The Dry Stalk tavern sat along the curve of Street Twelve, and sunlight poured in from the open expanse where a wall could have been. This left the outer tables warm and sunny, while those closer to the bar were darker and more discreet.
The barkeep set two tin flagons of ale on the bar. Rat took the flagons with a nod and brought them to their table, leaving a slip of parchment.
“There’s really no more to it than that,” Claudia said from her seat across the two performers. It was the following day, and she was finally back to wearing her normal peplos. A royal attendant had also visited her to confirm the King’s signature of the deal, further boosting her confidence. “We need champions, and we hear you could be them.”
Kaj, the smaller, unarmored marksman, consumed one flagon in five enormous gulps as Kimora watched silently. His horned steel helm was slightly brighter and much smoother in texture than the pewter of Mirek’s cutlery. On the forehead was the imprint of a roaring dragon, with far more emotion than what the man himself was showing.
Chatting patrons and the footsteps of traffic beyond the tavern formed the only backdrop to their silence.
“You know,” Claudia said holding up a finger, “I’m in the mood for wine. I’ll be back.”
When she got to the bar, the tender was crouched, rattling a swarm of mugs in a tub, submerged in a pool of suds.
“Uh, pardon,” she said, flipping a strand of hair. “I’m looking for a certain kind of wine.”
“Want to drink it from a bowl?” he snapped without looking back. “Or do you want to wait?”
“You don’t understand,” she said, whispering. “I’d just like to know if you have it. It has a long name, and I don’t know how to say it. My friend handed you the name on a piece of parchment.”
“Oh, you mean this?” the man stood up and dug through a pocket in his trousers. He slapped the moistened note down on the bar in front of her and got back to work washing the flagons. “I don’t serve it, and never will.”
Claudia smiled and ducked her head. To anyone else, it appeared that she was hanging her head in frustration. Instead, she was reading a message from Rat.
Big one listens to small one, but has doubts about us. Come across as genuine and make the small one happy.
“Thanks for nothing,” Claudia said, crunching up the note in her hand and spinning around in a huff. This had been her idea, and all it took was thirty kinnitar and instructions for the tender beforehand. Merrian had wisely been forward about picking the venue.
Claudia returned and shrugged. “They don’t have my favorite wine—what a surprise. Probably because it’s Ozarian. Even foreign imports are getting cut down.”
“You gonna touch that one?” Kaj said to Rat, pointing to the other ale.
“No, I’m fine. It’s yours if you wish.” How much can this man drink and still stay coherent? Rat wondered.
“Never did like Sallith,” Kimora said while Kaj drank. “Look, I could hold strong against Headsplitter, for a little while at least, but I’ll be honest: the real asset is this man here, draining all the ale from this bar. Headsplitter will not be able to stand against me with a few arrows in his legs.”
“Can you shoot better than the King?” Claudia asked Kaj.
“I guess you haven’t seen our act,” Kaj said after downing half of the other ale, turning slightly in his seat and raising a palm. “Don’t get me wrong, the king is a great archer, but in his days as a Mirekian ranger, he learned from archers of my caliber.”
“We’re interested in setting you up for the first spectacle match, and hopefully Headsplitter’s last,” Claudia said. “But can you win?”
“Oh, we’d win,” Kaj said. “I’ll tell you something that few in these parts know about us. I think it will clear up any doubts.”
“We are both Ozarians, too. Headsplitter holds no innate advantage over us.”
“Really?” Rat’s eyes darted left and right. No one was near enough to hear, which was for the best. Ozarians were not considered true humans under Sallith’s laws, and only Headsplitter was acceptable.
“Mages have monster fathers in their bloodlines,” Kaj said. “Ozarians are the opposite. Way up in our maternal lines, we both have a monster for a great-however-many grandmothers. Mine was a Clurichaun.”
“I’m not sure I’ve heard of those,” Rat said.
“Very short and unpleasant creatures with thin, long limbs,” Kimora said, with a brutal smirk toward Kaj. Indeed, he looked like a fair mix of that sort of creature and many generations of humanity. “Amazing marksmen.”
Why would a man lay with one of those? Claudia started to wonder, though it would only be rude to ask.
“And you?” Rat asked Kimora.
“Ah. Should’ve guessed.”
“Makes me wonder what monsters are up in Headsplitter’s ancestry,” Claudia mused.
“Might be worth asking Merrian,” Rat said, turning to them. “She’s the one who introduced us to you two.”
“Tell me, I know little of Ozarians,” Claudia said. “Do their heredities function similarly to those of mages? Any plain human and Ozarian mix will lead to Ozarian children?”
“Indeed, and without distillation,” Kaj said. “We’re really superior to mages. We have magical aptitude like them, but somehow our monster traits manifest in ways other than magic. For me, it’s balance, sight, and aim.”
“When monsters and women crossbred, the mages were born,” Kimora said. “Yet, for whatever reason, when the child forms in the womb of a monster instead, the mix is deeper. My family line has consistently been tall, strong, and easily angered, like an ogre.”
“I wouldn’t guess the easily angered part,” Claudia said.
“In our more violent days, I needed my anger. Today, I can control it.”
“You two were mercenaries, is that right?” Rat asked.
“Only for just causes,” Kimora said. “And we never killed those who had surrendered, those who lost the will to fight.”
“He always made that judgment, somehow,” Kaj said. “Kimora’s got this sense of when someone’s done fighting. I’ve seen him stop his fist mid-strike out of nowhere, like he just knows. Amazing. Maybe only Ozarians would understand, but fighting against your monstrous nature like that is like me not shooting an easy target. He has the rage of an ogre and the mercy of a Latalla priest.”
“I see…” Rat said.
“The point is that I won’t kill Headsplitter if he surrenders,” Kimora said. “I highly doubt the man would, but I tell this to anyone who asks for our services. If he loses the will to fight, we will not obey the rules of the arena. And that could fall upon you two.”
“And I should warn you,” Rat said, “you may need that ogre rage again. We won’t undermine the reality of this task.”
“The King’s pet may be skilled,” Kaj said. “But we’re of similar blood, and there’s two of us. Although, why try it if you’re concerned about whether you’ll succeed?”
“I will free my city from Sallith,” Claudia said. “The King’s bent the law and courts far too much to challenge him directly, even if there are holes in his edicts. No, instead the King will watch as I slowly destroy his legacy, starting with the greatest symbol of his power.”
“I like her!” Kaj said to Rat. “I get the feeling this was her idea.”
Rat nodded with a light smile, but as the negotiations were hammered through, he couldn’t help but wonder if this would be the last time he’d speak to these two men. It amazed him that Claudia could put on a confident face and go through this again. Reginald surely hadn’t even rotted into bones.
The Ozarian performers were no doubt the best candidates in the city, and they confirmed they would do it. He ultimately decided that if this match didn’t work, nothing would, and Claudia would never entertain second thoughts.
Though Merrian could handle any questions for them in the meantime, the Ozarians decided to convene the next day to form a strategy—something that used magic if necessary, and worked against Headsplitter in every way possible. A victory by clear magic-users would enrage and contradict Sallith like nothing else.
Learning about magic at long last. Should be fun, Claudia thought. The two prospects left with a frightful, excited optimism.
“I think that went very well, don’t you?” Rat asked as Claudia walked ahead down the zig-zag of alleys back to his home.
“Absolutely. Not only do we have a great archer, but that Kimora fellow looks like an even better asset.”
“I’d say so. He has a sound mind, and he’s huge.”
“Rat?” Claudia said, stopping at an intersection of two alleys. “Do you like cactus pear pie?”
“Yes,” she said with a laugh. “A cactus has to spread seeds somehow.”
“I didn’t even know that cacti grew in the Gorung Desert,” Rat said.
“Oh, of course! If not cacti, what could grow here?”
“And they make pears?”
“Mhm! And the pie is delightful. Come, let’s celebrate. We made our deal. Headsplitter is doomed. We even got help from your dreaded Merrian with no issues.”
“Oh, we’ll have to pay her back soon enough,” Rat said.
“How much? I didn’t hear her mention any fee.”
“She has all the wealth she’d ever want. That’s the problem. She’ll want payment in some other way.”
“Rat, Rat, Rat.” She paced for a moment under the shade of several loaded clotheslines. It would be dark soon, but the sun’s glare was at its most intense and desperate in these moments before dusk. It’s like I can read your mind this time.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You’re desperate for someone to unload all your old burdens onto. You want to trade stories? Show each other our wounds from the ongoing war of love?”
“You’re a lunatic, woman.”
“I knew it! Come on, you can tell me. Really, I’d like to know who I’m dealing with.”
“A fair point...”
“Follow me. I know just the place.”
Rat followed her down the branch in the alley he hadn’t expected to take, toward the commoner streets.