“I’m going into the city now. Do you want to come or stay?”
The next day, Lyonette was sitting in front of Mrsha, talking to her. The small white Gnoll was chewing on the tip of her wand and looked up curiously at her. Lyonette went on.
“The Horns of Hammerad are resting. Ceria got bit badly on the leg and butt yesterday and no one wants to do much after the party, so the Halfseekers might be here all day too. You can stay with them or come with me. Which is it?”
Mrsha rolled backwards and then slumped onto her side, accidentally jabbing the inside of her mouth with the tip of the wand. She yelped and Lyonette sighed.
“I told you not to play with that! Give it here, Mrsha. You can’t keep—”
The Gnoll scuttled away from Lyonette, holding her wand possessively. She glanced at Lyonette and after a moment, shook her head and pointed to the floor.
“You want to stay here? You’re sure?”
Mrsha hesitated. But then she nodded. Lyonette smiled a bit.
Progress. After yesterday, it seemed like she could leave the inn without Mrsha coming with her. The Gnoll seemed secure if she was around the adventurers, especially Jelaqua and Moore who doted on her. It felt like all the anxiety and stress everyone had been under was a memory of months ago, rather than yesterday. Lyonette was grateful for that beyond words.
But there were still things she had to put her foot down on. She and Mrsha had done a lot of reconciling since yesterday, but one thing had to change.
“No more wand. Come on, give it here.”
She held out her hand. Mrsha clutched the magical artifact worth hundreds or thousands of gold pieces to her chest and shook her head rapidly. Lyonette sighed.
“Mrsha, I know you like biting it. But it doesn’t bother you where that wand has been?”
The Gnoll paused as she put the tip into her mouth and stared at Lyonette. Clearly, soap and water cured all ills in her book. She shook her head and darted back as Lyonette tried to grab the wand.
“I’m sorry, but you’re still not keeping it! Come here, missy!”
A short chase and struggle later, Mrsha was reaching for the wand and making unhappy sounds as Lyonette walked downstairs. She walked over to a table where the Horns of Hammerad were relaxing in good spirits and plonked down the wand in front of a surprised Pisces.
“Here. Your wand. Please don’t let Mrsha take it again.”
Pisces stared askance at the wand which was wet with drool. He picked it up gingerly with two fingers and stared at Mrsha. The Gnoll stared back.
It had become either a game or a contest between the two over possession of the wand. Pisces would keep it every time Lyonette managed to wrest it out of Mrsha’s paws, and the Gnoll would try everything in her power to steal it back. She’d hide under tables, try sneaking into his room at night—her latest trick had involved ambushing Pisces right as he left the outhouse.
The game amused Mrsha and Pisces, but not Lyonette. She glared at the [Mage]. He smiled at her.
“I shall endeavor to keep it out of young Mrsha’s possession, Miss Lyonette.”
“Don’t endeavor. Try.”
She turned away before Pisces could tell her that was what he’d said. He couldn’t ruin her good spirits. She found another group sitting at a table and gingerly approached.
The Selphid was draped over the table, groaning audibly. She winced as Mrsha hopped onto the table and patted her head. Jelaqua sat up with a wince as Mrsha pulled a bit at the stitching around her head.
“Don’t pull at that, Mrsha. I’m no Stitch-Woman and if the head comes off, you’re going to see something you won’t like. What’s up, Lyonette?”
“I need someone to look after Mrsha while I go into the city. Erin’s going and Ishkr’s going to be busy, so I was hoping…”
“We can take care of her.”
Behind Jelaqua, a slumped figure sat up. As usual Moore was sitting cross-legged on the ground, there not being a chair large enough for him. He smiled tenderly at Mrsha and she waved one paw at him. Lyonette looked over and a shape in dark clothing groaned at her. Seborn looked more dead than alive, and the crustacean side of his body looked like it was leaking some kind of liquid.
“Mrsha’s fine to stay with us as long as she wants, Lyonette. I don’t think we’re in any condition to do…anything.”
Jelaqua informed the [Barmaid] as she winced herself upright. She was clearly feeling the effects of heavy drinking last night. She looked longingly towards the door to Celum.
“We won’t go far, although we might go to Octavia’s shop and see if she sells any hangover potions. Otherwise I think Seborn will shank himself to end the misery.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
Lyonette grinned as Seborn looked up. Drowned Man he might be, but Seborn drank like a sailor, at a pace only matched by Jelaqua’s enthusiasm and Moore’s capacity for alcohol.
Very quietly thanking the Halfseekers, Lyonette walked stealthily away from them and towards the kitchen. She was nearly there when she heard a terrific crash of falling pots and pans. She looked over her shoulder just in time to see Seborn twitch and Jelaqua’s eyes roll back into her head for a moment.
Erin cheerfully poked her head out of the kitchen and waved at two of the Goblins sitting at a table who’d looked up. Headscratcher and Shorthilt looked at the smiling young woman and then went back to sharpening their swords with a grunt. Lyonette passed by them, staring as they carefully maintained their well-worn steel blades.
This was how things were better. Lyonette didn’t guiltily look away when Headscratcher noticed she was looking. She just smiled politely and the Goblin tried to do the same. There was still a strong sense of…of distance between her and the Goblins, but the fear had mostly gone.
The inn felt better. It truly did. And as Lyonette walked into the kitchen, she saw Erin was smiling for the first time in what felt like weeks. She was masterminding a grand operation with a harried Ishkr, and by the looks of it, she was generating enough dirty dishes to keep the Gnoll busy all day.
“Okay, frosting’s done! And the batter is good—I’m sticking it in the oven now, Ishkr. You’re sure you can take it out after thirty minutes or when it looks done? Remember what I told you about sticking a fork in?”
The Gnoll [Waiter] nodded, licking a bit of frosted white sugar off the hair on his arms.
“I will not forget, Miss Erin. And I can smell when cooked food begins to burn.”
“Awesome. Okay Lyonette, I think I’m ready! Is Mrsha coming or staying?”
“Staying. I think she’s tired from yesterday.”
Lyonette smiled as Erin took off her apron and the two young women walked out of the inn. Erin waved at the Horns of Hammerad, pausing only long enough to ask where Ksmvr and Yvlon were. Both Ceria and Pisces pointed, and the two Human girls found the [Warriors] outside, sparring.
Ksmvr was dodging back and forth while Yvlon struck at him with a crude wooden practice sword. He had two wooden swords as well, although both were wearing what armor they possessed. As Erin and Lyonette watched, he leapt up into the air, incredibly high.
The Ring of Jumping let Ksmvr soar upwards. Erin and Lyonette heard a voice from above.
“Oh. Hello Ksmvr. How are you d—”
Bird didn’t get a chance to finish. The Antinium landed behind Yvlon and lashed out. But she, forewarned by the jump, was already stepping forwards. She poked Ksmvr in the chest and he raised his swords.
“I have died again.”
“Stop saying that. I keep telling you, it’s ‘lost’. And you did well. If you could just jump less high, I wouldn’t have time to react. As it is, you’re a target.”
“I agree. Unfortunately, I miscalculated. I had intended to land on your head.”
“Please don’t do that. My helmet might not survive the impact. My head definitely won’t.”
The two disappeared as Erin and Lyonette walked down the hill. Both girls had to work hard not to slip in the slushy snow. Erin wobbled as she walked in her thick winter boots.
“Whoa! Slippery. It’s really getting warmer, isn’t it? Only, there’s so much snow that it’s still not melting.”
“True. It’ll probably be a week or two before it melts. But I can feel a layer of water underneath now. And if I walk into some of the valleys, I’ll be waist-deep in water and drenched before I blink.”
Lyonette made a face as she walked. Erin nodded.
“Yeah. According to Olesm, it’ll get worse when it starts to rain. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I guess you won’t be harvesting any more honey, right? I mean, putting them to sleep is one thing, but the snow’s your emergency fallback. I don’t think I’d be okay with you not having a way to get away if the faerie flowers don’t work.”
“Maybe. I was thinking there might be another way to distract the bees in case something bad happens. A distraction—something Octavia might have. I’m going to ask her about it, if you’re okay with me spending some gold.”
“Sure. Ashfire Bee honey makes us a lot of money. Just don’t let her sell you any other potions while you’re at it.”
Their conversation was light, revolving around business and life in general. And that was what they wanted. In these days when it seemed like every two seconds there was another report about the Goblin Lord burning a village or marching here or there…this is what they wanted.
Peace. At least for a day. So Erin and Lyonette walked into Liscor and did normal things. The first thing they did was visit Krshia.
They hadn’t been sure that the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] would be at her stall today. She had been absent since Brunkr’s death. And while Erin had visited the Gnoll in her apartment, it was a relief to see her at her small stall like usual.
“Erin! Lyonette. It is good to see you two, yes?”
The Gnoll turned with a jar of ointment in her hands. The two Humans waited patiently while Krshia closed her deal—selling an ointment for dry scales to a harried Drake woman. Then they had time to talk.
Was it a sign of how Krshia’s fortunes had changed that she was stuck on the edges of the market, in a far smaller stall than the one she’d used to have? Then again, it could be argued that her enduring business was a sign that her popularity among customers hadn’t waned.
It still hurt Lyonette to see the stall and remember what she’d done. But Krshia and Erin acted as if there was nothing to remember. They chatted happily, not giving voice to darker memories. It was something everyone there understood. The voices that whispered and the images that rose unbidden at night and in quiet times would come regardless of happiness in the day. They clung to better moments like sailors adrift at sea.
“I did not think to see you without young Mrsha today. But then, I have heard that you reached an understanding of sorts yesterday with the…Goblins.”
Krshia sniffed at Lyonette, and the girl was reminded that Gnoll noses, like Gnoll hearing, picked up far more than their owners usually let on. Erin smiled teasingly.
“You just happened to hear it from Ishkr?”
“Hrm. He is a distant nephew and a dutiful one. But many heard it themselves. The music your inn played was audible to many [Guardsmen] on the walls. Several complained about missing the fun as they saw it, yes?”
“If they wanted to have fun, they could have come! The Goblins aren’t dangerous.”
“So you say. But I am afraid it will take more than your words to bring others into your inn. For me as well, I regret to tell you.”
The Gnoll smiled gently at Erin’s crestfallen look.
“Memory runs deep, Erin Solstice. This city and this continent still remember the Goblin King and what he did. But I will trust you, even if I will not visit for now. Now tell me, why are you here? To chat, or buy as well?”
“Oh! Well, we could use more sugar. And eggs. And meat—everyone eats a lot of that and I want to make a hotpot. Of course, we could use a lot of alcohol—a few kegs, actually. I know the Street Runner can’t carry that many, so maybe you could let us know when we should come and pick them up? Ishkr and Bird can do it since…I don’t want to. And I’d like to order some pottery bowls the Soldiers could use. I was thinking they could be bigger and easier to hold…”
Erin ran down a very long and rambling list of items as Krshia nodded and scratched at a piece of parchment with some charcoal. She probably had around a tenth of the items Erin was requesting in her shop at best, but she knew everyone who sold what Erin wanted, and would talk to them and get it all sent to Erin’s inn for the young woman.
It was an interesting system that Lyonette hadn’t experienced in Terandria. But as Erin had remarked, it was worth however many coins Krshia charged to have the Gnoll do her shopping for her. In fact, that was one of Krshia’s main sources of income—she was the Gnoll a lot of her customers went to in order to avoid hours of shopping.
“Hmm. Costly this time. I will have it all ready for you by tomorrow at the latest. Give me…hrr. Yes, six gold coins for all of it. The pottery being custom-made will be expensive. But I may be able to talk the [Potter] down. I will let you know.”
Erin handed over the gold coins and Krshia swept them into a small bag. She glanced up at Erin, and then, looked sideways at Lyonette.
“I have a thought. Lyonette, if you are willing, would you come to my apartment after I close my stall for the day? I will only be open for another hour or so; I have many orders like Erin’s to begin filling. I would like to chat for a few minutes if I may.”
Lyonette exchanged a surprised glance with Erin. She made plans to meet with Krshia and the two said their goodbyes. As they walked away, Lyonette leaned over to Erin at the same time the other girl was doing the same. They nearly knocked heads.
“What was that about, Lyonette? I didn’t know that Krshia liked you enough to invite you into her apartment.”
“I have no idea, Erin! I know she forgave me a bit, but—what should I do?”
“Dunno. Just go and see what she wants I guess. Oh, and eat lots of the raw meat. It’s good and also, polite.”
“R-raw meat? Do I have to…?”
The two young women walked on. They had things to do, or rather, not do. It wasn’t that Erin was a huge fan of shopping in general; she had better things to do than spend her money on personal expenses like clothing and so on, especially when she had her inn to think about. But window-shopping was relaxing, as was finding which [Merchants] had come with expensive and rare magical artifacts to sell.
“Ooh! A magic ball that runs away when you chase it!”
Erin admired a minor artifact that was attracting a lot of children. She thought Mrsha would love it—although the price tag was far more than she was willing to pay. A few dogs were also trying to go after the ball, but the [Merchant] who owned the object was determined to protect his wares, lest dog drool drive down the price.
“It’s so weird seeing a Gnoll owning a dog.”
“Why? I’ve seen Cat-Tribe Beastkin who have their own cats. They’re just animals. Plus, I hear Gnolls and the Beastkin make great pet owners since they establish themselves as pack leaders easily.”
Lyonette looked at a Gnoll who was indeed leading a large mastiff around with ease. The Gnoll growled at the dog as it tried to run after the ball and the dog froze, whining a bit. Erin noted the lack of a leash.
“That’s cool. But don’t Gnolls also eat dogs?”
“Well…so do Humans. And it’s not all of them. Just a few tribes and some Humans. Honestly, I’d be more worried about Ceria. I know for a fact that half-Elves will eat dogs.”
The Gnoll dog-owner looked at Lyonette and Erin, horrified, and hurried her dog away as if she was afraid they would break out the forks and plates right then and there. Guiltily, Erin and Lyonette walked away.
Life was good. Tranquil. Placid, even. Both girls weren’t exactly waiting for the ball to drop, but when it did, they weren’t surprised. They were just about to split up for Erin to go visit Klbkch and Lyonette to see Krshia when they heard someone shouting at them.
“You there! Human!”
It was a vaguely familiar voice. Erin turned around, frowning, and saw a Drake wearing fancy clothing striding towards them with a small host of Drakes following behind. A few things struck her at once.
The first was that she’d seen him before, although her memory was a bit fuzzy. The second was that this Drake was rich. He had fancy clothes on, and a number of sparkling rings on his claws that were clearly magical. And lastly, he was drunk. The Drake was walking well, but there was a certain unsteadiness in his steps that told her he was some degree of sloshed, and early in the morning as well.
“Can I help you?”
The Drake stumbled as he approached Erin and she took a step back. He looked at her, slightly unfocused. He reeked of drink and looked…well, Erin had seen Relc on a bad day with his scales flaking off, bloodshot eyes, and reeking of sweat and grime. This Drake was pretty much all those things except richer, which meant he’d covered up the smells with cologne and his clothes were new at least.
“You’re that Human. The one who owns the inn.”
He looked at her and Erin recognized him at last. Wall Lord Ilvriss was hard to recognize without his armor and in his disheveled state. But he still managed to sneer at her and project quite a bit of arrogance into his tone.
“Human. I have business with you.”
“My name is Erin Solstice. And I remember you. You’re the lord-guy who was with Zel. You ran into my inn with Olesm two days ago, right after him! You knocked over two tables and nearly stepped on Mrsha’s tail!”
Erin put her hands on her hips and glared as the rest of Ilvriss’ escort caught up. She spotted Olesm hovering at the back of the group of important-looking Drakes. She waved at him.
Ilvriss sniffed. He glared at Lyonette.
“I am Wall Lord Ilvriss, [Innkeeper]. I have confidential business I wish to discuss with you. Your employee may leave.”
It was ironic, Lyonette thought, that she was on the receiving end of the treatment she’d used to give Erin and other people. She glanced at Erin and the young woman made a face.
“If you want to go Lyonette, I’ll handle Wall-Face over here. It might take a while so meet me back at the inn when you’re done.”
Lyonette backed away, half-wanting to stay as Ilvriss narrowed his eyes at Erin. The young woman turned back to face him, frowning.
“So what do you want? Hey, didn’t I throw a pan at your head once?”
The Drake blinked, and then frowned at Erin.
“Yes. I recall. You should consider yourself fortunate that at the time I had not activated my rings for battle. You are equally fortunate I overlooked that transgression. Now—”
“Wait, your rings? How would that help?”
There was a muted gasp of collective outrage from behind Ilvriss as Erin interrupted the Wall Lord. She didn’t care; she was enjoying herself. From Olesm’s face, he was equally horrified and amused.
Ilvriss paused. He was clearly drunk and hung over, and thus behind even Seborn in terms of mental acuity at the moment. He stared, irritated, at Erin and raised his hand slowly. Two fat rings, one made of ruby, the other sporting a large topaz in the center, glinted at her.
“I am a Lord of the Wall, one of the Drake nobility, you ignorant Human—I am naturally equipped with many magical items that ensure my safety. But my attire is not why I wanted to speak to—”
“Oh yeah? What does that one do?”
Enjoying herself now, Erin pointed to one of the rings. Ilvriss blinked.
“That ring sets my scales aflame with magical fire. Stop interrupting. I—”
“And what about that one? The shiny yellow gem one?”
“A projectile shield. Would you—”
“Strength enchantments. Wait—stop asking questions!”
The scales around Ilvriss’ face grew redder, and Erin saw his escort shifting their feet and twitching their tales. She heard a strangled noise and saw Olesm trying valiantly not to burst out laughing. He was having chest convulsions trying to hold it in.
Ilvriss glared around and massaged his temples, seeming to wake up a bit more. He growled and stepped closer to Erin. She stepped back to avoid the fumes of his breath.
“You stink. Have you been drinking? It’s not healthy, you know.”
“I don’t—stop talking—I came here to—”
“I should know. I’m an [Innkeeper].”
Ilvriss finally roared at Erin, and she did shut up, if only to wipe spit off her face. The Wall Lord breathed heavily for a few seconds, and then straightened.
“I came here to discuss a mutually profitable arrangement, Human. You need not speak—no, be quiet! Simply listen. You are in possession of a powerful magical door that is enchanted with the [Teleport] spell.”
Erin smiled as the Wall Lord nettled. She didn’t exactly dislike him—she thought he was a rude jerk, but he had helped her before and she mainly just enjoyed annoying him. Ilvriss purpled a bit, but he went on slowly.
“I understand your magical door connects to the Human city of Celum, a hundred miles north of here. I wonder if it could be attuned to another location?”
“You mean, another city? Sure. I was planning on getting it to link to Invrisil, but then there was that Goblin Lord business…why, do you want to take a trip somewhere?”
Ilvriss nodded, and several of his adjutants murmured as he straightened.
“I am in need of rapid transportation, Human. Obviously I am reluctant to ask your ki—I would like to make a trip to my home city, of Salazsar at all speed. How quickly can you connect your door to that location?”
Erin blinked at the Wall Lord.
“Salazsar? Oh…that’s one of the Walled Cities, right?”
She’d assumed nothing could make Ilvriss more irate, but that off-hand remark seemed to drive his annoyance with her to another level. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then replied as his tail thrashed the ground angrily.
“Salazsar is the premier Walled City, the hub of Drake civilization and an icon of the continent you ignorant—ape!”
“Fine. No need to be rude about it. Okay, how far away is it?”
Her cavalier attitude seemed to be stumping Ilvriss. He paused.
“Does that matter?”
“Yeah. You see, my door can only go as far as Invrisil in terms of distance and even then, it’d only be able to transport one person at a time and it would take a day to recharge each time.”
The news elicited a groan from the Drakes behind Ilvriss. The Wall Lord frowned.
“Really? Is there no way of improving upon the enchantment?”
“Nope. At least, Typhenous and Pisces didn’t think so. I could probably recharge it fast if I had mana stones, but that doesn’t mean I can make it go further.”
Ilvriss glanced over his shoulder at one of his aides. The female Drake was doing calculations on an abacus, which intrigued Erin. She glanced up at the Wall Lord and nodded.
“That would save us at least a week of travelling, Wall Lord, not to mention the dangers of the journey.”
He grunted and turned back to Erin.
“If the limit of your door is to Invrisil…that puts it at around four hundred miles…then I request it be linked to Pallass. That is a Walled City, Human.”
“I knew that! I think. And I’d be okay with that, Mr. Rude Drake, but I can’t do it just like that.”
Erin glared at Ilvriss. He glared back.
“Because…I need to put an anchor at the place I want to go before my door can connect to it. So, sorry, but until I get someone to run all the way to Pallass or Invrisil, I can’t make the door connect anywhere else. I was going to get a Courier to do it, but then the Goblin Lord appeared and…”
Erin shrugged helplessly. Ilvriss rubbed at his face and growled.
“Ancestors preserve me. The door needs an anchor? Very well, I will employ the Courier in this city to take whatever this…anchor is. I assume it is not heavy, or at least, portable via a bag of holding?”
“Oh, it’s really small. But I already asked Hawk and he said—”
“I don’t care what he said! He will begin his journey this day on my orders, threat of Goblins or not! I am a Lord of the Wall, not some [Innkeeper] with a few gold coins!”
Ilvriss snapped at Erin. She raised her hands.
“Well excuse me. It’s just my door that you want to use. What if I said no?”
By now their discussion had attracted a few people who were watching with interest.. Ilvriss’ jaw worked silently as he glared at Erin.
“You are in no position to refuse—”
“My inn, my rules. I’ll let you use the door if you ask nicely.”
Erin folded her arms and smirked. Ilvriss looked like he was swallowing his tongue. Olesm was doubled over and clutching at his stomach, much to the concern of the Drakes around him. When Ilvriss did find his voice, it was strangled with the effort of restraining himself.
“I will send one of my people to the building you call an inn. Give them whatever instructions you need. And when the door is connected to Pallass, I expect to be the first person through. If not, I will ensure you regret it.”
There was nothing to really say to that. Erin stuck out her tongue and Ilvriss recoiled as if it were a snake. He took a step back, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. Then he turned and snapped at his escort.
“Come. We’re returning to the Tailless Thief. At least there the innkeeper knows how to treat people above his station with respect. Swifttail, with me.”
He beckoned and Olesm reluctantly trotted over. The [Tactician] glanced apologetically at Erin as Ilvriss began to walk off. Erin could hear the Wall Lord speaking loudly as he walked.
“I appreciate you not gagging in front of the Human. I understand the reaction, but they do become hard to deal with.”
He clapped Olesm on the shoulder and Erin scowled at Ilvriss’ back. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted at him.
“Hey! You’re a jerk, you know that?”
Her voice, amplified by her [Loud Voice] Skill, echoed down the street. Ilvriss froze mid-step and the people around Erin gaped at her. She looked around and shrugged.
“What? Someone had to tell him.”
Ilvriss stormed back down the street, furious. Erin waited until he was close and then spoke.
“You’re also drunk and smelly, by the way. You shouldn’t wear so much cologne. It stinks.”
“I should cut you down for your insolence. Were you in a Walled City, I could have you flogged for your tongue!”
“Really? Well guess what? You’re not in one, and unless you want to walk the rest of the way back, you’d better be nice to me!”
Erin shot back. Ilvriss rumbled in his chest.
“I could confiscate that door—”
“Try it! If you do I’ll hit you with another pan, you jerk! And I have Gold-rank adventurers in my inn! And evil Goblins! Lots of them! You won’t take my door alive! I’ll help you, but only because I don’t want you around, got that?”
Erin shouted back at the Wall Lord. He looked ready to throttle her, and Olesm and another Drake had to hold Ilvriss back. She grinned at him, and privately thought she’d pushed her luck as far as she could. Erin turned.
“Smell you later!”
“Don’t walk away from me! I am a Lord of the Wall! You do not leave without my consent!”
Ilvriss roared at her back. Erin turned and stuck her tongue out again.
“Oh yeah? Watch me!”
She began to walk away, faster this time. Ilvriss tore himself loose of his escort and charged after her.
“You do not walk away from a Lord of the Wall. I depart, and you wait. Stop, I command you!”
There was something incredibly sad about the way he tried to bar Erin’s path. She danced around him and he blocked her. And then Ilvriss pointed.
“I said stop.”
He used a Skill. It had to be one, because his aides, the people on the street, and Erin’s own feet immediately halted in place. She froze, and felt Ilvriss’ command holding her still. It lasted for all of two seconds, until Erin got mad.
“You don’t order me around!”
She felt a flicker in her chest, a…feeling. It was like when she’d used her own [Inn’s Aura] Skill, or resisted Magnolia’s charmed voice. Erin reached inside herself and pushed back. It was very hard, but she began to move her feet. Ilvriss gaped at her as Erin laboriously began to walk again.
“How are you—stop! I command you!”
He pushed again, but Erin was ready and pushed back. Her feet kept moving and Erin began running away. It was very hard to resist Ilvriss’ command and she decided she’d had enough. Time to go back to the inn. Unfortunately, Ilvriss didn’t know when to quit.
“Halt! I will not be disobeyed!”
The street was frozen as the Wall Lord chased after the Human girl. She ran, making rude gestures at Ilvriss as he unsteadily staggered and shouted at her. Olesm, halted in mid-stride, could only stare at Ilvriss’ back as the two disappeared down the street. It was over a minute before his limbs could move again.
On the whole he reflected, that had not been one of Ilvriss’ finest moments. But he also had to admit, it had been incredibly funny. Olesm giggled to himself as Ilvriss’ aides debated going after him in hushed voices. He was in a good mood today. Or maybe he’d just had too much to drink already.
It was probably the latter.
“Why would a Lord of the Wall want to speak with Erin Solstice? It is curious how many famous and powerful people she attracts, is it not?”
Krshia shook her head as she refilled Lyonette’s cup. The Human girl sat tensely in her seat across from the Gnoll and nodded.
“It is. But Erin’s…special. I think she can handle him.”
“True. But I hope whatever he wants does not lead to another incident. Erin Solstice is adept at causing those as well.”
Krshia shook her head as she sipped at her tea. She picked up a cube of meat and popped it into her mouth, and then offered Lyonette the bowl. The girl eyed it and reluctantly took a cube. She bit into it and her face changed.
“This is good!”
“You think so? Truly?”
“Yes! I mean, I don’t eat raw meat because it leads to disease. Not that I’m saying this meat is bad, but us Humans—”
“Yes, I know of your customs.”
Krshia smiled, interrupting Lyonette’s babbling. She nodded at the bowl.
“Be at ease. We Gnolls know how to prepare such food. We ensure it is clean and prepared correctly. You need not have any if you are uncomfortable.”
“No—I’ll have some more.”
Lyonette helped herself to another cube, making Krshia smile. That mattered to the young woman. She shifted.
“I wonder if I could make it. Or take some for Mrsha? I’d like her to have her people’s food to eat. Erin makes great food, but the taste of home…”
“Hmm. It is not good to transport such food, but I could teach you the recipe. And you could bring Mrsha here more often. It would be good to teach her more of our ways. Although she was born to a tribe that lived in the wilderness…she may know more than I do of some things.”
Krshia sipped at her tea and Lyonette nodded. The girl paused as she sipped from her cup. It was hard to forget how she’d been raised—she was acutely aware of her posture and the way she held her teacup. She felt as though she were back in court, sipping tea with nobility. Only, there was no such thing as a Gnoll [Lady]. That was a pity.
How strange life could be. Lyonette looked at Krshia, and remembered the sensation of being grabbed by a huge paw, staring into the Gnoll’s eyes and seeing huge fangs as a stall burned behind her. She was ashamed of that. But now she was sitting in said Gnoll’s apartment. The same place where her nephew had lived. Where Brunkr had…
Lyonette’s eyes moved around the room and Krshia noticed. The [Shopkeeper] lowered her cup.
“There is little of Brunkr here, I am sorry to say. His shield and sword remain, but he arrived here as a warrior, not meaning to stay long. I have only my memories to remind me of what he was.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I was just—”
“I take no offense, Lyonette. Actually, it is that I wished to talk with you about.”
Krshia put down her tea cup and Lyonette felt her heart begin to beat faster. The Gnoll sighed, and in the privacy of her own home, she slumped. She seemed tired, old, and sad all at once. When she looked at Lyonette, there was loss in her brown eyes.
“I still wonder if I could have known. If I had paid more attention, if I had not been blind to that traitorous Regrika Blackpaw’s true nature—she is no true Gnoll. And she will be hunted. But if I had only had the foresight to question instead of being blind—would he be alive?”
Lyonette sat still, not knowing what to say. Krshia shook her head.
“These are useless thoughts of course. What is done is done. Only justice and mourning remain. But I am plagued by them. Yet I would not burden you with my grief, Lyonette. No. I wanted to call you here to thank you, instead.”
“Thank me? But why—”
“For making him a [Knight].”
Krshia spoke plainly, and Lyonette’s heart constricted with fear. The Gnoll looked at her, not accusingly or with suspicion, rather, with certainty.
“I know you are a [Princess], Lyonette. And I know you gave your blessing to Brunkr to make him a [Knight].”
“How—how do you…?”
The Gnoll snorted.
“I have ears. Brunkr is not good at keeping secrets. As for the rest…it is enough that I know.”
Lyonette was frozen in place. Krshia shifted, watching her carefully.
“Mistake me not. I do not seek to profit from this knowledge. I have no other motive than to give my thanks.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
Lyonette whispered. Krshia shook her head again.
“No. You did much. True, he only had the class for a matter of days. But becoming a [Knight] was Brunkr’s dream. It was thought that he would never achieve it, since Gnolls have no [Lords] or other noble classes that could bestow such a class. But you gave it to him, and I must think it made him happy in his last days. For that small gift, I thank you.”
She bowed her head and Lyonette burst into tears. For a few minutes there was just her snuffling and Krshia offering her a handkerchief, wiping at her own eyes. Silence. Words unspoken. Lyonette managed a few words after she had finished.
“I don’t deserve thanks. All I did—”
Krshia raised her hand as if catching raindrops and tossed it away. She sighed.
“You have done much to offend. Much it is true. But that is the past and you have changed. The debt has been paid, and while I might hold a grudge—no. My nephew’s life is worth more than mere hatred. I forgive, Lyonette. And I thank you for changing. Not least for taking care of Mrsha.”
“What else was I supposed to do?”
Laughing, crying. Krshia smiled and Lyonette grew calmer over time. At last, the two sat, drinking and returning to something like normal conversation. But now the secret was out, Lyonette felt compelled to speak.
“The reason why I ran away—it may seem silly to you, but I really felt like I had to. I was wrong—stupid, arrogant—but if my family knew where I was, I’m sure they’d send someone after me. They might be looking already, but they have no idea where I am and I’m not exactly a First Princess or high-level, so…”
“I understand. I shall say nothing of it if you do not wish me to.”
After a while, Krshia spoke again.
“It is curious how you were able to make Brunkr a [Knight], though. He said you spoke only a few words and he gained the class that night. Is it truly so easy?”
Lyonette hesitated. But now was not the time to keep royal secrets. She nodded.
“It’s…well, it’s not supposed to be that simple, you understand. But in practice you can make someone a [Knight] with only a few words. It’s usually a matter of ceremony because it’s so important, but if you’re in a hurry you can skip all that. At least…I can. I think [Lords] have to work harder at it, you know, have a crest, induct the person into their service and so on.”
“But a [Princess] is able to do the same more easily? Because your class is superior?”
“Maybe…well, no. I think Mother explained it once. You see, a [Princess] has a different role from a [Lord]. They have their own households, vassals, and so on, so they can support quite a lot of [Knights] depending on how rich and powerful they are. Whereas even a high-level [Princess] has a limit on the amount of [Knights] she can appoint. Mine are personal protectors, you see, so I can choose them quickly and as I please, whereas a [Lord]…”
“Must set up such circumstances. So I see. That is fascinating.”
Krshia nodded. Lyonette smiled and went on.
“It’s a feature of royal classes. Obviously a [King] can appoint a lot more classes, like [King’s Champion], specialized knighthood orders and so on. I can’t do any of that—the only other thing I can do is royally appoint some business I like.”
Krshia had been chewing at her raw meat. Now she paused and gulped.
“Royally appoint? I am not familiar with this.”
“It’s simple. I can bestow a royal class on someone. Like…say you’re a [Gardener], right? If I want, I could make that person a [Royal Gardener]. Although that’s rare and I can probably only do that for one person. Father has a [Royal Chamberlain], but it’s not common to do. Although it does help!”
“I imagine it would. Such a class…hrr. Am I right in thinking it offers better Skills, or perhaps more unique ones?”
Lyonette nodded cautiously, trying to dredge up half-remembered lessons.
“I think so. It’s just an addition, so you can change classes and transform it like normal. It just makes, you, well, better.”
She paused as Krshia mulled this over, and then had a crazy thought. She spoke before her courage failed her.
“Would you like me to give one to you?”
Krshia choked on her tea and nearly sprayed it all over Lyonette. When she’d finished coughing, she looked at the [Princess].
“You are joking.”
Lyonette met her gaze, her legs trembling wildly.
“I’m serious. I could give it to you if you want.”
“Why? I am not your subject. And such a gift—”
“I gave Brunkr a [Knight] class. I think…well, I just think that he’d want me to help you if I could. And that’s the only thing I can do.”
Krshia looked at Lyonette. She sat back in her chair, speechless. When she spoke, it was distantly.
“Say I accept. I would receive a royal title and…nothing else? It would be a gift, yes, not an obligation?”
Lyonette hesitated. She frowned and gulped some tea.
“I don’t know. It’s been years—decades, really since my family gave their blessing to anyone. We make [Knights] and [Lords] and so on, but businesses are different. It’s…I can remember my grandmother knew a fruit seller who she made royal. I think it helped her business, but I can’t remember if it did anything else. You don’t have to, I’m just offering…”
“I see. But if it is so useful, why have your family not appointed more? Surely it would help your kingdom. What stays their paws…hands?”
Lyonette looked wistfully up at the ceiling. She shook her head in response to Krshia’s confusion.
“It’s just…you see, it’s so political back home. If my family gave a [Merchant] a royal blessing and he started working for another country, or denounced our kingdom, it would be a scandal, you see. And it’s not as if my family meets with many ordinary people that often. Not that I think you’re ordinary! I…”
“I know what you mean. So. That is what you offer and it is for me to accept or not. From what you say the risk is small. However.”
Krshia got up and walked back and forth for a few seconds. Lyonette looked at her anxiously, regretting opening her mouth. Why had she said that? And yet—she remembered Brunkr and couldn’t regret offering.
At last, Krshia slowed. She sat down heavily in front of Lyonette and looked around. Lyonette did too. Krshia’s apartment wasn’t large, but it was comfortable, and showed many years of care and hard work. The [Barmaid] remembered that Krshia had apparently come to Liscor decades ago to work.
“It has been long, and I have worked hard to get to where I am. I lost much.”
Krshia raised her paw to forestall Lyonette.
“Much. Material goods and money…but I received a gift far greater than that in return from Ryoka Griffin. I do not begrudge you that. As for my nephew, I ache. Now I must rebuild, and yet I asked myself the other day whether it was worth trying, if I had the strength to do so another time. And now a gift is offered, unprompted. Would I be a fool not to take it?”
Lyonette held her breath. The Gnoll nodded.
“All things change. This is what we Gnolls know. To stay the same is to be a fool. So you offer and I respond thusly: yes. Lyonette, if you will give me a blessing, a royal title, I would accept with gratitude.”
She stared at the [Princess], and Lyonette stood. She trembled with nerves as much as anything else. She raised a hand and Krshia looked up.
“Hrr. Should I kneel?”
“No. I can…no. I just need to say a few words.”
Lyonette took a few breaths. She felt…she remembered staring at a Gnoll’s back, her legs and arms covered in sweat, holding a sword and feeling the skin of her palms sting. She blinked, and Krshia was looking up at her, waiting. Lyonette spoke, and felt a shiver as the words spun out from her heart. Ancient words. Familiar words. True words.
“I, Lyonette du Marquin do solemnly grant you, Krshia Silverfang and whatever business you pursue my royal favor, now and unto perpetuity. You who have forgiven when we did not deserve it. You, whose kin we called friend however briefly. You, who have lost much—we offer our small blessing. Let the world know you are favored and that favor grant you all the riches you wish for.”
She reached out and touched Krshia on the brow. The Gnoll bowed her head and Lyonette waited a second. Then she withdrew her hand. It was over.
She looked at Krshia. The Gnoll blinked and touched the spot on her head, wrinkling her brows. She rolled her shoulders and sniffed the air and looked at Lyonette, tilting her head from side to side and shrugging.
“Hrm. I do not know. I do not feel different. But perhaps…let me sleep on it.”
She grinned, showing her teeth, and Lyonette smiled as well. There was a moment where the past was forgotten and they were just enjoying themselves. Two people, one step closer to becoming something like friends. Then it passed, leaving everything different. Krshia raised her tea pot.
Lyonette gulped. She looked at Krshia and smiled guiltily.
“Maybe. But first…could you tell me where the bathroom is?”
“Bow, Human worm!”
“No, you bow, you jerk!”
The Wandering Inn was full of shouting voices. Two in particular. Ilvriss staggered as Erin hit him with her authority, trying to force him down. The air was thick around the Drake, but his own aura of command pushed hers back. He pointed.
“I will not stomach such insolence from a Human!”
“Oh yeah? Oh yeah?”
The Drake [Lord] and Human [Innkeeper] circled each other like angry pigeons, trading insults, fighting with their respective auras. They circled rapidly, and then walked, and then finally sat and snapped at each other. Erin wiped sweat from her forehead and accepted a glass of water from Ishkr. Ilvriss looked up with bloodshot eyes and waved at the Gnoll.
“Give me a drink.”
Ishkr looked at Erin. She nodded and leaned back in her chair, exhausted. Mrsha leapt onto the table and licked her face.
“Give him something, Ishkr. I’ll kick him out if he’s being a jerk.”
“I’d rather leave…than stay at a Human inn.”
Ilvriss sat upright, looking hung over and miserable. Erin pointed to the door with a hand that shook.
“Go for it, buddy. It’s a nice walk through the slush.”
Ilvriss considered this and leaned back in his chair as Ishkr came out with a cup of cold water.
“I don’t answer to you, Human.”
He grimaced as he drank from the cup.
“Water? What am I, impoverished? Get me something stronger! Alcohol if you even serve it. Not some cheap ale, but a proper Drake drink, like Firebreath Whiskey!”
The Wall Lord snapped at Ishkr, forcing the Gnoll to hurry behind the bar. The Drake did drink the water, though. Erin eyed Ilvriss.
“Haven’t you already had enough? You’re drunk already.”
“So? My affairs are none of your business. I will have you know that I am in mourning. I grieve and my drinking is thus excusable.”
Ilvriss grimaced as Ishkr came back with a mug brimming with the fiery orange liquid that had done so much damage to Seborn and Jelaqua yesterday. Erin glanced at the mug and then at Ilvriss.
“Is that because of Ulrien? Or Brunkr?”
The inn went quiet. Ilvriss looked around and grimaced.
“Ah. The two casualties of the Named Adventurer and her accomplice? No. This is…personal.”
He lifted the mug and drank down what must have been at least five shots of whiskey. Erin saw Jelaqua put a hand to her mouth, but Ilvriss only swayed a bit in his seat as he finished. He thrust the mug at Ishkr and the Gnoll sighed. Erin stared at him and raised her voice.
“No alcohol for the Wall Lord, Ishkr. Give him something else like milk and honey.”
“Milk and—who are you to dictate what I drink?”
“The [Innkeeper]. And it seems like you’re pretty upset, buddy. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Erin scooted her chair over towards Ilvriss’ table. He eyed her, but seemingly didn’t have the energy to move away. Instead he put out a long-suffering sigh as Ishkr came back with warm milk and honey, a Mrsha favorite.
“So this is how far I’ve sunk, to be denied drinks at a Human establishment. If Periss could see me now…”
He shook his head, slumping in his chair as the shots of Firebreath Whiskey hit him all at once. Erin looked at the Wall Lord.
“None of your business. And if you think I’ll drink this swill—what are you doing?”
Ilvriss was pushing away the mug when Mrsha leapt up onto his table. The Gnoll was staring at his mug and the Wall Lord instinctively drew it closer to him. Erin smiled.
“That’s Mrsha. She wants a drink. Ishkr! Can you make one for Mrsha? Thanks! Try it, why don’t you? It’s good?”
The Drake stared at Mrsha, who was eying his drink with clear desire. There was possibly no better endorsement than the longing on her small face. Cautiously, he sipped at the milk and his eyes widened.
“Isn’t it? We get Ashfire Bee honey here so we can make a lot of sugary stuff. This is a house special.”
As Erin had observed, sugar was a rare treat even for the rich in this world. Ilvriss began sipping at his drink and Mrsha, once she’d gotten her own mug, began happily lapping it up. Erin looked around.
The Horns of Hammerad were staring at her, and the Halfseekers were eating a very, very late breakfast. As for the Goblins…Ilvriss glanced at Headscratcher and Shorthilt as they paused in maintaining the small bucklers they carried into combat.
“So those are the Goblins. Hmf. I can see why this inn is abandoned. Tell me, Human. Are you insane, or just odd as Shivertail claims?”
It took Erin a moment to realize he was talking about Zel, not Selys. She made a face at him.
“I’m not odd! I just think Goblins are people, and they saved my life! Besides, they haven’t hurt anyone. If you’re afraid they’re going to mug you, well…they won’t!”
Headscratcher nodded. Shorthilt paused and eyed Ilvriss’ rings until the other Hobgoblin jabbed him in the ribs. Ilvriss snorted.
“I am not afraid. Disgust keeps me from patronizing this establishment, not fear. I am capable of slaying however many Hobgoblins that infest this inn myself.”
He put a hand on the hilt of his sword and both of the Hobs growled. Headscratcher eyed Ilvriss, and Erin sat up, scowling.
“Stop bullying them! Can’t you not be a jerk for five seconds? I thought [Lords] were supposed to be noble, but you don’t act like it!”
Ilvriss glared back.
“I am a Lord of the Wall. I realize that means little to you, but it is my sworn duty to defend my city and Drakes as a whole from enemies of our king. Goblins are one such threat. Traitors the other, which is why I fought to defend you with Shivertail in this very inn despite my hatred for all Humans. Do not lecture me about duty.”
Erin fell silent. She saw Ishkr pause as he went about the inn and the Halfseekers stop eating.
“Oh. Right. You did help. Thank you.”
She hadn’t asked for his help, but when she’d talked to Zel before confronting Regrika, he’d mentioned that he would bring someone he thought could help. By all accounts, Ilvriss had risked his life fighting in the city when he and Zel had been teleported.
There was a silence as Ilvriss looked at Erin and then around, noticing the silence his words had caused. Mrsha stopped lapping at her drink and curled up into a ball on the table. The Drake stared at her and then at Erin’s face. Then he sighed.
“…I should be the one apologizing to you, Human.”
Ilvriss sat a bit straighter and his voice was less slurred as he looked at Erin.
“It was my weakness that allowed Regrika Blackpaw and the traitor with her to escape. That they slew a Gold-rank adventurer…this was my fault and I apologize to you for it.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Erin spoke automatically. Ilvriss glared at her.
“It was. Do not interrupt! It was my fault. Perhaps we were all at fault for underestimating our foes. Perhaps. But while Shivertail may have been the highest-level warrior there, I am most at fault. For I am a Lord of the Wall. When I fail, my failure is greater than any other. Thus I take responsibility. If you have any hatred, any regrets for what transpired, know that I am to blame.”
He sat straight and tall, both apologetic and proud at the same time. Mrsha uncurled to look at him and Erin closed her mouth. She frowned at Ilvriss.
“You keep saying you’re a Lord of the Wall. But what does that really mean? You’re a [Lord] in one of the Walled Cities, right? Is that really that special?”
Ilvriss’ eyes flashed.
“More than special! We are nobility whose lineage extends back to the age of Ancestors, of Dragons! We built the Walled Cities with their help, to shelter our people. And though millennia have passed, my role is the same. To lead and inspire Drakes, to defend our home from any invaders, to pass justice as I see fit, to hold others of my station accountable. It is an honor, a calling, and a privilege. That is what it means to be Lord of the Wall.”
There was a brief silence after he had finished. Then a lapping. Mrsha tilted her mug and slurped loudly. Ilvriss looked at her. Erin rested her chin on her hands.
“So if you’re that important, why did you come all the way to Liscor? Shouldn’t you be at your Walled City, defending it?”
The Drake hesitated. He bowed his head.
“Yes. I should be. But I came here searching for the truth. The truth which your Runner friend hid. And which…I have now uncovered. Ah. Periss.”
He slumped again, and Erin saw Pisces look up at his table speculatively. She wondered what she should do, but it was Mrsha who padded over on the table and awkwardly patted Ilvriss on the shoulder. He stared at her and she sat by him, sipping from her mug.
“It sounds like she was really special to you.”
“She was. She was glorious, brave, a fine officer and more. If I had known….”
Perhaps it was the drink, perhaps it was the absurdity of it. Ilvriss sat and drank his honeyed milk. Erin pulled her chair up to the table and patted his shoulder as the Drake bent over his mug.
“Come on, tell me all about it.”
He did. It was a confusing story, full of forbidden romance with a subordinate, chance meetings, battlefield exploits and close calls. And sex. Erin carefully put her hands over Mrsha’s ears when Ilvriss got to any lewdness. He was drunk and not a good storyteller, despite what he might have believed, but one thing was clear.
He had loved her. And now she was gone. Ilvriss finished one mug of milk, and then two and Mrsha matched him for every sip. And when he had finished, Erin sat with him and patted his shoulder.
“I’ll get you back to Pallass. Don’t you worry.”
“I—thank you. I have no remains to inter, but I must notify her family in person and—and see to fitting funeral arrangements.”
Ilvriss stared at the table. He looked so wretched that Erin called for some food. Mrsha wagged her tail. Ilvriss looked up as Ishkr brought him lunch.
“What is this?”
“Soufflé. It’s egg and cheese and carrot and…it’s good, okay? Hot, too.”
“There is no way you could have made it quickly. Unless—is the Gnoll a [Chef]?”
“Nope. I’m the cook around here. But I have a food preservation skill. Go on, try it.”
“Human cooking? I think I’ll pass—”
Ilvriss’ stomach rumbled as he pushed away the bowl. He stared at Erin and she grinned at him.
“Go on. Or Mrsha will eat it. Mrsha, no. You’re getting your own. See? Ishkr has it right there. Be a good girl and sit down. Not on the table.”
The Gnoll did, patting the table happily as Ishkr gave her a fork and warned her not to eat fast since the soufflé was hot. Grudgingly, Ilvriss emulated Mrsha’s example. He was clearly trying to eat just so he could disparage Erin’s cooking, but soon he was scraping the bowl with his fork.
“Not…bad. I will have another.”
“Really? Good! Hey, when you go to Pallass, I wonder if I can find a way to make the door transport a bunch of people at once. I bet the Drakes there haven’t had anything like my cooking!”
Ilvriss coughed, looking somewhat more alert after what might have been his first meal of the day. He hesitated as he glanced towards the magical door.
“Pallass. Yes. I forgot how inconvenient that might be.”
Erin looked at him. The Wall Lord grimaced.
“The Courier is not the issue. It is…personal. As a Wall Lord of another Walled City, my entering Pallass will result in political strife. I have enemies who would impede me.”
“Oh. There are jerks in Pallass too, huh?”
“It is amazing how your crude Human expressions come so close to the truth.”
Ilvriss sighed. He looked at the second soufflé and poked at the puffy crust with his fork. Mrsha waved for a second one and Ishkr sighed again.
“Well, I will not have to worry about that issue for a few days at least. Enough time to make preparations.”
He began to bite into his meal. Erin saw Pisces sit up.
“Pardon me, but you said a few days? How far is Pallass exactly? Most maps I ah, have read refuse to give the exact distance as a matter of Drake security.”
The Lord of the Wall might have been persuaded to talk to Erin and Mrsha, but he clearly wasn’t happy about being addressed by Humans. He gave Pisces an arch look which the [Mage] returned and grudgingly replied.
“About the same distance as Invrisil. Four hundred miles give or take. More like three hundred and eighty.”
“Whoa. That’s far. You sure a Courier can get there in a few days and not…weeks?”
Erin was hazy on distances, but three hundred and eighty miles seemed like a lot of distance to cover even if you had a car. Ilvriss sighed and cast his eyes to the ceiling.
“The average Courier can outdistance a horse over the course of a day, regardless of whether they could outrun one in a race. It will not take the Courier long. Hawk, I believe his name is.”
“Hold on, not long?”
Jelaqua frowned. She too had come alive with food and she was eating her fifth soufflé. Erin hadn’t made that many and she was worrying Ishkr was running out in the kitchen. The Selphid began counting on her fingers.
“A mounted rider with an able mount can travel up to sixty miles per day without Skills. So that means it’d take…six days? Seven?”
Ilvriss sneered over his cup at Jelaqua.
“I said horse, not horse and rider. And Hawk is a veteran [Courier], not some City Runner who has barely achieved the rank but still has the [Runner] class. He is able to travel over a hundred miles in a day.”
Erin stared at Ilvriss.
“So it’ll take four days for him to get to Pallass. Maybe three. You know, you could just say that and not be a jerk about it.”
The Wall Lord growled at her. Mrsha poked him with a claw. He stared incredulously at the Gnoll and then glared at Erin.
“Why are you sitting here? I am used to the dignity and space my station deserves. Were Peslas serving me, I would feel far more comfortable.”
“You’re staying at the Tailless Thief?”
Erin’s brows rose. Ilvriss smiled.
“Indeed. It is the only acceptable inn in the entire city.”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged.
“If you say so. I thought Peslas was kind of a jerk when I met him, though. But then, he’s sort of like you.”
“Stop calling me that!”
Ilvriss’ left eye began to twitch. Erin grinned at him, and then frowned seriously.
“But he really is one. You know, the Halfseekers were staying at his inn until he kicked them out. Just because Jelaqua’s a Selphid and Moore’s big.”
The Lord of the Wall looked up. Jelaqua waved at him and raised her voice.
“We don’t mind! We’re used to it. Besides, here is nicer. Oi, Ishkr! More soufflés! Give me three more! Moore and I are hungry!”
The Drake eyed the Halfseekers and looked troubled for the first time.
“Peslas ejected them? He should not have done that. I am familiar with the Halfseekers. A Gold-rank team that has featured two Drakes among their number. You there, Selphid.”
Jelaqua looked up, spoon halfway to her mouth.
“Me? I have a name. It’s Jelaqua.”
“Ivirith the Tempest. I recall. What became of two of your number? You had a Scorchling in your ranks a few years ago. Halassia Evergleam. What became of her?”
The Halfseekers paused and all three looked up. Moore’s face twisted and he bowed his head. Seborn looked at Ilvriss as Jelaqua glanced at the Redfang Goblins who had paused in their seats. That was all the answer Ilvriss needed. He bowed his head.
“I see. I trust her remains were sent back to her family?”
“They didn’t want them. We buried her ourselves.”
There was a strained note in Jelaqua’s voice. She stared at Ilvriss. Erin looked from her to the Wall Lord. She felt like she shouldn’t ask, but she had to.
“Um…what’s a Scorchling?”
Seborn answered for both of them. The Drowned Man gulped down another glass of water as he spoke, his deep and echoing voice somber.
“They’re a kind of Oldblood Drake. Only, the way their heritage manifests isn’t in wings or the ability to breath fire. They’re born burnt by the fires within them. Most die with their mothers, but the few who survive live with their curse. The fire in their bodies makes their scales flake off, and causes them pain. Scorchlings are half-Drake and half ash, or so it’s said. In truth, they’re just people with a curse.”
Moore spoke the one word and closed his eyes. Ilvriss nodded.
“They are. But some make a name for themselves even so. I knew of Halassia. She was born in Salazsar. That she considered you her allies, and that you took her in—I remembered your name, Halfseekers. For the kindness you offered Halassia when her kin would not, I thank you.”
He bowed his head, surprising everyone again. Erin looked at him.
“You don’t think Scorchlings are cursed?”
He glared at her.
“Half-Drake, you mean? Do I look like I’m afraid of ancient curses or believe in that superstition? No. And even if I did—half a Drake is still worth more than any Human, Gnoll, or any other species in this world. I personally believe such children cursed by our blood have the heart of true Drakes and should be treated as such.”
His little speech caused a hush, and made the Halfseekers look at him differently. Erin too. She leaned over and whispered to Mrsha.
“Now I can’t tell if he’s a jerk or just pretending.”
The Gnoll nodded. Ilvriss stared at both of them.
“I am going to leave now. Unexpectedly tolerable as this inn may be, I prefer the company of my own kind.”
He rose, rummaging at his money pouch. Erin interrupted him.
“Oh come on. You have to stay for dessert at least. I was going to save it for dinner, but—Ishkr! Bring out the cake!”
The word ‘cake’ made Mrsha choke on her soufflé and everyone in the room looked up. Ilvriss looked confused.
It was a memory that Ishkr brought out of the kitchen, carefully set on a large plate. Erin saw the others in the room look at the cake and remember. She had first served it the night Brunkr had died. Erin stroked Mrsha’s head and smiled.
“It’s just cake, Ilvriss. It’s…good. I think you’ll like it. And it’s good to eat.”
She looked around, meeting the eyes of the Horns of Hammerad, the Halfseekers…Mrsha. Erin personally cut the cake and offered two slices to the Goblins, inviting them to call their friends. Ilvriss sniffed at his cake and watched as Mrsha hesitated over her slice. She looked sad for a moment, but then began to scarf the cake down. He pushed his own fork into the generously frosted slice of cake and bit. His eyes widened.
A sugar rush was not something Goblins had ever experienced. Erin saw Headscratcher’s eyes go round and Shorthilt immediately hunch over his cake as if he was afraid it would be stolen. She encouraged them to take three more slices down to their friends, but then decided to call them up—she feared the two Goblins would eat the extra cake themselves.
When she came back up, Ilvriss was scraping his plate with a fork and Mrsha was licking hers. She smiled expectantly at the Wall Lord. He cleared his throat, avoiding meeting her eyes.
“Mediocre at best, but I suppose it is original. I will have another piece. And some to take back with me. This is one dish that I have not encountered and I suppose I should share it with my subordinates. Unless…no, I’m sure Peslas can make the same.”
“I can give you another slice, but I’m afraid I have limited supplies of cake and I don’t want to sell it to someone who thinks it’s mediocre. Plus, you won’t get it anywhere else, Ilvriss.”
Erin smiled evilly as the Wall Lord looked at her.
“As far as I know, no one has any baking powder or baking soda in this world but me. So that means my cakes are unique. No one can make anything like them even if they tried to copy it. Without me, the cake is a lie. No stupid Human, no cake.”
She paused and reconsidered her statement.
“Well, I suppose you could make cheesecake or angel food cake without baking soda. But that’s not real cake! Plus, I have whipped cream as well. Whoops! I forgot! Ishkr, for the second helping bring out the whipped cream!”
This time Ilvriss made the cake disappear as fast as Mrsha. He couldn’t really find an excuse for that this time, so he just mumbled about being hungry. That only made Erin laugh, and Mrsha giggled, on a sugar high of her own. And maybe it was the sugar, the alcohol, or something else, but Erin could have sworn she saw Ilvriss smile as well.
Just for a second. Then he was frowning at her and demanding to know how the cake was made. She laughed.
“With lots of sugar! And eggs! And flour and…well, it’s not good for you. You should probably exercise a bit.”
Ilvriss stroked at his face and then seemed to realize the state he was in for the first time. He felt at his eyes, his mussed clothing, and sat straighter.
“Dead gods, if Periss could see me—once I return, I’ll have to lead those lazy subordinates of mine in running laps around the walls! Ten to begin with, and I might as well teach Swifttail some sword drills while I’m at it.”
He sat straighter, and Erin saw a bit of fire ignite in his eyes. Maybe it was just burning pride, but it was what he needed, and she was glad of it. She smiled.
“Okay, but for now, I guess I will sell you that cake. And I have a special drink you might want to try before you go. It’s made with flowers.”
“Hmf. I suppose I can try—did you say another cake?”
“Yup. You can pay me a lot of money for it and give some to Peslas. Tell him he’ll never make it in a thousand years since I have an ingredient he can’t copy!”
Erin smirked, thinking of the way her pizza and hamburger recipes had been copied. Well, she’d have a monopoly on cake until people realized that Octavia was selling baking soda. She saw Ishkr bringing out the second cake and had to hold Mrsha back from getting at it.
Badarrow, Numbtongue, and Rabbiteater were having their slices of cake—and punching Headscratcher and Shorthilt who’d nibbled at the frosting—and Ilvriss was fumbling at his money pouch as Ishkr gave the second-to-last slice of cake to Yvlon. She’d eaten slowest out of everyone in the room.
By contrast, Ceria, Pisces, and Ksmvr had inhaled theirs. Actually, it was easier to say that of the inn’s guests, only Moore, Seborn, Erin, and Yvlon had shown restraint; everyone else had scarfed their first and second pieces down. Ksmvr was practically vibrating in place.
There was another whole cake sitting pristine in front of Ilvriss. Mrsha was nearly dribbling over it. Erin was asking Ishkr to bring up the last slice to Bird and Yvlon was fighting off Pisces and Ksmvr as she laughingly held her slice of cake up in the air. She turned to the doorway, holding her plate in her hands and froze.
The plate and slice of cake fell from her grip. The plate shattered onto the floor and Ksmvr and Mrsha dove for the cake. Pisces caught it in one hand and fled both of them. But Yvlon took no notice. She stared towards the open door, her face suddenly pale. Erin turned.
Someone was standing in the doorway, his body silhouetted against the setting sun. She shaded her eyes and a silver flash revealed a [Knight] in armor. He strode through the doorway, followed by a half-Elven [Mage] and a Dwarf dressed in full plate armor. The knight looked at Yvlon and removed his helmet. She gasped and spoke a name.
Ylawes Byres smiled as he looked at his younger sister.
“Yvlon. At last I’ve found you.”
His eyes swept across the room and his warm smile froze for a second as he spotted Jelaqua, Moore and Seborn. Then he saw the Redfang Warriors sitting at the back of the inn. They shot up from their table, grabbing at their weapons and yelling. Ylawes swore and grabbed for his sword. He unsheathed it as he tore the shield from his side and raised it—
A cake smashed into his face. Erin sighed as the [Knight] blinked and frosting spattered off his once-gleaming armor and onto the floor. Mrsha was giving Erin a betrayed look. Erin raised her hands.
“See, this is why you always bake three cakes. Ishkr, go get me another.”
She sat down as Ylawes blinked at her and the Dwarf by his side began to laugh. Erin sighed, and then smiled. Her inn was getting weird again. Weirder, she should say. She looked at Ilvriss and he stared at her.
“Is your inn always like this, Human?”
Her laughter was his only reply.