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Mideon looked at me with wide uncertain eyes. He glanced at me then glanced at Galston, then at Herwin, then at Cassia. A moment passed as he tried to wrestle thoughts in his mind. I could guess what they were.
“Ahem,” I said. “The pressing matter?”
Mideon returned his eyes to me. There was still anger in them, but now the outrage was veiled and hidden. “No pressing matter, I mean–I was just saying…” He frowned. He couldn’t find the words and downed his brandy in a gulp and stood. “How much do I owe you for the drinks?”
“Ah, let me see. You did order the finest brandy in the house. That’s six shimmers each and with eight men, that’ll be forty-eight shims.”
He looked at me in shock. Forty-eight silver shimmers were equivalent to a season’s salary for a city guard and more than a full gold brilliance.
I gave him my most oblivious and friendly tavern keeper smile.
He looked again at Galston and Herwin’s table, then dug into his pocket and counted the coins. Then he made his men each dig out a shim to cover the cost. He handed me the collected coins and gave one final glance at Elsa before leaving.
Elsa came to my side at the door, and we watched Mideon and his men head down the road and around the turn. They first had to peel Gerlanda off the pavement. The next two largest of the thugs each grabbed Gerlanda by an arm and hauled him away.
“I think I have a new appreciation for you, Heru,” Elsa said.
“No need for that,” I said. “Just appreciate my furniture.”
Elsa smiled. “Will do.” Then in a smaller voice, she said, “Thank you.”
I shrugged. “No need for that either.”
I looked back at the tavern. It was still half full and not even past midnight. Galston had some color in his face now and he was speaking animatedly with Cassia, Amberly, and Bran. Dalian had fallen asleep in his chair and was snoring loudly. I chuckled to myself. Then I noticed that Elsa was still turned toward the door beside me. Her head was tilted downward slightly, and her eyes were hidden in her hair. I guessed she still had something on her mind, so I waited.
“I-I don’t know how you put up with me,” Elsa said, her voice still quiet. “I’m always breaking your tables and drinking your good booze. And this time, I nearly got the tavern shut down because I couldn’t handle a little attention from a noble.”
I shrugged again. “It was more than a little attention. In any case, I wouldn’t worry about it. Come on, I’m buying Herwin and myself a fancy drink. You can have one too.”
I walked over to Galston’s table and pulled up a chair next to Herwin, who was sitting across from Galston and Cassia and chatting with the builders. I clasped him on the shoulder. “Master Herwin! What are you drinking?”
“Oh, Master Arch,” Herwin said, a little surprised by my presence. He raised his mug. “The Honeydew Lager, of course.”
“That’s no drink for the hero of the night!”
Bran smiled. “You came at the perfect time tonight, Herwin. Master Arch was in a tight pickle.”
“You were?” Herwin said.
“Oh yes, Mideon was here. You saw him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I of course, but he didn’t seem-“
“That’s because you showed up with Galston,” Amberly said. “They were going to wreck the place. I was readying for a brawl.”
“Good gracious…” Herwin said.
I saw Elsa come to our side now. If she’d been crying, it was impossible to tell. She looked as beautiful as ever, her smile tinged with the usual measure of playfulness and sarcasm. Only then did I begin to wonder if it was a role that she played to mask something else.
“We nearly didn’t make it,” Herwin said. “But I knew everyone was eager to meet Galston.”
“That’s why I owe you a favor,” I said to Herwin. “But you can call that in at another time. Tonight, we’ll drink some fine brandy to celebrate our good fortunes. Elsa, bring over the bottle of Gilhanna.”
That wiped the smile off of her face.
“Uh… Heru, we finished the Gilhanna last night.”
“What?” I said, looking at her. “That’s what we were drinking? That was our best Elvish brandy!”
But that was indeed the bottle we had drank after Elsa had knocked Mideon flat on the street.
She turned a little pink. “It seemed like a worthy occasion at the time.”
“Good Celeru, I don’t even remember enough from that night to savor the taste of it.”
Elsa looked down guiltily at the floor. “Sorry.”
“No matter,” I said, sighing. “I’ve got a better bottle in my room under the bed. Could you go and fetch it? And bring three glasses.” I looked over the people sitting at the table. “Oh hell, bring seven glasses. If Dalian wakes up, we can fetch another.”
Elsa came back a few minutes later with a tray of glasses and a tall green bottle. There was a look of surprise on her face as she came to my side and whispered in my ear, “Heru…this bottle… it-it’s a Medi Gilhanna!”
“Sure is,” I said, taking the bottle of the tray and scratching at the wrapping.
“It must be worth hundreds of silvers… no, hundreds of golds!” she said. Her voice was still a whisper, but it was filled with energy.
“Uh huh. Good thing I hid it under my bed or it’d probably be gone too, eh?”
Elsa blinked. Then getting my meaning, her cheeks flushed. She said, “I wouldn’t-“
“Oh relax. I’m just teasing you. Grab a seat,” I said and poured the bottle into seven glasses.
Galston caught sight of the bottle mid-sentence with Cassia. His eyes widened. “Gods, is that what I think it is?”
“Might be,” I said, pouring out the last glass.
Herwin perked up at Galston’s tone and looked down at the clear purple liquid as I put the first glass in front of him. “What is it?”
“It is a king’s treasure,” Galston said.
This got looks from all around the table. Amberly licked his lips. Even Bran seemed interested.
“Don’t worry, everyone at the table is getting a glass.”
“We couldn’t,” Galston said. “This… this bottle could buy you a new tavern.”
“I’ve always believed good brandy is for drinking, not selling,” I said. “My friend Herwin here has saved me from a dire plight, the most celebrated warrior in the city is gracing us with his presence, and at this table, we have my most loyal patrons and two lovely ladies. What better occasion is there than this for a good drink, ey?” I leaned over the table and placed a glass before Galston.
“You’re too kind, Master Arch.”
“Just mean’s you’ll have to come by more often, Champion,” Amberly said with a big smile.
Galston nodded as if a deal had been made.
“How’d you come by this sacred drink?” Bran asked, receiving his glass.
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to charge you,” I said.
Bran held up his hands. “Please, keep the information to yourself. I don’t think I could afford it in a lifetime.”
This got some chuckles from the table, Cassia the most. It was a clean, honest laugh. She seemed to be in good spirits, which for some reason, made me happy.
Amberly was shaking Dalian. “Wake up you old fool, you’re going to miss the drink of a lifetime!”
But Dalian continued to snore, slumped in his seat.
“Guess, he’ll have to wait until next time,” I said, and finished serving all the glasses, placing the last one in front of Elsa. Then I raised my own. “To friends, old and new. To the Tipsy Pelican Tavern. And to Herwin for saving the day!”
Herwin smiled and turned bright red at the toast. But everyone else joined in on it.
“To friends, the Tipsy Pelican, and Herwin!” said the others.
We clinked glasses and each took a sip. It was a wonderful taste in my mouth because it was indeed the best brandy money could buy, and because I had good people to share it with.
It was past two o’clock in the morning when the last patron left the tavern. Galston had left by giving Cassia a big hug. Bran and Amberly had left by giving Galston a big hug. Somebody had tried to hug Elsa but got thrown through a table. Then she came to me and apologized profusely, which was a first. Other than that, the night ended on a much quieter note than the one before.
As we cleared the tables and did our cleaning, Cassia approached me and asked, “Arch-don, I was wondering if I could speak to you about my lodging here. The inn I’ve rented is quite far…”
“Ah yes,,” I said, placing dishes on top of one another. “Thanks for helping out today.”
“No, not at all.”
“I was um speaking to Galston tonight…”
“Yes, I saw. He’s taken a liking to you.”
“He asked me if there was anything I needed, and I did mention the dragon.”
“Did he agree to be your hero?”
Cassia pouted and said, “He did offer to help. He said he could ask around to gather a group as there are other awakened in the city, though he does not know their number of gates.”
“There you go. Get a few hundred and you’ll take out that dragon no problem.”
“A-a few hundred?”
“Well… you know. To be on the safe side. But that’s good news, no?”
“Yes. So, um… I thought I’d stay in the city for a while longer to recruit awakened adventurers.”
“And um… well… seeing that I’ll be staying longer now, I was wondering if I could rent the room from you in return for working.”
“Oh sure, no problem. Stay as long as you like.”
“What fee should I-“
“Don’t worry about,” I said. “I have too many rooms anyway. And Charm and Elsa both seem to like you.”
“I couldn’t take your charity.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. She quickly caught my meaning. It was the same as the night before when she said she couldn’t trouble me. She had asked me to risk my life to fight a dragon. Borrowing a room was nothing.
“Perhaps,” Cassia said quickly. “Perhaps I could help around the tavern when I am not recruiting with Galston?”
“That’ll be great,” I said, smiling. Then I called to the kitchen. “Elsa, Charm, come over here.”
Both girls poked their heads out.
“What is it, Heru?”
“Just come out, will you?”
Elsa and Charm came over, their hands and arms still wet from cleaning.
“Cassia is going to be staying with us for a while,” I said.
But there were no surprises on their faces. They just looked at Cassia with encouraging smiles, and I knew right away that Cassia had spoken to them first about it.
I ran a hand through my hair. “I see that I am the last person to learn about things as usual.”
“That’s what happens when you’re the heru,” Elsa said.
Charm wiped her hands on her apron. “Those who make maidens undress cannot be easily trusted. It is necessary to first seek advice from others.”
“Huh? Who made who undress?” Elsa asked.
“OKAY, moving on,” I said hurriedly. “Let’s all welcome Cassia to the Tipsy Pelican Tavern!”
“Welcome!” Elsa said and gave Cassia a hug.
“Welcome,” Charm said, giving Cassia a small bow.
“Welcome!” I said, grinning. I really was in an unusually good mood.
“Thank you.” Cassia looked as if she was genuinely warmed by the greeting.
Sometime later, I climbed the stairs to the second floor with the half-finished bottle of Medi Gilhanna and two glasses. I stopped before Charm’s door and knocked lightly.
“Come in,” she said.
Charm was sitting on her bed, reading a book against lantern light. “What is it, Master?”
“Brought you a drink,” I said, placing the two glasses on her nightstand. “Figured you wouldn’t have wanted to partake earlier with the crowd.”
“I do not need any now either, Master.”
“Oh come on, this is good stuff, even by your standards.” I poured two fingers into her glass and one into mine.
I thought she was going to sulk again and turn down the drink, but to my surprise, she raised the glass to her nose and sniffed it. Then she took a small sip.
“This is quite alright,” she said.
“Hey, don’t be rude, we need to cheers first.”
I raised my glass, and considered a toast, then thought better of it and said nothing. She clinked my glass with hers, and we both took a sip.
Charm nodded. “How did Master come by it?”
“A gift from Emdark’s daughter.”
Charm nodded again and did not say anything to this, but she did take another sip.
After a moment, she said, “My body feels warm like I am beside a fire and a musician is playing a song I like.”
I smiled. “Told you it was good stuff.”
After we were done, we sat in silence for a little while. Then Charm said, “I wish to sleep now.”
I nodded and stood and took the glasses and the bottle back to my room. I considered having another glass by myself, but then pushed the thought away. There would be another occasion to drink the Medi Ghilanna again, I told myself. So I made sure the cork was tightened and stowed it back underneath my bed.
I lay down under my covers and reminded myself of the good things that had happened. Many pitfalls had been avoided. That was a win on any day.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If the bear man’s fist was a roast chicken, the face of the tournament champion was a solid slab of obsidian.
It might as well have been a gnat that flew into his face. Galston didn’t even blink.
“My goodness!” I exclaimed at the bear man with all the indignation of a haughty noble. “I’ve told you for the last time, Gerlanda! There is no fighting in the tavern. You, sir, are banned!”
Whatever name the bear man’s unfortunate mother had given him, it was certainly not Gerlanda, but the bear man had not yet noticed what I had called him, because his tiny brain was currently filled with complete shock for two reasons.
Reason Number One: He had just punched Galston the Gallant with all his strength.
Reason Number Two: He had just punched Galston the Gallant with all his strength to no effect.
“Are you listening to me, Gerlanda?” I said again with mock outrage in my voice. “I’m not just cutting you off from the bar! You, sir, are banned from the tavern!”
I quickly turned to Galston. He was a large man of a stocky build, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. Though his demeanor was calm, there was a weight and gravity to his disposition.
“Are you quite alright, sir? I am so sorry for this man’s behavior,” I said, bowing and gesturing for Galston to enter the tavern. “Please, let me get you a drink. On the house, of course.”
Only now did the bear man notice me. As if suddenly reminded at what he originally intended to do, he stepped out of the tavern and raised his giant fist again, but this time it was properly aimed at me.
But the fist never made its way past his own chest because Galston the Gallant took Gerlanda’s head with one hand and drove it down into the cobblestone pavement, splitting the ground.
Herwin’s mouth was wide open as were the mouths of Mideon’s men inside the tavern. Everyone was silent.
“I’m afraid words are not enough for some men,” Galston said, his voice deep and strong. “You must be Master Arch. Lord Herwin has been telling me about your Honeydew Lager for quite some time. I thought I’d come and see if it lived up to his praises.”
“Of course!” I said, smiling. “I will pour you a mug from a fresh barrel, I promise you won’t be disappointed. And again, I do apologize for Gerlanda’s behavior. We’ll just let him sit outside for a bit to cool down.” If you could call having your head in the ground and your ass in the sky ‘sitting.’
“He’s a good man when he’s not drunk,” I continued. “But I’m sad to say those hours of the day are rare.”
Galston nodded as he stepped into the tavern. “I know the type.”
Herwin followed after Galston, eyeing Gerlanda as he passed. I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him close. “Herwin, you came in the nick of time. I owe you one. You ever need a favor, you let me know,” I said to the boy.
He looked at me, surprised. “I’m not sure of your meaning, Master Arch.”
“You’ll see once we step inside.”
But when we did, Herwin looked around, blinked and gave me a confused look as if he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
I, too, looked and saw why he did not see the threat of Mideon’s imposing, armed men. It was because they were no longer armed nor imposing. Instead, they were all sitting before tables in chairs along the walls with straight and prude postures and their weapons tucked away, as if they had just arrived to attend a tea party.
Elsa was even serving drinks to a couple of them, who (save for the scars and tattoos) might have looked like nothing more than kindly patrons and connoisseurs of a fine drink.
Even Mideon was seated, a ghastly expression on his face that was mirrored by Proctor Remis, who sat across from him.
Such was the effect of the Champion of Heroes accompanied by a bonafide lord.
Things had turned out even better than I expected. But the tavern was quiet as a morgue. I gave Bran a meaningful look that he quickly understood. He slapped Amberly hard on the back and burst out in raucous laughter.
“I get it now! The chicken ate the squirrel! My gods, you really have to work for that joke!”
There were some nervous chuckles, then some of the other patrons began laughing. Then even Mideons men were laughing.
And just like that, the tavern sounded like a tavern again.
“Elsa!” I said. “Two mugs of fresh Honeydew Lager for our new guests, please.”
“Right away, Master Arch,” Elsa said with a curt bow reminiscent of a royal butler, and she darted off into the backroom. I double-taked and took a moment to wonder who this woman was and what she’d done with the alcoholic temptress.
Then I looked around for some empty seats for Herwin and Galston but found that all the tables were taken now that Mideon’s men were seated.
Bran, Amberly, and Dalian saw my search and immediately pushed out two chairs from their table. Their expressions were razor-sharp as if guiding me to place Galston at their table with their sheer force of will.
“Champion Galston, I’m afraid all our tables are taken. You’ve caught us on a busy night. Would you mind sharing a table with these fine gentlemen? Bran, Amberly, and Dalian are tavern regulars and excellent for a conversation.”
Galston nodded, but his thoughts remained imperceptible on his face. He and Herwin took their seats, and Elsa returned with two pitchers of Honeydew Lager, placing them in front of the two.
Galston did not immediately drink from his mug. He ran his eyes over my tavern, taking a moment to eye Mideon’s gangsters.
“Interesting crowd here,” Galston said and finally took up the mug, placing it to his lips. His eyebrows lifted as he swallowed, and he nodded. Then he took another swig.
“Impressive. Not too sweet and not too bitter. A strong burst of honeydew at the finish. Herwin, you did not exaggerate.”
“I told you, Galston!” Herwin said proudly. “Master Arch makes the best fruit beer in the city.”
I couldn’t have been more pleased. Despite the tensions that existed only minutes earlier, Galston’s appearance and compliment meant a lot to me as a brewer.
“Keep on drinking,” Bran said.
“It gets better after the second mug,” Amberly said.
Galston nodded and downed another swallow.
I nudged Herwin. He looked at me and saw me dart a glance at the builders. Herwin quickly bobbed his head and said, “Galston, please meet my friends Bran, Amberly, and Dalian. They are wall carpenters in the city and witnessed your final match at the tournament.”
“Indeed?” Galston said, as he leaned over and shook hands with all three of the builders.
The men looked unsure which fact Galston was referring to, but they went with the latter.
“We saw it from the middle rows,” Amberly said with a pitch of idolization in his voice that I’d never heard escape the large man’s diaphragm. “Spent half a month’s wages to get the seats.”
“Well worth it. More than worth it!” Bran said with a laugh.
“Say Champion,” Dalian said, scratching his scraggly white beard. “We’ve been having a small quarrel about the tournament that perhaps you could help us settle.”
Galston’s eyes darted away every now and then toward the bar as the men spoke. But upon hearing Dalian’s request, he returned his gaze to the old builder and nodded.
Bran spoke first. “Which of Celeru’s Rules did you cast in the final-“
“Now wait a minute,” Amberly said. “Let’s first clear up which rules we bet on. I can’t even remember all the names you’ve claimed the hero used.”
“I don’t remember their names,” Bran said. “I only know its number. Rule forty-six is my guess.”
Dalian joined in now. “And I say it was Helion’s Hand!”
I left their table now and went over to Mideon, who had been watching the entire interaction with unhidden disbelief.
“My apologies, Lord Mideon, for cutting our conversation short,” I said with the utmost grace. “Let us continue. You were saying…?”
Galston and Herwin looked over to register the other lord in the tavern as I said his name. Herwin quickly recognized Mideon from the night before, and his mouth formed into a frown.
“Err, yes. About that-,” Mideon said, eyeing the lordling and the hero.
“But first, let me take your order,” I said, cutting him off. “You’ve been sitting so long and you haven’t even had anything to drink. I really do apologize. What can get I get you?”
“Maybe I suggest a glass of our finest brandy for your lordship?”
“Yes, that seems-“
“Excellent, for your men as well?”
“Eight brandies coming right up!” I said and headed toward the back.
“Master Arch,” Galston said, raising a finger.
I stopped beside him and leaned. “Sir?”
Galston hesitated a moment before he said, “Who is that woman, if I might ask?”
“Ah, that’s El-” I began, but I saw who he was referring to. He was looking at the bar again, and only Cassia was behind it. She was serving a bowl of stew to one of the customers now that things had settled down. “That’s Cassia. She’s uh…. A new hire.”
“She is a striking woman,” he said.
“That’s Master Arch for you,” Herwin said. He’d apparently overheard our dialogue. The builders, on the other hand, were still arguing over spells.
“All his staff is stunning,” Herwin continued. “You should see the one who does the cooking.”
“Good patronage keeps good staff,” I said. “Please let me get you two refilled.”
I went to the bar and grabbed several glasses and two new mugs, filling the former with brandy and the latter with beer.
Cassia came by with load of dirty mugs and placed them in the sink behind the bar as I poured the beer.
“That was masterfully handled Archibold-don,” Cassia said quietly.
“Shhh, don’t call me that.”
“Master Arch, then?”
“Arch is fine. They call me Master Arch because I own the tavern. But I don’t think you really see me as a tavern keeper.”
Cassia smiled at this. “No, I’m afraid I don’t. But ‘master’ is also an honorific for those who have mastered a discipline.”
“Well, I’ve lost the mastery over mine. By the way, I think I just found a hero who would be interested in helping your cause.”
“You don’t mean Mr. Galston.”
“Of course not,” I said, taken aback. “I mean Mr. Galston.”
I grinned at the look she gave me.
“He is a capable man,” Cassia said. “But I do not think he is a match for an elder dragon.”
“Can’t hurt to ask. Get a big group of eager fighters, and you might stand a chance. He seems to have taken an interest in you.”
“H-how could you know that, Archibold-don?” Cassia said, stammering and reddening.
“Arch is fine,” I told her again, grinning. “Here, take the Honeydew to the hero and Herwin. I’ll bring these brandies to Mideon and his friends.”
Cassia gave me a flushed look but did as I asked. We back stepped around the bar, each carrying our own platter of drinks.
“Alright, here it is,” Amberly said to Galston. “Bran here thinks it was Rule Forty-Six that you cast in the final moment. And my good but mistaken friend Dalian says it’s Helion’s Hand. But I say it was Sixty-Six, Saffron Spear. But then the missy there, bringing the beers, said that it couldn’t have been Rule Sixty-Six.”
Galston seemed suddenly attentive now that Cassia had been referenced in the conversation.
“The young lady saw my match as well?” He looked over as Cassia came over and placed a fresh mug of Honeydew Lager before him and Herwin.
“Apparently. She says the whole arena would have been destroyed if you had used Sixty-Six.”
“Perhaps we could… ask her opinion?”
Cassia looked at them, unsure of what they were talking about.
“Miss Cassia,” Herwin piping up now. “Could you tell us which Rule you think Galston used in the final Tournament of Heroes?
“I believe it was Rule Seventeen, Paralyzing Palm,” she said.
Amberly nodded. “The effects were massive, it could not have been such a low rule.”
“Seventeen?” Dalian said. “That’s far too low.”
Galston nodded a smile on his face. “The young woman is correct” He raised his hand to her. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady.”
I chuckled to myself, overhearing their conversation as I served the brandies Mideon had purchased. I bought the brandies to his men first, giving them each a polite smile and an unwavering eye as I placed the drinks before them.
Cassia blinked, surprised by the offer of a handshake. She took it. “The pleasure is mine.”
“Lady Cassia, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you remind me of a young woman I fell for in my hometown when I was just a boy.”
Cassia was blushing now. “Oh, um, thank you, sir.”
“But more than that,” he said. “You appear to have magical training.” Then he looked down and noticed something as he held her hand. Suddenly his eyes glowed with blue aura.
“Gods,” Galston said. “You’ve awakened two gates.”
All three builders looked over, the news deepening their already surprised faces from Cassia’s correct guess of Galston’s spell.
“No, I-” Cassia began, unprepared for this revealing.
“Incredible,” Galston said. “Even I did not have my second gate awakened at your age.”
The whole tavern went silent. Then the information sank in across the various tables.
“Did the champion say she opened two gates?”
“He did! Incredible!”
“Two gates! Even the duke has only a handful of men with two gates open in his employment!”
“I bet she would have placed in the top ten in the Tournament of Heroes if she had competed!”
“She’s stronger than most of the high guard in the kingdom!”
And this was when I decided to slam the final glass of brandy in front of Mideon. “Your drink, sir. Now let us continue our conversation from earlier. You had a pressing matter, I believe?”
Nobody in the tavern moved. There was real fear in the hearts of my patrons. I could tell many were ready to bolt for the door, but the doorway was blocked by a massive bear of a man, who had to duck when he had stepped through the tavern doors.
But I also saw that many of my patrons were clutching their stools and chairs, readying for a fight.
Bran, Amberly, and Dalian each had their hands on the backs of their chairs, ready to throw them forward at a moment’s notice and come to my aid.
Bless their hearts, but couldn’t they pick something other than my furniture as weapons?
“Where’s the owner?” spat Proctor Remis, his turkey neck shaking with the sound of his ugly voice.
He moved his way from the back, coming beside Mideon at the center of the room. The rest of their minions were behind the two of them, each wearing stone-cold faces as they held their clubs.
Mideon’s men were battle-scarred with cuts across their faces and arms. These weren’t some day laborers Mideon had gathered for some roughhousing or even trained guardsmen borrowed from his nobleman uncle.
These were gang members. Rough men that spent their lives fighting with tooth and nail and blade in the back alleys of the city.
It spoke volumes about Mideon’s character to be able to call upon men like these. But it was no surprise. He’d already made his morality quite apparent in the previous interactions I’d had with him.
Forget the fact that they could destroy the tavern, if things really got out of hand, my patrons would get maimed. And nothing kills a business like injured customers.
Elsa’s face turned white at the sight of these men. She was a good fighter, but even she couldn’t deny these odds.
I stepped past the tables and met Mideon and Remis at the middle.
“You,” Mideon said as he saw me. “Yes, I remember you. Gustkin wasn’t it?”
“Please, call me Arch,” I said merrily. “What can I get to drink for you folks?”
“We aren’t here to drink, Gustkin,” Mideon said. “We are here to ensure that girl gets what’s coming to her!”
Some grins cracked on the hard faces of the men. I was weighing my options now. And none were looking any good. Where the hell was Herwin?
I was sure the lordling was going to bring Galston tonight. It was his only chance to win the respect of the three builders, though I still could not tell you why the lordling desired to do so.
“I apologize,” I said. “I had a bit too much to drink last night and my memory is suffering. Which girl was that again?”
Buy time. That’s all I could do at this point.
“Don’t play the fool with me! It’s that bitch right there!” Mideon stabbed a finger in Elsa’s direction.
“Oh, you mean Elsa.” I scratched my head as if still struggling to remember. “But what exactly is it that you want from me?”
“I want you to fire her!” Mideon screamed, his veins bulging at his neck and temples. He glared at Proctor Remis for assistance.
“We had an agreement, boy!” the lawyer said, his own fury rising. “You promised it would be done in front of my client tonight!”
“What? Who are you?”
“We spoke this afternoon!”
“This afternoon? The only person that came by in the afternoon was some old man in his seventies.”
His face turned a pure shade of red before he spoke. “Y-you ingrate!” Remis screamed, the shrill back in his voice. He turned to Mideon. “This man is playing games with us! We must teach him a lesson!”
Two of the men with clubs behind them took a step forwards, awaiting their boss’s orders.
I raised my hands, “I’m just kidding guys, just kidding. I remember everything. You want Elsa fired, right?”
“That’s right,” Mideon hissed.
“Hey, Elsa,” I said.
Elsa looked at me. A pause before she said, “What?”
She blinked. Then she smiled. “Okay.”
“See?” I said. “That wasn’t so hard. Now, what can I get you folks to drink?”
“She’s. Still. In. Your. Tavern,” Mideon said through clenched teeth.
I raised my eyebrows at him as if confused at why he was stating the obvious. “Yes?”
“I want her out!”
“Well… my tavern is open to anyone,” I said, eyeing the men Mideon had brought. “Even former employees. It’s not my place to tell-“
“OUT!” Mideon screamed. “I want her on the streets! She must pay for what she did!” Mideon didn’t finish his words. His whole body was shaking with rage. The guy really didn’t know how to control his emotions. He pointed his quivering finger at me. “Y-you dare to make light of me? I will tear your tavern to the ground!”
Mideon knew he couldn’t drag Elsa out in front of twenty witnesses. Superintendent Daddy or not, the city guard doesn’t sit well with abductions and the beating of civilians. The men he had brought were mainly there for show, despite the realness of their danger.
But now Mideon was losing his temper. And who could say what a foolish man in anger would do? My time had run out. But just at that moment, I sensed some movement through the open door behind Mideon and his men.
“Oh, excuse me, there appear to be more guests trying to enter the tavern. We’ll have to continue this discussion later. Please find a seat!”
I quickly stepped past Mideon and Remis before they could protest. “You’ll have to bunch together a bit,” I said to all of them. “It’s going to be a busy night!”
I passed the rest of his men, ignoring their looks. One of them tried to trip me, and another snatched at my arm, but I expertly weaved through them with minimal movement as if I hadn’t noticed their attempts.
But the bear man blocking the door didn’t budge an inch as I approached. He was almost Amberly’s size in height and width, but this man carried no fat on his body. He was made of pure muscle. He dropped his eyes down at me without lowering his chin as if he was eyeing an insect he was ready to squash.
There wasn’t a lot of intelligence in those eyes, but there was plenty of violence. As if he hoped that I’d resist Mideon just so he could have an excuse to cause pain.
His shoulders spanned the door from one side to the other, and his legs were spread slightly like a shieldsman readied to defend against a barrage of invaders.
His face was as square as a brick, and his muscles protruded against the dark tattoos on his skin. Old scars covered the knuckles of his hands—the kind you only get from years spent fighting with your bare fists.
A cruel smile formed on the bear man’s face as I reached him. He was looking forward to what would happen next.
Outside I could hear the excited voice of Herwin and the deep murmur of another man.
“Excuse me, good sir,” I said, placing a palm above the bear man’s right elbow. My movement was deft. Not too fast, but not slow either. “Don’t be blocking the entrance now, someone might run into you. We wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt now, would we?”
To all external appearances, the bear man moved out of the way as if he was politely guided by my touch, taking two short steps to the side. But his second step fell a little unsteadily as if he had to put down his foot to keep himself from falling.
I doubt anyone in the tavern noticed what had really happened, but the bear man glared at me with unbridled surprise. Then the surprise passed and the realization that he had just been forcibly pushed aside dawned in the mostly hollow space between his ears. He bared his teeth and let out a scream of red hot rage.
As I passed him and stepped through the door, I saw his attack from the corner of my eye.
My senses were more heightened than usual, and the movements happened slowly in my perception.
The bear man turned on me, clenching his big paw into a fist the size of a roast chicken. In a single motion, he swung it forward with all his musculature, pushing all his strength through it like a battering ram, straight into the back of my head.
Or at least it would have landed in the back of my head. But right at that moment, I had stepped to the side to make way for Herwin and his guest, gesturing them into the tavern as any hospitable tavern keeper would.
The bear man’s fist shot through the air, elongating where it had expected to connect, passing where my head had been and making a deafening slam into the stoic face of Galston the Gallant, Champion of the Tournament of Heroes.
“Heru!” Elsa exclaimed after I closed the door. There was real worry in her eyes. It wasn’t like the time before when she was ready to walk out because I didn’t listen to her bidding. This time she looked afraid to lose her job.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m not firing you.”
“Then why did you-“
“Who’s supposed to be coming tonight?”
Elsa thought about it, and the upset expression turned to confusion.
“Were you already blacking out by then last night?” I asked. “Herwin is supposed to be bringing Galston the Gallant to the tavern.”
“Oh, I do remember some mention of that.”
“If Mideon sees us palling around with Galston and Herwin, maybe he’ll leave us alone.”
“I don’t see why you’re so worried about him,” Elsa said. “That idiot couldn’t find a sock in a sock drawer.”
“It’s not Mideon I’m worried about, it’s his father. He could close down the tavern for any reason he wanted.”
“On what grounds?”
“He could have one his health inspectors come in, throw a dead rat on the floor, and say the place was too dirty to serve food. My license would be revoked, and the tavern would be closed the next day.”
“Oh…” Elsa said, the indignation in her features dissipating. “I didn’t realize…”
“It happens all the time to businesses that have angered the officials or the nobility.”
It was strange to see that Elsa had not thought this through. She was smart and strong but surprisingly lacking in understanding of some common norms.
“But,” I continued. “If Mideon sees us with the winner of the Tournament of Heroes, and if Herwin can put on a big show of being a baron’s son, who I don’t think Mideon noticed last night, then we’ll have a chance of being left alone.”
“I see…” Elsa said, looking down at her feet. “Sorry Heru, I didn’t consider how far he’d take it.”
“Don’t worry about it. The guy deserved a beating. But as a general rule, let’s avoid knocking out nobles on the tavern’s front steps in front of a crowd in the future, okay?”
Elsa smiled. “I’ll try my best.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for the night. Elsa mopped the floors and reset the furniture and threw out the old broken table and replaced it with a new one from the storage room.
I set to work on my newest batch of beer in the tavern’s basement. The grain and hops had already been prepped. Now I was adding mashed pumpkins for flavoring. I’d been experimenting with pumpkins for a couple of months now, and I hoped that this latest recipe would become my next beer at the tavern. But it’d be another couple of weeks before it was ready.
Charm prepped food for the night, making several meat pies and put a new pot of stew on the stove. Even Cassia offered to help. She said she wanted to work to pay back the night she stayed after I told her I wouldn’t take her money.
I was feeling guilty about the night before, and I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I put her on food prep with Charm.
Charm seemed annoyed with Cassia’s presence at first, but she was slowly appeased as she found that the templar was a capable kitchen hand.
There was little conversation as we worked on our respective tasks. But it felt nice. It’d been a year since I opened the Tipsy Pelican, and in the past couple of weeks, the place was starting to feel like a real tavern with regular customers and staff.
All of that could come to an end, depending on how the night went with Mideon returning for more trouble.
I put up the open sign outside the door at four o’clock in the afternoon, as I always did. Our first patron was an older gentleman named Cormith. He sat in the corner of the bar, ordered a pint of Honeydew, and drank it in silence.
A few minutes later, a couple of young builders who looked like they’d gotten off of work early came in and ordered some more of the same. It made me smile when I saw their refreshed faces as they drank down their first mouthfuls of the chilled brew.
I didn’t serve many beers at the tavern yet. Only two in fact. Other than the Honeydew Lager, I also offered Red Harvest Ale, which I bought from a large distributor.
It was more expensive to buy Red Harvest than making my own beer, but it saved me time and made it easier to manage my inventories.
A big problem with making your own beer was figuring out how much you needed over the course of a few months. If you made too much, you’d have a bunch of useless stale beer sitting in your storage room at the end of the season. If you didn’t make enough, you wouldn’t have anything to serve the customers until the next batch. Each batch of beer took at least two weeks to brew from start to finish.
By adding Red Harvest, I could control how much of my Honeydew Lager was being served. If business was good and I began running low, I could just discount Red Harvest, which would switch customers over to the cheaper ale, evening out my inventory.
The good thing about buying from a large distributor is that you didn’t have to wait for a month to refill your stock. Once I made the order with Munet, my go-to guy at the Tree and Stump Ale Company, a barrel of Red Harvest would be delivered to the tavern’s doorstep in just a few days.
The tavern had now been open for about a year, and I’d pretty much mastered managing my inventories. With business picking up in the past month, I figured it was time to add a third beer.
It was something I wanted to do since I’d opened the Tipsy Pelican. Most taverns in Kerrytown carried at least four or five different beers on tap, and some even a dozen or more. But they also had the patronage to support their taps. My customer base was small compared to the others. The tavern house itself was large, but I’d only opened the front barroom to the guests. And that area had only recently begun to fill up now that the tavern had been running for a year.
However, the Tipsy Pelican Tavern was becoming known for its house-brewed beer. The Honeydew Lager was a big hit, and if my upcoming pumpkin beer did well too, I’d be able to open the dining hall, which was now mostly unused except for breakfast and lunch among the staff. Then I might even save up enough to hire a good musician who could play some songs a few nights a week.
I watched as more customers came through the tavern doors. More young men and boys with half a foot into adulthood. They all sat at the bar so they could flirt and chat with Elsa. She was a big reason the tavern was becoming more popular. She and the beer. It was a good combination.
Once, I asked if Charm would be interested in working as a barmaid as well. Although she rarely came out of the back of house during business hours, she always drew the attention of anyone who caught a glimpse of her and would certainly be popular among the guests.
But when I presented the question, she gave me a cold look and said, “If Master orders it, then Charm will have no choice than to do as she is asked.”
I took that as a no. So she stuck with food prep, which was just as well. I did not have another cook (I was awful at it myself), and she did an excellent job.
We served simple dishes that could be made in large portions. Mostly stews and pies. They were hearty and inexpensive meals that went well with the beer.
“Master Arch, you lucky bastard,” said one of my regulars who’d just walked in. “How did you land another beautiful barmaid?”
“Huh?” I said, looking up dumbly. Another barmaid? Then I saw whom he was referring to.
Cassia was not wearing her sword and church’s tunic but a stunning shoulderless dress as she served drinks. She looked a little embarrassed at the attention and slightly uncomfortable in the outfit, pulling at its seams.
“Uh…” Where did she get that dress? And good gods did it fit her well.
Then I saw Elsa wink at me, and I realized it was one of hers.
Of course, it was. Bless her incredible taste.
“Oh, that’s Cassia,” I said. “She’s helping out for the day.”
“Only for the day?” said one of the men and turned to her as she poured him a mug of Honeydew. “You should just stay and work here. Master Arch won’t let you down!”
I looked away, afraid of the sting I’d feel if I met her gaze. I’d already let her down. More than once, if you counted what happened in the storage room.
Cassia smiled shyly. “It’s a very nice tavern, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay long.”
I ducked into the backroom to escape the conversation.
“How’s the stew going?” I asked Charm as I came into the kitchen.
“It is warm and welcoming, Master,” Charm said and leaned in to smell the scent of the stew. “The opposite of how Master treated the young templar last night.”
I scowled. “Oh, give me a break.”
“Charm sees that Master is beginning to run a habit of taking advantage of desperate young maidens.”
“I hope you’re not including yourself in that, because I’m pretty sure you only qualify as an old gran-“
The ladle she had been holding flew through the air at my face. I ducked. It bounced off the pantry behind me.
“Good Celeru! Did you just throw a ladle at me!?”
“Ah, Charm’s hand slipped. Apologies, Master.”
“Uh huh, then see to it that nothing else ‘slips’ from your hand,” I said with annoyance, touching my hair to check for any drops of soup that might have splashed from the ladle.
“That would depend. Sometimes Master’s words cause Charm’s hands to spasm.”
“That sounds like a threat, in fact, I’m pretty sure it is a threat!”
“Not at all, Master. It is only because Charm puts great weight in Master’s opinions that they have such an effect on her body.”
I had always been a good fighter, and I’d been known for a good quip or two, but I was not a match against Charm in jests. I sighed and picked up the ladle and brought it to the sink.
“I wish there were something I could say to cheer you up,” I said as I scrubbed the ladle with soap.
Charm eyed me with one of her half-lidded stares. “There are no words Master can offer Charm that will make her happier. Only actions.”
“I’m not getting into that argument again, Charm,” I said, meeting her eyes. “That matter is settled.”
She was staring at me intensely now, but I did not look away. I could afford to lose the small battles, but not the big ones. Never the big ones.
After a moment longer, she dropped her gaze and turned away, taking the stew off the stove. I dried the ladle and handed it back to her. We did not speak anymore as I put food on plates and served them to the customers.
The time passed quickly, and soon the sun was setting. Bran, Dalian, and Amberly arrived, but Herwin and his guest of honor were nowhere to be found.
“Looks like the boy couldn’t pull off the deed and skittered,” Dalian said as I poured him a mug.
Bran put down his own mug, finishing a gulp, foam glittering his beard as usual. “He’s a good lad, I bet he and the champion are just running late.”
Just then, the doors swung open and slamming against the wall. The whole tavern turned to look, eager to lay eyes on the Champion of the Tournament of Heroes.
But it wasn’t Galston the Gallant.
Mideon stood through the frame of the door with a dark smile on his face. And this time, he brought six men with him.
They were each holding clubs.