The catgirls threw their heads back as they drained most of the alcohol from their mugs. Kirie's motion was more exaggerated as she bobbed her hair and made loud, unattractive gulps. Asa opened her mouth as if she were about to take no more than a sip, but the alcohol somehow vanished from the mug just as fast as her sister's.
Alphonse stared at them in disbelief as they slammed their drinks down in unison on the table.
“So this is what alcohol tastes like!” Kirie shouted.
Alphonse barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping to the floor. This is their first time? Seriously?
“It's a little bitter,” Asa said. “But I don't dislike it.”
Alphonse slouched back in his chair and analyzed their faces. He didn't expect any blossoming red to appear on their cheeks, but he still felt that it might happen any second with how inexperienced they were. They tilted their heads in confusion as he watched them. A barely-contained laugh finally burst out of him once he recovered from the initial shock.
He lowered his scarf just enough to take a swig from his own drink. He wanted to maintain the effect of concealing his stats in case some spellcasters got curious. He didn't necessarily need to wear it over his mouth for it to work, but he noticed a couple other individuals around the tavern wearing similar attire. A couple of scouts seemed to prefer keeping cowls and such on for their own merit. Thankfully, there were no outworlders he recognized at the moment.
“I'd say you like it a whole lot," Alphonse said. He similarly slammed down the mug and waved to a blonde serving girl nearby for another round.
His hand hovered for a moment when a flash of recognition crossed her features. It only took a second for her face to register for him as well.
“Evan?” She approached and rested her hands on the table in a friendly manner.
“Hey, Kaede!” Kirie waved to her enthusiastically.
Asa bowed from her seat. “It's good to see you.”
“You work here too?” Alphonse asked. “Geez, isn't working at the Guild Union enough for you?”
She puffed her chest out proudly. “Yeah, I'm a workaholic. Nah, not really. I only work a shift at the end of the week. You adventurers go crazy around this time. I can't miss out on all those tips.”
Alphonse hadn't really paid much attention to the lifestyles of other adventurers. It wasn't his nature to go out and overly socialize. A mug of beer, sitting on a couch and reflecting on a recently completed quest was his usual evening. Maybe he'd go out someplace for a meal, or search for a change of quiet scenery. If he had a main purpose for going out, like scouting an area or familiarizing himself with certain places of interest, it was usually with the catgirls trailing somewhere close.
He felt someone bump him deliberately from behind. He looked up and saw the archer, Anya, standing over him with her disheveled hair falling over her blue eyes. Their color contrasted in a pretty way with her bronze-toned skin, especially in the brightly lit tavern.
She gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. “You guys came! Awesome!” She feigned a frown when she noticed Kaede. “Yo, serving wench. I need a beer. Tall.”
Kaede pushed herself off the table and stood in front of Anya with her arms crossed in mock defiance. “I reckon we don't serve your kind here,” she said with a pronounced accent.
Anya grinned. “Is that right?”
“Damn straight. Adventurers who schedule their evaluations at the last minute are certainly frowned upon.”
Anya visibly winced at the accusation. “Okay, hold up. You're the one who told me to do that for Cynthia. She had her eye on that one guy-”
Kaede pressed a finger to her lips and shook her head vigorously. “I told you to distract her until he showed up, not hold her there all night!”
“Oh, well, did they hook up?”
Kaede rested her face in her hands. "No, you moron. She was with you!"
Alphonse almost choked on his beer as he overheard the conversation. “Wait, no way! Kaede, that was your fault?”
He remembered their first meeting when he registered for his new guild. There was a conversation about adventurers keeping the other receptionist, Cynthia, past closing hours. The poor girl had stood there the whole next day suffering in the scorching heat wearing heavy, unwashed clothes.
Kaede pretended not to hear him. She was already running to fetch their order at the bar. He could hear her whistling innocently, even over the merry cacophony of the other patrons.
Anya watched her retreat with a bit of mirth before pulling up a chair from a neighboring table. She straddled the chair and eased it forward until its back propped against the table. She didn't even bother to ask if it was being used.
The tavern, known as The Hammered Anvil, was packed beyond capacity. If there was some sort of fire code in this world, then they were surely breaking it. It was a suitable name given Forgedalk's history.
Patrons shared seats and rested on laps. Some even sat cross-legged or lounged on the tables. Many adventurers were already laughing stupidly on the floor even though the night was still young. Daring rounds of five-finger fillet were played at some tables while a few others engaged in wholesome card games with strange objectives – all involving some form of drinking. It seemed not a bit of negativity tainted the atmosphere.
“You two sure get along,” Kirie said through the rim of her mug.
Anya laughed. “Yeah, she's a decent sort. Funny thing is, she's one of the first real friends I made since coming here.”
Asa elbowed Alphonse as the other two fell into a conversation and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. He followed her motion and saw Kaede was at the bar holding a tray in her hand with four taller mugs than they had previous. He shook his head in amusement. Someone at their table was getting a hangover, and it sure wasn't going to be him.
“You've found a good place here, Anya,” Alphonse said.
She gave him a thumbs-up. “Dude, I know right? Wait until Derek gets here. He usually ends the night with free drinks after he gambles.”
Could always use a friend like that, he thought.
“Someone say my name?” Derek appeared from the crowd right on cue with two tall mugs in his big hands. He slammed one on the table and slid it to Anya. “Got yours.”
“What a gentleman.” She took a deep swig and wiped some of the foam from her mouth with the back of her hand. “About time you showed up.”
The warrior let out a hearty laugh. He'd taken the time to trim down his beard and shaved his black hair down in an army cut. His muscular arms stretched the plain white shirt beneath his vest.
“Sorry about that. I had to run a follow-up report with one of the leaders," Derek said. "But how about that pay, eh? A pretty decent bonus for those extra trolls.”
“It's only right since the quest information was flawed,” Asa said.
Kirie nodded her agreement as she continued drinking.
“Piece of cake, thanks to our new buddies!” Anya raised her mug in a salute. "You guys need to take us Migunne hunting sometime."
The rest of them grabbed their drinks and knocked them together. Some of the alcohol spilled over, much to their dismay. Alphonse brought his up last as he accepted the fortuitous compliment.
Anya's eyes visibly widened over the rim of her mug as she went for another swig. Kaede had returned and placed another tall one in front of her. She also gave Alphonse and his group their second rounds.
“Oh, whoops, you already had one? Well, better drink it fast or it'll get warm.” Kaede winked mischievously and skipped away to help some more customers before Anya had a chance to collect herself.
“Agh, damn her." Anya glared at the mug like it was a mortal enemy. "Challenge accepted.”
Alphonse motioned unobtrusively in front of the catgirls, urging them to take it easy with the drinking. It was a pleasant surprise when they heeded his advice and only took a few sips before resting their mugs down. He figured they respectfully understood his tendency to err on the side of caution. It didn't matter if they sat in a tavern surrounded by jovial people and good spirits - both kinds of spirits. There were always potential eyes watching.
He'd fallen into this positivity with some hesitance at first, but he didn't forget the people he analyzed when they came in. As someone with a high amount of perception, it was only natural that he utilized it at all times. His seat also held an advantageous position with a view of the entrance and a slight angle of the bar. There were only a few windows that stayed shut with permanent locks. It was unfortunate that he was unable to grab a table in a corner so his back wasn't exposed.
Every five minutes or so, he glanced around the room in case he missed anyone when he was unavoidably distracted by conversation. So far, the only people he recognized were a few adventurers he'd seen in passing at the Guild Union. A blacksmith he recognized, a man on the shorter side named Alexander (if he recalled correctly), was with a group of hardy men who looked to be in a similar occupation. The blacksmith did some fine work on his shortsword recently. The rest of the patrons were foreign to him.
He regarded Anya with a distant look as he slowly brought himself back from his deliberations. “Sorry. Was thinking.”
“Well, we aren't doing a quest. No thinking! Drinking!”
“Right. Speaking of that...” He looked down at his mug and realized that it was nearly empty again.
He searched around for a serving girl but saw that all of them were occupied with other tables. His eyes locked on to the table with the men playing their knife games. The thump of the dagger in the wood echoed in his ears as he focused on it. One of the players swore as he nicked one of his fingers and drew a bit of blood. He brought the knife high over his head in frustration and dug it into the table as his opponent slid the earnings away.
It was then that Alphonse felt the stiffness in his legs. He hated that feeling – like they refused to do his bidding unless he gave them a few good punches. He realized that he was also sitting too close to the table. That was a bad idea, he thought. His knees were impeded by the obstruction. He pushed his chair back a little until he had sufficient space. Perhaps getting his own drink at the bar would stretch his limbs out and remedy the issue.
Alphonse suppressed these thoughts when he realized that he was being overly paranoid again. They were here to have a good time. They'd taken on a difficult quest and earned a decent bit of coin. They'd met some new comrades that he hoped to call 'friends' someday. It was a time of merriment. He convinced himself for what seemed like the fifth time that night to force his apprehension aside and leave worries as a mere afterthought.
“I'm gonna grab a drink,” he said, rising from his chair. “Anyone else?”
They all declined, especially Anya, who had another tall mug to contend with.
He noticed that Kirie and Asa continued to stare at him as he shimmied himself between the tightly knit tables and chairs behind them.
Asa gently pulled at his sleeve as he passed. He saw the worry in her eyes as she looked him up and down. There also seemed to be a shred of something else, but he couldn't quite place it.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I'm good," he said.
“You're deathly pale,” Kirie added. The concern was plain in her voice as well.
He touched the back of a hand to his forehead. The vibrations were palpable against his skin. He didn't even need to feel the sticky sweat. He looked down and realized that his arm held by Asa was trembling.
“I'm fine. Just tired,” he said. He knew the excuse was lame, and that they didn't believe him for a second.
He felt their concerned gazes as he left them in search of whatever this place had that resembled a bathroom. Something. Anything to get away from the crowd. His eyes darted back and forth, taking in the many faces. The sounds associated with each person merged and muddled together like he was underwater. He tried to envision the sections of the tavern out of his sight and place them as a whole.
The tavern had a back porch area. He remembered that when he scoped the place. A building hugged close behind it with tall fences blocking the alleyways.
He needed fresh air.
Thankfully, the outside bar was mostly free of patrons. The cold of the evening was starting to settle in, and most of the fun was to be had indoors. All those people in one area let off a whole lot of desirable body heat.
He grasped the wood railing at the end of the porch and took a few heaving breaths. A familiar feeling built up inside him, but it was far more intense than he experienced in the past. He considered if this was what it was like to have an anxiety attack. He'd never had one before as far as he could recall. But he was sure one of the inciting factors was the claustrophobic space caused by so many individuals.
Always wondering if someone was planning to stick a dagger in his back. They might wait for him to dull his senses with alcohol before they struck. Someone could even slip something into his drink as a serving girl passed by. He doubted they'd know exactly what drinks belonged at which table, but it was still a remote possibility. One of the serving girls could certainly do it. Maybe someone playing five-finger fillet was skilled at throwing knives. Most of these people were adventurers. All of them held some specialty in the art of killing. All the 'what-ifs' sifted through his head.
The thump he'd heard from the knife echoed in his ears. He jerked his head up and glanced towards what he thought was the source, but nobody even held a weapon. Another dull sound came from someone's gloved hand slapping a nearby table as a group laughed at a joke.
Alphonse spit on the ground and wiped the beading sweat from his face with the back of his arm. He tilted his head back and adjusted his scarf to let the breeze cool his neck. He immediately rested a hand over his exposed throat when he realized how vulnerable a position it was. His twitching fingers brushed the handle of the shortsword strapped to his waist.
He clasped his wrist with the opposite hand and eventually punched the railing in a sudden fit of frustration. His knuckles dug into the wood and tore the skin. A trickle of blood crawled along his palm.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
He couldn't help it. It was still too early for him to be in a place like this. The evening started just fine, but the constant apprehensive thoughts started a chain reaction. Everything else that he considered good was suppressed by harrowing possibilities. The images of people he once trusted flashed through his head in the span of a millisecond. Sorrowful looks, wicked grins and cowardly desperation.
Fuck you! Fuck all of you! His fist hovered uncertainly. He suppressed the urge to punch again.
They did this to him. Messed up his head. There were many times he swore to kill them one day. Maybe he wouldn't kill everyone he deemed at fault, but he'd certainly give them a few cracks across the face. Especially the smug archer. Given the opportunity, he'd kill him without hesitation. No, he'd leave him alone in a cave full of monsters, let him know how it felt to crawl around in the darkness, hunted, thirsty, starving, bleeding. But unlike him, he swore that bastard would never make it out.
His thoughts strayed a bit as the anger subsided. He started thinking about Rinka and her reasoning. Maybe she was right, he thought. Maybe he really did harbor a resilience that few possessed. But one could only take so much.
“Goddamn them,” he growled through gritted teeth.
He let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. The cold registered on his limbs again. The sweat stuck to his skin and rubbed against his underclothes with an uncomfortable gritty feeling.
The blood dripping from his hand showed no signs of letting up. He didn't realize how hard he punched the wood. He looked around and saw that the few patrons who stood outside didn't seem to acknowledge his short burst of anger, or they did a pretty solid job of pretending not to notice.
It was then that he noticed the white-haired girl with the eye-patch sitting at the far end of the outdoor bar. That one eye stared at him as she casually swirled the contents in her mug. When his gaze lingered on her longer than normal, she gestured to the empty seat next to her.
Alphonse stood there with the bloody hand behind his back, even though she'd probably seen it already. He hesitantly approached the bar but didn't sit down right away. He waited for her to voice her intentions first.
“Something troubling you?” She lifted the mug gingerly with both hands and took an almost imperceptible sip. When he didn't answer right away she tossed a pile of napkins in front of him on the bar.
Alphonse made sure he regained his bearings before answering, “That obvious?” He knew the joke felt forced, but it calmed him. The girl's attitude didn't necessarily lift one's mood. He nodded his thanks and wrapped some of the napkins around his hand.
She gestured to the stool again. He accepted it this time.
Before he had a chance to speak further, the girl reached into an inside pocket of her spellcaster's robe and produced a copper coin. She set it on the table. The symbol of two birds carrying fruit faced the sky.
“Indulge me, and I'll buy you a drink,” she said.
He stared at the coin and wondered about this mysterious girl's intentions. People like her seemed to enjoy being cryptic. They referred to hidden implications that regular humans didn't spend much time thinking about.
“Sorry, your name was...?” Alphonse asked.
“You were with that big guy at the guild hall.”
“Ruslin. Correct. I also recommended you to Anya and Derek.”
Alphonse frowned at this and drummed his fingers on the bar. “So, you're in the same guild?”
She took another sip of her drink. “Yes, it was not a coincidence. Rarely anything is. I heard the quest paid well. Consider it an apology for my associate's rude behavior.” She flicked a finger above the coin. It was as if the air settled underneath and turned it over. On this side was the face of a strange animal. It appeared to be a mix between some sort of tiger and large reptile. A snaking tongue lolled from its mouth.
“Well, thanks for that,” Alphonse said. He did his best to add some sincerity.
Rachel laced her fingers and propped her elbows on the bar. She scanned the bottles of liquor on the rows of shelves. “What do you fancy?”
“I'm good. And it's bad to mix.”
The spellcaster puffed her face up in a pout. “Come now, a young lady is asking you to drink with her.”
He glanced at the rows of bottles behind the bar. He really wasn't in the mood, but he figured he didn't have enough to even make him tipsy. “Fine. Vodka.”
She rested a cheek in her hand with what appeared to be an approving look. “Straight vodka?”
“Interesting. I like men who enjoy some burn from their drink.” She hailed the bartender and ordered two shots from the top shelf.
“I figured you might benefit from a discussion," she continued. "I'll admit, I am very curious about your guild. But I won't pry too much and ask questions you won't answer. For instance, why you hide your stats. It isn't uncommon, but your attire is particularly high quality if it can block my advanced appraisals. You also don't seem like the type for small talk either. We may get along.”
“You think so, huh?” He tried to distance himself a bit from her on a personal level. This girl was sharp. Concise. Deceptively forthcoming, while also hiding many connotations beneath her straightforward statements. But it was as if her presence was weighing down on him as much as her words. He found himself clinging to her every utterance.
She placed two fingers on the coin and slid it in his direction. “Humor me.”
Alphonse stared at the coin for a moment, as if the tiger-like creature would come to life if he disturbed it. The spiraling tongue seemed to lick at the air. He rubbed his eyes to ward off a sudden, pulsing fatigue.
Friggin hell, he thought. Told myself I wouldn't drink too much.
“What do you want me to do?"
“What sort of recreation is there with a simple coin?” she asked.
Alphonse noted the dry sense of humor. He picked up the copper piece and let it dance through his fingers a bit. His dexterity indicated that he really wasn't to the point of intoxication. He stared at the strange tiger for a moment before flipping it. The tongue seemed to continue its strange corkscrewing motion, thanks to the intricate design. He caught it and turned it over to the back of his other hand.
She called it, “Heads.”
He lifted his hand. The hungry eyes of the tiger stared back at him.
“Again,” Rachel said.
He obliged her. They continued this for a short while. Alphonse didn't know how many times they did it. He lost track at around twenty as curiosity got the better of him. Something about her quiet, yet commanding tone urged him to keep going with whatever it was she had planned. A soft and melodic resonance trailed her speech. A second round of drinks eventually sat forgotten.
She extended her hand, a clear sign that his mundane task was complete.
“Okay, so what was that all about?” he asked.
“I guessed correctly thirty-two times. I was wrong eighteen,” she answered, as if this explained everything. “Your turn. But first, answer me one thing. Would you say that you assign more stat points to your perception than the average adventurer? More than other scouts, perhaps?”
Wow, pretty straightforward. He felt another strange flash of fatigue settle over him, but he dismissed it as a result of the alcohol.
Alphonse let out a half-restrained sigh and rubbed his aching eyes. “Alright, I'll bite. You could say that I put a lot of points into it. Why would you be interested in that?”
He frowned at the empty shot glass sitting in front of him. He didn't recall accepting another drink, let alone finishing it. A brief dizzy spell came over him and he leaned his arm on the bar for support.
She ignored the question, and the hint of a smile crossed her features. “I suspected as much. Then, let us continue.” She settled the coin on her thumb. “Your call.”