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Maybe it’s the wine talking, but I don’t think Reynold the [Butler]’s such a bad guy. I mean, sure, he’s a bit uptight and he’s in the employ of a woman who might soon kill or torture me, but Reynold? He’s got class.

It’s probably the alcohol. But in my defense, I’ve downed over half a bottle by myself. Not much of a defense I’ll grant you, but my nerves are still shaking.

Almost literally. I sit at the head of Magnolia’s magical carriage, staring at the sleet and snow blasting around us and shudder again.

Goblins.

It feels like just a moment ago they were about to dice us up. In truth, it’s been more like twenty minutes. And I’m still not over it.

Neither is Reynold. The poor carriage driver sits hunched in his seat. The wine – courtesy of the empty bottle I tossed a while back – fortified us both. But neither of us are exactly happy.

Maybe that’s why we chat a bit as we keep going towards Invrisil, and Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. Not about anything in particular; we talk just to keep ourselves from thinking. But I do learn something really interesting, and so does he.

“You met Erin?”

“You know Miss Solstice, Miss Griffin?”

We stare at each other. I had no idea. I mean, I know Erin mentioned meeting Lady Magnolia. She told me a lot about her encounter and of course I grilled her on the details, but did she mention a [Butler]?

…Crap. I think she might have. But of course I wouldn’t have paid attention to that. And did she mention his name? Was it Reynold?

I have a bad feeling this might have been one of the things I ignored about her story. Idiot! But Reynold seems just as impressed in his way that I know Erin.

“She did mention you, Miss. I gather she was worried about your safety, but I hardly realized you two were on such good terms.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it?”

I sigh as I stare across the frozen landscape. God. I wish she was here. She met Magnolia Reinhart and came away without a scratch somehow. Erin might be annoying at times, thoughtless, but I’d rather have her as I’m about to enter the lair of the beast than not.

And when she told me all she’d been through—I clench my hand as I remember. She told me about Magnolia, and I flipped out at her. I got into a fight with her! True, I’d just lost some fingers, but I should have been more understanding.

Regrets. I ride on with Reynold and try to answer his questions as I think about what’s going to happen next. Will I die? Or will I get a chance to convince Lady Magnolia that—what? I’m on the same side as she is?

That’s what she told Erin. But I don’t know if I can believe that. I’m damn sure that I can’t trust her or anyone with the knowledge of how to make guns. But how do I get out of this with my skin intact?

I have a few ideas. The first of which is drinking from the second wine bottle I got Ressa to pass up to us. Ivolethe greedily slurps down the rich wine as she sits next to me. It’s actually sort of disgusting the more I look at her, but it’s one of those things I can’t take my eyes off of. She’s drunk at least three times her body weight already, I swear, but she doesn’t even seem daunted by the sheer physical impossibility of it. She just keeps drinking happily, and singing some song that might be in Celtic.

“Miss, I wonder if I could have a word?”

Reynold’s voice breaks me out of my thoughts. I look over to him.

“What’s that?”

He hesitates, and casts a look back towards the carriage behind him. I look too—Ressa’s closed the hatch separating us. Reassured, Reynold speaks to me, but quietly, and I scoot over to listen.

“I know Lady Reinhart has requested your presence, just as she has the other…people from your world.”

Gods. He knows. But Reynold doesn’t seem bothered by that. He’s frowning, and I can tell he’s thinking something over. Anything to help me out. I listen as he comes to a decision.

“It’s true her methods may seem sudden to people who do not know her—”

I snort.

“That’s an understatement. Kidnapping me out of a city is normal, is it?”

To my surprise Reynold’s lips twitch.

“More than you might think. No one gainsays a member of the Five Families, least of all Magnolia Reinhart. And it’s true that Lady Reinhart demands much. I know you have your issues with her. But…”

“But?”

Reynold hesitates. He looks again back towards the carriage. Ressa hasn’t said anything since the Goblins. Reassured, he continues talking. Even so, he lowers his voice to a whisper. I practically have to put my ear to his lips to hear him over the rushing wind.

“She is not a bad woman, Miss Ryoka. Driven, yes, but she cares deeply for the fate of her servants and all those living on this continent. If you can create even one of the wonders the others from your world claim—”

“Reynold. Stop talking.”

Both Reynold and I jump in our seats. He twists in his seat, face pale. But the window into the carriage is still closed. I stare at the closed door in amazement. We’re still going at top speed, and the wind is blasting around us. It’s hard just to hear Reynold’s voice, but Ressa was inside the coach.

She heard that? Is it another [Ninja] skill? Or [Assassin]?

What is she?

I have no idea. But her words are enough to scare Reynold witless. He grips the reins of the carriage in a death grip and refuses to talk, no matter what I try. So the rest of the ride passes in silence. But the entire while I’m thinking.

Magnolia. What does she want? She claims not to want to use technology from my world. But I don’t believe her. So what should I do? Help her? Do I have a choice?

How do I get myself out of this one? I’ve got…one option? Two. Mm…maybe three. Three ways to get out of this mess.

Fighting isn’t one of those options. Aside from the fact that I’m pretty sure Ressa is a better fighter than I am, I know how influential Magnolia Reinhart is. Even if by some miracle I ran away, she could have every adventurer, city guardsman and assassin on the continent after me in a heartbeat.

No, I’ve got to talk my way out of this. I just wish I was confident in my ability to do so. So I sit in the cold, apprehensive, trying to bring out all the intelligence, all the wit I have.

But I am afraid. If I were the me of a month ago, I might be so cocksure and brave to think I can get out of this no matter what happens. But now—

The carriage slows. I sit up instantly and see something appear out of the white background. A mansion, guarded by high walls and a single gate.

“The manor of Magnolia Reinhart.”

That’s all Reynold says as he drives us through the gates. They swing open instantly as we approach, but I see no gatekeeper. Automatic magical gates?

Yeah. Why not? But then my cynicism is lost as I stare at the mansion.

“Oh wow.”

Erin told me a bit about Magnolia’s mansion, but I was mainly focusing on what Magnolia wanted of her and me. She told me about the magic—

But this is something else.

A whale swims across the front of the house, gliding across the stone as if it were a sea. A line of metal giants, suits of armor with empty visors, stand at attention, flanking the entrance. And a cloud floats through the suddenly clear skies overhead. Even the air is warmer, and as I step outside the coach, I suddenly feel warm in my clothes.

It’s suddenly spring again. A cool breeze blows, and I look around and find a group of men and women attired in servant’s clothing are standing with the Golems. I hop off the front of the carriage and feel my cramped legs protesting. I stare awkwardly at the servants. Well, what do I do? Reynold’s sitting in the front seat, quiet. But what about these other servants?

Are they a welcoming committee? For me? Is Magnolia Reinhart really—

“Welcome back, Miss Ressa.”

Fuck. They scared the ever living crap out of me. All of the servants speak at once as they bow towards the carriage. I look back and see Ressa stepping down from the side of the carriage as Reynold holds the door open.

Now here’s a contrast. She’s dressed like a maid, but she descends and walks past me like a queen. Of course, I was taught proper posture and etiquette when I was young, but I didn’t take much to it.

But Ressa? Ressa could fill in for the Queen of England any time she wanted. I feel like an idiot as I watch her walk ahead of me. Ressa takes a look at the gathered household staff and begins giving orders like a general.

“Teresa, Bener, tell the others to prepare more refreshments for our guests. Ryoka Griffin will be meeting with Lady Magnolia at once. Eve, a pot of tea. Reynold—”

She turns to the [Butler] and I see him bowing his head.

“—Have the carriage inspected for damage. Then I want you to test the spell lattice. If the wards are damaged, schedule an appointment to have them recast. The [Invisibility Field] should not have cut out from a mere unenchanted bolt.”

“At once, Miss Ressa.”

Reynold hurries back to the coach as I stare. Wait, so that was an accident back there? I thought Rags just hit us to make us appear again, but something malfunctioned?

Ressa isn’t even slowing down. She keeps giving orders as people scurry away from us. I eye the imposing Golems. What are they for? To welcome her back? Or to restrain me?

It doesn’t look like I’m getting the red carpet welcome. I look at Ivolethe—she’s too busy flying into the suits of armor and laughing at them from the inside to pay attention.

“Pst. Ivolethe.”

The tiny faerie hears me. She flies back, opening her mouth to comment, but I shake my head at her warningly.

“Don’t speak. And don’t follow me into the manor. Just stay outside, okay? If you can, find out where I am. But don’t go inside. It’s dangerous—”

I break off and Ivolethe flies away from me as Ressa turns her head to stare at me. She doesn’t beckon, but I can tell she wants me to come over to her.

I fold my arms and wait. Like hell I’m taking orders from her. Ressa frowns slightly; then she looks up and sighs.

I look up too. I see only darkness overhead, and then a drop of water hits me right in the eye. As I curse I realize the cloud Erin told me about—the one normally circling Magnolia’s garden—is right overhead. And even as I think that, I feel the cloud open up overhead.

Rain begins pouring down on my head, instantly drenching me. And only me. The cloud seems determined to shower me, and I sprint towards the mansion, swearing a blue streak as I reach shelter.

Instantly, the rain stops. I stand, dripping, in the lush interior of a mansion that would put Versailles to shame, and see a gaggle of [Maids], [Manservants], [Butlers], and other staff staring wide-eyed at me.

I hear footsteps, and turn to see Ressa walk in behind me. There’s not a drop of water on her clothing. She looks down her nose at me as I drip onto the marble flagstones. As if it’s my fault I just got rained on in the winter.

“Your damn Mistress did that, didn’t she?”

Ressa makes no response. But her lips do twitch as if she’s suppressing a smirk.

“A towel will be provided for you shortly. Lady Magnolia will see you personally. If you will follow me?”

Without another word she begins striding off down the corridor. I stare at her back, but I’ve got no choice. Either I follow her, or I bet something else happens. One of the Golems will start beating me to death, maybe.

I follow her, walking fast to keep up. A [Maid] appears by my side and offers me a towel. I snatch it, dry myself, and hurl it into the face of a passing [Butler]. He drops whatever he was holding and I storm on. If they’re not going to play nice, neither am I.

Okay, that last bit from me was an overreaction. That man didn’t deserve that, and the look I get from Ressa isn’t pleasant to say the least. But I’m only now realizing that this is happening.

I’m going to meet Lady Magnolia. Not a minute after I got out of the carriage. She’s not going to give me any time to collect myself or prepare. And she’s going to surprise me and try to catch me off guard any way she can to get the upper hand.

Like that just now. Seriously? Making a cloud rain on me? That’s juvenile. But as a way to keep me off balance, it definitely worked.

Ressa pauses and turns left down a large corridor. She stops before a set of double doors and looks at me reprovingly.

“Lady Magnolia awaits you, Ryoka Griffin.”

Just that? No warnings? No hints about what’s going to happen? I take a deep breath.

Crap. This isn’t good. I can tell my nerves are still rattled. And an internal check tells me I’m not only a bit drunk, but I could really use a catnap.

But there’s no helping it. I’m in the lion’s den. Or is it Dragon’s den? Bah. I’d rather go up against Teriarch in another riddle game than Magnolia.

And then Ressa pulls open the doors. She steps inside, and I follow her. I stare around an inordinately pink room, looking out over the main area of the manor. We’re on the second floor? When did we get up here?

It’s decorated sparsely for such a lavish room. Aside from the huge windows looking out, there are only two couches and a tea table in the center. I’m sure other furniture used to be here, but now the room is empty save for that. It makes everything feel larger, and somehow more oppressive at the same time.

My eyes find a small pot of steaming tea on the table. I see the empty couch, and then my eyes travel to look at the other occupant of the room, the woman whom Ressa now stands behind.

And then—there she is. Sitting on a plush couch in the center of the room. Poised, elegant, calm and collected. Holding a tea cup in one hand and staring directly at me.

Lady Magnolia.

My breath catches in my chest for a second. This is too sudden. I haven’t prepared, haven’t steeled myself—

But here she is. And it’s too late to slow down, because Magnolia comes out guns blazing.

“Ryoka! So good to see you again!”

Her bright, cheerful voice nearly gives me a heart attack. I’d almost forgotten—but now I remember. Lady Magnolia. For all you might hear of her wealth, power, and influence, in person she’s quite energetic.

Disarmingly so. Magnolia beckons me to the couch. I hesitate, but then walk over and take a seat. Across from me, the noblewoman beams, the very picture of delight. I keep my eyes on her face.

Remember, she’s not nearly as naïve and innocent as she seems. She acts like Erin, but she’s not. Be on your guard—

“Can I offer you anything? Tea? Biscuits? A knife to the throat? How would you feel most comfortable?”

What? I freeze in my seat. Magnolia laughs lightly as she studies my face. Her eyes are sharp; she watches me like a cat studying a mouse.

“Please, Miss Ryoka. You practically ooze wariness. Even if I did not have my [Sense Intentions] Skill—which I do and am quite adept at using—I would be able to tell how tense you are. Relax, my dear. You are not in danger. Yet.”

Mind games. Right off the bat. She’s not even pretending—not that I’d believe her—damn. I blink, try to catch my balance. What’s my response here?

“I’m not thirsty.”

Brilliant, Ryoka. You’re really showing off your debating skills right now. Dad would be so proud. I grit my teeth and stare at the tea pot. Magnolia raises her eyebrows. She glances up at Ressa, and shrugs.

“At least you weren’t foolish enough to ask if the tea is poisoned. Honestly, why would anyone waste good tea like that?”

“I can think of a few reasons.”

“Really? It must be terrible, being so paranoid so young. Don’t you think, Ressa?”

“Indeed.”

Behind Lady Magnolia, the maid nods briefly. I stare at her.

“Thanks for sending your maid to personally escort me. I was touched.”

“Think nothing of it, please. It would have been so inconvenient if you’d fled, and Ressa did manage to protect you from those Goblins, after all.”

Lady Magnolia chuckles about that, as if Goblin armies are a regular occurrence. Which…is actually not that far from the truth. I stare at her.

“And the rain cloud? Your handiwork as well?”

“A greeting. I know it was a naughty prank; I couldn’t resist. Do forgive me.”

And there’s no way to turn it on her. I could…what? Get angry? Pursue the issue? We haven’t even gotten down to the brass tacks yet. I move on.

“And you made time to see me right away. I must be so important.”

Across from me, Lady Magnolia sips from her tea and smiles.

“Well, some might think so. Myself, I was just bored of meeting stuffy dignitaries. I needed some entertainment, so I cancelled my discussion with one of my visitors to see you.”

“How…kind.”

She twinkles at me, all flowers and blades hidden in the petals.

“Isn’t it? I did consider letting you wait for a few hours while I attended to other business, but I feared you might run off again if I did.”

“No fear. I’m not stupid enough to run.”

“Really?”

And there it is again! The woman wears the most bland expression possible as she delivers a damn good retort. I just stare at her for a second. The Magnolia I’m used to dealing with did not act like this. Why is she taking the gloves off so early?

Regain the flow of the conversation. I glance at the tea pot. There’s an empty cup and saucer. I reach for it and pour myself a cup. Ressa and Magnolia watch me, one disapprovingly, the other amused.

“Thirsty? My dear, let Ressa do that for you. She is a [Maid].”

“And a [Ninja].”

I mutter as I fill my teacup. Magnolia laughs again.

“A [Ninja]? You think Ressa has a [Ninja] class?”

She sounds delighted. I stare at her as she turns and laughs in Ressa’s face.

“Ressa, did you hear that?”

“I did, milady.”

“A [Ninja]! Wouldn’t that be quite amazing to see? If I bought you some dark clothing, would you hang from the ceiling and jump out of the shadows to fill my cup?”

The Lady Reinhart practically chokes on her drink as she giggles. I just stare at her, and then realize Ressa’s giving me a death glare. Um. Looks like I was mistaken.

“So she’s not a ninja.”

“Oh please. Does Ressa look like an islander to you? [Assassins] are the class of choice here; a [Ninja] would be a completely different culture!”

Magnolia snorts as she takes a deep drink of tea. I cautiously do likewise. I’m pretty sure the cup isn’t poisoned—why bother if I’m here and she can just do whatever she wants by force? But—

The instant my tongue touches the tea, it practically goes numb. Poison? I nearly spit out the liquid before I realize what I’m tasting.

Sugar. It’s practically liquid sugar! I don’t know how many sugar cubes died to make the tea this sweet—all I know is that I’ve tasted sodas that weren’t nearly this bad for your health. Instantly I put the cup down.

“What is this filth?”

Lady Magnolia frowns at me as I make a face and shove the tea cup back onto the table. Not gently either; a bit slops over the side at which point I’m sure it adhered to the table like glue.

“Well now, how rude! That is perfectly good tea, Miss Ryoka. And it is not poisonous in the slightest.”

I scrub at my tongue with my teeth before I reply.

“It might as well be poison. There’s way too much sugar in that pot!”

“She’s right about that.”

Ressa interjects, voice disapproving. Magnolia glances up at her in clear irritation and drinks from her own cup. It’s got to be the same tea—she’s drinking it like water! And pouring herself another cup!

“You two don’t understand my passions at all. You’re too much like Ressa, dear Ryoka.”

That’s an insult. Ressa and I exchange a glance and then I go back to staring at Magnolia. Once she’s done filling up her own cup, she sighs.

“Well, that’s enough mindless chatter for now.”

She looks at me suddenly, and it’s as if the mask she was wearing, the smiling noble [Lady]—suddenly falls off. All at once I feel pressure in the room, a hot, stifling gaze that sends a chill throughout my body fixing me in place.

This is the true face of Lady Magnolia. But she doesn’t leap at me and tear my eyes out. She just keeps speaking, in that calm, level voice.

“It has been a long time since we last saw each other, hasn’t it?”

It’s hard to speak, but I force my tongue to work.

“I guess. It’s only been about a month? Two?”

“Mm. But so much can happen in so short a time. As I’m sure you’re aware in your profession.”

Lady Magnolia nods at me. She extends a pinkie and points at my right hand with it.

“I see you have lost something.”

I blink at her and then remember. My fingers. They suddenly ache, and burn with the reminder of their absence. I realize I’m clenching my hand and relax it.

There’s something almost like sympathy in the other woman’s gaze as she looks at me.

“A harsh price to pay. Did you lose it on a delivery?”

“Yes.”

She nods as there’s nothing more to say than that.

“You have gone through much, if what I suspect is correct. I know for a fact that you are richer—are you wiser as well, I wonder?”

I don’t respond. I just cross my arms—hiding my stumps under my other arm—and wait. She’s leading the conversation; I’ll let her get to the point.

“Hmm.”

Lady Magnolia doesn’t seem bothered by my silence. She taps her ring finger on the cup as she stares at me.

“I trust you’ve met Erin Solstice? She was quite a feisty young woman, but I was pleased to meet her, if only briefly.”

No response. I say not a word.

“And Teriarch? I do know you met him. How is the old fool doing? He did mention you to me, you know. Apparently you had a rather interesting conversation.”

Just wait. She’s trying to lure me into conversation. Magnolia eyes me again.

“So, do you have any theory as to why you are here? Any suspicions? Or am I simply the villain in your uncomplicated view of the world?”

My lips are sealed. Magnolia sighs, exasperated.

“Very well, I suppose I should spell it out for you. You are here because I wish to talk to you. And I sent Ressa because you have a habit of refusing to listen to other people. So you have come all this way to have a conversation, with me, Lady Magnolia.”

I just stare at her. I can keep silent. I’ve had teachers, principles, police officers, and my parents all shouting at me. I can stonewall.

Magnolia keeps chattering, though.

“I do enjoy talking. You see, when two people meet, it is customary for them to talk. I understand this may be difficult in your case, and perhaps it is an imposition on your limited mental faculties. However, the custom is that when one person says something—we call this a statement, the other person says something as well, usually in the same vein of topic. This is what we call a reply—”

“I get it. I’ll talk.”

I have a feeling she could do that all day if I didn’t interrupt. Magnolia stops talking and stares at me. Without saying another word.

Great, she’s waiting for me to reply. I roll my eyes, but now the full intensity of her stare is on me. Multiplied by Ressa’s death gaze. Great. I take a breath, and launch into things.

“I guess you’ve gotten the letter I sent you.”

“Letter?”

For a second Magnolia blinks, then her eyes widen.

“Oh, the letter! Yes, I’d nearly forgotten about that!”

“You did?”

That’s odd. I thought this all stemmed from the letter I sent Lady Magnolia by way of Valceif a while ago. I’d expected an immediate response back then, and I’d been prepared to negotiate—

But Lady Magnolia just waves her hand as if that’s ancient history.

“Oh yes, your cryptic little hint that was supposed to intrigue me enough to pursue you. I recall that. It was quite interesting—I wonder, what did you hope to gain from talking with me?”

I’m not sure. It was so long ago—so long and not so long ago. I hadn’t gotten to know the faeries, and I was desperate for something to help both me and Erin.

Magnolia watches my expression, and although I’m sure my face doesn’t change, I know she’s reading my thoughts through that skill of hers. But even if she can do that, there’s a way to beat that skill. Tell the truth.

“I’m not sure what I was thinking. But I was open to talking, back then.”

“Indeed? No doubt you had your own goals. Perhaps you were thinking of selling me some secrets.”

“Perhaps.”

Yeah, that was probably it. Magnolia smiles enigmatically.

“And perhaps I would have taken you up on that offer. But alas, by the time your letter reached me I had already found other people like you. Thus, I had no need to keep searching for you.”

And there it is. Part of the issue’s out in the open at last. I breathe out.

“Yeah. The others. Erin told me you have other people from my world here.”

Not a bat of an eyelid. Lady Magnolia smiles and shrugs.

“Oh yes. They are guests here, for as long as my patience allows. Pestilential, inconsiderate brats that they are, that might not be for too much longer.”

Wow. That’s something. I know Erin said Magnolia didn’t like the others, but—

“Okay, so you have people from my world. You know everything. Why am I here, then?”

“Dead gods. Here we go again.”

To my surprise, Lady Magnolia touches her eyes with one hand and sighs gustily. I stare at her. When she looks up, her irritation is suddenly plain across her face.

“She’s doing it, Ressa. I though she wouldn’t—but she’s doing it.”

“Yes, milady.”

“First that girl Erin—are all young women from her world inbred, do you think?”

“Doing what?”

“There she goes again!”

Magnolia scowls at me and points accusingly at my chest as if I were some kind of monster.

“Stop asking thoughtless questions! I know you’re not that stupid, Miss Ryoka. Or at least, I hope you’re not because if I have to have another conversation like the one I had with Erin Solstice, I will throw this tea pot at you.”

What’s with her? It’s like a switch has flipped. Suddenly Magnolia Reinhart is all action and no pretense. She glares at me.

“A word of advice, Ryoka Griffin. Few things annoy me as much as feigned ignorance. Do not pretend you don’t know why you are here. You and I both know that I know almost everything. That you come from another world? Obvious. That your world has different technology and inventions? Of course! Your fellow travelers have told me all about the wondrous things of your world—phones, planes, guns, cars—and you know that I have a vested interest in such things.”

Lady Magnolia drinks more of the sugary liquid that vaguely resembles tea in her cup as she stares at me.

“I know everything. Everything except the details. You know, or you might have guessed that while your friends can chatter on to me about the wonders of guns and warfare as your world practices it, they are remarkably empty-headed when it comes to producing such miracles. It’s rather like having a boastful idiot claim to be able to fly without a shred of evidence to back it up. But you do know how to fly, don’t you, Ryoka Griffin?”

My lips clamp shut. Magnolia eyes me.

“Yes. You do. Or at least, you know more than the others. And you know that is why you are here, Ryoka. I want you to tell me what you know.”

The woman sighs, looking suddenly exhausted.

“So here we are. That skips—how much needless back-and-forth? Honestly, I was willing to play along for a while, but when you started acting like an idiot I lost my patience.”

I just look at her. This is Magnolia Reinhart? Is this her true face? Is she being honest with me for a reason or—

“Well? Say something!”

I barely see it coming. Magnolia flicks her wrist, and suddenly the saucer of the tea cup comes spinning at me. I catch it reflexively.

“What the—?”

“Don’t you dare ask what that was. It was a saucer. And I threw it at you because I am irate.

I just stare at her. She’s violent! Is it the sugar working? No—this is a completely different approach. She’s doing this on purpose too! I’ll bet—she’s seized complete hold of the conversation.

Well—fine. Let’s just dive into this. No pretenses, no holds barred. I grit my teeth.

“Okay, let’s assume you’re right about everything. In that case, at what point do you strap me to the rack and torture me for information?”

“Torture? Oh, please. Why would I need torture when I can just use magic? Or a Skill?”

Magnolia snorts at me, but she seems mollified by my response. She takes something out of the pocket of her dress and peers at me. For a second I’m thrown—I didn’t even see the cunning pocket sewn into her dress. Well now, she’s not obeying medieval fashion standards with that.

But in her hands—what is that? A monocle? I instantly have a bad feeling about it, and it gets worse when she puts it to her eyes and…studies me.

Yeah, she’s looking at me. And that monocle—

Oh no. Is she reading my mind?

No—she couldn’t be. Think. My mind races as Magnolia peers at me. I’m…pretty sure she can’t read minds, even with an artifact. If she could, she’d wear that thing all the time. It’s definitely for revealing some aspect about me—a lie detector?

Don’t get thrown by it. I fold my arms and wait. But Magnolia seems satisfied. She tucks the monocle back in her secret pocket.

“Hmf. Now, as to getting you to spill your much-vaunted secrets. Tell me, do you really think it would be that difficult for me?”

I hesitate.

“Yes.”

“Really? How arrogant of you.”

Magnolia rolls her eyes in exasperation. She stares at me with a bit of contempt, or is it disappointment?

“You astound me, Ryoka Griffin. For someone who appears so intelligent—could it be you’ve forgotten my Skills? Surely not.”

She smiles at me, and every hair on the back of my neck tingles.

“I’m curious. What would you do, if I, oh, asked you to tell me everything you know?

It’s like lightning. Pink lightning. The words hit me and go inside my head, effortlessly opening the vault of my mind. My mouth opens. I should tell her everything, right? Isn’t that the best—

No.

I waver, grit my teeth. I’ve felt this before. This…is like Teriarch’s geas spell! God—I did forget she could do this!

Magnolia smiles at me, and puts more intensity into her silken voice.

“Come now. You know you want to. This is quite simple for me—if you can’t even stop me from doing this, you are truly foolish. Tell me everything, Ryoka Griffin.

I want to tell her. My jaw is clamped shut, but I can feel the muscles spasming. It’s taking all I’ve got to hold still. Magnolia’s waiting for me to crack. But—I—

I’ve done this before!

My mouth opens. But what comes out is a wordless shout. I jump up, fist flashing towards Magnolia’s face—

And find myself tumbling backwards onto the couch, ears ringing, pain bursting from my chest and cheek. Ressa’s standing in front of Lady Magnolia, hands raised. I reel backwards and sit down hard on the sofa.

“Um. Well, that was surprising.”

The only sound in the room comes from Lady Magnolia. I can see her blinking at me from behind Ressa. She looks as surprised as I’ve ever seen her. I sit on the couch, staring up at Ressa. I didn’t even see her move. I’m tempted to try and hit her, but—

“Very well, Ressa, please step aside.”

Lady Magnolia’s hands push at Ressa. The surprised [Maid] moves sideways. Lady Magnolia blinks a few more times, and then looks down at her lap.

“Spilled tea. How wasteful.”

A small pool of tea is puddled in her dress. It’s ruining the expensive pink silk. But to my surprise, Magnolia just sighs and stands up. She shakes the dress—

And the tea slides off it and onto the carpet. I blink. Magnolia catches my eye and shrugs.

“Ward spells on the dress. Prevents staining. Too bad about the tea, though.”

Then she sits down as if nothing has happened and pours herself more tea. I rub at my cheek as Ressa takes a place behind Magnolia again. She’s staring at me hard, but I’m in no mood to fight.

Once there’s a fresh cup of tea in her hands, Magnolia looks at her maid and then at me.

“That was a bit too quick for my eyes, Ressa my dear. Am I right in thinking you stopped her from pummeling me?”

“Yes, milady.”

“I thought as much. Well, I seem to have misjudged you slightly, Ryoka my dear. I thought you might resist my Skill, but nothing as impressive as that. How did you do it, pray? You have no magical items on you—none for that purpose at any rate—and you have no Skills.”

So the monocle was looking at that? I just stare at Magnolia and shrug.

“That’s a secret.”

“Hmf. Well, I’m not too curious so I won’t pry. May I congratulate you, however? It isn’t often that someone has directly struck at me. The last person to do it was, well, your friend, Erin Solstice.”

Erin tried to hit Lady Magnolia? I just blink at her. Magnolia turns to Ressa.

“Didn’t you take a teapot to the face that time?”

“It was to the chest, and it was lukewarm tea.”

“Ah, of course.”

I eye Ressa. The maid eyes me. I definitely feel like the mouse if we’re in a cat and mouse relationship. She got in front of Magnolia from behind the couch before I could hit her. And she hit me in the cheek and chest in an instant.

“Your maid’s quite dedicated.”

That’s code for ‘what kind of freak of nature is your maid’? Magnolia just shrugs at me.

“Of course she is. Ressa possesses many skills, some of which include cleaning and pouring tea—others of which involve preventing people with blades from stabbing me.”

“And that’s normal for a [Maid]?”

“It’s normal for maids under my employ. Do you think I would carelessly walk around—even in my own home—and entertain guests without a bodyguard of some kind?”

“I suppose not.”

“But you didn’t think of it, did you? Really.”

Magnolia sighs and looks at her maid.

“They grow more simpleminded every year, it seems. Erin was like that, wasn’t she, Ressa? She was rather surprising in some ways, but she was as thoughtless as a rock in others.”

Okay, I feel like I should stand up for Erin even if what Magnolia’s saying is true. I grit my teeth and force myself to ignore the stinging pain in my chest and on my cheek.

“Erin is my friend.”

“How wonderful for you.”

Magnolia gives me a look that tells me she could care less. I keep going, ignoring her expression.

“She’s my friend. But I’ll admit she’s also an idiot in some ways. She doesn’t understand your goals. But I do. I know what you want, so let’s get to it.”

“Do you really?”

The other woman eyes me with more skepticism. She shrugs.

“Well then, go on. Enlighten me. What do I so desperately want from you?”

I open my mouth. Magnolia raises a finger.

“However—if you haven’t thought this through, Ressa will beat you quite black and blue.”

“What is your problem with stupid questions?”

I snap at Magnolia and barrel on before she can tell her maid to kick the crap out of me for that question.

“I know what you want. You know about my world by now. You’ve talked with people who’ve told you about guns, bombs, and all of our technology. I know you told Erin you don’t want that information spread, but there’s no way in hell you wouldn’t want to manufacture those kinds of weapons for yourself. ”

“Really? And why is that?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Fear. Even if no one in your world has weapons yet, what if you run into more people from my world? What if someone else creates guns in secret? If that happens, it’s too late. You need to make weapons or else you’ll be overwhelmed.”

I don’t know how Erin didn’t consider that. For all Magnolia says she can suppress that technology—that’s impossible. But to my surprise, Magnolia doesn’t even bat an eyelash at my answer. Instead, she laughs.

“Good answer! Unfortunately—you are wrong, my dear Ryoka. Right in one way, but terribly wrong in the other.”

What? I stare at Magnolia. She smiles at me, shaking her head.

“You really are new to this world, aren’t you? I sometimes forget—but you really know nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

I’m right. I’m sure of it. But Magnolia clearly thinks I’m wrong. She puts down her tea cup and stretches her fingers out.

“I’m sure you’d say I’m being overconfident. But the truth is, Ryoka Griffin, guns are nothing to fear if it’s just a war we speak of. If one side has guns, they have an advantage, yes, but it does not mean they would necessarily win.”

“You—clearly don’t understand weapons from my world.”

I shake my head, trying to explain to Magnolia how insane her claim is. One side with swords and arrows taking on an army with guns? I suppose if it were guerilla attacks and attrition warfare—but no, she’s wrong!

“Oh? You disagree, Ryoka? Are guns really that fearsome?”

“Of course! They—”

I raise my voice in anger, trying to get Magnolia to understand, to be wary when I hear a slight knock. Instantly, I go silent. Magnolia frowns, and Ressa immediately turns her head to the door. Magnolia raises her voice and calls out.

“Yes?”

The door opens and a maid enters the room. She looks nervous, and nearly freezes up when she sees me, Ressa, and Lady Magnolia all staring at her. But she’s clearly more afraid of doing her job wrong in front of Ressa, so she speaks quickly and clearly while bobbing a curtsy.

“I am extremely sorry to bother you, Lady Reinhart. But your guest—the Great Mage Nemor—requests the pleasure of speaking with you forthwith.”

Great Mage? Is that a class? But Magnolia just frowns, looking irritated.

“Tell him to go away. I’m busy.”

The maid hesitates. But when Ressa glares she immediately bobs a curtsy and closes the door. Magnolia turns back to me, frowning.

“Great Mage Nemor? That’s hardly accurate.”

“Is that someone important?”

My mind’s still on Magnolia’s outrageous claim, but I ask just in case. Magnolia snorts in idle amusement.

“He’s useful, but hardly important—or entertaining. He will wait. Now, go on. You were going to tell me how the armies of your world would destroy mine in an instant. Let’s assume you had an army – or simply the technology from your world. What would make them so fearsome?”

I glare at her. She’s so damn cavalier. Fine. She wants an explanation?

“A tank.”

“A tank? Oh, the others did mention one of them. A metal moving box that fires another type of gun, aren’t they?”

It sounds so simple when Magnolia says it. I shake my head as I try to explain.

“If an army had a tank—just one!—it would be able to destroy thousands of soldiers. A tank has armor that can withstand any number of spells you throw at it. It can hurl an explosion miles away that can demolish a building—”

“A spell can do the same.”

I pause. Magnolia stares at me, one eyebrow raised.

“Your tanks sound slow and cumbersome. Can they really beat a mage hiding in the grass with a [Grand Fireball] spell?”

Grand fireball? Could that destroy a tank? I—hesitate.

“That’s not the point! That’s one tank. But an army could have hundreds. And a mage takes years, decades to train. A soldier with a gun can shoot countless people and he only takes a few days to train. While a mage—”

“Hm. Yes. I see your point.”

Magnolia waves me into silence, not looking daunted in the least. She taps a fingernail on her dress, talking as she does.

“An army of tanks and guns, you say? I still find it hard to imagine, but I am told a gun is like a crossbow that shoots hundreds of bolts per minute, farther than any normal bow. Is that right?”

Pretty much. I nod. Magnolia nods as well.

“Fearsome indeed. But these are just arrows, aren’t they? Excuse me, ‘bullets’. Nonmagical bits of iron. Your…wonderful armies from your world—they lack magic. And that is a crucial flaw. Let us say you have, oh, ten thousand soldiers with guns and several tanks. And any number of your aircrafts as well.”

Magnolia leans over the coffee table, eyes glittering. Her smile has teeth.

“I could destroy an army like that in less than ten minutes.”

I believe her. I stare into Magnolia’s eyes, and I believe she could do it. How? A spell? Enchanted armor? Would enchanted armor even suffer dents? Could you really send a few warriors in plate mail and take down tanks that easily?

“You really don’t fear guns?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Magnolia frowns at me irately. She looks as if she’s considering tossing her tea cup at me and then shrugs and goes on.

“Anyone with half a brain knows that a gun is a dangerous weapon. But anyone with a full brain knows that even an army with guns is quite easy to destroy.”

“Oh really?”

“I will hit you, you know. Or rather, order Ressa to do it for me.”

Magnolia glares at me and sighs. She settles back into her seat.

“I can destroy two armies as easily as I can destroy one. That is not the issue.”

She raises one delicate finger.

“One gun, or even ten thousand will not change the world. But a million will.”

I think I get it. Magnolia nods as she goes on.

“I do not want to create guns and other such technologies. I do not want such secrets to spread either. And the reason for that is simple: while such devices might provide power to me in the short term, it will inevitably change the world for the worse. If every [Soldier] has a gun, then it is likely the larger army will prevail. If a child can kill a man in full plate armor, then levels lose much of their meaning.”

“And if anyone can field an army, then you lose your power.”

Magnolia eyes me sternly, as if I’ve missed the point.

Everyone loses. Don’t you understand? If it becomes an issue of numbers, then the most numerous races will conquer the others. If the balance of power is upset so far, then it will be a war where guns become the only meaningful value. As it is, an army with guns would be a significant threat, but one any world power would be able to deal with.”

She sighs.

“But only if it were an army. If guns were commonplace? In time, guns would dominate everything. In time. A nation able to manufacture more arms of a better quality would inevitably defeat the others. It will lead to a war to end all wars, where the victor will stand upon the corpses of all.”

My blood goes cold as I think of that kind of war. That’s what I envisioned as well. True, there might be ways to change such a war, but in the end it would just be an arms race, and countless battles where people with guns fight people with swords. A bloodbath.

Lady Magnolia seems to agree. She shakes her head.

“What a pointless war. It will occur if word of this technology spreads. A war with your world is one thing; if it occurs it will be inevitable. But if I can, I will prevent this world from seizing such dangerous weapons.”

Can I trust her? I don’t know. But Magnolia seems to have thought this through. She looks at me, and I feel the weight of her gaze pressing down on me, trying to force me to tell the truth, to speak.

“So, here is my most pressing question, one which I believe you will answer. How long will it take for these dangerous weapons to be developed? If one of the people from your world were to cooperate—or give up such information to a powerful individual or nation, how long would it take for them to engineer such inventions?”

The question catches me off guard. For a second I’m not sure if I should answer it. But from what Magnolia’s said—I do some quick calculations. I’m obviously not an expert in firearms, but let’s think about it rationally. If someone needed to find all the ingredients of gunpowder, sulfur, saltpeter, charcoal—and secure them as a long-term resource…testing…building prototypes…

“You could probably have a prototype gun ready in less than a month if you had a kingdom’s worth of resources at your disposal. But a gun that’s ready for war? A proper gun? An army? That would take years.”

The more dangerous route would be a cannon. That’s easier to make, honestly. I share that with Magnolia and she nods thoughtfully.

“A cannon? Intriguing. But if that’s anything like a trebuchet, it’s not as much of a problem.”

She’s so…calm about this. I just stare at Magnolia, a woman unafraid of guns or cannons. She stares back.

“Well, a year is more than enough time for me to locate any signs of manufacturing. But just to be sure—name one of the components of this ‘gunpowder’ for me, if you would.”

Instantly, I shut my mouth. Magnolia just sighs loudly.

“Don’t be obstinate. I said one component. I am hardly inclined to go around searching for how to make the stuff if I could just torture it out of you. And since I am not going to…”

She’s right. I have to trust her. Reluctantly, I open my mouth.

“Sulfur.”

Both of Magnolia’s eyebrows shoot upwards. She exchanges a glance I can’t read with Ressa.

“Ah. That’s troubling.”

“What? Why’s that?”

The woman just stares at me and raises an eyebrow again.

“If I told you, could you even help? No? Then I won’t.”

That—she knows something, doesn’t she? Someone’s already making a move on sulfur! Does that mean the secret’s out? Can she stop it? My head’s racing, but the cooler part of me doesn’t panic. Magnolia’s right. I can’t do anything. I have to…trust her.

Trust that she’s telling the truth. So reluctantly I put that out of my mind and stare at Magnolia. Everything seems, well, good so far.

That’s worrying. I can’t have been called here just to talk about weapons and how useless they might be right now. No—there’s something else.

“Is that it? If you don’t want weapons, then why am I here?”

Magnolia pauses as she reaches for the tea pot. Ressa, gently pulling said pot out of Magnolia’s reach, meeting her mistress’s gaze.

“Was that a foolish question, do you think, Ressa?”

“It seems reasonable to me. She does not know you.”

“Ah, well, we’ll let it slide.”

Magnolia turns back to me and gives me a beaming smile.

“Of course you’re not here just to talk about weapons, my dear idiotic Ryoka. But I thought it would be best to set your mind at ease first.”

“I’m going to ignore that. Once.”

“How intelligent. Now, would you like to ask the obvious question? I promise I won’t order Ressa to hit you.”

“Fine. Why am I here? What do you want to know?”

Magnolia smiles at me. Her eyes sparkle, and she sits up, the very image of a dignified [Lady]. Her reply is quick, decisive, insane.

“Ice cream.”

“What?”

There must have been something in the pot. That’s why Ressa’s engaged in a silent tug-of-war with Magnolia. Or else she just doesn’t want her boss’s teeth to fall out. But Magnolia abandons the tea pot to look seriously at me.

“I just want ice cream. And cake. We have some types of cake—not nearly as good as yours, mind you, but something similar to what I have heard described. But the other children tell me it is possible to make an ice cream cake. I would like to try that, and frosting. And whipped cream. And cotton candy.”

Oh my god. She’s got a sweet tooth. I mean, I knew that already. But she brought me—here—over four hundred miles—

I put my head in my hands. This can’t be happening. But it is. And when I think about it…

I look up sharply.

“No.”

“No?”

Magnolia looks hurt, and offended.

“Whyever not? This is hardly a secret worth keeping, Ryoka Griffin. Compared to a gun, what is a mint, chocolate chip, cookies and cream, caramel ice cream sundae with sprinkles?”

I want to vomit just listening to her. But I read past her trite words to the deeper meaning below them.

“It’s not just ice cream and desserts you want, is it? It might start that way, but after you ask for recipes, you’ll ask me about other technologies from my world. Little inventions and innovations that can help everyone.”

Lady Magnolia pauses. She looks at me, sighs, and then looks at her maid.

“Ah. She figured it out.”

“She is not a complete idiot, milady.”

I stare at the two of them, filled with grim certainty all of a sudden. Now I get it. Their tones are light, but I know they’re watching me. Lady Magnolia still looks genuinely disappointed, though.

“You are correct, intelligent Miss Ryoka Griffin. In truth, I was going to have you explain to one of my [Chefs] how to make all kinds of treats before I got to the rest. I have a larder stocked with countless ingredients if you’d want to…? Ah, it’s too late. How tragic.”

She sighs dramatically.

“At least the other girls know how to make cake. But no one can tell me how cotton candy is made! But you are quite right. That would only be the start of what I ask of you.”

First comes cotton candy. Then comes steam engines, or crop rotation. Or the periodic table. Plastic, sporks, bicycles…

None of this is bad stuff. In fact, I think if I could introduce this kind of technology to the world I would. But not through her. Not through this woman.

There’s more than one kind of power. And giving Magnolia Reinhart a monopoly on every invention from the medieval ages to the modern one? It might even be worse than teaching her how to make a gun.

“You want me to help you become even richer than you already are, is that it?”

“Rich enough to buy a Walled City. That would be a nice start.”

Magnolia smiles at me, like a proud parent watching over a child. I want to kick her in the face, but Ressa’s watching me.

“You figured it out—well done! Guns are an unstable bit of technology, but it is hard to take over the world with—what did the others call it? Parfait? It sounds delicious, and I’m sure it will earn me tens of thousands of gold coins when one of them finally figures out how it is made.”

It’s sick. It’s stupid. It doesn’t sound right. But the scariest and most powerful person in this world right now isn’t a general with an army of tanks. It’s a business magnate who wants to orchestrate the biggest monopoly and buyout the world’s ever seen.

Money. If Magnolia Reinhart is known for one thing, it’s money. If she had unlimited funds—she could buy out every mercenary on the continent, fund unlimited armies. Money is power, and even if the power of money isn’t unlimited, it’s scary.

Now you know, Ryoka. You know her twisted, wicked, sugar-based schemes. Now how are you going to get out of this?

“I wonder. How indeed?”

It’s like she can read my mind. I stare at Magnolia, but her face is innocent. Did she really…?

No, she can sense my intentions. She can probably sense that I want to leave and extrapolated from there. But…that’s still really scary.

“And the worst part is, I am clearly an ally of sorts, aren’t I, Ryoka Griffin? I can stop the world from using guns. But as for the rest…”

I still can’t trust her. That’s my conclusion. I stare at Magnolia Reinhart and feel my heart begin to beat faster. It’s like a drum in my chest, thunder in my veins, a knock at the door—

“Again?”

Magnolia turns towards the door, frowning in genuine irritation. I stare at the door too, and see the same unfortunate maid poke her head in. She looks pale—and she goes ghostly when she sees Magnolia’s frown.

“I am so sorry—”

“Get to the point.”

Ressa snaps and the maid curtsies as if she were ducking a bullet.

“The mage—he’s demanding to see you, Lady Reinhart. He won’t take no for an answer—”

“Tell Nemor that if he does not sit still and wait for me to summon him, I will throw him out of my estate.”

Lady Magnolia’s voice is impatient, and she clearly means every word. The maid gulps, but takes one look at Ressa and clearly decides that arguing with a mage would be a lot more fun.

The door closes and Magnolia turns back to me with a sigh.

“I believe dear Nemor will regret that when we meet. In fact, I am sure of it. I don’t even know why he’s calling on me today.”

“Why don’t you talk to him? I was just leaving…”

I stand up, making a show of dusting myself off. Lady Magnolia smiles at me.

“Oh no. Sit.

It’s too fast for me. My legs fold up and I sit. I glare at the woman, but she just chuckles.

“You can’t get away that easily, Ryoka. And even if my Skill doesn’t work—there are truth spells and even potions, you know.”

This is bad. I eye Ressa, and remember the potions and bags on my belt. But those are good against enemies who can’t move faster than I can see. And I’m sitting in the mansion itself.

No—I knew fighting was a bad idea. I take a deep breath.

“You cannot keep me here.”

“Oh? That’s a bold statement to make.”

Don’t I know it. I meet Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze squarely. She studies me—not with arrogance and overconfidence like some helpful movie villain, but calculatingly.

“Hm. You have a plan, don’t you? Well, go on. I like to be entertained.”

“I won’t help you.”

“Even if all I want are inventions that will help everyone?”

“Even then. Because that would mean placing too much power in just your hands. Too much wealth.”

“And this is a bad thing because?”

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely. No one person should be entrusted with all that.”

“My power is hardly absolute.”

Lady Magnolia looks amused, but then her gaze sharpened. Her eyes prick at my skin like knives.

“But I take your point. You don’t trust me. But tell me, Ryoka Griffin. How will you stop me from doing what I please? I already have many travellers from your world who know of wondrous inventions. I only need you to fill in the gaps, and then my [Blacksmiths], [Carpenters], [Mages], and [Alchemists] will do the rest. I even know [Engineers].”

All the things she needs to reverse-engineer any number of gadgets. I swallow hard.

“But you need me. What if I’m not here?”

“Oh? And how will you stop me?”

Legit question. My eyes travel to the window. I have three ways to get out of here. Three bargaining chips. The first—

Is hovering outside, making faces at me. I grin.

“I’ve got friends who bow to no [Lord] or [Lady] or even [King].”

I point to the window. Magnolia and Ressa turn—and see Ivolethe. The tiny faerie waves at me, and taps her ears. She can hear us? Even better.

“Um.”

A voice interrupts me. I stare at Magnolia. She’s looking at the window and me with a blank expression.

“What is it exactly that I should be staring at?”

I open my mouth…and nearly swallow my tongue.

She can’t see Frost Faeries. Suddenly I feel like an idiot. But then Ressa’s eyes narrow, and she tucks a hand into her skirt.

“Magnolia, step back.”

“What?”

To her credit Magnolia vacates the couch even as she says that. She stands behind Ressa, suddenly wary as the maid stares at the window.

“What is it, Ressa? Something invisible?”

“No.”

Ressa stares hard at a spot just to the left of Ivolethe. The faerie is just grinning, grinning at me. She’s got one hand raised and she points to Magnolia and Ressa. Then she draws a finger across her throat. Where’d she learn that? But for once I’m in full agreement. I nod slightly and she laughs outside the glass.

“There is a Winter Sprite outside the window.”

“A Frost Faerie? Really?”

Magnolia squints at the window and then gasps. Instantly she looks at me, eyes narrowed.

“Now isn’t that interesting?”

I feel uneasy. She—shouldn’t be this calm. Ressa’s certainly treating Ivolethe like a threat. And for good reason.

My tiny friend has been flying around the glass, making faces only I can see. But after I gave her my plea for help, she acts. She flies up to the window around head height, and puts her hand on the glass pane.

Instantly, the window becomes frosty. Magnolia gasps—not really in alarm—and Ressa immediately tenses. But what can she do against a force of nature?

The frost from the window grows deeper, and suddenly ice begins to form, thickening on the pane. Slowly, it begins to spread into the room, and I feel the temperature drop like a stone. More ice begins to spread from the window. Is Ivolethe trying to trap Ressa and Magnolia? What about me? If the window breaks—could I jump for it?

I’m tense, my hand on the smoke bag Octavia made for me. I’m watching Ressa, ready to move. And she’s looking from the window to me. It’ll all be settled in a moment—

“That’s quite enough.”

Magnolia’s voice makes all of us pause in place. Even Ivolethe blinks as Magnolia steps out from behind Ressa. The taller woman moves to block her, but Magnolia just pushes her aside.

“I will handle this, Ressa.”

She steps up to the frozen window, where I can see Ivolethe reflected through the clear ice. Magnolia stares a bit past Ivolethe, but she shows not a tiny shred of fear in front of the faerie. But—she’s just a [Lady], right? And Ivolethe isn’t inside—

I tell myself Magnolia’s powerless. But I can’t help but feel uneasy. And there’s a twinge of uncertainty even on the faerie’s immortal face. She stares at Magnolia. Magnolia just sighs.

“How on earth did Ryoka meet a creature like you? Well, I’d love to chat, but I’m told on very good authority that you lot are troublemakers. I can’t have that right now. Kindly go away or I’ll have to make you leave.”

Ivolethe stares at Lady Magnolia incredulously. Possibly no one has ever talked to a Frost Faerie that way before—at least, not for long. She thinks for a second, then makes an unmistakable gesture and conjures a snowball.

Ressa seems to blink in front of Magnolia as the snowball smacks into the glass in front of the woman. But Magnolia doesn’t even flinch. She sighs, and then she raises her voice. Gone is the normal tone, her light and friendly air. Her eyes are filled with that same intensity, and her tone booms and cracks like distant thunder.

“I am Lady Magnolia. This mansion and the land around are mine. You are not welcome here. Begone.

I feel her last word in my bones. The effect on Ivolethe is immediate. She flies screaming out of Magnolia’s courtyard as if she’s been set on fire. I see her faint azure form flitting high, high into the sky until it disappears. Magnolia watches until Ivolethe’s gone and then turns back to me.

“Well, that’s that. Did you have any other allies, or was that it?”

Holy shit.

I—

Was that—?

Uh oh.

Ressa’s staring at me now too, and the look in her eyes says that she’s going to beat me into a pulp the first chance she gets. The ice Ivolethe conjured isn’t going away; rather, it’s beginning to melt off the walls.

“I do hope you had another plan. I’ll admit this one is novel, but it’s rather short-sighted, don’t you think?”

Magnolia smiles at me, eyes still filled with that horrible authority. Part of me wants to give in or run just looking at her.

But the rest is resolute. This woman can’t have her way.

Trump card. Trump card. I take a breath and pray like hell what Erin told me was on a level. I open up with my second trump card to play.

“You can’t keep me here. I have something important to do.”

“Oh? Something important? Running deliveries? Delivering a birthday message and a ring? Helping Erin? Do tell.”

Oh, that smile. I smile back at Magnolia and notice hers wanes a tiny bit.

“Not Erin or adventurers. I have to convince the Antinium not to go to war.”

For a second—oh, for a lovely, wonderful second, I have the pleasure of watching Magnolia’s smile vanish. Her eyes widen, and she stares at me.

The one upside to verbally sparring with someone who can sense your intentions? They know when you’re not lying.

The glorious moment of seeing Magnolia Reinhart uncertain lasts for a heartbeat. Then she looks over my shoulder.

“Ressa.”

I don’t even see the woman. I don’t even get a chance to react. Her hand grabs mine and suddenly I’m in an arm-lock that’s an inch of force away from breaking my arm. I can feel my tendons tearing.

“Don’t break her arm yet, Ressa. But be wary.”

I barely hear Magnolia over the pain. Arm lock. I’m in—I know how to counter. But if I do—

Gah! I don’t move. After a second that feels like forever I see Magnolia step back from me. I know she’s staring at me.

“Please explain that sentence, Ryoka Griffin.”

Arm is agony. Pain is—all consuming. But I force the words out, nearly choking on them.

“The Antinium are not your enemy.”

Pause. The pressure on my arm isn’t reduced. Can I hear my bones creaking?

“Go on.”

Maybe it’s the pain, but I let my mouth do the talking.

“What do you mean go on? I said, they’re not your enemy? Don’t you understand that you id—argh!

Ressa twists my arm up a bit more. I shout in pain, but I’m afraid to move. Magnolia sighs.

“Ressa, she’s not lying. Let her go.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am. She’s not lying. And if she’s telling the truth—”

The pressure releases all at once. I stumble forwards, feeling at my arm. The pain isn’t gone. It’s—

I’ve got a potion at my belt. I wrench it out and unstopper it with one hand. Some goes on my shirt, the floor—the rest hits my arm. Instantly, the throbbing, burning pain ceases. I turn and stare at Ressa.

And…a dagger. She has one in her right hand. It looks very sharp. And magical. I’m assuming the green tint to the edge of the blade is magic. Maybe it’s poison. Poison magic?

“Put the blade away, Ressa.”

Magnolia sighs as she stares at both me and Ressa. Slowly, very slowly, the maid tucks the blade up the sleeve of her uniform. She stares at me. I watch her.

“I’m sitting down.”

Magnolia’s voice makes both of us start. She steps over to the couch and sits down in it. Then she swivels, and puts her feet up on the edge of the couch as if she’s on a therapist’s couch. She stares at me.

“Well? Explain.”

I don’t need to be told twice. Rubbing at my arm, I take a seat. Ressa silently walks behind Magnolia. Both women stare at me, waiting for me to speak.

“The Antinium aren’t your enemies. Not necessarily, at any rate.”

I look at them. Nothing. Well, they’re good listeners when things are serious. I take a deep breath.

“The shortest way to explain this is that the Antinium’s true enemy isn’t you. They fought two wars here, but to them, this is only a—a skirmish. A lull before the larger war. They don’t want this continent, I think. They’re just getting ready for their real enemy to emerge.”

“And what’s that?”

“A god.”

How easy it is to say. How…easy. And it slips off the tongue as if it means nothing. Perhaps it does to most people in this world. I can’t even begin to understand what it means myself. But Magnolia Reinhart hears this and the look on her face changes again. This time, I think I see fear.

“Impossible.”

Magnolia says that word flatly. Her eyes are locked on mine.

“The gods are dead.”

I shake my head.

“Tell that to the Antinium. Tell that to the Queens. They fled Rhir because they were fighting something they believed was a god. Or do you think the Antinium would run from any other opponent?”

Pause. Stare. Ressa’s looking at me now, not with hostility, but something approaching genuine worry. She looks at her mistress. Magnolia closes her eyes for seven seconds. What she thinks in that time I don’t know. But when she opens her eyes—

“How do you know? This must have come from a credible source. And I don’t believe the Queen would talk to you. If this came from a Worker—”

“No Worker.”

I shake my head.

“Klbkch. He’s a Prognugator in the Antinium Hive based in Liscor—”

“Klbkch the Slayer.”

The word escapes Magnolia’s lips. She sits up on the couch and stares at Ressa. Something unspoken passes between the two, and then they look back at me. Magnolia’s voice is serious when she speaks next.

“You have my full and undivided attention, Ryoka Griffin. For the moment I’ll believe everything you say. Do not waste this chance.”

“So you believe me?”

“Oh yes. At least, I believe you are telling the truth. And if it was Klbkch the Slayer who told you this…”

Magnolia’s voice trails off. Ressa looks at her, worried.

“Does this change the plans?”

The other woman nods, shortly. She even laughs, but not with any pleasure.

“Of course. It changes…everything. It changes the entire world.”

She looks back at me, about to ask another question. Then someone knocks. The door opens.

“Lady Reinhart? The [Mage]—”

This time Magnolia doesn’t wait. She grabs the tea pot and hurls it at the door.

Get out!

I see the tea pot shatter, but before the pieces even hit the floor, the maid has fled. Calmly, as if nothing happened, Magnolia turns back to me.

“You were saying Klbkch the Slayer told you this?”

“You know him?”

Magnolia’s face is grim as she nods.

“I know him. I have seen him on the battlefield. Perhaps before that, but we met for one brief moment during the Second Antinium War.”

“The Second Antinium War?”

I only read about the first one. Damn. The second one was mentioned, but I think I lost the book that talked about it. Magnolia frowns at me, and then looks at her maid.

“Ressa, fetch the book for me.”

It’s clear which one she means. Ressa walks out of the room, and Magnolia turns back to me.

“Tell me the rest.”

I do, as concisely as I can in the time it takes Ressa to return. Magnolia keeps interrupting me, but when her maid is standing by her side with a slim book in her hands, she sighs and accepts it. She looks at the book before handing it to me.

“What’s this?”

“The history of the Antinium, all the information known about their culture, and a history of both the first and second Antinium Wars.”

Magnolia taps the cover as I hold it in my hands. I read the title. The Antinium: A Brief History by Krsysl Wordsmith. The name is familiar to me.

“Wasn’t he the one who wrote about the First Antinium War?”

“He was.”

Lady Magnolia nods as I tuck the book into the bag of holding at my side. She notes it, but makes no comment. I guess the Antinium really do trump all other concerns.

“I funded his research and the book. I would advise you to read it, the history of the Second Antinium War in particular, especially if you are going to be working with Klbkch.”

Huh. I look up at Magnolia, surprised.

“So you’re going to let me go?”

“Didn’t I say I hated stupid questions?”

The woman scowls at me, but weakly. Her heart’s not in it any longer. Ressa looks at her and Magnolia nods wearily.

“That’s right, Miss Ryoka who knows too much. You win. If there is a slight chance—however slight!—that there could be a way to avoid a war with the Antinium, I would take it. And the knowledge that there is dissent within the Hives—from a Prognugator no less? Invaluable. Even more invaluable is the knowledge of what the Antinium fear. If there is a god—”

She breaks off and shakes her head. Then she fixes me with a gaze like diamonds.

“You have changed everything I seek to do, Ryoka. Do you know that?”

I meet her gaze.

“I do.”

“From this moment on, you and I must be allies. We must be, because I must pursue peace with the Antinium and find out more of what they know, and because you will not live with me as your enemy. I promise you that.”

Magnolia’s eyes are hard as she captures mine. I can’t help it. I swallow, but that’s all. I don’t look away.

“So, what should we do? As allies? I trust you won’t be keeping me here or extorting information against my will?”

Lady Magnolia smiles.

“On the contrary. If we’re allies you should be giving that to me for free. But we can…negotiate that later. For now, you are officially my guest. That means I feed you, in case you were wondering. I’ll even allow that Winter Sprite back on my estate, if you can find her. I would like to talk to her as well, if that is possible.”

Wow. Suddenly, everything’s changed. I shift in my seat. What should I explore first? Does this mean what I think it does? If I have an ally—

The wall explodes. Mortar and stone blast outwards in a single thunderous impact that sends the couches, tables, and me flying. I windmill through the air, trying to curl and reduce the impact. No good. I hit something hard and then I think the world stops for a second.

I don’t know. All I do know is that when the pain and shock stop long enough for thought to shakily resume, I’m pulling myself up. Something in my thigh. A fragment of stone. Deep. I don’t feel anything broken—but everything hurts.

“What…?”

I look around. The room is in ruins. The wall’s gone—and a huge stretch of corridor gapes at me. But what I see in the center of the room is more important.

Lady Magnolia and Ressa are standing in the center of the room. Untouched. Even their clothes aren’t ruffled. It’s like…the explosion didn’t hit them. I see a radiant nimbus around both of them.

Shield spell?

But someone else is standing there too. A man in robes. He’s…tall. I feel like throwing up. But magic shines around him, so strong I can see it. He blew up the wall.

And he’s talking. I hear his voice dimly over the ringing in my ears.

“Magnolia Reinhart. The Circle of Thorns seeks your life.”

He must be the Great Mage Nemor. I try to get up and collapse. My leg—

Magnolia Reinhart stares at the mage. She looks around at the destruction. Her eyes linger on me for a second, and then she stares back at the mage.

“Well.”

It’s just one word. She’s not afraid—rather, her eyes are full of cold fury. But aside from Ressa she is alone. And even as I watch I see a shadow move. An [Assassin] steps out of the darkness as if he’s a ghost. And more—they flit towards her. Surrounding…more…

I can’t breathe. I have to warn her. Ressa’s standing with her back to Magnolia, tense. But—there’s too many. And yet Magnolia is not afraid. She looks at the mage. Looks down at him.

“The Circle of Thorns? You have my full attention.”

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A note from pirateaba

This…is a early update. Because I’ve worked all night on this chapter and I’m not waking early enough to post. So early. Means more typos but someone’s gonna be happy.

Let’s be clear: Magnolia Reinhart is a horrible, terrible character to write. She’s so complex that I had nightmares about this chapter. And…yeah. It was just as bad as I thought it would be. This chapter’s over 12,000 words long, but I threw 3,000 more words out to make this flow right.

Enough. I hope it’s good–let me know if there are plot holes, problems, or it just doesn’t feel good. I think it’s okay, but you never know.

Most importantly: remember all them requests I got? For a map? And proper directions? And stuff? Well, check out this link! I gave my $10 readers access to this post early, but all you $5+ Patreons can look at it now! Probably I’ll make it public by the time I do my next update…

Enjoy! Hope you like the map, the timeline (included with the map), and this super-significant? discussion! And I also hope I haven’t left any plot holes. Fingers crossed, and as always, thanks for reading!

PS: A super cool reader made a better version of the map! Read it here, and everyone thank Simon, our Level 19 [Cartographer] in the comments!


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Leopanther @Leopanther ago

First?

 

Awesome chapter as always :3

njt07 @njt07 ago

Good chapter, I like the interplay between the characters and the reveals regarding Magnolia and her goals. 

I do wonder if guns will eventually be used if only to fight against the antinium who don't have magic...yet at least. Though any guns made would have to be black powder and not as effective I would assume.

also we haven't heard from the sleeping emperor (I don't think I got his name right...) for a while but he has the twins who may be as intelligent as Ryoka and could be the catalyst for Ryoka to cooperate with Magnolia, or for her to enlist the antinium against that army. Can't wait for the future chapters!

kd7fds @kd7fds ago

Love the chapter.  Lady Magnolia is a wonderfully deep complex character.   I laughed at how easily she handled a frost faerie

 

Kronos Tizilious @Kronos Tizilious ago

Well shit, thanks for the cliff- I mean chapter.

Gvm @Gvm ago

Thanks for the chapter!!

Rohan
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Rohan @Rohan ago

Thank you, Simon the [Cartographer].

Interesting chapter...

Beyogi @Beyogi ago

Well she should probably figure out how to end Magnolia. She's both too dangerous and too shortsighted. But Ryoka is a teenager that explodes and runs away so that's unlikely to happen.

Seriously technology is a force multiplier. It's not that hard to get. And her anti-gunpowder measures are only going to work until someone summons an actual chemist. It's not like it's the only explosive.

Honestly I kinda hope she dies here. She's too confident, considering herself empress of the world. But the mighty have fallen before and she's been making enemies she shouldn't.

gte22 @gte22 ago

Thanks for the chapter :)

Qanelin @Qanelin ago

I did not like this chapter at all.