The tavern we found ourselves in was an establishment that served a largely lower-class clientele; the place was noisy, as taverns often are, and the whole shop reeked of alcohol. When we opened the door to enter, numerous eyes turned toward us, the largely male collection of individuals turning their attention to our entry. Unsurprising, considering that a beautiful woman had just walked in accompanied by a boy who was clearly a teenager. Most of the people packed into the tavern were men, with the tavern’s owner being a large, well-built man with a bald head and a large scar running across his face. I recognised a couple familiar faces in the crowd, all thieves and conmen and generally men of the unsavoury sort. There were very few women in the crowd, with the token few either wearing decidedly inappropriate clothing, or otherwise exuding an air of danger that eclipsed that of the men.
As it was that time of the day when afternoon was turning to evening, the tavern was extremely crowded. I scanned the room, looking for an empty space – but every table was occupied. My eyes settled on the counter, where there were two empty seats. Elysium followed my gaze and nodded, walking gracefully toward the open seats. A couple of wolfwhistles accompanied her strides, but she simply ignored them with a pleasant smile. As we approached the seats, however, our path forward was blocked by a large man, his arms crossed as he smiled at Elysium with a gap-toothed grin.
“You’re a pretty one, miss. Who’s this kid? Your son?”
Seeing that the man had no intention to move aside, Elysium sighed and pulled me closer to her, pressing me in against her side. If not for the tension in the room, I might have blushed. She answered the man, her smile not wavering.
“No, no. Not my son. A friend.”
“Ha! What, you into runts like him? Send him back home, and I’ll show you what a real man can do.”
The man’s answer resounded throughout the tavern. A few of the women gave him disgusted looks, but mostly they watched Elysium closely to see how she would respond.
“Look, I’m just here for a drink, I really don’t need your overused pickup lines and the generic bluster. I would appreciate if you’d avoid making this any more complicated than it has to be and just let me and my friend here to the seats.”
I paled. If my suspicions about the turn this conversation had just taken were correct, it was about to end very painfully. I silently implored the man not to do anything inappropriate.
“Eh? C’mon, don’t be like that! I can give you a real good time, better than this kid here, anyway.”
With that, he reached out and grabbed hold of Elysium’s shoulder. I sighed, my worst fears having come to pass.
It was too quick to see. One minute, the man was holding Elysium’s shoulder. The next, he was doubled over, blood flowing gratuitously from his nose, his arm twisted in an awkward position, his face frozen in an expression of surprise. The only sign that Elysium had moved was her sudden change in stance and the ruffles that had appeared on her sleeve – ruffles that she immediately straightened as she righted herself. She sidestepped him nonchalantly and sat at the counter, pulling me along. As the man began to howl in pain, she asked the bartender for a list of drinks. Impressively, the man passed it along, seemingly unaffected by the scene that had just occurred. I shrank down into my seat, hoping that the man would take the hint and avoid doing anything possibly life-threatening. I was quickly disappointed.
“You fucking BITCH!”
Elysium sighed again and turned around in her seat to face him – I followed suit, if only to see what happened next. If the man was dumb enough to throw away his life, I figured I should at least respect his resolve by watching his last moments. The man staggered towards us, rage in his eyes. Elysium said nothing as he approached, just watching him with a neutral expression, right until he was right in front of us. Then she broke into a pitying smile. That was too much for the man – he roared in anger and raised his fist.
Before he could bring it down, a thin sheet of metal appeared at his throat. Well, more accurately, it was a stack of metal sheets, with edges that glinted in the light of the tavern’s lamps. A bladed fan. The man’s eyes widened in fear, and he let his fist drop, looking toward the person holding the weapon – a blue-haired woman with dangerous, green eyes. She was dressed in a one-piece slit dress, her shoulders and back bared, the skirt providing alluring flashes of her fair thighs.
“Come now, Glint. Letting a beast like this threaten your woman? And you call yourself a man?”
“…She’s not my ‘woman’. She’s just a friend.”
“Huh. I see.”
Anneliese – the leader of the Syrens – turned her eyes to the would-be assailant, who shrank back immediately, breaking into a cold sweat as she edged the fan closer to his throat.
“As for you. Are you an idiot? You felt this woman hit you. You think you’ll survive if you actually attack her seriously? Is your brain as small as your balls?” She narrowed her eyes, causing them to appear even more dangerous. “Get the fuck out, fuckwit.”
The man, clearly afraid, took several steps backward, his face pale. Then he turned around and hurriedly left the tavern. A quiet silence spread through the tavern. Then the men started to break out into laughter, and the women began chatting with their companions once more. Anneliese turned to me, gave me a cursory nod, then turned to Elysium.
“Sorry about that. The fucker’s a real bastard, thinks he’s real tough. In truth, he’s got balls the size of peanuts. And I mean that literally. It’s a joke among the whores, in fact. Well, you looked like you could handle yourself, but we can’t have you killing someone around here. Would ruin the mood.”
“Not a problem. I wouldn’t have killed him. Probably. Anyway, you seem to know Glint, over here.”
Anneliese tousled my hair in a painfully familiar manner, causing me to blush a little.
“Yep. The kid’s helped me out on several occasions. If you’re hanging out with him, that means you already know what line of work I’m in. Name’s Anneliese. I head the Syrens – we’re a bunch of girls who help to lighten the burden of the people who have too much money to spare, if you catch my drift. You should come attend one of our concerts. Maybe you’ll like them. Would advise you to keep an eye on your purse though – we don’t discriminate.”
A smile played across Elysium’s lips.
“A concert, you say?”
“Yep. Got that idea from that new performer – Rosalind, y’know. I got to attend one of her concerts, when I was running an errand. Loved it, of course, but also realised that a distracted audience was easy pickings.”
A tap on her shoulder caused her to turn around – one of the other women, dressed in a similar fashion, gave her a meaningful look. She nodded, then turned back to Elysium.
“Welp, I gotta get going. You take care of Glint, okay? He’s a good kid, if a bit of a lone wolf.”
She then turned her attention of me.
“And you, Glint. Make sure you don’t do anything to make this nice lady cry.”
“I told you, we’re just friends!”
With that, she laughed and left the tavern, a group of girls following behind. Elysium and I turned back to the counter, whereupon she spoke quietly.
“…I like her. Seemed like a nice person.”
“She is, she’s just a bit… overbearing sometimes.”
“And here I thought you had no friends.”
“I don’t… not really. We help each other out, from time to time. I help her get information on possible good marks passing through the area, and she lets me sleep in her room on occasion, when I’m in the area and need shelter from a bad night. It’s just a matter of us being useful to each other, that’s all.”
Elysium said no more on the topic, and instead waved over the bartender.
“I’ll have a jug of the Kinsgate, and…”
She looked to me, waiting for my order. I briefly considered ordering beer, to prove my masculinity, as it were. But then I remembered that the last time I drank beer, I had behaved in ways that are best left unsaid.
“…I’ll have an apple cider.”
“Okay, so that’s it then. Get us a jug of Kinsgate, a glass of apple cider, and two glasses.”
As the bartender walked off to prepare the drinks, I turned to Elysium questioningly.
“Now will you tell me why we’re here? I thought we were looking for a magic tutor. Why are we in a tavern? For that matter, why did you ask me to guide you to ‘the seediest tavern in the district’?”
She grinned, my confusion clearly a source of amusement for her.
“Well, that was the original plan, but… circumstances changed. We’re here to meet someone.”
“Meet someone? Who?”
At that moment, the bartender returned with the order, and I realised a fact that slipped my notice – Elysium had asked for a total of three glasses. As I was about to ask her who the third glass was for, she picked it up and held it up, above her shoulder and behind her.
“So you finally decided to show yourself.”
The voice that responded was quiet and clearly feminine, with a bell-like quality to it.
“I should have known you would notice me.”
The proffered glass was received by a tall figure wearing a set of dark robes, a hood casting a shadow over their features, which were further obscured by a white mask which left only the figure’s lips exposed.
“It’s been a while, Ruth.”