“Ok, one more time Lule.” I said, as the seven of us were walking to the Mayor’s house. “Let’s go over what I should and shouldn’t do.”
“Aye, I’ve told you. Just relax! Yer an honored guest. Yer fine.” Lule tried to brush me off.
I was having none of it. Proper prior planning and all that.
I was coming round to the dwarves Tradition. They had rules for everything! Rules for how to talk, how to eat, how to walk.
All I needed to do was learn ALL THE RULES, and I’d never set a foot wrong! No awkward blunders! No putting my foot in my mouth!
Some were easy, like “respect the ancestors.” They had some serious ancestor-worship going on, which was why they were mostly unfazed by gods, religion, angels, and the like. On one hand, I kinda saw their point. Their day-to-day lives were built by the work of their ancestors, and they all believed they were standing on the shoulders of giants – errr, normal-sized people. Giant by dwarf standards. Anyways!
Some were harder, like the winter solstice traditions, or the exact calculation of where a dwarf was located in dwarvish society – or where to sit in a sauna! While I’d gotten the information in theory, I’d yet to succeed putting it into practice.
Sure, the rules could grate on me somewhat, like the endless invitations I got, but that seemed to be a small price to pay to remove awkward moments forever.
I ignored Glifir’s protests that I didn’t need it down perfectly.
“Right! When I come in, I say ‘I thank you for your gift of hospitality, for sharing of hearth and home?’, right?” I asked Lule.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Hearth, home, and bread.” She replied.
“Hearth, home, and bread.” I repeated to myself.
[Pristine Memories] should be helping with this, but it took time to properly dig through all my memories to find the right lesson. I was working and practicing with Lule to make it second nature, habit, so that when it came time to give the right response, I didn’t stand there for 20 seconds trying to find the right memory.
[*ding!* [Pristine Memories] leveled up! 201 -> 202]
We kept talking, reviewing the rest of the greetings and potential customs I might encounter. Lule was a treasure, a veritable font of knowledge, and in spite of her belief that I didn’t need to do all this, was happy to entertain my requests for knowledge.
We made it to the door, and knocked, four times in a Traditional pattern. I only knew there were a bunch, but only knew the one that Lule knocked.
“Invited guests have arrived.”
There were more complex and formal variants on it, I’d been told, but they were for ~extra fancy~ occasions.
The door opened, and we were led to a large banquet hall, tables forming a T-shape.
A small dwarf with a magnificent red beard, looking like it was made of fire, greeted us. If not for Lule’s lesson, I might’ve mistaken him for a greeter of some sort, and not the mayor himself.
“Ha! Healer! You grace us with your presence, and I wish to invite you to break bread and share salt with us!” He enthusiastically greeted us – mostly me.
I glanced at Lule, and put my game face on. Big smiles! Can’t be too big, no grimaces.
“I thank you for your gift of hospitality, for sharing of hearth, home, and bread.” I replied, mentally patting myself on the back for landing it.
Or wait. Shit. Was this a case that I should’ve used the healer counter-greeting instead? No time to check, better cover my bases.
“And your sharing of salt. Yes.” I said, refraining from facepalming as I somehow punted it horribly.
All that prep work. Why did I try?
Right. The dude’s happy grin, as he passed me a loaf of bread and a small bowl of salt. I dipped the end of the bread in the salt, and took a big bite.
“Mayor Dibo Birber the 88th, at your service.” He said, politely giving me a half-bow.
I glanced at Lule. Host first, then the guests, in hierarchical order. Lule’s combination of Leader and 89th beat out my combination of healer, diplomat, and 94th, via arcane rules that Lule had explained to me, and I somehow failed to properly execute in practice.
However, I did know that “non-dwarf” was one of the rules, and it counted against me.
“Leader Lule the 89th.” She said, doing the same half-bow.
“Healer Elaine the 94th.” I said, finishing the formalities.
I got a great big grin from Dibo.
“Come! Sit! I’ve heard that you’re not a dwarf! Is that true?” He asked, peering at me intently.
“Um, no. I’m a human.” I said, taking a seat on his left at the head of the table. The honored guest position.
“Would I bring a nameless to you?” Lule asked, with amused exasperation.
Nameless? What? I looked to Lule, then the rest of the dwarves, with a question in my eyes, but none of them would answer me.
Glifir mouthed “later” though, which was nice. The five other members of the group saluted Dibo, one at a time, in their own ranking order, then went to the lower tables to find a seat.
Sitting down to eat, I noticed, was a much less structured affair, and more a massive free-for all. Glad not everything was rigid! Could you imagine? Everyone needing to shuffle seats every time someone new showed up?
Lule sat next to me, and I noticed with interest that there was a dwarf wearing metal on Dibo’s right.
“Who’s this beardless lass? You’re not playing one of your games by putting a nameless above me, are you?” He grumped, and I promptly didn’t like him.
Still. Diplomat. Social. Time to be polite.
With a smile that didn’t come close to reaching my eyes, I went through the introduction ritual.
“Healer Elaine the 94th.” I said, giving him a half-bow. “Human! I’m from Remus, a country inside the dead zone.”
“Miner Thabo the 35th.” He eventually reluctantly said, clasping his wrists with his hands. “What’re your people doing, sending someone so young here?” He grumbled at me.
I had this brief moment of whiplash as I thought the dwarf was over 3000 years old – more than half the time Pallos had been around, by all accounts – only to remember my travel-mates muttering about Khazad dwarves screwing up the generational count, and doing it totally different. Must be one of those.
“I was available, and I get the sense that we’re a much shorter-lived race than dwarves are. I was traveling with a Void mage, and, well, the border guards didn’t take kindly to him.”
The hall fell silent, and I got stares from just about everyone.
Ah screw it. It’s funny seeing their reaction.
“Bluebeard’s not so bad. Nice guy. We hang out a bunch.” I said, letting a manic grin slowly unravel on my face.
The conversation slowly started to resume, as Thabo shook his head at me.
“You lot sound crazy. Which is good!” He said, hurriedly realizing what he’d said. “We’re looking for crazy.”
“Why’s that?” I asked him.
“Well, we’ve located Lun’Kat’s lair, full of every type of treasure imaginable. From raw mithril to growing ironwood, diamonds the size of eggs to actual eggs from creature of every shape and size, strange objects which defy all knowledge to magical herbs, the dragon’s a huge collector! We figure all we need to do is evict her, and we’ll be rich for generations!”
It was my turn to stare at him, pale and open-mouthed.
“What’s wrong?” Mayor Dibo asked me, with no small amount of concern.
I swallowed and mentally reset myself.
How do I say this?
The awkward pause dragged on, as I struggled to find words. Finally, a bad analogy came to mind. Hopefully it’d work.
“Like you’re scared of Void mages, we’re scared of… well… what you were talking about. We have a belief that they can hear us when we say their name, and it’s taboo.” I got out, carefully phrasing my words so I didn’t say the D-word.
I got looks like I was crazy.
“Lun’Kat flies overhead every few decades or so.” Dibo said, with the careful tone of voice one used on a skittish horse. “She’s given us no problems so far.”
I wasn’t about to get talked down so badly.
“You’re planning on poking her in her home though. I’ve known Bluebeard for a decade, and he’s had decades of service more. No problems from him either.” I bit back.
“That’s not the same!” Lule argued.
“Peace. Peace!” Mayor Dibo said, interrupting everyone. “Let’s eat, and discuss happier topics. Healer Elaine, what can you tell us about your hometown, and where you were born?” He said, steering the conversation somewhere wildly different.
I didn’t mind the change of pace, and I started to talk about my hometown as food came out.
“Well, I was born in a mid-sized town called Aquiliea. It had a river going through it, and it was on the shores of the Nostrum sea, a great big sea in the middle of the Remus Republic, connecting most of the towns to each other. Growing up, I…”
I took the occasional mouthful as I talked about my town and history. There was some pork mixed in with the bread and beans, and I mentally cursed. I hadn’t checked what the food was, nor did I mention my aversion to eating it.
It only took half a thought to remember the smell of Kerberos’s burning flesh in the arena. There were some memories I treasured, and would carry forever, like Artemis dancing with Lightning. Others? Others I wished I could erase.
I picked around it, hoping I wasn’t causing some great offense, as the discussion continued. Some tankards of ale were brought out, and I carefully sipped on mine. They were ok, but nothing spectacularly amazing. I felt slightly let down, but I didn’t let it show. There was more to come.
After the whole dragon-Void mage spat, I was feeling more relaxed. The dwarves didn’t seem to take arguments all that personally, and it was looking like it’d be hard to say something offensive enough to start a war over.
The meal was finally over, and I sat back with a full stomach.
“Right! Time for the good stuff!” Mayor Dibo shouted, and a huge keg was rolled in.
“Healer Elaine! This stuff’s so strong, it’ll put a beard on your chin!” Mayor Dibo happily shouted to me.
“Ah, let me see!” I yelled back at him, getting in the spirit of things.
Right! Traditional message!
“I’ll drink your beer here! I’ll drink your beer there! I’ll drink your beer anywhere!” I said, to a few approving grins.
“Drink till ye drop!” Lule said, happily taking a huge mug of frothing ale from one of the dwarves who was pouring mugs off the keg.
I got passed one, and started to tip it into my mouth, getting it in just in time to hide a wicked, evil grin.
This wasn’t the first time people had tried to get me terribly drunk for one reason or another. Usually with impure motives.
For some damn reason, people kept trying to get a healer drunk. I could instantly purge myself of alcohol in an instant, and it was always amusing to drink people under the table by blatantly cheating.
I was no good at cheating at cards, dice, or other games, but drinking?
I considered it mostly fair game, as I was tagged [Healer]. They had their chance of knowing. I wasn’t going to advertise it.
We all clanked our mugs together, and bottoms up!
The fact that [Bullet Time] activated as I brought the mug up to my face gave me a moment’s pause, but I mentally shrugged, made sure [Dance with the Heavens] was busy healing me, and started to down the mug.
Strong didn’t begin to cover it, as my throat seized up as the powerful brew burned all the way down. I couldn’t manage it all, and came spluttering back up after just two mouthfuls.
All it tasted like was tingly alcohol, like I was drinking a strong spirit directly, and not some sort of ale. Still, the alcohol was purged as it hit my system, and I wasn’t about to show defeat after two drinks, not when everyone else was going bottoms up.
Bottoms up it was! I kept a half-eye on my mana, seeing it occasionally flicker a few points away, only to be instantly refilled. Strong stuff.
At the end, I could see the bottom of the mug, but why was it spinning? It shouldn’t be spinning. Spinning was baaaaad.
I put the mug down on the table, frowning.
They never told me this was a fun room! The table kept tilting back and forth, and I stuck my tongue out and bit it in concentration as I tried to carefully put my mug back down on it.
Which, with much effort and concentration, I managed.
“Yay!” I said, throwing my arms up, feeling all sorts of tingly and happy all throughout my body.
There was a roar of approval – and quite a few more laughs. The room was spinning in several directions, the tables going one way, the walls another. The windows were happily spinning in place on the walls, and there were bright sparks of color going off.
What fun! I needed a cool room like this for myself! Wonder how much it’d cost. I could afford it! Being rich was AMAZING.
“Alright! I’m immune to alcohol! Bring me the next one, so I can drink you lot under the table without you realizing anything!” I yelled, getting another round of laughter – and more than a few drinks sprayed, as some dwarves tried to laugh and drink at the same time.
Lule carefully put her hand over my mug.
“You’ve probably had enough.” She said, as Thabo said. “Lightweight.”
“Hey! I am not a lightweight! I’ll prove it! Gimme another!” I said.
“Healer Elaine. You are drunk.” Lule said. “Our ale has a lot more than just alcohol in it. We put in tingle-weed, which has magical properties that work just like being drunk. Otherwise, none of us would be able to ever properly enjoy ale once we’d leveled up some.”
That sobered me up real fast. There was a world of difference between not realizing I was drunk, and being forcefully made aware of it.
I looked around the room, still spinning somewhat, sparks of color going off.
I could no longer tell reality from fiction, and my fight-or-flight reflex was going off full blast. I could feel a cold calmness overtaking me, ready for the worst.
I started to walk, trying to leave before someone attacked me or something, promptly hitting the table in front of me and half-folding over it.
No danger. Just drunk. Badly drunk. Don’t start blasting. Do no harm. Don’t murder a house full of happy dwarves because I couldn’t hold my liquor. That’d start a war.
Wars were bad. Bad was bad.
I felt someone grabbing my arm. Pulling me back. Going to – oh wait, it’s Lule. Lule was ok. Right?
Hang on, her mouth was moving. I should listen to her.
“Elaine! Are you ok?” She asked again.
I thought about it. Was I ok? Well, I’d gotten ripped to another world, but I’d adapted. So OK there. I’d escaped an arranged marriage, so I was OK there. I was a Sentinel, which was mostly OK, but I didn’t sleep well at night. Which wasn’t OK. So did that make me OK in the end? Or did my problems end up-
“Elaine!” Lule said, bringing my attention back to her.
Ah right. She wanted to know if I was ok right now.
I shook my head.
“Not ok.” I said. “Gotta leave.” I tried again, and tried to stumble out.
“You sure?” Lule asked, supporting me.
I nodded, trying to dampen down the rising panic. I jumped as a nearby dwarf suddenly raised his hand, preparing to attack me.
A shot through the head would be fastest, but I didn’t want to kill him, plus the angle was bad – it might hit someone behind him. A joint shot would be better, plus it wouldn’t ki – oh wait no, he was just getting a drink. Not attacking me.
“I have to get out.” I repeated to Lule, stumbling forward.
I closed my eyes, and let Lule guide me out. I opened them again when I felt the cold air blasting on my face again.
Lule kept me steady as we staggered down the street.
We made it back to where we were spending the night. Bless having my own room.
“Beard Lule the 700th.” I said, madly giggling after. She had a beard! I was totally being polite with giving her a TITLE! And a generation! 700 seemed right.
I got a frown back, and I remembered what I wanted to say.
I got a little more serious.
“Lule. For real. I’m super drunk. I already struggle when I sleep. I’m alone, in a place with no friends at all, and I’ve been in more fights and seen more people die than you’d believe. Whatever happens. DO NOT DISTURB ME. I almost attacked three different people thinking they were trying to hurt me in there. Someone walks in, and I can’t promise I’ll tell they’re friendly before I start shooting. Just. Leave me be.”
I didn’t wait to see or hear her reaction. I just curled up under the blankets, and tried not to cry.
I was a healer. I wanted to help people. I hated that I was on a hair trigger. I hated that I had nightmares. I hated how I’d developed a reflex of blasting first, and asking questions later.
Was it too much to ask for a simple life? Was it too much to just have things be easy?
I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, that no amount of [Dance] could get rid of. I closed my eyes, wishing the pain would go away, would go bother someone else. My head being super-foggy wasn’t helping.
When was the last time I’d had a headache? One that I couldn’t magic away?
Hurty no go away if no think.
I probably needed water. Then again, this was a magical hangover, caused by more whatever-the-fuck the dwarves used to make their ale more potent.
With a groan, I rolled over, and got out of bed.
At least I’d de-filthified, and whatever potent blend of herbs the dwarves used didn’t want to involuntarily exit. Bless the small things in life.
At the same time, embarrassment, shame, and remorse flooded over me.
I’d gotten so drunk. “Couldn’t-stand-up” drunk. “Needed-to-be-carted-out” drunk. At a fancy, formal function.
I tried to remember what I’d said last night, and as soon as I remembered, I wanted to crawl right back under the covers and hide away, until nighttime when I could sneak out. With any luck, Lule and the rest of the team would be too busy looking for me before the real diplomats could arrive, and make a better first impression than I had.
The real question was – hide in the ground, under a rock? Or high up in a tree?
The dwarves were short, and low to the ground, which made being under rocks a little trickier as a hiding spot. At the same time, they loved and venerated the gigantic redwoods, so they were probably looking up a bunch.
Neither was a winning move.
Maybe I could play it off as “getting totally sloshed was the human way?”
That might save some face, but it didn’t help the embarrassment I was feeling in the moment.
Bleargh. Lying here and wallowing wasn’t going to improve my situation, nor my headache. I needed to gal up, and face the music. The sooner I tackled this, the sooner it’d be done.
I stumbled out of my room to see Fik sitting at the table, idly moving three pebbles in an orbit. What was interesting was the way they wavered and wriggled as they moved near each other. Which, assuming he wasn’t deliberately trying to do that, meant that either he was an Earth mage of some sort, or more likely, he had some other element that he was using to manipulate stones as if he was an Earth mage.
“Healer Elaine the 94th!” He happily greeted me from where he was sitting. “You’re up! Heard you downed an entire mug. Good job! I didn’t think someone your age, without a beard, could manage it. Why, I remember my first mug, when I became an adult! Sprayed half of it across the room! Barely got any of it down my throat, but eh! Better than Drin. He was actually sick, can you believe it? Oh! Right! Hangover cure’s right there.” He pointed to a drink, still not getting up, and I thankfully stumbled over and downed it.
Sure, it was probably brewed for dwarven anatomy, not human, but my head was murdering me, and Fik enjoyed nattering on. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was deliberate.
“Thank you.” I forced out, wincing as each word sent a spike of pain through my head, like an icepick through the eye.
I thankfully grabbed and downed the hangover cure. How did medicine always taste awful the world around?
For that matter, I hadn’t needed to properly drink medicine for years and years. My healing was just that good for just about everything.
My head started to feel better – then worsen. Still, the fogginess was gone, and with a few extra braincells working, I realized I might’ve made it worse.
Medicine was complicated. There was a reason I’d gone into the easy “touch and heal” style of medicine, rather than the ridiculously complicated field of trying to brew potions. There were some benefits to being an alchemist, but one of the downsides was just how damn tricky it was.
A gross, massive oversimplification worked like this. See, if I had not enough of, say, insulin, and I got a shot of insulin, happy days! I’d live! However, if my blood-sugar levels were already fine, and I got a shot of insulin, I’d go dangerously hypoglycemic. In short, if the problem didn’t exist for the medication to counteract, it could cause just as much harm as the initial problem itself.
I’d happily purged myself of alcohol, so when I’d drunk a magically-brewed cure that handled residual alcohol and intoxication, along with whatever magic drugs were in the ale, I’d screwed it. I’d already purged myself of alcohol hours ago, so the “counteract alcohol” and “counteract alcohol derivatives” portion of the brew had nothing to properly work on – and was doing goddesses-knows-what to my body.
I gave the empty hangover cure the evil eye, scrounged up food and drink, and retreated back to my room.