The Tilting Tavern
“Remind me again why you can’t illusion your way into this particular tavern?” I asked Oryn as we headed down the streets of the Genk District. We had left the church basement roughly thirty minutes ago and were meandering the streets, sticking to side alleys and dark corners, as we made our way to a tavern Oryn said could give us information.
It felt as if every inch of my body was tense, my skin prickling with nerves and excitement. I wasn’t sure how much information we would be able to gather tonight, but the idea that I could be seconds away from discovering where Carena is has my heart thumping in my throat.
“Let’s just say the owner isn’t overly fond of me and my stunning personality and has spotted my illusioned self several times.”
“Wow,” I say, stepping out of the way of a man who was shouting and waving a bottle. “I’m shocked.”
“I was too. Most people like me.” Oryn says, pulling me along with him. I roll my eyes as we turned down yet another alley. But this time, when we reached the end of it, I found that I was looking at a lively strip of road. “We’re towards the back of the district. That right there,” Oryn pointed to a long row of apartment buildings that seemed to kiss the sky. “That’s the Abberton wall.”
“The apartments are built into the wall?” I ask, astonished at the height of the buildings. The homes seemed to go as high as the wall, all stacked one on top of another. It looked like one strong gust of wind could cause them to all come toppling down. Oryn nodded as he looked at a building across the street from where we stood. I followed his gaze, finding a sign that read The Tilting Tavern.
“And that’s the tavern I was telling you about. There aren’t many guards or politicians that go here, but the Lower Races tend to swarm this place after work. You’ll hear a lot of chatter that you wouldn’t typically hear in the higher-end pubs, or around the guards.”
“What do I do? Are you going to cast an illusion over me or something?” Oryn looked at me, his brows pulling together. He reached over and grabbed the hood of my cloak that was wrapped around me. He pulled the hood up and began to tuck my hair away. I tried not to lean into the warmth of his fingertips as they brushed against my cheek.
“Just don’t let your hair show and you should be good.”
“That’s it?” I asked, confused how it would possibly be that easy.
“Your marks aren’t showing and as long as you keep your power under control, no one will look twice. Many people go into that pub that doesn’t want to be noticed by guards. The people here will be more sympathetic than others. But they don’t like Marked, so you have to still be careful.”
“Great,” I muttered as I looked at the squat building yet again. It stood nestled between two massive apartment complexes, like the short friend amongst a group of towering individuals. Loud shouts and laughter floated from the open doors and windows of the pub, inviting many that passed on the streets. It was a lively place, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to focus on the conversation around me.
“Hey,” Oryn set his hand on my shoulder, turning me towards him. “It’s going to be okay. I’ll be right here the whole time and if there is ever an issue, I fully believe you’ll be able to handle yourself. After all, you’re the most intimidating person I know.”
I tensed as he smirked, my mind flashing back to when he first barged into the library.
“We’re going to have to work on your intimidation skills, and your threatening, if I’m ever going to be able to help you.”
That was what he had told me two weeks ago when we had first met. Who would have thought we would be here, on the run and searching for Carena? Even though part of me still blamed him for what happened, that fist of fury loosened a little as I turned to look at him. He had stuck with me to help find her, and out of everyone I had met so far, he was the one that was standing here with me now.
However frustrating that may be.
Oryn watched me for a moment, his brows pinching together as his smirk fell. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could utter a word, I stepped out onto the street.
I made my way over to the tavern, trying to dodge the after-work traffic that flooded the streets. It was a busy place, and when I walked into the building, I was flooded with the scent of sweat and beer. The smell of it coated my tongue and sat heavy in my chest.
There were people everywhere; laughing, playing cards, drinking. There were a few couples in the far corners of the room that leaned in close to one another sharing secret touches.
Well, maybe not so secret.
In the far corner of the room, an empty table sat that seemed to be abandoned. It was a miracle I was able to find somewhere to sit, but most people seemed to be crowded in the center of the room where several card games seemed to be going on. I took a seat, letting the shadows grow a little darker in the corner of the room to hide me better from unwanted eyes. No one seemed to notice, but it allowed me to stay a bit more hidden.
“What can I get you?” I jumped at the voice of a young girl, her rough Abberton accent sounding thicker than usual. She was a greenie, her green skin tanned as if she had just come in from the fields to work this job. She gave me a sweet smile, her green eyes sparkling in the dim light. I briefly thought of Arryn and the strange, yet comforting, hug she had given me before parting. I wasn’t sure what to say. I had never had a drink of beer in my life or been in a tavern for that matter. I was used to the fine wines that Tristan would have delivered from all over Vrunadia but had never had the experience of ordering from a barmaid.
A strange rush of excitement swam through me.
“Surprise me,” I said, copying what I had heard a few others say already. The girl smiled and trotted off as if that were a normal response. I let out a sigh of relief and mentally cursed Oryn and the abrasive personality that kept him barred from this place. I had never thought of Oryn as someone who wouldn’t get along with others, but I could understand why he wouldn’t. When Oryn was honest, it could be overwhelming, and he was almost always honest. I could see how that would get him into trouble at times, and why others wouldn’t appreciate his quick tongue and honesty.
“Here ya go!” The girl came back holding a large glass of amber-colored liquid. She set it before me, spilling some over the sides. The smell of beer hit me yet again, causing my stomach to flip.
“Thanks,” I mutter as the girl left me alone. I reached out and grabbed the glass, lifting it to my lips and taking a sip.
It took everything within me not to spit it back up. The drink burned as it made its way down my throat, leaving a sour feeling in my stomach. I set the drink down, trying to act as if this were a normal night for me, but I couldn’t help but notice the few glances I got in my direction. I wasn’t a regular here for them, and these seemed like people who came here quite regularly.
I sat back in my chair and watched the people in the tavern. The main focus was the card game that was taking place in the center of the room. It seemed to be a fast-paced game that required quick thinking and skill. It also involved a lot of heavy slaps and shouting from both players. I had never seen this particular card game, but it seemed lively and fun. I watched as another round started and ended just as quickly, followed by shouts and exchanges of money around the room from onlookers.
“I’m guessing cards isn’t your thing?” The girl who gave me my drink came back over and stood next to me, her tray tucked under her arm. I cleared my throat, unsure what to say.
“Not particularly.” She chuckled as she looked at my drink.
“I’m also guessing beer isn’t your choice drink either?” She looked back at me, her brow raising.
“You got me there,” I admitted. She sat in the empty seat of the table setting her tray on the surface. She grabbed my drink and placed it on the tray.
“Your not someone who usually frequents taverns, are you?” What was it with this girl? She was incredibly nosy, making my job of staying unnoticed very difficult.
“You’re quite perceptive,” I say. She shrugged one shoulder. Another round of yells and laughs caught her attention, causing her to look over as she said, “You learn how to read people when you work a job like this. Keeps you on your toes when you never know who’s going to walk through that door. But I’ve never seen you before, and I’ve probably seen most of Genk District walk through that door.” She looked back at me, her expression curious.
“I’m new to Abberton and wanted to see what the city had to offer,” I told her the first thing that came to mind which wasn’t entirely a lie. I was new to Abberton, in a sense, and was curious about the city. Aren’t all the best lies mixed with the truth?
“So you come to the most dangerous district in the city? No,” She shook her head sending some of the brown hair loose from her braids. “I know who are and why you’re here.”
She leaned in closer, her head lowering as she whispered just loud enough for me to hear.
“When I discovered Tristan had died my heart broke for you and your family. My mother knew Juniper when they were kids. Hell, most Greenies knew who Juniper was. We all dreamed to be like her.” She said. “Then, I heard of you and your sister were missing too. There’s a rumor you went to live with a distant relative, but it seemed like something the Vrunadian’s would make up to get us to calm down. But since you’re here that must mean only one of you is missing then?”
I sucked in a sharp breath as I turned to look at the girl. She was close, her lips a few inches from my ear. To anyone else in the room, we probably looked like a few of the others tucked away in the corners of the room. Juniper had been Tristan’s wife, and I never knew much about her. Tristan wouldn’t talk of her much, and I never asked about her. I hadn’t realized she would be so famous among the Greenies today, but it made sense. She was one of the only Lower Races that had any amount of wealth. It was unheard of for a Lower Race to marry a Higher Race. It had been hard for Tristan and Juniper to legalize their marriage, but the King himself had recognized their license saying Tristan had done much for the Kingdom and he deserved happiness. Most in their position weren’t as lucky.
“What did you hear?” I ask. She leaned back, her eyes roaming the room as she sighed.
“Not much. I’ve noticed an increase in guards in this district and visiting this tavern. I also heard rumors that Tristan had been murdered. Is that true?” Her eyes met mine, even though the hood was still up. I nodded, noticing the look of defeat that crossed her features.
“It’s wrong what they are doing. No one deserves a death like that, not when they did so much for the Kingdom. Us Lower’s owe a lot to Tristan. I was there at Council Day two weeks ago and heard what he had to say. I have much respect for what he was trying to do, as does half the population of Lower Races. He gave us a taste of freedom with the changes he had begun. It spurred a lot of...inspiration...in the Fishing Towns.”
“Inspiration?” I wasn’t sure what she was implying, but I didn’t know if I liked where it was leading.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the rebellions breaking out.” Her voice had lowered again, her body leaning over the table so she could be closer to me. “Those didn’t happen by chance. They were planned, and they were planned intentionally. You’ll see. When news of Tristan’s death reaches the Fishing Towns, there is going to be upheaval. I’m surprised there hasn’t been any here yet.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Tristan had done a lot, but I never knew how much the Lower Races looked to him. It seemed Tristan was an idol to them, a figure that represented freedom, that fought for them. How had I not known that? It was yet another reminder of how wrong I had been to hide away in the Manor. I hated the feeling of regret. But there was something about her words, the longing in her eyes as she watched me with intent.
“You want there to be rebellions here in Abberton?”
“I want there to change.” She said, “Do you think I like having to work three jobs a day just to be able to feed my family? I work in the fields because I have to, then come straight to the bar for the night. On the weekends I sell fruit in the Square and then start it all over again on Monday. I hardly see my family and I don’t have time to do anything I enjoy.”
“What would you want to do?” I ask. She pursed her lips.
“You know, no one has ever asked me that before.” She thought, a smile forming on her face. “I would want to paint. I used to do it when I was a girl, and I’m damn good with a brush.” I couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. “But I’ve got to work in the fields because of some supposed ability I have.”
“Wait, you mean you don’t have....magic?” I whispered the last word, remembering the most recent decree of the King banning all magic. I’m sure it wasn’t a word that is used much anymore.
“I guess. I haven’t seen any evidence of it with me. What we do isn’t magical. They give us seed and tell us to sow it, so we do. When the harvest comes, we reap what we sowed. That’s about all there is. Some of the older Greenies seem to have more of a way with the plants and are required to do more work, but it doesn’t seem like something anyone else couldn’t do. It’s just another way the Vrunadians explain away their tyranny.”
“And the Stones and Aquians? Is it the same for them?”
“I’m not sure. Don’t know too many personally. I’m sure if we were in the right setting our power would show more, but it’s not meant to be used in the fields. That’s just something the Vrunadians need. Just like they need fish from the Aquians and iron from the Stones. We are just an excuse for them, a way they can escape their responsibilities. There is more to us than what we can offer them.”
It was what Tristan had said at the Citadel. My chest caved as I looked to the wooden table, not able to meet her gaze. The hope I saw in her eyes was almost unbearable to see. How could she be so hopeful of a future that is never going to happen?
“Are there going to be rebellions in Abberton?” I ask instead. If that were the case, then I would have to find Carena before that happened and get as far away as possible.
“The people here are scared. The presence of the Guard is much stronger here than it is in the Fishing Towns. There would be many arrests and deaths, but there is talk of it. People are waiting to see what happens in the aftermath of the rebellion in the Towns. They want to see how the King responds and what the people do. But there will come a day when we all push back, I can feel the tide shifting. People are growing weary and it won’t remain this way for long.”
I nodded, understanding how she felt. Did she know what I was? I doubted it. She wouldn’t be talking to me if she realized I was Marked. The Lower Races were tolerated and were still necessary. My kind was feared and despised by all and maybe for good reason.
“You better get out of here.” The girl stood bringing the tray that held my beer with her. “That group of men over there has been eyeing you for some time. It’s not wise to travel alone around these parts, especially if you’re female.”
“You’re female and alone,” I remarked as I stood, pulling my cloak around me like a shield.
“As I said, I’ve been around for a while. I know who to avoid. You, on the other hand, are an easy target. It’s obvious you aren’t from here.” She smiled at me, leaning in one last time.
“I haven’t heard anything about your sister. None of the guards that visit here have said anything about the event. I would keep checking the bars though. Many of the guards spend their evenings and nights off in spots like these. Give them a few pints and you’ll have them talking.” She then turned into the crowd, leaving me with my heart racing in my chest. I glanced over at the men she had been talking about. There were three of them huddled over a table, several empty cups covering their table. They cast furtive glances my way causing my skin to crawl with unease.
She hadn’t been lying, I needed to get out of here. I made my way out of the tavern as quickly as possible, the crowd making it difficult to move. Once I made it out, I rushed across the street to where Oryn said he would be waiting.
But I didn’t find him.
I kept walking down the alley, turning to find the men that had once been inside now heading out of the bar, their gazes focused on the alley I stood in. I turned, starting to break out into a run.
It felt as if I were only a few steps away when heavy hands grabbed my cloak from behind and pushed me up against the wall. I opened my mouth to scream, but a heavy hand clamped it down. He had pushed himself against me, forcing me not to be able to move my arms or anything else for that matter.
“Now, now...none of that sweetheart.” My eyes locked onto the beefy face of one of the men from the bar. His eyes black in the darkness. It was hard to make out his features, but the stench of beer-filled my nose causing my eyes to water. He reached up with his free hand and yanked the hood of my cloak down, his eyes widening at the sight of my hair. He grabbed the braid it was in and pulled it forward, causing my head to pull closer to him. I tried to free my hands, but the man was much too large.
“Now this is an interesting color.”
“Hey man, we got to go.” One of the other men called out. I bucked, trying to get the man off of me. I locked eyes with the man, his features starting to become more evident as I let my power rise. He had pockmarked skin and a large, crooked nose. Desperation and panic sunk in as I tried to squirm away from him, but something hotter filled me as I watched him find amusement in my struggle.
Hatred, hot and bright leaked into my chest, my heart, filling every bone of my body as I pushed at him.
I could tell that this wasn’t the first time he has done something like this, the way he grabbed at me was much too confident. I pushed against him again, causing him to lose his footing. It was enough to free my arm, which allowed me to grab onto the hand that covered my mouth.
I pushed darkness into the man, letting it fill his mind. At first, he froze, not sure what was happening. I pushed harder, letting that darkness transfer into him, enjoying every second as I watched the color of his eyes fade into a deep less pit of nothing. His eyes widened, and took a few steps back, forcing me to let go of his hand. He shook his head, his eyes searching my face. I smiled, giving him a sweet little grin.
“That’s impossible.” He whispered, dropping to his knees as he stared at me. The other two men watched in confusion, which turned to muted horror when the man started screaming, rocking back and forth.
They looked at me, their eyes widening as they took in the shadows that curled around me, the darkness that seemed to ebb and flow at my command.
“She’s a Marked.” The one whispered before I took off running.
I continued down the alleyway, turning onto a less crowded street. I kept going, searching for somewhere to hide from the heavy footsteps that followed me. I risked a glance back, finding the men running after me still.
Hands grabbed me and pushed me into an open door. I thrashed, letting my fists fly and connecting with something soft. A grunt and groan told me I had managed to hit my target, but I didn’t let that stop me. I let the darkness grow thicker, ready to strike again, but the scent of pine filled my nose and I found warmth began to seep into me from where I was being held. Oryn held my arms and pulled me into him, my cheek connecting with his chest.
I froze as the footsteps grew closer, louder. They were shouting now, yelling that a Marked was on the loose, warning everyone around them. Screams and panicked cries started to fill the streets. The sound of windows shutting and doors closing filling the air.
Oryn didn’t say anything as he grabbed my hand and pulled me out of our hiding hole. I didn’t have to look to know he had made us invisible yet again. He led us on a twisting run towards the church we were hiding in. The entire run there, I couldn’t help but notice the streets were now emptied and guards were starting to fill them instead.
When Oryn dragged me into the church and shut the door behind us, I fell to my knees. Tears ran down my cheeks as I scrubbed at my face, at the place where he had held me. Oryn was next to me in a heartbeat, pulling me into him.
I leaned against him, my forehead against his chest. Silent tears slid down my cheeks as I tried to breathe. I could feel his hand running up and down the length of my back, warmth trying to pierce through the cold that had settled in my gut.
“Shhh,” He said into my ear as the roaring in my ears died down. He rested his hands on my arms, giving me a gentle push. His hands came up to my face, pushing my hood back and inspecting every inch of my face. “What did they do to you sunshine?”
“They tried to...” I paused, the moments crashing back through me. I don’t know what they were planning to do, but it didn’t matter.
“Pigs.” He muttered. I remained in his arms, which now completely circled me, his legs on either side of me. A cold calm settled over me as I realized what I had done to the man.
I had sworn I would never do that to another man, let the darkness take someone like that.
But I had done it yet again, and without hesitation.
And I liked it.
My hands began to shake, my whole body following suit.
“Hey now, it’s okay,” Oryn said gently, his hands coming up and cupping my face. With his thumbs, he began to wipe the tears away as they fell, “You’re okay. We’re okay.”
“I know, it’s not that.” I shook my head, reaching up and pulling his hands from my face. It felt much too intimate for him to do that, even if I enjoyed the feeling. I could still see the shadows clinging to me as I sat with Oryn. “You shouldn’t touch me,” I whispered, trying to move from him, trying to protect him.
“Oh.” He said awkwardly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...” He began to stand, trying to help me up. I stood, taking a few steps away from him, from his warmth. I walked over to my pack, my back to him.
“We should rest,” I tell him, turning to find him still standing in the middle of the room. He watched me for a moment, the corners of his lips turned down. He only nodded as he started to unpack his bag, a mask of indifference sliding over his expression.