Charm and I stood at the counter beneath our tent. It was only morning and already the festival grounds were packed with visitors. Hundreds of stalls and tents covered the great square of Lumitra Ward, which had been cleared for the festival.
It was the second day of Summerfest. The Brewmaster’s Best Ale Cup was one of the first events of the day and it would last until the evening.
The competing brewmasters’ tents were given the prime real estate around the short stage of the main event space during the competition. Our tent was beside the Tree and Stump Ale Company and across from Boreas and his Sword and Shield House tent.
We were wearing Tipsy Pelican aprons and we had a big Tipsy Pelican Tavern sign beneath our counter. Behind us, several barrels of beer Cassia enchanted with cold spells earlier in the day were ready to be poured.
Charm and I had come over on a rented cart before the others. The old pumpkin man was bringing Cassia and Elsa on his wagon with more barrels and the rest of the snacks that Charm had prepared.
For the pairing with my pumpkin ale, Charm chose salted turkey strips and spiced, sun-dried cranberries. The portions were small, only meant as something to munch on as one drank their ale, but the flavors accompanied the ale nicely.
I turned my eyes from the crowds and looked at Charm. She had her hands on her waist, and there was a liveliness to her that I had not seen in ages. With the apron on and her pink hair tied up in ribbons, she actually looked very cute and ready to do business, like a real brewmaster’s assistant.
She caught me staring and said, “What is it, Master?”
“There’s no time to be daydreaming, Master. We must defeat Boreas today.”
“You’re right, Charm,” I said, patting my cheeks to put my game face on.
Then we heard a booming voice ring out across the gathering crowd. The voice was clearly being amplified by magic. It was the announcer, Avery, who had also hosted the competition last year as well. He was a portly man with a thick beard, cheeks that seemed to be always a little blushed, and a twinkle in his eye that hinted at his charm.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Our annual Brewmaster’s Best Ale Cup is about to start. Please come up and purchase your tickets! Each ticket will allow you to purchase a mug of the city’s finest beers brewed by our contestants. Each order of ale will also come with a small snack. Now please remember, each time a ticket is spent, it counts as a vote towards the brewmaster. The brewmaster with the most tickets by sundown will be this year’s champion! Each brewmaster here today is a licensed brewer in the city of Meritas, and they’ve entered their single best ale for this competition. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen! You understand me correctly! You’ll be tasting the best brews Meritas has to offer today! So gather around to purchase your tickets! The competition will start as soon as I blow my whistle!”
A crowd quickly formed at the ticketing table staffed by two clerks beside Avery.
“He’s chipper as always, isn’t he?” I said.
Charm nodded. “Mr. Avery is a nice man.”
That was a first. Charm rarely gave out compliments. And if she did, I had the habit of thinking twice and making sure it wasn’t a masterfully crafted roundabout insult first. Although, those were usually directed towards me.
Ten minutes later, the whistle sounded, and each booth was swarmed by lines of people.
“Welcome, sir!” I said. “Please try our beer, the Frozen Pumpkin Ale!”
There were sixteen brewers in total. Some were from major brewing companies, while others were small taverns like mine. It was unlikely that every beer drinker was going to taste all sixteen beers, so several key factors were important to winning the competition.
The first was getting people to line up. Part of the reason I chose a pumpkin-infused ale was because it was unique and a rare ingredient in beers. My problem with the Honeydew before was that a sizable chunk of people disliked fruity beers and avoided it altogether. But Pumpkin was such a rare ingredient in ales that most people did not have an opinion about it, which made it a safer pick.
The next key factor was the way we named our beer. We chose to call it “frozen” because we cooled our barrels more than normal enchanted beer barrels. This would be difficult for the other smaller brewers to do throughout the day as they probably could not afford to hire a mage for so long. But with Cassia’s help, I’d be able to do it openly and not having to worry about being caught if I cast the enchantments myself.
The second added benefit of calling it “frozen” was that when the sun truly hit the festival grounds in the afternoon and temperatures rose to uncomfortable levels, every customer would be looking for a cold drink.
Then, finally, there was, of course, the way the beer tasted. I needed people to keep coming back to drink mine throughout the day. Repeat customers were what pushed the winner to the top. And more importantly, it solidified the Tipsy Pelican Tavern in their minds so that they would seek us out later. Bran, Amberly, and Dalian, and even Herwin had met me at the festival for the first time before becoming regulars at the tavern.
Music sounded from the stage, and for a moment, I thought the organizers had brought entertainment for the event. But then I saw that it did not come from the stage at all, but beyond it, from Boreas’s tent. The bastard had hired a musician! It was a young bard. Tall, handsome, and damn good at his flute. A crowd of onlookers gathered around the musician, drawing attention to Boreas’s tent, and many began lining up for his ale.
“That cheating bastard!” I exclaimed. “Are the organizers going to allow this? He’s getting a crowd because of the musician, not the merits of his ale! How dare he call himself a brewmaster!? This is completely dishonorable!”
“There’s nothing against it in the rules,” Charm said.
“Then the rules should be chang-” I stopped short as I noticed another crowd forming ahead. It was even larger than Borea’s crowd, and it was moving this way. Then I saw the faces of the two women at the center, between the gaps of the crowd. It was Elsa and Cassia. They were on foot, heading this way. But where was their wagon?
“Hello, boy, how’s the turnout?” I turned and saw the old pumpkin man. His donkey, a calm animal called Strawberry, and his wagon were pulled up behind the tent. It was fully loaded with filled kegs of pumpkin ale.
“What’s going on over there?” I said.
“Hmph, you’ll see soon enough, you scoundrel.”
I turned back and saw it as they drew closer. Elsa and Cassia were wearing new dresses. They were identical to the white dress that had been torn during Cassia’s fight against Darren Tamblion. Over the dresses, the two girls each wore a Tipsy Pelican Apron. And by the gods, they were lovelier than the royal courtesans I rescued from the Mad King. They looked like two angels in matching uniforms. No wonder they were drawing a crowd.
Cassia blushed a little as they arrived at our tent. I supposed it was because my mouth was hanging wide open.
She thumbed at the strap of the dress. “I felt a little bad that our agreement didn’t go as you planned due to my injuries, so I thought I’d dress up. It’s just for today, though.”
“W-where did you get the dresses?” I asked.
“I had them made,” Elsa said. “You two ruined my last one, and this is my favorite dress. Now I have an extra just in case you two get into more trouble.”
“Amazing,” I said. It must have cost Elsa a good percentage of her wages to do it, as I did not pay her much, and I made a mental note to reimburse her, for I knew she did it for the contest.
Then I peered over at Charm, feeling a little worried at what her response might be.
Her expression was placid as ever, but her hand was outstretched in a fist, and her thumb was pointed to the sky.
“Ahem,” someone said. I turned. It was a customer. He was holding up a ticket. “A Frozen Pumpkin Ale, please?”
“Yes, of course,” Cassia said, quickly pouring him a mug from the barrel on the counter.
Behind this customer was an entire crowd of people. Some of them were on their tiptoes, trying to get a peek at the girls. They had followed Cassia and Elsa over. Even some of the customers in Boreas’s line had moved over to ours.
“Good Celeru,” I said, “I think we’re going to win this thing after all.”
“Ah, but one could argue that we’re cheating,” the old pumpkin man said sagely. “After all, we are attracting customers through the beauty of our staff and not the merits of our ale. It seems a little dishonor-“
“There’s nothing against it in the rules!” I snapped. “Now go unload those barrels from the wagon! We’ve got a competition to win!”