Ren and I weave between tables and chairs, thick and rough with cracks and splinters. He leans against the main counter and nods at the barkeeper—a brawny man with an impressive mustache.
“Meat and bread.” Ren raises his hand and dances it back and forth, indicating him and me in the same gesture. “And a table.”
The bartender jerks his head at a booth in the corner. “There’s your table. Ale?”
“No.” Ren turns and walks toward the booth. I follow dutifully behind.
He takes a seat and so do I. “Wow…what are those?” I find myself gawking at some giant dog-men—the smallest one has to be 6’6”—sitting against the far wall. Some look like straight up werewolves, but others resemble athletic dog breeds: shepherds, Malinois, and boxers. They’re dressed like humans, but their stuff is bigger—bigger cloaks, bigger weapons, bigger armor. They’re talking quietly, keeping to themselves and sipping ale from massive steins.
Ren follows my gaze. “They call themselves Wolven. Attend me.” He says it in a sharp, demanding tone that has an immediate effect; I snap back toward him. “Do not draw ire with your careless stare. Keep your eyes to yourself, lest someone free them from your head.”
“Right. Sorry.” I look down at the table, embarrassed by my interdimensional tourist moment.
“Good.” He settles back in his seat, crossing his arms and lowering his head. With his droopy hood, he almost looks like he’s taking a nap, but I get the sense that he’s still alert.
“Your uh…purse,” I venture.
“Carry, I mean. You put stuff in it, but it never changes size. Outside of video games, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Standard fare,” he grunts. “Just a leather carry with a catch-fold enchantment. Nothing special.”
Nothing special. Right. “Um…how much stuff can you put into it?”
“Several years of supplies and equipment. No weapons, armor, or heavy apparatus. Other enchantments will accommodate those, but they cost far more coin than I’m willing to pay.”
“So you could store an armory in there, if it had the right magic.”
“Yes. A house or a castle, if the sorcery was correct.”
A house or a… “Wow.” I shake my head, at a loss for words.
He considers me for a moment, then says, “You said you’ve seen something similar, in a…virulent game, was it?”
“Video game. A game that plays out on an electronic screen. You press buttons to make things happen, then it shows up on a screen.”
“ ‘Electronic?’ ”
“Powered by lightning.”
He grunts again. “Seems pointless.”
I’m irritated by his dismissal. “Not all of us can fight with swords and cast magic spells, okay?”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
I’m not quite sure if that’s meant to be a joke, but before I can reply, the barkeeper walks over and sets down a couple of badly dented tin plates. Both have a serving of burnt meat and coarse bread.
“Our thanks,” Ren says. He hands over a couple of coins. The barkeep stuffs them into his apron pocket.
“Enjoy.” The barkeep turns and walks away.
Ren reaches in his carry and pulls out a metal pair of cups along with a leathery bladder. He pours us water from its tapered end.
After he stows it, he starts eating with mechanical efficiency, cutting with a knife and shoving chunks into his mouth. I study the meat with a dubious eye—looks like it comes from some sort of bird. It’s still got bones, and there’s a couple of organs nestled in the center.
“Why do you tarry?” Ren cracks a bone and sticks it in his mouth.
“I…nothing.” No use explaining that I usually eat at the Whole Foods hot bar. I doubt this place has chile lime rice.
So I draw my knife and dig in, just like he’s doing. The meat’s blackened, the bread is stale, but hey—better than nothing. As I chomp away, forcing myself to scarf down the organs, I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of pride. It may sound silly, but I know quite a few people that would lose their minds if they had to eat this food. I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite of paleo-keto-whatever.
Ren pauses, holding a chunk of bread an inch from his lips. “What are you smiling at?”
“Well it’s…” I almost elaborate, but decide against it. Gulping down some overcooked meat seems like a complete nonissue, considering who I’m sitting with. He’s probably eaten a level 30 ogre. “I didn’t realize I was this hungry.”
“Right.” He drops his gaze and continues eating.
(Mental note: keep celebratory grin to your idiot self, especially when it’s over something as small as Evermoor cuisine.)
I use some bread to pick up the last shreds of meat, then I jam the whole thing into my mouth. Ren does the same, and I can’t help but feel another flash of pride; I was a step ahead—I guessed the right thing to do without being told. Maybe I can’t use magic or swords, but—
The door to the tavern bangs open. The room goes silent.
Standing in the entrance is a white-armored knight.
“Eyes to yourself,” Ren hisses. “Drink your water and don’t say a word.”
I drop my gaze and curl my hand around my cup. From my peripheral vision, I see a dozen knights filter in, their boots clacking against the wooden floor.
“Stay where you are,” the leader orders. “Or we’ll knock your teeth from your cursed mouths.”
The threat sends a jolt through my body; I can’t help but glance at them.
Ren’s voice is quiet and tight. “Eyes. Down.”
I force my gaze onto the table. Luckily, the Knights don’t notice. They clop slowly through the hushed room, drinking in the tense silence.
The leader comes to a halt, hooking his gauntleted thumbs into a sash-like belt. No one looks at him.
“My name is High Justicer Thane. If you haven’t already heard, Fair Folk goods are now illegal. This is your one and only chance at amnesty—declare your contraband and its source of origin, and you shall be pardoned without tarry.”
No one says a word.
“I see.” The Knight strides forward, dipping his head like he’s deep in thought. “So everyone here is an honest trader.” He nods to himself, as if he’s just arrived at a weighty conclusion, then halts in the middle of the grungy tavern.
“Search them.” His voice rises. “If you find anything Fair—anything so much as a residual spell—take them outside and open their throats.” He turns in place, sweeping the room with a hard stare. “Get to your feet and face the wall.”
“Ren,” I whisper. “Are you carrying any Fair Fo—”
“Yes.” He’s rigidly still, eyes fixed on his empty plate.
“So what do we—”
“Be ready. Follow my lead.”
Follow my lead? I’m about to tell him that I’ve only heard that in eighties adventure movies, when a shadow falls across our table.
“Up,” a knight orders.
Ren nods at me. Do as he says.
We rise from the booth and face the knight. Sweat slickens both my palms. I don’t want to die. I thought I was ready, but that was before I discovered parallel dimensions and magic ninjas.
Ren turns, slow and calm. I turn with him.
“Hands against the wall.”
We put our hands on the wall.
Gauntleted hands pat me down. He finishes with me and steps behind Ren. I try to relax, but I can feel my teeth clenching together. Be ready, he said. In my mind, I feel out the motion of drawing my knife.
“Catch-fold enchantment, eh?” The knight turns his head and calls, “Garn!”
Knight Garn hurries over. His armor clanks in time with his steps.
“Yes, Ordinate Justicer Roke?”
“You completed a course in minor arcanix, aye? Part of your training as a Lesser Justicer?”
“Did those frail-bodied mages teach you Elkor’s Eye?”
“Prove yourself worthy of the Queen’s investment.” Roke nods at Ren. “This one has a catch-fold enchantment. Search his bag for anything Fair.”
“Aye, Justicer.” Garn mutters beneath his breath. From the corner of my vision, I see glowing red runes materialize around his right eye.
He opens Ren’s satchel and peers inside.
“Mostly supplies, but…” Garn’s expression furrows beneath his helmet. “I’m not sure, but I think I see—”
“Get your hands off him!” someone snarls from the other end of the tavern. “You have no right!”
Justicer Roke grabs Garn by the shoulder. “Draw your steel and watch my flank.” They both hurry over to the source of the commotion.
Ren and I both turn around. The Knights are holding swords, standing in a loose semicircle around the Wolven. The giant dog-warriors are standing with their backs to the wall, slightly hunched like they’re ready to pounce.
Justicer Thane points his sword at random people. “Back!” he screams. “Or I’ll mount your heads atop the gate!”
One of the Wolven shoves a Knight, making him fall onto his butt. Three swords point at the Wolven’s throat, stopping him in his tracks. The Knights holding them inch forward, forcing the beast-man to walk backwards.
“Hold!” One of the Wolven raises his hands, swiveling in place so he can address his warriors as well as the Knights. “We have no quarrel!”
Thane breaches the semicircle of Knights and stands before the Wolven. “Should have thought of that before you attacked us,” he sneers.
A Knight pipes up: “They’re trafficking with Fair Folk. One of them has a loaf of their bread.”
“Is that so?” Thane turns back to the cornered Wolven, regarding them all with a malicious smile. “Fair Folk merchandise, eh?”
The Wolven leader—the one who’s been trying to keep the peace—says, “Just a few crumbs of leftover bread, caught in the folds of my aide’s carry. There’s no need to punish my folk.”
“On the contrary,” Thane says. “There is every need. If we didn’t bow down to the Queen’s will, where would we be, hmm?”
The Wolven leader lowers his voice. Despite his desperate circumstances, he manages to sound earnest and dignified. “Please.” He raises both hands, palms out in a conciliatory gesture. “You don’t need to do this.”
Thane looks to either side, commanding the attention of his Iaetrix Knights. “Cut their throats. Do it quickly.”
Then all hell breaks loose.