As they stood up to leave the eatery, Rick stretched. “Does anyone want the rest of my mead? It’s a little too sweet for me. What’s in it, anyway?”
Gabriella snorted. “Fermented honey, mostly.”
Dar raised his eyebrows. “Fermented? Like in beer?”
Gabriella nodded. “Of course. Didn’t you know?”
“So that explains why I’m drunk,” Rick laughed. “Who knew?”
Dar chuckled. He and Ander had been very careful with their beer, knowing their tolerance was non-existent now, especially with beer they were unfamiliar with. Rick, on the other hand, had drunk half his jug of mead. This was going to be interesting.
Dar’s mind was still mulling over the prospect of going to school here. It sounded like college, basically. He had mixed feelings about not being able to keep his finger on his “flock,” as Gabriella had termed it, though the more he thought about the metaphor, the more it seemed appropriate.
Gabriella had never paid him such a high compliment before; he was as good as she was? All he knew about her was that she had trained under an Armsmaster, so he assumed she was pretty good. She had dispatched that Kin’keska in mere minutes, after all, and he understood Kin’keska to be wily fighters. That he had killed one himself was of little meaning to him, since he nearly died himself in the process. He’d had to train with the sword with his left arm while his right arm recuperated. And a long scar, barely visible thanks to the salve Gabriella used, but nevertheless a scar, ran down his side over his hip.
“Take a look at that, will you?” Rick stopped at a booth selling armor and weapons. He was looking at a set of knives, each slimmer and deadlier than the last.
Dar was more impressed with the swords. Some he recognized as broadswords, though he liked the longswords better; they could be used for slashing and hacking just as easily as thrusting.
“Ah, tevner, a man of your stature could easily swing one of these,” said the merchant, an oily looking man with disheveled hair. “But I have a sword that you might find of interest. Not many men can heft it, you know, but you… give it a try.”
The man showed Dar to a plain-looking sword, something of a cross between a long sword and a broadsword, but its hilt was very long, indicating that it was a two-handed sword. Dar picked it up. It was heavier than the one at his side just now by far, but not too heavy. He could see where Rick or someone else would have trouble wielding it. Upon further study, he found the two-edged blade to be quite sharp.
Gabriella appeared at his side. “Not many men can use that sword,” she commented. She ran her hands over the blade and found no enchantments or Illusions.
Dar backed away and swung it around in the air experimentally. He liked the feel of it. He looked at Gabriella.
“It’s your call,” she said.
Four nobles lighter, Dar left the booth. The merchant had thrown in the sword belt for half price.
“What giant did you rob that from?” Rick wanted to know as he fastened the sword at his hip. It hung farther down his leg than his old sword by a good three inches or more. Gabriella said he’d have to learn some two-handed techniques with it when they got back to the cabin.
Behind him, Emanuella was rubbing her shin. Not knowing he was standing there, she had banged into the sword, which stuck out a few inches behind him.
Fiorra, who with Emanuella had been sampling a perfume dealer’s wares behind them, had not seen him purchase the sword. “Where did you get that?” she asked, staring at it.
“Giant back there dropped it,” Rick gibed.
Emanuella came around to Dar’s side to study it, too.
“Can’t you do anything on a small scale?” she asked.
“In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing small about him,” Ander remarked dryly.
Emanuella smiled slyly. “More brawn than brain.”
Dar’s eyes narrowed. “In that case, I’d have thought you’d have been able to miss me. Maybe you’re nearsighted.”
“Restraint,” Gabriella said lightly as she passed him. He bit his lip and turned around. Had Emanuella been anyone else, he’d have laughed at the comment. She brought out the worst in him, she really did.
They spent the next mark looking at booths in the market. As Fiorra stood remarking with delight at the different herbs the apothecary’s booth had to sell, Rick yawned. “If we’re going to be living here shortly, I’d like to go explore the city.”
Dar glanced doubtfully at the girls; Emanuella was looking at all the jewelers’ booths, while Gabriella pointed out which herbs could be used for what to Fiorra. It was unlikely that they would be leaving any time soon. He was tired of this cramped market; the open air sounded good to him.
“Gabriella.” She looked up at him. “Would you mind if we explored the city a little?”
Gabriella looked at them dubiously. “Do you know how to get back to the inn?”
“Straight up Market Street a few leagues,” Ander put in.
Gabriella paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Watch your purses well,” she warned.
Outside in the city, the sun was beginning to set. Rick, a bit rowdier than normal thanks to the mead, was excited at the idea of living in the city. Dar was excited as well, though he had gotten used to the routine back in the Illyth. Ander was nervous, however, not sure he would hold up well to the competition Gabriella had mentioned.
They stopped to watch a side show on the street. Two jugglers threw oranges back and forth while a third entertainer hurled knives at the oranges, pinning them to a sheet of wood against the wall of a store.
After everyone clapped, the man then juggled the knives and threw them with deadly accuracy around a shaking juggler who was standing against the wood. The juggler then turned out to be an Illusion, which earned the troupe rounds of applause from the onlookers.
“Did you see that? I’m going to go back and get that set of knives in the Market,” Rick could barely contain his excitement.
“And I,” Dar said, thirsty from all their walking, “am going to get another drink.”
He eyed a tavern on the next corner down. “Why don’t we go in and buy ourselves a drink at the bar down there like real men?” Dar suggested. The more he thought about living in the city, the more he liked it himself.
Rick and Ander agreed enthusiastically. Of course, at this rate, they were bound to wind up drunk before they got back to the Sword and the Stag. The alcohol was beginning to assert itself, making them all bolder than usual.
The Pearl in Velvet was a well-kept white building on the outside; its sign, painted a cheerful green, hung over the door while barrels of flowers adorned the front of the tavern.
“Kind of a weird name,” Ander mused.
As Dar pushed the door open and looked in at the bar, a lovely red-haired barmaid behind the bar next to the stairs caught his eye. Slowly, she looked Dar up and down and smiled. Taken aback, Dar raised an eyebrow and smiled in return as he sat down at the table Rick and Ander had chosen.
Another barmaid approached the table and leaned on the table in front of Rick, showing an expanse of cleavage that Dar hadn’t seen other women in town dare to do.
“And what’ll you have?” she asked artfully. She seemed well aware of the affect she was having.
Dar cleared his throat and ordered a beer along with Ander. Was it him, or were women in this Land very toward? Not that that was a problem, he thought with a grin… just a novelty.
With an effort, Rick tore his eyes from the barmaid’s more obvious attributes and announced, “I’ll have some ale.”
“Will you, now. And will that be all?”
“For now,” Rick grinned.
After the barmaid left to fetch their order, Rick leaned back in his chair with his arms laced behind his head with a self-satisfied air. “I’m liking this place more and more.”
Dar laughed. “She sure likes you.”
“Don’t look now, but I think that redhead has her eye on you,” Ander warned.
Dar glanced over his shoulder. The woman from behind the bar was making her way toward their table slowly, her hips swaying sveltely from side to side as she walked. Dar swallowed. She met his gaze evenly. Her red hair was piled on top of her head in an elaborate arrangement, with a few ringlets bouncing off of her neck. Dar wondered if that was customary for a barmaid; she seemed to be dressed rather finely for a simple barmaid.
Dar turned around again, not sure how to react. He saw Ander’s eyes get round. Just then, a hand fell on Dar’s shoulder. He looked up to see the red-haired barmaid.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you three in here before,” she purred. Dar found it hard to keep his eyes on her face, rather than the cleavage her dress emphasized. Was it him or….
“We haven’t been here before, we’re new in town,” Rick explained.
“Really.” The woman seemed pleased. “We’ll have to introduce you to some of the girls, then.”
Rick shot Dar an unbelieving look. A suspicion was beginning to form in Dar’s mind. He looked around the tavern and saw that nearly every table had an overly-endowed, pretty young barmaid humoring the patrons.
Just then, their barmaid brought their ale. Dar took several swallows, exchanging a long glance with Rick over his tankard.
The red-haired woman was telling Ander in a smooth voice, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Ander’s face was scarlet as he took several gulps of brew himself. A bouncy young woman with brown hair and cheerful blue eyes appeared at their table next to Ander, a knowing grin on her face.
“This is Suzy. Suzy works wonders with neophytes. Suzy, I’d like you to meet…” The red-haired woman trailed off, looking expectantly at Ander.
“Ander,” he croaked.
Dar grinned at Rick across the table, crossing his feet on the table. Looked like Ander was going to get lucky. It had certainly been a long time for him, now that he thought about it….
Suzy promptly sat down in Ander’s lap and planted a long kiss on the stunned boy.
Rick spit out his mouthful of ale, spraying it everywhere, coughing.
Their barmaid leaned her hands on their table again, oblivious to the fact that Rick was coughing, and smiled slyly. “Anything else?”
Dar leaned back in his seat and smiled. “What would you suggest?”
They burst out onto the lit street, whooping and laughing giddily.
“O, Exalted Shepherd, I shall follow you anywhere!” Rick yelled.
Dar was laughing himself. He hadn’t been in such a good mood since… he didn’t know when.
“We are your most loyal and grateful sheep,” Ander declared loudly with a silly grin on his face. Dar clapped him on the back. He didn’t think that grin would leave Ander’s face for a good week.
“Baaahhh,” Rick called rowdily in agreement, earning strange looks from the people on the street. “Do you think we could just have our stuff packed up and moved there?” Rick asked as they left The Pearl and Velvet behind.
“Hey, Red, is that what I think it is?” Dar teased as he fingered a darkening mark on Ander’s neck just above his collar.
Ander’s grin widened. “Probably.”
As they approached the Sword and the Stag, Dar stopped so they could compose themselves. Just as he thought he eradicated the grin on his face, he caught a glimpse of Rick and burst out laughing again.
“Your shirt is on inside out, you nut!”
Ander joined him in laughing as they stood around Rick while he hastily pulled his tunic over his head and righted his shirt. Finally, they cleared their throats and entered the Sword and the Stag as soberly as they could.
Dar spotted Fiorra and Emanuella relaxing with Gabriella by the fire at the far side of the room.
“Where have you been?” Fiorra asked irritably.
Attempting to look innocent, he said nonchalantly, “Down the road a bit.”
“For three marks?”
He shrugged and had a seat at the table. “We stopped for a beer at a – a tavern down the road.”
Fiorra and Emanuella glared at them.
“Why didn’t you just wait til you got here?” Fiorra asked, looking at Ander.
“Well, we – made some friends,” Ander said hoarsely.
Dar felt a grin tugging at his mouth; he strove fiercely to control it. Rick burst out laughing, unable to hold it in, sending Ander and Dar into fits of laughter themselves.
“Lots of friends,” Rick panted between laughs, tears rolling down his cheek.
Fiorra and Emanuella glanced at each other, amazed.
Emanuella shook her head and waved her hand. “They’re just drunk.”
While he was struggling to compose himself, Dar saw Gabriella studying the mark on Ander’s neck. Uh-oh. He sobered immediately.
She raised an eyebrow. Her green eyes twinkling, Gabriella said to Ander, “What was the name of this… tavern?”
Ander’s smile vanished. Rick kicked Dar under the table, greatly amused by Ander’s discomfort.
“What was the name of that place, Red? You liked it an awful lot,” Rick cracked.
Ander looked at Gabriella, turning scarlet again. “Uhm. The… P-Pearl in Velvet.”
Gabriella looked down and hid a grin of her own in her napkin. “And did you enjoy yourselves?” she asked sweetly. Dar was sure he could detect a teasing note in her voice.