Inside a pub much is unchanged.
A chronicler sits by a bar. Nurses a pint. Tries to make conversation.
An older sister sees to a barkeep’s chores. Empties a dishwasher. Puts glasses on shelves. Tries to hum and nod in the right places.
Candles still burn on tables. Music still play in speakers. Flames still flicker in a fireplace, and remnants of a recent meal still wait to be cleaned up.
Two old men sit in their usual spot. Watching and whispering. Suspicious and curious. Entertained.
A bell rings and a door opens.
Sounds and smells of rain and chill sweep through a room. Reminders of an outside world. Appointments. Responsibilities. Crowded subway trains and empty apartments.
A paladin shuts a door. Candles stop flickering and warmth returns to a pub. Grumbling old lips grow silent and drink from half empty pints.
– – –
Toini walked up to the bar, her boots loud against the floorboards. She clambered up on one of the bar stools – always made for people just a little bit taller than her – sighed, and rested her elbows on the bar.
Raoul looked at her. The two old men over in the corner looked at her. Paivi faced the other way, carefully placing one glass after another on a shelf, but she no doubt knew Toini was there. The entire back wall of the bar, behind the shelves and everywhere, was one big mirror – cracked, but still a mirror. She knew.
The song on the speakers ended.
“Well?” said Paivi and took the last glass from the tray.
She turned around, held the glass up to Toini, and raised an eyebrow.
A new song began. Something old. A good one. It had been old already when they first started coming here. Memories.
Paivi put the glass under the tap and began filling it up. Gotecan Black. Good stuff.
“I’m good,” said Toini and nodded again. “I’m good.”
“Good,” said Paivi and flipped up the handle of the tap to stop the flow.
And then they waited, listening to the familiar chords and watching the stout settle. Foam falling away into black liquid.
Beside them, Raoul cleared his throat. “So, what’s the plan?”
Toini turned to him and smiled. This would not go down well. “The plan is we wait until the Orange Cream arrives, then we go to Tin Jian and pick up Roy.”
“What?” Roy’s jaw dropped.
“Really?” said Paivi. “You’d go to Tin Jian just like that?”
“I need Roy.” Toini smiled at her. “If he’s in Tin Jian, then that’s where we’ll go.”
“Oh…” Paivi’s eyes grew wide and a big grin spread across her face. “You need him? Just wait until he hears that.”
Toini rolled her eyes. “Paivi…”
Raoul groaned. “Please Toini. It’s going to take weeks. Months even.”
With a sigh, Toini turned to Raoul. “Yes. It will. So?”
“So? So!” His mouth wide open, Raoul stared at her. “You said I could leave after we were done here. I don’t want to get dragged along to the end of the world for however long that takes.”
“I said you could leave after this quest.” Toini shrugged. “This is the quest.”
“What?” His eyes filled with disbelief. “You can’t do that to me.”
Toini took a deep breath and slowly let it out again. Patience. Patience.
“We go to Tin Jian. We get Roy on the crew.” She raised her hand to forestall further complaints. “Then we go to Knysvian, and as soon as we get there I’ll sign you off with all the paperwork and recommendations and everything.”
She forced a smile to her face. “Okay?” Tried to look reasonable. Accommodating. “All that crap that Church likes.”
Raoul sputtered. “But that’s going to be at least two months.” He threw his arms wide and splayed his hands, almost knocking his pint over in the process. “I thought I’d be out of this by the end of the week.”
“Seriously Raoul.” So much for reasonable. Toini sighed and rolled her eyes at him. “You know the amount of hoops we have to jump through before I can let you go if we’re going to do it properly. It would not be done by the end of the week regardless of whether Roy was here or not.”
His shoulders slumped and he reached for his beer. “I know, but we could at least have started.”
On the other side of the bar, Paivi cleared her throat. “Can’t you go by Knysvian on the way to Tin Jian? It’s not much of a detour, is it?”
“No.” Toini glared at her. “It’s another week just in travel.” She did not need this.
“Toini…” Raoul sighed. “It’s not that far.”
“Raoul, it’s Knysvian…” Toini paused and took a deep breath. “They’ll tie me down in paperwork for weeks if I show my nose there.”
“Well, that’s not my stupid fault now is it?”
“Oh, shut up.” Toini raised a warning finger at him. “We’re not going by Knysvian and that’s final.”
Raoul said nothing, just glared at her, his lips beginning to curl ever so slightly.
Toini glared back. They both wanted him off the crew. His presence grated on her more and more for every day. The constant arguments. The whining. She couldn’t wait to be rid of him, but the quest was more important. Everything else could wait – he too.
Behind the bar, Paivi pulled the handle of the tap and began filling up the last of the pint.
They stared at it in silence. Pale foam billowing in the black liquid as the glass filled to the brim. Paivi flipped up the handle and stopped the flow. The stout began to settle. Curtains of foam sinking and dissolving into the darkness at the bottom of the glass.
The power of nostalgia. Toini’s mouth watered.
Once the pint was done, all black except for half an inch of foam at the top, Paivi lifted it from its place below the tap and place it on the bar in front of Toini.
“I’ll put it on your tab.”
Toini grinned at her sister. That was code for “on the house.” They’d used it whenever there were people around that Paivi didn’t feel like giving free beer to. She too didn’t approve of Raoul. Then again, that had been pretty obvious from the start.
Smiling, Toini sipped her stout. Thick, creamy, filling. Hints of burning firewood. Hillsides covered in fog. Rough woolen sweaters. Just like she remembered. The smile grew on her face.
That hadn’t gone too bad. It could have been a lot worse. Raoul could be such an ass sometimes.
Beside her Raoul cleared his throat, and for an instant Toini sat absolutely still. Jinxed it. Slowly she set down her glass. Kept her face straight.
“Yes?” She did not turn to look at him.
“How about local Church? We need to report in with them anyway. Perhaps they have someone available.”
“No.” Toini sighed. “We’re leaving as soon as the Orange Cream arrives. There’s no need to talk to Church here.”
“What? But you have to.” He leaned towards her, reached out as if to grab her arm but stopped himself in time and instead crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re staying more than forty eight hours. You have to register.”
“No.” Toini sipped her beer.
Keep calm. Don’t let him get to you.
“It’s too much attention. It’ll interfere with the quest.” She sat down the pint and turned to face Raoul head on. “We will not talk to Church.”
Raoul straightened up where he sat. Raised his chin just a fraction. “It’s regulation.”
She knew very well it was. Bastard didn’t have to remind her.
“No Raoul, it’s a pointless hassle.” It was, but that didn’t mean it was regulation too. “It’ll take too much time for no good reason.”
“It’s not interfering with the quest.” Raoul shook his head. “We’re just sitting around waiting.”
Toini clenched her jaws and grabbed her pint. “We’re under the radar. I don’t want anyone knowing we’re here.”
She turned away from him and looked straight forward, faced herself in the mirror behind the bar. Distorted and fragmented through rows of empty glasses on the shelf in front of the mirror, but still there. A blonde woman in a red jacket. Drinking beer. Nice and calm. Perfectly normal.
There was no reason to be upset or angry about anything.
“You have to report in. If they find out you didn’t report they’ll cut your funding.”
Toini snapped around and slammed her fist into the bar. “Are you threatening me?”
Raoul shied back and for a moment his hands went up as if to shield himself. “You know the rules as well as I do.” He cleared his throat and crossed his arms over his chest once more. “You can’t just go ignoring regulations whenever you feel like it.”
Really, she couldn’t? Where had he been the last five years?
“I can and I will, and you know that stupid well.” Toini made a chopping motion with her hand. “We do not need the attention that reporting in will bring. Is that clear?”
Without taking his eyes off of her Raoul reached for his pint and put it to his lips. He drained what little was left and set it down with a thud. For a moment he just stared at her, and then he nodded. “Yes, your holiness. That is perfectly clear.”
“Good.” Grumbling under her breath Toini reached for her own pint and took a long sip.
She thought for a moment, rubbed her hands together, and eventually she cleared her throat. “Now, here’s what we’ll do…”
Raising her hand, she began counting down on her fingers. “I’ll stay here, chill with my sister, and keep a low profile. You will go to Church, file an Incognito Presence report with a six month release, and then you can do whatever you stupid want until the Orange Cream arrives. Understood?”
Raoul drew breath as if to say something but stopped himself. He checked his pint and found it empty. He rubbed at his chin, gazed up into the ceiling, glanced at the mirror behind the bar. He took a deep breath, let his shoulders slump, and shrugged.
“Understood,” he said.
“Good.” Toini nodded. “I’ll see you on board.”
His face grim, Raoul got to his feet. He grabbed his coat and umbrella and picked his suitcase up from the floor. Without looking at her he turned around and walked off. At the door he stopped and put his coat on, buttoned up against the rain, pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket.
Then he opened the door and left.