Embarrassingly, after two shots, Rufelt lost his balance and nearly toppled over behind the bar. He couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, but the black, faintly savory alcohol was so potent that even his intense tolerance to alcohol couldn’t keep up. And while he could have turned his [Immunity: Alcohol] Skill on, what self-respecting [Bartender] would do that for a drink?
It still knocked him completely off-balance. Rufelt stumbled and she caught him. He looked at the Drake, Lasica. His wife. And she laughed.
“Rufelt! You’re falling over after two shots? And you call yourself a high-level [Bartender]?”
“I—hey. It’s strong.”
He weakly mumbled. But it wasn’t really an excuse. Lasica rested her head against his shoulder. He leaned against her while the world spun.
“Mm. Thank you.”
She only smiled.
“I haven’t seen you do that in years. Not since we went to your father’s funeral.”
He smiled bitterly, remembering that day. The Gnoll rubbed at his dark fur, mussing up the neatly-combed appearance he normally kept while tending to his bar. Then he looked at Lasica and smiled.
“And you caught me then as well. You have a knack for that.”
“Well, that’s why I married you. Steady. Do you have your feet?”
He nodded. But the two leaned on each other for a moment longer. There was nothing more comfortable in this world, after all. They only separated after hearing the quiet, precise cough at the bar. Then Rufelt looked up, grinning. He nodded at the Antinium and his hair only rose a bit as Klbkch the Slayer glanced at him.
But a [Bartender] didn’t show their emotions. And his Skills gave Rufelt an amiable façade he could hide behind. No—more than that, the Antinium were fascinating. Even if this one was a legend, a nightmare for anyone who’d lived in a Walled City and remembered the Antinium Wars.
But see—he spoke. And he acted so normal. So polite and reserved, in fact. Klbkch the Slayer nodded and opened his mandibles as Rufelt eyed the dark, foamy liquid in the shot glass.
“What is your verdict, [Bartender] Rufelt? I take it the potency of the alcohol is to your satisfaction?”
“I don’t know that I’d say that. Rather, it’s alarmingly strong. Too strong, perhaps.”
Rufelt cautiously felt at the top of his mouth with his tongue. It had gone slightly numb. Klbkch tilted his head.
“I see. I adjusted the formula based on the last feedback I received. It is still too strong?”
“Still…? You mean, it was stronger than that?”
Lasica’s brows shot up as she leaned against the bar. Rufelt wondered who’d died in the first trial run. He sighed as he tapped the liquid in the glass.
“What did you call this? Rxlvn? Frankly, it’s too strong for me to use in many drinks. The purpose of alcohol is to be enjoyed; rarely do I mix something to completely knock someone out. And this is closer to poison than actual alcohol. Uh—is there actual poison in here?”
“Hm. I was under the impression most alcohols were an impairment of some kind. The Workers did add some paralytic elements.”
Rufelt paused as he reached for some water to steady himself.
“…What kind of elements?”
“Mushrooms. Serpent venom. A small dose of Shield Spider venom.”
Lasica looked worried. Rufelt just considered this.
“Maybe ease off the serpent venom. That’s probably why I feel like passing out under the bar. But I could see selling the actual drink. It’s quite savory, actually.”
“That was the intent. Along with the addition of other unique elements in order to create a drink unlike any other. I will see to removing the venom and reducing the strength again. Now, how would you price such a drink?”
“Well…given that the Antinium made it, I somehow doubt it’ll sell well. But if I were putting it out as a curio, I could see…”
Rufelt leaned on his bar as the world slowly stopped trying to turn upside down and carry him with it. Klbkch sat across from him, nodding, taking notes. The Wandering Inn bustled around the two as Lasica took two sips from the Rxlvn and promptly decided that was enough.
“I’ll keep it with my other alcohols today. But I can’t promise I’ll sell much of it. Or any. I will let you know how I do, Guardsman Klbkch.”
The Antinium nodded as Rufelt carefully placed the…container of Rxlvn on the shelf behind him. Rufelt had set up this morning and the bright and colorful jars and containers were attracting a lot of attention from the inn’s guests. Klbkch stepped back.
“I appreciate your feedback, [Bartender] Rufelt. I must return to my duties, but I will attempt to return by sundown for your opinions. Farewell.”
He walked out of the inn, and Lasica let out the small breath she’d been holding.
“Ancestors, he makes my tail twitch. Klbkch the Slayer. Can you imagine it?”
“I don’t need to.”
Rufelt busied himself behind the bar. It was early for drinks, but he had a feeling he’d be in business soon. Lasica blinked at the door, and then shifted her attention to him. She frowned as he put his specialized mugs and cups and various glasses—from shot glasses to specialized drinking vessels designed for smoky drinks, or ones on fire—in a row behind him. She sighed.
“Did you bring half the bar with you? You know we’re giving Erin too much help. Especially you, Rufelt.”
The Gnoll grinned apologetically as he ran his paw across the counter.
“I can’t help it. I see a bar counter and I have to do something. Especially with a crowd like this! Humor me? Besides, Erin’s given us all the profits I make.”
Lasica rolled her eyes, but she gave in without much fuss. She knew her husband, after all.
“Oh, very well. Just remember you’re putting more people in her seats. Don’t work too hard! We have to open tomorrow.”
“I know. Don’t worry, love. Have fun with Erin in the kitchens! Please don’t tease her too much. Or tire yourself.”
She snorted gently and patted Rufelt’s arm before walking across the bar. And like that, Rufelt got to work. He was, after all, a [Bartender]. And in his bar, or The Wandering Inn, he could ply his trade.
It was simple. Simple and complex. Because a [Bartender] served drinks and that was one thing. People could ask for something simple, like a mug of ale, and he could fill and pass out a tankard almost before the thirsty Drake had finished talking.
But sometimes a [Bartender] was there to listen, or deal with a tricky customer. Of course, sometimes they were just drink-machines, and Rufelt certainly did pour thirty-eight drinks, mostly ales, to the inn’s patrons. A few wines, one stronger spirit too. And then his first notable customer sniffed and leaned on the bar counter.
“Excuse me, [Bartender]. But am I to understand you are a high-level member of your class? The co-owner of the famous Pallassian bar, Tails and Scales, if I am not misinformed.”
Rufelt blinked at the young man in a white robe with an arch expression. He felt like he’d seen him around.
“That would be me. Rufelt, [Bartender]. Reasonably high-level I suppose. Can I help you, sir?”
“Perhaps. I would like to inquire—among your beverages do you have anything truly exemplary? I ask only as a connoisseur of good taste.”
The Gnoll took a moment to process this.
“I have any number of drinks. I can find something for you, but do you have a preference? I warn you, some of the drinks can get expensive. Although I’m sure you’re good for it.”
In fact, Rufelt knew that the young man was. That was another [Bartender]’s trick. The young man sniffed again and Rufelt remembered. Erin had warned him about a sniffing [Necromancer]. He’d been picturing a Gnoll. Warily, Rufelt eyed Pisces, but again, the mask of friendliness was in place.
“Money is of course, no object. I’m merely inquiring as to your purview of drinks. I have had a number of supposedly excellent beverages that amounted to no more than a cheap trick. Whilst I wouldn’t object to considered and tasteful entertainment, I’m sure you’d agree that the substance of a libation is more important than presentation, would you not?”
Sometimes you got customers like this. Rufelt took his time in replying as he polished a glass, which was mainly a tic he liked to do for fun because it made him look busy.
“I happen to agree. And as I said, I have a number of drinks available. Would you like a list or for me to select one?”
Pisces paused, frowning. Before he could reply, a Drake with light green scales took a seat next to him. She rolled her eyes.
“Pisces, stop bothering the [Bartender] and just ask for a drink. Dead gods, but you can’t go anywhere without bothering someone, can you? Just admit you don’t know what drink you want. I’m sure the [Bartender] can figure out what you want.”
The [Necromancer] colored and turned. Rufelt was amused to see the young Drake get under the Human’s skin so fast. He remembered her too; she’d been with Krshia. Her name was…
“Selys, I’m quite aware of any number of drinks. I am simply trying to make conversation with, ah, Master Rufelt about the best sort of drink he has to offer. Is it not lazy to ask to the [Bartender]’s choice? Educating oneself about the selection of liquor is a mark of culture.”
“Or being pretentious. [Bartender] Rufelt, is it? What’ve you got? And do you do tricks? Hi, I’m Selys. I think we met. I’m a [Receptionist]—er, I mean, [Heiress].”
The Drake waved at Rufelt. He smiled and nodded to the selection behind him.
“It’s quite simple, Miss Selys, Mister Pisces. If you want a good drink, I can make you a good drink. If you want tricks—I can give you a flaming drink, make one that floats—but I’m not pouring ten drinks at once while hopping on one foot and playing a trumpet. Aside from that, fancy presentation, substance over style—it depends on what you order, but I can guess for you. I’m fairly good at that.”
The Drake and Human exchanged a glance. Pisces shrugged.
“Well then, by all means, what would you recommend for me? I am in the mood for some considered drinking, but of course, the hour is early—”
He paused as Rufelt immediately turned around and got to work. The other trick with people like the self-styled connoisseur of a [Necromancer] was to give them what they wanted, not what they asked for. Which was why the deep amber drink was at first plain—until Rufelt added in a swirling, palely fluorescent green drink and mixed the rest with a large, fresh leaf of mint.
The drink swirled as both Drake and Human blinked at it. Rufelt smiled as he slid it across the counter with a flourish.
“Here. Try this.”
Pisces did. At first, the strong drink had him frowning, ready to critique, but as the swirling motes of green liquid mixed into his sip, his expression became approving. He lowered the glass.
“A magical draught?”
“It’s meant to give you energy. I worked with Xif to use the basis of a stamina potion and added some pick-me-up elements. This is a variant of that recipe for [Mages].”
“So I note. Hm.”
Pisces flicked his fingers and a shower of multicolored sparks landed and bounced off the bar counter. Rufelt sighed. [Mages]. They loved to damage the woodwork. But Pisces was nodding and Selys, clearly impressed, leaned forwards.
“Let me have a sip, Pisces. I’ll have what you recommend too, Mister Rufelt!”
She took the glass and sipped, ignoring Pisces’ objections. She didn’t like Pisces’ drink as much as Rufelt, but he could have told her that. Her drink had more sweet, and the pale pink color was mostly clear, but he’d mixed in a few colorless drops that Pisces noted.
Selys didn’t, and when she took her drink and sipped it, she was at first pleased, and then very pleased. She sat back, laughing in delight, beaming.
“Whoo! That feels nice! As good as—but what did you put in this?”
She caught herself, sipping greedily. Pisces reached for the drink and Selys slapped his hand away. She only gave him a sip after two more gulps. Rufelt waited until she’d put down the cup before replying.
“Hanging flesh-eater caterpillar venom.”
Selys choked. Pisces paused, mid-sip. He looked at Rufelt.
“Are they unnamed or is that the actual name of the creature in question?”
The Gnoll shrugged.
“I don’t know the exact name, but that’s what they are. Apparently the venom makes their prey so relaxed they don’t notice the caterpillars dropping on them and eating them. Don’t worry; there’s only a mild dose in that drink.”
Selys looked uneasy, but after Pisces handed the drink back, she took a small sip and smiled.
“Hey! It’s good! I wish you hadn’t told me what was in it, but I asked. Thanks for the drink. How much do I owe you? And uh—do you have any suggestions for what to eat with it?”
“I like a few slices of cheese myself. I don’t know why, but most people do. It might be the venom.”
“Huh. You know, I want cheese too. Hey! Ishkr!”
Selys turned as she fumbled with her belt pouch. She lingered at the bar as she was served some local cheese on a plate. Pisces levitated a piece over to him and Selys jabbed him with a claw as Rufelt went to pass some less expensive drinks out to a crowd of Garuda who’d come from Pallass.
Now, Garuda were lightweights. They liked fruit drinks mostly—birds—but some, like Bevussa, loved the more potent Drake favorites, having been raised in Pallass by Drakes herself. You had to know your guests. When Rufelt came back, he found Pisces and Selys were chatting. It was an unusual pairing, but the [Bartender] had seen far stranger. Pisces sniffed as he chewed on a piece of cheese.
“I have noticed your enduring campaign. I simply haven’t taken an active role. I am, after all, an outsider to Liscor’s politics.”
“Yes, but you could have helped. In fact, you did help Olesm! I heard you went into Pallass to help him write that stupid chess letter! Do you know how much that affected Lism’s campaign?”
The [Necromancer] looked apologetic.
“In my defense, I was unaware of Olesm’s intent to involve himself in the election. That was a wholly unrelated issue.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t see you helping Krshia. Or me. Where was the handy, know-it-all [Necromancer] when I could have used someone arguing against Olesm and Lism?”
Selys glowered. Pisces pretended to be fascinated with the play going on stage. At last, he coughed and looked back at Selys.
“I apologize, Selys. I didn’t think my involvement would be that—welcome, given the Gnoll campaign. If it matters, I would imagine Miss Silverfang has a good chance of seizing victory. And I do believe at least two of your candidates will win in other districts. Based on pure observation, it seems incredibly doubtful that Elirr or [Armorer] Raekea would lose.”
“You think so?”
Selys looked up eagerly. So did Rufelt—he had a paw in this election after all. Pisces nodded, sipping from his drink and straightening in his chair.
“I did survey the streets discretely—”
“You mean, invisibly.”
“—discretely the last few days. Given the general distributions of the districts in the election, Both Elirr and Miss Raekea occupy Gnoll-heavy districts. And they are substantially popular among Drakes as well; it leads me to be quite certain of their victory. Of course, ironically, Miss Krshia herself has a lower chance in her district. I cannot think what she was intending when she drew up the divisions for each area.”
“She wanted it to be fair. She could have let herself win, but this way each member of the Council will represent a part of the city.”
“Hm. Fair, I suppose. But she could have ah, excluded the Servail Street and removed, oh, about four hundred Drake voters, for instance…”
“But that’s cheating, Pisces.”
“Call it being strategic. For instance, if Miss Krshia had done that, she could have foisted the Drake voters on a district she would have lost—”
“But if she had—it’s just a matter of adjusting limits. Surely you’d agree that your presence and funding affected the campaign.”
“Well the Walled Cities and every Drake with half a gold coin were giving Lism help—”
“My point stands. If you wanted a fair election, the presence of money in any form wouldn’t be germane to conducting a fair election. As it stands, I’m just offering a suggestion that if taken…”
“[Barkeep]! Can I get some wine?”
Rufelt looked up, passed some high-quality wine from his stocks to the Gnoll waving at him, and then had to do a bunch of refills as the first drinkers came back for something stronger. When he returned, he found the two sitting and discussing something else.
“I haven’t had any reports. And your little Bone Horror rats have killed a number of nests. Not that the current Council asked. But I imagine Olesm would pay you to keep it up another month.”
“Ah yes, they have killed quite a few nests. I understand they ran into difficulties at two points; I recalled them and noticed some battle damage. I believe they ran into acid fly nests, but the current iteration of Bone Horrors you suggested are quite nimble.”
Rufelt stared. Bone Horrors? Selys was nodding as if it weren’t even an issue, though. She paused as she sipped at her half-finished drink.
“So they’re doing well. And I hear you sit in your room all day. While this morning I heard Ceria was being boiled in a bathtub to train. So. Out with it. I know you’re dying to tell someone.”
“Ah. Well, if you insist, I could talk about some of my experimentation. It hasn’t all been on Bone Horrors, you know. I’ve more or less solidified their designs. The ah, Warbear form is most effective. At the moment, I’m experimenting with a hypothetical skeleton soldier build.”
Pisces looked pleased as he attempted to gesture and began to draw in the air. Rufelt stared at the illustrations. Selys just raised a brow.
“Right. You remember what my grandmother told you about using bones of people, right? She’ll stab you.”
The [Necromancer] paused defensively.
“Hypothetical. Although Ksmvr did acquire quite a number of ah, bodies. They were [Bandits]—I have no intention of summoning them anywhere around Liscor. But given the material, it would be a shame to…”
He broke off as Selys rolled her eyes.
“You know, you could just get to the point without trying to make excuses. You’ve got bodies. Fine. I get it. I’m not going to tell my grandmother unless you bring them into the city. But these ‘hypothetical skeleton soldiers’. What makes them special? Any decent Bronze-rank adventurer can knock down a skeleton in a one-on-one fight.”
“Ah, but not mine. You see, I’m attempting to create a formation of bone—rearrange the ribcage for instance—such that the skeletons would have an inner mechanism they could deploy. Their ribs could shoot outwards for instance, catching an unwary foe unawares.”
“So you get close and they explode at you like some kind of spike trap?”
Selys didn’t look impressed. Rufelt on the other hand nearly poured ale all over his paw as he listened with one ear. That sounded horrific. Pisces sounded smug.
“Well, yes. The trick is to inflict the most damage. And I have created quite the efficient design if I say so myself—”
“I beg your pardon?”
Rufelt eyed Pisces and Selys as he poured a drink for Maughin and Jelaqua. He handed it to the Dullahan’s body and it turned around and brought it to the table where Maughin’s head and Jelaqua were sitting. Pisces frowned. Selys just laughed. She waved one claw.
“Oh, Pisces. Really? That’s your best? You did this last time. You have a good idea, but—are all [Necromancers] so lazy?”
“Lazy? I will have you know that this design is inspired. Classic [Necromancers] don’t even think to innovate in this way!”
The Drake rolled her eyes gently and snorted as she took another sip.
“That’s them. I know you. And you can do better. I’m just a humble [Receptionist], but even I know that having trapped skeletons is lazy. It’s just a gimmick.”
Pisces folded his arms, looking peeved. Selys frowned and began doodling on the bar counter since she couldn’t do what Pisces had done with magic.
“Okay. You surprise a Silver-rank adventurer and they’re dead. Good for you! The rest of her team will just back up and throw a [Fireball], or use shields. I thought you were trying to get an edge. At Gold-rank, anything you fight will probably just walk away even if your skeletons landed a clean shot. And then they know all the rest are trapped.”
“But I would injure one adventurer—even kill them—”
“One. And if she uses a healing potion, then what? If all your skeletons are the same, Pisces, a surprise attack works once and then never again. Why can’t you make all the skeletons different?”
“The problem is standardizing a design that can be quickly animated in battle. Of course, if I kept a standing army—which I remind you I do not—I could freely innovate at will.”
“I hear you complaining, but all I hear are excuses.”
“Then what would you do? Enlighten me, oh fount of necromantic knowledge.”
The two began bickering as they waved at Rufelt. Selys glared as he slid a drink towards Pisces. She grabbed it, took a swallow, and handed it to him. He looked askance as she stopped her drink with a claw.
“I don’t know. Give them crossbows! Stop being so cheap.”
“That’s right! Bone traps in the skeletons? Just buy them armor! That’s what scares even Gold-rank adventurers. Not Draug, but Draug with plate mail. I realize that’s not a [Necromancer]’s solution because it means spending money, but it’d work. Crossbows—do you know how much more dangerous Skeleton Archers are compared to Skeleton Warriors?”
“I take your point. But what if I built a crossbow into the skeletons—”
“You’re so cheap! Is that a requirement for the [Necromancer] class?”
The young man shook his head indignantly, but his eyes had lit up with interest.
“It’s just innovating with material instead of having to spend money on a finite resource—see here, Selys. I do believe you are onto something. If I sacrificed an arm, for instance, or modified my ribcage design to create a propulsion system and used a bone arrow…”
“How? They don’t have sinews. Crossbows need bowstrings and uh, bending parts. Right?”
“Well, yes. But I could create a projectile weapon—”
“Amazing. Five minutes of talking with me and you have a better idea then you came up in what, four weeks of work?”
“One week, and I will have you know that I have been diligently experimenting in other areas. The spike trap was simply one hypothetical—”
“Like what? Don’t be vague or I won’t believe a thing you say. Do you know how many adventurers I have to deal with who talk just like that?”
Pisces turned beet red. Selys stared at him. He took a huge gulp of his drink and snapped.
“Regenerating bone warriors with the ability to jump and run—”
“So essentially, faster skeleton warriors? Fancy.”
Rufelt had to turn his head and laugh. Selys did, out loud. She patted Pisces on the shoulder.
“Hey, I’m kidding. Stop pouting! See, that’s practical. Do you know how scary running zombies are to Bronze-rank adventurers? How does that happen, by the way? I thought a [Necromancer] had to be present for that to happen, but you hear stories…”
The [Necromancer] sighed as he adjusted his robes. He looked up, and nodded. For all his posturing, he was clearly interested in his subject. Even if it was undead.
“Running zombies? Ah, yes. That would occur in a charged zone. High levels of ambient mana tend to augment the undead and create more dangerous varieties. However, a zombie is still fundamentally weak compared to say, a Ghoul. If Bronze-rank adventurers are so afraid, they could simply set up a rope at ankle-height and stymie most zombies that way, running or not.”
Selys blinked, impressed. She snapped her claws and looked around for some parchment to scribble on.
“Hey, that’s a good idea. Do you have any tips for fighting Ghouls? Because there are some in the dungeon and they’re nightmares for lower-level Silver-rank teams to deal with…”
The two stood up and wandered over to a table with the other Horns of Hammerad, still talking. Rufelt watched them go. Undead? That was definitely Erin’s inn. He got back to serving drinks. The inn was gaining in customers now, and he reckoned he’d been at his job for an hour and a half.
The sun was reversing its climb in the sky when a small, white shape wound her way through the crowd. She peered up at Rufelt’s bar as he paused. Of course, he’d heard about yesterday. He blinked down at Mrsha as she stared up at the drinks on display. She climbed onto the stool and looked expectantly up at Rufelt.
Now this was a challenge. But Rufelt had had children in the bar from time to time and after a moment’s thought, he pulled out a rarely-used bottle of liquid and uncorked it. Mrsha sniffed and recoiled a bit as he poured the orange juice—that was not orange juice—into a clear cup.
“Hm. How about a little carrot juice? With a bit of sugar for taste.”
It had absolutely no alcohol. But Mrsha didn’t know that. She sniffed the drink as Rufelt sprinkled some grains of coarse sugar in and he offered her a small bit of sugar she licked up excitedly. He offered her a stirring rod and she stirred the drink herself, sniffed again, and took a cautious sip.
Mrsha made a disgusted face. Rufelt grinned. The carrot juice tasted like…carrots. And he could count on one-paw the number of people who’d enjoy drinking carrots. But the little Gnoll’s disgusted look was followed by her taking another determined sip. She looked at him and he nodded.
“Rather tough, isn’t it? I could add more sugar—”
The little Gnoll shook her head. She raised an authoritative paw and he left her there. She kept sipping determinedly. And she had a satisfied look on her face. This was properly adult, wasn’t it?
She was so concerned with the drink, she didn’t notice Rufelt watching her. Because the [Bartender] was conflicted. Neither said anything about yesterday. Not that Mrsha could. But two Gnolls occupied the bar together. And Rufelt wanted to say something. But…
He knew how to cheer up someone who was worn out by a hard day. He’d helped up ten thousand drunks, salved a hundred thousand broken hearts, soothed a bitter soul, a violent rage—a countless ailments and more. But bars had few children in them. He didn’t know what to say. And Mrsha could tell him nothing. He could only guess as the Gnoll girl quietly sipped from her cup.
She’d left Lyonette because the young woman was busy, but Rufelt could see her glancing at Mrsha. If she’d looked up, Lyonette would have been there, or Drassi, or Ishkr, or Erin or…but she didn’t. After a while, two more customers came up at the same time.
“Do you have anything that smells good?”
“A carrot juice. Thanks.”
Elirr and Hawk paused as they came up at the same time. They looked at each other, and then down at Mrsha. Rufelt raised his brows.
“Hawk. A pleasure. I forgot you lived here.”
“I didn’t expect to see you.”
The Courier leaned one muscled arm over the counter as Rufelt passed him the Rabbit Beastkin’s favorite drink. Carrot juice, seasoned with a shot of rum. For Elirr, Rufelt worked on a very herbal cream liqueur that tempered the rather strong base taste with the cream and added complexity with a bit of nutmeg, some mint…Elirr took the glass and sniffed, sighing.
“Ah, thank you. What do I owe you?”
“My pleasure, sir. It’s on the house.”
The [Beast Trainer] didn’t object. Rufelt had a soft spot for old Gnolls, especially ones like Elirr. And ones that had survived damn Raskghar. Hawk looked up hopefully at Rufelt.
“Not a chance. Pay up.”
The Courier sighed. Then he looked sideways and saw what Mrsha was drinking. The Gnoll cub was sniffing at him; he smelled of a dozen places. The Courier nodded down to her with a friendly smile, oblivious to the white fur that gave every Gnoll who saw her pause.
“Good taste, kid.”
He saluted her with his drink. Mrsha stared as he downed half and sighed contentedly. Elirr sniffed his bouquet and smiled. Rufelt smiled to himself as she watched him go. He might have given Hawk the drink free just for that unintentional kindness. Then again—the Courier was loaded.
But it was Elirr who lingered. And like Rufelt, he said not a word. But in his case—Mrsha glanced up at him, anxiously at first. And Rufelt had heard little of how Elirr figured into yesterday. But he had some connection with the little Gnoll. But the elderly Gnoll said not a word. He just sat, drinking slowly. Sitting next to Mrsha.
After a while, he patted her head gently. And she leaned against him, and he wiped her eyes with a gentle paw. Rufelt polished the mugs gently and refilled Mrsha’s cup with milk and Elirr’s after ten minutes. And he envied the older Gnoll and wished he could have done that.
You were always evolving. Always. It reminded Rufelt of how far he had to go as a [Bartender]. He busied himself at the other end of the counter, giving the two space and drawing traffic down that end. Another interesting guest stopped by then, and Rufelt couldn’t help but begin a conversation on his own terms. Sometimes you had to. Especially when a Drowned Man, half-man, half-crab, stopped by and spoke.
“Narwhal’s Knife. Make it a double.”
It was a brisk order, and Rufelt automatically behaved as if he were at a room where the order fit. The drink plonked down on the table in seconds. First a clear cup. Then—a thick, dark, liquor, blue and gray. To that, Rufelt added a shot—and it was a shot from the metal straw in the small container—of an alcohol so potent that it made the eyes sting.
The blue-gray alcohol was thick enough that the clear liquid was caught in the drink. It was like a clear spear of liquid, shooting down towards the bottom of the glass. Exactly like a spear, in fact, or a horn. The thick outer liquid didn’t let the clear spear dissipate and didn’t change markedly even when Seborn picked it up. The Drowned Man took a drink of the potent stuff and nodded.
“I hope it lives up to the reputation. It’s been a while since I made a Narwhal’s Knife.”
Rufelt glanced at the Drowned Man, casually leading into the conversation. He caught a half-smile from the [Rogue]. Seborn nodded.
“Tastes just like something I’d get in a port-city bar. Better, actually. The glass is clean.”
That made Rufelt smile. He and Seborn glanced at each other, appraising.
“You’ve worked in port cities, then.”
“And you’re familiar with them.”
“Not a hard guess.”
“I don’t mean to assume. If you’re a sea dweller, were you an independent sort? Or…?”
Now here was question with only three answers. One was ‘yes’. The other was [Sailor]. And the third…Seborn shook his head.
“[Pirate]. Retired. I’m surprised anyone would ask that question in Pallass. Have you served many sea folk before?”
“I did a few years in Zeres, but that’s about it.”
“Huh. Not many [Pirates] there, I bet.”
“Some, but not as many, it’s true. Still, those who pay off their bounty are allowed in. Drake laws.”
“Sure. I remember. Zeres, City of Waves. Not the kind of place most [Pirates] prefer to venture near. One of the places to avoid, in fact. Top…five worst.”
“There are worse places to be? Forgive me, but I’ve always been curious.”
Rufelt polished the bar, watching Elirr leave the bar with Mrsha to join a table where Erin Solstice herself sat, staring at chess board with glowing pieces. She looked up, smiling, and Mrsha happily slapped a bunch of pieces off the other side of the board and watched them fly back into position. Rufelt had offered Erin a drink, but she’d declined, wanting to be at her ‘best’. For…chess?
Seborn nodded. The Drowned Man looked pleased. But of course; he was far from home and no one looked like him. Mrsha, for all her white fur, was more at home here. The [Rogue] took another sip and looked appreciative as Rufelt poured him a huge tankard of water. Drowned People needed to hydrate, doubly so when they drank.
“Thanks. Yes. There are worse places. The Iron Vanguard’s port cities. No one wants to fight their navies. Wistram, although they can be neutral. If you’re at odds with them, Roshal, or the Siren’s territories, perhaps. Although Zeres is probably worse. The Isles of Minos. Drathian waters. And of course, the Lord of the Dance’s waters if he thinks you’re a threat. Those are all nations, though. If you want to talk about just dangerous spots, Zeres isn’t even in the top fifty.”
Seborn’s smile was crooked, at least, the half of his face that would move.
“I left the sea because I was sick of it. Land monsters aren’t bad by comparison to whales that can eat ships whole. Except for Crelers. They’re as bad on land as in the water.”
“Crelers in water? Dead gods, that’s a nightmare.”
“Tell me about it. Oh. One extra-large ale if you have a tankard big enough. Or three for my friend.”
“The half-Giant? Coming right up.”
Rufelt wished he could have chatted longer with the [Rogue]. But that was how it went. He was working, not the other way around. And Rufelt liked his job. Person after person came over. Old, young, friendly or unpleasant.
It didn’t matter. The [Bartender] fulfilled every wish, unless the wish would hurt the customer. If he was a bad [Bartender], Rufelt wouldn’t have cared. But he wasn’t, so he did. And he watched. And he came to a realization in the back of his mind. But it was Lasica who articulated it. As early evening began, she stopped at his bar.
She’d been working in the kitchen to help Erin, and she paused as he served her a cool fruit drink. No alcohol. She sipped from it gratefully. Then she looked at her husband.
“Rufelt. Have you noticed? They’re so young.”
The Gnoll looked up and glanced around the inn. He didn’t see what Lasica meant for a second and glanced back at his wife, his eyebrows raised.
“What, are you saying we’re old? Or are you talking about little Mrsha?”
She shook her head, sighing.
“No. Look at Lyonette, Erin’s head [Barmaid] or whatever she is. She’s a mother. If we had a Drake daughter her age, I’d be trying to keep her from flirting with every boy her age.”
Rufelt glanced up. Now he got what Lasica meant. He looked—not at the guests of the inn—but at the people who lived there. The adventurers. Staff. Erin’s friends. Erin herself.
Erin. Ceria. Pisces. Lyonette, Selys. Yvlon. Ksmvr. No—even Krshia, Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn. Some were older, but if you looked at them, you noticed something. Friends. Teams. But no loved ones.
No couples. Jelaqua and Maughin. But of Erin? Lyonette? No one. Not even a Gnoll or Drake or Human they were making eyes at. Rufelt nodded slowly. He looked at Lasica. If they had a Drake girl their age…it wasn’t exactly foreign. But what an odd thought to compare it to the children here. But that was Lasica’s point. He paused.
“And if we had a proud Gnoll son?”
“You’d get to talk with him about hanging out with so many Gnolls and subscribing to that tribal nonsense and pack mentality while I worried about how many little Gnoll pups I’d be grandmother to.”
“Hey! Why are our children both sex-starved maniacs in these scenarios?”
Rufelt mock-glared at Lasica. She smiled, a bit wistfully.
“Because that’s young. And stupid. It’s what I’d expect of someone that age in Pallass. But Liscor’s out in the High Passes. Dead gods, little Mrsha just confronted a gang of Gnolls and Drakes torturing a prisoner. They could have killed her and look at her now.”
She pointed. Mrsha was happily waving a wand, growing flowers at the table where Moore sat. As if she were a child. But she had white fur. And Rufelt remembered her sitting at his bar, sipping the bitter carrot juice. Pretending to be…
“They survived undead attacks, a Goblin Lord, the Face-Eater Moths—can you imagine anyone their age in Pallass doing that?”
“[Soldiers], perhaps. If they enlisted at fourteen, they’d have seen that.”
“Hah! Maybe, but Pallass is safe. We’ve got crime, but we don’t have monsters a mile from the city. We’re not Liscor. And Erin? Lyonette? They’re not [Soldiers], Rufelt. Not Erin, or anyone else in her inn. They’re adventurers. Antinium. Little Gnolls.”
“Children. You’re right.”
Rufelt looked around. And he felt old. Suddenly, though the grey had just started to appear in his black fur. But this wasn’t something a dye from Xif could hide. He looked at Lasica. And she looked older. And more beautiful, somehow. Both at the same time. She nodded at another table, where a familiar, huge Dullahan sat.
“Even Miss Ivirith. Her team fits in this inn. I’m almost jealous; maybe it’s an [Innkeeper] thing, but Erin’s found her people. Her team feels like the rest of the guests she has. They don’t fit.”
“The Halfseekers. No, I agree. Look at her with Maughin. Come to that, our resident [Blacksmith] probably doesn’t have much more experience in love.”
Lasica chuckled. Then she sobered.
“But more than her. It’s striking. It’s so young here. But I guess that’s the point. People who’re old wouldn’t make an inn out here. If they were old, they’d stay in the city. They wouldn’t be…”
She looked at Erin. Rufelt nodded. If she was married, even to someone like her, would she run her inn like this? That was the feeling in the air. Youth. A bright, spontaneous energy. The kind of unpredictability that had captured Pallass for a moment. He looked at Lasica. And he didn’t have anything to say. So he just leaned on the counter. And she sat there. And they watched.
After a moment, the introspection was broken as a Drake with light blue scales walked up to the bar. He spoke quietly.
“Something strong, please. Not so strong I’ll fall over, but something fortifying.”
Rufelt looked up. The request was familiar. So was the unhappy look in the Drake’s eye. Rufelt thought he recognized him too. But he silently mixed a drink that did exactly what the Drake wanted. The [Strategist] nodded, paid, and drained the mug in two gulps. He exhaled, shook his head, and paused there.
He didn’t want to turn. He looked at Rufelt and the [Bartender] wondered if he should step in. But—no. The Drake was working up his courage. He muttered to himself.
“I’ve done what I thought was right. But what’s right isn’t—sometimes you pay for what’s right. Because what’s right isn’t fair to your friends. You know?”
He looked up helplessly at Rufelt. The Gnoll nodded. Lasica smiled, but she let Rufelt reply.
“If it’s about right and fairness, it feels like a good way to live would to try to be both.”
“If only I could.”
The Drake muttered. He shook his head.
“I’m trying to protect them. But I’ve earned—thanks.”
He reached into his belt pouch, put a silver coin as a tip, and turned. Rufelt watched him go. He watched the Drake, but he didn’t watch what came next. Because he didn’t need to know. It was at his wife he looked. And she nodded.
“Young. Remember that?”
Rufelt did. Not in the same way, but in a similar, parallel one. A hundred times. He winced as the slap echoed and looked back. Which one had done that? Again, it didn’t matter.
“Well, what should we do about it, Lasica? Or is it fine as it is?”
“I don’t know. But I feel sorry for them. A bit lonely.”
Rufelt walked out behind the bar. He looked at the Drake and she glanced at him.
“Well, for them. Rufelt, I do think Erin’s inn is amazing. For her age—for what she’s made. But it’s missing something. I like to think our place is better.”
“Me too. But I don’t feel like rubbing it in her face.”
“Well, I’m not going to either. But sometimes we can show her what she’s missing. Can’t we?”
The inn was unaccountably quieting as the two talked at their position at the bar.
“Of course. Are you thinking…?”
Erin Solstice glanced up from her game of chess, frowning. Rufelt nodded, and then glanced towards the door to Pallass.
“Yes. But where would we find our lovely Dullahan [Cellist]?”
Lasica smiled. And the note that rose above the quiet conversations was played by a cello. But there was no player. Lasica raised her brows.
“We don’t need her.”
The conversations stopped as the Drake took the Gnoll’s extended paw. And heads turned, back, looking for something that the people knew was there.
Forwards they came. A Gnoll and a Drake. A [Bartender] and a [Chef]. Lasica and Rufelt. And before them, people looked around and realized what was going on. The cello began to play and the tables moved back. Chairs scooted, moving, The Drake and Gnoll saw a space clearing in the inn. They walked out onto it. And then they began to dance. And it was as simple and as quick, as magical as that.
Erin Solstice looked up. She felt the shift in the inn before the music began to play. But it was the music that made her realize what they’d done. It wasn’t melancholy. But nor was it jolly. It was simply…passionate. The kind of passion that invited the slow, intimate dance between the two. The kind of music that demanded nothing as complex as a waltz.
It was free-form, inviting, intoxicating in a way alcohol could never be. And it suited the two who danced with all to see.
She had seen it with Jelaqua and Maughin, holding hands, talking together, forgetting everyone else even when they were at the same table. It was the self-absorbed selfishness that young couples had. But what was so despised among youth hadn’t disappeared with age. It had only changed form. Now it was on display.
And it invited. It was not a wall, but path. Illumination, and it drew more and more people, like moths into the light. Couples first, and then people. Individuals, becoming duos. Erin looked around as the people in her inn looked at each other.
See. A nervous invitation, or a confident one. A surprise, or something long coming. A Drake bowing to a young Dullahan woman. A Gnoll turning down her suitors and plucking a Garuda from where he sat. Because he had been watching her out of the corner of his eye. Old and young.
And Lasica and Rufelt danced among it all. It wasn’t slow, the way they had danced in their bar. In fact, as the invisible cellist picked up, they moved faster, and the inn came alive. Erin heard laughter, but there was a silence between the two.
Two, dancing like one person. Erin looked at them, smiling. Longing. But content to watch. So did Lyonette, until Pawn nervously approached. Then Lyonette looked at Mrsha and the little Gnoll waved her on. She sat on Moore’s lap as he watched, truly, gently, envious.
“I would like to understand that before I die.”
Ksmvr spoke softly from where he sat with his team. It startled the others. But the Antinium was just watching the dancing. Yvlon looked up. She paused, and nodded quietly.
“Me too. But someday. Perhaps. It’s hard, with how we live.”
She felt at her arms, still encased in steel, though she’d taken off the rest of her armor. Neither one looked at Ceria. But the half-Elf still felt their attention. She cleared her throat.
“I—well, I’ve got time. Half-Elves don’t worry about that until we’re in our eighties. At least, if we’re born in a traditional village. Falene’s more likely to be looking about. And I’m aiming to succeed as an adventurer. Right?”
Ceria’s ears twitched a bit as she avoided the question. She self-consciously looked to her right. Pisces was sitting there, his drink mostly empty. The [Necromancer] watched Rufelt and Lasica. Selys had grabbed a Drake she knew; Drassi was dancing with Ishkr. And he shrugged, his face outwardly impassive.
“I am content with being alone. I, like many, have made my choice. If I truly thought love were essential to my happiness, I would be miserable.”
His team looked at him. Yvlon shook her head.
“You could have decided not to be a [Necromancer].”
Pisces smirked, but quietly. And there was no bite to his reply. But there was certainty.
“But would I have been true to myself, or living a lie? I would rather seek truer love.”
Yvlon paused, frowning.
“How? You’re not exactly throwing yourself out there. Or making a good impression.”
“If I were to find someone, it would be someone who accepts what I am. But again, I am not seeking it.”
Sometimes Ceria wanted to punch Pisces for always having a response. But right now she just envied the certainty he could project, real or fake. If it was a lie…she looked sideways at him and she realized he was tracking Rufelt and Lasica now. As attentively as Ksmvr. Pisces spoke slowly.
“It is a glorious spectacle for those who find it. Rare as it may be.”
The Horns of Hammerad could only nod at that. Ceria looked at the dancing pairs. She muttered into her drink.
Yvlon laughed. Then she got up and held out a hand. Ksmvr stared. He stared blankly at Yvlon until Pisces kicked him.
“You wanted to learn it before you die, Ksmvr. Come on. I’ll teach you to dance.”
“But I am not married. I would not like to be perceived as immodest.”
Yvlon laughed. She pulled the Antinium up. Ceria blinked. She looked at Pisces. And realized he was gone. He was getting up, walking towards the stairs. And he never made it. Ceria stared and then realized she was alone. She looked around. At a blue Drake sitting by himself. But she ended up sitting, even when Moore and Mrsha joined the floor. And sometimes that happened too.
They stopped dancing when they were done. Not because the bar demanded it. Rufelt would happily burn the bar if it was that or Lasica. Especially because it wasn’t his bar in this inn. But he went back because they were done. And he served drinks with a [Bartender]’s smile while his own hid inside his head.
He was busy, of course. It was evening, and passing later with each minute. The elections were coming to a close. In the streets of Liscor, the City Watch guarded boxes where the votes were stored. Voters answered under truth spell before voting and their votes went to each district and the candidates running in each area. Of course, each area had at least two candidates running—sometimes three or four. But the hottest debate was over a simple split.
Lism and Krshia. And accordingly, almost all Drake and almost all Gnoll candidates on each side. Who would win? Who would lose? Surely there would be riots in either case. Or perhaps not.
The mood of the guests flooding into The Wandering Inn was actually fairly calm. No—not calm, but not shouting or rowdy in most cases. It surprised Erin, but not Rufelt. He just watched. And listened.
The guests came in, from the city. They had participated; it seemed everyone in the city had voted. Krshia, Lism, whether they’d voted for them or another candidate in another district, it didn’t matter. They were all coming here.
Hot rivalry, fierce debate—it was giving rise to another emotion. Uncertainty. It was done. They’d voted, and tomorrow Liscor would be a different place. So it was no wonder the inn—every inn and bar and tavern in the city—was filling. And it was important that Rufelt was there. Because such people needed drinks. They needed to be able to talk.
And more than that. There needed to be someone who could wield alcohol with authority. In Erin’s case she was the [Innkeeper], but Rufelt’s touch was more experienced. Subtler.
A crimson Drake was already drinking with her father when a squad of Drakes and Gnolls entered the inn. The Drake [Captain] marched right up to her and saluted, ignoring Relc.
“Wing Commander! Reporting!”
“Captain Vell. You’re not on duty.”
Wing Commander Embria’s voice was lost as Rufelt passed out drinks. But he was keeping an eye on the squad. They were making no attempt to be quiet—not that the inn was soundless. But they had an edge that he could feel on his fur. They were staring at all the Antinium in the inn. And then the female [Captain] marched up to the bar. She slapped silver onto the bar and loudly announced to the room.
“A round for the 4th Company of Pallass! And the right candidate winning this election!”
There could be no doubt who that was. The cautious talk instantly grew polarized, as if the [Captain] was a magnet. And she was, in a way. Rufelt could feel it, and the [Bartender] growled. But all he did was smile.
“And what will it be, [Captain]?”
“A proper Drake’s drink of course! Firebreath Whiskey!”
Rufelt rolled his eyes mentally. He looked at Captain Vell and made a quick calculation. The way you handled this—well, you could do multiple things depending on how bad the fire was. Sometimes you let it rage, or you snuffed it, or fought it yourself—or let someone else do it. If the fire was bad enough, you didn’t even bother with that, but grabbed the money, the most expensive bottles and plotted your exit, preferably through the back door. Or you could drown it.
The [Captain] and her squad blinked as Rufelt casually plonked the bottle of black liquid on the table and poured a foaming shot. He smiled at her.
“Of course, Captain. But could I tempt you with a new drink? On the house. I wanted to get the opinion of some strong drinkers.”
“What the hell’s that?”
Vell reached for the shot glass without hesitation. But Rufelt’s next words stopped her claw midway towards her mouth.
“Rxlvn. Antinium-made, actually. It’s rather strong, but it’s new. Actually, I’m considering taking it off the bar, but I imagine [Soldiers] have had stronger.”
One of the Gnoll [Soldiers] spat. The rest looked disgusted. Vell wavered.
“Antinium-made? Like hell I’ll drink…”
She eyed the black liquid. Rufelt shrugged innocently.
“I have to warn you, it’s got more of a kick than Firebreath Whiskey. But just as you like…”
Vell snatched her claw back as he reached for it. Her eyes narrowed and she stared at Pawn as he sat with Lyonette.
“I can take anything the Antinium can handle. Let’s see what they think is strong. Give us all a shot!”
Rufelt did just that. He watched the table of [Soldiers] throw down a shot each, sneering at the Antinium.
Ten seconds later, Rufelt watched them trying not to pass out at the table. He regarded the black alcohol thoughtfully. Now here was a [Bartender]’s aid. As good as the trusty friend you kept in the form of a club or wand or pair of knuckles under the bar. And you could serve this in shot glasses.
So it went. A good [Bartender]’s job was never done until the last customer left, but this wasn’t Rufelt’s place, so he stopped as the sun entered its final descent. Lasica was beckoning to him and he sensed she was tired. He was too, after a day of work. So he abandoned the bar to Drassi, who was all too eager to fill his position with less variety of alcohol, but more talking and quantity.
Rufelt walked to Lasica. And they shared the far end of the bar for a moment. But for a hooded Drake, they were alone. Rufelt leaned on the counter and Lasica sighed.
“Done, love? We can head back now; I’m sure Erin won’t mind.”
“In a moment. Rufelt. I…”
The female Drake looked around the room. She paused, and then looked at him.
“Rufelt? Let’s visit the bazaar tomorrow.”
“Okay. For what?”
Rufelt paused, mid-scratch on his back. He stared at Lasica.
“What brought this on?”
“I don’t know. Seeing this. Isn’t it time? You’re not getting any younger.”
But that was an automatic response. The Gnoll’s mind was racing. But it wasn’t blown away. Part of him wanted to ask if ‘fertility spells’ couldn’t have been repackaged in more traditional terms, but Lasica was pragmatic. He nodded.
“We can look at them. And discuss this. When you haven’t had four drinks.”
He always counted. Lasica smiled.
“Of course. Lots of talking.”
The two stared at each other, thinking, and knowing each other were thinking and imagining—until they were interrupted. The Drake on their right leaned over.
“You two should consider adopting a child instead.”
Surprised, then almost affronted, Rufelt looked up. He frowned.
The Drake looked at the two and shrugged slightly, dislodging the hood a bit.
“There are children living in Liscor who need homes. Some go to relatives. Others…others disappear. Or they go from home to home. Strangers. I have to imagine a Walled City has that problem a hundred times worse. Those children deserve homes. Gnoll, Drake, Garuda, Dullahan.”
Rufelt blinked at the Drake. So did Lasica, but she had a reply.
“I wasn’t aware it was an issue, sir. We have [Alchemists] in Pallass, and there are magical items too.”
“Not everyone buys a potion to deal with that. Or they give children away after they’re born. It’s just a thought for you two to consider. Don’t mind me. I apologize for interrupting. But you should consider it, at least.”
The Drake shrugged and went back to his drink. Rufelt remembered serving it. A mulled wine. He studied the Drake. And then his eyes narrowed.
“You’re Lism, aren’t you? The Drake I’ve heard so much about.”
Lasica blinked. But Rufelt’s nose remembered more than his eyes. The [Shopkeeper] turned his head warily. But no one else had heard. He shrugged.
“I thought I’d see what this place my nephew talks about so much is like.”
Rufelt wondered what happened if the crowd found out he was here. Or—just Erin. Lism seemed not to want to find out either. He tugged the hood further over his head, which did make him rather suspicious—then again, it was crowded.
“Tomorrow I’ll be running Liscor or sitting in my shop. Either way, I’d better know the people I want to lead. And I wanted to see her.”
He stared past Rufelt and Lasica at the young woman offering cake around, smiling. Rufelt watched the Drake’s eyes. He saw Lism narrow his gaze. But there wasn’t malice. Just…Lism sighed.
“If I become a Councilmember tomorrow, I’ll do what’s right for Liscor. I always have. I just disagree with Silverfang about what that is. And part of that is letting this place be…this place.”
Neither wife nor husband replied. Lism finished his cup and pushed it back. He stood up and looked around.
“If I do become Councilmember, I’m going to tax this inn, though. Ancestors know it’s deserved. Thank you for the drink.”
He nodded to Rufelt and Lasica and walked towards the door. Lasica frowned at his back. She looked quickly at Rufelt. He was studying Lism’s back as the Drake disappeared out the front door.
“What do you think?”
The Gnoll didn’t reply for a moment. He was thinking over what the Drake had said. Adoption? Then he remembered Lasica’s question and looked at her. Rufelt looked for the blue Drake, but he was gone too.
“I think he has a child. So perhaps he’s older than Miss Krshia in a sense. She has a tribe. But he sounded like a father for a moment.”
Lasica paused, and then nodded. Without another word, the two went to find Erin. Then they headed for the door. Rufelt had his equipment and alcohols stored in his bag of holding. And as they joined a queue to Pallass, they heard a weary [Mage]’s voice from the other side.
“Anyone to return to Pallass? Last call! We are not recharging the door again! Tomorrow, access is cut off to two visitors per day! There will be no [Mages] available unless they are paid for by the [Innkeeper] or guests!”
“Looks like Erin will have to solve that herself.”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll see her soon, love. I’d bet on it.”
“Good luck finding someone willing to take that bet.”
Rufelt laughed and Lasica joined in. They stepped out of the inn and back into their city. And then they were back. The sun was higher over Pallass than Liscor, because of the lack of the High Passes. Gnolls, Drakes, Garuda, Dullahans, all walked back through the inn, and down the street. They mingled, walked past each other, a hundred thousand, millions of souls in the Walled City.
And amid them stood a Drake and Gnoll. They didn’t look particularly special among them all, certainly not the giant Dullahan who bent towards a tearful Selphid on the other side of the door, or a Garuda who flew back towards her house dead drunk and hit a roof. But the world stopped and time itself paused as they looked at each other. At least, that was how it felt.
They kissed, in a street full of people as the setting sun painted the street in shadows and orange and fading gold. The cool wind blew past them, through the City of Invention, blown from far away. New and fresh and familiar and perfect.
Rufelt inhaled as he stepped back from Lasica. He looked at her. And he nodded down the street as he reached out. She smiled as she took his hand. Rufelt smiled.
“Lasica, let’s go home.”
And so they did.