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?”