A summons to a royal audience was not a common thing, even for the most successful adventuring team in Tarnil, and was met with varying degrees of appreciation by the four members of Piping Hot Pies. Maiyim was absolutely confident it was a good thing, but Calloway was less certain. There had been an awful lot of upheaval of late and since the last battle hadn’t demanded anything more of them than shooting helpless ogres, he expected the other shoe to drop any time.
“Stop being a worrywart!” Maiyim said, taking advantage of the fact that Calloway had turned to look out the window to drape herself over his back. “We get to go to the Palace and everything! Besides, Blue likes us so he wouldn’t let Queen Iniri send us off anywhere bad.”
“You say Blue likes us. We haven’t even talked to him directly.” Terrance paused, considering his phrasing. “Well, indirectly.”
“We talked to Shayma! That’s pretty much the same thing.” Maiyim made a moue at Terrance over Calloway’s head. He wrinkled his nose in reply returned his regard to the window. They probably could have gotten to the Palace faster on foot, at their levels and with their Skills, but there were certain formalities to observe.
Those formalities were why Terrance was in dress clothing rather than his more familiar, and to him almost more comfortable, heavy armor. Not that he minded that much — even the Piping Hot Pies didn’t spend all their time fighting in the depths of Wildwood. Considering their pastry-related hobbies, their time was more evenly split than most would imagine.
“I hope she’s not going to try and offer Crown sponsorship,” Tissaria said. She was the final member of their party, an Orrelin native with the odd nature support class of [Barkworn Leafcaller]. She was the softest-spoken of the four, possibly because the gold-bronze skin and brass-colored eyes made her stand out as coming from the insular country. Not many people had good things to say about Orrelin.
“Aye,” Calloway sighed. “How do you say no thank you to your sovereign?” The problem with a Crown sponsorship was that it came with certain assumptions. Namely, that the beneficiaries would end up in the Kingsguard or Queensguard. That was just fine for many, since very few people got past the third tier, but Piping Hot Pies was a labor of love that had gotten all four of them into their upper sixties. Calloway himself was ready to tick over to seventy, and none of them had plans to retire from adventuring anytime soon.
The sound of the carriage’s wheels rattling against the stone of Meil’s streets changed as they crossed over onto the bridge that led to the Glass Palace. To their left, the strange spire of Blue’s stood out from the water, the portal at the top getting a longing glance from Terrance. He’d love to be able to open portals himself, but that was looking like a fourth-tier Skill at the earliest, and probably not one he could use as easily as his teleportation. Still, if he could create portals, even short-ranged ones, the possibilities for Piping Hot Pies were endless.
The carriage slowed as it conveyed them to the front of the Palace proper, the silver-blue light from the metal threads woven throughout the massive building visible even in daylight, casting doubled or even tripled shadows as they got out of the carriage. The four of them headed inside, past guards that were obviously a tier below them. Maiyim frowned at them, trying to imagine standing around all day waiting for people to do something stupid and failing. It seemed like an awful waste of time.
She adjusted her dress yet again, sneaking a glance over at Tissaria to see if she was looking as uncomfortable as Maiyim did. The dress wasn’t so much the problem as the lack of defenses on the dress. Her battle-robes were almost as armored as Terrance’s plate and she was just nervous enough for that to make the back of her neck itch. Tissaria, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed. Though in fairness, Tissaria could summon bark armor at a moment’s notice so she wasn’t as underequipped as Maiyim.
For her part, Tissaria was spending more time staring at the exotic plants and trees scattered through the courtyard and contained inside the hollow glass pillars. Not that she’d ever pilfer from the royal palace, but her [Verdancy] Skill did best with seeds or clippings, and the more exotic and mana-dense the source the better. Just glancing around she could see dozens of options for poisons or protections or, most importantly, for food that she’d never had before.
Of the four of them, Calloway was the one most focused on the upcoming meeting. He was the founder and leader of Piping Hot Pies and none of the others had the temperament for it anyway, so for the most part they were fine with letting him speak for them. Thus far he had been gratified that Queen Iniri’s attention was beneficial or benign, but he wasn’t confident that would last. Blue was clearly doing some major magic, as evidenced by the fact that as of a few days ago he’d felt like he was suddenly twenty years younger, and so had everyone else. He and Maiyim had already taken full advantage of that, but he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Sometimes Calloway regretted not having any kinetic Affinity, though he could do more with his light Affinity than most would credit. The sheer amount of endurance a kinetic fighter had was breathtaking, and while Calloway was more of an ambush fighter, at the levels Piping Hot Pies dealt with it was nigh-impossible to avoid prolonged fights. Now he no longer had to worry about that and as a result the previous day’s foray up to the Wildwood Tree had been extremely profitable.
The courtyard gave way to the throne room, but instead of needing to wait with the other petitioners one of the guards recognized them and diverted them into the palace proper. The sheer wealth the enormous panes of glass and glowing threads of metal represented would have been staggering, except that Blue and Queen Iniri had raised the whole thing in the course of a day. Not that such a feat made it any less opulent.
The guard passed them off to a page, who in turn led them up to the next level of the Palace and to an office that overlooked the courtyard. They all recognized the short figure waiting for them, and all went down on one knee more or less at the same time. Tissaria lagged behind, still uncertain where it came to Tarnil’s sovereign.
“You may rise,” the Queen said, and they obeyed in a rustle of cloth. Iniri looked far more cheerful than she often did, almost happy, though still with the reserve expected of royalty. Her presence was far more solid than any of them remembered as well, enough that it was nearly certain she’d advanced to the fourth tier.
“In four days we will be having a summit with Ir, Haerlish, Nivir, Orrelin, and maybe a few others,” she said, studying them to make sure they understood the import of such a thing. “Blue has asked for your services in the summit. Not as a protective detail, mind you. He actually wants you to make pies. Apparently even The Silver Woe had a favorable impression of your cooking, so he wants you to try with some of the more exotic supplies he has available.”
Calloway blinked and glanced over at his teammates, who were just as poleaxed as he was. It was one thing to be known for their fighting prowess, it was another to be called on to cook for the leaders of five countries. Not to mention the idea that The Silver Woe liked their pies, which was perhaps the most ridiculous thing any of them had ever heard. Finally, he shrugged.
“We’d be happy to, Your Highness,” he said. All four of them had ended up with [Pastry making] as a Skill in addition to their more combat-oriented Skills, but none of them considered their pies an actual vocation. They were a difficult and tasty training exercise, and making good pies was something they took seriously, but it still took second place to their adventuring career.
“Excellent,” she said. “Since this is a request from Blue, he’ll be the one compensating you for it, though I imagine the experience itself will be almost payment enough.” She tilted her head slightly, looking off to the side as if listening to an invisible person. “He’ll set up portals for you, but for the duration he suggests you move everything you need to The Village.”
“The Village, Your Highness?” Calloway asked.
“Blue has a village,” Iniri told them. “So you won’t simply be following Shayma into the wilderness.”
“I see, Your Highness,” he said, though all that was news to him. “How do we—” He hadn’t even finished speaking when Shayma appeared in front of him with a suddenness that made him twitch for the knives he wasn’t carrying.
“Hello again!” Shayma said cheerfully.
“Miss Shayma,” Terrance said in reply, sweeping her a bow. He was rather soft on the fox-girl, probably because he could actually talk teleport powers with her. Spatial Affinity was so rare he didn’t often run into anyone with any useful experience.
“I imagine you’ll want to change into something less formal,” she said, looking over their suits and dresses. “Blue can teleport you back to your inn if you like. He wants you to get started right away just because of how many options you’ll need to look at.” Calloway looked to the Queen, who waved them off.
“Go,” she told them. “I trust you’ll do just fine.”
Calloway nodded to Shayma and their surroundings shifted without any sense of transition at all. It wasn’t even a bulk teleport, as ridiculous as such a thing might be. They had been put back in their pair of rooms, split into couples in a way that implied Blue had been watching them — Calloway and Maiyim, Terrance and Tissaria. Not only could Blue move them across the city with a barely-perceptible surge of mana, he knew enough to put them in exactly the right quarters.
“Wow!” Maiyim said, bright-eyed. “I know that it’s Blue, but still, wow!”
“It is always an experience to see him work,” Calloway agreed, already starting to gather his things from the chest at the foot of the bed. Piping Hot Pies actually owned property in Wildwood, and the bulk of their stuff was there, but they knew better than to travel without multiple changes of clothes and, of course, weapons and armor.
He stripped and put on his second-best town-clothes, not as protective as his armor but tougher than his suit, and watched appreciatively as Maiyim did the same with her dress. She winked at his leer and shook her hips before sliding on the red rune-embroidered robes she liked so much. In the other room, Terrance and Tissaria did much the same, if less overtly, before hefting their packs and stepping out of the room. Shayma was waiting for them on the bottom floor of the inn, letting them settle their accounts with the innkeeper before grinning at them.
“Ready to go?”
“I think so. You all?” Calloway looked at the others and got nods from two and a grunt from a third, so he nodded to Shayma. Once again their surroundings changed, but this time they were outside, in the middle of a village square. It might have looked perfectly ordinary but for the massive mountains ringing the horizon in every direction, unimaginably high. There was no place in Tarnil that looked like that, though as far as anyone knew Blue was Tarnil, so none of them had any idea where, exactly, they were.
“Oh!” Tissaria said. “Oh, oh, oh! What is that?” She took a few steps toward the far end of the village square, where an odd-looking tree was set off by itself at a remove from the village, but was intercepted by a young woman. Despite her age she looked like she brooked no nonsense, halting Tissaria in her tracks.
“Careful,” she warned. “That tree is likely to react badly if you try anything, even if you are level sixty-six.”
“This is Taelah,” Shayma introduced them. “She’s one of the Elders of The Village and Blue’s wife, so you need to listen to her.”
“His wife?” Maiyim asked. “How does that even — oof!” She scowled at Calloway, rubbing the back of her head dramatically as if a light cuff could have actually hurt her. He ignored it and bowed to Taelah as if she were a duchess.
“Pleased to meet you,” he told her. “My name is Joe Calloway, this is Maiyim Calloway, Terrance and Tissaria Caelon.” Maiyim and Tissaria curtseyed when he named them, and Terrance bowed.
“No need to be formal,” Taelah said. “We’re just a simple village here.” Which was completely false, but she didn’t let that stop her. “Now, I understand you’re here to make pies. We have a large kitchen with big ovens set up over there.” She pointed at a large stone building in the distance with smoke rising from the chimney. “Just ask for Miss Burnhade; she’s in charge of the kitchen. If you want to pick fresh ingredients, come with me.”
They barely needed to confer. Calloway’s focus was the dough, while Maiyim used her fire Affinity to do amazing things with actual baking, so they’d see what was available in the kitchen. Tissaria’s nature Affinity made her the best at selecting ingredients, and Terrance’s teleportation meant that he could cover an enormous amount of ground, so they were usually the ones who gathered fruits or vegetables or even game.
While everyone around was far, far lower level than they were, nobody treated Piping Hot Pies like they were powerful. In fact, Miss Burnhade reminded Calloway of his mother and had absolutely no issues rapping his knuckles with a wooden spoon when he reached for anything she didn’t want him to touch. Not that it actually hurt him, but the reflex was ingrained from his childhood. Maiyim got along with her instantly, and inside of ten minutes they were gossiping like old friends.
Calloway, at least, didn’t much mind. The four of them had gotten where they were from scratch, working hard for years and honing their abilities, saving their money, and taking risks. All too many people in the third tier were sponsored and didn’t really appreciate the hard work, but low-level [Farmers] and [Bakers] usually did.
The flour and eggs and butter were all very fresh but not particularly high in mana, which was fine for the most part, but some of the more interesting recipes worked better with fire or ice Affinity-infused dough. With any luck Tissaria and Terrance would bring back enough in the way of Affinity materials that they could make really exotic dishes.
Maiyim found the ovens to be well enough made, and sturdy, but she needed something more specific to her talents if she really wanted to take advantage of her finesse. Something with more ventilation or, even better, variable ventilation. Miss Burnhade called over a [Stonecarver] and he started work right away, making a stone box to Maiyim’s specifications.
Hours later, Terrance and Tissaria returned in Taelah’s wake, all three of them bearing bushel baskets full of the fruits of foraging. Tissaria was particularly happy, a number of small woven-vine baskets dangling off the end of her staff like a bindle. She waved energetically as she came bouncing over, eyes gleaming.
“Blue has literally everything! Taelah took us all over the Caldera, they call it the Caldera, and there were herbs and fruits and vegetables I’ve never even heard of!” She swung her staff over so Maiyim could take the baskets off and inspect the contents. Terrance dropped his bushel baskets next to the kitchen entrance, one of which was full of deep blue berries and the other of reddish-white kernels.
“The weird part is no animals, no monsters,” he said. “It’s just eerie. On the other hand, they’re definitely high-mana areas. Firestorms, blizzards, cutting winds. Actual Affinity pools, which is where I found some of that stuff. Aside from Taelah there, I wouldn’t advise anyone lower than third tier try it.”
“That bad?” Calloway asked, looking at the cracklenuts that Terrance had brought. There was more than enough there for several batches of spicy fire dough.
“Get deep enough into one of the areas and you have to worry about Affinity poisoning,” Terrance said bluntly, since Tissaria was still quietly exulting over the spices in her baskets. “That’s ignoring wind that can literally cut stone, or fires that followed me through teleports! Again, Taelah had some sort of control over it, or Blue did, but it’s mana spring type effects. Or dungeon ones, obviously.”
“Oh, I have got to go to the fire place,” Maiyim said, looking to Taelah. “Please?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Taelah said, and glanced at the other Calloway, gauging his expression. “But perhaps later. How are you finding the kitchen?”
“Oh, it’s great,” Maiyim said, ignoring the standalone oven that was being assembled a few steps away. “They have coolers and freezers, guys! It makes everything so much easier!” It really did. The cracklenuts, just for an example, needed to be frozen before they could be ground into flour.
“Well, that’s going to save me a lot of time,” Terrance said. Usually he was the one who had to transport things to and from whatever source of cold they could find. “So, there’s fresh…”
Calloway stopped listening, tensing suddenly as his instincts yelled at him. There was a monster nearby, and not an insignificant one. He spun around, hands dropping to his blades as he located the source. Terrance moved out in front of him, Maiyim and Tissaria readying their casting as the others picked up on his attitude and the threat. Long experience adventuring meant that none of them had to say a single thing.
The monster in question was a grotesque colossus, standing almost ten feet tall and towering over the villagers walking on either side of it. It had an elongated reptilian muzzle, enormous scythes, and a long, snakelike body supported by dozens of bonelike legs. Oddly, it was dressed in something that was somewhere between an apron, a tunic, and a horse blanket, covering its front and the snake-bodied rear.
After a moment he realized there was a second one, though much smaller and less threatening, no taller than a man and walking on two legs, though also dressed and even wearing a broad-brimmed hat. It wasn’t clear what was going on, but Calloway could only guess that the villagers were under thrall somehow and, unfortunately, they were too close to the monsters to have Maiyim simply drop an explosion on them. He was working out the best way to deal with the monsters while keeping the villages uninjured when Taelah stepped in front of them.
“That’s Cuts-Like-Cold and One-Eye-Green,” Taelah informed them. “They’re Blue’s guests.”
“But they’re monsters,” Terrance said.
“I know,” Taelah said. “But they’re with Blue. Cuts-Like-Cold has been helping butcher scalehoofs. Dreams-Ahead should be along any moment.”
Calloway glanced at the others, seeing they were just as confused as he was, but he motioned for them to stand down. It went against the grain, with the feel of a nearby monster grating on his nerves, but a moment’s thought made it obvious that Blue wouldn’t let a monster roam around among his people if it was harmful.
“Wait,” Tissaria said after a moment. “Isn’t the smaller one the monster that was wandering around Wildwood Retreat the other day?”
“I guess it’d have to be,” Terrance said, watching the two monsters warily. He, too, was off-balanced just by the feel of the things being so close, especially since they weren’t at all hostile. The weirdest part was the fairly low-level villagers didn’t seem to care at all. “It looks harmless enough. If it was the other one, I think there would have been more of a stir.”
“They use mind magic,” Taelah said, completely ignoring the looks of alarm — mostly from Maiyim, who was doing her best to plead with her eyes. What exactly Maiyim expected Taelah to do wasn’t clear, but the big sad eyes wanted her to do something. If Taelah noticed, she did the exact opposite of what Maiyim might have wanted. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to them.”
“Um.” Maiyim looked to Calloway, who in turn looked to Tissaria. Terrance was still focused forward, but clearly listening. Calloway made himself let go of his knives, partly because Taelah was so unconcerned and partly because the big monster was looking directly at him and for all he knew it was reading his mind.
“This is Blue,” Calloway said at last. “The Silver Woe lives here, we all saw those beams of light, and he has some hidden land that he can just teleport us to whenever. At this point, I think we might as well accept whatever he says is going on here is true.”
“Uggh, fine,” Maiyim said. Taelah laughed.
“Don’t worry,” she assured them. “You get used to it.”