I found as well. But I intend to spend lightly, Mars. Most of the gold must go to my kingdom and arming my soldiers. I simply wish for a decent quality sword. You recall I broke the last one?”

“Wasn’t it enchanted?”

“Poorly. Spells can break just as easily as steel if you swing hard enough, Teres. We might see about getting you a blade as well—Mars, how much gold do you have?”

“More than you. I fought as a mercenary for a decade, my King. I could buy you armor as well—”

“Mm. A few artifacts might not go amiss. A shame those djinni are so untrustworthy or I’d seriously consider a flying army of them. Remember the Kingdom of Oleis? Fantastic at harassing the enemy. But now that I think of it, a flying carpet—”

They began heading into the bazaar. Flos had elected to dismount so they all walked on foot, joining the crowds of people walking past the open tents that had been set up. Some were magical, so the tents were larger on the inside than the outside.

Trey gaped at the objects on display—there were magic scrolls, floating orbs, and then things that didn’t look so magical like rich saffron being sold by the pound, sheaves of high-quality paper, food and ice being offered by some food merchants—it was a feast for the eyes, ears, and nose. Almost overwhelming, in fact. Trey looked at Gazi. She was following Flos as he looked around animatedly, talking loudly to Mars and Teres.

“Are you going to shop by yourself?”

Gazi turned. She had no eyebrows to raise, but Trey saw her skin move in the same way.

“Would you like to come with me?”

“I…wouldn’t mind.”

Gazi smiled. It wasn’t that Trey wouldn’t mind following the King of Destruction, it was just that he liked Gazi’s company.

“Very well. My king—”

She broke off as their group of five passed by a crowd. The man who had fallen off the carpet had survived his fall, but had broken both his legs in multiple places. He was screaming for help as [Traders] clustered around him, offering him a number of objects.

“Sands, my legs! My legs are—healing potions, please!”

“Can I interest you in a bone regrowth potion sir? The finest to be had for miles—”

“Pain numbing tonic? Just a whiff and you’ll be free of pain—”

“Would you like me to retrieve your carpet sir? My djinn can find it for a nominal fee—”

The poor man reached for his money pouch as Flos passed by. The King of Destruction turned his head as he looked around.

“Blacksmithing…I’m sure there’s an entire row of tents devoted to weapons. Ah! Well, we’ll find our way there eventually! Gaz—I mean, Gabrielle, are you going?”

The half-Gazer bowed slightly.

“I will return within the hour, sire. May I take Trey with me?”

“Oh? But I had hopes to enjoy—well, if you wish.”

Flos frowned slightly, looking almost hurt that Trey wouldn’t follow him around. It would be him asking Trey exactly what he found familiar from his world and his opinion on everything, Trey knew. Teres was giving Trey a look that told him to stay and join in her suffering. Trey gave her a guilty grin.

“I’m sorry, your m—sire.”

“Far be it from me to distract you. Besides which, you might keep Gazi occupied. Don’t start a fight if someone insults my name, Gazi. And keep Trey safe!”

Flos sternly instructed Gazi before turning and staring at a stall filled with scrying orbs and mirrors and so on.

“Now here’s a shop that catches my interest! I could have watched the battle at Liscor far more easily and without hurting my neck with one of these. [Shopkeeper], how much is this orb?”

He held up a yellow sphere that shone with inner light. The man who hurried up to him with a welcoming smile had a turban on his head and silk clothing.

“Ah, a good eye sir! Eight thousand gold pieces.”

“For an orb this small?”

Flos looked dismayed. The man bowed his head slightly.

“Ah, it’s not just scrying, but records memory as well! Hence the price. Did I hear you say you observed the most entertaining affair in Liscor?”

“We did! However, my scrying orb was only so big—”

Flos indicated the marble-sized object. The [Shopkeeper] tsked.

“A true shame! For a distinguished personage such as yourself, you should have one at least the size of a man’s head! Allow me to walk you through my wares—did you know more broadcasts are occurring?”

“No! Truly?”

“Yes!”

The [Shopkeeper] smiled as he showed Flos a huge orb which a crowd of people were staring into. Trey and Gazi paused to stare at another image flashing across the orb.

“It seems Wistram’s ability to link the orbs of scrying is a service they are willing to offer to more than Drake cities. Look—this is a mock battle by the Titan himself in Baleros!”

A tiny figure was standing on a podium in the sphere’s image. As Trey watched, whoever was keeping the image steady shifted, and he saw a row of soldiers with wooden spears fending off a cavalry charge. The projection was being watched with fascination by the crowd.

“One of the Titan’s students set it up. There are [Kings] and [Lords] and countless others watching this at the moment. I believe Wistram intends to offer this service at a great price.”

“I see.”

Flos narrowed his eyes as the ‘Titan’ stood on a dais, shouting orders that were transmitted out to his army. Trey saw his hands clench for a second and saw Mars and Gazi shift and look at their king.

It was Niers Astoragon who slew Queravia, the Gambler of Fates. Trey shivered as he saw Flos’ gaze darken for a moment. But then the King of Destruction was talking animatedly with the [Shopkeeper].

“So any orb can be turned into a…a recording device for such a projection? Is such grand magic possible?”

“If Wistram wills it…ah, but I believe a mage must transmit the image. These humble orbs only convey the image that Wistram sends. Speaking of which, may I interest you in…?”

“This way.”

Gazi murmured and tugged Trey’s arm. He followed her into the crowd, peering back over his shoulder and for a second regretting not staying with Flos. Then he turned back to Gazi. He had to focus on her back to avoid getting lost in the crowd!

“Where are we going?”

“Healing potions.”

Gazi raised her voice to be heard. She led Trey through the crowd. The young man looked around from stall to stall. So many things on display at once! He thought he saw the row of tents Flos had mentioned, where armor and blades were being sold. And…were there actual [Blacksmiths] making weapons at this moment? He heard a clang, looked to ask Gazi about it and realized he’d lost her.

 

—-

 

“I’m telling you, this isn’t a good blade. Show me a better one.”

A few minutes later, Flos was arguing with a [Merchant] over a blade. Teres and Mars found him pointing at a shimmering saber that sparked with lightning. The disguised [King] looked disgusted as he held the saber up. The [Merchant] pursed her lips.

“What is wrong with that blade? You picky Humans! This one is enchanted to shock your enemies! Simply but tap your opponent and they won’t be moving any time soon!”

She was a Stitch-Woman. Flos shook his head.

“It’s fragile. The enchantment’s no good and the blade’s—what, pure silver? An enchantment on that won’t last.”

“Oh? And you’re an expert on blades?”

The [Merchant] was either inexperienced or had misjudged Flos entirely. He smiled.

“Give me a warhammer. Ma—Maven?”

Mars plucked a warhammer off the racks and tossed it to Flos. He set the saber back down and raised the warhammer. The [Merchant] raised her hands and screeched.

“What are you doing?

“Any good sword can take a blow like that! Any enchanted blade should be able to take an unenchanted maul’s strike, or the enchantment is no good!”

Flos raised his voice. He’d attracted a crowd, which listened to him speak about blades. He raised the faulty saber, pointing to the silvery metal.

“A blade is only as good as its [Blacksmith], regardless of the magic put on it! If you bought this blade for anything more than four hundred gold coins you lost your deal, Miss Merchant! This is a half-decent enchantment but the blade will shatter far, far too quickly! I’d rather have an unenchanted blade of quality metal than an enchanted blade that will break after hitting a shield!”

He tossed the saber back on the rack as the [Merchant] went pale. Several people in the crowd nodded appreciatively, agreeing with Flos’ assessment. The King smiled and turned to Mars and Teres who’d gone shopping elsewhere.

“Any good shops?”

“Some decent swords among the trash. I’ll show you.”

Mars led Flos and Teres through the crowd, pointing out the good picks she’d spotted. Teres watched attentively. She had her own sword that Orthenon had given her, but the magical swords fascinated her. Flos just shook his head time after time, though. He stopped at a well-stocked tent and spoke to the [Merchant] waiting on his customers.

“Have you no enchanted swords worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer or better?”

“Ah, sir, I have this new blade that is enchanted with [Petrification]—”

“But the steel’s poor!”

Mars and Flos objected almost at the same time. Teres stared at the blade, unable to tell the difference. Flos looked dismayed.

“I could pay to have a better enchantment put on the blade here, or have it done later! What about your unenchanted blades? Show me your best—do you have any Dwarven-made blades?”

The sweating [Merchant] hurried into the back and his slaves came out with an assortment of blades. He was on trial as the crowd that followed Flos had gathered again. The [King] was simply too loud and too amusing to ignore, and his opinions solid. Flos inspected one blade and grunted.

“Better, but this is still only adequate for an enchantment. Do you truly have no masterworks? Something made by a Level 40 [Blacksmith] or better?”

“Honored guest, these are Dwarf-forged blades.”

“I have no doubt. But I’m talking about real Dwarven craftsmanship. Not just their mass-produced arms.”

Flos turned away when he realized the [Merchant] had no idea what he was talking about. He walked through the bazaar, talking to Mars and Teres.

“Perhaps I thought too highly of Jerios’ markets. Then again, truly masterwork blades would be rare…I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have a blade forged myself and enchanted here?”

“We can look among the [Blacksmiths], but I don’t know their levels or the metals they work with, sire. I saw one tent claiming to work with pure mithril. A blade like that would hold an enchantment, but pure mithril? I suspect it’s a trick.”

Mars made a face. Teres stared at the blades Flos had so dismissively discarded.

“What did you mean, ‘real’ Dwarven craftsmanship, Flans? Do you mean all that’s fake?”

“Not at all.”

Flos grinned at Teres, enjoying his fake name. He pointed at another row of Dwarf-quality blades on display.

“Dwarven-made weapons vary in quality, but the Dwarves are good [Blacksmiths] and their steel is pure. It’s an indication of quality, but most of the blades are simply better than regular. You might as well turn to a [Blacksmith] on your continent with a higher level for a good sword. However…I know there are better arms made in their mountain home, however seldom.”

“Really?”

Both Mars and Teres stared at Flos in surprise. He nodded and bought a few kebabs for them to eat while he explained. Flos tore the hot meat off a skewer as he spoke.

“Back when my kingdom first expanded, before I had met you, Mars, I decided to invest in my army. I had obtained a fortune from the kingdoms I had destroyed and so I ordered a massive shipment of Dwarven arms from Terandria. We sent a fortune to the Dwarves, in exchange for arms for over a thousand soldiers as well as personal armor and a blade for Gazi.”

“And they delivered?”

“No! That was the curious part of it. The Dwarves failed to provide a tenth of the arms I paid for—they had overcommitted and suffered a disaster in their forges or so I was given to understand. They were unable to repay me either—so they sent me a set of armor and blade for Gazi instead.”

“One blade and suit of armor?”

“The very one she wears. And if it seems a poor repayment Mars, it was not. I don’t know what [Blacksmith] made the armor, but it was worth far more than I paid—than I could have paid at the time, I believe. You know Gazi’s scale armor, Teres, and her blade? Neither one is enchanted.”

What?

Mars raised her voice, attracting attention. She lowered it and hissed at Flos.

“It has to be! That armor’s been through more wars than—I’ve had to replace my armor three times and I buy the best-quality armor money can afford!”

“Nevertheless. It was made by the truest of experts. I’ve never inquired as to the make of the armor as I doubt any of my [Blacksmiths] could hope to replicate it. It’s a masterwork, Mars. In the mountains there are some Dwarves who truly know metal.”

“Incredible. And you hope to find a blade like that here? I think I would have noticed such a weapon.”

“Indeed, it would be a long shot. And I am more interested in that scrying orb in truth. What that [Merchant] said about anyone broadcasting their image…”

Flos looked back in the direction of the scrying orbs then turned to Teres.

“You said it’s familiar to something from your world, Teres. What was it you mentioned?”

“Television.”

“Ah, of course! You did tell me about it, but I had imagined something entirely different. And this is similar?”

“Well…”

Teres hesitantly explained as Flos listened with growing interest. She didn’t like the look in his eyes when she talked about news appearing all over the world. Teres cursed Trey and hoped he was having fun wherever he was. She was going to kick his butt for leaving her behind when she met up with him again.

 

—-

 

Nawalishifra Tannousin tossed her head and grabbed the hilt of her dagger. She was nearly out of patience with the man in front of her. She would have drawn her blade and stabbed the man twice if she could have gotten away with it. But doing so would scare away other customers and she and her people needed this sale. So she kept her voice pleasant, though her every instinct railed against her acting like a common [Merchant].

“It is simple, you oaf, you! Look, this is Naq-Alrama steel! Pure ingots, forged in the heat of my people’s forges, may the dunes take me if I lie! It is not some metal you find lying about on the streets or melted out of cheap steel! It is magic and enchantable and I am selling it to you!”

She glared at the dark-skinned [Trader] who was blinking hard in obvious confusion. Though he looked accustomed to the sun, Nawalishifra was sure he was a city-dweller, not a true son or daughter of the sands. If he was, he would not ask so many foolish questions.

Her skin was far darker than his, and Nawalishifra had to shift her veil not to inhale it as she talked. She knew she was not what he had expected—there were few women in her clan who could swing a hammer, and she was the only [Blacksmith] in her clan worthy of the class. That was the problem, sadly.

“I don’t understand. This metal’s special? But it’s an ingot. Why haven’t you made it into a sword? It’s useless as it is.”

Nawalishifra turned red and gripped the hilt of her dagger. She didn’t know what would come first, dagger or sharp words, but another young man pushed forwards. He had too wide a smile and was too unctuous as he bowed to the man in front of him. She wouldn’t have minded it save for the fact that he was her brother, Allaif. He stepped in front of Nawalishifra as she glared at him.

“Sir, please excuse my sister, ill-tempered though she is from standing out in the sun! She does speak a truth however. The metal is yet to be smithed, but surely an outstanding buyer such as yourself can see the merits of buying the steel as it is! It is ready to be shaped, into shield or sword or mace or arrowhead! And the metal is magic, as my unmarried-and-ill-mannered sister says.”

His ill-mannered sister glared and folded her arms. They were standing in the shade, in near darkness, in fact! The tent’s flaps had been veiled to let as little light in as possible—too much might spoil the quality of the ingots before they could be smithed. Her ears burned with shame—because Allaif’s frantic explanations covered up the truth that the buyer had gotten too near to.

The ingots were less useful, for all they were pure Naq-Alrama metal. It would be far more proper to sell a blade and Nawalishifra was sure it would be ten times as valuable as the next cheap artifact she’d passed on display in the bazaar. But her clan couldn’t forge and sell such a blade—at least, not sell and forge it.

Allaif’s talking had gotten the interest of some other buyers. They clustered around the metal. One, a rich [Merchant] dressed all in silks, sniffed as he eyed the metal. He knew the worth of Naq-Alrama metal, Nawalishifra was sure. But he was skeptical.

“I can see the value of forging a blade, but can any [Blacksmith] manage such a feat? I am told the metal is tricky beyond belief to manage.”

The question threw Allaif, but it was Nawalishifra who interrupted. She gave the men her best smile and felt like her teeth were falling off as she gestured to the ingots.

“Not so, good sirs! The metal is tricky and requires smithing only under the moonlight until quenching, but the trick of shaping the metal is easy indeed. Why not let my humble self show you?”

She led the men outside and, cursing at having to waste the precious metal, took one of the wasted ingots that had been damaged by sunlight on the journey here. Nawal hammered the metal rapidly in the shade, pointing out how to hammer the metal just so to make it move correctly.

“It is all about temperature, honored guests. And the striking must be precise. Six strikes here, see? One, two, three—and then another two here! Thus the metal moves. And care must be taken not to allow it to reduce in heat below a threshold—the forge must be hot, and no magic fire can be used at any time. Fold the metal and then apply the powder and oil mixture before quenching the blade in light-bathed waters—”

She went down the list of details and specifications, noting the dismay on the faces of her customers. Allaif was grimacing at her to stop, but Nawal had memorized this routine by heart and she knew misleading a customer would ruin the metal and throw her clan’s name into the wastes. If selling the ingots as they were wouldn’t do so already, that was.

“So many steps!”

The knowledgeable buyer shook his head. Allaif hurried over to him, fawning in a disgusting manner.

“We can repeat and write down the instructions to your pleasing, good sir. The metal is ready to be forged and any high-level [Blacksmith] can make a blade beyond all others out of it!”

Nawal glared at her brother. Write down the secrets? They were already compromising all of their clan’s crafts by giving away the ingots! But they had no choice. She would have rather torn off her veil and walked the bazaar naked, but their clan depended on the sales they earned from the bazaar. If they had to sell secrets to survive this year, so be it.

“I will think about it. Perhaps I will return on the morrow again.”

That was all they got from the well-informed buyer. The rest left without so much as that vague promise. Allaif walked back to Nawal and she glared at him.

“I think he might buy if we lower the price more, sister.”

“What? We will barely have enough to eat with on what we are selling already! And what was that disgusting display, you dog, you?”

Nawal snapped at her brother. He glared at her.

“Do not blame me for making the best of a bad situation! We must sell the ingots, and it is more profitable to sell them and earn goodwill with a [Merchant] or other faction than to hold onto them and starve with them sitting uselessly in our homes.”

“Useless? A blade forged of pure Naq-Alrama steel is—”

Nawal choked on her words. Her brother shook his head slowly and pityingly.

“Useless since no one can forge the metal in our clan but you, dearest sister. And what manner of fool or coward would use a blade forged by a woman?”

That was true. Nawal knew that no self-respecting warrior in the Bazaar would do so. She hung her head as Allaif turned away. Her clan lived closest to the desert and made their fortune with their signature steel. However, calamity had struck them not half a year ago and thus the metal they had meticulously refined over the course of the year was useless. She turned away, despairing, as Allaif looked around.

Their tent was guarded by other members of their clan, warriors armed with weapons that were mere alloys of Alrama steel and not pure metal. Nevertheless, the weapons shone in the light such that they looked enchanted when they had yet to receive a [Mage]’s enhancements. They were still magical, though, so there was truth to the glimmer. It was all the advertisement their tent needed; in truth, Nawal’s clan would have had visitors queuing up to bid on their blades any other year and her clan’s warriors would be needed to guard the tent. But not this year.

“I must make arrangements. I believe I can sell the ingots. For a better price than we might get if we had swords! Just hold here and—do not scowl at anyone who comes in!”

Allaif made extravagant promises as usual as he hurried out of the tent. Nawal glared at his back, suspecting that he was going to get drunk and cause trouble as usual. How could the same seed of her father’s loins be so useless in him and the wrong gender in her? If he was alive he might have died again just to see this sight. She turned away from the stacks of beautiful ingots and saw someone pushing into the tent’s flaps.

“Hello? Are you looking for our blades? We only have ingots for sale.”

Nawal called out, too tired to pretend to be happy to see the visitor. To her surprise she saw a pale-skinned foreigner enter the tent. His skin was far too pale for the hot sun and he jumped at being addressed.

“Ingots? Sorry I’m—a bit lost. You don’t sell swords? I’ll be going.”

He backed up towards the entrance and Nawal’s pride flared.

“We used to sell swords. The finest blades you will ever see, my word on it! Don’t back away, you milk-skinned fool, you! Come and see true metal, if only once in your lifetime!”

Her words made the young man stop. He approached the table and gasped as he saw the Naq-Alrama steel.

“That’s…is that magic metal? Some kind of special metal?”

Proudly, despairingly, Nawal nodded.

“It is Naq-Alrama steel.”

She looked at the young man’s blank face and scowled.

Naq-Alrama steel! Have you never heard of it?”

He hadn’t. She grumbled under her breath.

“Ignorant foreigners. Listen well. This steel is magic, forged of the sands, refined through heat and kept from any—any sunlight! Such is the nature of the metal that it can endure any pressure when quenched in sun-filled waters. It will hold enchantments with ease and the blade itself cuts through magic like water. If there was ever a blade for one who seeks to do battle against [Mages], this is it! You could make a blade worthy of a [King] out of these ingots which we will sell for handfuls of gold!”

She raised a fist and nearly struck the metal, but held back, knowing the blow would only freeze her skin to the ice-cold ingots. The young foreigner looked impressed, which warmed her heart slightly.

“That’s incredible. If you’re selling them so cheaply, why not have someone make a sword out of—”

“We used to do that, you idiot, you!”

She shouted at him and the young man flinched. One of the [Caravan Guards], Hesseif, poked his head in and Nawal gestured to him that it was fine. He gave her a nod and resumed watching for thieves. Nawal sighed as she looked at the young man.

“We had a [Blacksmith] of renown who shaped the blades. He created less than ten per year, but they earned enough for our clan to thrive! But he died—his heart gave out last year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But can’t you get someone else to—”

“No. The techniques are too hard to learn overnight! It takes years of practice and of all whom my father taught, only I learned enough to shape the metal.”

The young woman laughed at the young man’s confusion.

“But if you can do it, can’t—”

“Who would use a blade forged by a woman?

Who indeed? Women could be warriors, but they weren’t capable of making steel, that was a fact. It was a truth among Nawal’s people that women were impure—the metal grew to develop defects if they shaped it. Her father had broken with tradition because he needed a helper, but he had forbidden her from entering the forge whenever her blood flowed throughout the month and of course Nawal was forbidden from shaping any blade herself.

She could make armor so long as no one knew who had done most of the forging and goods like nails and so on, but never blades. So her father had said while she hammered in the forge and he claimed to have made each blade himself with her ‘help’. He had given her a chance, but he was dead and no one else would touch a blade she made, however keen.

The young man didn’t seem to understand that. He was a foreigner and wrinkled his brow. Was he a [Mage]? He was certainly no warrior of the sands, accustomed to blood and glory.

“I don’t know about people in your tribe, but I know someone who probably won’t care if you forged the blade. He just wants the best blade in the world. And if your uh, Naq-Aama—

Naq-Alrama.

“Right. If that steel’s the best he might buy it. Why don’t I ask him?”

Nawal stared at the young man, and a sprig of hope entered into her heart.

“You? You have a master?”

“What? No! I’m not a slave—”

“But he’s wealthy? A man of power? How much might he spend?”

“Uh—he said he has at least ten thousand gold pieces, but I think he might spend more—”

Ten thousand gold pieces. It wasn’t a lot, but the thought of actually selling a blade had Nawal’s mind racing. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Sell to foreigners! Surely there were some who wouldn’t mind how a blade was made so long as it was sharp! Drakes, perhaps? There were rumors that there was a great dungeon filled with monsters on their continent. Perhaps if she—

“Sister! Wondrous news!”

A loud voice came from outside. Nawal’s heart sank. She hurried out of the tent, making sure that the layers of flaps prevented any sunlight from touching the inside of the tent and came outside with the young man to see Allaif, standing in front of the tent and grinning broadly.

He was not alone. The rich [Merchant] from before and a man with a whip at his side were behind them, along with a group of armed thugs. Nawal eyed them with distaste, noting their cheap iron weapons and marking the man with a whip for what he was—a [Slaver]. Not of Roshal, clearly; he was probably just a local [Slave Trader] who dealt with the impoverished and desperate.

Nawal glared at her brother as he smiled broadly at her. He looked too happy, as if he was pulling one of his tricks on someone. They had always landed him and the people around him in deep trouble.

“Allaif, what is this? I have a buyer for our steel—”

“As do I, sister! All of it!”

“What?”

Nawal’s eyes widened and she saw the other members of her clan start. Allaif had found a buyer? But—she looked back at the young foreigner. How much had he compromised to sell all of their ingots? Allaif rubbed his hands together, looking proud of himself.

“We will earn as much as we would for a commission on blades, sister! This generous [Merchant], Sir Redif, will buy all the ingots from us at such a price!”

“At what cost?”

There had to be a trick. Nawal eyed the [Slaver] with apprehension. Allaif spread his hands, looking wounded.

“Sister! I made the best deal I could, for the clan! I gave away only one thing to honored Redif.”

“Which was?”

“You.”

Allaif smiled at Nawal as the ground fell away under her. He spoke quickly as a rumble sprang up from the other clansmen.

“It is the best offer! The best! We will be paid richly and you, dear sister, will be sent to show any [Blacksmiths] how to forge Naq-Alrama metal! You will be able to continue helping around the forge—and find a husband if honored Redif is generous. It is for the clan, sister.”

Nawal just stared. Slavers? Her father had banned slaves from the clan two decades ago, before she had been born. Metal forged with the weight of shackles was impure as that of metal made with dishonest deeds or blood, or so he had said. She stared at her brother, her brother.

“You cannot sell me, Allaif.”

A flash passed across Allaif’s eyes, one of his dark moods nearly escaping.

“I can and will. I am our representative and I speak for our family and clan with our father’s death.”

“You are not worthy of licking his boots, you spineless worm!”

“How dare you!”

He raised his hand and Nawal gripped her knife’s handle, making Allaif hesitate. The [Merchant] interrupted impatiently.

“Enough! This isn’t a debate. I have papers proving my ownership of both the Naq-Alrama metal and Nawalishifra Tannousin.”

He brandished a sealed parchment, signed in blood. It was a binding contract. Nawal looked at it and felt her stomach drop. He’d actually signed it. Without asking, without thought. Allaif smiled victoriously as the other Tannousin clansmen muttered curses.

“Sister, is it really too much to ask? You will be well treated, privileged even! Our father was mad for letting you hold a hammer, but I have given you the same honor. Do not make this harder than you have to.”

“No struggles, girl. I’ve broken more new slaves than I care to remember.”

The [Slaver] grinned as he unslung his whip and his thugs drew their weapons. Nawal walked slowly over to Allaif. He smiled at her.

“Ah, sister. Do you see reason?”

“Goodbye, brother.”

Nawal stared into her brother’s eyes. He tried to look remorseful, but just looked insincere. He bent to embrace her and she drew the dagger. And plunged it into his chest.

Allaif gasped and his eyes went wide. There was a shout from behind him, but too late. Nawal’s voice was low as she felt blood rush over her blade.

“I renounce you, I renounce you, I renounce you.”

She whispered it into Allaif’s ears as he choked, and then twisted the dagger. He gasped and clutched at her shoulder. Then he fell backwards.

The [Merchants] and [Slave Trader] stared at Allaif in shock, and then backed up as Nawal retrieved her dagger from her brother’s body.

“There will be no sale. And I am no slave. Honored buyers—I regret to tell you my brother erred in selling me and my clan’s wealth.”

Nawal smiled very politely at the pale-faced [Merchant]. The man gaped at her and then colored with outrage.

“Insolent woman! You may have killed Allaif, but the contract—”

He flinched as Nawal swung her dagger and spattered the contract and the [Merchant] with blood. She cleaned her dagger with a handkerchief as she spoke calmly.

“I have renounced him three times. He is dead to my clan and I, and no longer of our blood. Any contract he signs is dust.”

Her clansmen appeared behind her, and Nawal was relieved to feel Hesseif’s presence at her back. The [Slaver] eyed her and cracked his whip.

“Is that so? Well, I have a contract and I say we enforce it right now. There’s always room in my train for more slaves, and breaking a contract is a crime!”

He raised his whip to strike at Nawal and there was a flash of light. Nawal blinked as the young foreigner blinded the [Slaver] and his thugs, making them hesitate. She felt Hesseif shift and readied herself for a bloody battle, but in the moment the light had flashed someone had appeared next to the [Slaver].

“I wouldn’t start a fight.”

A tall woman with blue hair and starry eyes, a vision of perfection, stood next to the [Merchant] and the [Slaver]. She wore brown scale armor made of a metal that Nawal had never seen before and held a greatsword in one hand. The woman smiled slightly as she held the greatsword underneath the slaver’s throat. He gulped and cut himself.

“I am a [Slaver]—”

“With a bad contract. You heard her.”

The woman nodded at Nawal. The [Merchant], pale-faced, backed up a step.

“Harming a [Merchant] in the bazaar—”

“Who said anything about harming? I’m simply defending a [Shopkeeper] from being illegally made into a slave. If you want to try and enforce your contract, I’ll defend her. And myself. Starting with your head.”

Her voice was loud enough for the other people watching to hear. Nawal admired her poise. This foreigner woman had the respect of the bazaar, and could slice apart the [Slaver] and his thugs without repercussion if they called her bluff. And the [Merchant] knew it. He backed up and the [Slaver], realizing the same, fled. The thugs he’d hired melted away as the young man turned.

“Gaz—”

She slapped a hand over his mouth and he staggered. She stared at him and his eyes widened.

“Gabrielle! I thought you’d lost me!”

I didn’t lose you. You wandered off and I was waiting for you to find me. But you found something interesting so I decided to wait.”

Gabrielle, the mysterious woman, turned to Nawal. She had a slight smile on her face.

“So you’re a Tannousin [Blacksmith]? You, a woman?”

She knew about Clan Tannousin! Nawal straightened, pride in her voice.

“I am. Though I may be a woman, I am the only successor to my father’s craft, master that he was. I can forge true blades of Naq-Alrama steel, woman-touched though they may be!”

Her announcement drew a murmur from the crowd, a disapproving one, but Nawal only had eyes for Gabrielle and the young man. They looked at each other and the young foreigner spoke.

“I think our uh, master won’t mind that Gaz—Gabrille. What do you think?”

“I think he would accept such a blade gladly, no matter what hands touched it.”

Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at Nawal.

“Do you truly claim to have your father’s skill?”

Nawal drew herself up, her eyes flashing. She raised her voice as she stood with her brother’s dead body lying at her feet. She would grieve for who he was and who he had been later. But this was pride and steel—it was the pride of her clan.

“Lead me to your master, foreign warrior! Pay my cost and I will forge your master a blade sharper and finer than any he has laid eyes on in his life! My oath on it! I swear it on the body of the man-who-was-my-brother, cursed be his name!”

She pointed at her brother with her dagger and the young man flinched. But Gabrielle just smiled wider.

“Good. In that case, come with me.”

She turned and began to stride through the bazaar. That was a bit too sudden even for Nawal. She hesitated as the young man turned.

“Um, this way. Sorry, I never got your name—”

“I am Nawalishifra Tannousin, a [Blacksmith]. Who are you?”

She stared at the young man, all pale skin and awkwardness. But he had surprised the [Slaver] with magic. And he clearly knew this Gabrielle. Who was his master? The young man smiled at her and Nawal drew her veil further over her face in embarrassment.

“Me? I’m Trey.”

 

—-

 

Trey had had weird days, but it felt like they all paled in comparison to an ordinary day around Flos. Even when he wasn’t here, things got weird. He now stood in a bazaar with Nawalis—Nawalishif—Nawal, a [Blacksmith] wearing a veil. She seemed calm, despite having stabbed her brother through the heart moments ago.

Gazi was equally calm as she stood at ease, sheathing her blade on her back. She didn’t seem bothered by the death either.

“It was her clan’s politics. Her brother would have died had she gone with the [Slaver]—his people would have beaten him to death the instant they were alone.”

“Oh. But Nawal—”

Gazi smiled. Her illusionary face stayed the same, but Trey knew one of her eyes was fixed on Nawal as the dark-skinned young woman began shouting at the rest of her clan standing behind her.

“Well done in finding her. I’ve heard of Clan Tannousin before. They can outsmith a Dwarf. Most Dwarves, at any rate. If this young woman can truly smith  Naq-Alrama steel, she must be at least Level 30. Probably higher.”

“What, her?”

Trey stared at Nawal as she shouted animatedly at her fellow tribes people, cursing them and exhorting them to clean up the body and keep the light out of the tent at all costs. He turned to Gazi, embarrassed.

“I didn’t do much. I just wandered in by accident and when I heard how good the blades were, I thought of his M—you know who.”

“Indeed. And I thought the same thing and let you enter the tent.”

Gazi smiled as Nawal strode over to them. She looked far more cheerful despite having just lost a brother.

“Lead on then, Trey and Gabrielle! Take me to your master and I will see what blade he wants! I will offer him a discount he does not deserve—more if he will buy all the metal we possess! Assuming he has coin of course.”

“He has that, and he will buy every blade you can forge.”

Gazi assured Nawal as she led them through the bazaar. Trey couldn’t help but notice that they were being followed by some of Nawal’s clan members. Probably for her protection, although Trey didn’t think he’d stand a chance. She’d moved very quick with that knife of hers.

“So where is he? Have you a camp? We must talk details and I must see your coin.”

Nawal was impatient. Gazi just smiled. She looked amused for some reason and Trey began dreading why.

“He is just up ahead. At that tent.”

It was a familiar tent, the very same one they’d passed by upon first entering the bazaar. It was the one with the scrying orbs and as Trey saw the huge crowd gathered around it, he heard Flos’ voice. He was shouting loudly, standing in the middle of the bazaar, and his illusion was gone.

Flos, the King of Destruction, stood in front of a [Mage] from Parasol Stroll who was holding a scrying orb up at him. He was speaking into it, his voice booming, the people around him looking awestruck or terrified as the Serpent Hunters and Parasol Stroll formed a protective wall around him. Mars stood behind the King of Destruction, as he spoke into the scrying orb, addressing an unseen audience.

The entire world.

“I am the King of Destruction! I have returned! If there is any nation that seeks my end, come! Send your armies to me! But I will not make war on any nation that treats my people and my kingdom as friend! Let any who crave glory flock to my banner, and any foe of mine quake behind your walls! I am Flos of Reim and I have awoken!

Trey covered his face. He wished he was dreaming. He turned and saw Nawal staring at Flos, her face suddenly dead-white. He could hear the voices.

“The King of Destruction, here?”

“Impossible.”

“Amnesty? He wants adventurers and warriors to join him?”

“He won’t declare war?”

Flos continued, his voice a roar.

“The Empire of Sands is my foe! I will slay the Emperor of Sands myself! As for Wistram, send Amerys to me! Return to me my [Mage] or I will sail upon your walls and break your academy into dust! I say again, I will make war on no nation that does not attack my people! But the blood of Drevish stains the Empire of Sands and I will return the favor a hundred thousand times over!”

He went on, shouting into the orb, his image captured, his words projected across a thousand scrying orbs in a thousand spots across the world. Gazi turned to Nawal and smiled.

“That is our master.”

“Him? You mean—”

The young woman had lost her self-assurance. She stared at Flos as if he were, well, Flos, the King of Destruction. Trey saw her pale as she recalled her bold claims of a moment ago. Gazi just smiled wickedly.

“So, a blade worthy of a [King], and one my lord has never seen before. Your oath on it.”

She looked at Nawal and the young woman glanced at Trey and then at the King of Destruction.

She fainted. Trey caught her just in time and looked up to see Flos, the King of Destruction, grinning at him out of a thousand scrying orbs. He gestured, and the world followed his every word. In a bazaar, standing in front of a dusty tent filled with scrying orbs, Flos sent the pillars of the world quaking and laughed as nations and [Kings] scrambled to catch up. Somehow, Trey had expected nothing less.

 


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5.06 M

There were momentous things happening in the world. In every continent it seemed there were stories to follow, epic tales of adventure or tragedies of dark design. Comedies, farces, the whimsical games of fate, there were so many stories to be told.

In Chandrar, The King of Destruction rode across the sands with the twins Teres and Trey, followed by his faithful servant, Gazi to a mining town to see about having a new sword made for himself. His enemies plotted against him and his allies prepared to march as spring finally arrived.

In Baleros, Niers Astoragon spent an outrageous sum of money commissioning an enchanted Go board as this new strategy game swept across the continent. He played his 37th game of Go in preparation for it reaching his unknown adversary in Liscor.

In Terandria—well, perhaps some things are better left unsaid. Perhaps there were too many stories to focus on. For while it might have been entertaining to witness the current political struggles in Wistram, or peer into the mind of the only [Clown] in the world and hear his tormented madness, why not pay attention to the doings of Goblins?

Surely the two Knights of the Petal that had been captured by the Flooded Waters Tribe were of interest. What of Tremborag and his mountain home? Or the steady growth of the Unseen Empire, the new relationships forged by Emperor Laken and his people? How about Minotaurs? Or a Minotaur? No? Perhaps not, then.

So many stories. Too many stories. While a certain skeleton walked below Liscor and stomped on some eggs with a team of adventurers another tale was taking place above. It was humbler than other stories that could have been told, and perhaps, yes, perhaps it was a trivial event to focus on but perhaps not. Sometimes it is the small things that matter. The tiny blades of grass in the growing storm. So then, this is not a tale about legends or empires or figures of great renown. This is a tale about Gnolls. One Gnoll in particular.

This is the legend of Mrsha, the Great and Terrible.

 

—-

 

Mrsha woke up to the sound of the rain falling. She got up, yawned, stretched, and stared out her dark window. Was it night or day? Her body told her it was day, but the dark skies outside and pouring rain said otherwise. Mrsha stared out through the glass panes at a world consumed by the downpour, an unending tyranny of water threatening floods, changing the very landscape.

She smiled and raced around her room. It looked like a fun day!

Adults were boring and tired. They groaned about rain and complained about waking up back pains, work, and so on. But Mrsha was young. She was excited by the heavy downpour. She would have been excited to see the sun too, though. She was happy in all weather. She would have been happy if it was raining frogs.

A new day. Mrsha was already full of energy on waking up. She leapt over her bed, ran past her window on all fours and saw a large insect stir from the nest she’d built on the windowsill. Apista the large Ashfire Bee fanned her wings and took off from her perch. She landed on a head sticking out of the covers. Mrsha stopped and wagged her tail as the third occupant of her room turned over.

“Apista, please. Give me five more minutes.”

One hand rose and lethargically covered Apista. The bee struggled to get free as Lyonette groaned and turned about in her bed. Mrsha ignored Lyonette. She was grumpy when she woke up. Apista struggled free of the hand and flew into the air, looking offended. Mrsha grinned. She liked Apista. The Ashfire Bee landed on her head as she padded over to Lyonette and poked the young woman in the side, eliciting a groan.

She didn’t understand why Lyonette hated morning. Mrsha loved waking up. She loved sleeping too. The feeling of curling up in her warm bed next to Lyonette when she was tired and waking up to a fresh new world and the smell of Erin’s cooking was the best thing in the world. Carefully, the small Gnoll poked Lyonette through her bedding again.

“Ow! Mrsha, your claws!”

Lyonette sat up with a yelp. She scowled blearily at Mrsha as the Gnoll leapt back. Lyonette blinked, rubbed her eyes, and then suddenly lunged for the Gnoll. Mrsha yelped and scurried away.

“Come here, you little troublemaker, you!”

The [Princess] and [Barmaid] chased Mrsha and Apista around the room for a grand total of three seconds before she collapsed. She groaned as Mrsha walked around her excitedly and Apista crawled onto her head. Mrsha tried to copy her. Lyonette sighed.

“I’m awake. Please get off me, Apista. Mrsha, why don’t you go downstairs and see if Erin’s done cooking breakfast?”

Lyonette’s ploy worked. Mrsha raced to the door, all too willing to pester Erin for scraps. She had to stand on two legs to operate the door handle, and then she was out in the corridor—

And a Goblin was standing in front of her. Mrsha froze and her hair stood up as one of the Redfang Warriors turned. He froze as he saw her. Headscratcher and Mrsha stared at each other for a frozen second, and then the Hobgoblin nodded carefully at Mrsha. He was still wearing his security badge. Mrsha didn’t nod back. She edged towards the stairs leading down and Headscratcher warily walked the other way down the hallway. The Gnoll and Goblin stared for another few seconds and then they both turned and fled, one up the stairs, another down.

Goblins. Mrsha dwelled on them as she hurried down the stairs, trying not to slip and fall head-over-heels as she did when she was racing. She hated Goblins. They had killed her tribe. Mrsha was afraid of Goblins. However, the Redfang Warriors were different Goblins and so Mrsha merely disliked them. They were big and scary and green. She forgot about them in an instant as she smelled breakfast.

Meat. Cooked meat and spices and—Mrsha’s stomach rumbled—fried egg. Her nose was extremely good, even for a Gnoll, and Mrsha could tell that Erin was cooking with a hint of caramelized sugar, fatty oils, and there was fresh bread baking in the ovens!

It was overwhelmingly delicious. The Gnoll immediately headed for the kitchen. As she did she slunk low along the ground, as if she were prowling in the grass. She made herself as small and unnoticeable as possible. Normally this would not have helped; a small white Gnoll creeping along the floorboards of an inn is usually not hard to spot. But Mrsha had a secret. Three of them, actually.

Her first big secret that no one knew was that she was a Level 8 [Last Survivor] and that she had a Skill. [Natural Concealment]. It made Mrsha less noticeable so that she could sneak up on people. Now she used it to sneak into the kitchen. Peeking around a counter, Mrsha saw a young woman moving in a flurry about the kitchen.

Erin Solstice hummed as she worked, checking on her bread, frying something in a pan, sliding scrambled eggs into a large bowl, and then getting out a jar of honey and the butter. Mrsha’s stomach rumbled. Erin was making what she called her Classic American Breakfast. What that meant was fresh, fluffy bread made with the strange baking powder that Octavia had given her, hot eggs, butter, honey, and bacon. Only today, Erin had changed her breakfast’s lineup slightly because Mrsha saw she was flipping small sausages in her pan!

They were nice and oily, but Mrsha’s keen nose detected another surprise. The sausages were what smelled of sugar! Erin had mixed some spices and sugar together and glazed them. Now they were roasting away in the pan, giving Mrsha the most wonderful of smells to start her morning.

The Gnoll couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen when cooking was happening, but she wanted a taste. Slowly, carefully, she reached up to the counter. It was taller than she was, so Mrsha got up on two legs. She reached ever-so-slowly for a bowl filled with finished sausages on the counter. Slowly, slowly—

“Gotcha!”

Erin whirled around and Mrsha jumped. The [Innkeeper] caught the bowl before Mrsha could knock it over and then grabbed Mrsha before the Gnoll could flee. She lifted Mrsha up, laughing.

“I knew you were there you little thief! Trying to steal from me? I told you, no sneaking in! Honestly, you’re worse than Pisces with his [Invisibility]! No, wait, you’re not. But if you don’t scat right now I’ll make sure you get none of my sausages! Understand?”

She stared at Mrsha and the Gnoll nodded her head rapidly. The fear of no sausages made her flee Erin’s kitchen. By the time Lyonette came down with Apista, Mrsha was sitting at a table looking as innocent as possible. Somehow, that didn’t fool Lyonette who glanced at her suspiciously and then headed into the kitchen. Mrsha heard the adult’s voices as she doodled on a table with a claw and Apista flew over to the windows and the bright yellow flowers growing there.

“Morning, Erin. Did Mrsha cause any trouble? I sent her downstairs, sorry about that…”

Mrsha heard a laugh as she slid off her chair and hid behind the table’s leg.

“She tried to steal one of my sausages!”

“Oh, did she now? Well maybe she shouldn’t have any for breakfast.”

Mrsha’s heart broke. She turned towards the kitchen, begging for mercy. Erin chuckled.

“She didn’t get any so I think she can have some. But if she does it again, maybe we’ll take them away next time.”

“Mm…”

Lyonette returned to the common room and stared at Mrsha as she hid behind a table. Mrsha gave her a pleading look as the [Barmaid] sighed.

“Next time you’re getting no sausages at all young miss, understand?”

Mrsha nodded rapidly, trying to look as guilty as possible. Lyonette eyed her and then looked back towards the kitchen.

“I’ll start setting up, Erin! Are the Goblins…?”

“I fed them right when I woke up! They get up at the crack of dawn. It’s just the Halfseekers today. The Horns are still out.”

“Got it.”

Relieved that her trial was over, Mrsha slid back into her seat and swung her legs back and forth, barely able to wait as she heard the clink of pottery and silverware from the kitchen. She stared hungrily at Lyonette as she brought out a small stack of plates and cutlery. The [Barmaid] began setting two tables but she stared pointedly at Mrsha as she did.

“Mrsha? Do you have something to do before you eat?”

The Gnoll blinked at her, and then Mrsha’s eyes widened. She slid off her seat and looked around. Lyonette pointed to the door.

“The bucket’s just outside. It’s raining so pull it in—and don’t get wet!”

Mrsha carefully opened the door and stared out into a truly tremendous rainstorm. The roar of the rain and millions of drops hitting the ground entranced Mrsha for a second. It wasn’t blowing hard, but every time the slightest breeze blew, she could see sheets of rain pelting the ground. It was wild and tremendous, and Mrsha felt her heart skip a beat as she stared at the world, loving the primal nature of it all. A voice called from inside.

Mrsha! Hurry up! Don’t let the rain in!”

Adults had no time for rain. Mrsha obediently reached out and grabbed the bucket sitting just outside. It was full to overflowing and she slopped some of it coming inside. Lyonette watched Mrsha push the bucket across the floor to the windowsill.

“One cup, remember?”

Mrsha gave her a look of scorn. Of course she remembered! This was her special task! She’d done it every morning for two weeks now. She reached for the cup that had been left on the windowsill next to the large boxes filled with dirt. Tiny yellow flowers, as bright and gleaming as the sun stood out of the soil. They were special flowers, Mrsha knew. Faerie flowers. She dipped the cup in the bucket of water and filled it to the brim. Then she carefully poured it into the first box of flowers, standing on the tips of her toes to reach up that high.

One full cup in each of the gardening planters. Mrsha carefully poured the water in, watching it drain into the soil, staring at the bright yellow flowers and the new ones budding out of the soil. They were growing! She felt proud. She had made them grow!

It was her special job. Lyonette had suggested it and Erin agreed. Mrsha had to have some responsibilities, so she was in charge of feeding Erin’s flowers each morning before breakfast. For her hard work Mrsha received four whole copper coins each week! It was enough to buy a snack or two snacks in Liscor and thus a lot of money.

Mrsha put the cup back as she finished her job and stared at the line of flower boxes along the windowsills. They were all growing nicely. Flowers didn’t grow much in the winter even in the warm inn, but there were always enough for Lyonette to use a few every week to gather more honey. That was because of Mrsha. Not just because she watered them, no. It was part of her second big secret.

She was a Level 2 [Gardener]. Mrsha stared at the glistening flowers, willing them to grow big and strong. As she did, Apista flew over. The Ashfire Bee crawled onto the box Mrsha was standing next to and delicately extended a red ‘tongue’ out of her pincers to lap at the flowers. Mrsha watched Apista eat with interest. Lyonette fed the bee honey, royal jelly, and sugary water as well, but the bee seemed addicted to the tiny flowers despite her size. Erin called Apista’s tongue a ‘proboscis’, but Mrsha knew a tongue when she saw it. The bee was larger than both of Mrsha’s paws combined and slowly getting bigger each week. It seemed like the flowers shouldn’t be that important to her, but every day when Mrsha watered, Apista ate.

“All done, Mrsha? Breakfast’s ready!”

Lyonette called and Mrsha immediately abandoned the flowers. She raced to the table and sat, jiggling in place with impatience as Lyonette ladled four lovely sausages onto Mrsha’s plate, some eggs, and a small bit of bread with honey and butter. She began eating at once.

So delicious! So hot! Mrsha’s face was a scene of contented bliss for Lyon and Erin who both watched her eat with amusement. Mrsha had milk today, and she greedily reached for it and her bread. Only to find Apista was there! The Ashfire Bee Queen loved honey as much as Mrsha and she was snacking on Mrsha’s breakfast! The Gnoll instantly swatted her on the head. Not hard, but enough to surprise Apista.

“Mrsha!”

Lyonette scolded the Gnoll as Erin ducked. Apista took into the air, agitated, and Lyonette reached for her. But though she was clearly upset as she crawled onto Lyonette’s hand, the Ashfire Bee did not seek vengeance on Mrsha. Erin was puzzled by this and she stared at Apista with a frown.

“She must really like Mrsha. I’ve had her try to sting me when I shooed her away from my honey. Of course, I told her I’d feed her to Bird if she did so she doesn’t bother me, but just the other day she tried to sting Badarrow when he was drinking mead. Why’s Mrsha safe?”

“Maybe she knows I’d never let her hurt Mrsha. But you shouldn’t do that either, Mrsha!”

The Gnoll ignored Lyonette as she chewed happily on her bread. Apista was smart. She knew she was stealing food and she knew it was Mrsha’s. So Mrsha was right to smack her! Besides, she’d never be stung. Mrsha had a Skill that allowed her to understand and be understood by the Ashfire Bee in some ways. She had the skill [Wild Affinity], which made her Apista’s friend.

That was her third secret. She was a Level 1 [Beast Tamer] too, just like Lyonette! Mrsha knew that most children didn’t get classes until they were older, until they were closer to grownups. But she’d grown up a lot and so she’d gained the classes. They weren’t much, but they were hers. Her special secret.

The adults talked about boring things while Mrsha finished breakfast. Things like where the Horns of Hammerad were, food supplies, money, paying the [Actors]—who were very exciting Mrsha would admit, but only when they were here—and her faerie flowers.

“They’re blooming nicely although we haven’t had much sunlight. I wonder why?”

Lyonette peered at the boxes of yellow flowers. Erin smiled as she stacked plates, shooing Apista away and getting a warning buzz for her trouble.

“I bet it’s because Mrsha has taken extra good care of the flowers every day, isn’t that right, Mrsha?”

Erin patted Mrsha on the head and the Gnoll smiled, her secret kept hidden away in her chest. Lyonette smiled and then glanced out the window and sighed.

“Ugh, that rain really keeps coming down. I really don’t want to walk in it but—I’m taking Mrsha into the city now, Erin.”

“Into the city? Why?”

Perplexed, Erin frowned at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] paused as she reached for the dirty dishes.

“She’s going to stay at Krshia’s for a while, remember?”

“Oh. Right! Well, cover up! Take one of those stupid cloaks—it’s pouring outside!”

Lyonette nodded. In short order she and Mrsha were bundled up in cloaks and heading out into the rain. Apista stayed at the inn—upstairs in Mrsha’s room since Bird was coming down for breakfast. He was having ‘bird babies’ today, which meant a big bowl of scrambled eggs. That would be nice, although Mrsha privately thought that meat and eggs in a big bowl would be better.

But then she was out in the rain. Mrsha splashed about happily and Lyonette sighed.

“Come on, let’s go get to Krshia. Stay close, Mrsha.”

They walked out into the storm. Mrsha smiled. It was going to be a fun day! She walked with Lyonette as the young woman winced and muttered about the wetness, crossing over the high ground. Mrsha stared down at the valleys they passed. They were filled with water! If she went down into one of them she could swim about! Lyonette kept a tight grip on Mrsha’s hand as if she could read the Gnoll’s thoughts. She seldom let Mrsha have fun. But that was okay. Mrsha would have forgiven Lyonette any number of sins. Because of one important fact.

She loved Lyonette. Wholeheartedly, without reservation. Mrsha couldn’t remember her mother. She didn’t know what a mother should be, but she had seen other mothers and their children. She thought Lyonette was as good as a mother. No, better. Mothers ran away from their children. Lyonette had taken care of Mrsha even though she hadn’t given birth to her. That was better.

It was a simple story Mrsha had grown up knowing. A fact of life. She had been a child of the Stone Spears tribe and her parents had both been [Hunters]. When she was born they had listened for her crying and heard only strange sounds. They had feared she was crippled or sick in some way. And they had been partly right. Mrsha had been born unable to speak. She could make guttural sounds, and she had learned to howl, but words and other coherent sounds were beyond her. It didn’t matter to Mrsha, but then again, it did, because it had mattered to her parents.

A simple story. Her parents had tried to abandon her when it became clear that Mrsha was mute. For that, their tribe’s Chieftain, Urksh, had exiled them. Being unable to speak was not a crime worthy of death, or so he had said. The Stone Spears tribe had agreed. Mrsha had never known her parents. But she had known Urksh. He had raised Mrsha like a father until he was slain by Goblins. Her entire tribe had died so one might live. And so Mrsha had been carried to a new home, and in time found someone to love her like the mother she never had.

Such cruelty and love was part of life. Mrsha accepted it all, with the unthinking innocence of youth. This was the way the world was and no one had ever told her it should be different.

She was happy now. Ryoka was gone, and Mrsha thought of her sometimes, but it was O.K. because Erin had said Ryoka would come back. And if she didn’t, well, Mrsha would find her when she grew up. In the meantime she was gaining levels. [Gardener] and [Beast Tamer] weren’t good classes yet, but Mrsha could have lots! Just like Lyonette.

Happy, content, the white Gnoll cub splashed across the ground. She had to walk on two legs in the little boots that Lyonette had bought, but that was fine too since Lyonette was holding her hand tight in case Mrsha slipped. And she was going to see Krshia! There were always snacks at her apartment and she had secrets too. Mrsha knew all about Krshia’s secrets.

Lyonette grinned at Mrsha.

“Excited to see Krshia? I’m sure she’s ready for you. And it’s probably best that she’s not out in the rain. Still, it was nice of her to agree to give you lessons, wasn’t it?”

Mrsha nodded along until she heard the bit about lessons. Wait, not those! She looked at Lyonette in horror and the [Barmaid] bit off a curse as she realized she’d given away the secret. She held on as Mrsha tried to turn back to the inn.

“No, Mrsha, you can’t go back! You have lessons! Darn it, Erin was right, I shouldn’t have let that slip! Mrsha, come on! You’ve done this before! It’s not bad, and I’ll be back in two hours! Mrsha!

The Gnoll ignored Lyonette, pulling and slipping in the mud as she tried to run back to The Wandering Inn. She had been tricked! This wasn’t going to be fun at all! She had lessons? Mrsha tried to pull away but it was too late. She was caught.

It had been a trap!

 

—-

 

“What is change for one gold coin if I have bought eighteen silver pieces’ worth of goods? Mrsha?”

Mrsha was in hell. Not that she had any concept of what hell was. It was just a phrase she’d picked up from Erin. If Mrsha had been told what hell was supposed to be she would have pictured the crevice on the mountainside where she’d fallen, or the battlefield at night and Ryoka’s scream. But since she only thought about the past occasionally now, she regarded the idea of ‘hell’ as Krshia’s apartment where she had to sit on a high chair and learn.

The Gnoll child hated learning. It wasn’t the new things that got her down, or the act of sitting, but the boredom of it all. She stared dully at the coins on the table.

“Mrsha?”

A kind but somewhat stern voice prodded her. Mrsha looked up at the brown Gnoll sitting across from her. Krshia was sipping some tea and eying Mrsha sternly. She’d get mad if the Gnoll didn’t answer. Mrsha sighed through her nose and pushed two silver coins across the table. Krshia smiled.

“Good! Hrr. It is surprising, yes? You know how to change coins well. Very quickly! You have been practicing since we last met, just as I said, yes?”

Mrsha nodded obediently although that was a lie. She hadn’t practiced math. Rather, she’d been taught by Erin.

Education was very important to all of her guardians. Erin had suggested it after she realized Mrsha hadn’t had any formal lessons in the inn and Lyonette had talked to Krshia and agreed to teach her. All three women had begun teaching Mrsha everything from advanced reading—a subject which Erin herself struggled with—math, geography, history, and so on.

Mrsha liked learning some lessons and hated others. Just the other week Krshia had told her stories about Gnoll history, many of which Mrsha had known from growing up in her tribe and read from a book about the Second Antinium Wars. Sadly, the stories had ended and Krshia had decided that Mrsha needed to learn how to count.

They were changing money. It was a practical example of math and Krshia kept giving Mrsha harder questions.

“What is change for two silver coins if I buy three copper coins’ worth of goods? You may only give me copper coins, Mrsha.”

Mrsha hesitated and counted. One, two, three…she patiently counted up to seventeen and pushed the head of coins across the table. Krshia smiled.

“Good! Arrange the coins so, Mrsha. In fives, stacked up. That way it is simpler to count.”

She demonstrated. Mrsha sighed again. She didn’t want to learn this! Krshia eyed her sternly and the slouching Gnoll sat up reluctantly in her chair. Krshia stroked her chin.

“You know math well. Strange, it takes other children longer to learn this. Hmm. If you answer this next question correctly, I may reward you.”

That made Mrsha’s ears perk up. She listened to Krshia’s question. Then she pushed a gold coin and five copper ones across the table. Krshia blinked at her.

“Hm.”

She got up and found a sweet biscuit for Mrsha. The Gnoll ate it happily. Krshia shook her head.

“A gift for numbers. It is good! Surprising, but good. I am glad you understand it so well, Mrsha.”

The Gnoll rolled her eyes as she licked crumbs off her fur. It wasn’t surprising at all! Unbeknownst to Krshia, Erin and Lyonette had both taken their shots at teaching her math beforehand, to varying degrees of success. They each had their own strengths. Lyonette had taught Mrsha about royalty and politics and secrets of leveling passed down through her family. Erin taught Mrsha math and science and about silly things that couldn’t be seen like germs and ‘oxygen’.

And her math lessons were a lot harder than Krshia’s. Erin had not only taught Mrsha how to add and subtract perfectly, but she’d started Mrsha on multiplication and division. The Gnoll hated those lessons even more than Krshia’s practical ones. Math got silly when Erin taught it.

At least Krshia understood how math really worked. The next question the Gnoll gave her was a stumper.

“I have given you twenty gold pieces by accident to buy goods worth eleven gold pieces, four silver, and three copper. How many coins will you give me back?”

The correct answer was eight gold pieces, fifteen silver, and seven copper pieces. Mrsha mulled it over and pushed eight gold pieces and fifteen silver across the table. Krshia stared at her expectantly and Mrsha folded her arms.

That made the older Gnoll laugh.  She ruffled Mrsha’s head as she growled approvingly.

“Good answer! Yes, that is what I would do.”

Mrsha brightened up. Krshia reached for the coins and Mrsha hoped it was to end the lessons. But she paused and her ears perked up. Mrsha had already smelled Tkrn coming up the stairs and she heard him knock once.

“Wait here.”

Krshia went to answer the door. Mrsha heard her and Tkrn talking as she peered at the Gnoll. He was a junior [Guardsman] in the City Watch, but like most Gnolls in the city he was under Krshia’s unofficial command. She led the Silverfang Tribe in Liscor and was one of the leaders of the city-Gnolls here. If there was a crisis, Krshia would be one of the ones who decided what the Gnollish response should be.

It was hard to be a Gnoll in Drake cities. The Gnolls had to look out for each other. Mrsha understood that Liscor was good as Drake cities went—the Watch didn’t allow Drakes to gang up on Gnolls and there was only a little conflict between species. Still, Gnolls watched each other’s backs which was why Tkrn had come to tip Krshia off about a buying opportunity.

“…had to put down many cows and calves that were injured. It is a shame, but the meat is fresh and good! However, many [Shopkeepers] and [Butchers] and so on want the meat, so an auction will take place in the hour! Aunt Krshia, if you bought the meat for the others—lately all your deals have been excellent and you could save us much coin. Lism is there with his Drake friends and they are planning to buy all the good meat. Do you think you can outbid him or find the best cuts?”

Krshia nodded.

“Hrm. Yes, I do think so. I have a new Skill that allows me to select goods of the highest quality. I should go in person to get the best cuts of meat. Lism, vindictive as he is, may try to outbid me. But I would win either way. However—”

She glanced at Mrsha and the Gnoll waved at Tkrn. Krshia looked conflicted.

“I must take care of Mrsha.”

“Please, Aunt? We’ll have nothing but gristle and too much fat otherwise! The Drakes, they are trying to crowd out our stores ever since you lost your place as one of the top stalls in the market!”

The younger Gnoll pleaded with Krshia. She scratched at her head, growling under her breath, and then nodded decisively. She turned to Mrsha.

“Mrsha, I must go to this auction. It may take a while, so you must wait. Stay indoors, understand? You may wander, but you are not to touch anything fragile or sharp. Understand?”

She gave Mrsha a look, and the Gnoll nodded carefully. In Gnoll tribes, the young were expected to know what was off-limits after they were old enough to stand on two legs. If she broke anything, Krshia would spank her, Mrsha had no doubt. So she wouldn’t. Reassured, Krshia nodded.

“I will be back soon. Now, Tkrn, lead me to the [Butcher] before that scale-flint Lism gets away with all the choice cuts of meat!”

She and the other Gnoll hurried out of the door. Mrsha watched them go, not terribly disappointed by the development. She waited until the scents of the two Gnolls wasn’t fresh and then decided to go peek at Krshia’s secret.

If it seemed wrong of Krshia to leave Mrsha unattended, well, it was because she wasn’t. Not really. Mrsha was smart enough not to stab herself in the eye with a knife and there was no danger of a fire or [Thief] breaking into the apartment. Because Krshia had secrets. Mrsha was aware of them. Krshia thought that Mrsha couldn’t smell the Gnolls who took turns watching her apartment, but she was wrong. Mrsha’s nose was so good she could smell their blades, or their oiled bowstrings and the glue on their fletched arrows.

There was always a guard on Krshia’s apartment, watching and waiting. They were supposedly housewives and mothers, but a Gnoll mother could still put an arrow though a would-be [Burglar]’s eyes at fifty paces. Krshia’s apartment was important. And Mrsha knew why.

This wasn’t the first time she’d been left alone. Mrsha, knowing she was alone except for the Gnoll woman sitting in an apartment across the street and watching the door, padded over to Krshia’s kitchen. She rummaged around in the top drawer of one of the counters and found the secret compartment there. She slipped the key out, padded into the living room, and grabbed the second key that was hidden inside a fold of the couch. Then she walked into Krshia’s bedroom and paused.

She could still smell Brunkr’s scent here, faintly. Mrsha rubbed at her nose and tried to think about the secret. Which key was first? Kitchen key, it was very important. She found the false floorboards under the bed and pulled them out, one by one. There was a very large chest hidden in the crawlspace there. Mrsha put the first key in the lock, twisted it, then removed it and put the second one in.

Kitchen first, and then living room. If the keys weren’t in the right order or someone tried opening the chest with just one, the chest would fill the room with poison. Mrsha had heard Krshia whispering about it with the other Gnolls. What she hadn’t known was what was inside. Mrsha opened the chest, heart pounding and saw—

A book. The little Gnoll stared at it. It was a big book that filled the chest—a massive tome with golden lettering and fancy symbols and colorful illustrations on the cover, but a book nonetheless. Mrsha knew that such a book was probably worth thousands of gold pieces, but she was a little disappointed nonetheless. She had heard Krshia talking with the others about their great treasure, the thing that would make the Silverfang Tribe great.

They were going to offer this at the Meeting of the Tribes, which would be soon. Mrsha knew about the Meeting. It was the biggest Gnollish tradition. Every tribe would gather and offer something to benefit all of Gnollkind. They would discuss important matters, help tribes that were suffering and dispense justice among their own kind and on others.

The Stone Spears had been preparing a massive bounty of alchemical ingredients that could be sold or made into potions before they had been destroyed. Tribes worked hard to bring good gifts because they would receive benefits from the Meeting as well. The Silverfang tribe was rich. And this was all they were going to bring?

It didn’t seem right. Mrsha wrinkled her nose at the book. She had been taught how to read and could read better than Erin, but she had trouble deciphering the script on the front of the book. It didn’t look like the Drakish script, or the Human one which looked like Erin’s English language, or the secret writings that Gnolls sometimes used. Was it in another language? Mrsha opened the book and blinked.

Words on the page. Meaning—see here and comprehend. That which is stone is mutable. The earth sings; the stone resists flow. So shape it as a firm object in your head. A sword of stone, the edge keen. Touch a blade, feel the sharpness. The same sharpness of stone, and the entire blade. Visualize it all as one object, for stone is a complete thing. Then call it out of the ground. Shape it there and draw together all it requires. If sand is all that is there, draw into the sand. The elements are as follows. Take them, meld them, create a sword—

Mrsha jerked backwards and the book closed. She sat up, banged her head on the bottom of Krshia’s bed, and clutched at her skull as the words receded. What was that? She’d opened the book to a random page and the words had been—

They weren’t words. Not proper, written ones. Not language. The symbols had shone into Mrsha’s head and spoken there, instantly comprehendible. They were…well, it was like Krshia’s lesson, only vividly being shown in Mrsha’s mind. It was amazing—and painful. The effort of understanding gave Mrsha a migraine, but she understood! Oh, she understood.

What the page had been telling her was how to make a sword. No, not make one, conjure one out of the ground. If Mrsha had read through the rest and if her mind had been able to grasp it all, she would have been able to cast a spell. [Stone Sword], or perhaps [Blade of the Earth]. Mrsha’s understanding was incomplete from that brief glimpse, but the other page had shown a faceless warrior drawing a blade out of the earth. Mrsha’s paws trembled as she held the tome up, marveling at how light it was. Now it made sense.

This was a spellbook! It was worth infinitely more than a mundane book. And if the entire book held spells—Mrsha stared round-eyed at the book. If Krshia’s home had been filled with gold coins it might not have been worth enough to buy this book. This was what the Silverfang Tribe was going to offer at the Meeting of Tribes! It was ambitious, worthy. And risky.

Mrsha understood the gamble. It hinged on Gnolls wanting to use the spellbook, the tribes considering it worthwhile. Because if not…it was just something to be sold, worth only gold and even then, it would be gold that wouldn’t reach the other tribes in time for the meeting. If Gnollkind desired to learn magic, it was a princely, no, a kingly gift. If not…

Here was the issue. Gnolls couldn’t learn magic, not the magic of [Mages]. That was a fact across the world. They had no aptitude for it, no interest, and most tellingly, no representatives of their kind in Wistram, home of the mages.

Gnolls had tried to send one of their kind to Wistram, oh yes. But their great representative had been cast out of Wistram, laughed at by the [Mages] there. For that insult, no Gnoll would trade with Wistram. It was a grudge of decades. Of course, the tribes didn’t really need to have their own [Mages] since Gnolls were able to become [Shamans], who were just as good, if not better in some areas.

But there had never been a Gnoll [Mage] in living memory—the tribes had no spellbooks and few [Mages] wanted to have a Gnoll apprentice, and fewer Gnolls wanted to risk wasting their time trying to learn if it was impossible. So there were no Gnoll [Mages]. Some said Gnolls couldn’t learn conventional magic. But Mrsha had read the spellbook.

What did that mean? Mrsha had no idea. But she didn’t think overlong on the subject. People said Gnolls couldn’t learn magic. But she didn’t really care. Magic. If she could learn it—with a trembling paw, Mrsha slowly opened the spell tome again to a random page near the middle.

Words. The meaning is simple. Complex in nuance. The earth lives. It harbors magic. It harbors life and the memory of it. Where there is memory, create an echo. For a brief time reach into the past and call out a reflection of the self. Grass springs forth from soil and wood—even stone. But caution. Memory is strongest where life begins. Draw forth a tree from the ground, but never from uncaring rock. With more magic comes more growth. Diversify—seek more understanding, more knowledge of the green. Grow, and such creations shall last until magic is gone or until destroyed. Grow, the earth calls. And remembers.

Grow.

The spell struck Mrsha’s mind, burning itself across her thoughts like a brand, etched there, unfading. It was a simple spell, but with infinite variations. It was a spell of the earth, a spell worthy of a novice.

[Grow Grass]. Nothing more, nothing less. Mrsha struggled with the images in her head, telling her how the spell could be used, how to provoke the earth to conjure magical grass that would last for minutes or possibly hours. Her head ached and Mrsha reached for the book, to hunt for another spell, the spell of the stone sword, when she heard and smelled something.

Meat. Blood. The faint odor of gold and silver and copper and emotion. Satisfaction. Wet fur and a bit of sweat, the hint of spices and other goods on her paws.

Krshia was coming back. Mrsha slammed the book closed in a panic and shoved it back in the chest. She heard the chest lock itself as she ran with the keys, remembering to put the kitchen one in the drawer and the living room one in the couch. By the time Krshia opened the door to her apartment looking smug, Mrsha was sitting at the table, stacking gold and silver into a tower and trying to look innocent.

Perhaps if Krshia had been more alert she would have noticed Mrsha’s guilt. But the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] was elated, high on her success.

“Hah! That fool Lism had no idea what happened! He couldn’t tell a prime cut from entrails, but I could. Four of the best cuts and plenty more for our [Butchers] to sell! We will earn triple what I paid, at least!”

She strode around the apartment and Mrsha’s tail wagged in unison with Krshia’s. Mrsha was happy, understanding a bit of what Krshia meant but mainly picking up on her mood. Krshia was exultant, and then guilty.

“But I am sorry, Mrsha. I have left you for over an hour and a quarter, far too long! I must apologize to Lyonette and thank her—come, we will meet her outside. And I must buy you a snack to make up for it.”

She took Mrsha by the paw. The little Gnoll was astounded. An hour had passed? But it felt like minutes since she’d opened the book! She stared in awe at the wet street. The wet street, but the rainless skies. The rain had stopped pounding sometime while she’d been in that trance. Krshia sniffed as she took Mrsha down the street.

“Here. A snack. Hejor, give young Mrsha a meatball. No, two. She deserves a treat.”

A Gnoll was frying meatballs at a stand covered by an awning on the street. Mrsha’s stomach rumbled as he carefully took two large ones and put them in a little bit of wax paper. Erin’s hamburgers and other fast food delights were still popular in the city—now you could buy a hamburger at any number of taverns or food stands, and these meatballs were a popular variation on the concept. Mrsha greedily licked her lips as Krshia offered her the meatballs.

“My treat. No, save your coins Mrsha. A good [Trader] takes what is given freely, unless the debt is too great. Now, let us meet Lyonette since it is time.”

She led Mrsha onwards, the Gnoll nibbling at her steaming meatballs as she went. Mrsha smiled happily, then her eyes went wide and vacant as she stared at a cobblestone. Grass could grow from it. All she had to do was reach into the earth and call the memory of—

Her grip slipped and Mrsha nearly dropped both her meatballs onto the street! The Gnoll quickly popped one in her mouth and chewed as she walked on. Krshia didn’t notice, save to warn Mrsha not to scarf down her food and ruin lunch. She also told Mrsha not to let Lyonette or Erin know she’d been abandoned and Mrsha nodded dutifully. But her mind was racing. The book’s spell still burning across her memory, and when she looked at the ground she could feel the spell in her mind, ready to be cast.

But surely it was impossible to learn a spell so quickly? Unless the book was special? Unless Mrsha was special? The Gnoll was confused.

What had just happened?

 

—-

 

They met Lyonette at the city gates just as she was coming in. The young woman looked relieved to be out of the downpour and she said as much as Mrsha ate her second meatball.

“Rain’s stopped. I’m glad—it’s a pain trying not to slip and tumble down a hill on the way here.”

Krshia nodded. She cast an eye up at the dour skies.

“A short reprieve. The rain will be back in a day or two at most. It will rain all month and the next and then the flooding will stop. But already some valleys flood, yes? Soon we will be unable to travel except by boat so tell Erin to prepare well.”

“I will. Thank Miss Krshia, Mrsha.”

Mrsha waved at the tall Gnoll and Krshia bared her teeth in a slight smile.

“Go well, Mrsha. Stay out of trouble.”

They returned to the inn. Lyonette asked Mrsha if her day had been fun and if she’d learned a lot. Mrsha’s deep nod of conviction seemed to please the young woman and they returned to the inn to find the Halfseekers sitting about, talking, rather than being out in the rain.

Mrsha would have loved to go to her room and put her head under the pillows to make sense of what had just happened, but her ears perked up as she saw the three Gold-rank adventurers sitting at a table. Normally they’d be in the dungeon, but as they were telling Erin, they were taking a vacation today. Jelaqua grimaced over her mug as she waved at the wet landscape outside.

“Not every day’s a good day to adventure. Today is all politics—we’re trying to get the city to build the dungeon entrance higher. The official one, that is. Not sure how you’d stop that rift in the ground from flooding. And it’s important to have at least one entrance open if we want to continue challenging the dungeon this spring!”

“Can’t you, I dunno, let the dungeon flood and kill all the monsters?”

Erin was writing down notes for a new play on a piece of parchment. She waved to Lyonette and Mrsha and nearly knocked ink over the entire table. Jelaqua grimaced. Moore leaned over. The half-Giant [Mage] shook his head as he politely eyed Erin’s notes.

“I believe you’ve misspelled hawthorn, Miss Erin. It’s a ‘w’ not a ‘u’. And the dungeon is protected against flooding. Water will not enter past a certain point to prevent adventurers from using the tactics you just described.”

Erin grimaced as she crossed out a word.

“Oh, thanks Moore. Jeeze, this is hard. Even if I can remember all of King Lear, my head hurts from trying to write down all the lines! Stupid Skills…so you want to make sure it doesn’t flood since it won’t work, right Jelaqua?”

“That’s right. Anti-flood and earthquake measures are standard for magic dungeons, but I don’t feel like swimming to the entrance every day. We need to build a rampart from the city to the dungeon or at least create a fortification around the entrance. But the Antinium refuse to work in the downpour and there’s practically no [Diggers] in the city besides that lot! The city’s content to just let the dungeon flood because they think monsters will be trapped inside.”

Bad idea. Lots of monsters like water and it’s a nightmare fighting them in those conditions. Take it from me. There’s a reason why I left the sea.

Seborn leaned over, his claw-hand gripping a mug. Jelaqua nodded seriously in agreement. Erin thought for a second.

“Sounds rough. Yeah, the Antinium are really scared of water. And they’re busy in the Hive, or so Bird says. Look, if the issue is finding people to dig…why not see if you can hire some people from Celum? I don’t know if they’re as good as digging as the Antinium and they’ll probably charge more, but you could probably hire a lot of help between them and Liscor. Krshia could introduce you to some Gnolls who’ll work for a day I bet.”

Jelaqua snapped her fingers together and grinned.

“Oh, of course! I’m a vine-cursed idiot. Moore, Seborn, why didn’t either of you think of that?”

Because you’re an idiot?

Seborn ducked as Jelaqua swung at him and Moore smiled gently. Mrsha padded up to him and the half-Giant looked down.

“Hello Mrsha.”

He very carefully lowered a finger and stroked her head. Mrsha smiled up at him. Moore was as gentle as could be and he was always nice to her. She loved him. Jelaqua spotted the Gnoll and reached over to ruffle her head as well. Mrsha smelled her rotting body and the Selphid’s true form within. She didn’t flinch, although she could tell that Jelaqua’s body was falling apart.

“Hey there, kid! How are you doing?”

Moore waved at the Selphid who grinned at her. Jelaqua was loud and laughed a lot, and she was nice too. She liked Jelaqua. Seborn she wasn’t sure about. The Drowned Man just nodded at Mrsha. Sometimes she couldn’t smell or hear him at all, which was spooky. Jelaqua stood up after giving Mrsha another ruffle. She nodded at her companions.

“Come on, let’s go see if we can hire a group. It’ll be pricey, but I figure we can talk the Adventurer’s Guild into reimbursing us the costs. I don’t want to ask Griffon Hunt to chip in, but—whoops!”

She was striding over to the door when it opened and Octavia came out. The [Alchemist] stopped before she ran into Jelaqua and the bottles in the crate she was carrying clinked together.

“Whoa! Hey, careful!”

“My mistake, Miss [Alchemist].”

Jelaqua edged around the Stitch-Girl and Octavia put the crate on a counter. She wiped at her forehead.

“Hey Erin, got another delivery for that Gnoll [Shopkeeper].”

“Krshia?”

“Yup, that’s the one. I’ll bring some more potions through. The ones I made sold really well—hah, of course they would! You know, I undercut the prices from the regular potions since I can buy from Celum and Liscor and manufacture cheap. And I don’t have to sell my stock to a [Merchant] or [Trader] who has to lug his goods all the way from Pallass to Liscor—we can earn the same profits and sell for a lot less! Hey, can I leave this here?”

“What, on the table? No! How about over there?”

“Can’t put it by a fire, Erin. Some of this stuff—well, let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t run into that Selphid lady.”

“Okay, how about over there?”

“Uh…is that an Ashfire Bee I see hovering around those flowers? How about you put it over there?”

“How about over there?

Mrsha crept away now that the boring adults were doing boring things again. Her head still hurt from reading the book. [Grow Grass]. She knew the spell! But could she cast it? Mrsha hesitated, and then pointed at a floorboard as she ascended to the second floor. She concentrated, did what she’d seen in the book. She pulled—and nothing happened.

Nothing. Not one thing. Mrsha poked at the ground, stepped on it, and then realized something was wrong. She knew the spell. But…she didn’t know how to cast it.

She needed something. Mrsha furrowed her brow as she tried to understand the spell searing in her mind. To cast a spell you needed…how had Lyonette explained it? Oh, yes. Mana and a catalyst. Mana was the fuel a spell burned and it came from the world and the mage. But a catalyst was important, too.

A toe or a finger was a bad catalyst for magic because all the flesh and bone got in the way. Only a good mage could work around the issue, like Pisces, and even then, a catalyst made the magic easier, boosted spells.

She needed one of those. And as she had that idea, Mrsha realized she’d had a catalyst all along! She raced up the stairs and into her room. There she rummaged around in a pillow and pulled out her prized possession: Pisces’ wand. She looked at it, slightly guiltily because she remembered the bad thing she’d done with it.

It had been a very bad thing, trying to hurt Badarrow with the wand. It had been taken away from Mrsha after the incident, but she’d snuck into Pisces’ room and taken it back. It wasn’t the wand’s fault and Pisces kept forgetting about it. The wand was lovely and hard and Mrsha liked gnawing on it—it was practically unbreakable as far as she could tell, since neither her teeth nor poking at logs in the fireplace had harmed it in any way. It was special.

And now it was important. Mrsha closed her eyes as she lifted the wand. She raised it, swished it, and tapped the ground. She cast the spell in her mind.

[Grow Grass]. Mrsha waited and stared at the floorboards.

Nothing happened. Mrsha frowned, licked her nose, and tried again. [Grow Grass]. Nothing happened. She growled and peered at the wand. Maybe it didn’t work? Maybe that was why Pisces didn’t use it. She tapped the ground again and reached. This time she found something in her chest.

A burning feeling, a howl. A cold beyond cold. The sight of glowing shapes, Ryoka’s arms around her. The earth as it froze. The feeling of warmth in the snow.

Magic.

And the floorboards shifted. Mrsha leapt back as a single blade of grass grew out of the floorboards, shimmering, flush with life. Mrsha touched it, awestruck. She plucked the blade of grass and saw it shimmer. Mrsha tore it in half and the pieces dissipated in her hands. She stared at the floorboards and they were completely untouched. She felt a pang of exhaustion in her body and stared at her wand.

She’d done it. Magic. Real magic.

The next few minutes saw Mrsha running around the room, the inn, howling with excitement. Lyonette, Erin and Octavia ran upstairs, but Mrsha was unable to explain. She just pointed at the floorboards and waved her wand, which was regarded as cute, if ultimately pointless. Mrsha didn’t know if she should tell them about her new spell—she had a feeling that looking at Krshia’s magic book would earn her a very big spanking, and the Gnoll spanked a lot harder than Lyonette.

It was her secret. Mrsha let the adults go back to arguing over where Octavia should put her potions—Erin had the opinion that the picky [Alchemist] could put it up somewhere and Mrsha wondered if they were going to put it on the third floor. She didn’t care. She stared at her wand as she went to the common room. The adults were busy and Mrsha?

Mrsha was a [Mage]. She was an adventurer. The Gnoll had dreamed of being a [Warrior], of being a hero in the tales that Ryoka and the Gnolls of her tribe had told around the campfires. She’d dreamed, but never believed she could actually be one. Now it was all different.

The Gnoll stared out a window. It wasn’t raining outside. She’d been cooped up for days now, and she suddenly had a burning desire to be out. She wasn’t supposed to be—Lyonette had to come with her, but wasn’t everything different now? Mrsha could do magic. Surely that means she could break the rules! She was Mrsha, Mrsha the [Mage]. No—

Mrsha the Great. She’d become a world-famous [Mage], a Gnoll who could cast magic! Mrsha swung her wand excitedly as she wandered out of the inn, unnoticed by Octavia and Erin who were fussing over the potions. Lyonette might have noticed Mrsha, but just as Mrsha opened the door there was a crash of breaking glass and a scream.

No one touch anything! Get back in case it explodes! Don’t panic—I’m an [Alchemist]!

Oh my god, what’s that smoke?

Don’t panic! I said, don’t p—

Mrsha closed the door. Exciting as that sounded, she had places to be. She looked around the soggy landscape, wand in hand, and noticed Apista had flown out with her. Well, that was good. It was time for an adventure! Mrsha knew it was dangerous outside, but now she knew magic! Or at least, one spell. She was going to be Mrsha the Great! Not just great—she’d be Mrsha, the Great and Terrible! The Gnoll wandered off in search of an adventure.

And found it.

 

—-

 

This was the adventure of Mrsha, the Great and Terrible. She left The Wandering Inn with her magic wand and her trusty companion, Apista. The Gnoll and Ashfire Bee travelled down the hill, ready for adventure, monsters, and maybe treasure!

They found a frog. Mrsha the Great and Terrible chased after it and the frog hopped into a pond forming in one of the valleys. It was vanquished! Mrsha raised her wand triumphantly and grew some grass. It was hard work! But she could make it grow larger outside of the inn. Apista landed on a cluster of stalks and then Mrsha spotted a rabbit.

A monster! The rabbit monster fled as Mrsha the Most Excellent Mage cast her spell and grass stems erupted around the startled creature. Another monster defeated! Apista waved her antennae encouragingly as Mrsha decided to go over one more hill. The inn was still in sight after all, and Mrsha the Brave and Responsible wouldn’t get scolded if she went a bit further, right?

As Mrsha the Explorative crested the next hill she saw an amazing battle taking place below her. A small, colorful, blue and yellow slime was fighting two horrible aggressors! A pair of large, ugly, green and brown poo slimes was attacking it, smacking it with their bodies, trying to splatter the poor slime! The magic slime was clearly magic; its insides swirled with color and it glowed. It was bright blue with a yellow streak running down the center.

The magic slime was beautiful, and thus, clearly important. Mrsha hesitated, unsure if she should actually fight monsters. But she was an adventurer wasn’t she? Apista fanned her wings agitatedly and Mrsha made up her mind. She raised her wand and howled as all three slimes turned to stare at her.

The epic battle of the grasses went like this: Mrsha the Great and Terrible charged into battle, wand waving. She brought her magic wand squarely down on the center of one of the poo slimes. It was barely bigger then she was and her wand went splash into it. The slime turned to her and Mrsha the Tactically Unsound realized she might have made a mistake.

So began an epic chase as Mrsha the Quick to Flee ran and the first poo slime pursued her! It stank horribly and it kept trying to swallow her legs! Mrsha the Fiercely Hygienic kicked at it and part of the slime splashed away. Apista, her loyal friend tried to stab the slime with her stinger, but the slime was all liquid and the Ashfire Bee nearly got swallowed! She flew away as Mrsha, She of Stinky Paws, punched the slime and splashed its nasty body everywhere.

The poo slime retreated and Mrsha, In Dire Need of a Bath, pursued. She leapt on the slime and, remembering what she’d been told, grabbed the small glowing stone in its body. The slime constricted around her hand and Mrsha cried out, feeling it twisting her paw, digesting her fur and skin! She pulled at the core, ignoring the slime as it resisted. The slime reacted, trying to engulf Mrsha entirely, but the Gnoll plucked its heart out and the slime was no more!

Panting, covered in very nasty liquid, Mrsha the Stinky triumphantly raised her wand and saw the second poo slime had been defeated as well! The glowing slime had engulfed it and was now jettisoning a steady stream of liquid out of its body. It ‘spat’ the other slime’s body away and as Mrsha watched, ate the other slime’s core. The magic slime’s body glowed and it rolled towards her, reaching for the slime core she held.

Mrsha had to take a break for a second to wipe her face and try not to retch at the horrible smells around her. But then, the slime was engulfing her leg, reaching upwards with its bulbous body for the mana stone she held. Aha! The damsel in distress was in fact a brigand! Mrsha thumped the slime with her paw, making it retreat.

A standoff ensued. Mrsha the Perplexed stared at the glowing slime. It looked familiar. The slime quivered as Apista circled it menacingly. Was it friend or foe? Mrsha the Merciful decided it was probably okay. She handed the mana stone from the second poo slime to the magic slime and watched in fascination as it ate the stone! It had a mana stone of its own and the slime’s core grew as it absorbed the first stone.

It rolled around Mrsha, lightly touching her, and the Gnoll, fascinated, gently patted the slime. At first she was nervous and at first the slime was nervous, but Mrsha was a [Beast Tamer]! She and the slime became friends or at least, didn’t try to kill each other. Mrsha decided this slime would make an excellent companion with Apista. She patted the slime and gingerly poked her paw into its side. The slime pulled away, but Mrsha felt her sore paw heal instantly!

Wide-eyed, Mrsha the Surprised pulled her paw back and realized this slime was no ordinary magic slime, but some kind of amazing healing slime! Just like Erin had talked about! Healing slimes were real, and this slime had healed her! It was also, apparently, hungry.

The healing slime crawled across the ground, examining the remains of the poo slimes and the grass and mud. It absorbed some of the water and horrible sewer remains and promptly spat out the sewer stuff. It plucked some grass, spat that out too. It found a grey flower hiding among the grass and ate that, and a cluster of spotted white mushrooms.

It was a picky slime. It was only as half as big as the poo slimes had been, for all it seemed energetic. Maybe there wasn’t enough for it to eat? What did healing slimes eat anyways? Mrsha the Keen Observer watched and decided her new friend could use some help. Thus, Mrsha the Great and Terrible went back home.

There was uproar in the inn, and Mrsha the Unobtrusive heard a lot of shouting as she pushed open the door and padded inside.

“Okay, no one step on the glowing puddle! I don’t know how it’s going to react!”

Octavia the Very Panicked was shouting and waving her hands near the kitchen. Lyonette and Erin were shouting too with buckets and mops. Mrsha the Slightly Interested decided that watching might not be a good idea, especially when she saw a small fireball rise up and all three young women scatter.

She snuck behind the panicking adults and into Octavia’s shop which was, ironically, probably the safest place to be at the moment. Mrsha the Inquisitive stared around at the shelves full of bottles. She felt a bit guilty, but this was an experiment! She stared around at the potions on the bottom shelves, looking for a good one. A large bottle at the end caught her eye. It was purple and had green flecks, tiny shimmering stars contained within the dark liquid.

The purple potion with green stars called to Mrsha. She picked up the bottle and shook it gently, watching the glowing colors swirling together. Yes, this would do. Mrsha the Daring Thief snuck back through to Erin’s inn. Once again no one noticed her—they were trying to put the fire out, and stymied by the fact that adding water just made it grow.

“Try oil!”

Oil? Are you trying to burn my inn down?”

“What about dirt?”

“It’s all wet! What about this? We have uh—flour?”

Lyonette grabbed a bag of flour and both Erin and Octavia tackled her.

“Get the beans! Smother it with beans! I have two whole bags here!”

Mrsha the Vastly Entertained watched for a while, and then decided her new friend needed her more. She walked back outside and found the healing slime wandering about. It froze when it saw her and Apista again, but Mrsha patted it on the head and offered it the potion. It accepted the bottle into its center and Mrsha, fascinated, saw the glass begin to crack as the slime tried to digest it. The bottle broke and the magic purple liquid filled the slime.

Mrsha the Prudent took a few steps back as the healing slime froze. Its swirling center turned purple and the yellow sparks within it swirled brightly. For all of three seconds it seemed to fight the new colors within, and then—surprisingly—it changed color!

First it was the bright blue and yellow color it had been before. And then, suddenly, it was purple with green spots! It rolled about and then suddenly blue blossomed around the core and it shifted back into its original configuration! Mrsha the Amazed stared at the slime and padded over to it. She gingerly poked a finger into the slime as it turned from blue to purple and licked a bit of the purple potion.

She immediately spat it back out. Whatever was in Octavia’s potion, it tasted horrible! Too horrible to consider tasting! Mrsha scrubbed her mouth with some grass as the slime rolled about. Was it…faster? It zipped around Mrsha, a purple blur and she blinked and chased after it.

Now it was a race! Mrsha and the purple slime ran about the plains! It was quick! Fast as Mrsha was, she could barely keep up and the slime seemed to enjoy shooting up and down the hills, avoiding the small lakes. Fast, fast! Mrsha ran after the magic slime, leaping after it, watching it race around her tail, turning, and then—

And then she ran over a hill and saw the Fortress Beaver. It was limping along, a huge gash cut down the side of its body. It was larger than she was and as Mrsha halted, she, Apista, and the magic slime faced the large beaver. It made a wary chattering sound and Mrsha backed up, ready to flee. The magic slime made to run as well.

But wait, wasn’t she Mrsha the Great and Terrible? And she was a [Beast Tamer], a friend of Apista’s! She had [Wild Affinity], so surely she wasn’t a threat? Mrsha the Generally Peaceful edged forwards and the beaver retreated a step. She raised a paw and waved at the beaver. It stared at her and then decided she wasn’t a threat. It collapsed, lying down, and Mrsha the Horrified saw that it was still bleeding from its wound!

Whatever had cut the beaver must have been poisonous, because the wound looked greenish. The beaver was foaming a bit around the mouth and Mrsha the Healer realized something had to be done. She stared at the magic slime, and then stared at the beaver. The healing slime trembled as Mrsha padded over to it, but it reluctantly rolled towards the beaver and inspected the wound. It stared at the dying creature and Mrsha saw it shift from purple to blue. The slime slowly rolled over the wound and before her stunned eyes, the beaver’s wounds closed. The Fortress Beaver sat up and Mrsha the Savior of Beavers saw it lick the healing slime and then walk over to her! She patted it on the head and felt it whuff as it smelled her.

Another triumph! Another victory! The beaver seemed to realize that Mrsha and the slime had saved its life, and it seemed to want them to follow it. Mrsha the Great and Terrible followed the beaver with her band of trusty followers in tow. Apista seemed to enjoy licking the healing slime with her proboscis and the healing slime kept trying to swat her away, but that was okay. They were all friends and Mrsha was their great leader!

The Fortress Beaver led her over two hills and then Mrsha saw a group of Beavers chattering around the entrance of a cave! They were all Fortress Beavers and all very big. When they saw Mrsha and the other beaver they clustered around her. They were all hurt for some reason. Mrsha the Confused wondered why. Then she saw the beaver she had saved walk into the cave, followed by his kin.

Of course, Mrsha the Generally Inquisitive had to follow. She marched into the cave, head held high, ready for an adventure. She walked into the darkness, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, and saw the beavers tense. Mrsha the Suddenly Wary stopped, and she saw a shape lying on the ground.

It was…a Fortress Beaver. It was dead. The back of its head had been torn away and it was being ripped apart from the back. Something was tearing at it, savaging it. It crawled over the top of the beaver as Mrsha and the other Fortress Beavers stared and she saw an orange glowing body, protected by an exoskeleton of black and bloody red chitin. The Gnoll’s heart stopped as she realized what it and the other shapes clustered around the beaver were.

Crelers. The scuttling horrors with too many legs and teeth looked up as they dug into the flesh of the rotting Fortress Beaver’s corpse. Like a wave they scuttled towards Mrsha and the other animals. Their pincers and maws were red with blood and Mrsha saw a headless Corusdeer lying on the ground, the remains of three Shield Spiders. The Crelers came at her, hissing.

And suddenly it wasn’t a game anymore.

This was how the battle went. Mrsha fled as the Crelers attacked the Fortress Beavers, howling in panic. This wasn’t a game! Apista flew after her, just as afraid and the magic slime was zipping out of the cave! They were being pursued. Two of the Crelers had followed her and they scuttled out into the daylight after the Gnoll with alarming speed. Mrsha ran, howling, her magic and adventure forgotten. She tripped as she tumbled down a hill and fell—

Into a Shield Spider’s nest. The ground collapsed and Mrsha saw a flashing, rolling vision of large bodies, white egg sacks and then—a Shield Spider. It stared down at her, mandibles wide. Mrsha went very still. She tried to will herself to be invisible, to use her Skill to hide. But the Shield Spider had seen her! It opened its mandibles as more flooded into the pit—

And the Crelers charged into the nest. One leapt onto the Shield Spider standing over Mrsha and the second shuddered down the side of the nest. They began biting, tearing into the armored spiders as if their bodies were nothing more than paper! Alarmed, Mrsha retreated and the Shield Spiders shrieked and attacked the invaders.

It was a battle between the two species! To her horror, Mrsha saw the Crelers were tearing apart the Shield Spiders. They were too strong, too quick, and too tough! Their bodies were made of something stronger than the Shield Spiders and no matter how hard the spiders bit they couldn’t deliver more than superficial injuries. Whereas the Crelers could literally dig into their opponents and tear them apart!

It was terrible. And once the Crelers were done with the spiders, Mrsha would be next! She looked around desperately but there was no good way out. She saw a Creler leap off an eviscerated spider and scuttle towards her. It reared up—

And a bee smacked into it from the side! Apista, wings stretched wide, stabbed the Creler in its soft underbelly with her stinger. The Creler reared back and the Ashfire Bee flew around it, furiously attacking! Mrsha saw the other Creler break off as a whirling purple mass leapt at it. The magic healing slime engulfed the Creler into its body and Mrsha saw the creature fighting mightily to get out. But her attention was on the Creler in front of her.

It was trying to leap onto Apista! Mrsha raised her wand and smacked it on the back. The Creler whipped around, fast as a snake. The Gnoll leapt back and the Creler might have bit her then, but for the other Shield Spiders! They swarmed onto the creature, biting, fighting it in a mass of writhing limbs as the Creler thrashed about. It was a horrible battle and Mrsha saw more than one Shield Spider stumble away, practically ripped apart by the Creler’s claws. But then the Creler was dead, torn apart, and the second had fallen to the healing slime. It drifted in the slime’s body, its body twisted and mangled by the internal pressures put on it.

A silence fell over the Shield Spider nest as they realized there were still three uninvited guests. The spiders limped around Mrsha and she, realizing it was do-or-die, grabbed the healing slime and began splashing the spiders with its liquid. The spiders scuttled away at first, but then realized their wounds were healing! They crowded around Mrsha and she did her very best to convey that she was not prey. She pointed, and tried to convey a simple message.

There were more Crelers above. The Shield Spiders looked at her. They opened their mandibles wide and Mrsha the Great and Terrible held her breath.

The Fortress Beavers had retreated again. They had left six of their dead in the caves this time and killed only one Creler. They were all wounded, all poisoned by the Creler’s toxins. And yet, the beavers did not retreat. It was death or victory here. They had lost most of their colony to the Crelers already and they would not run.

This time they waited outside the cave, knowing the end was coming. The Crelers were eating their kin, laying their foul eggs. But they would not wait long, knowing more prey was ready to be slain.

The Fortress Beaver young stayed behind their parents as the beavers formed a semicircle around the cave. This was it. They heard scuttling, and then, to their astonishment, a howl! They turned and saw an unexpected ally. The white Gnoll had returned! In this dire hour she raced towards the cave, towards certain death. The Fortress Beavers stared at her and then at her strange companions.

An Ashfire Bee, a magic slime, and a Gnoll? Surely that wouldn’t be enough. But then they saw Shield Spiders scuttling across the ground behind them! The Fortress Beavers braced, but it was not the beavers that the Shield Spiders had come to slay. The scuttling grew louder as all sides heard the sounds from in the cave grew louder. There was a shriek, an inhuman noise that no animal would make either.

The Crelers had come. They poured out of the cave and the Fortress Beavers slapped their tails and chattered in fury. The battle was joined as Mrsha howled in alarm and Apista and the healing slime charged the creatures. It was a thin line of Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders that rushed to meet them, but they were not alone! To her astonishment, the Gnoll saw more Shield Spiders pouring out of other pits, crawling across the grassland, drawn by some unknown message between their comrades. They set upon the Crelers, ignoring the Fortress Beavers, biting and clawing at the horrific things.

Mrsha understood as she saw the whirling bundles of legs and fangs turn and attack the large spiders. The Crelers bit into the armored shells of the spiders, tearing them apart, fighting the Shield Spiders as the massive Fortress Beavers tried to bite and pound them into submission. This wasn’t about predator and prey, this wasn’t about sides! The Crelers were a threat to all species!

They had not been born of this world. Not like animals. They had not sprung into being. They had been created, and they were malice and death. Mrsha understood that in a flash, connected by her tenuous bond with the animals. They had to be stopped. She saw the healing slime engulf another Creler and then Apista stabbing at a second one as a Fortress Beaver tried to smash it onto the ground.

The Creler leapt and bit the beaver’s throat. As the huge furry defender fell it turned towards Apista. This time the young Ashfire Bee was too slow to fly back and the Creler bore Apista to the ground with a powerful leap. It fought Apista as the Ashfire Bee grappled with it on the ground. The Creler was biting, tearing with all its claws and pincers! It was going to kill Apista! Mrsha didn’t realize she was running until her wand was stabbing into the Creler’s back.

The earth remembers. Call it out, diversify. Change what is, shape it to what it must be. Tell the earth what could happen. Combine memory and thought.

Make it grow.

Mrsha cast the spell. Grass shot up from the patch of earth around the Creler as Apista struggled free. The bee crept away, bleeding, as Mrsha held her wand in place. Bright green tendrils of grass snaked around the Creler as it turned towards her, weaving around its legs, its body.

The grass grew in a spurt around the Creler, weaving together, snaring it, pulling it down towards the ground. Surprised, the Creler scuttled at Mrsha, but she held her concentration. The grass tightened around the Creler as it fought to break free, holding it against the ground. It struggled there, helpless, as Mrsha staggered backwards.

The world greyed out and Mrsha fell backwards. She felt like the life had been sucked out of her. She saw a dim shape, and saw Apista crawling towards her. Her trustworthy companion had been savaged; she was bleeding from her abdomen, her sides. She crawled onto Mrsha’s hand as the Gnoll closed her eyes. They lay together as the darkness consumed Mrsha and the sounds of battle raged around her.

 

—-

 

And then Mrsha woke up. She felt a wet sensation on her face and sat up suddenly. The heavy gelatinous mass slid off and Mrsha got a glimpse of a bright blue glowing form, and saw the healing slime slide away. She stared at it and then looked around wildly. Apista, where was—

The Ashfire Bee flew onto Mrsha’s head and clung to her! The Gnoll, stunned, stared at the bee and then looked around. She saw devastation in the cave, blood, broken body parts, and the Crelers.

They were all dead. The alliance of spiders and beavers had won, if barely. Mrsha saw Fortress Beavers and the carcasses of Shield Spiders strewn about the cave. And yet, more were on their feet and moving about then she would have imagined. Mrsha stared at the unhurt beavers and spiders and then realized who was responsible. The healing slime rolled towards a beaver that was missing a leg and engulfed the bleeding stump. The beaver stopped bleeding. The leg did not regrow, but the beaver seemed to visibly perk up. It turned around and licked the slime and the healing slime rolled away.

The healing slime. Mrsha approached it and the slime retreated warily. She waited and it rolled back. Mrsha gently patted the slime and the slime engulfed her paw and then let go. She looked around the cave and saw countless beady eyes on her. The Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers stared at Mrsha and there was something intelligent in their eyes.

Intelligent, yes. Thoughtful—no. Mrsha saw no words in the eyes of the animals and spiders. But as some of the beavers surrounded her and began to groom her fur, Mrsha realized something.

Fortress Beavers could think. The slime could think. The Shield Spiders…well, Mrsha got more simplistic thoughts out of them. But they were wise enough to avoid a second battle in the wake of the war. They left, carrying their dead, as the Fortress Beavers reclaimed their cave. They began to tear apart the Crelers with their claws, not to eat, but to make sure not a hint of life remained in any of them. And they made sure to destroy the eggs as well.

The eggs. They were bright orange and red and contained swimming shapes within the dusky orbs. They had been laid in the bodies of the dead Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders. Ruthlessly, the beavers smashed each one. Mrsha stared as a lone Creler egg rolled towards her. She picked it up and stared around the cave.

This had been a battle. An actual battle. Mrsha stared at the magic slime, at Apista, looking fierce and triumphant, and at the Fortress Beavers grimly reclaiming their home and pushing their dead out. She felt triumphant and tired. She was done playing. She wanted to go back home.

And so it was that Mrsha the Great and Terrible, hero of the Battle of the Cave, left the Fortress Beavers and the healing slime behind. It seemed content to roll about the caves and it apparently liked the dead Crelers enough to keep eating them. Mrsha hoped it would survive. But as for herself, she was going home. She walked back proudly to the inn, bearing the spoils of her travels with her.

“And where have you been?”

Erin propped her hands on her hips as Mrsha walked into the inn just in time for dinner. The Gnoll guiltily avoided Erin’s look. Erin peered at her suspiciously and then sniffed.

“Eurgh! You smell awful, Mrsha! Did you fall into the outhouse? Lyonette, we’re going to need to give Mrsha a bath!”

“Us too!”

Jelaqua raised her hand. The Selphid was covered in dirt, as was Moore and Seborn. They were tired, but happy. They’d found their diggers and done a lot of digging themselves, apparently. Mrsha padded over to them, noting the blackened spot of floorboards in front of the kitchen. She wondered if they’d put the fire out.

“Beans are a wonderful extinguisher for magical fires. I learned that today. Also, we’re out of beans. I’m definitely not serving the ones we burnt on the fire and I really hope they don’t grow.”

Erin announced this to the room as she carried out a pot of macaroni and cheese for the hungry adventurers and Mrsha. The Gnoll sat happily at the table with the Halfseekers, thinking it was about time that she joined their ranks. Moore smiled at Mrsha.

“Did you have a good day, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll nodded. She began placing her treasures on the table. Jelaqua laughed as she leaned over to look.

“What’s that? Oh, you’ve been outside, have you? Let’s see, you’ve got a lovely flower, an empty potion bottle—where’d you get that, then? And an egg. Huh. What’s that?”

She stared at the orange, translucent egg with a frown. Moore and Seborn leaned over too as Mrsha rolled the egg towards the Selphid. Jelaqua frowned as she stared at the egg and then her eyes widened.

Dead gods!

She flipped the table as she leapt to her feet with a shout. Erin watched her pot of macaroni fly everywhere. She stared at Mrsha. Mrsha stared around the inn as Seborn stomped on the Creler egg. She thought about the future and what it might hold. Every eye turned towards her. Erin folded her arms. Mrsha slid from her chair at the table and gave everyone her best, most innocent smile.

Then she ran for it.

 

—-

 

One last detail. As Mrsha, the Great and Very-Much-In-Trouble fled from the inn with Lyonette, Erin, and the Halfseekers pursing her, a predator of the skies took wing. A Razorbeak, a massive avian similar to a pterodactyl with sharp claws and sharper teeth flew overhead. It was known to Erin as a Dino-Bird, and as it spotted the small Gnoll it began to dive.

It was a large creature, bigger than an eagle and fully capable of grabbing the Gnoll and lifting her up into the air where it would happily tear her apart. It dove as Mrsha hid from Lyonette behind the crest of a hill, beak pointed at the Gnoll’s back, talons outstretched—

An arrow pierced it through the chest. Surprised, the Razorbeak had only time for a strangled squawk before it fell. It landed dead on the ground and Bird lowered his bow and hummed his song.

Birds, birds, I shoot birds. Because I am Birds. La, la, birds…

It was the eighth bird he’d killed in the last hour, and all thanks to Mrsha. Bird nodded happily as he mentally marked the spot where the Razorbeak had fallen for picking up later. He watched as Mrsha disappeared behind the crest of a hill, pursued by the angry adults.

She’d been going out a lot today. He wondered if he should have stopped her, especially given that she was so young. But she had a wand and that meant she was a [Mage]. And mages could defend themselves, right? Bird happily went back to waiting for the next bird to try to carry Mrsha off.

Life was good.

 

—-

 

[Beast Tamer Level 6!]

[Gardener Level 3!]

[Mage Level 2!]

[Conditions Met: Mage → Druid Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Gardener removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Beast Tamer removed.]

 

[Druid Level 2!]

[Skill – Spell: Wild Growth obtained!]

[Skill Change – Wild Affinity → Peace of the Wild!]

[Skill – Peace of the Wild obtained!]

 

Mrsha woke up in the middle of the night. She rubbed at her sore bottom, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. And thus the tale of Mrsha the Great and Terrible ended.

For now.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.04

The Floodplains of Liscor. So named because of the valley that had been formed between the High Passes, one of the two routes between northern Izril and southern Izril. At least, for most of the year. For two months out of the twelve, the floodplains would fill up with water as the spring rains poured down. All but the highest hills would be engulfed in water until the rains stopped and the water drained. It was an annual process, a well-known feature of Liscor.

“I had no idea. I mean, I know they’re called the Floodplains, but I guess I just assumed it was a weird name. I didn’t know that this happened, you know?”

Erin was still in a state of shock. She stared hopefully at the young woman across the counter. Octavia looked up as she painstakingly made a bunch of matches. She was leaning over a bowl filled with red liquid, dipping wooden sticks into the bowl and attaching the wet matches to a small device she was rotating with her other hand.

“I knew that. Even I know what happens in Liscor.”

“Even you?”

Erin stared in shock at Octavia. The dark-skinned Stitch-Girl shrugged.

“Yeah, it’s common knowledge. It rains in Liscor and trade ceases for two months out of the year. Big deal. So what?”

Erin was speechless. It seemed like a big deal to her, but then, Octavia had lived here her entire life.

“You don’t think that’s cool or weird or—I dunno, special?”

“Eh, it’s water, Erin. I never planned on going to Liscor in my life. Maybe past it, but—look, would you move back? This mixture is flammable and I don’t feel safe with you hovering about.”

The [Alchemist] shooed Erin back a step or two as she continued dipping the set of match sticks into the bowl. Erin watched, keeping a respectful distance although she resented the implication that she could make the matches catch fire by breathing on them. For a few minutes she just watched Octavia make matches.

It was a fascinating process. Octavia had created a red liquid she was dipping a series of uniform sticks into. This was the liquid form of the match heads and the [Alchemist] had to rotate the matches to prevent the matches from dripping. She’d managed to create a turnable ‘wheel’ of sorts she used to dry the match heads but as she’d explained to Erin, it was an involved process.

“I’m trying to figure out how to air-dry them without the match heads dripping. That way I’ll be able to triple my output if I don’t have to manage them. I can get up to fifty boxes done each day if I work at it with my other projects, but I’d like to be able to do up to three hundred without any effort eventually.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of work.”

Erin stared at the neat little wooden boxes that Octavia had filled with the matches. She’d wrapped each bundle of matches in wax paper to avoid the heads rubbing against each other or the box and igniting. Octavia nodded proudly, showing Erin a line of boxes ready to be sold.

“I’m making money hand over stitch thanks to these things! True, anyone with a fire spell can light something, but how many people don’t know fire magic? And this is so much easier to carry about than a flint and steel—and a lot more fun, too! I’ve got [Traders] and [Merchants] asking how many I can make.”

She paused and pursed her lips.

“A lot of [Alchemists] want to know my recipe as well. I’ve tried to make sure they can’t get their hands on my formula, but it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out my secrets! I want to flood the market before that. And of course I have a lot of potions I’m making with all the gold! Take a look at this!”

She showed Erin a crate of bottles, each one labeled and filled to the brim with glowing, or sparkling liquids. Erin whistled.

“Ooh. That’s so cool.”

“And don’t touch! Some of those are dangerous!”

Octavia slapped Erin’s hand away. She protectively edged in front of Erin, guarding her precious wares. It wasn’t often that Erin hung out in Octavia’s shop these days, but the [Alchemist] clearly didn’t trust her any more than she had when Erin was experimenting with her magical cooking.

“I have to deliver this to that scary Gnoll [Shopkeeper] of yours and I don’t want my first delivery to be delayed! Thanks for telling me about the rain, though. I’ll have to cover my matches so they don’t get wet.”

Erin blinked at the crate and the bag that Octavia was busy stuffing her wares into.

“Wait, are you going to Liscor? You never leave your shop!”

The Stitch-Girl snorted.

“I leave sometimes. For food and ingredients and…stuff. And I’m not going into Liscor, what, do you think I’m crazy? I’m not ducking those giant Crab Rocks or whatever you call them. No, I’ll leave my potions and matches in your inn. That Gnoll lady said she’ll send a Street Runner to pick them up. Just show them where it is, okay? And no touching!”

She waved a match stick at Erin. The [Innkeeper] frowned as she studied Octavia.

“Wait, so you’re going to bring your goods to Liscor through my inn.”

Octavia didn’t look up as she dipped more matches.

“That’s right.”

“And you’re going to sell them through Krshia, who I introduced you to.”

“Yep. She gets a cut and I get a cut. Apparently Liscor imports most of its potions from Pallass. Hah! I can beat the [Alchemists] with my prices since I don’t have to ship them a few hundred miles! Plus, my matches haven’t been seen in Liscor yet. Even with that damned Gnoll’s cut I bet I’ll turn more of a profit this week!”

“Uh huh. And the matches were my idea. Mine and Ryoka’s since she told you how they were made.”

“Well yeah, but I had to figure out the exact formula. Phosphorous? Heh, that’s not nearly as combustive as powdered Corusdeer Horns and some Fire Beetle shells…”

Octavia smiled to herself as she plucked a dried match from her drying wheel and poked at the head. Satisfied, she transferred it to a box of completed matches. Erin nodded, watching the [Alchemist] work. Then she dropped her bomb.

“Shouldn’t I get paid for all this then?”

The Stich-Girl dropped one of the matches into her bowl. Cursing, she grabbed at it, tossed it into a bin at her feet, and then gave Erin a fish-eye. Erin smiled sweetly as she leaned over Octavia’s counter. The [Alchemist] stared at her and then gave her a big and not-entirely-genuine smile.

“Erin, Erin, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

“I guess.”

The [Alchemist] sidled up to Erin, putting her arm around Erin’s shoulder. She squeezed tightly, smiling like a used car salesman selling her most corroded piece of junk.

“Of course we are! You and me, we go way back. We’re practically sisters! Well, I think of you that way. You’re an [Innkeeper], I’m an [Alchemist]—but we do the same things! Remember when you made all those magical dishes in my shop? Great times! And remember how I was encouraging you the entire time?”

“Nope.”

“Erin, it’s all in the past now. I know we had our differences, but I am so grateful—did I mention how grateful I am?—so grateful that you are helping me grow my business. And I know it’s a small imposition that you let me work through your magical door—which I’ve installed in my shop by the way, just because you asked. I still haven’t fixed my front wall, you know. It gets drafty at night…”

“I paid for that.”

“And so you did! But Erin, business is one thing and I’m a small-time [Alchemist]—I hardly have my head above water most days. Hah, water, it’s a heck of a thing isn’t it? Imagine Liscor flooding all the time? Well, I’m sure you see my predicament, but I want you to know that I care, and so I can give you uh, these potions as a sign of friendship.”

Octavia eyed her shelves and grabbed a few bottles. She pushed them into Erin’s hands.

“I insist, a token of our friendship!”

She was smiling desperately and a slight sheen of sweat covered her forehead. Erin, smiling as well, looked at the bottles.

“As much as I’d like a stamina potion, hair-regrowth tonic and…ooh, one of Ryoka’s stink potions, I think I want an actual deal, Octavia.”

“Okay? Okay…we can deal.”

Octavia looked wary, but she immediately grabbed a seat and dusted it off for Erin. She gave the young woman another big smile.

“What were you thinking? A monthly convenience fee? How about we talk about it over dinner? My treat? We could go for a, uh, a deal where I give you six—no, twelve match boxes each week? And a potion?”

Erin declined to sit. Instead she loomed—just a tiny bit—and gave Octavia one of the scary grins she’d seen Ryoka give other people.

“That’s one idea. But how about this? A non-negotiable surcharge on every match box made and a copyright fee as well as a fee for using my door and a finder’s charge for introducing you to Krshia and storing your goods in my inn, which also adds a protection fee, a delivery fee, a storage fee, and city taxes, since Liscor is importing the goods from Celum.”

Erin was no businessperson and she had no idea what she’d actually said, just that it sounded complicated and expensive. Anyways, it didn’t matter. Erin could say something entirely stupid so long as she delivered her lines with the right attitude. And the result was impressive—Octavia went dead white. She gaped at Erin for a moment and began speaking rapidly.

“Look, Erin, let’s not be hasty! I mean, you’re a businesswoman and I—we don’t have to do this! We’re friends! Why, I’m sure we can strike a deal that’s not this harsh! Did I insult you with the potions? Let me take them back! Forgotten! Let’s try again, and why don’t I buy you a drink and dinner? Five drinks? Come on Erin, don’t throw me under the wagon, have a heart—”

She looked so desperate that Erin couldn’t help but laugh. She spread her arms as Octavia stared at her.

“Kidding! I’m not that much of a jerk.”

The [Alchemist] sagged against her counter, weak-kneed with relief.

“Dead gods, Erin, don’t do that! Do you know how worried I was?”

“Well, now you know how I feel every time you try to con me. Besides, I have a point which is why you got nervous.”

Erin smiled triumphantly. Octavia grumbled and kicked at an empty bottle lying on the floor. It sailed across the shop and shattered loudly. The [Alchemist] winced.

“Okay, point. I guess I owe you something. But Erin, this is my livelihood!”

“Which is doing better thanks to me. I’m not asking for much, Octavia. And remember, I’ve got all kinds of cool ideas. But my inn needs money since I have Goblins in it and apparently that’s a bad thing. We can deal, but equally, okay?”

Octavia sighed.

“Goblins. I forgot about them. No wonder no one’s asked to go to your inn for a week now. I did wonder, but they must have slipped my mind. Fine, we can talk gold.”

“I don’t need much. And I won’t charge you for doing business, but some money for my ideas each week would be nice. Say two coppers for every gold coin?”

Erin saw Octavia brighten and waggled a finger.

“But I do want some matches for myself! For free, Octavia. I’ll give you new ideas, too. That’s worth all the gold you can bargain for. When you finally figure out that penicillin stuff you’ll be really rich, trust me!”

“That will take a while. Those molds are hard to figure out. And Erin, some of your ideas are good, but there is no way I can make an anti-gravity potion because you thought it would be ‘cool’. I need ideas that are real, not imaginary.”

Octavia grumbled as she went behind her counter. For all she moaned about coin, she was surprisingly good-natured and Erin pocketed a handful of gold and silver coins and came away with several matchboxes and two potions. She let the [Alchemist] complain about unfair business practices as she lugged her crate of potions and matches into her inn and then opened the door to Octavia’s shop.

“I’m going into the city, Octavia! Don’t be scared if you see Goblins and tell Lyonette to keep Mrsha away from your stuff!”

“Wait, they’re wandering about? Where are—aaah!

The Stitch-Girl spotted one of the Redfang Goblins heading down the stairs and ran screaming for the doorway. Erin shook her head as Rabbiteater stared at Octavia brandishing a potion at him. It would be fine—Lyonette could sort it out, Erin was sure. Probably.

She turned and strode out the doorway, confident that Octavia would either bargain for her life or start selling matches to Goblins. Octavia was all very well, but a deal with her was small potatoes compared to what Erin had in mind. The [Innkeeper] walked through Celum, staring at the Humans walking past her.

“It’s not raining! Huh, I guess the storm’s only around Liscor.”

It really was amazing. If Erin turned her head she could see dark clouds in the horizon to the south, right where Liscor was. But she’d come a hundred miles north to Celum in a single bound. And she could go to Pallass, which was five hundred miles south of here from her inn! The possibilities of her door were endless. As were the dangers. But that wasn’t what mattered now. What mattered was…

“Goblins.”

Erin sighed as she walked down the street. Several of the people around her gave her strange looks. Celum had heard about Erin’s Hobgoblin population and they had likewise boycotted her inn. Erin hadn’t cared about that as much as Liscor, but now she did. Her Goblins were a problem? Well, they’d be an even bigger problem after this! She was nearly at the Runner’s Guild when she heard a voice shouting angrily behind her.

Turn, hellhound, turn!

The voice was male, authoritative, and echoed down the street. Erin whirled around, grinning. She saw a man dressed in bright clothing pointing at her as all the pedestrians on the street turned to see who had shouted.

The man lowered his hand and strode down the street towards her, a broad smile set on his face. Wesle had changed markedly since Erin had first met him. Where he had once been a competent if slightly resigned low-level [Guardsman] in service to Celum he was now a confident [Actor]. He now led the troupe of actors in Celum the first of their kind with his leading co-star, Jasi.

“Wesle! Just the guy I was looking for!”

Erin walked over and hugged Wesle. He smiled down at her, and his voice was deeper and more resonant than she remembered when he replied.

“It seems I have impeccable timing, then! I was just walking down the street for a bite to eat when I saw you leaving Miss Octavia’s shop! What brings you into Celum? And do you have time to talk with a humble [Actor] such as myself?”

“Of course! You’re one of the reasons why I’m here! I want your help and I have a cool offer for you and Jasi and all the other [Actors]—I was going to the Runner’s Guild first, but now that I think of it, you’re better. Let’s get to one side and chat, okay?”

They were in the middle of the street and Erin was wary of rogue wagons, especially after what had happened to Ryoka on these same streets months ago. Wesle stroked at his clean-shaved lips and chin.

“We can certainly do that, but it ah, might be better to step inside somewhere. I think we’ll attract a crowd if we linger outside.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

Erin turned and saw to her amazement that a crowd of onlookers had already gathered around Wesle. She saw a young woman push forwards, a [Baker] or a baker’s apprentice by the looks of her. She had eyes only for Wesle.

“Mister Salkis, I’m such a huge fan. I know you must be busy, but could you possibly spare the time to…?”

She blushed and pushed back her sleeve. Wesle gave Erin an apologetic glance and then gave her and the crowd a huge smile.

“Of course! What is your name, mistress?”

“Colina, sir.”

The young woman blushed. Wesle pulled something out of his pocket with a flourish and Erin blinked as she saw a piece of black chalk or—was it charcoal? The tip looked almost wet as Wesle unwrapped it from some waxy paper. He gently pressed it to the young [Baker]’s arm and to Erin’s astonishment, began to sign his name!

“Well then Miss Colina, I am delighted to meet you. What play do you enjoy the most, pray tell?”

“Oh, Hamlet, sir! When I saw you on stage, calling your uncle a false [King], well, I—it was incredible. And that line you delivered just now! I know Sir Macduff always performs it and it’s Mister Pralcem who plays the part, but I would so love to see you play his role as well!”

“An intriguing idea! Perhaps we’ll mix up the roles next time. Thank you for your support, Miss Colina.”

Wesle smiled and the young woman nearly fainted with embarrassment and pleasure. He turned, the charcoal in his hands.

“Anyone else?”

There was a chorus of voice. Erin saw the people line up and Wesle went from person to person, signing arms, hands, and a cheek! The people beamed as he spoke with them. When it was done Wesle walked towards Erin, looking pleased and slightly apologetic.

“Let’s hurry inside somewhere before another group finds us. It’s not always I get stopped, but once someone asks…the Runner’s Guild will keep them away.”

He hurried with Erin towards the Runner’s Guild. There too Wesle’s face instantly drew attention. A [Receptionist] hurried forwards, beaming at him, and when Wesle requested a private room he immediately got it—despite not being a Runner and much faster than Ryoka had when she’d asked.

There was even the cheese platter. Erin sat across from Wesle as he signed the [Receptionist]’s palm. He smiled at her, embarrassed, and she shook her head when they were alone.

“Wesle, you’re a star! When did this happen?”

Wesle flushed and stroked his lips where his mustache used to be.

“I don’t know about a star, Miss Erin. I feel like I’m a [King] in his court sometimes, but it’s all flash and show, it really is. As for when it started happening, well, it began about a month ago. We’d been putting on plays each night when we started getting requests to go to other cities and put on a performance for the [Mayor] and well, people started coming up to us on the streets after that and saying how moving they thought our acting was.”

He looked happy, red-faced, and excited all at the same time. Erin just grinned at him.

“Wow. Look at you! I knew the plays were cool, but—just wow!”

“We owe it all to you.”

Wesle bowed his head slightly. Erin waved it away, feeling embarrassed herself. She had been the one to come up with the idea and then teach Wesle and the others a play, but she could never have dreamed it would turn into something like this! He was an actual celebrity, and somehow, without her involvement he had already begun signing autographs and having groupies follow him around.

Some things were the same across worlds. Erin sat forwards in her seat and talked around a piece of gooey brie cheese on a cracker.

“Okay, tell me. What’s with the charcoal? You sign your name with that? On people’s bodies, not paper?”

“Paper? Most folk can’t afford paper. Although I have signed parchment for some of them. They keep it as mementoes. And we can’t walk around with a quill and inkpot, so one of the [Alchemists] in the city made this up for us. It’s sticky and makes a mess, but it shows up well.”

Wesle offered the bit of charcoal to Erin. She touched it and found it was more like an oil-based marker than actual charcoal. She drew a smiley face on her arm and Wesle raised his eyebrows.

“What’s that?”

“A smiley. You should draw one on the next person! I bet it’s easier than a signature. And you could have your own special symbol, you know?”

Erin showed Wesle a few more symbols from her world and he was stunned.

“Once again you have new ideas Miss Erin that…well, it’s always something wondrous with you. We—the Players of Celum we’re calling ourselves for now—owe you a huge debt. Jasi and Grev talk of you all the time and if you could spare the time we’d love to have you meet our troupe. We’ve taken on a lot of new [Actors] since we started and we now have our own warehouse to practice in. Hah, we’ve had to hire [Guards] and [Mercenaries] to keep people from watching us practice! It would mean the world if you visited.”

It was amazing to hear that the [Actors] had already become this successful. Erin shook her head again.

“Of course I’ll come! But I’m just a humble [Innkeeper]—”

“Nonsense!”

Wesle’s ringing denial was far grander than the acoustics of the room should have allowed. His pose was equally impressive—his body radiated a fierce refutation of Erin’s modesty. Was it one of his new Skills? He leaned over, giving Erin a look that was both genuine and serious.

“You, Miss Erin, are our patron and muse! We would never have started this without you and as I say, we owe you a great debt. We’ve put on plays in Ocre, Remendia, and Wales because of you and we’re thinking of travelling further abroad once we have enough [Actors] for two groups to perform at once. Not to mention, we’d love to know if you have more plays you could teach us.”

He coughed and winked at Erin. It was such a theatrical move that she burst out laughing.

“Not that there’s any shortage of [Writers] clamoring to have us perform plays they’ve come up with. Not just [Writers]—we’ve gotten submissions from countless members of the public already! None of it holds a candle to the stuff you’ve given us, mind, but we’ve been paid good coin to put on some performances other people want to see.”

“Amazing. And you’ll probably get more. I bet [Lords] and [Ladies] will want you to perform. Oh, Wesle, I’m so glad this is working out for you!”

Erin rose and hugged the man. He smiled at her.

“And to think it all started with a [Washer] and a [Guardsman] in an inn. That’s a play in itself and we may have to perform it sometime. But I talk too much now, don’t I? Why did you want to see me, Miss Erin? Anything we can do, anything at all…”

“Well, I was actually hoping you’d say that! I’m in a bit of a pickle you see. I haven’t been in Celum for a long time because I’ve had so much to do. Have you heard about it?”

Wesle grew serious and once again reached for his shaved mustache. That habit hadn’t changed at least.

“I did, Miss Erin. I saw some of it, or pieces at least. That business with the false Named Adventurer, the tragic death of that Gold-rank adventurer and Gnoll…Zel Shivertail himself coming north and falling in battle…and now I hear your inn is hosting Goblins.”

Erin shook her head, her joy fading as she recalled all the trials of the last few months.

“It’s always hosted Goblins, Wesle. Only now people are scared and my inn’s suffering. I’m actually in a bad spot financially. So I was going to ask—this is really difficult, but—”

“Say no more.”

A finger raised towards Erin’s lips. Wesle shook his head as he leaned across the table.

“We’d be the most wretched of ingrates if we didn’t offer you what we’ve earned, Miss Erin. You never asked for a cut of our profits and you deserve it for teaching us the plays, let alone giving us our classes! We can offer you quite a lot of gold—I’d have to ask Jasi how much we earn per week, but we could give you at least—”

“Wesle, I don’t need donations!”

Erin cut him off, laughing with relief. Wesle blinked.

“You don’t? But see here, Miss Erin—”

“If you want to give me some money that’s great and I’ll accept. I’m not going to say I can’t use it. But I don’t need you to give me money for nothing. Actually, I wanted something a bit more from you that I really hope you’ll agree to. Listen—”

The young woman sat forwards on the edge of her seat and Wesle did likewise. His eyes widened as Erin explained her idea and he frowned, but within minutes he was nodding and pacing around the room excitedly.

“That can work! Of course it can! Just the other day Kilkran—he’s one of our new [Actors], a man you haven’t met. A former [Blacksmith], but a voice that could shake the rafters of a barn, I’ll swear! He was saying that we needed to think about the long-term. And this idea is perfect!”

“You don’t think it’ll drive away business? It’s a risk, Wesle.”

Erin warned the man, wanting him to be clear on what he was agreeing to. Wesle dismissed her concerns with one shake of the head.

“Business? We could divide our troupe and still earn enough for all of us to live on. Besides, this is better. This is right. And if you think this will stop people from watching us—hah! The power of the stage will draw them in, Miss Erin. Just you wait! I don’t want to speak for everyone of course, but I can’t think that any of the original cast will say no, and the new [Actors] will come round once they know all you’ve done for us!”

“Well, I’m relieved. If you want to tell them, I can settle things in the Runner’s Guild. Or maybe you can help me? I think they’d believe it if you said it.”

“Of course. And we must have a drink at your inn as well, Erin. That is to say Miss—”

“Erin!”

She laughed and Wesle laughed too.

“You kept telling me that before as well. All this business about your magical door and the Goblins sound incredibly difficult. I wish you’d come to us months ago, or that we’d known you needed help!”

Erin shook her head.

“You guys had to do your own thing! You’re stars; and I didn’t have as much trouble until Zel and…well, and Pallass. Those jerks are making stuff difficult but I’ll win in the end! And think of this, Wesle! With my door you guys don’t have to just go to Human cities! You could put on a show in Liscor and even Pallass!”

She looked at Wesle. His eyes widened.

“A Walled City? But that would be—dead gods, could we do it?”

“First Liscor, then the world! I bet the Drakes and Gnolls would love you! But let’s do this first. Okay?”

Erin headed down the stairs with Wesle and the [Receptionists] and Runners in the Guild looked up.

“Mister Salkis!”

One of the [Receptionists] hurried forwards and Erin smiled. Wesle’s last name was Salkis apparently, and it seemed like everyone was too shy to call him by his first name. Wesle greeted the woman and explained Erin’s idea. The [Receptionist]’s eyes went wide and she took a step back.

“But—well, of course we can spread the word, Mister Salkis. But you’re sure? You’re going to—I mean, there are rumors—”

She stared at Erin who folded her arms.

“Hey! I’m standing right here, you know!”

The older woman blushed and Wesle bowed slightly. His voice could be heard at the back of the room as he replied.

“Miss Bellia, I can assure you we will be perfectly safe. Safer, in fact, which is the point of this little announcement. Now, I have to get to my troupe, but please send the bill to us. And if Miss Erin has anything else she needs done…”

He looked at Erin expectantly. She hesitated.

“Is Fals here? Or Garia? Has anyone seen Ryoka?”

The [Receptionist] shook her head, her brow creasing when Erin mentioned Ryoka’s name. The Runner’s Guild in Celum still hadn’t forgotten the incident with the Frost Faeries.

“They’re all out on deliveries in other cities, Miss Solstice. Well, I can’t speak for Miss Griffin. Shall I ask them to call on you when they arrive in Celum next?”

“Please. I haven’t seen them in a while.”

The woman nodded and Erin strolled out of the front door with Wesle. He was smiling at her. She peered at him suspiciously?

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that life is never dull when you’re around, Erin. I think I’ve had enough excitement and then you turn up.”

“Well, I do like interesting stuff. I’ll go back to the inn, Wesle. Meet you later?”

His eyes twinkled. Wesle took a step back in the street and swept Erin a dramatic bow that drew all eyes to him once again.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We’ll be there.”

He strode off. Erin watched him go, shaking her head and smiling.

“What a showoff.”

She thought it suited him perfectly. Humming, Erin walked back to Octavia’s shop, a spring in her step. Everything was going according to plan! Now, there was just one last step.

 

—-

 

“It’s perfect.”

Erin breathed the words that night. She stared around her inn, stared at the Humans crowding around one side of it where the tables had been shoved aside, stared at the Redfang Goblins, and stared at the bit of cloth she’d been writing on all day. Lyonette peered at Headscratcher.

“It’s insane, Erin. Even for you, this idea is crazy. It’ll never work!”

“It’ll totally work! It has to work! It’s already working! It’s the most amazing idea I’ve come up with yet! Lyonette, this is going to blow people’s minds!”

Erin waved her hands over her head excitedly. Lyonette shook her head, but she couldn’t help smiling in amazement.

“It’s something alright. But do you really think Watch Captain Zevara and that guy from Pallass will like it?”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t hear her. Erin looked around her inn and strode over to the group of Humans at the far wall. The Players of Celum turned to greet her. They were all dressed up, some wearing face paint or other cosmetics, others dressed as [Guards], the nobility, wearing swords at their hilts or practicing fencing with dulled blades. Two, a Drake and a young boy, turned as Erin approached and exclaimed.

“Erin!”

“Jasi! Grev!”

Erin hugged first the young Drake woman and then the boy. Jasi and Grev had both changed as well. Gone was the young timid Drake that Erin had met in Liscor. Jasi had been bit by the acting bug and if she wasn’t as flamboyant as Wesle, she had an inner poise of her own. She dominated space despite her small frame.

Grev looked better too. His thin frame had filled out and he was wearing good, new clothes. He was also helping set up props at the far wall.

“Erin, it’s been so long! I’m so glad to see you again! When Wesle ran in and told us you want us to perform here, I was overjoyed!”

Jasi gushed as she held up her arms to let one of the other actors attach shimmering crystal bracelets around her. They were magical and radiated a chill, but Jasi seemed used to the cold. Erin smiled at her.

“Thanks for doing this, really.”

“We should be thanking you! This is the least we can do. And we’ll be happy to perform here as many nights as you want! It’s so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it—here we are trying to find the best place to perform and you have your own inn! After we left Miss Agnes’ inn on bad terms we kept bouncing from place to place without remembering you!”

Jasi gestured around The Wandering Inn, her bracelets catching the light and glittering. Erin laughed.

“I didn’t either! But isn’t this a good idea?”

“The best.”

Wesle strode up to them, dressed in a woodcutter’s outfit. He looked entirely like a rustic outdoorsman, sinking in to his role with ease. He gestured around Erin’s inn, at the tables she’d pushed to one side to give the actors room.

“This is a big inn as well. We need all the space we can get—I wager we’ll fill this inn every night after this first one. My word on it!”

Erin nodded, hoping that would be the case. She looked at the other actors as they bustled about. This was her big plan. Her inn was starved for coin and company, so why not bring the most successful and popular show in Celum here? She hadn’t known if Wesle and the others would agree despite his promises, but they had shown up enthusiastic and early. Now the stage manager, a heavy, short woman, bustled up.

“Miss Solstice? We’d like to attach some [Light] spells to the rafters. They’ll fade away soon, but for the snow it’s all about lighting you see.”

“Oh, go ahead! Just watch out when you cast the spells—my inn’s charged with mana so things will get really bright! Other spells too—they get bigger, apparently.”

“Really? That’s—wonderful!”

The woman brightened. She turned and shouted at a [Mage] and two [Actors] fussing in one corner of the room. As she hurried to them waving her arms and explaining, Wesle leaned over.

“That’s Emme, our stage manager. She loves the stage though there’s fewer parts for someone of her height. She’s often the lower half of an animal or a moving prop—she likes this play because she can have a leading role. She’s got a bit of Dwarf blood in her.”

“Oh.”

Erin watched Emme gesturing at the ceiling and saw a bright ball of light appear. It shone, illuminating the entire stage and the [Actors] cried out in surprise. Grev shook his head as he popped up next to her.

“Magic inn, good food, and you know more plays. If Wesle wasn’t in makeup he’d kiss you, Miss Erin.”

Wesle turned red and Erin laughed as the man raised a mock-threatening fist and Grev skipped around Jasi. He turned back to Erin.

“We’ll bring you coin, have no fear, Erin! But that’s only half of your plan, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

Erin smiled slyly and looked back to where Headscratcher was standing awkwardly with Lyonette. Business and coin for her inn was one thing, but the real masterstroke of Erin’s plan was actually in the Redfang Warriors, or rather, the fact that they were standing in her inn with Humans about.

The Players of Celum walked warily around the five Hobs, but were too consumed by their tasks to stare. Much. They looked nervous, but Wesle, Erin, and Jasi had reassured them again and again that the Hobgoblins were no threat. But perhaps it was the special addition Erin had given each of the Hobgoblins that helped.

Each Hob was wearing an armband, nothing more than a white bit of cloth tied around their arm. It was nothing special, save for the single word emblazoned on each one. ‘Security’ had been written on each amband in big black letters. The Redfang Goblins poked at their armbands and stood around trying to look menacing, which wasn’t very hard given their natural aptitude in the field.

“Goblin bouncers. Or rather, Goblin guards for an inn. Break my legs, I never thought I’d see the like.”

Wesle shook his head as he saw Badarrow standing next to the door. The Hob looked grumpy, but also interested as he followed the Humans around with his eyes. He was clearly trying not to show it. Erin smiled.

“I offered them the job and you know what? They took it! I think they’re bored and I need more protection. And this way no one can say the Goblins are a threat because they’ll deal with any threats!”

It was the perfect plan. Erin had hit on it when Venim had suggested paying the Halfseekers to guard her inn. The Redfang Warriors would be out in the open, allowed to walk around as proud employees of her inn! And if people didn’t like it they could sit on five pins, because Erin was doing this. She turned back to Wesle.

“Are you sure you want to perform every night over here?”

He nodded.

“Absolutely. We had an ongoing contract with the inns in Celum to perform in each one night to night, but having a permanent place to perform is just as good. Better. We can store some of our props in the basement and this way half of our members won’t walk to the wrong inn on the other side of the city!”

“Not to mention, you have [Advanced Cooking]. Your inn serves better food than most of the ones in Celum and we do like good food after we perform.”

Jasi interjected. Grev was nodding as well.

“You have a big enough inn for us to perform in, and no one’s gonna interrupt the stage with them scary Goblins hanging out.”

He pointed to the Hobgoblins, clearly more at ease with them than the adults. Grev turned as a small white shape moved in the corner of his eye. He saw Mrsha staring at him until the Gnoll fled upstairs.

“And even if people don’t come right away, I have an audience for you. That way you’ll earn money, guaranteed.”

Erin was speaking to Wesle and Jasi. She’d actually made tonight’s show private, despite the news going up around Celum and Liscor at the moment. Despite this, the inn was packed. Erin pointed to the quiet audience of black and brown bodies. The Painted Soldiers and Workers sat quietly around their tables, eating from bowls and eying the popcorn in the middle of the tables. The Antinium had readily agreed to send enough guests to fill Erin’s inn. All the pieces had lined up as Erin had gone about her day.

Her only fear had been the Players of Celum balking from either the Hobs or the Antinium. It had seemed like they might at first, but Wesle had reassured them. However, they were eying the mass of silent watchers nervously. An older man or rather, an [Actor] dressed up as an older man wearing a [Lord]’s costume sidled up to Wesle and Jasi.

“We’re nearly ready to go, Wesle. But are you sure—?”

His eyes flicked to the Antinium silently. Wesle didn’t glance at Erin. He put his arm around the other [Actor] and gestured dismissively at the Antinium watching them. Erin resolved to buy some curtains tomorrow as soon as she could. For now they were using bed sheets for the scene changes.

“Relax, Esbell. They’re an audience, same as any other! They might not clap or gasp, but Erin tells me that’s normal. We do our show—our best performance! If you don’t have the guts to stand on stage in front of the Antinium, what will you do when you have a crowd of folk booing you and demanding their coin back?”

“Exactly. We’ll give them a show, and we’ll all level. There’s nothing like a new audience for that. Cheer up Esbell, you might get that [Loud Voice] Skill you wanted tonight!”

Jasi stepped forwards, her dress radiant. The [Actor] nodded and squared his shoulders. Erin saw the Players of Celum congregating around the backstage they’d set up, and then the bright [Light] spell dimmed overhead.

The play was beginning. Erin rubbed her hands, looking at the Antinium, the [Actors], at Lyonette and Ishkr serving tables, at Mrsha, stealing popcorn from a bowl, at the Redfang Warriors keeping an eye out but watching with interest, and at Octavia, sitting at a table at the front of the room and looking very confused.

It was all so wonderful Erin wanted to cry. This was it! This was it. She muttered to herself as she watched Wesle stride out on stage.

“You can stay away from the inn if you want, but if you want to see an amazing play every night you’d better get over yourselves and come here! And I have the best security! Hobgoblins! You make trouble and they’ll toss you out, even if you’re a Silver-rank team! I uh, think I’ll let Gold-rank teams cause trouble.”

She saw Wesle raise his hands and went silent. The man looked around the room, pausing a second for dramatic effect. Then he spoke.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! Antinium! Gnolls and Drakes, please, allow me to introduce the performance for tonight. We are the Players of Celum, here to bring you all a performance of the tale of Frozen. What follows is a tale of family and loss, magic and secrets, love and betrayal. We ask that you remain seated and do not speak during the performance. All that passes on this stage is an act—please do not attempt to interfere with the play. At this time, please put away any wands or magical artifacts that may interrupt the viewing experience for other watchers—”

Wesle stood on stage, his voice ringing, the lights shining on him, larger than life. Erin smiled as she saw Emme the part-Dwarf woman waddling around in what was meant to be an Olaf costume. Only in this world, the people’s idea of a Snow Golem was a lot less friendly looking!

It would be a great play. And the first of many. Erin turned her head and saw Bird peeking down the stairs.

“Bird, you don’t want to watch?”

“I will watch. But I like high places so I will sit here, Miss Erin.”

Bird perched on a higher step as the curtains drew back and a young girl appeared on stage. Not all of the Players of Celum were old, and the children took to acting with as much, if not more passion than the adults. Erin took a seat next to Bird.

“You’re not mad at me for hiring more guards?”

“Should I be? They are guards. That is important. They can guard the ground. I will guard us against birds and other threats from above.”

Bird replied calmly. Erin smiled at him. Jealousy didn’t seem to be an Antinium trait. She looked around, got up, and came back with a bowl of popcorn. She offered it to Bird.

“Popcorn?”

“Ah, bird bait. Yes, I will have some.”

The Antinium took a handful and crunched it down. Erin laughed as the play began and a model of a ship appeared on a blue background meant to be the sea. She wondered if Jasi’s magical bracelets actually shot snow or would just do magic tricks. And she wondered if her inn’s magical supply would make the effects more spectacular. Bird looked appreciatively at the play.

“I quite enjoy this. Is it over now that everyone has died at sea?”

Erin grinned.

“Oh, Bird. You’re so sweet. No, you haven’t seen anything yet. This is just the opening act. There’s more to come, I promise you. Lots more.”

Bird paused. He turned and looked at Erin. Then he smiled.

“Good.”

 

—-

 

“She did what?”

There wasn’t any surprise left in Zevara’s voice. She stared at the report Olesm had given her on Celum and then the more formal report from Klbkch. Olesm couldn’t help but smile as he showed Zevara the written details.

“She’s apparently hired the Hobgoblins as guards for her inn. And—get this, she’s invited a group of [Actors] from Celum to perform in her inn. Apparently they put on these wonderful, uh—”

“Plays. And she’s gotten the Antinium to watch them, and—oh yes, told everyone about it. Loudly.”

That was in the Olesm’s report. Celum’s Runner’s Guild had spread the word to Liscor and other local cities as well as told Runners to pass on this latest news: the Players of Celum would now perform exclusively at The Wandering Inn where they would be guarded by Hobgoblins and an Antinium no less. The inn was open to all species and prohibited violence against all guests. Admission was free but there was already talk of obtaining tickets to prevent overcrowding the limited space…Zevara paged through the report and shook her head.

“She’s insane, Olesm. Completely insane.”

“Well if she is, it’s a good kind of insane. If Erin gets support from Celum and Liscor, then even Pallass will have to acknowledge those Hobs aren’t a threat.”

The Drake pointed that out. Zevara shook her head.

“If only I believed that. But that’s not the only thing she’s done.”

“Oh?”

Olesm looked surprised. He hadn’t heard about the second point of news, which had been imparted to Zevara just minutes ago. She stared glumly at a second report. It was short, barely half a page, but it had a lot of underlined words.

“You’ll never guess what she did in the Adventurer’s Guild.”

“What?”

 

—-

 

There were some things Selys would do for friends, and then, there were things she’d only do for Erin, and only because she’d been talked into it. She stood on the second floor of the Adventurer’s Guild, holding a piece of parchment between her trembling claws. She whispered a few words before she knocked on the door.

“Oh, Ancestors.”

“Selys? Come in.”

Selys walked into the office of the Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild. Or rather, Guildmistress. Tekshia Shivertail, Selys’ grandmother, looked up from her desk. She and Selys were the only two people left in the guild at this hour.

“Hi Grandma, I just wanted to give this to you before I went home.”

The young Drake [Receptionist] nervously approached the desk. Tekshia sighed.

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“Well, I just got done writing it up so…here. I’ll see you tomorrow, grandma! Love you!”

The Drake put the piece of parchment on the desk. Tekshia frowned up at her, sensing Selys’ odd behavior.

“What’s this about, you scamp?”

Selys grinned and ran for it. Tekshia Shivertail stared at the application on her desk. It was a simple one, a standard request to form an authorized Bronze-rank team. The only curious thing was the name of the group and the five members applying for it.

“The Redfang Goblins. Members are Headscratcher, Badarrow, Rabbiteater, Numbtongue and Shorthilt. Exact levels unknown. Classes unknown. Four [Warriors] and an [Archer]. Species: Hobgoblin.”

The old Drake stared at the form. She stared at the doorway and listened to the sound of Selys’ running feet. Then she took a deep breath.

Selys!

 

—-

 

And then it was night. The [Actors] left in good spirits. The Antinium, who had given them a standing ovation for five minutes straight had gone, happily, if somewhat bloated on the popcorn they couldn’t quite digest. Erin understood it was a special snack given the Hive’s recent lack of conflict.

Lyonette was asleep. Mrsha was already passed out. Bird was upstairs…probably not asleep but happily sitting in the rain. The Redfang Goblins were in their rooms, pondering their new state of existence.

And Erin was happy. She knew she had caused a lot of trouble, not least for Zevara, but she felt it was worth it. Her inn had been filled tonight, and the Goblins were walking about in the open. It was a first step. An important step. It was what she could do so she lay in her mess of blankets and pillows in the corner of the kitchen and smiled to herself.

“I don’t need you to protect me, Zevara. The Goblins will do that.”

Her eyes closed. Erin listened to the drumming of the rain overhead. It was still raining, pouring, rather. She wondered if the Floodplains would fill up tomorrow or the day after. Or maybe…?

Her breathing slowed. Erin’s mind drifted off. She felt darkness, warm and soothing engulf her—

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 34!]

[Skill – Inn: Grand Theatre obtained!]

 

Gah!

Erin shot out of bed. She banged her head on the kitchen counter, stumbled out of the kitchen, swearing loudly and stopped. The common room of her inn was in front of her, empty, deserted as it should be. But it was not as it had been.

The common room. It had been large before, capable of holding a crowd. Now it stretched out in front of Erin, impossibly large for the dimensions of the inn. It was twice—no, perhaps three times as large as it had been? Erin couldn’t tell in the darkness. But it was vast, and at one end she could see the stage that the Players of Celum had set up. Erin stared around the common room, at the theatre hall ready for crowds. She blinked, raised her hands into the air and screamed.

“Whoo! Alright!

She danced about, shouting, until she heard a thump from overhead. Jelaqua shouted through the floorboards.

“Hey, we’re trying to sleep!

It was the first time Erin had ever heard the Selphid in a bad mood. Erin lay down in the middle of her common room, feeling small in the vast chamber. She grinned at the ceiling and listened to the rain fall for a while before she fell asleep.

 

—-

 

Drip.

There was one last thing. The rain fell across Liscor in unending droves, but it did not patter down in all places. In some locations there was simply no space for the rain to fall, and so it trickled down as water from above, landing on an invisible barrier overhead.

Drip.

The sound was loud. The water fell, splashing down and filling the underground chambers with sound. It was not nearly as loud as the screams or shrieks or sounds or combat that sometimes filled this place, but it had its own insistent, persistent ability to get in the head.

Drip, drip.

It was just noise, and it should have bothered very few people in this hour when almost all were asleep. And yet, it did bother one person. One being sat up, unable to ignore the sound. He could not sleep. And as the sound repeated itself, two purple flames brightened with annoyance in the empty chambers of his skull.

Drip.

Toren the skeleton looked up as he sat below the chasm leading up and out of Liscor’s dungeon. He stared at the invisible barrier keeping the water from crashing down over his head and gnashed his jaw furiously. He was getting really tired of hearing that sound. Yet the rain continued to fall and the skeleton moved.

Drip, drip, drip.

He reached down and picked up a mask lying next to him, regarded it once. Toren hesitated and then put it over his face. As she lowered her hand, Toren turned and drew her sword. The water dripped but didn’t bother her any longer. She grinned behind her mask.

It was her turn now.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.03

A light rain pattered down on the roof of The Wandering Inn. Rain, after so many weeks of snow. It was a pleasant sound, and reminded Erin of her world. After all, rain was rain. Some things were the same.

More than a few things, actually. Erin was in another world. A world full of monsters and magic, terrors and wonders. And yet, somehow Erin still found herself filling out forms. It was reassuring and slightly depressing to know that bureaucracy didn’t change across species.

And paying fines. That seemed weirdly familiar too. Not that Erin caused trouble when she’d been back in her world. Okay, maybe she’d gotten a few lectures about setting up lemonade stands inside a school cafeteria, but this?

Twenty six gold coins. In truth, Erin paid only eighteen gold coins as both Watch Captains had added in four gold coins from their pockets, but that was still a lot. The coins disappeared into a pouch at Watch Captain Venim’s side as he stood up.

“Paperwork’s done. I have the coins and I’ll slip this into the approved files tonight. We should see progress tomorrow morning. Watch Captain Zevara, I’ll leave things to you over here. Miss Solstice, I’d expect to receive a [Message] spell by way of Liscor within the week—two or three days from now if I’m a judge.”

Watch Captain Venim headed for the door and Erin got up. She replaced the mana stone attuned to Pallass and the Drake paused before stepping through.

“Thank you again for doing this, Miss Solstice. I apologize for the inconvenience and the fees.”

“Eh. I caused you a lot of trouble so there’s no hard feelings. It’s got to be hard running a Walled City, right?”

She smiled wearily. It was late—going to Pallass and her adventures there felt like a lifetime ago. Venim nodded with a rueful expression on his face.

“You have no idea. And your inn isn’t even the worst of the problems I have to deal with if you’ll believe that. At least it seems well-defended. I can tell the Assembly of Crafts that having a Gold-rank team present most of the time will deter anyone taking the door, including our own forces.”

“Don’t forget the five Hobs in my basement.”

Erin grinned. Venim’s smile slipped and vanished. He stopped, one hand on the door handle.

“Scale rot, I forgot. The Goblins.”

He covered his face with his claws. Erin’s smile disappeared as Venim walked back to confer with Zevara. The sense of relief in the inn trembled under the weight of this new complication.

“There is no precedent for having monsters within Pallass, authorized or not. There are strict laws about allowing monsters to enter the city or keeping non-sentient ones as tamed animals, though. We could argue that the Goblins won’t enter the city, but they pose a risk the council might not ignore…I’m not keen on the idea either.”

Venim glanced at Erin and Zevara as he spoke. Erin hesitated, and it was Zevara who answered with a grimace.

“Don’t bother trying to talk her out of it, Venim. I’ve had the same arguments and she won’t budge. This is technically an autonomous holding within Liscor’s radius of authority, but we’re not pushing the issue and I doubt Pallass will get any further.”

“But this is highly—you’re telling me she has Goblins in the inn before and you haven’t considered—can’t they just be—”

Zevara kept shaking her head and eying Erin. Erin eyed her right back, her arms crossed.

“Those Goblins are innocent. They don’t cause trouble, and they have yet to hurt anyone. They saved me from goats.”

Venim stared at her.

“Goats.”

“Eater Goats.”

Zevara nodded. The Watch Captain from Pallass blanched a bit.

“Ancestors, the things you lot have to deal with over here—those are the same ones that bite even when you behead them, right? Well be that as it may Miss Solstice…”

“No, Captain Venim.”

He glared at Erin, vexed. She glared back, ready to fight on this issue. The air around Erin heated up and Venim edged back in his chair. He looked at Zevara and she gave him a complicated shake of the head and impatient gesture with her chin. This time the Watch Captain’s sigh was loud and unhappy.

Fine. Stop using your aura Miss Solstice. I’ll try to gloss over that fact with the Assembly of Crafts. The Gold-rank team here does help. If I can claim them as security—I don’t suppose you pay them to guard your inn? Even a copper coin or two would help justify it as…”

He gestured helplessly at the paperwork. Erin shook her head.

“Nope, sorry. But I do have an Antinium Worker with a bow on the roof of my inn. That’s good security, isn’t it?”

Venim covered his face with his claws. Zevara patted him on the back.

“Antinium. Oh, that’s just what I need to convince them. Well, I’ll do my best. I’m leaving before you tell me you breed Shield Spiders as well.”

“Hey!”

Erin watched the Watch Captain go through the doorway. It was dark in Pallass too, although there was no rain in the Walled City. She saw Venim talk to a few figures down the alleyway, nod at her, and close the door. She plucked the mana stone from the door as soon as it was closed.

There was silence in the inn. Erin turned and saw Watch Captain Zevara stretching out her arms and rubbing at the spines on her neck. She looked tired.

“Think it’ll work?”

The Watch Captain looked up. Zevara shrugged, looking tired but slightly hopeful.

“It should. Pallass’ Assembly of Crafts may be arrogant, but they’re not fools if they’re in charge of a Walled City. I think. Those Goblins throw a bit of a problem into the mix, though. If you’d just…”

She trailed off, shaking her head in resignation. Erin looked around her inn. Yes, her Goblins. The reason why her inn was deserted rather than filled with bodies. And it would have had some business even this late at night if Erin had been open. Her inn had been—had begun to be—known as a place with good cooking, interesting events, friendly service, and magic dishes. It had been popular.

But she’d opened her doors to Goblins and so she was a monster. Maybe it was because of the Goblin Lord. Or because they were Hobs. Probably it was both. Either way, her Goblins had driven away business.

Her Goblins. As if she owned them. And Venim thought they might be a security risk? Erin shook her head. The Redfang Warriors stayed out of sight, living in the basement, rarely using the outhouse—being as unobtrusive as possible. They were trying. Even now they were below, and Erin wondered how long they’d been cooped up in the basement.

She looked towards the trap door leading to the basement. It was dark in her inn with the fire burning low. Still, Erin could spot the trap door shift a tiny bit downwards as she stared. Her eyes narrowed and her lips quirked upwards.

Zevara hadn’t noticed. The Watch Captain was staring at her empty mug. When Erin turned to her she stood up.

“Thank you for the drinks. Here—”

She fished around in her money bag but Erin waved it away.

“You already spent four gold coins. That’s a lot. Drinks are on the house.”

“My thanks.”

Awkwardly, the female Drake nodded at Erin. She stood in the inn and Erin fidgeted. It was funny, well, sort of. Erin and Zevara had only ever really met when Erin was in trouble, and their encounters had generally been one or both sides shouting at the other.

“Lots of rain today.”

Erin coughed and commented weakly. Zevara blinked and seemed to take in the rain for the first time. She scowled, her expression sharpening unexpectedly.

“Rain? Damn, I hadn’t noticed. Did it start after I arrived here?”

“Yeah. Oops, you don’t have an umbrella, do you?”

“A what? Oh, you mean a parasol? Why would I need one of those? I’m hardly a [Lady] or pampered noble—I have an oiled cloak or I would if I’d thought ahead. I’ll run for it. It’s just water.”

Zevara grimaced. She cocked her head, listening to the sound of the rain drumming on the inn’s roof.

“It always sneaks up so quickly. Between the dungeon and the Goblin Lord we haven’t been preparing at all. I’ll have to rouse the Watch and check the walls…couldn’t this have waited another week?”

She groused. Erin didn’t really understand.

“What’s the problem? It’s just rain?”

Zevara turned, clearly annoyed, and paused as she considered Erin.

“You’ve never been here during the spring, have you, Solstice?”

“Um…no. Why?”

Bemused, Erin watched as Zevara groaned and covered her forehead.

“No one told you what happens during the rainy season? Ever? Ancestors, well, at least you’re in the right place. If you were living in one of the valleys it would be a disaster. And your inn is Antinium-built. They know what needs to be done.”

She nodded at the walls of the inn. Erin stared at the walls. Had the Antinium done something to them? What happened when it rained?

“Look, I need to be up with the dawn and I can’t explain it now. Ask Klbkch or Relc or anyone from Liscor what the rains mean. And keep your Goblins in the basement. They haven’t caused trouble so far which means I haven’t had to do more than warn people not to go to your inn and cause trouble. So long as they’re hidden people should tolerate them.”

The Watch Captain strode to the door, adjusting her armor and peering out at the rain and cursing. Erin, who had been still wondering about this mysterious rain phenomenon, frowned suddenly.

“What do you mean, keep them out of sight?”

“Exactly what I said, Human. Out of sight, in the basement. That’s sensible of you. No one wants to see Goblins right now. Not after General Shivertail. The last thing I need is a mob attacking your inn to get rid of the monsters.”

Monsters. Erin frowned at Zevara. It was late, she knew, and she was grumpy. But she looked over her shoulder at the trap door to her basement and knew she couldn’t let that go.

“They’re not monsters. They’re people who think. That’s the point.”

The Watch Captain stopped, her back towards Erin. Her posture said she didn’t want to have this conversation, but she replied anyways.

“If you say so. Just keep them out of sight. If not—”

“What? You’ll be leading the mob?”

Zevara turned, her eyes flashing. She stared hard at Erin. Did a bit of smoke escape her mouth? It was quickly lost in the rain.

“No. But I won’t be able to protect you.”

She turned and strode out of the inn, disappearing into the rain before Erin could reply. Disgruntled, Erin mumbled into the sudden silence.

“You never did.”

Annoyed, Erin cleared the table of mugs and scrubbed at a beer stain. Keep her Goblins below? The nerve of Zevara! Never mind that her words made sense. But they only made sense if you thought of Goblins as monsters or animals. People shouldn’t be confined! They shouldn’t be—

Erin passed by her basement and paused. They shouldn’t be locked up. But then, was she the problem to begin with?

Slowly, she set down the mugs in the kitchen and walked back to the trap door. It was shut, but that didn’t fool Erin. She lifted the handle up and peered into the basement.

It was dark below. Nearly pitch-black. Erin knew there was a lantern down there—four, actually, but the Goblins appeared to be asleep. She heard a few loud snores. Erin rolled her eyes.

“I know you heard all that. You were listening, weren’t you?”

The snores paused and then went on, a tad unconvincingly. Erin sighed.

“I know you’re awake. Look, I think Zevara’s right and wrong. It is dangerous, but I didn’t say you should stay below. I just thought—hey, you are awake, aren’t you?”

She stopped uncertainly. The snoring stopped and a head appeared out of the darkness, alarmingly close. Headscratcher had been standing on the ladder this entire time! Erin yelped in surprise and instinctively slapped him on the face with an open palm.

Gah! Wait, sorry!”

Headscratcher yelped and tumbled backwards. Erin heard Goblins exclaiming in alarm, the sound of a thud and annoyed Goblins voices. She winced and peered into the darkness below.

“Oops. You surprised me. I’m really sorry about that. It was an accident, I swear!”

In the darkness, five pairs of crimson eyes stared up at her. Erin shivered just a bit.

“Sorry. Look, I know I told you to stay in the basement but—come up tomorrow, okay? This is where I wanted you to sleep. It’s not a prison.”

She paused, that thought striking her as important. The Redfang Goblins stared up at Erin, their faces unreadable in the darkness. Erin crouched on the top of the ladder, wondering if she should go down. In the end she spoke into the darkness as the rain fell overhead.

“You’re not prisoners. I mean that. If you want to leave, to find Rags or do something else…you can go. I’ll give you food if you need it. But I think it might be safer here. And if it is—if you think you want to stay despite the risk, I will shelter you. I promise. And tomorrow…tomorrow we’ll see about getting you rooms on the third floor.”

The Hobs started slightly in surprise. Erin nodded. Keep them below? That was such a wrong concept to her.

“I should have done this from the start. It was fine to keep Pisces in the basement, but you? I have tons of rooms. And if you’re going to stay here, it’s going to be as guests, not as hidden monsters. I’m not ashamed that you’re here and you shouldn’t be either.”

Five sets of crimson eyes. One blinked. Erin saw a Hob move his head, do something in the darkness. Wipe his eyes? The rest just looked at her. The [Innkeeper]’s voice was low as she spoke to the Hobs, her back framed by the dim firelight.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a Goblin. I told you that didn’t I? You’re people. Not monsters. Humans can be monsters and Goblins can too. But we’re not all monsters. We’re people. And people don’t live underground or in caves.”

She paused.

“Unless they’re Hobbits. Um. Talk to you tomorrow!”

She waved at the Goblins. Two waved back. Erin shut the door and turned away, feeling embarrassed. She had the distinct impression the Goblins had begun talking amongst themselves the instant she closed the trapdoor.

She hoped they weren’t laughing at her. But she had said what she believed. That was important. Erin stumbled back to her bed, tired, knowing she’d have to get up soon. She pulled some blankets over her body, punched a pillow, and tossed and turned as the rain fell.

“Let’s see. Pallass jerks…Jelaqua…Calruz and the Horns of Hammerad…Goblins…and no money. That’s enough for one plate. Maybe two. Now how do I make everything fit together?”

Erin thrashed about for a while, her mind racing, running into obstacles, backtracking. So many problems. There were always problems, but there were always solutions too. She thought about money and her friends and the Goblins until something clicked. Erin sat up suddenly and snapped her fingers.

“Hmm. That might work!”

Then she immediately fell backwards, pulled the blankets over her head and went to sleep in relief.

 

—-

 

Rain fell across Liscor and the grasslands. Rain, a shimmering, endless downpour of droplets, hitting the ground millions of times each second. It was a hypnotic sight if you weren’t out in the middle of it, a beautiful display of nature to be seen by all.

Bird sat in his watch tower and felt a spray of wet, cold droplets smack him in the face. He wiped at the wetness but then the wind shifted and blew a squall of rain right over him. He hunched his shoulders as the rain blew diagonally, pattering off the roof of his watch tower and his body.

It was wet. He was cold. But Bird was still happy. True, it was raining, and true he had been rained on for the last four hours. But he wasn’t dead. It was important to keep things in perspective. Bird felt lucky and privileged to be here, and he tried to be grateful. He wasn’t dead, he was allowed to hunt birds and sit up in his own personal watch tower—he even had his own private quarters!

Bird had the room closest to the staircase leading up to the watch tower. It was a nice room. And it was his. He used to have a bed, but he’d never slept on it so Miss Erin had taken it away.

Antinium couldn’t sleep on beds. The round shells on their backs made it too difficult since they would rock back and forth or just lie uncomfortably. Perhaps Revalantor Klbkch could do it with his altered, slimmer form, but Bird had given up after five minutes of lying on the bed and wondering what was supposed to happen.

When it became apparent that Bird couldn’t sleep on his bed like most other species Erin had come up with a solution. She’d created a stack of blankets and pillows that formed what she called a ‘cubbyhole’ similar to the alcoves Bird used to sleep in in the Worker’s barracks.

However, this sleeping space was so soft and luxurious that Bird was afraid to sleep in it and spent most nights with his back against a wall. It still got a good deal of use; Mrsha had been captivated by the idea of pillow forts and often curled up inside Bird’s bed for naps.

And Bird didn’t need to sleep much. He liked being up at nights. It was his duty of course—he’d chased off a few Drakes yesterday by shooting arrows at their feet when they approached the inn just past midnight. But Bird didn’t mind the late hours. Owls came out at night, and if he waited long enough it would be dawn and birds would be singing and flying about. Perfect targets for an alert Antinium [Hunter].

Of course, it was raining so there would be no birds. The Antinium Worker thought about this and still felt happy. Birds might not fly in the rain because it was wet, but only if they had feathers. What if there were other types of birds he had yet to hunt? His mind raced with the possibilities as the rain pelted him from all angles. Bird was oblivious to it as he thought.

Were there fish birds? Birds that could fly in the rain? Maybe birds above the clouds? Bird looked up and felt happy. The world was a wonderful place! When you didn’t know what it contained, everything was new and fresh. And Bird was completely ignorant. Thus, he sat in his small watch tower as water sprayed him and the rain pounded down. He ignored it all, his crude hand-made bow in hand. It wouldn’t do to get the lovely bow Erin had given him wet, after all. He sang a tiny tune as he searched the pouring landscape.

“I am Bird. I am wet. It is raining. I am wet. Drip, drip, I am Bird…”

Bird!

The Antinium turned as someone shouted his name. He looked down the stairs and saw a young Human woman shielding her face as the rain pelted her from above.

“Oh, hello Miss Lyonette.”

The [Barmaid] shouted something at Bird, looking upset. He was alert instantly, wondering if a monster or other danger had come through the door. Erin had told him to watch for threats outside the inn, but Bird was aware that having a magic portal door was a security risk. He did take his job seriously. But that didn’t seem to be the problem here!

…door! Come…drenched…here!”

He could only hear a few words over the pounding of the rain. But Lyonette was waving so Bird followed her down the slippery steps into the inn. It was very wet. He observed the floorboards were quite wet and the wet had gone into several rooms and down much of the third floor. Hm. He turned to Lyonette as she wiped her face with a towel.

“What is the problem, Miss Lyonette? It is quite wet outside. And in here.”

“Yes, Bird. It is! That’s a problem. And do you know why it’s so wet?”

Lyonette glared at Bird. The Worker tilted his head. A problem. He had never been good at solving problems. He had liked chess well enough, but he had never taken to it as a [Tactician] like Anand and Belgrade had. Erin had called his games the ‘weirdest games she’d ever played’ though, which Bird had taken as a compliment.

“It is wet because it is raining, Miss Lyonette.”

“Yes. It is. But why is it wet inside, Bird?”

Bird looked around. Wet, wet…why was it wet inside? Because there was a hole? No, the inn was sturdy and waterproof. So why was there wet on the third floor? He noticed the water moving slightly and looked behind him. Water was running down the steps leading up to the tower. His tower. Bird’s mandibles opened wide as he realized the issue.

“I forgot to close the door.”

“You forgot to close the door.”

Rainwater had spilled into the inn from Bird’s watch tower above. The Antinium stared at the flooded third floor with interest. Mrsha galloped through the giant puddle, splattering water everywhere. Above her, Apista flew away from the water droplets in alarm. Lyonette sighed.

“Okay, I guess I was waking up in an hour anyways. Let’s get to work.”

“I am deeply sorry. I will assist you with cleaning and return to guarding above.”

Bird lowered his mandibles, ashamed. Lyonette shook her head, looking only slightly put out.

“It’s fine, Bird, really. Just don’t forget again. And you don’t have to go above. I’m sure Erin would want you inside and out of the rain.”

Bird protested mildly as Lyonette ordered Mrsha to grab more towels.

“But I must guard. And I have permission to hunt. I am waiting for fish-birds to come out.”

“Fish birds? Bird, there are no fish birds.”

“There…aren’t?”

Lyonette paused, staring into the Worker’s downcast face. She hesitated.

“Um, well, I’m not certain. Why not? I’m sure there are birds that go out in the rain. Actually, I lied. There are most definitely fish birds, Bird.”

The Worker nodded happily, faith restored in the world.

“I knew it.”

Life was good for Bird. He was especially happy Revalantor Klbkch had ordered him not to kill the Hobs just yet. Bird had kept an eye on them every night under strict orders from his Hive and he wasn’t sure he could kill them, even if he ambushed them. It was good to be peaceful. No one should die.

Except birds, of course.

 

—-

 

Erin woke up to the sound of rain. She woke up slightly later than usual, which meant dawn was just breaking as she got up and blearily stumbled around the kitchen.

“Ghrmph. Rain, raining all the time. Gonna be a pain going to Liscor. Where’s breakfast? Right, right…gotta find Lyonette. Lyonette?”

She walked out into the common room but Lyonette was uncharacteristically not already awake. Erin hesitated, not wanting to wake her up and then she heard the sounds from above. They were faint, but as Erin ascended to the second floor and stared past the rooms reserved for the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers she heard the noises coming from the second stairwell heading to the third floor.

“Singing?”

Erin tiptoed up and saw a strange sight. It was Lyonette kneeling on the ground, mopping up water with a towel as Bird did the same. Mrsha and Apista were frolicking around, getting water everywhere as they played catch. They were making the mess worse, but Lyonette wasn’t scolding Mrsha. Instead, she and Bird were singing!

It’s raining, it’s raining, water’s on the floor, Mrsha at the door, it’s raining, it’s raining—

“Drip, drip, drip.”

Lyonette was singing a silly made-up song as Mrsha rolled past her, her fur dripping. Bird, wiping the floor with a towel, softly sang as well. He was just singing ‘drip’, but it melded together with Lyonette’s singing in a wonderful way.

Erin stood watching Lyonette and Bird singing the silly song as Mrsha rolled about, a smile on her face. Only when the Worker and [Barmaid] had cleaned up most of the water did she cough.

“Erin!”

Lyonette spun around looking embarrassed. Erin smiled at her and at Mrsha as the Gnoll galloped up to her. She caught Mrsha before she could shake herself.

“Ah! No shaking, Mrsha. You get a nice warm towel instead. Lyonette, thanks for doing that. How’d the rain get in? Bird’s door?”

“It was my fault. I am entirely to blame. I will accept all punishments necessary or my termination.”

Bird stood to attention. Erin frowned at him.

“You’re not getting fired, Bird. It was a mistake! I’d never fire you for that.”

Bird visibly relaxed.

“Oh. Does that mean I can do it again?”

No.

Lyonette and Erin spoke at once. Bird nodded agreeably and stared at Apista as the Ashfire Bee hid behind Mrsha. Erin beckoned Lyonette over.

“Sorry I didn’t start getting breakfast ready, Erin. It was just—”

“No, you’re cool. It was better you did this, actually. I’m going to move the Redfang Goblins up here today.”

“The Goblins? But—well, okay. If you think so.”

Lyonette looked dubious but she nodded anyways. She had changed so much! The fact that she was willing to let the Goblins stay under the same roof as her was more than most Humans were willing to do. Erin intended to change that. She shifted, aware her second piece of news for the day wasn’t going to be taken with the same level of grace.

“I uh, had Watch Captain Zevara and that Drake guy from Pallass over last night, Lyonette. Looks like we might get to open the portal to Pallass after all. There’s a lot of political stuff going on, but I think I managed to get it sorted. So there won’t be Drake [Soldiers] from Liscor marching in to take the door away.”

“That was going to happen? I mean, I’d believe it but—good job.”

The runaway [Princess] looked relieved. Erin chewed her lip.

Tiny problem, though…I had to pay to register the inn and the price was eighteen gold coins.”

Eighteen?

Lyonette looked horrified. Erin nodded.

“I took them out of the safe. It’s uh…well, I took a look at what we had left. What do you think? How long do we have?”

Erin was hoping that Lyonette had put some of the inn’s coin somewhere else or had more on her. The young woman’s face said it all. Lyonette counted in her head, doing the same math that Erin had agonized over last night. When she was done she shook her head gloomily.

“Enough coin for a week. Not much more even if we cut back on buying food and supplies…”

“I’ll get us more.”

Erin rested a hand on Lyonette’s shoulder and smiled reassuringly. The [Barmaid] looked uncertain, but Erin grinned at her.

“Money’s not a problem, Lyonette. I have a few tricks up my sleeves. And more in my pockets. And one under my pillow.”

“Really?”

“Yeah! Okay, I have two good ideas. Three if I use my backup plan. I think they’ll all work. I just need to go into the city and uh, make a few deals. If I help serve breakfast, can you manage…?”

“Leave it to me. I’ll get the Goblins settled. Drassi and Ishkr aren’t coming today and I think the Horns of Hammerad are going out on a long trip today. So are the Halfseekers, so it’ll just be Bird, Mrsha, and the Goblins to feed for lunch. Do what you need to do Erin.”

Erin smiled in relief.

“You’re the best. Alright, breakfast is waffles! Hey Mrsha, don’t run down the stairs! Oh well.”

She grinned as the white Gnoll raced down to the common room. Then she paused and both she and Lyonette turned. The sound of rainfall, muted but always present had intensified suddenly.

They stared towards the stairs leading up. Bird paused as the rain pelted him, about to climb back up to the tower. He stared at the water already trickling down the stairs.

“Ah. Oops.”

He closed the door swiftly. Erin shook her head.

That’s a design flaw. But I guess we can put a towel rack there and get Bird to clean up every time he goes in and out. Speaking of which…”

She looked out one of her glass windows at the rain. It was coming down hard, obscuring the landscape. Already it had washed the last of the snow away so all Erin saw was green grass and brown mud, both dark as the rain drummed on her windows. She turned to Lyonette, looking rueful.

“I don’t suppose you know where I could get an umbrella?”

Lyonette looked blank.

“A what?”

“Darn.”

 

—-

 

Umbrellas. Umbrellas were an invention that did not exist in the medieval era, or at least, not in this one. True, it was good to keep rain off one’s face, but with an umbrella? They required a lot of careful stitching, long flexible joints that required delicate wood or metalworking, and were in general a tool for the nobility to use. A [Lady] might have a parasol or rather, have a servant follow her around with one, but everyone else just used cloaks. After all, they were warm, didn’t need to be carried in either hand and didn’t break.

Erin ran with an oiled cloak over her head towards Liscor, screaming as rainwater trickled onto her clothing and mud splashed around her boots.

I hate cloaks! I hate cloaks! I hate cloaks!

Not that an umbrella would have helped much either. The rain was coming down fiercely and the guards on the walls looked miserable to Erin. The one at the western gate was at least sheltered from the rain. She waved Erin though and the young woman dashed into the streets of Liscor.

And slipped. The wet cobblestones were slippery and Erin had been running to get to Liscor in time. Erin fell, got tangled up in her cloak, and after a brief moment where she just sat in the middle of the wet street with water pouring over her head, got up and marched through the streets, grumbling about ceilings.

“How hard would it be to put a ceiling over a city? It’s got walls, just put a dome over it! Okay, you can’t see if that happens—how about a glass dome? That’s a lot of glass. A magic dome? I bet Pallass has a fancy magic dome. What about a subway? Now that’s useful technology!”

The streets were mostly empty despite the usual morning press. No one wanted to be out in the rain. The Drakes looked gloomy and ill-tempered, if not quite so depressed as the days before. The Gnolls looked perfectly miserable. Erin splashed down the streets, appreciating that Liscor at least had sewers to carry away the runoff as she marched further into Liscor. It was a wet, miserable day.

But only if you let it be. Erin was determined to make today work. She’d left the inn with Lyonette already showing the Redfang Warriors their new rooms. Now Erin headed towards one spot in the city devoid of rain.

The Antinium Hive. The passage down into the Hive was exposed to the surface, but there was some kind of water flow system in place such that as Erin descended into the darkness, the water coming down from above was sucked into the earth. A few steps out of the rain and the Hive’s walls were wonderfully dry underfoot. Erin let herself drip for a while as she stared around the entrance.

It wasn’t hard to enter the Hive of the Free Antinium. Just go down a few steps into the darkness and you were in a tunnel. Now, Erin had never actually gone into the Hive by herself, but she had gotten permission from Klbkch to enter a week ago for the story time with the Antinium. So she could enter. Right?

There didn’t seem to be any guards, just a long tunnel sloping downwards. It was large enough for eight Erins to walk abreast and made Erin feel small as she marched into the Hive.

“Just gonna see a few friends. Nothing wrong about that, right? No one mind me, just a Human coming in out of the rain. Just gonna—”

Erin got five steps when her [Dangersense] went off like a siren in her head. She froze as the empty tunnel suddenly filled. Sixteen Soldiers stepped out of hidden alcoves, fists raised, bodies tense and lowered, ready to charge. The young woman froze, eyes wide, staring at the Soldiers on every side.

“Uh oh. Um. Hi?”

The Soldiers said nothing. These weren’t the Painted Soldiers that Pawn led but regular Soldiers. On guard duty. Erin was afraid to breathe, seeing the Soldiers clenching their fists, imagining what would happen if one of them punched her. She squeaked, trying to both speak fast and not do anything as provocative as breathing.

“I’m uh, Erin! Erin Solstice! I have permission from your boss to be here! Klbkch? He said it was alright! Okay, he said I could enter this one time and so I thought I could do it again. I didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll totally leave if you’re all uh, busy.”

The Soldiers made no move. One of them, the one in front of Erin hesitated just a fraction. He stepped closer to her and she shrank as she stared up at him. He had very long mandibles, perfect for tearing flesh. Not that she thought of the Antinium like that! They were people too, just like Goblins!

And people killed people quite often. The Soldier studied Erin, fists still raised. She tried to smile up at him.

“No, this is a bad time? Okay then, I don’t want to bother you. I can see when I’m getting in the way, so I’ll just…”

She was about to edge away when the Soldier suddenly nodded and turned away abruptly. He didn’t signal, but the other Soldiers instantly lowered their fists and stepped back towards their alcoves. Erin stared at the Soldier as he walked away from her, no longer paying any attention to her whatsoever.

She had the distinct impression he’d just recognized her as Erin Solstice, not some random Human who’d wandered down here by accident. She wondered what would have happened if he’d decided she was someone else and resolved never to enter the Hive without Pawn, Klbkch, or another Antinium with her.

But now she was in the Hive, it was too late to go back. Or at least so Erin told herself as she walked down the wide tunnel into the darkness. She’d been here once, after all! She’d just find one of the Workers she knew, have a quick word, and be off. She could have sent Bird of course, but she was worried he might miscommunicate. He was a silly Worker sometimes. And how hard could it be? It wasn’t like—

Whatever ironic thought Erin was about to have was cut off as she entered into the Hive’s main corridors. The tunnel around Erin turned abruptly and there they were. Antinium. Hundreds of them, marching down a huge tunnel, turning into side passages that sloped upwards or downwards, huge currents of Workers and Soldiers moving in every direction.

The Antinium had no railing to divide the flow of traffic, but the brown-black shapes moved smoothly and without pause, following an invisible line such that the Antinium were able to all move through the massive corridor at once, not having to pause or wait in line at all. They moved in complete silence, so that the only sound in the massive room was the shuffling of feet.

It was hypnotic, terrifying, and completely alien. Erin stared for one entire second and then sneezed. It was unintentional. The noise cut through the room like a gun shot.

The Antinium stopped as one. Every head in the vast corridor turned to Erin immediately. She froze and then raised a hand. The Antinium stared at her in complete silence. The [Innkeeper] gulped and then put on her best smile.

“Hey.”

The Workers and Soldiers stared at her. Erin waved weakly. Her voice quavered a bit.

“Uh, sorry to intrude. I’m just uh—I uh—do any of you know where um, Pawn is? Anand? Belgrade? Klbkch?”

The Antinium stared at her. Erin hesitated. Then as one they turned and pointed. Erin stared at the tunnel they’d indicated and saw the nearest Workers to her make way.

“Oh? Am I supposed to—”

They stared at her. Erin gingerly edged forwards and walked through the gap the Workers had created. The Antinium watched her go, silent, staring at the Human in their tunnels. Vibrant, colorful, alive. They heard her voice as she navigated down the tunnels, echoing back at them.

“Sorry, sorry. Oops—this way, right? Thank you. Okay, I’m going—wow, it’s dark in here. Sorry, I know you’re probably in a hurry, right? I don’t want to get in the way, you can keep walking or doing whatever you—oh boy, Klbkch is going to be so mad at me.”

 

—-

 

“So uh, hi.”

Erin stood in front of Anand and Belgrade. They’d met her in one of the tunnels, well, practically run her over in point of fact. They’d swiftly escorted her into a side room, mainly to end the Hive-wide traffic jam. Now they sat around a small table with a chess board on top of it.

This was Anand and Belgrade’s personal strategy room. It had some maps of the Hive, a real chess board and one of Erin’s improvised Go boards, and some pieces of parchment and a quill and ink. Erin stared around the small room, seeing the spot where Belgrade had hurriedly rolled up all the maps of the Hive and stuffed them away. Military secrets, she supposed. She glanced at the Workers again. They hadn’t responded to her greeting.

“It’s not like I meant to cause a holdup. I kept telling the other Antinium to keep going without me. And I uh, thought I could just sort of wander about and find one of you guys. You know, casually?”

She peered hopefully at them. Belgrade and Anand shared a look. Belgrade was the first to speak.

“You are lucky you were not killed within seconds of entering the Hive.”

“Oh.”

Erin stared at Belgrade.

“But I wasn’t. I thought I had permission.”

The Worker nodded slowly.

“Yes. But your exact description was not passed to the Soldiers on duty. It is extremely fortunate they either recognized you from previous encounters or believed your self-identification.”

“Ah. Well, that’s good. I uh—killed?”

Belgrade nodded. Erin gulped.

“Okay, well, I’m not doing that again. I thought—did you guys know I was looking for you?”

Anand shook his head.

“We were investigating the disturbance. When you entered the Hive all flows of traffic halted, which immediately warranted our attention. I have never seen the Hive simply—stop like that before.”

Erin winced. She fiddled with a bishop on the chess board. Anand stared at her for another beat and then seemed to become more alert.

“This incident was surprising to say the least, but minor. Miss Erin, I believe your intrusion has resulted in the best results possible especially given all the outcomes. The Hive was not unduly affected by your presence, and I must believe it is warranted by some need. How can Belgrade and I help you? Or is it Pawn or Revalantor Klbkch you seek?”

He waited expectantly. By his side Belgrade folded his hands—all four of them. Erin looked relieved and pondered how best to start.

“Alright, okay. To begin with…did you know it’s raining?”

The two Workers exchanged a glance. Anand shook his head.

“We did not, Miss Erin.”

“Oh. Well, it is. Just thought you should know. You see, Zevara—you know, the angry Drake Watch Captain lady? She said it’s the beginning of the rainy season in Liscor and I thought—”

Erin got no further because at her words Belgrade suddenly tensed up. His mandibles opened and he shuddered.

“Rainy season? It has begun already? Oh no. Oh no.

Belgrade’s arms folded around himself. He began to rock back and forth in his seat. Two of his arms gripped the table and he started repeating the words anxiously.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no—”

“Belgrade?”

Erin looked at him, alarmed. Anand put a hand on Belgrade’s shoulders and the Worker stopped rocking, although he kept repeating the same words. Anand looked apologetic as he clicked his mandibles together gently.

“You will have to forgive Belgrade, Miss Erin. He does not do well during this time of the year. He nearly drowned two years ago.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry Belgrade. That’s terrib—wait, how can you drown underground?”

“The water, the rushing water. The walls breaking, the water—”

Belgrade shivered. Anand raised one hand as the other three patted his friend on the shoulder. He pointed to the dirt walls of the Hive around them.

“This season is problematic for the Antinium, Miss Erin. We do our best to ensure the integrity of the Hive, but accidents happen. Water can burst through the tunnels and it is particularly dangerous to us when it does, given our inability to swim. Belgrade only survived by holding his breath until the water could be drained from the tunnel he was trapped in.”

“That makes sense. But all that water comes from above? It’s just rain. There’s not that much water. Unless the rivers overflow?”

Erin stared blankly at the two Workers. They exchanged a look.

“I believe your knowledge of what occurs during this part of the year is…incomplete, Miss Erin. I would elaborate, but I fear that I do not know what occurs aboveground during this period of time. The Antinium do not go above the surface in the first two months of spring.”

“Why?”

“The water.”

Belgrade whispered the words. Erin stared at him, leaned back in her table, and shook her head.

“Okay, I think I’ll have to ask Klbkch about this. Or Selys. I’m going to see her next.”

Anand nodded.

“That would be wise. They no doubt have a more coherent explanation than we. But did you need to see us specifically, Miss Erin? Revalantor Klbkch will doubtless be busy with his duties.”

Erin paused. Why was she down here again?

“Oh, right. I have a proposition for you two. Look, my inn’s in a tight place but I have this idea, see—”

She explained briefly to Anand and Belgrade. Both Workers nodded, intrigued by her idea. Belgrade stopped rocking long enough to give his opinion.

“We can do this for a few more days. At least before the water rises. Tonight we will come.”

“Good!”

Erin smiled, relieved. She got up and the two Workers did likewise.

“I’d love to play a few games, but I have to see Selys next. You said Klbkch is busy, right? Well, I’ll ask Selys about this rain thing.”

“Good. We shall escort you to the surface to reduce delays.”

Anand and Belgrade got up. The Workers flanked Erin as she exited the tunnels. Anand shook his head.

“I do apologize that we could not inform you of the events surrounding the rainfall, Miss Erin. But most Antinium understand little of the world around us. Belgrade and I are privy to some of the Hive’s knowledge, but…”

Erin smiled at him as they walked. This time the Workers and Soldiers kept moving, although she sensed them peeking at her.

“No problem Anand. I totally get it. Your experience is different than mine. But Liscor changes a lot this month, huh?”

The Worker nodded.

“Indeed. Travel is almost virtually eliminated, the city stockpiles what resources it has, the price of food goes up, the price of wood rises—and of course the Antinium earn a small income as we help construct some of the maritime industry’s fishing craft. We could sell you a boat quite cheaply, I think.”

“Really? Cool! I always wanted a—wait, what did you say?”

 

—-

 

Water. It was such a simple thing. A necessity to survive, and yet, for some, the idea of water was terrifying. The Antinium could not swim. It was one of their critical weaknesses and as such, the Hive of the Free Antinium was filled with activity as the rain fell on the ground above.

Klbkch, Revalantor of the Free Antinium, strode through the tunnels of his Hive, teams of Workers following him by the hundred. He walked through each tunnel, Workers breaking off to check each part of the walls, tapping and listening to make sure that there were no faults or other weaknesses a thousand tonnes of water might exploit. Any cracks were sealed, any suspect tunnels sealed off. There were many, many drainage tunnels within the Hive designed to carry off water should it flood the Hive, but if it came to that Antinium would die.

And Klbkch found himself caring more about the loss of a Worker or Soldiers’ lives than he had in the past. Perhaps it was because some of them were Individual and thus a precious resource that could not be so easily reacquired. Or perhaps it was the shorter Worker following behind him, anxiously watching as Klbkch directed flows of Workers.

“That tunnel is faulty. Seal it off completely. Fill it with dirt and pack it—I will return later to inspect the area. Forty Workers will go to inspect the dungeon entrances with the others. We must not allow those areas to flood.”

Workers moved as ordered. Pawn moved to one side as they marched past him. He stared at Klbkch as the Revalantor looked around the tunnel.

“Revalantor, how can my Painted Antinium assist with this process?”

Klbkch paused. He had to think of the Painted Antinium and Pawn, as a separate force within the Hive. One that needed orders, could not simply be ordered to wait indefinitely. He nodded to Pawn after a moment’s delay.

“Take the Soldiers not wounded or on combat rotation and assist with filling in the tunnels I have specified. If you finish with that task, report to Anand or Belgrade. They will take over the inspection of the Hive while I return to my duties in Liscor.”

The Revalantor clicked his mandibles impatiently. He had no watch, but his internal clock was flawless.

“I have Watch duty in fifteen minutes. Anand and Belgrade have my permission to act with all the authority required to reinforce the Hive. If they have doubts I will return tonight to inspect the Hive once more.”

“I will tell them that, Revalantor.”

Klbkch nodded and strode through the tunnels, towards the surface. It was a relief to have Anand and Belgrade in the Hive. He hadn’t realized it, but having the two [Tacticians] present meant he could delegate much of the responsibility that usually fell to him or his Queen. And she had kept to her quarters recently, working on some private project, leaving the Hive entirely to him. It felt harder, some years. He hadn’t expected the rain to come so soon, but he should have predicted it…

Was he getting old? Was this the degradation that came with age that Xrn had told him about? Dementia did not affect the Antinium, but perhaps Klbkch, who had lived and been reborn countless times was an exception. Maybe he was getting old, because sometimes he felt tired…

Klbkch sighed as he strode out of the Hive and marched down the streets. He moved quickly as the rain pelted him, nodding to Drakes and Gnolls on the streets. Within five minutes he was at the Watch barracks and putting on his [Guardsman]’s armor. He was ready for duty within two minutes and marching out the door after having signed the roster sheets in the next minute.

Yes, he was getting old. But there was hope. Klbkch clung to that thought. There was hope. He just had to hang on a little bit longer. And then the world would change. The Grand Queen would change it, or Xrn, or perhaps…

Klbkch’s eyes caught a young woman he recognized hurrying down the street. She’d just come out of a tunnel in the ground. He stared. Had Erin been in the Hive? No, surely she had just been…he watched her go, his mind blanking for a second. His mandibles opened unconsciously as he stood in the rain, going about his duties as a member of Liscor’s City Watch. They were surprisingly similar to his duties as Revelator. Klbkch whispered the word into the rain.

“Perhaps.”

 

—-

 

“What was that, Klbkch?”

Watch Captain Zevara turned. The Antinium [Guardsman] shook his head as she stomped down the street, the City Watch spread out along the walls.

“Nothing, Captain! My apologies.”

“Don’t be! You’re the only damn guardsman I have who turns up on time, even in the wet!”

Zevara shouted back at Klbkch. She strode down the road leading around the walls of Liscor, shouting at the [Guardsmen] she passed.

“Check for cracks, fractures, or anything out of place! I want all four walls checked by the end of today! Inside, outside—hurry up and I’ll buy you all a round at Furry Wing’s tonight!”

The wet Gnolls and Drakes in uniform cheered as Zevara passed. The Furry Wing tavern was a popular one for the City Watch because it served drinks in huge mugs. Zevara grinned but then added a snap to her voice.

“But don’t miss a spot! I’ll be going over parts of the wall myself, and if I find any spots you’ve missed you’ll all be drinking water tonight!”

She heard a good-natured shout from her guards and nodded to Klbkch. The Senior Guardsman took a section of wall in front of him and Zevara turned away. She knew he could be trusted to check every inch of Liscor’s walls. The Antinium understood the dangers of the rainy season more than most. It was amazing they’d wanted to put a Hive here, knowing what happened…but they were vigilant, and that was everything.

The other Drakes and Gnolls were too complacent. Zevara strode down the walls, repeating her message. She had to push them. They thought that just because Liscor’s walls were enchanted, they would hold. Zevara knew that enchantments could fray and develop weaknesses, just like stone. So she checked and double-checked the walls for any fracture, any weak spots where water might slip through.

“Hey Captain!”

A cheerful voice interrupted Zevara as she went on a circuit of the walls from the outside. Zevara rolled her eyes and turned.

“What is it, Relc?”

The huge Drake [Guardsman] grinned, ignoring the rain which made the other guards cover their bodies more securely with their cloaks. He grinned and pointed to his section of the wall.

“I found a broken part of the wall! Look!”

He indicated a micro fracture at the base of the wall. Zevara eyed it and nodded.

“Good work, Relc. We’ll have a [Mason] take a look at it.”

She turned away, wishing she were indoors with a good stiff drink in her claws. She’d settle for a drink in Erin Solstice’s inn. She had some good ales and her food was excellent, even if weird things happened far too often over there. But before Zevara could continue her patrol she heard Relc call out again.

“Hey Captain, I found another one!”

Reluctantly she turned back and looked. There was another tiny fracture at head height. Zevara sighed.

“…Good work, Relc.”

Relc grinned at her, tail wagging like a dog’s. He cupped a claw to one earhole.

“What’s that, Captain? I think I must have missed that. Lots of rain!”

“I said, good work, Relc.”

Zevara gritted her teeth. Relc pretended not to hear.

“What? Sorry, I must have gotten water in my earhole! One more time?”

The Watch Captain eyed Relc murderously, hating every inch of the wide grin on his face. She turned around and her tail slapped Relc across the face.

“Ow!”

“Good work, Relc. Now get back to checking the damn wall!”

 

—-

 

Water. It changed many things about Liscor, but one thing at least was the same. The Adventurer’s Guild was busy as always as adventurers stood in lines, arguing, picking fights, talking about the dungeon and grumbling about the rain. From her desk, Selys Shivertail grinned balefully at the adventurers who’d never been to Liscor before. They thought this was bad? Just wait until they were here a week. Then they’d realize what a spring in Liscor meant. Rain was only the start of what would come next.

There was a reason why armies didn’t bother sieging Liscor. In the winter they froze their tails off. In the summer and fall, well, they had a good window but that also meant Drake armies could march north and break the siege whenever they pleased. And in the spring—

She was already worrying about the dungeon. What if it flooded? What would happen in the spring? Would the adventurers not be able to access it? She didn’t know if she could handle a bunch of angry cooped-up adventurers for two months.

Then again, she didn’t know if she could handle them now. Selys sighed, relieved to have a break for a moment. She eyed the dripping young woman in front of her and silently passed one of the towels behind the desk to her.

“Here.”

“Thanks!”

Erin wiped her face off but didn’t bother with the rest of her body. She’d have to go out in the rain soon enough and she’d given up on her stupid cloak that kept tangling around her feet. Selys eyed her.

“Had fun outside?”

“Oh, tons! It’s raining, you know? Really hard!”

Selys gave Erin a look. It simultaneously invited more obvious information and promised an equal or greater amount of ridicule. She gestured out the window of the Adventurer’s Guild where it was pouring.

“No, really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Hey, I was in the Antinium Hive and that was big news!”

Erin made a face at Selys. The Drake sighed.

“The Ants—I mean, the Antinium live underground, Erin. I can look out a window. Sorry, I don’t mean to snap, but I’ve been busy telling adventurers all day why going outside is a bad idea. Sure, you think you’re hunting Shield Spiders or slimes or something, but that’s when a Hollowstone Deceiver sneaks up on you. They’re silent in the rain and they hunt aggressively during this season. You should watch out too.”

“What, Rock Crabs? Jeeze! I’d better keep an eye out. I don’t have any more seed cores so I guess I’ll have to find another way to scare them off! Thanks for the warning.”

Erin toweled her hair and handed it back. She stared at Selys as the Drake held the towel with one claw and looked around for a place to put it.

“So look, Selys, about what I was saying—”

Selys sighed. Why was she friends with Erin again? Oh, right. She had a good heart. But she could be incredibly, incredibly strange sometimes. And what she’d asked Selys to do? That was madness.

“I heard you. I think you’re insane, but I can do the paperwork. It will never work, mind you. My grandmother—”

“Just try?”

Erin stared pleadingly at the Drake. Selys raised her claws.

“Okay, I will. It’s not going to work, but I will.”

“Thanks! I know you’re busy—you should come to the inn more often! It’s been ages since we last hung out!”

The young woman beamed at Selys. The Drake nodded.

“I’d like that. I’d like to see Mrsha and chat—but you know how it is. Adventurers keep coming to Liscor and we’re understaffed and in the rain…”

She flicked her tail at the adventurers milling about the Guild. Erin nodded sympathetically.

“Yeah, I hear you. I wish they’d come to my inn, but I guess that’s not going to happen with the—”

She mimed saying the word ‘Goblins’ silently. Selys nodded. She’d already had to tell a number of adventurers that the Hobs in Erin’s inn weren’t threats and that they would receive no bounties on their heads.

“If you think it’s bad now, just wait a week. I’m afraid you’ll get no business from Liscor until the rains stop. Well, maybe some people will come but I really wouldn’t count on it. I hope you have coin saved.”

“Uh—”

Selys sighed at Erin’s chagrin.

“Well, at least you have the door to Celum. I envy you, actually. I’d love to be able to pop over to Celum anytime I wanted. I feel like a prisoner during the spring, you know?”

“No…say Selys, what does happen during the spring?”

The Drake paused, leaning on her desk. She stared at Erin, searching the young woman’s face for any signs of humor.

“Erin, tell me you’re joking. You’ve never, ever heard of what happens to Liscor in the spring?”

“Nope.”

“No one’s mentioned it to you. Not once?”

“Not that I can recall.”

“We’re famous for this! Every year—oh, you haven’t been here that long. Huh. It feels like longer.”

Selys shook her head, amazed at how time seemed to fly and simultaneously drag out. She felt like she’d known Erin for years, but it had only been half a year at most. She sighed. Erin looked around curiously. It was still pouring.

“Anand and Belgrade told me there’s a lot of water and…drowning? Or is that just underground? They said you could explain. If it’s a long story I can come back later—I have to be in Celum now so—”

“I can give you the short version.”

Selys smiled as she took a seat on her high stool behind her counter. She liked Erin, she really did, but she was going to enjoy Erin’s reaction more. The [Innkeeper] looked curiously at her.

“Okay, what’s the short version?”

“In Liscor, it starts raining hard each year after winter. For about two months it’s non-stop rainfall, and the city’s practically closed off during that time. When the summer begins it all dries out, but…think of it like this, Erin. We’re caught between the High Passes on either side. There’s an entrance to the north, and an entrance to the south, but Liscor is one big bowl. The only high elevation are the hills which Liscor and your inn and a few villages sit on top of. And it rains a lot. What do you think happens?”

The Drake waited. Erin looked blank.

“Bowl, rain, lots of mountains and valleys. Wait, you don’t mean—”

Her eyes widened. Selys grinned. She leaned over the counter and raised her voice so the adventurers behind Erin could here.

“That’s right. It floods.

Erin stared. She gave Selys the blankest, most surprised look that the Drake had ever seen. Then she looked out the window at the pouring rain. She stared at Selys, at the rain, and then grinned.

“Hey, good one Selys! I nearly bought that for a second!”

The Drake stared at her. Erin stared back, her smile faltering. Selys sighed and slowly covered her face. Erin’s eyes widened.

“Wait, you’re serious?”

 


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