Chapter 22 – Two Good Eyes

Fourteenth of Learning 1142

Rumors among the nobility in big cities had any number of ways of spreading. There were people who sold information, but there were also people who just wanted to impress the lords and ladies they considered their betters. Perhaps if they were useful enough, the lord would remember them should they ever need help. It was a pipe dream for the most part. Nobles didn’t generally remember commoners, but hope is eternal. Not wise, just eternal.

For these reasons, the nobility of any city was fairly well informed, at least when it came to gossip. To be sure, most knew nothing of the day-to-day struggles of the poor. They didn’t know that the blacksmith beat his wife when he was drunk or that the daughter of a particular farmer

Painting by Eris

was pregnant with a merchant’s child. Nobles wouldn’t have cared about what the commoners got up to. But a princess disguised as an adventurer who had a pet kreve? The whole concept was so unlikely, it immediately became the centerpiece of every conversation.

Theories abounded about which king was her father. Surely she had to be illegitimate, but what if she wasn’t? Did you hear she’d gone up six levels in one night? Surely the goddess favors her. It has to be Sheba, doesn’t it? Did you see her walking around the city with that kreve?

Striker was blissfully unaware of any gossip. She had done her job, which was to act haughty, spend money and be seen. The money had been furnished by the Adventurer’s Guild, so she was having fun. And Wanderer’s Rest, the inn at which she currently resided, was suddenly a very busy place. And not just busy with commoners. People who never would have been caught dead in that place invented reasons to be there. Nobles, rich merchants, even some lesser royalty. Everyone wanted to sneak a peak at Striker and maybe see if they could engage her in conversation. But Striker was very, very good at playing the disdainful royal, who didn’t have time for idle chatter with people she considered below her station. Aside from that, she was almost always with Stalker, who had a tendency to keep all but the bravest at bay.

Strangely enough, it was children who were the most drawn to Stalker, and often Striker would let them pet her, until their alarmed parents called them back. And more than once, Striker heard the children saying as they walked away that they too would be Beast Masters when they grew up. It was unlikely any of them would, but the hope would keep them going. Striker was happy about that.

She was less happy about the changes going on at the Wanderer’s Rest. Those who frequented or worked at the inn soon learned that having nobles at their inn changed everything. At Aranya’s suggestion, Striker hired a personal chef, who took over the kitchen, made changes, ordered in new ingredients, and in general made the staff’s life a living hell. His desire for perfection meant he had to train everyone, mostly by shouting at them. Grace, the innkeeper, was forced to pay her staff more just to get them to come to work. But she was making more and so couldn’t complain.

Striker spent a lot of time at the inn. She sat at a corner table, the area around it cleared enough so her pet could accompany her. Stalker sat at her feet, growling at everyone who came near, making it harder for people to get a word with her. This was fine by Striker, who was enjoying the frustration of those who had come to gawk.

The first person to get through was a messenger. She knew he was a messenger, because he wore the livery of the Messenger’s Guild, which served the city. Most communication came through this official channel. Striker, recognizing the man’s uniform, told Stalker to stand down.

She had expected a message or two, even though it had only been a couple of days. She ended up with about twenty. She stared at the pile, signed for them, and decided she’d open them in her room.

Those who had come to get a glimpse of her, watched on forlornly as she bowed sarcastically to them before ascending the stairs. They no doubt wondered what a royal was doing in a place like this, but Striker was adamant that this is where she would stay, in spite of myriad protests from the guild mistress.

While spending money and the attention was fun, she had one bit of business that she hadn’t been able to get to. She had been without sex for a very long time, and it frustrated her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t enjoying her time as a not-so-hidden royal, but she definitely wasn’t having as much fun as she could have been. This was something she needed to rectify and soon…but not yet.

With a deep sigh, she sat at the table in her room and opened the first letter. It was an invitation to a dinner with a noble named Lord Yates. They would all be invitations she thought. She put them all into a pack and took it with her. She walked out the door, locked it behind her and made her way to the Adventurer’s Guild, Stalker padding silently behind.


An hour later, she sat with Aranya Freesh in a secure room. Jesh Belor was present, but Gordic was off doing whatever it is he did when he wasn’t with Aranya.

“A dozen invitations already. Not bad. We’ll only respond to the ones that include your entire team. The ones for you alone, we won’t respond to at all.”

“Won’t that be considered rude?” asked Striker, absently petting Stalker on the head.

“Yes. It will further cement that you are royalty to those ignored. To ignore them you’d have to be important. Treating them with disdain won’t make them less interested in you, it will just validate what they already thought.”

“Nobles are weird.”

“Everyone is weird. There’s no single group of people weirder than adventurers, I think. Nobles are easy to manipulate because they follow a very strict set of rules, at least publicly. Adventurers don’t really have any rules at all, except for the ones they make for themselves. I mean we have rules, obviously, but that doesn’t really have much influence on what adventurers do.”

Striker thought about this. “As guild mistress, why would you tolerate people flouting the rules all the time?”

“Because the same initiative it takes to defeat monsters and protect people demands a certain type of independence. The rules are guidelines, and you should know them and shouldn’t break them without a reason. But if you have a reason and can defend it, then that’s that. There’s no good reason to punish. It’s like killing someone is bad, but not if it’s in self defense. We trust adventurers to make the right decision with the information they have, because we have to. And sometimes members will cross lines so far as to stretch even our tolerance. At those times, those adventurers will pay a price, sometimes a high price, but it’s rare. Most of us are insane, but in a good way. We throw ourselves at monsters any sane person would run from. We put our lives on the line for people that don’t necessarily appreciate or value us. The great mage Old Man Marko once suggested being an adventurer is like dancing blindfolded on an icy ledge on a windy day. I think it’s a pretty good description.”

Striker nodded. “So we’re going to be meeting some of these nobles?”

“Not me. You and your team. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Ressssen should consider adding Merck to your roster. It’s more protection for him, since he would be protected not just by you, but by guild policy as well.”

“I’ll talk to her. I had another question, though.”


“Why are you investing so much money in this mission? I mean I expected some support, but nothing like this. Why are you taking the word of a low level team?”

Aranya smiled. “I’m not. I’m taking the word of the High Priestess of Iorana. Your team hasn’t done much to warrant trust yet, but the High Priestess of Iorana for Pelaro? Her reputation is impeccable. If she vouched for you, then you are who you say you are. If I didn’t invest this money, and something were to happen to you or Merck, or the boy he searches for, the failure would be mine to bear.”

“And why did you pick me to be your royal?”

“Because you’re looking for a boy. I can promise you, every noble in the city is going to make sure you see their sons, because if you take a liking to one, that’s a possible marriage down the road.”


Aranya laughed. “Getting your son married to a princess? It’s a strong motivation. There are very few nobles who would turn up their nose at that. They don’t know if the rumors about you are true or not, but introducing you to their sons costs very little in the larger scheme of things. It’s a very small risk for a very large potential reward.”

“I hadn’t considered that.”

“I’m not surprised. You don’t deal much with the nobility. I do. I know how they think. Every time I catch myself thinking that way, I take a bath.”

Striker grinned. “Does that happen often?”

“Me thinking like a noble?” Aranya grew serious. “When you’re running a guild, politics is inevitable. The trick isn’t not to think like a noble. The trick is to be able to turn it off when you don’t need to think that way. It’s not always easy.”

“It’s hard to believe anyone thinks like that at all. I’m surprised anyone bought this story. The whole thing is wildly implausible.”

“That’s what sells it. The nobility is bored and looking for entertainment. It doesn’t have to be true. It doesn’t have to be likely. It has to be interesting. They believe it, because they want it to be true. It’s exactly the right mixture of implausibility and the potential for future profit. Their greed means they can’t afford to not believe it, because there’s a possibility of them cashing in. No one wants this to be true more than the nobility of Pelaro. They’ve raised self-deception to an art form. On top of that, they have my behavior toward you. They don’t know you, but they know me very well. If I’m taking your identity this seriously, then you’re probably who they think you are. And the more we try to cover it up, the more they believe its the truth.”

Striker chuckled. “Okay. One more question then. What happens if the nobles have people at these gatherings that can detect lies? I mean I’m definitely going to be lying at least some of the time.”

“While it’s true nobles do sometimes use mages for that reason, it’s almost never at a gathering of nobles. Not only is it considered to be one of the rudest things you can do, it’s also true that there are too many magical devices that can detect when such spells are used. Most nobles have them. Nobles lie a lot, and no one wants to be vetted when they’re speaking. The game they play with each other is competitive. Figuring out who’s lying without help is part of their game. A good liar is respected as being good at the game. Anyone who uses that kind of magic against one of their own, soon wouldn’t be invited to many functions.

“Besides, no one of a lower station would ever use magic to detect lies on someone of a higher station, because to be caught doing that would be embarrassing. A king, for example, could do that to almost anyone. As a guild mistress, it’s my right to do it to any guild member, but I’d have trouble getting away with it if I were interrogating a royal, unless they happened to be in the guild building, which would be like me being in their palace. The rules are complicated, but it’s unlikely that anyone at a gathering of nobles wants people around who can verify truth. And if you truly were the daughter of a king, no one would risk that kind of offense. Of course, any commoner would be fair game. You and your team? Not so much.”

“The more I hear about this, the more complicated it sounds.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it? This is your last chance to back out.”

Striker took a moment to consider before answering. “Honestly, I don’t think you’d be able to find someone that could better pull off something like this. I’ve spent a significant portion of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t. No, I can do this.”

Aranya looked at her sharply. “Something you want to share?”

“Not really. Common folk like me often have to pretend to be something we’re not to be accepted in society. You play the game, or you suffer for it. You haven’t always been a guild leader, surely you know what I mean.”

“Even as a guild leader, that’s true.”

“Yeah, I guess I never thought about it. I don’t suffer fools easily, and there are a lot of fools out there with more social standing than me. Sometimes I think my entire life has been a lie.”

Striker got a faraway look in her eyes, and Aranya left her with her thoughts. When Striker pulled herself back to the moment, she looked determined.

“I guess the only question left is, what’s next?

“We respond to selected invitations, and you go have some nice food and act arrogant and unattainable. Think you can handle it?”

Striker’s entire face changed. She narrowed her eyes and scowled. For a moment, she looked almost like a different person altogether. “Do you dare question my ability? Do you have any idea who I am? Another word out of you, and I’ll have your job, you miserable peasant.”

Aranya was taken aback for only a moment then burst out laughing.


He wasn’t much to look at. Striker examined the man who lay beside her through slitted eyes, finally sated after almost a month of abstinence. A month that felt like years. While his face was too square and his beard too thick for her taste, he had a nice body and knew how to use it. It left her panting, spent, but alive, so very alive. He, on the other hand, had fallen asleep before the sweat of their exertion had dried.

Striker felt as she always had after sex– refreshed and ready to take on the world. The release always left her feeling this way– vivacious, energetic, free. At some point he’d wake, and then he’d be gone and she’d be blissfully alone. This was the closest she could afford to having a relationship. It was enough. It had to be enough.

She didn’t dwell further on it. There were other matters to consider. Thoughts crowded her mind vying for her attention. Ending the undead threat? No, not that one. That had been on her mind since the moment she’d heard the possibility. This was of great concern to her, but she had no idea if it was true or not, didn’t even know if this boy they searched for existed. By his own admission, Merck Vanderoth had been high at the time. Who’s to say what he’d seen had been real? If he believed it, truth spells wouldn’t have revealed a damn thing.

But she knew the answer even as she thought it. It had to be real, because he had been a Swindler and now he was a Priest. Had that ever happened before? She had wanted to ask Aranya but kept forgetting. It was always late at night when she remembered these things, only to forget them when she woke.

Not really surprising considering how much there was to distract her. She may not have been a noble, but for the first time in her life, she got to pretend she was one, and it was fantastic. Much more fun than actually being a noble. Because if she’d been born a noble, she wouldn’t act this way– at least she hoped that was true. Treating people like something that crawled out of a sewer wasn’t right– had never been right. But she was doing it for a good cause, so she’d just have to force herself to suffer through it. She chuckled a bit at the thought. The fine food, the attention, the ability to cause irritation that others had no choice but to deal with. She’d been on the other side of that equation herself, so this was a novelty for her. For a while, at least, she could be someone she could never be in life.

And then there were the levels. Once Sheba had been her patron goddess. She had been a Hunter. She continued to be a Hunter of course, but the link between her and the goddess had been severed through no fault of her own. And though she kept the skills she had, she hadn’t leveled from that point. For years she watched others around her gain levels, while she never progressed at all. It was painful in a way little else could be. Watching others have what she could not. Could never have again… or so she had thought.

She wanted to be happy for her team when they leveled…and she was. But that happiness was bittersweet, an aching pang of realization that they were experiencing something that would be denied her forever. Ressssen had hit Level 8, while Striker was still Level 4. She had fought side by side with them, had shared her life with them, at least the parts she could safely share, had formed a real bond with them, knowing in the back of her mind that at some point, they would outgrow her and have to let her go.

They wouldn’t want to, but eventually she’d end up holding them back. They’d have no choice. If she hadn’t been so comfortable with the Misfits, she would have left before that happened, but she hadn’t been able to find the strength to do it. It had been a horrible game of endless waiting, knowing there was no path forward. Knowing there was no way she could continue to be part of her makeshift family.

And then, out of nowhere, without a link to the goddess or any other deity, she was suddenly Level 10, which brought her to Tier 2. For some people that just meant a Level 10 Hunter, but a few chosen ones ended up specializing. Beast Mastery, she knew, wasn’t a common specialization. It wasn’t something she ever expected. Without the link to Sheba, it shouldn’t have been possible.

She closed her eyes, trying to feel the goddess, but there was nothing there. She wasn’t wrong about this. She was no longer linked to Sheba. But if that was the case, how had she become a Beast Master? That class belonged to the goddess of the hunt. No other god, so far as she knew, had ever given that class to anyone. So what had happened? She had no idea.

Almost as strange was the idea that when she woke, she would be attending the first of many events arranged specifically for her. These dinners and lunches and in one case a concert were all arranged so that people could take her measure. Try to learn something about her. The majority of invitations made sure to include Stalker and assured her they would be happy to accommodate her pet. And the vast majority also asked her to bring the Misfits as well.

The whole thing was surreal. Fortunately, Striker did have some experience with nobility to draw on, even if she herself wasn’t a noble. This gave her a unique advantage. And no one knew. No one even suspected, not even Ressssen who knew her better than anyone.

She smiled to herself, still riding the sexual high. Whatever happened in the days to come, Striker was going to make the most of it. Striker had always been a live in the moment type of woman. The future, whatever it was, would have to take care of itself.


Fifteenth of Learning 1142

Lord Morlitz sat with Lord Keaton. They kept their voices low as they exchanged what information they had gathered about Striker. Everywhere he looked, small clumps of Pelaro’s elite were doing the same. They were in the ball room of his mansion, smaller than a palace ballroom, but huge by any other standard, furnished in style from the intricately white and black tiled floor to the oil paintings on the walls, at least two of which were by Eris herself, one of the preeminent painters of the last century. They were the pride of his collection. He could have never afforded to buy them, but was content enough to have inherited them, as he had most of his wealth. There were tables completely surrounding the room, spread with all sorts of delicacies; imported fish, a selection of meats including some from wild creatures he had picked up from the local chapter of the Adventurer’s Guild, various baked items, a selection of fine wines, and even a sculpture made of flames in the shape of a wolf to honor Sheba, this last an attempt to impress the young Beast Master.

As the first to host the Misfits of Karmenon, he had had to turn away quite a few minor nobles. The party was already too large for his liking, but certain people you couldn’t say no to, or at least he couldn’t. Expectation hung in the air like the tension before a lightning storm. The normal banter was replaced by hushed whispers as people shared every detail they could think of about Striker and her team. There was so much that wasn’t yet known. Each of those present shared a deep desire to learn more about the princess, who she was, why she was there, and most importantly, the identity of her father.

“The thing is,” continued Lord Keaton, “when I interrogated the man, he denied ever being in her room. Said he’d never spoken to her, even though we’d all seen him with her. It was like he’d completely forgotten.”

“Perhaps he was lying to spare her honor?”

“No, I had a Mage with me, detecting lies. He was telling the truth.”

Lord Morlitz looked thoughtful. “Maybe she has a skill to make people forget, though I’ve never heard of a Beast Master with such a skill. She was a Hunter before right?”

“It’s what I’ve heard, yes. There’s something passing odd about this whole situation.”

“That, at least, everyone agrees on. It just seems to me…”

At that moment, conversations died as a small group of people appeared at the ball room’s entrance. They were dressed the way you’d expect lower level adventurers to dress, though Striker, at least, held her head high. The way she carried herself, there wasn’t a person present who didn’t believe her to be a king’s daughter. She looked around at them as if she were a chef inspecting ingredients for the night’s meal that weren’t quite up to her usual standards. Beside her stood a kreve, huge, black and menacing. She looked down at it, spoke a single word, and it dropped its glare, then its head. Behind her was her team, all five of them. To look at them, you’d never think them at all special, but maybe that was the point. Maybe they looked this way to blend in with other low level teams, so as to keep the princess’s identity secret. But if that was so, why did she meet with Aranya Freesh and why agree to attend a banquet. For that matter, why include a salad, a phase shifter and a serpent lord on the team? Mysteries clung to the Misfits are Karmenon like ticks to a bear.

At the top of the stairs, his seneschal announced them one by one, after a whispered conversation with Striker.

“Presenting the adventuring team the Misfits of Karmenon. The team leader, who is of the serpent lord people, Ressssen. Her second in command, Garne. The team’s Healer, a salad, Borin, the team’s Scout, a phase shifter, Dreek, and Merck Vanderoth, who is a Priest of an unknown god.”

A murmur went up at this, followed by shushing sounds. The furor settled as quickly as it had begun.

“And finally, the Beast Master, Trace and her pet kreve, Stalker.”

This time, the silence lasted longer as people took their measure. For many it was the first time they had seen the team. The kreve was impressive, but most present had seen entertainers with animal acts before, and so dismissed it as unimportant. Instead they scrutinized the team, looking for some tiny detail that might give them an advantage over the competition.

Ressssen was a striking figure, but then, all serpent lords were. She stood taller than most people even though her body was almost certainly shorter. The long serpentine neck all serpent ladies possessed was probably two feet long by itself. Ressssen’s head raised her height even further. Her pupils were elliptical, like all of her people, helping her to see better at night. Her scales were iridescent in the light shining through the stained glass windows, running the gamut from blue to green and back again. Lord Morlitz assumed she was a mage, not only from the robes she wore, but also due to the fact that serpent lords were famous for their affinity to magic.

Garne was clearly the warrior of the group. Almost as tall as Ressssen, he was broad shouldered and muscular, his fitted leather armor adding only a bit to his bulk, but he didn’t need it. Though he wasn’t musclebound as some warriors were, his solid stocky build reminded Lord Morlitz of a bull. Garne hadn’t brought weapons with him, or they had been removed before he entered the manor, as was customary. Lord Morlitz wondered what weapon he specialized in. Sword? Axe? Hammer? The Lord could picture him wielding any of them.

Dreek was a shadow. If it were darker he would have been hard to see at all, but in the bright light of day, he stood out, a hole in the world in the shape of a small human. On closer inspection, he seemed to be wearing fine garb that was exactly the same color he was. Did he have a goatee? Hard to see, but yes. And, was that a monocle? The phase shifter panned his gaze around the room, the lack of details on his face making it difficult at times to see which way he was looking. Lord Morlitz had seen shape shifters before, but only in passing and never had thought he would have one as a guest in his home.

Borin was a salad. Like all salads he looked very much like a plant. Some salads were more brown in color, but Borin was various shades of green. His arms and legs seemed to be made of woven vines, his head some sort of fruit, though Lord Morlitz couldn’t name it. He had leafy hair a shade darker than any other part of him, descending from his head down his back like the crest of some lizard. Lord Morlitz had never seen a salad before and was fascinated.

And then there was Merck Vanderoth. Not much to look at. Brown hair, brown eyes and nothing special about him, but he’d been introduced as the Priest of an unknown god. He didn’t need to be tall or well built to draw attention.

Lord Morlitz noticed that Merck stayed very close to Striker, but he didn’t know why. Every time she moved a bit, he followed. Was he some sort of bodyguard? That didn’t make sense. An advisor? Perhaps that. Finally, he turned his attention to Striker herself.

She was pretty, in a country girl sort of way. Not classically beautiful, but there was something about her that was alive and vivacious and attractive. She stood there calmly, gazing about the room, but there was an energy in her eyes, a challenge. A simple look at her, and it was hard to deny she was something special.

All this was taken in in a moment before he hurried from where he stood to greet them. No one moved. No one said anything. And though he was dressed more richly than they were, he felt it wasn’t enough. That he would be judged. That this girl–no woman–was somehow above his station. He cursed the insecurity before pushing the feeling away. By the time he reached them, his broad smile was welcoming and confident.

“Welcome to Morlitz Manor, the ancestral home of my family. I am happy to make your acquaintance. I am Lord Walter Morlitz, the patriarch of the family, who have lived on these lands for hundreds of years. Be welcome here. If you need anything at all, do not hesitate to ask.”

He spoke to all of them, but kept his gaze mostly on Striker. When he was done, she smiled indulgently, as if he were a child.

“What a lovely home you have. I see you appreciate fine art. Is that an original Eris on the far wall?”

“You have a good eye.”

“Two of them actually.”

“Yes, the expression means…”

“I know what the expression means,” said Striker, imperiously. “I mean you have two paintings by Eris. I hope you weren’t implying that I don’t speak the language. I’ve had very good tutors.”

Lord Morlitz looked mortified. “No, no! Of course…”

Striker interrupted him. “Oh lighten up, man. I was joking. They have jokes in Karmenon, do they not?”

The rest of her team watched on bemused, having seen only a hint of her assumed persona prior to this. Lord Morlitz wasn’t watching their reactions however. He was too busy trying to placate the young princess, while feeling like he was in over his head.

Several of the other guests were approaching now, providing the Lord a small reprieve. Introductions and polite comments followed, giving him a chance to regain his composure. First impressions were important. Hopefully, the princess would forgive his faux pas or at least forget it.

He listened to the others, some of whom had brought their young sons along to meet the princess. She seemed to like children, the only people she approached openly. She gave each of them a chance to pet Stalker. His own children were waiting to be introduced later, after the initial rush. Stalker seemed perfectly content to let herself be patted by children and teenagers alike. She was an impressive beast, and Lord Morlitz doubted the children would ever forget this experience.

The whole time she spoke to and greeted the guests, the priest stayed with her, occasionally whispering something in her ear, or shaking his head slightly to one of her comments that Lord Morlitz couldn’t quite make out. He wondered at the bond between the two of them, and made a mental note to separate them later if possible, to try to get some information from the priest, who might be more forthcoming.

Despite the rocky beginning, the princess seemed to enjoy being the center of attention. Her team mingled separately from her, and people approached them trying to find out whatever they could. If anyone did get something, they didn’t share it. When he saw Striker staring at one of the paintings, Lord Morlitz made his way to her.

“What do you think?” he asked.

She glanced at him, smiled slightly, and shook her head. “Eris always manages to capture light particularly well. See the way the sun falls through the curtains here, onto the bed. Why is the girl sleeping in bright sunlight with the curtains open? What do you think he’s trying to say here?”

“I have often wondered if she is sleeping, and not just closing her eyes to the sun.”

Striker looked at the picture again as if studying it. “Perhaps you have a good eye yourself. Maybe even two of them.”

He noticed his wife approaching with his son and daughter. “Ah, here’s another sight for sore eyes. My lovely wife Lady Amanda Morlitz and my children, Matthew and Ainsley. Matthew will be sixteen soon.”

“Almost a man, then,” replied Striker. “Tell me, do you have a favorite painting?”

Ainsley who was younger, stood off to the side without saying much, though she stared shyly at Striker, and then looked at Stalker. The beast looked up at Striker as if they shared a mind.

“I don’t much like paintings,” he said, as if he were confessing a secret. “I like swords. A well made sword is more beautiful than any painting.”

“What about a painting of a sword?” asked Striker.

The boy looked surprised. “Wait, there are paintings of swords?”

“There are some amazing paintings with swords in them. There’s a famous painting in Final Hope that shows a battle that took place during the Undead War.”


“No, I made it up. Of course really.”

Matthew considered this. “Have you seen it?”

“I have.”

“Do you come from Final Hope then?” asked Lord Morlitz.

“I guess that depends on your point of view. I was most likely conceived there at very least.”

Lady Morlitz looked surprised and laughed. Lord Morlitz seemed a bit taken aback, but Striker had already turned her attention to the girl.

“Ainsley, would you like to pet Stalker?”

“Will he bite me?”

“Are you going to try to hurt me?”

“Of course not!” said the girl. “Daddy said you’re a very important guest, and I should be on my best behavior.”

“Well if you’re not going to try and hurt me, there’s no reason for Stalker to bite, is there?”

“She protects you?”

“She does. But she’s very nice, really. Like a big dog.”

“With way too many teeth,” said Lady Morlitz.

Striker beckoned the girl to come closer, and she did. To show the girl it was safe, she stroked Stalker’s head. The kreve closed its eyes and made a rasping sound.

“That means she’s happy,” said Striker.

“I can pet her?”

“You can.”

The girl reached out and touched the beast gingerly as if it might burst into flames at any moment, and when the kreve didn’t react at all, Ainsley stroked her head just behind one of her ears. Stalker opened one eye.

“She likes that,” said Striker.

“Can I pet her too?” asked Matthew.

“Sure you can. Just go easy, you look pretty strong, and we wouldn’t want to hurt her.”

Lord and Lady Morlitz exchanged a glance.

“You’re not quite what I expected,” said Lady Morlitz.

“Oh? What did you expect?”

“People have described you as standoffish, but you don’t come off that way to me.”

“Children don’t possess the same guile as adults. For the most part, they are what you see. I like that. Deal with me directly, and you’ll find me far more approachable.”

Merck Vanderoth was nearby, and Lord Morlitz noticed that he shook his head ever so slightly.

“I wonder what that’s about,” he thought. 


Forward to Chapter 23 – Good-Natured Subterfuge

Back to Chapter 21 – The Roots of Lost Wisdom



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