Shadows flicker over the interior of the pub/restaurant, the whipping of fan blades overhead making the lights below pivot around the hanging bars. They’ve shuttered the windows, but opened the leavers so that the late afternoon light throws lines over the soldiers seated at the edges of the room. Their red plate armor is scored and charred in places, and rubbed silver in others. I sip my tea, iced but not sweetened, and smooth my notebook for the twentieth time.
He’s late, but then that’s nothing new, he always delays what he doesn’t want to do something. It’s cool in here, and the dark teak wood contrasts with the light green of the padded benches and booths. The smell of bacon and bread and tongue oil is making my stomach growl. I’ve sent my server away twice, and the Redclad at the tables near me are beginning to notice I’m not eating anything. If he comes back again, I’ll order before Rea gets here and he’ll just have to deal.
I look towards the bar. The Hywinnae and the Heretic is carved into a piece of planking above it, and there is a winged figure leading a winged horse along what appears to be a hill sloping down towards a bay. It’s garishly painted in blue, black, red, and green below the words and the design matches the ones stitched on the shirts of the servers. Copper accents with their growing green patina line the edge of the bar proper, and there on the high set stools are four off-duties ReJacks, their helms on the bar top. Two are reading small leather books, and one has just ordered a plate of fried icthus strips. The scent of oil in the fryer joins the other smells coming from the kitchen. I lean back against the bench, and breathe in the aroma. I’m definitely getting food when he shows up. If he shows up. Even if he doesn’t show up.
Resting my head on the edge of the back of the booth, I watch the green and brown wings of the Jacks flicking or folding, stretching and shaking themselves out. The murmur of the low-house speech is like the running of a spring stream.
In the next moment, the door in the ceiling irises open, and a Daithian descends. I blink at the sky-brightness behind him as the dazzling emerald green wings are lit like stained glass until the door closes and he ‘thunks’ onto the floor near the bar. Sky and sea have come in with him and he folds up his wings, shaking them slightly and looks around the pub, helmet under one arm.
“Commander on deck” someone cries in Standard and all the redclad soldiers are on their boots.
“At ease” the green winged man says in the same tongue, and waves a gauntleted hand at them. They remain standing and he shakes his head, but smiling at them. He’s tan, and his teeth are very white against the weather beaten skin stretched over his handsome face. Scars, fainter, touch at the corner of his mouth and along his chin as if he’s had the lower lip split repeatedly and healed. He finishes shaking out his wings, making dust clouds roll through the room and I choke, reaching for my tea to avoid coughing. He raises a dark brow at me and moves towards the table.
“I hate booths” he says, twitching a wing. “If we’re doing this thing, I pick where we are sitting.”
“All right” I agree, and catch up my tea as he moves towards the rear of the room where there are low backed chairs and scarred tables set out for diners. He catches one of the seats with his booted dusty foot pulls it out, and sits down with a flourish of wing. Thunking down his helmet, he greets the server who flicks her wings and comes gliding over.
“Usual Commander?” she asks her eyes bright. I slip around the other side of the table, and sit.
“Two servings of the usual” he agrees. “How’s the leg, Jantia?” he asks, pulling off his gauntlets then flipping his helmet and stashing them inside it.
“Tis a’tien” she replies, color flooding her neck.
“Uh-huh. Somehow I think not” he says looking down at her limb. I gawk. From the knee downward she’s got some sort of metal-peg leg going on.
“Make sure the damn Regent gets a replacement for you. Can’t have good soldiers mustered out simply because they misplaced a piece of themselves. Damn sloppy thing to do, Jantia. Damn sloppy. I expect to see you armored up and serving within the six months.”
“Aye, sir” she chokes, blinking hard.
“And if that idiot won’t pay, come see me and I’ll twist his neck till he does.”
“Aye, sir” she repeats and then opens and closes her mouth before dashing away. Her wing wash makes my hair fly all over and I put a hand up to stop it.
Rea flicks a wing which stirs the air more and I frown.
“Enough” I say, grabbing the papers that want to go every which way. “I see why you wanted to meet here. You’re the shot-caller here and I’m not. But” I lean forward “I am the one that crafted this place with words. We’re inside your story and I wrote it.”
“Correction” he lifts a hand “You simply happened to discover it. Your words were a bridge to this world.”
“You’ve been reading the MYST books again, haven’t you?” I say evenly “That is a story. It’s fiction.”
“Is it?” he asks as the girl comes back with two plates of steaming food. She slides them before us over the table with practiced ease; baked ichthus, a side of some sort of tuber, and a green cabbage looking thing with bits of fried crunchy stuff on top. She puts down a basket of dark bread between the plates and finally, a flagon of something dark and spicy for Rea.
“Cook said to say he’s got hot cinnatwists for the sweet farewell, but don’t rush he’ll put a basket aside for you.” She murmurs, smoothing her hands on her apron and then “Are you being interviewed for a paper or something, sir?”
“Or something” Rea says, grimacing. I open my mouth to protest but the look she shoots me makes me keep my thoughts to myself.
“Go on, Jahani, Don’t keep the reds waiting” he murmurs as he forks a piece of flaky breaded fish into his mouth. She nods and moves off, glaring over her shoulder at me. I watch her move between the tables, the metal of her prosthetic glinting as she maneuvers.
“I don’t remember writing her.”
“You didn’t.” Rea says “I told you” he looks over at me, green gaze locking with mine. “Your words discovered this place, you didn’t create it.”
“That is not true I wrote every inch and created it from the molecules up” I squirm and then blurt “Look, I’m here to get answers.”
“I’m here to eat” he says stabbing the fish before him. “You wanted to ask questions—go on then. Ask them. But remember” he continues pointing the fork tines and fish flesh at me “Asking questions are a dangerous business. You might not like the answers you get.” He pops the fish into his mouth, and chews, hunching over the table a little as he does so. As if he thinks someone would take the plate of food from him.
I open my note book.
“These first questions are from Emily Bradburn”
“The chick with the flightless hywinnae” he says, and sits up a little straighter. “They like her so she can’t be all bad. What’s she want to know” he reaches for the flagon.
“Ah” I clear my throat. “Has anyone ever called you a pansy?”
He takes a long pull from the flagon, brows bunching slightly. I can see a white line angling through the left one that makes it all the way to the beginning of the bridge of his nose. I make a note of that in the notebook for Megan.
“What in the worlds is a pansy?” he asks as he puts the glass down.
“A flower” I say slowly.
“That’s a weird thing to call anyone.”
“It’s also sometimes used on Earth to denote cowardliness.”
“So” he says, continuing to eat his meal “She really wants to know if someone has ever called me a coward.”
“Probably” he said around his mouthful of food “I get called a lot of things by a lot of different people.”
“She wants to know” I say, picking up my fork and taking a bite of the fish myself “What you did to them when they called you a coward.” His left wing bounces on his shoulder. The fish is very mild, and whatever spices they’ve used gives it pleasant warmth but nothing that will make my stomach take revenge on me later.
“When I was younger I probably hit them.”
“And now?” I ask reaching for my iced tea.
“Hit them” his mouth twitches. “No,” he says wiping his mouth with his napkin “Now I probably just ignore them. It’s not worth the energy to smash every idiot who opens their mouths.”
“So you just ignore the insults” I say, making a note in the book beside my plate on the table.
He shrugs faintly and I sigh as I take a forkful of the fish myself, and some of the tubers which are buttery and creamy and very good.
“She would also like to know what your most embarrassing moment is?” I reach for my tea and look at him. He chews, relaxing his arms and rolling his shoulders slightly.
“Other than this one?” he asks and I deliberately put the tea down on the table instead of throwing it in his face. He’s not the only one who can show restraint.
“Other than this one” I agree.
“Most embarrassing. Ah” he looks up at the ceiling, and then over at the bar as if looking around the room is going to tell him the answer. He leans forward over the table “That would have to be the time that I was stripped, hung upside down in the hanger, and trussed up like a wold for the skewering.” I blink at him.
“Didn’t that end up with you getting free, messily taking care of your captors and setting the hanger on fire?”
“Yes” Rea admits as he leans back into his chair “But I was bare like a stripped twig. Not my finest moment.”
“You were covered in the blood and gore of your enemies.”
“It was nasty and embarrassing” he insists and signals to our waitress. “Jahani, I think we’re ready for the cinnatwists. Two large baskets, please” She smiles, collects are mainly empty plates, and someone else brings over two mugs, and a pot of coffee.
Rea pours himself a mug of the steaming dark liquid and adds one sugar and one cream to his. I make a note for Megan.
Then Jahani girl is back with a mounded plate of cinnatwists that look like cinnamon bun-sticks drizzled with icing and twisted into corkscrews. Rea grabs two, and dips them into his coffee, then tucks his head close to the mug and bites the coffee saturated ends off. He ‘mms’ and then straightens. “Tell cook, they’re utterly perfect.” He winks at the girl and I watch the color run over her features. But then she’s called to another table and is off again.
I take one of the twists and examine it. Looks like a confection, smells like one, it’s oily and hot and I dip it into my black coffee and bite down on it. The bitter brew dribbles over my lips and runs down my chin as the sweet trio of sugar, cinnamon, and butter play over my tongue with the bite of the coffee that didn’t escape.
“These confections are amazing” I mutter around it, and quickly finish the stick.
“Sorry, only available on Daitha” he half smiles and drinks his coffee. “No ink or paper ever tasted like this. You can take my word for that” he says as he helps himself to another two. “You didn’t make these, Cook did. And he’s not using toner and paper either.’’ I snatch a twist out of the basket and bite a piece off, before drinking from my mug. Even better.
“How many times have you been arrested?” I ask around the chewy delight.
Rea settles back in the chair, leaning against the low supportive back, and half shuts his eyes.
“That depends on the kind of arrest. Would detention or being thrown in the brig when I served as Jack Commander here count as arrests or does she mean when I went off world?”
“Let’s say any time you were detained or put in a cell is an arrest.” I say “Just for the sake of not dragging this out longer than it needs to be.”
“Well, then over thirty times, and that’s probably a bit on the lower end of my estimation” he murmurs and takes a deep drink of his coffee.
“Wow. Really? Thirty?” I write it in the notebook. “That seems kind of high to me.”
“Illoth wasn’t happy with me” Rea murmurs, and then sets the coffee cup down, refilling it.
“Okay” I nod “I get that. So how about how many of those were Illoth punishing you and how many were you getting caught where you weren’t supposed to be doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing?”
He tips his head back and forth, a wing stretching as he concentrates on pouring out the beverage.
“Say twenty of the thirty times were on Daitha and a result of Illoth having me pulled from duty and thrown in the brig. Rest happened off world.”
“That still seems awful high” I protest “You’re better than that.” His gaze meets mine, and I pull in a breath sharply “Some of those times you meant to get caught. You wanted to be put in lock up.”
“Wanted to be in a cell? That doesn’t sound like something a smart man would do, now does it?” he asks.
“But you’ve never said you were a smart man” I snipe and he smiles, faintly, and stirs his coffee. “All right so you’ve been arrested thirty some times. What for?”
“You said it yourself” he murmurs into his mug “Being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, or doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”