By early afternoon it appeared as if we were nearly even. Boreas had increased his odds by hiring out an entire band of musicians to perform in front of his booth.
On our side, several of my regulars had shown up, including Amberly, Bran, Dalian, and Herwin.
“This might be even better than the Honeydew,” Dalian said to me as he came back for his fourth mug. His cheeks were already a little rosy by then.
“It’s great, but better? I am not sure,” Amberly said taking a swig of his own mug. It looked almost like a teacup in his massive hands.
Each had purchased several tickets and they’d already spent most of them at my tent.
“They are equally as good!” Bran said with a hearty laugh. He downed the rest of his mug with one swoop and raised a ticket for another.
I quickly refilled his mug and thanked all three of the builders for coming.
“We wouldn’t miss it for an audience with the Elven Princess,” Bran said, smiling.
They promised to return once they were finished with their drinks and headed off to start an arm-wrestling match. It wasn’t an official event of the Summerfest, it was just something they liked to do in the middle of the square. Last time, it drew a larger audience than some of the main events.
Seeing them almost made me wish I wasn’t a contestant. The Summerfest was a great festival to spend with friends. All of the visitors seemed to be truly having a good time and enjoying themselves. People were laughing, chatting, and dancing.
Herwin was also several Frozen Pumpkin Ales deep and had worked up the courage to speak to a few young ladies on the square that were hardy ale drinkers themselves.
As I was watching him and feeling a little envious, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the old pumpkin man. He was holding a mug that I recognized as not my own.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
“It the Stone and Shield House’s ale, the Dark Purple Lager.”
“You traitor!” I exclaimed. I knew this man couldn’t be trusted. To think he spent a ticket on the opponent’s ale.
“Calm down, boy,” the old pumpkin man said, seeing my expression. “I know you’ve been curious how Boreas’s ale fares. Elsa told me about his visit to the tavern. Come on, have a sip. We’ll all share this one and only grant him the one ticket.”
I frowned, but he was right. I was dying to know what Boreas had brought to the contest this time. I took a swallow. Then passed it on. Everyone in the tent took a sip, except the pumpkin man who passed the mug on when it was handed to him. I then realized that he was not a drinker, as he also did not have any of my ale.
“Not bad,” Elsa admitted with a slightly frustrated tone.
The beer was good, but it tasted a lot like the Cherry Purple of the previous year, and more importantly, it wasn’t better. If anything, the ale seemed more like a different take on the same recipe.
“I’m surprised the administrators allowed this recipe,” I said. “It seems quite similar to the old one.”
Charm looked at me, puzzled. “Why would they not allow it, Master?”
“Boreas said that there’s a rule that you can’t enter the same…” Oh, that bastard… He lied to me, didn’t he? Guess he was afraid I’d enter the Honeydew Lager again.
“Has Master been duped by an imbecile less than one-eighth his age?”
I sighed as I had no response to that one.
Charm smiled. Actually smiled. It was a sight to behold.
“Master’s beer is superior,” Charm said, putting down the mug of Dark Purple Lager. “Charm was right to trust him.”
I smiled back at her. “Thanks, Charm.”
“His musicians do seem quite popular…” Cassia said as she looked across the square.
“It’s not over yet, Missy,” the old pumpkin man said. “We’re still neck and neck. Boreas’ll be losing half his profits by hiring that troupe.”
I nodded and down at our own stash of tickets. It was an incredible amount. Even after the festival took its cut, it was going to be equal to at least an entire month’s worth of revenue for the tavern.
“By gods,” Oakdigger exclaimed. “Is that a circus act that just arrived for Boreas?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, looking over at Boreas’s stall. Sure enough, a circus act had arrived, including a juggler and a flame-eater. “Good gods, is this even an ale competition anymore?”
Something flashed in Elsa and Cassia’s eyes at the same time as they glanced at each other and nodded slightly.
“What was that?”
“We have a secret weapon,” Elsa said.
Cassia nodded. “We didn’t want to use it unless it was absolutely necessary.”
“But now there’s no choice,” Elsa said.
They turned to Charm. Charm, who had begun preparing more turkey and cranberry snacks, blinked and turned to us. We were all watching her.
“Charm feels suddenly perturbed,” Charm said, giving the two girls a wary look.
Elsa cracked an evil grin. And Cassia began to twiddle her fingers as if terribly guilty about something.
“Charm is becoming increasingly perturbed,” Charm said.
From behind a barrel, Elsa pulled out a white dress. This one was smaller, matching Charm’s smaller stature.
Charm looked at the dress then at the girls and shook her head.
Elsa and Cassia both nodded their heads.
Charm shook hers again.
Elsa and Cassia nodded, drawing closer to her like two predators ready to pounce on their prey.
Charm looked at me, though her expression had its typical flatness, I could tell she was seeking help.
I looked into the distance, my expression turning grave. “Someone once told me that we must win at all costs.”
Charm reached out a hand to me like a drowning sailor before she was carried off toward the washrooms on the festival grounds by the two predators.
Seven minutes later, a crowd followed them back. The outfit they had prepared for her was different from their own. This one looked like a traditional maid’s costume with many flowing ribbons and a big bow in the back. Charm looked adorable. But I couldn’t stop laughing because I knew how ridiculous it was for someone like her to be wearing such a thing.
She gave me one threatening look and I shut up, saying nothing more.
Once again, the tables were turned, and this time several female patrons were at our tent. Unlike Cassia and Elsa, who seemed to primarily draw young men, Charm drew both men and women equally.
“Kyaaa, you’re so adorable! Thank you for the beer, I will be back!” One lady with heavily jeweled accessories exclaimed.
After she had walked out of earshot, Charm turned to me and said, “If we do not win this, Charm will make Master suffer the same way Charm is suffering is now.”
“I don’t know exactly how that would work, but it sounds awful,” I said.
But it appeared we were on track to win until the unthinkable happened. We ran out of cranberries.
It was nearly four o’clock. There were three more hours to the competition. Cassia had gone to the wagon to get another bag of cranberries, but there were none.
“Charm does not think this is right. Charm remembered making the right amount to match the beer.”
“Could we have left a bag back at the tavern?” I said.
“I believe we checked everything as we loaded up,” Cassia said.
“Damn,” I said. “If we knew earlier, we could have decreased the number of cranberries per each portion and spread things out. But now we’ve only got enough left for ten more portions. Are you sure we had another bag?”
“Charm is certain.”
“Then it must still be at the tavern,” I said.
“We could go back to get it,” Elsa said. “We should be able to return in time before the end of the competition.”
I nodded. “You’re right. It’s worth a try.”
“Charm will go,” Charm said.
“You’re too big of a draw right now,” I said.
Charm frowned, and I could see she was worried that this would cost us the trophy.
“I can go,” Cassia said.
“No, I’ll go,” Elsa said. “I’m getting tired of these boys ogling me anyway, and I’ll know where to look.”
I nodded. “Thanks Elsa, be back as soon as you can.”
“I’ll go too,” the old pumpkin man said. “Faster with my wagon and Strawberry.”
Elsa nodded, and they headed off.
Fifteen minutes later, we’d sold the last of our cranberries. We had to apologize that our cranberries were out. It was impossible to buy more at the festival as Charm had dried them in the sun and spiced them herself. We could only wait.
The cranberries weren’t a major part of the contest, and people were mainly spending their tickets for the beer. But there was still a minor impact on our ticket intake. A surprising amount of people really enjoyed the snacks Charm had prepared.
But as the hours passed, it became clear that Elsa wasn’t going to make it back in time. From the volume of the crowds, it appeared that we were neck and neck with Boreas. None of the other contenders were anywhere close.
At seven o’clock, the competition drew to a close. All the brewmasters and their teams stepped onto the stage as Avery’s clerks counted the tickets. I was sweating as I watched my tickets counted. Charm and Cassia both held intense gazes. We’d hoped to get a better idea once the tickets were gathered, but even my stack looked the same as Boreas’s.
The clerks finished counting and, and one of them, a young woman with rolled-up sleeves and a can-do attitude, whispered into Avery’s ear.
Avery turned to the crowd gathered at the stage and piped up with his spell-enhanced voice. “The results are in! Are you readdyyy!!?”
I was totally not ready.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here are the final results! Coming in third place is the Red Harvest Ale by Ronol Ablehand of the Tree and Stump Ale Company!”
There was a round of applause as the brewmaster of the Red Harvest Ale stepped forward. The same female clerk came up and pinned a blue ribbon to the brewmaster’s shirt.
Then the crowd turned their gaze back to Avery for the final results.
“And now, the winner of this year’s Brewmaster Ale Contest…”
Damn it, they weren’t even going to announce the second place winner first? I guess it did make sense. If Boreas or I won second, it’d be clear who first place was.
Avery turned to the brewmasters on the stage. “…The best ale in all of Meritas belongs to….”
Silence spread across the crowd. Charm was standing beside me, still wearing her maid’s costume and looking nervous and excited at the same time—more emotion I’d seen in her than the entire previous year combined.
Avery turned and pointed. “Master Arch Gustkin of the Tipsy Tavern!”
Cassia and I threw up our hands and whooped. We jumped up and down hugging each other.
I turned and saw it was Charm that was laughing. It was a pretty and honest laugh that I will remember for the rest of my life.
We received a massive round of applause from the crowd as Avery handed me a large golden trophy.
“Well done, Master Arch, and congratulations!” Avery said.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the trophy. Then I gave Boreas a wink.
* * *
Charm carried the trophy and hummed to herself as we made our way back to the tavern. There was a small smile stuck on her face that did not seem to want to recede like the ones that had come before.
I wondered what had happened to Elsa as I pushed our cart back. Apparently, Cassia was wondering the same thing.
“Do you think Mr. Oakdigger’s wagon broke down on the way…?” she said.
“Possible,” I said. “That old rickety thing looked prone to collapse.”
But as we neared the tavern, we did not come across Elsa or the pumpkin man.
“Master, do you smell that?”
I sniffed the air and nodded. “Smoke.”
“I hope it isn’t a serious fire,” Cassia said. “It may not be reported quickly enough with so many people at the festival right now.”
But as we entered Southbank and neared the tavern, my worst fears began to grow. Then all three of us abandoned the cart and ran.
We found the tavern set alight, burning brightly with tall, roaring flames. I saw a body on the ground before the burning tavern.
It was the old pumpkin man.
I rushed to him. He was bleeding from his mouth and nostrils. It looked as if he’d taken a hard hit to the head.
“Oakdigger. What happened?”
“He… he took her,” the old pumpkin man whispered, the strength gone from his body. “I am sorry, boy. L-look after them, they are good girls… I had daughters once…”
“Who took her?”
But the light in his eyes that were once his had dimmed and all that was left were the dancing shadows of the flames. He was dead.
“Cassia, call the city guard,” I said, standing.
“We must go after her!”
“I will, but you need to call the city guard to put out the fire before it spreads to other buildings.”
“You’re the fastest! Go!”
Cassia frowned but turned and left without another word. Then I gave one more glance around to make sure the street was empty, and I turned to Charm.
She nodded and raised her hand, muttering a spell I did not recognize. A black circle appeared before her raised hand, and the flames began to swirl into it. Not in that they were being sucked in, but rather they were drawn to the dark circle like a magnet to steel or a cat to a mouse.
The fire cleared within seconds.
I stepped inside, walking briskly throughout the entire tavern. The structure still held as the walls were made of brick and stone, but most of the wooden scaffolding had been burned black. There was broken furniture inside the barroom and glass on the floor, but I found no sign of Elsa. I was afraid that the arsonist might have lit the tavern with her inside after they knocked down Oakdigger, but it was empty of anyone. If they had left her alive, she would have reported it immediately, and the guards would have arrived before we did.
But that was not the case, and so Oakdigger was right. She had been taken.
My mind was racing now. Darkness releasing within my chest.
It didn’t make sense. Someone had planned this in advance. The fact they did not strike earlier meant they were afraid to. Probably because of Cassia’s presence—they did not want to cross paths with a Spirited. But it was unlikely she had been followed, as it was dangerous to follow an awakened without risking notice. So how did they know Cassia would be gone?
Of course. The Summerfest competition. I had entered the year before and was expected to do so again. All my staff would be there. They had seen Cassia working at the tavern. It made sense she would be there too.
That meant they had not intended to kill anyone, expecting everyone to be gone. The plan was to burn down the tavern.
But the unexpected had happened. Elsa and Oakdigger returned and saw the perpetrator. She put up a fight. He overpowered her. Knocking over the furniture. Breaking glass.
But why not just kill her if the arsonist did not want witnesses to his crime? Why leave her for dead like he did to Oakdigger?
That was the only logical solution. Kill the witness. Kidnapping didn’t make sense.
Unless the arsonist, who had expected no one to be in the tavern, was somehow, for some reason, also a person who wanted to kidnap Elsa.
And then the pieces fell together. Because there was only one person who fit that description.