Erin woke up slowly. She woke up to the sight of a bag full of money on her table. For a moment she thought the Goblin had left it.
It wasn’t the Goblin. In fact, the mysterious bag full of silver coins was courtesy of Klbkch. Erin peered down at the note he’d written and squinted to make out the words.
For the destruction of a Goblin Chieftain within the area of Liscor you are hereby awarded 40 (forty) coins of silver or equivalent denomination. Signed and witnessed by Klbkch of the Antinium.
-Klbkch of the Antinium
Post Script: Please excuse my poor handwriting, but I am not fluent in your script.
Erin blinked down at the bag. She opened it and blinked at the sight of all the gleaming silver. For a while she stared at the shiny metal and watched as the sunlight made it glow. Then she closed the bag.
She stared at the table. The money seemed like it was right out a dream. But it didn’t actually matter much to her at the moment.
She looked back at the table. Had she dreamed that too? But no, she saw where the Goblin had spilled the blue fruit juice when she’d smiled at it. A large glowing fly was hovering over the table.
Erin sighed. But then she smiled. And suddenly, she knew what she was going to do.
First she smacked the acid fly and ran around screaming until she washed the acid off. Then she ate breakfast, which were cold noodles mixed with sausage and onion. It was delicious. Then she walked down to the city.
A thought struck Erin as she walked. She’d have to go back to the market. The market where she’d lost all of her money. Her footsteps slowed, and then picked up. Suddenly Erin had two things to do today. She was looking forward to both.
The second time the human female entered the market every head turned. This time it wasn’t just because of her smell.
Erin marched right up to the stall where she’d been ripped off. She glared at the Drake and then squinted.
“Wait a second. Have we met?”
The Drake shook her head.
“Do you wish to buy a necklace, Human?”
Erin eyed the pendants and other jewelry on display.
“Later, maybe. Right now I want to talk to the Drake guy who ripped me off the other day. You know; the one that took all my money. The ugly one.”
The other customers and shopkeepers nearby who heard that laughed loudly. The female Drake grinned and covered her smile. She pointed, and Erin turned to see a scowling Drake four stalls down.
Erin marched over to the Drake. He glared at her, but this time Erin glared back. He shifted his gaze pointedly over Erin’s head. She cleared her throat. When he still ignored her she kicked the bottom of his stall.
The Drake looked down and snapped at her.
“What do you want?”
Erin gave him a polite smile without any of the sincerity.
“Why, I’d like to do business. Jerk.”
The Drake hissed under his breath. He shook his head at her and flicked his tail in her direction.
“My store’s closed to you, Human. I won’t sell to those without a hint of respect for others.”
“Respect? I have tons of respect. Just for anyone who’s not you.”
Several of the other shopkeepers laughed at that. Erin notice she and the Drake were drawing a crowd. She didn’t particularly care.
The shopkeeping Drake glared harder at Erin.
“You’re obstructing my business. Leave, before I summon the Watch.”
He turned his back on Erin but she rapped on his counter.
“My business with you isn’t done yet. I want my money back. You ripped me off the other day.”
The Drake looked over his shoulder.
“So? I offered you my goods and you paid my price. That is a basic rule of buying and selling. I have done nothing wrong.”
There was a general murmur of agreement from the shop owners and a discontented rumble among the shoppers. Erin leaned over the counter.
“Oh yeah? What if I’m not happy about what you sold me? I think for three gold coins you should be selling me enough onions to fill the bottom floor of my inn. So how about I return you what I’ve purchased and you give me a complete refund?”
The Drake sneered at her.
“Do you take me for a slow-witted hatchling, or a Human fool? I won’t accept food that’s days old! Besides, this store does not give out refunds!”
“Really? Where does it say that?”
The Drake pointed to a sign. Erin stared at it and up at him with narrowed eyes amidst the laughter. Then she grinned.
“Oh, right. It does say that, doesn’t it? Too bad I can’t read. But I do remember you had your prices listed as well, didn’t you?”
She looked around at the other pieces of paper pinned to the wooden stall. The Drake shopkeeper lunged, but Erin was quicker. She pulled the familiar piece of paper away and waved it in front of his face.
“Well. Why don’t we call the Watch after all? Buying and selling is all very well, but what about sticking to prices you write down?”
The Drake shopkeeper hissed again, long and slow this time. His eyes flicked to the paper and back to Erin’s face. He wasn’t sweating, but Erin was pretty sure lizards didn’t sweat.
“Even—even if you have that bit of paper, what of it? I sell to many customers. And you—I barely remember what I’ve sold to you, let alone my last customer.”
“A bag of flour, one pot of oil, a small bag of salt, sugar, yeast, four sausages, and two onions.”
Erin said it instantly. She paused for a second.
“And one crappy bag.”
The Drake stared at her with open mouth. She smiled sweetly at him.
“I’ve got a good memory. A really good one, actually.”
He didn’t have much to say to that. But the look on the shopkeeper’s face told Erin he wasn’t about to start tossing gold coins around. She leaned over the counter and stared at him. She wished she wasn’t so close. His breath smelled of rotted meat.
“I want my money back. I’ll give you a few silver coins for what I paid, but I’m not leaving here until you give me my money. Now, we can do this the hard way and call a bunch of people over and you can lose all your business for the day, or you can give my money back and I’ll—hey, is that a chess board?”
Erin pointed at one of the Drake shopkeeper’s displays. Everyone turned and looked.
“Oh hey, it is! It’s just like—I mean, the pieces are different but it’s chess, it is!”
The Drake snarled and batted Erin’s hands away.
“Get your hands off that! This is a valuable item!”
Erin glared back.
“It’s a chess board. Unless it’s made out of gold—which it’s not, it’s made out of stone—it’s about as expensive as that food you sold me. So I guess you’re selling this for three gold coins, too?”
That got another laugh from the crowd who had gathered to watch Erin’s showdown with the shopkeeper. The Drake on the other hand just grabbed the chess board and pieces and went to shove them below his counter. Then he stopped and turned to her with a gleam in his eye.
“Are you a player of chess, Human? If so, why don’t we bet on a game?”
Erin raised one eyebrow.
“You mean, we play a game of chess for my money? Why should I do that?”
The Drake spread his arms innocently. Erin noticed his tail was waggling on the floor but she pretended not to notice.
“Human, you and I have a dispute. I refuse to pay for goods sold, and you refuse to leave. So long as you’re stinking up my storefront I won’t have any business, so I offer a wager in good faith. Win against the player of my choice and I will pay you back the money you paid me, though it will cost me my goods that I have earned honestly. Lose, and you agree in front of witnesses not to bother me again. That is my best offer.”
Erin narrowed her eyes at him. She thought for a moment, and then nodded. Her lips twitched once, but she managed to suppress them.
“Fine. Let’s play.”
The shopkeeper smiled down at her. It was a smile full of teeth.
“Give me ten minutes to find my player. Then I will teach you why it is unwise to bet against your betters.”
Erin smiled back.
Twenty minutes later Erin sat at a table in the middle of the street and played with a pawn. She stared at her opponent, another Drake, this one’s scales colored sky-blue. He was thinner than the shopkeeper, but the Drake was still taller than she was. He finished setting up the pieces on his side and smiled at her across the table.
“I rarely get a chance to play any games within the city. May I know whom I am playing against?”
“Of course. My name’s Erin. Erin Solstice.”
He nodded to her.
“I am Olesm. I believe you know my uncle, who asked me to play in this match.”
Erin gave her opponent a friendly, genuine smile and then looked over his shoulder.
“Is that your uncle? My, you two don’t look alike.”
The Drake hovering over his nephew’s shoulder hissed at her. Olesm raised what would have been his eyebrows if he had any.
“I understand this is a game with a wager. I would urge you not to bet against me. I am quite a good player.”
The shopkeeper interjected quickly.
“We have already agreed to the terms. The Human cannot back out now.”
Olesm glanced at his uncle in irritation, but Erin shook her head.
“I’m not backing down. Let’s play. Besides, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the crowd.”
She gestured at the crowd of watching people. They were definitely people, but Erin wasn’t sure what else to call them. Drakes, Gnolls, and even one of Klbkch’s kind, the Antinium were all gathered in a circle to watch the game. Some of them seemed to be betting as well, and though Erin couldn’t see what they were saying, they didn’t seem to be betting on her victory.
Olesm sighed, but made no further objection. Instead he peered at the board and made sure his pieces were all aligned within the squares. He struck Erin as a very meticulous and careful type, which made him unique among the Drakes she’d met so far.
“I’m surprised you know about this game. It was invented just a year ago.”
“You don’t say.”
Erin was busy examining the board. She tapped one of the pieces.
“I’m not sure if the rules I know are the same in that case. This piece here. You can move a king together with a pawn like this, right?”
The Drake blinked.
“That’s right. I’m surprised you know that move.”
“Oh, I’ve seen a few players use it. Knights move like this, right?”
“And pawns move two spaces on their first move, right?”
“You seem to know this game. Well, well. This might be a good challenge after all.”
Erin smiled blandly at the Drake.
“I’m no expert. But there’s a wager on this one so I’ll play my best. The white side moves first.”
“Indeed it does.”
The shopkeeper smirked and the other watchers crowded around closer as Olesm pushed a pawn forwards. Erin smiled at him.
“Not many players lead with a pawn from the side. Most like going down the center.”
She pushed a pawn forward quickly. Olesm shrugged as he contemplated his next move.
“I have found this strategy to work in some of my games. It is fascinating to play such a new game of strategy, and so I always test new theories out on the board.”
The shopkeeper anxiously hovered over Olesm’s shoulder.
“So long as you win. You must win no matter what.”
Olesm narrowed his eyes but didn’t take his eyes from the board. Eventually he pushed forwards a pawn to counter Erin’s pawn.
“Have you played many games, then?”
Erin pushed another piece forwards instantly. Olesm blinked and the onlookers muttered.
“A few. But should you not spend more time thinking?”
She waved a hand at him.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m having a blast. I just think fast about my next move, that’s all.”
Olesm frowned at her.
“You should think harder. I have played over a hundred games so far, and won over two thirds of them. If you truly are betting something important, it would not do to lose this game so easily.”
Erin smiled back at him.
“A hundred? Wow. But like I said, don’t worry. I like to play chess too. And I’ve played a…few games too. I’m not worried.”
Erin smiled wider.
“Because I’m going to win.”
By the time Relc got to the market street Erin was on, the game had gone on for twenty minutes. A few customers were at the stands haggling, but most were still watching the game. One smart Gnoll was selling them food as they watched, and the shopkeepers seemed content to put their business on hold to watch the fun.
Relc was not having fun. He shoved his way to the front of the crowd and grabbed Erin. The crowd protested angrily. So did Erin.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“What are you doing?”
Relc snapped back at her. He pointed angrily to the game of chess where Olesm was taking his time considering his next move.
“This? I’m getting my money back. Let go of my shirt. It’s new.”
She tried to peel off Relc’s claws from her shirt. Relc let go, but pulled her away from the game. He leaned forwards and hissed at her.
“Stop playing. This isn’t a fair game.”
Erin looked at the board and back at Relc.
“You can’t cheat in chess. It’s fair.”
“No, it’s not.”
Relc raised his voice and pointed to the shopkeeper.
“Hey, you! Yeah, you. I know you. Stop the game. This isn’t fair. The bet’s off.”
The crowd rumbled in discontent at Relc’s words. The Drake shopkeeper spread his claws out innocently.
“It is a fair game. She let me name my player and we agreed to the wager. There are many witnesses. It would be wrong to cancel the game now, Guardsman.”
Relc eyed the Drake shopkeeper balefully. From her seat Erin noticed the shopkeeper’s tail was wagging a bit. He also had a gleeful look on his face if she was reading his face right.
“I hate to agree with that jerk, but he’s right Relc. I agreed to the wager and I want to play. I’m going to win my money back and play some chess while I’m at it.”
“Are you crazy? You’re going to lose this game.”
Relc hissed at Erin. She blinked up at him.
“Am I? Why’s that?”
Relc growled under his breath. He jerked a thumb over at the seated Drake who was studying the board with a frown.
“That guy you’re playing? He’s a [Tactician]. The highest-leveled one in the city!”
Erin blinked again.
“So? Does that mean he’s good at chess?”
“Well, so am I. It’s still a fair game, isn’t it?”
Relc seemed close to tearing out the spines on his head.
“All [Tacticians] can tell when they’re being led into a trap! It’s a class skill! How do you not know this? If you play one in a game they’ll win almost every time! Plus that idiot loves to play that stupid game!”
The Olesm looked up and glared at Relc. Erin glared too.
“It’s not a stupid game. And so what if he likes to play? Like I said, so do I. And I’m a good player.”
“You still can’t win.”
“Oh, hi Klbkch.”
Erin turned away from Relc and waved at the silent ant man who had come up behind Relc. Klbkch nodded at her politely.
“Miss Solstice. Please forgive my companion’s interruption. We are on duty and it is improper of us to disturb a member of the public without cause. But Relc insisted we speak with you once we heard of the bet that had been made.”
“Really? You heard about the bet?”
“Indeed. It is all over the city.”
“Yeah, everyone was talking about the stupid Human who was dumb enough to wager on a game of chess against that idiot.”
Relc jerked his thumb at Olesm. The other Drake continued pondering the board, but Erin could see him grinding his teeth in his seat.
“I understand this is a bet made to recover your lost coin. However, I fear I must issue the same warning as Relc. The odds of you winning a game against Olesm are quite slim.”
“Olesm. Oh yeah, that’s what his name is.”
Erin covered a smile as Olesm’s eye twitched. She turned to Klbkch and Relc.
“Look, I’m glad you two care. But I’ve got this. It’s fine. You’ll see.”
The two guardsmen stared at her, unconvinced. Relc turned to Klbkch and whispered. Unfortunately his voice was still quite loud and Erin and those around them could hear him quite plainly.
“I don’t think she gets it. Humans are kinda slow. You explain the [Tactician] bit to her.”
“I believe you have given her adequate information. If she will not listen to you, she will not listen to me.”
“Exactly. So stop calling me stupid or I’ll hit you.”
Erin glared at Relc who shuffled his feet and looked away. She glared at Klbkch who raised all four of his hands and bowed his head and then shifted her glare back to Relc.
“Let me play. You two can watch, but I’m going to play and win.”
Erin raised a finger.
“No. Go away and let me play.”
Relc opened his mouth, closed it, and then hissed long and loud. He threw up his hands and stomped back into the crowd.
Erin slid back into her seat and smiled at Olesm.
“Sorry about that.”
Olesm glanced over Erin’s shoulder and sniffed at Relc and Klbkch.
“Think nothing of it. But if we’re done with the interruptions, it’s your move.”
“So it is.”
Erin pondered the board. Then she slid another piece forwards.
“Oi, Klbkch. What’s she doing? Was that a good move? It looked like a bad move.”
“I am uncertain at this point. Allow me a few moments to assess the board before I give you my opinion. And please, lower your voice.”
Erin covered a smile as Olesm’s eye twitched. She waited for him to play another piece. As she did, she studied the board.
Chess. The pieces were different, and she was playing in a street in a city full of walking lizards and talking ants. But it was still chess.
It was wonderful to play again.
Olesm frowned as he toyed with a bishop Erin had cornered with one of her knights. He moved it diagonally one way, and then frowned. Then he moved it another way and frowned again. He glanced up at Erin.
She stared back at him innocently.
He moved his piece back and forth around a rook she’d used to attack his queen, and then took one of her pawns with it. His frown didn’t go away, but he seemed content with the move.
Erin moved another of her pieces forwards instantly. Her knight – a scaly Drake with a buckler in one hand and a scimitar the other – took one of his pawns.
A susurration went through the audience around the two players. That was, except for Relc who had gone to one of the stalls to buy something to eat. Olesm leaned back in his chair and gave Erin an admiring look.
“Well done, I hadn’t anticipated that.”
“It was just a lucky move. Well, not lucky, but it was quite nice, wasn’t it?”
Olesm moved his king sideways.
Erin pointed at the board.
“Oh, that’s check too. Sorry.”
Erin tapped her queen and pointed down the board. The Drake player grimaced and moved his king the other way.
“That’s check as well. See the rook?”
Olesm paused and blinked at the table. The crowd murmured more loudly and Relc came back to look at the table.
After a minute Olesm made a move that wasn’t check and the game went on. But now he took longer and longer between each move and his frown which had started about five minutes ago didn’t go away.
Meanwhile his uncle the shopkeeper watched the board with clear anxiety. He glared at Erin who smiled serenely back at him. Whenever Olesm made a move she would instantly move a piece and take one of his own or threaten his king. Eventually she stopped staring at the board and stared at the shopkeeper with a smile on her face as Olesm frantically searched the board for a comeback.
“Ooh, no check this turn. But watch out for your rook. It’s that or your queen.”
“Check. And it’s check if you do that too. And that…”