“Come on, Chuck.”
I tried not to scowl as John lead me towards the city gate. Everyone seemed so amused by my condition, and had given me a new nickname. I was sure that they were making fun of me, but I didn’t care. If it kept the mood light, it was worth it.
On the plus side, he was carrying my duffel, which meant that he had to augment his density. That made his footsteps slower. Unfortunately, he was also in a talkative mood.
“I don’t get why you threw up like that. Don’t you teleport just fine?”
“I do,” I groaned. “But I don’t handle situations like… back there. I don’t handle them at all.”
John laughed, deep from his gut. “Oh, please. You did great! And when you snapped, that was—”
“Scary,” Kathy said quietly.
“Yes,” he boomed with another laugh. “Magnifique!”
“No,” she said a little more firmly before looking at me. “That was goddamn terrifying, you going from the act to ready to kill him and back, just like that. And that smile afterwards… Seriously, chills.”
I lowered my head, feeling a fresh wave a nausea hit me.
“Chills?” Brenda asked quietly. Right, she’d been able to hear everything going on, but hadn’t been able to see it. Though, did her power let her hear possible conversations, too? I’d have to ask.
“Yeah,” Emi admitted guiltily. “That smile… Yeah.”
Apparently, Kathy saw me drawing into myself and put her hand on my shoulder, rubbing my back as best she could with my pack in the way. “Hey, hey. I get it, I really do. With everything you’ve been through… Okay, listen. None of us think you’re a butcher or anything. We wouldn’t have tried to hook up with you if we did.
“Yeah, you being compared to Jack Slash? I totally get that. That’s saying, you know…” Her words trailed off.
“That someone thinks that you’re a monster,” John said solemnly. “And we don’t think that. I mean, once you knew that what you’ve got in your head could help those people in that hamlet, you went all out. Even if Kathy or Chris hadn’t told me all about you, seeing you in action there would have told me that you’re a good guy.
“You’ve also been through a lot of shit, man. Snapping on someone was probably exactly what you needed.”
“I almost squashed both his eyes,” I said weakly.
John took a slow breath. “Listen, man. I’m not going to say that’s right or cool or anything, but I’m going to say it’s understandable. You’ve… Well, I think you need a release. I think that I can help with that.”
“John,” Kathy barked in a firm tone.
“Relax,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “He isn’t my type.” He looked back to me. “You’re not my type, seriously. No, what I was thinking—”
“Who goes there?” a voice called out from the walls of the city.
John stepped in front of our group as quickly as his altered density would allow. “Just a group of weary travelers seeking refuge before all light vanishes from the evening’s sky, officer!”
“Right,” the guard called out flatly. “Gate closes at 7, sorry.” He didn’t sound very sorry.
“Huh,” Kathy said, sauntering past John. “Can I convinced you to check the VIP list for ten in New Brockton coin?” That was… a day’s wages for the average person.
That caused a change in the guard’s disposition. “Oh! I’m sorry, miss. I didn’t recognize you. I’ll be right down.”
She glanced back at us with a smirk on her lips, but I got the feeling that I shouldn’t ask if the guard really recognized her or not.
“I’ll get the extra,” Emi said, getting out her coin purse.
Soon enough, the door opened. The guard wasn’t armored, and didn’t even have a uniform. What kind of outfit was this? He didn’t give me time to think about it. “Welcome to Luxville! I hope that you enjoy your stay!”
“I’m sure we will,” Kathy said as she passed the man, depositing a ten-piece coin in his hand.
Emi was right behind her, Brenda gently touching her light backpack for guidance. “Here,” she said, placing another coin in the man’s hand. I didn’t catch the denomination. “For your trouble of opening the gate and not finding anyone.”
“Just a wild mutt,” he said with a nod. “Such a shame, he looked hungry, too.”
“Don’t get greedy,” John said in a cheerful, downright friendly tone as he passed.
I didn’t dare look at the guard, despite wanting to. Fortunately, he didn’t seem too keen on looking at any of us anymore. That suited me just fine. The less people that paid attention to me, the less of a chance that I had of getting in trouble.
The city, though, was a decent size. I was guessing it would be about 3,000 people, maybe a little more. The door we’d entered was person-sized, but it had big double-gates, too. That suggested decent industry, or perhaps it was a trade hub. The area around the entrance being full of shops that were still open also suggested trade, but wasn’t a guarantee. After all, if people were regularly coming in to pick up and leave with whatever was produced, you’d want the shops right there.
Whatever this city was, it was bustling with activity. Far more people moving about than I was used to, and the further in we got, the worse that it got. A few things, though, did catch my eye.
“I could probably wear my cultist robes,” I whispered to Kathy. “There’s enough of them to blend in here.”
“I didn’t think you were one.”
“I’m not. They were a gift when I visited the Orphanage.”
She nodded a little as John lumbered towards a stall. “Maybe, but I’d be careful. There’s a decently-sized hive here, smaller than the orphanage but plenty big, which is why you’re seeing so many, but that also means that you gotta know your stuff in order to blend in.”
I nodded. That was an excellent point. “I could easily get into debates with people about Armsmaster’s role in the formation of three of Taylor’s stages of life, Skitter, Weaver and Khepri. I could easily get into a discussion about how his time spent with her as Defiant could have shaped her into what she became during Gold Morning.”
“Huh,” Emi said, grinning at me. “I wouldn’t have figured you for a historian.”
Fortunately, she didn’t press the issue. I didn’t feel like justifying myself to another person today. Just food, something besides water to drink, and a nap. That’s all that I really wanted, and I could even skip the nap if need be.
John plodded back up to us, holding a bundle of items to his chest. “Got my stuff. Who’s ready to get a room at the hotel?”
Three hands went up, and I joined them as soon as I realized we were voting.
“Awesome,” he muttered, turning and beginning his slow pace.
Yeah, I couldn’t see the hotel, so it might take a while to get there with his slow pace. With a frown, I reached out and hefted the duffel off his shoulder, putting it on my own. It was heavy enough that my left arm was shaking at the end due to the bad angles.
John frowned a little. “You sure about that, man? That thing’s heavy.”
“I know,” I said with a smile. “That’s why I’m taking it. I’m more used to the weight than you are, and I can use the exercise.” I gave him a nod. “Lead the way.”
We’d only gotten three rooms; Brenda staying with Emi. My room was nicer than I would have liked, but everyone was insistent that we get a certain kind of room. Good carpeting, its own bathroom, and a much bigger bed than what I was used to. Honestly, I was more comfortable in a twin than anything. A king-sized bed might very well have been more than I could sleep in.
As I got changed into clothes, though, I finally got to get a good look at the robes. Cultist robes followed a simple basic pattern, a way for people to identify each other at a glance. Beyond the basics, though, there was a lot of room for customization and personalization. Chris had once had a crush on a gal whose robes were cut to highlight her figure. In fact, she’d been the one to teach him how to sew.
Of course, they’d been far too apart in ages. If she would have returned his interest, Sarah and I would have had to step in.
These robes were simple in their basic design, but had some embroidery here and there that blended in with the fabric almost perfectly. One sleeve had “Necessary Evil” and the other had “Always Strive To Help.” I couldn’t remember who it was that gave me the robes, but he must have had a rather balanced philosophy, though a little dark.
I never bought into the ends justifying the means. Allowing one good person to die so that a hundred could live. You should always fight to save everyone, no matter if you might die in the process.
But I also understood that I wasn’t everyone in the world. People had very different viewpoints from what I had. That was fine. In a way, it was preferable. If you only ever dealt with people who had the same viewpoints as yourself, you never grew as a person. If people all thought the same things, then there would be no love, no real innovation.
I frowned a little as I pulled on the robes, but I wasn’t sure why. Not that it mattered. My money purse in place, I grabbed my teleporter before heading out the door, clipping it to my pants under the robe. We were going to see their tinker friend at some point, and I wanted to be ready.
Everyone was changed and waiting for me downstairs, and I offered them all an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that,” I said softly.
“It’s cool,” John said with a grin. “Just figured you were playing with your stick.”
I nodded a little. “I had to find a good place to put it.”
Brenda snorted loudly, enough to make me jump a little. Everyone else was smirking, too. Wait, I’d missed something.
Emi grabbed my arm, though, and began to drag me towards the door. “Come on, I’m starving. And we’re going to see a show!”
John clapped me on the shoulder with a laugh. “Yeah, there’s a burlesque house that also serves as a diner here. They even got a couple of guys that do routines, which is awesome.”
“Ah,” I said, feeling a slight sinking sensation.
Kathy grinned a bit. “He smiles, but he only says ah. What’s the matter?”
I shrugged a bit. “Shows like that aren’t really my thing, you know?”
“What?” John asked, raising an eyebrow. “Skin shows?”
I nodded, causing him to laugh harder. “Listen. If it was only a skin show and a meal, that would be one thing. I could care less about just inflaming the baser desires with displays on a stage. Believe me, I have far, far better things to be doing than watching a bunch of people shaking it for the salivating masses.
“Yeah, they’re nice to look at, but that’s not why I go. There’s skits, bawdy humor, live music! Food, alcohol…” He laughed again, shaking his head. “It’s not just someone bouncing up and down for entertainment. If flesh isn’t your thing, trust me, we’ll find something for you to enjoy, alright?”
I chuckled softly to myself. “None of you are going to let me get out of this anyway, are you?”
“Nope,” Emi said cheerfully.
To be fair, the four of them all looked like they were really anticipating this; nothing but smiles and a bounce in their steps. Meanwhile, I was more concerned with the fact that I left a sizable amount of money in my room along with all of my weapons save for my boot knife and the knife in my pocket.
But they were happy. They looked so very, very thrilled to be seeing this show. I smiled a little wider and put a little bit more pep in my step, trying to at least fit in a little bit. Funny how I felt a little more alone by doing that.
It didn’t take us too long to reach the restaurant in question — it was the only building lit with red electric lights, while most of the city seemed to be lit by gas lighting. Come to think of it, our hotel had electricity, too. Interesting.
Even as I was puzzling through it, they were talking to the… surprisingly formally dressed hostess, who quickly began leading us to a table. It was amazing how quickly communities could build meeting halls, hotels, and anything else that they needed with what they either scavenged, or here, where they’d built with what was on the land.
It was amazing that they’d picked up so many woodworking skills so quickly. I’d seen better looking places, but the darkly stained wood here reminded me of just how amazing, and adaptable, humanity could be. That alone made my hesitation dampen a little.
The hostess placed us at a table close to the primary stage. On the other side of the room was an area where people could dance, as a smaller stage had a band playing. The two men and two women barely had room to fit on the stage with how many instruments they had packed on there, but they were primed to entertain.
John chuckled a little. “Real food, real drinks.”
“Amen,” Brenda said blissfully. “And the ale here’s pretty good, too.” She paused for a moment to turn her head towards me. “I’m surprised you aren’t getting on my case about that.”
“Guh?” I’d just been opening the menu. “Uh, about—oh! Oh, um… I don’t know how old you are.”
That made her snort softly. “I’m turning sixteen here soon.”
That made me frown a bit. “Uh, well… If, uh, if they let you, and you want to, I mean…” I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t know local laws.
“They serve small beer here. Well, it tastes more like an ale than beer. Low alcohol content, but still good. But no, anyone can drink in this joint.”
I nodded a little, glancing back over the menu. “I’ll probably just have the steak meal, maybe an extra salad, and an order of cheese bread. Well, if they’ll give me extra mashed potatoes…”
Kathy chuckled a little. “That’s our big eater. Whatcha gonna have to drink?”
I shrugged a bit. “Water.”
“Oh, come on!” She seemed genuinely upset about that. “This isn’t the sort of place where you drink *water*. Come on, big man. Live a little.”
I frowned a little, looking back down at my menu, trying to find a way to articulate why I didn’t want to. And then, in a flash, I remembered the exact reason why it felt so wrong.
“Listen,” I said, just loud enough for them to hear me over the music. “It’s not like that. I… I had a bad experience with drinking.”
“Jordan,” Emi started, but I cut her off.
“The last time I drank, I woke up and everyone was dead.”
That shut down the good mood of the table in a heartbeat. It took a long moment for Karen to speak. “That wasn’t your fault.”
“Was it?” I shook my head a little, fixing my eyes on the menu. I wasn’t really seeing it, though. “Maybe I was bait, an excuse. A scapegoat, and whomever did it was just waiting. Maybe if I’d been awake, or more with it, I could have done something about it. Saved some people. Or maybe… Because I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing—”
“Stop,” John commanded. And it was a command; the first time I’d heard his New York voice used in anger. “Listen, bud. Don’t think like that. Not now, not ever. That sort of thinking will drive you crazy. So just stop it.”
He sucked in a breath, relaxing a little. “Besides, it’s not the alcohol’s fault. You start thinking like that, and eventually you’ll start to associate other things, things that were legitimately outside of your control, that they contributed to it. You’ll avoid those, and when you start to see other things, you’ll avoid them, too. And the next thing that you know, you aren’t going outside or eating because you think something terrible’s going to happen.
“Now, I get it. Maybe you don’t want to get blitzed again. That’s fine. But don’t just risk the ire of Montezuma simply because of one bad thing that happened, no matter how bad it might have been. Take control, take charge… and do it responsibly.”
“Responsibly,” I repeated, looking up at him.
“Take control,” he said in a soothing tone. “No green fairy for you, no doing shots out of a girl’s cleavage. But… Small. Slow steps. Start with a small beer. See if that doesn’t cause any harm. Then maybe a regular beer. Maybe throw a wine into the mix. Then maybe, just maybe, something a little stronger. But after that? Cool it off.
“See, most people, they drink to get drunk. They don’t enjoy it. And when you drink to get drunk, that’s when bad things happen. And we’re all right here. We’ll keep an eye on you, alright? And if you start to drink too much, we’ll cut you off.”
I looked back down at the menu, feeling more uncomfortable. “Thanks.”
“Any time,” Emi said, smiling at me. “That’s what friends are for, right?”
I smiled a little, feeling a mild case of the warm fuzzies come over me.
It didn’t last, though. The waitress approached and the feeling faded. Quickly, we all made our orders. I paused at the end of mine, though, looking at the alcohol selection. “Uh, it says that you have ginger ale and ginger beer here…”
The woman smiled a little. “The ginger beer has a stronger flavor. As for the ginger ale, we have both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions.”
That made Kathy perk up. “Wait, non-alcoholic?”
The waitress nodded. “We get it delivered from the Orphanage.” Immediately, I perked up at that, too.
“Done,” John boomed suddenly, startling all of us. “Add an Orphanage ginger ale to all our orders. I still want my whiskey, but I want that, too.”
“I’ll have an alcoholic ginger ale, too,” I said quickly.
The waitress jotted it all down and let us be, even as Kathy was reaching over to slap my shoulder. “Taste of home, eh?”
I grinned at her. “You seem excited, too.”
“Oh, come on. If you’re looking for soda these days, the Orphanage is the place to go. They probably export more than all the kids could ever hope to drink.”
“Why?” Emi asked. “I mean, why’s it so good that they export it?”
“It’s surprisingly hard to carbonate beverages these days,” I said quickly. “You can get the carbon dioxide from making beer and stuff, but most places don’t have what it takes to do that. For most places, the only way to make something carbonated is to brew it, which means that there’ll be some alcohol in it.
“The Orphanage, though, was built near a naturally carbonated spring. So they can make alcohol-free soda pretty easily. They either dissolve a powder mix into it, or make a flavored syrup that they add to it. So you can have full carbonation without having to worry about kids getting drunk.”
Kathy nodded quickly. “Orphanage soda has a completely different flavor to it than anything else you can find these days because of it. It’s not quite the same as before Gold Morning, but it’s about as good, and might even be a bit healthier. They can’t make anything quite like a good, old-fashioned Coke, and I’d kill for that—”
“You and me both,” John groused.
“—but for most folks, the drinks they make are close enough to the good old days that they won’t complain. Especially for older folks, it’s an absolute walk down memory lane.”
What she wasn’t saying was that the walk could be a bad thing, reminding them of everything that they’d lost. As a kid, I’d noticed that sometimes adults would have a soda for the first time, and their body language changed. Sometimes, they’d become super energetic. Other times, they’d slump a little bit, like they’d just been beaten.
Maybe, in a way, they had been beaten. Just by life, and not by a person or a soft drink.
The waitress returned with our drinks, and I was about to reach for the bottle of soda when John shook his head. As I reached for glass with the alcoholic one, he nodded and raised his half-full glass of whiskey.
“To new friends.” He smiled at me. “Good work, and to a bright future. Things are looking up for all of us.” We all reached forward to touch our glasses before drinking. He paused just long enough beforehand to mutter a quick “Salut” before taking his sip.
The band died down, and a truly obese woman stepped on stage. Given how infrequently people could look like that, it was mildly impressive. I stared at her as she walked, her dress glittering off the lights until she was in the center of the stage.
“Hello,” she crooned loudly. “Welcome to the Crazy Horse! It’s so good to have you all tonight! Let’s give a huge round of applause for the ever wonderful music for tonight’s festivities, Amie!”
I clapped, grinning. Friend, huh? Well, I suppose that would work.
“I’m your host, and owner of this establishment, Brunhilde Tease. Tonight, we have a lovely group of people, all eager, willing and ready to entertain, tease, titillate, and otherwise make all of you happy.” She paused as people began to applaud again.
“Even better, we’ll be mingling with all of you after the show, so don’t think that you need to run away after the final bow.” She glanced down at one man in the crowd with a smirk. “And if you ask nicely, I might even get them to turn around before they bow.”
There was an eruption of laughter from the room, though I didn’t get it. Instead, I focused on sipping my drink.
“Now, before I introduce Yvonne and her flaming sticks to all of you for our first performance, I’d like a moment to complain about something.” Brunhilde put a fist on her wide hip, frowning deeply. “I’m turning 40 this year, and even after all this time, I’m still a virgin.”
The entire crowd let out a deep “aw” of sympathy towards her, and she nodded solemnly.
“I know, it’s horrible. Terrible! A travesty! Every time I take a man to bed, he puts it in the wrong fold!”
As the room erupted in laughter, my drink came spitting out of my mouth in a spray. That only seemed to make everyone laugh harder, if my table was any indication.
“Oooh!” Brunhilde exclaimed, waving her hefty arms excited. “It looks like someone here’s more than willing to give it a shot for me! But! I never mix business and pleasure. Much. At least, not while I’m sober. So while I get myself a drink, why don’t you all give a warm round of applause for Yvonne’s sticks!”
The show had been surprisingly lengthy, over two hours long with two breaks. After the show, while the performers were mingling with the crowd, Brenda dragged me onto the dance floor. The band had drawn attention to the two of us at one point, trying different songs and styles. We’d successfully performed rather admirably to all of them.
I would have claimed that her skill came from natural talent, but I knew she was cheating. Just like she knew I was going to suggest going back to the table by offering a deep bow to everyone, earning some polite applause. She’d lifted up the cloth that covered her eyes so that she could peek out regularly as we’d danced together. Still, it was good for me; even with her cheating, she’d moved in specific ways. Now I had a better idea of things that I could do with her in her training.
As we settled back at the table, John grinned at me. “Howya feeling?”
I offered him a shrug. “Alright. I’m not suffering any lack of motor control or anything.”
“I can agree with that,” Brenda said happily, if a little out of breath still. “Thank you for my first dance with a boy. You were charming.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling and bowing my head.
“So.” John held up a shot glass. “Up for one more? Last of the night, no more for you.”
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t really feeling anything but a little relaxed, but at the same time, I didn’t really know what it took to get me drunk. I’d switched to ginger beer, and had only drank eight or nine of them throughout the show, with Orphanage sodas in between. Still…
“Sure. Just the one, though.”
John’s face split into a wide grin as he passed it to me. “Then the last call for us. Salut!”
“Salut!” we all repeated before finishing off our respective drinks. As I set the glass down, though, I didn’t actually feel any merriment. Only dread and worry.
It was going to be an awfully long night.