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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.
That night I dreamed of my father. I knew I would. I always did when my heart felt unsettled. We were sitting below the night sky on the water’s surface, in the middle of a far-reaching lake. I never recognized the lake, but it seemed entirely real as if it existed somewhere out there in the world, though I had never encountered it outside of my dream.
“Hello, son,” my father said with a kind smile.
“Are you ever going to tell me what this place is?” I asked as I sat beside him on the surface of the gleaming water.
“What do you mean?”
My father could not answer questions like this. Any questions about why he was there or what place this was, he would not understand.
“It’s nothing.” I sighed. “The Church wants me to kill a dragon.”
“You’ll do fine,” he said with a proud smile.
It hurt to see it.
“Well… I’m not going this time,” I said.
“I’m tired, and my powers are gone. It’s been nice to live quietly like a normal person. I’m not ready to go back yet.”
My father smiled and looked out over the waters and the night sky that reflected against its surface. “You must follow your heart. But sometimes what you want isn’t true to who you are.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He smiled again. “How’s your love life? Have you found a nice woman yet?”
“What!?” I said, taken aback.
“You’re getting a bit old to be a bachelor, aren’t you?”
“Dad, no pressure, please.”
He put his hands up, relenting. Then we sat together silently and watched the night stars until my eyes opened against the light of the morning sun entering through my bedroom window.
I found myself waking under the worst conditions possible.
Firstly, Elsa had found her way into my bed.
I had told myself several times to install locks on the doors of the rooms, but some part of me wanted to keep putting it off. I had a feeling it was the nineteen-year-old part.
That part was now regretting his decision deeply, because in addition to Elsa, Charm was also in my room. She looked like she had just opened the door to wake me up as she did every morning.
Only now she found Elsa in my bed with an arm draped around my neck—an arm that had somehow managed to fall out of the strap of her evening dress that she’d been wearing the night before.
Clearly, she had drunkenly wandered into my room. Or at least I hoped it was clear.
The look on Charm’s face told me it wasn’t.
“Charm… th-this isn’t what it looks like.”
“Good morning, Master,” Charm said without emotion in her voice. It was always the worst when she spoke like this. There was something dangerous hidden in her voice. “Breakfast will be ready for Master downstairs when he is… done.”
“Done!? Done with what?! Nothing is happening!”
She had already turned around, ignoring me.
But as Charm walked out, she bumped into Cassia, who was making her way down the hall, likely just having come out of her own room.
Cassia apologized as they ran into each other, and she inadvertently looked into the room that Charm was exiting from—that is to say, my room—my room with the partially naked drunk girl in my bed.
Cassia saw Elsa and blushed, then quickly looked away and hurried off.
Charm did not wait and closed the door behind herself.
“Why are you closing the door!?”
“Ugh… no. Stop. Don’t make me do it, Heru,” Elsa mumbled into my neck in her drunken stupor. “I can’t drink any more brandy.”
“As if I’d ever make you drink!”
It was clear to me. My luck had suddenly turned for the worse.
* * *
After slipping out from under Elsa’s arm, I headed downstairs for breakfast.
Charm and Cassia were both eating silently in the dining hall as I came down the stairway.
They sat away from each other at the table where Charm had set placemats, utensils, food, and plates. Cassia looked at Charm, but Charm avoided making eye contact with her.
“Don’t mind her,” I said to Cassia. “She’s been a bit sulky lately.”
“Oh, um… How did you two meet?”
I stopped mid-step as I was grabbing a glass of water from a pitcher by the table and looked at Charm. I was going to use our go-to story, but you could never tell what mood Charm was in. She had ruined the story while I was telling it in the past.
It looked like it was going to be no different today.
“Charm is Master’s obedient servant,” Charm said simply and took a bite of her toast.
Cassia’s eyes widened at this.
“She’s joking,” I said quickly. “I hired her. She helps around the tavern.”
Cassia did not look so certain about this. To make things worse, she was undoubtedly thinking back to my demands about her becoming my slave last night. You’re such a gentleman, Arch.
I shrunk into my seat and began to help myself to the breakfast platter on the table while trying to come up with a plan to change the subject. “Mmm, these are some perfectly cooked eggs, Charm.”
“Charm obeys Master’s every word,” Charm said as a reply. “Every. Word.”
“Will you cut it out! You’re causing misunderstandings!”
Charm nodded. “Charm will stop speaking about this topic now because Charm been ordered to stop, and Charm cannot disobey her master.”
I was glaring at her now.
Cassia looked very worried.
Charm, on the other hand, seemed pleased. A small smile curved at the corners of her lips. She took another bite of toast and munched it silently without looking at me, but I could tell she was feeling happy, which was a rarity.
“What is everyone chattering about?” Elsa said as she came down the stairs, rubbing her head. “It’s quite too early for a ruckus.”
“It is two o’clock in the afternoon,” I said.
“Like I said, early.” Elsa grinned and gave Charm a kiss on the top of her head like a big sister would to a younger sibling as she passed the smaller girl.
In return, Charm put moved eggs, toast, and bacon from the breakfast platter to an empty plate and placed it in front of Elsa as she sat.
For some reason, the two of them got along really well. It irked me.
Elsa took a bite of her eggs. “Mmm, this is great as always, Charm. Good job on the seasoning.”
“Thank you, Miss Elsa,” Charm said.
“Elsa, you wandered into my room again last night,” I said purposefully, making sure Cassia was listening.
Elsa smiled. “Sorry about that. It was a wild night. I’m impressed I made it up the steps.”
I sighed. “I expect we’re going to have more trouble from Mideon and his friends again very soon.”
Elsa shrugged. “Those fools don’t learn their lessons do they?” Then Elsa blinked and seemed to notice Cassia’s presence suddenly. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are you a new guest of ours?”
I shot Cassia a hard glance as she answered.
“I’m Cassia… I was um at the bar last night.”
“Oh! I remember you. Are you from the Church?”
“Um, yes, I am.”
“You were carrying a sword.”
“Wouldn’t that make you a templar?”
Elsa took a bite of her toast. “What is a templar of the White Church doing in a tavern?”
“Don’t be impolite,” I said. “She isn’t asking your business.”
“I’m not templar,” Elsa said.
Now I shot Elsa a look.
Elsa smiled and held up her hands. “Very well. I’m not one to pry or judge.”
Cassia smiled with a look of relief. She knew full well that if she inadvertently spilled my secret, it would put her in my bad graces.
“Those men seemed quite dangerous,” she said, trying to make conversation.
“They’ll be back,” I said with dread, my thoughts turning to the effect it could have on my business.
“Let them come,” Elsa said with a wicked smile and pushed back several strands of wavy dark hair that fell from her temples as she took another bite of her breakfast. “It’s nothing a fist in the teeth won’t solve.”
I rubbed my temples. I wasn’t worried about their strength, but I was worried about their influence.
Mideon was a superintendent’s son. And not just any superintendent’s son, the superintendent of Southbank’s son.
Southbank was the ward of the city that contained the neighborhood of Kerrytown where the Tipsy Pelican was located. If he wanted to, Mideon could cause a lot of trouble for a tavern business in his father’s territory.
All I wanted to do was to perfect my brew, run my tavern, and have a few laughs without having to deal with arrogant perverts, church templars, or elder dragons. Was that such a tall order?
BANG BANG BANG. Someone slammed a fist against the front door.
“OPEN UP!” roared a gruff male voice.
Apparently, the order was very tall.
“Now what is it?” I growled and got up to open the door.
Standing on my doorstep was an overweight man with a thinly trimmed mustache. He wore a fine, stately coat over a white collared shirt that pulled tightly around the fat of his neck. He reminded me of a turkey.
“Bring me the owner of this trash heap of an establishment, boy,” the man sneered and peered past me, trying to get a look into the tavern.
He could only get a look at the barroom and not of the girls who were seated farther in the tavern.
“That would be me,” I said.
He turned his eyes to me now, clearly caught off guard at my apparent age.
“You?” the man said with a hint of disgust. “You can’t be older than twenty.”
“If I had to guess,” I said. “You’re in your late seventies.”
The man turned red. “I’m fifty-two years of age, you ill-mannered lad!”
My guess was still closer to the mark than his. But I didn’t tell him that.
“Interesting,” I said. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s told me their age before their name.”
“That’s because you made a false assumption of my age!”
“You guessed mine first,” I said. “Only fair to return the gesture.”
His color was nearly purple now.
“I am Proctor Remis Tumblee. I represent the interests of Lord Mideon Greengrass!”
Oh, this just gets better and better, doesn’t it? My luck truly had turned bad. Worst yet, he said ‘Lord’ Mideon Greengrass. So the rumors were true. I had known that Mideon was the superintendent’s son, but I had also heard that his uncle was an actual Count.
I had thought it a lie he spread to scare people, but if his people were openly calling him a lord, then it was likely real. A nephew could inherit lordship from his uncle in name even if he didn’t receive lands.
This Remis character was exactly what I was afraid of when Elsa put Mideon and his two men to sleep in the middle of the street the night before.
“I see,” I said loudly, letting my voice echo into the tavern and unable to keep the sarcasm out of it. “Lord Mideon’s man, you say. Here at my tavern. Who would have thought you’d come?”
“Your employee has disparaged the honor of Lord Mideon Greengrass.” He said lord in the way that really drawled on the ‘l’. “I am here issuing a formal notice by Superintendent Greengrass to have that tramp removed from your employment!”
“And If I don’t?” I said.
“Is that your answer?”
“Is it really one of Mideon’s men?” Elsa called from the dining hall.
“Yes,” I called back. “I’m handling it.”
Elsa entered the barroom and strode over. A dangerous look was on her face. “It’s my business, I’ll-“
“No, you won’t,” I said, shooting her my own dangerous look that stopped her advance. I’d not given her a look like that before, and she was stunned to see it.
It’d been a while since I had to pull one of the Stormblood’s gazes, though this was a mild one. I’d been known to fell a man from a horse just by a glare.
“He asked for the owner, which isn’t you,” I told Elsa and turned back to the man. “Are you certain an apology won’t do? She’s quite well-liked by the patrons here, I’d hate to lose her.”
“I will not apologize to that pervert!” Elsa said.
Remis scowled at Elsa for calling his master a pervert. “If you do not fire this woman, you will suffer the consequences!” he said, his voice turning shrill.
“Don’t test me,” the man said, getting in my face. “You will not survive it, boy.”
Elsa came up to him, readying a fist that I caught in my hand before she could swing it, thereby saving Proctor Remis a dentist appointment.
“How about this,” I said. “Give me until a little after sundown. I’ll need to find a replacement in that time and assuage my patrons.”
Elsa looked at me, her face dropping. “You can’t be serious!”
Remis’s lip curled with glee at Elsa’s reaction. “Very well. But if she is not removed from your employment by then, you will not be a tavern owner for much longer. That I promise you.”
I nodded. “Tell Mideon to come after sundown. I’ll do it in front of him so he can see it with his own eyes.”
“Your gates…” Cassia said, her voice quivering. “They’re gone.”
I smiled. Then I too cast the Spell of Seeing. I channeled aura into my eyes and I saw the energies emanating from Cassia. Each of the body’s senses can interpret aura when properly tuned. The Spell of Seeing heightened a spellcaster’s abilities to discern aura via their eyes.
When I looked at Cassia, I saw several rings of light spinning around her heart. Among spellcasters, these were called halos and were the primary source of one’s magic. Cassia’s rings appeared dimly thin, which was expected because she was not actively calling on them. Most people, even non-mages had halos. And the best mages could often see a person’s halo even without the Spell of Seeing.
What was harder to see were the Gates of Awakening, and that was the primary purpose of the spell.
I raised my brows.
“Impressive,” I said. “You have two gates open. That would make you far stronger than I.”
“I don’t understand… this can’t be possible. It was said you opened the Eighth Gate of Awakening.”
I shrugged. I’d actually hit the Ninth Gate before I lost everything, but there was no reason to tell her that.
“But…” Her eyes ran up and down my body once more. “But none are open… all your gates are closed. I-I don’t understand.”
I looked down at my hands. “It’s a strange thing to be aging again. I opened the Gate of Life when I was eighteen years old and I stopped getting older.” I rubbed my chin. “I can feel new whiskers coming in now. A few more years and maybe people will stop calling me a babyface.” I chuckled.
She didn’t seem to find it funny.
“How could this have happened?” she asked.
“And why would I tell you?”
She didn’t know what to say to this. Instead, she asked, “Can they be opened again?”
“Sure. Gates can always be opened.”
“Yup. The old fashioned way. Last time I got to the seventh gate in eighteen years. Then it took me about another century to figure out another. I’m guessing it’ll be about the same if I were to do it again. Not that I have any intention of doing so.”
Cassia stumbled backward, her shocked gaze dropping to the floor. I could see goosebumps on her skin. If they had arisen from what I said or the chilled room, I wasn’t sure.
“You’ll reach the third gate faster than me at this point,” I said. “You’ve already opened Breath and Spirit, haven’t you? Most people spend their entire lives just to open Breath. You’re a prodigy by most standards. I bet the Church is very happy with you.”
The Gate of Breath and the Gate of Spirit were the first two of the Twelve Gates of Awakening. The gates were also sometimes called the Twelve Gates of Ascension because those who reached the twelfth gate would become a god, though such an act had never been recorded except for Celeru and his disciples if you believed in that sort of thing.
Each gate gave the awakener an enormous boost to their abilities. The Gate of Breath made the awakened physically stronger, so much so that they seldom grew tired. The Gate of Spirit gave the awakened incredible mental dexterity and focus. Of course, one had to call on that power to activate it. Cassia certainly was not calling on it at this moment as she stared at the floor, looking lost and dumbstruck.
“My abilities cannot be compared to yours,” Cassia said. “I stand no chance against an elder dragon. But your gates are closed. All of them…” she was mumbling to herself now. “Those people. What can I do? They’ll be dead in five years.”
“Wait, five years?” I said.
“Or seven. The historians are uncertain. Legend tells it that awakened dragons go through a resting phase before hunting begins. Even the most recent records are from a thousand years ago. It is hard to say how accurate they are.”
“Good gods, girl. That’s plenty of time. Just evacuate the city.”
“The Lareintians are unwilling,” Cassia said. “The king refuses to move his kingdom and give up his lands.”
“Then he deserves to die by dragon fire.”
Cassia frowned, looking down. “But what about his people? They are innocents, yet they must obey the will of their king.”
“Maybe you should find someone to kill the king. Sounds easier.”
Cassia looked up at me, shock returning to her features. Apparently, I was doing a lot of shocking in this conversation.
“That is murder,” she said.
“Never claimed it wasn’t,” I said. “But so is killing a dragon that is committing no other crime besides following its nature. And from what you’ve described, I’m thinking I like the dragon more than the Lareintian king.”
She shook her head, looking defeated and unsure of what to say.
“Hey, cheer up, the good news is you don’t have to be anyone’s slave. By the way, you should really put your clothes back on.”
At that moment, the door opened, and Charm stepped in, carrying a crate of cleaned mugs from the night. Her youthful face looked at me then looked at the barely-clothed templar.
I had no idea how to explain the situation, though I had a feeling if I did explain it, it still wouldn’t make me look too good.
“Ah,” Charm said simply, yet the expression in her half-lidded eyes were anything but simple. If I did not know her so well, I would have easily missed the slight arch of her left eyebrow.
She turned around and let the door swing closed behind her before I could say a word.
I looked back at Cassia. “That was my uh… cook,” I said, as an offer of explanation.
She did not seem to have noticed the impropriety of the situation. “What am I to do now?”
I shrugged. “Find another hero. I can’t be the only option for the Church.”
“All elder dragons are of the Ninth Gate. What humans have gone that far? Even you only reached the Eighth.”
I scratched my nose. “Thought I did alright.”
“Of course, I did not mean to suggest otherwise. You killed the Demon Lord Izirath of the Eleventh Gate. No one thought it possible, but you did it. Do you see why it must be you to help us?”
“Hmm… even if I wanted to, I doubt elder dragons are very vulnerable against pebble-tossers. That’s all I’m good for nowadays, I’m afraid.”
Cassia looked numb, her hopes dashed.
“It’s late,” I said. “You can use one of our vacant bedrooms upstairs.”
“I couldn’t trouble you-”
“Oh, really?” I gave her a look. “Asking me to risk my life to fight a freaking dragon is fine, but taking one of my empty rooms is too much to ask?”
Cassia flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-“
“It’s fine. Hurry up and put your clothes back on before someone else steps in and gets the wrong idea. I’m going to get an earful from Charm later.”
Cassia got dressed quickly, and I led her out of the storage room and up the stairs to the second floor of the tavern.
“The place used to be an inn,” I said. “There are plenty of rooms. Take your pick other than the first three. Just watch out for Elsa. Sometimes she’ll wander into a room randomly and pass out. Even if there’s already someone in the bed. We unfortunately don’t have any locks. The previous owner removed them when the property was sold. The toilet is at the end of the hall, but if you want a bath, you’ll need to wait until the morning. Charm already turned off the stoves. “
“Thank you,” Cassia said. She gave me a short bow.
I watched her walk down the hall and enter one of the rooms. Then I entered my own, the first one from the stairs.
I sat on the bed and let myself fall back against the mattress. An elder dragon. When would it ever end? The entire world shouldn’t depend solely on one person.
Maybe once. Maybe even twice. Hell, maybe even thrice. But every damn time?
That was too much. Too much to take on. Too much to bear. Even a hero needs a vacation every now and then.
I laid down and felt the room spin as I closed my eyes. The brandy wasn’t nearly finished with me.
Drunkenness was still a strange sensation to me, even though I had been experiencing it on and off for the better part of the year. When my gates had been open, poisons, including alcohol, had no effect on me. Now I had the tolerance of any other nineteen-year-old boy.
Not a moment after I pulled the blanket over my head, desperate for sleep to stop the room from spinning, a small knock sounded at my door.
For a second, I thought Cassia was back to cajole me further. Then there was a split second of irrationality where I thought it might be Elsa entering the wrong room again. But if it were Elsa, she wouldn’t have knocked.
Charm stepped in. The girl looked about Cassia’s age, or perhaps closer to mine as she was a bit shorter and scrawnier than the templar, but the light in her eyes was even older than my own.
Her hair that was once fiery red was now a shade closer to pink. She drew it into two pigtails, one at each side.
She wore a blank expression today just as she had for the past year. She was still in a sulk. I was beginning to get irritated by it, but I supposed that was the point. Which made me more resolute to not show her that it was bothering me.
“Master,” she said. “Charm has finished with the dishes and wiped down the tables. Is there anything else Master needs of Charm?”
There was a slight accent in her voice that was foreign and, I’ve been told, adorable to those who had not yet gotten used to it. It did not belong to anyone else I’d ever met despite my extensive travels.
“You didn’t have to do that. I could have helped you with it in the morning.”
She nodded then asked her question again, “Is there anything else Master needs of Charm?”
“Nope, have a good night,” I said.
She nodded again and turned to close the door.
“Oh, wait—uh… that girl, you know…”
She turned back to look at me.
“It wasn’t what it looked like…” I began.
“What does Master think it looked like?”
“Uh… well… I mean… uh…”
Whatever it looked like, it didn’t look good.
“Like Master was coercing a young maiden of the Church for his evil pleasures?” Charm said.
“Ah, it might have looked like that, but that’s not-“
“Master does not need to explain himself to Charm. Charm is well aware of his… personality.”
“What! Why did the word ‘personality’ sound like an insult?”
“No, of course not, Master,” Charm said, her voice flat and without inflection. “Charm would not speak ill of her master. Perhaps Master’s conscience is making its own interpretations.”
My mouth hung open, speechless. Good gods, how did Charm jumble me up so easily? Worse, I could tell that she was enjoying herself for once.
“What I’m trying to say is I was only trying to make a point to her, and she took it seriously, which is why she uh… got undressed.”
“Is that so?” Charm said. “Charm was not aware that Church templars got undressed when they take a point seriously.”
“What? No… that’s not what I meant….” I was losing this bout of banter badly. The only way out was to be serious.
“She wanted me to kill an elder dragon.”
Charm’s half-lidded gaze suddenly intensified.
“Will Master do it?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “My gates are closed. Plus, I’m on vacation. We are on vacation. Taking a break. Someone else will deal with it.”
Charm said nothing to this.
Then when I did not continue, she asked, “Was there anything else, Master?”
“No,” I said with a sigh. “Have a good night.”
She nodded once more and closed the door.
I lay back down and closed my eyes, willing myself to sleep.
I took another glance at Elsa. She was still sleeping, right? I didn’t want her overhearing this conversation.
“Sorry, I think you have the wrong guy,” I said.
The templar shook her head. “I was not certain until tonight when I saw you incapacitate that mage-“
“Uh… why don’t we talk somewhere more private,” I said.
I motioned her to follow me into the cold storage room. I had to keep my hands on the walls to keep myself from stumbling.
Damn Elsa for getting me drunk. I was going to suffer the rest of the next day now.
I closed the door behind me after the templar entered.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Alright, Cassia. Listen closely. I’m not who you think I am. I’m just a tavern owner. Not some hero of legend.”
“I almost believed it,” Cassia said. “But then I saw what you did to the brawler that attacked your staff.”
“What did I do?”
“You disabled his leg, which caused him to disable his friend.”
“He stumbled, and the mage just happened to be in the wrong spot,” I said. “They’d been drinking before they showed up at the tavern.”
“How did you know the second man was a mage?” Cassia asked.
“You would only know that if you could sense his halos.”
“Well… you said he was a mage earlier, so I’m just assuming you know what you’re talking about.”
“You shot a pebble from your hand into the back of the brawler’s knee.”
Damn, she got me.
“Fine,” I said. “So I’m a little stronger than I look. Doesn’t make me the Stormblood.”
“The strength and precision required for such a feat are significant,” Cassia said. “But not only did you manage to hit his knee from thirty paces away with a small rock, you did so without anyone noticing. Moreover, you hit the exact location and angle to cause him to turn and incapacitate a moving target with his fist. Most people would be hard-pressed to land a punch at someone moving at a fast speed with their own fist. You made someone else do it with a pebble. This proves to me that you are the Stormblood.”
I opened my mouth to make a retort, but I had nothing to say.
“Archibold-don, I have come to you with great need.”
The don honorific was reserved for the highest honors that weren’t nobility. I squirmed a little just hearing the word. It reminded me of war.
“The White Church recently discovered that an elder dragon has awakened in the northern lands of Visseria,” Cassia continued. “As it begins to hunt and increasing the territory of its hunting grounds, the dragon will inevitably attack the neighboring kingdom of Lareinti. Hundreds of thousands of people are-“
“Stop, stop, just stop.” I held up my hand.
Cassia looked at me, a small wrinkle forming above her brows.
“Sorry, but I’m not leaving on some quest. Not anytime soon, anyway.”
“Then you admit you are Archibold Stormblood?”
Damn. She really got me.
“Then you must help us. You are the hero-“
I held up my hand again. “No, I don’t.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m 221 years old, Miss Hightower. Do you know how many of those years I’ve spent training and fighting?”
“No…” she said with uncertainty.
“Just about all of them. I’m tired, and I’m… well… I’m on vacation,” I said with a grin.
Cassia looked around. “Running a tavern, serving drunkards?”
“Drunks are as human as the religious. They just attend a different type of house, little templar.”
“Of course,” Cassia said, going a little pink.
It suddenly made me notice that she was, in fact, very pretty. She had a fair complexion, beautiful piercing eyes, and her lips looked soft and pink… Damn nineteen-year-old body, this not the time for that! Good gods, it was as if my powers had been entirely replaced with youthful lust. What an awful trade.
“But the people of Lareinti are in need of your aid,” Cassia said, pushing forward. “They will die if the elder dragon comes upon their kingdom. It has not awakened in three thousand years. When it discovers a city of people in its territory, it will destroy them.”
“So tell them to leave. Or find some young hero who has a name to prove. I don’t know. It’s not my problem.”
Cassia looked at me as if she could not believe my words. I guess she wasn’t getting the hero she had expected. That’s what lore and legend did to a man.
“How did you find me, anyway?” I asked.
“High Lord Emdark informed me you had headed to Meritas to open a tavern.”
“That traitorous long-eared elf bastard!” I spat. “I told him to keep his mouth shut!”
Cassia looked like I had just damned Celeru himself. “He did not give me your location until I informed him of the impending threat of the-“
“Elder dragon, yeah yeah, I heard you the first time,” I said. “I’m sorry, Miss Hightower. But I’m going to have to pass on this one. I’m sure you’ll be able to find some hot-headed fool to deal with it.” I stood to leave the room.
“But, you must-“
“I must?” I said, turning back to her. “Why must I?”
“Because… the lives. People will die if you don’t-“
“And what about my life? Why is it that I am always the one that has to risk everything? Have I not done enough? The Mad King Alberon’s armies are in the dust. The Demon Lord Izirath is no more. How much do I have to give until it is enough?”
“Y-yes, of course,” Cassia stammered. “You have done many great services-“
“And what service have you given, Cassia? Why is it always my turn? What will you do for all those lives? What sacrifice will you make?”
“Me?” Cassia’s eyes were growing brighter, and the color rose in her cheeks.
Her expression was filled with innocence and a desire to do the right thing. But that only annoyed me further.
“Yes, you, Cassia,” I said. “What is your sacrifice?”
“I would if I had the power-“
“You have the power to sacrifice for me.”
Cassia swallowed and shakily said, “W-what will you have me do?”
“How about be my slave for the next two centuries. That’s how long I’ve spent toiling for the people of Visseria.”
“Your slave?” She said. Her voice rose.
“You heard correctly. You’ll have to do anything I ask. Anything at all. In return, I’ll save the people of Lareinti. Hundreds of thousands of lives did you say? A fair trade, don’t you think?”
She took a step backward. “I couldn’t… why should I-“
I shrugged. “That’s fine. I guess all those people will just have to die then.”
I gave her my best malicious smile. She shuddered. Templar or not, she was still too young and idealistic to face the realities of the world. It would send her packing, and next time the White Church would think twice about sending a brat to sway me. I’d be damned to risk my neck for those righteous bastards again.
“Guess that’s that then,” I said and turned to the door.
I paused in disbelief with my hand on the door handle. Then I thought better of it. She was calling my bluff.
I turned back around and found her stripping her clothes. There were tears in her eyes. “This is what you want is it?” she said, shaking. “Well you can have me! I’ll be your slave. I don’t know if I’ll live for two centuries, but by Celeru, I swear-“
“Stop stop!” I exclaimed catching her wrist before she could remove another garment. “Good Celeru, what is wrong with you?”
“I’m agreeing to your terms! If it means you’ll save Lareinti, being your slave is a small price to pay for its safety!” Tears were flowing freely from her eyes now, but there was also a hard-set determination in them.
That snapped me out of it.
“Damn you,” I muttered after a moment. “I can never win with your type.”
I sighed and let her go and hopped onto one of the cold barrels of honeydew beer in the room. This put me a few heads taller than her, and I looked down at her with a smile. “Very well, then. Do you know the Spell of Seeing? I assume it’s something a templar would know.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, rubbing away the tears.
“So apply it.”
She looked at me as if unsure what I was getting at, but she did as I asked, and her eyes began to glow with a thin blue aura. She ran her gaze across my face, then down my body, and stopped.
The breath caught in her throat, and she stared at me as if she was looking into my innards. Then she shot her widened eyes back to my own as if they held an accusation. Or a question. Or both.
I was still smiling. “You see? Even if I wanted to go, I’d have no chance against an elder dragon.”
The night was late, but summer had just begun, and a warm breeze swept through the street. Most of the Kerrytown neighborhood customers and residents had gone home for the night.
Those left were mostly in the taverns and pubs that lined both sides of the cobblestone street. Muffled voices of laughter and conversation could be heard from their doors.
If it had been earlier and the street busier, I doubted that Mideon would have agreed to such a public dispute with Elsa.
He was the son of the ward’s superintendent, which would let him get away with harassing the barmaid of a relatively newly opened tavern, assuming he didn’t make a villain out of himself in front of a street full of witnesses.
But at the moment, it was only the Tipsy Pelican’s customers and Mideon’s two men standing on the street. The witnesses would be the same had he confronted Elsa in the tavern, and other than Herwin, they were mostly comprised of builders and dock workers and handymen—not the type of people who had much standing in the eyes of the nobility.
However, Herwin had finally woken up, which I was glad to see.
Someone had pulled up a seat for the broad-shouldered young man that Elsa had split a table with and handed him a mug of Honeydew Lager for good measure. He was sipping it with a dazed look as he watched the confrontation. The white templar stood at his side, her expression unreadable behind her veil.
“This is your last chance to come with me voluntarily,” Mideon said. “You assaulted me last time. It’s the least you could do.”
I wasn’t sure how the idiot figured any of the others would allow Mideon to take Elsa away if he did succeed in immobilizing her, but the guy clearly wasn’t very bright.
Then I noticed the aura I had sensed earlier growing rapidly from one of his men. So maybe he wasn’t as dumb as I thought. Still dumb as a brick. But maybe not as dumb as a rock.
The man with the aura was a caster if not a full-blown mage. Depending on his ability, he could easily put down a tavern full of people. Well… assuming no one in the tavern knew magic. And there was at least one person who did—the templar, I mean.
“Enough of your dribble, you pointy-nosed bastard,” Elsa snapped. “Are you going to fight, or are you going to keep whining?”
That was the thing about Elsa, when she was angry, her tongue was sharper than a spear point. It was clear from Mideon’s expression that he was self-conscious about his strangely-shaped nose.
“You bitch!” Mideon and his two men leaped forward at once, with Mideon leading the charge.
And Mideon fell first.
That was expected for anyone watching.
The balance of his body was all wrong. Head and arms forward, fingers spread, torso and legs behind him.
He rushed face-first right into Elsa’s closed fist and landed on the ground with a thud.
Next, his two men raced toward her. They seemed to fare slightly better.
The first man pulled his fist back for a punch upon seeing Mideon fall. The plan to capture the woman had turned into a fistfight.
The second man, the mage, was right beside him, he had his hand raised. It was unclear what he was going to do until his hand began to glow with red aura. He was casting a spell.
Things were looking bad until the unbelievable happened.
The first man with the balled fist tripped on a raised cobblestone in the road.
Or perhaps it was his knee that buckled.
It wasn’t clear from the angle of the spectators, but his left leg twisted suddenly just as he began to launch his fist forward.
The result was that he pivoted sideways on the leg that could no longer hold his weight. Instead of hitting Elsa, his fist smacked into the cheek of the unsuspecting mage who had all his attention on the beauty.
Elsa blinked as both of them toppled over, a whole two paces away from her.
The mage was knocked out cold, but the first guy stood again, hopping on one leg while clutching the other. Something indeed had happened to his left knee.
But as he was groping his knee, Elsa slammed her fist into his jaw.
The motion was smooth and swift and graceful as a royal dancer. He flew back, his jaw leading the flight, and landed neatly on the cobblestone road between his two sleeping friends.
There was a long moment of silence. Then someone began to clap. Then everyone from the tavern was whooping, jumping up and down.
Elsa glanced at them with a radiant smile as she rubbed her shoulder. “Time to celebrate!” she said, raising her fist victoriously in the air to enthusiastic cheering.
Celebrate? What were we celebrating? Mideon and his idiots would undoubtedly return another night with even more men after being embarrassed so badly.
“First rounds on the house!” Elsa exclaimed as she led the pack back into the tavern like a prophet among her loyal followers.
“On the house!?” I said. She didn’t hear me. There was nothing to be done about it now. Everyone was too caught up in the moment.
The good news was there would undoubtedly be more purchases after a fight and a free round of drinks.
Which was exactly what happened.
Which was why the rest of the night was a complete disaster.
Bran bought the second round and Herwin the third and fourth and fifth.
Before I knew it, every person in the tavern was buying a round of drinks, and a dozen people meant a dozen rounds.
I knew most of them couldn’t afford such expenditures, so I only charged them half price.
The price decrease was discovered as one of them settled their bill, which led to a furor of more drinks bought.
By the time the sun rose, Herwin was hunched over in a corner, puking into a bucket, and Bran was dancing with the templar.
She, for the first time since she’d been coming to the tavern, had drunk a second glass of wine, which was apparently enough to put her on an even footing with Bran, who by then was on his tenth round.
And all of this was still manageable… right up until Elsa shoved into my hands the unfinished half of the good brandy she opened and drank earlier in the night.
“What?” I said dumbly.
“You’re not drinking,” she said.
“Someone’s got to be the adult.”
“Not tonight. We’re celebrating!” she said. Then she wrapped her arm into mine and took the first pull from the bottle. She handed it over to me. I sighed and took a gulp.
Then the whole tavern cheered. I guess they didn’t see me drinking much. One drink led to two and that led to three. And before I knew it, I’d finished the second half of the bottle of brandy.
I don’t know how things ended.
I awoke on some chairs that had been lined up against a wall. I looked around and saw the tavern empty of the guests.
Elsa was sprawled out on the bar, her feet resting over spilled mugs and bottles.
For a moment I thought she had finally died from alcohol poisoning, but then I saw her chest moving up and down as she breathed.
I stared a few moments longer than were necessary before I pulled my eyes away.
“Damn nineteen-year-old body,” I muttered as I sat up.
“You’re awake. I’ve been waiting for you.”
I jumped as I saw the templar sitting a few chairs away.
“Oh, it’s you,” I said. “Nearly scared me half to death.”
She had taken off the head mantle of her robes, and I could now see her face. She was younger than I had expected. Perhaps my apparent age or a little older. Twenty-two or twenty-one. Her hair was long and dark blonde and her eyes were bright blue and piercing. They were staring into me as if taking an account of my soul.
“I doubt that to be possible, Master Archibold,” the templar said.
“Uh… it’s Arch. Just Arch. Not short for anything.” A cold sweat was forming on my back.
“I have come a long way to speak with you.”
“With me?” I took a furtive glance at Elsa. She was still passed out on the bar.
“I am a Templar of the Order of the White Church.”
“That’s quite the mouthful.”
“I have come to ask for your assistance in a grave matter.”
“Of course. You are Archibold Stormblood, the Greatest Hero of Our Time.”