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A note from Faenon

Player characters for this chapter:

Ryn, Nuthea, Sagar

Suggested backing track for this chapter:

Honkytonk piano music by ??? [placeholder until I track down the music like this from an rpgamker game that I can't seem to find!]

The inside of the tavern was surprisingly big.

Ryn could see despite the semi-dark as its walls were lit by a fireplace, flickering candles, the red embers from pipes and tobacco-rolls. There must be pushing a hundred people in here, drinking, talking, swearing, arguing, rolling dice, playing cards, their silhouettes throwing shifting shadows on the walls.

"How are we meant to find one person in here?" said Nuthea. "It's too dark to make out anyone's hair colour."

"Easy, princess," said Sagar. "We ask."

He swaggered over to the bar and motioned for the attention of the nearest server, a hulking man with a stained apron and a scar over his right eye. Ryn and Nuthea followed.

"You," Sagar said to the barman, "A draught of your best ale, now. We're looking for a man with purple hair. Where is he?"

"She's not a man," said the barman gruffly. He rubbed the tankard he was drying with a cloth, not bothering to fetch Sagar's order right away. "Everyone always thinks she's a man."

"What?" said Sagar, clearly caught off guard. "Don't play games with me. We've been told there's an engineer who frequents your tavern, name of Elrann. Where is he?"

"I told you," said the barman, setting down the dry tankard with a thunk. "She’s not a man. Elrann's a she."

"Bullshit," said Sagar. "Engineering's a man's profession. Everybody knows that. I'm only in here because I lost my chief engineer in my last skybattle. That's right, I'm a skypirate--believe it. Now pour me my drink and point me in the direction of Elrann Luccavich before I put out your other eye." He brushed the hilt of one of the swords at his side.

The barman leant both his hands on the bar, looked at Sagar for a long time, then let out a loud sigh, audible even over the chattering and clinking noises of the tavern. Then he turned round and pulled Sagar an ale, muttering something like "Bloody jumped-up skypirates...gonna get a shock...don't say I didn't tell you..."

Sagar must be pretending not to hear him.

When Sagar had paid him for the drink, making a big show of flicking his gold piece onto the bar with his thumb, the barman pointed to a corner of the tavern, where at one of the long tables a number of men and women were drinking and talking merrily. "Over there. You'll find Elrann soon enough."

Sagar didn't thank him. "Idiot," he said as he walked away.

"Tosser," said the barman.

The three of them walked over to the long table, Sagar leading the way. As they approached and the sounds from the table grew louder, it soon became clear that the people seated at it were holding some kind of competition.

Specifically, two people at the far head of the table were having a competition. Which is to say, they were both drinking tankard after tankard of ale (or whatever that liquid was) while all the rest of the men and women around them were shouting, cheering them on, and placing bets on who was going to give up first.

"Drink! Drink! Drink!" chanted the crowd.

"Thirty silver pieces on Elrann!"

"I'll take that!"

"Forty on Saldor!"

"She never loses!"

One of the two competitors at the head of the table was an exceptionally well-muscled, shirtless man. His arms each looked like three fleshy balls fused together, and the symmetrical squares of his abdomen glistened even at a distance. Detailed, intricate tattoos decorated his arms and chest, of a ship, a leviathan, two swords. But he was bald and had no hair.

The other competitor was a young woman of small build wearing a dirty set of blue work overalls and a pair of goggles currently pulled back off her eyes to sit atop her head above a heart-shaped face. Underneath those, she wore a bob of shocking hair, shocking enough to be seen in the firelight.

A bob of shocking purple hair.

The woman finished chugging down her tankard, then clanged it down on the table.

"Another!" she cried.

The onlookers cheered. She had a mad twinkle in her eyes and a wild grin on her face.

Eventually, tatoo-man--'Saldor’--finished quaffing his own tankard and set that down too, but with a much slower and wobblier motion.

"Mercy?" the woman said to him curiously.

The man swayed a little where he sat, his tattoos listing left and right like the ship was caught on a choppy sea.

After a moment he breathed "A...nother..." He said it like he was actually saying 'mercy', but that was not the word that formed on his lips.

More cheers. Both the tankards were re-filled, and the competitors lifted them once more to their mouths, tilting their heads back. The woman took to her tankard lustily, gulping down the ale down again. The man hesitated at first, but then glanced at his competitor and shakily raised his tankard to his lips again. Their throats each bobbed as they drank.

Ryn looked at Sagar. "I think you've found your engineer," he said. Get engineer, he thought. Repair ship. Find General Vorr. Kill General Vorr. Mother. Father. Hometown.

Sagar just stood still, his brows knotted, his mouth open. He looked like the very foundation of his world had been ripped away from underneath him. No, you don't know how that really feels, Ryn thought. I'm the only one here who knows how that really feels.

The woman finished her tankard and set it once more on the tabletop, far faster than the man at her side and than Ryn would have thought possible. She wore multiple metal necklaces under her overall which peeked out around the back of her neck, and multiple metal bracelets on each wrist which clinked when she set down her drink if you listened for them amidst the noise of the tavern.

Saldor took even longer to catch up to her this time, but eventually he finished drinking too and practically dropped his tankard on the table.

"Mercy," said the woman. This time she didn't say it like a question, she said it as an instruction.

The man was swaying again. But he held up a finger, as if to object.

The people at the table went quiet for a moment, craning forwards to hear what he was going to say.

"Mmmmmm..." said the man.

He let out a long belch and fell sideways off his chair and onto the floor.

The woman raised her tankard above her head. "I win again! How much do I get this time?"

A huge cheer went up from the table, followed by whistles and shouts.

"Come on, pay up, she won!"

"I'm not paying you! She must have used some kind of trick!"

"It's no trick, it's just Elrann!"

"I want my fifty silver pieces now!"

"Not my problem your boy can't handle his drink!"

In the clamour it was Nuthea's turn to address Sagar. "Come on then, Captain," she said, "Ryn is right. This is clearly your engineer."

Sagar blinked, then shook his head, his eyes coming back into focus. “We’ll see…” he said, and strode up to the table, still holding his tankard in one hand. Ryn and Nuthea watched from a few paces behind him.

“Are you Elrann?” Sagar said to the woman.

The other folk around the table were still talking and arguing, pushing and pulling coins back and forth, but the woman raised her gaze at this brash question. Her eyes narrowed a fraction but retained their twinkle. She was still smiling.

“Half the tavern’s chanting my name,” she said to Sagar. “I think it’s safe to assume that, yes, I’m Elrann.”

“But you’re a woman,” said Sagar without missing a beat.

“Last time I checked,” said the woman. One of her eyebrows crept up higher than the other as she inspected Sagar, and then Ryn and Nuthea standing off a little way behind him. “Why? What’s it to you?”

Sagar snorted. “There must have been some sort of mistake. My informant, a man at the docks, told me to come here and look for an Elrann with purple hair who’s a first rate engineer.”

Elrann smiled even more widely. One of her teeth was made of silver. “Well, you found me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Sagar. “You can’t be the Elrann he meant. Or maybe he got you mixed up with someone else. A woman can’t be an engineer.”

Sagar’s beer glass exploded.

It shattered with a loud pop, bits of broken glass falling around him on the floor, beer instantly drenching his hand and breeches, so that he was left just holding the handle.

The whole tavern went quiet. Heads turned as people looked over to see what had happened.

From the table where the girl sat, still with a wide smile on her face, a tendril of black smoke snaked up. On the tabletop, at the source of it, was a small bronze cylinder with a handle protruding from the bottom which the woman grasped.

A pistol. Another thing that Ryn had only heard about in stories and tales. Until now.

“Can a woman not do that, either?” Elrann said into the quiet.

The tavern burst into laughter. People slapped each other’s backs, gripped their bellies and pointed at Sagar as they wiped tears of mirth from their eyes.

Slowly, eventually, the laughter wound down and they went back to what they were doing before the little comic interruption.

Sagar’s face had turned almost as purple as Elrann’s hair. His eyes flicked this way and that. His lips had disappeared into a tight frown. When he spoke, it was through clenched teeth.

You are Elrann the engineer,” he said.

“If you haven’t figured that out by now, you must be very stupid,” said Elrann.

Sagar swallowed. Whether he was swallowing pride or rage, Ryn didn’t know. Maybe it was both.

“I… we want to hire you.”

“For what?”

“To repair my ship. There’s a problem with the fuel tank.”

Elrann looked him up and down again.

“Sorry, I’m all booked up.”

“I can pay you.”

“So can my current clients.”

“I can pay you well. My crew and I took down an Imperial vessel recently. It was very lucrative for us.”

Elrann hesitated, and for a moment it seemed as though she might be tempted by the offer. But then: “Sorry, nothing doing,” she said. She fixed Sagar with a cool look, relaxing her eyebrows and grinning again. “I don’t do work for little turdburgulars like you.”

Nyarrrgrh!” Sagar cried in anger, and drew one of his twin curved blades from his side, unsheathing it in a smooth ringing arc. He held the point up in front of Elrann’s face, whose eyes went wide. “Say that to me again, woman!”

The table went quiet again--or at least the drinkers nearest them went quiet.

I don’t think saying the word ‘woman’ like it’s an insult is going to help us here very much, thought Ryn. He wanted to help, but he had no idea what to do, and he didn’t have a weapon. Sagar was completing botching this. Even Ryn could tell that pulling a sword on someone holding a pistol at close range in an inn full of people was a stupid thing to do.

Nuthea stepped forward, bravely putting her hand on the captain’s back. “Now now, Sagar,” she said. “I’m sure we can find another engineer somewhere else. That airfield owner clearly tricked you. Come on, we don’t want this to become...uncivilised.”

“Hey yoush,” said a deep, drunken voice. “’m not...finnishhed wiv yoush yet.”

It was Saldor, back on his feet.

Elrann turned to look at him but kept her pistol aimed at Sagar. “Sit down, you lightweight blowhard! I beat you fair and square! Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Hey, Saldor’s up again!” someone called.

“Give me those sixty gold pieces back!”

“No way, I won them fairly! Game’s over!”

“It’s not over till one of them can’t drink any more, and he’s still conscious!”

Shouted arguments resumed.

Amidst them, Saldor said “Hey! Nobodies callsh me a lightwit blard!”

He pulled back a fist and took a swing at Elrann, who leapt up out of her chair and moved away from the table, keeping her pistol trained on Sagar.

“Butt out, imbecile,” said Sagar, “we’re having a conversation!” He kicked the man hard in his muscled stomach and Saldor doubled up with a grunt, clutching it.

A large man with a thick black beard who had been sitting next to Saldor stood up and snarled at Sagar. “Oi! You hit my man Saldor! That’s cheating!”

“Oh shut up, Orsan!” said another man next to him. “You’re just sour ’cause he lost!” The man took a swing at Orsan and hit him in the face, knocking the man into Saldor, who took offence and in his drunken stupor punched his own supporter back the way he had come.

Chaos erupted. Soon everyone was calling everyone else names and accusing each other of cheating at the bets, and fists and feet were flying as the fighting grew into a full-on tavern brawl.

“Give me those coins!”

“Mine! Mine! I won!”

“Get off me you mongrel!”

Sagar still had a sword pointed at Elrann, but a man got thrown over the table and crashed into the side of him, making him drop it. When it clattered to the floor, Ryn picked it up for him to keep it safe. Sagar didn’t even seem to notice he’d dropped it. As soon as he’d scrambled back onto his feet, he dived back into the melee, yelling curses and throwing punches.

Elrann clicked off a mechanism on the top of her pistol, stashed it somewhere inside her overall and cried “Bloody skypirates! Arses too big for their breeches. I won that drinking game fair and square! Hey you lot, don’t forget I get 10% commission on all winning bets on me!” She dived back into the fray too, punching and kicking her way through the crowd to try to get back to Sagar, who by now was lost in the midst of the brawl.

Fists flew into faces, knees into groins, elbows into stomachs. Men roared with anger and pain and defiance. Bodies were launched this way and that. A chair broke. Somebody’s tooth rattled on the floor and stopped near Ryn’s foot. More people rushed over from the other tables to try to break up the fight, or join in. Some were shouting for Saldor, some for Elrann, but it was impossible to tell which side was winning, or if there really were sides any more. Somewhere in the middle of the mass of bodies stood Sagar and Elrann and Saldor, occasionally colliding with each other and wrestling, before being broken apart again, but they kept disappearing out of view in the carnage of limbs.

Ryn and Nuthea stood watching all of this in shocked silence.

They shared a look of open-mouthed horror. Apparently neither of them had ever seen anything like this before.

“This is no good,” said Ryn over the din. “We’re never going to get the ship fixed like this. At this rate we might even lose our captain.”

“I know,” said Nuthea. “That foolish man is going to get himself killed, all because of his pride. We need to do something. We need to get their attention somehow.”

“How?” said Ryn.

Nuthea licked her upper lip and looked at him. After a moment she said “Your powers.”

“What? No! I don’t even know how to use them properly yet! You use yours!

“Lightning is unpredictable and hard to contain. I have to aim it at a specific target to discharge it, but it’s too cramped in here and there are too many people. I might miss my target and kill someone or, worse, it might jump between several people. You, though…” Her blue eyes glittered. “You’ve touched the Fire Ruby. You have flame projection powers. Flame can be controlled a little more easily than lightning, at least. You can show them some fire burning and get their attention.”

“I...I don’t know how,” Ryn said, his chest tightening, his mouth going dry. “I’ve only ever projected fire once before, when I was really angry, and I passed out afterwards. I’m not sure I can do it again.”

“Oh, of course you can,” said Nuthea, and pulled Ryn by the arm out of the way of a man stumbling backwards after being kicked in the face. “I’ll teach you. Hold out your hand.”

Ryn hesitated a moment, then reluctantly held out his hand in front of him.

“Palm up, silly.”

He turned it over.

“Ok, now take some deep breaths. The reason you passed out when you used your gift before must be because you used up all your energy at once. It takes mental and physical energy to use magic--it’s tiring. But if you control yourself and only use some of your energy, you should be able to create some smaller flames--and you won’t tire yourself out so much.”

“But I told you, I don’t know how. It just sort of...happened before.”

“Nonsense,” chided Nuthea. “You’ve touched the Fire Ruby. You have the gift. It’s a part of you now. It’s like a muscle. All you have to do is focus, and you can use it. You have to believe you can do it in order to do it, though. And you’ve done it before, so you know you can. Now come on. Focus, and make some flames on your hand.”

Ryn stared down at his open palm. This is crazy, he thought. I can’t do this. Although… He remembered shooting fire from his hands in Cleasor and engulfing the Imperial soldiers. He remembered again the flames leaping from the rooftops of his hometown. He remembered his father’s dying expression. He remembered his mother’s look of pain, Vorr’s blade piercing her. There was a fire burning inside him, a fire of passion and fury and hatred. If he really had this gift, and if he could learn to master it, maybe, just maybe he would be able to get revenge on the man who had done all this to him.

A small flame lit in the centre of his palm, hovering just above it.

Ryn closed his hand and hopped back in surprise, and the flame went out with a quiet hiss. “I did it!” he said over the noise of the tavern brawl. “Did you see that? I did it!” He heard his own words, and he sounded like a little boy. “Ahem. I mean: there we go. Er...you’re a good teacher, Nuthea.”

“I know,” said the princess, smiling. “Now: Do it again. Only this time, hold your hand up, hold the flame for longer, and let it burn a little brighter. We need to get their attention.” She nodded towards the fighting mess.

Ryn took another deep breath. Making that small flame appear had been like engaging a muscle, one that he hadn’t realised he’d had. He held out his hand and engaged it again, focusing on the space just above his palm and willing fire...

A small flame appeared again. Ryn blinked, almost as startled as before, but this time he kept his hand out and continued to concentrate, and the flame stayed where it was, hovering above his hand, a little tongue of orange-red like you get from a candle.

“Good,” said Nuthea next to him. “Now make it grow.”

Acting on instinct, Ryn willed the flame to increase in size. Fire, grow, he thought.

The little flame expanded into a flickering ball, sending up some more clear smoke into the air above it. Ryn’s palm felt warm, but not overhot. He had to hold his concentration to keep it there.

Some of the brawlers stopped what they were doing now and stood still to stare at Ryn. He didn’t pay them any attention, but continued to concentrate on the fireball he was holding in existence with his mind.

“That’s really good,” said Nuthea. “You’re getting their notice. Just a little more.”

Spurred on by the thrill of success and her encouragement, Ryn willed a little more of his energy into the flame. It took more effort, but the fireball grew in size by another inch. It lit the area around them brightly now, and Ryn caught sight of more of the brawlers stopping in their tracks to stare at what he was doing.

Ryn stretched his arm out and held his hand up, palm flat pointing towards the ceiling holding the blazing fireball above his head.

Something itched at his mind. The candles. The fireplace. He had become strangely aware of them, even though he wasn’t looking at them. It was like he could sense them burning in different places in the room. He closed his eyes for a moment. To me.

He opened his eyes. The fireball he held above his head had grown again. He had drawn the energy from the candles and fireplace, extinguishing them, drawing them into his own fire. His was the only fire lighting the room now; a huge ball of flame that crackled quietly above him in the air, burning in place, sending out light in every direction, with Ryn at its origin. He had to concentrate hard to hold it in place.

The whole tavern had stopped what they were doing now and were frozen in place looking at him in the light from the fireball, some still holding each other in headlocks or with their fists raised where they had been about to throw their next punch. There among them were Sagar and Elrann, mouths hanging open and eyes stretched wide like everybody else.

Nuthea spoke up. “Um...sorry to have to get your attention like this, but my companions and I came here looking for a particular person. Since we haven’t been able to persuade that person to come with us, we will be leaving now. Come along, Sagar.”

She beckoned with a finger, like she was coaxing forwards a stray dog.

Slowly, carefully, eyeing the fireball which Ryn was concentrating on holding up with every step, Sagar weaved his way through the frozen fighters and walked back to Nuthea’s side. They let him do so, their own eyes transfixed by the fireball too.

“Good,” said Nuthea. “Um, thank you. We shall be leaving now.” She turned her head to Ryn and whispered “You can put that out now.”

Ryn’s heart missed a beat, and the fireball wobbled. “Er, what?” he whispered back out of the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know how!”

Just take another deep breath and will the flames to rescind! It can’t be that hard!”

Everyone was watching him.

He breathed in, then coughed. Panic seized him, and the fireball shot up into the wooden ceiling, scorching it black and dissipating. At the same time, tens of tiny flames sprang out from it, returning to the candles and the fireplace, re-igniting them.

The light inside of the tavern went back to how it had been before.

For a moment, the three of them watched the frozen fighters to see what they would do, and vice versa.

And then the roars and shouting began again, and everyone went back to hitting each other, some of them scrambling forwards to get at Sagar, or Ryn, or maybe Nuthea--who could tell?

“Back! Get back, you vermin!” shouted Sagar, kicking one of them in the shins. He snatched his sword back off Ryn and waved it at two more of them, who sprang backwards for safety, then drew their own weapons and surged forwards again.

Luckily, though, the tavern-goers were still fighting amongst themselves as well, and before these two could attack they were rushed by another pair with their swords drawn. Their weapons locked.

“You’re not going anywhere until I’ve got my hundred gold pieces for betting on Elrann!” one shouted.

Ryn’s distraction had got Sagar closer to the door. They took their chance and all sprinted back to it, bashing it open and bursting out into the cool night air.

They pelted down the street and made sure they were a good distance away from the tavern.

It was full dark outside in Ast now. The three of them stood in the cobbles in the light from a street-lamp, at a corner that the street they had been on made with a residential alley of brick buildings, and got their breath back.

Ryn stood with his hands on his knees for a while, panting loudly. Now that he was out of the inn, tiredness sapped his every muscle.

“I’m exhausted,” he said lamely.

“That’s normal,” said Nuthea, breathing fast too. “I told you: it takes physical energy to use magic. Also, you have to practice. It’s like training a muscle. It gets easier with time.”

“Bloody tavern-dwellers!” cursed Sagar now he had his breath. “Bloody women! Bloody woman!”

“Look, numb-nuts,” said a voice, “I’ll come with you and fix your ship on the condition that you stop calling me that like it’s some sort of a bad thing.”

“Who’s there?!” cried Sagar.

A shape had appeared a few paces away from them in the street. She stepped more into the lantern-light. Elrann, with her purple hair, blue overall, goggles and metal bangles.

“Who’d ya think?” she said with her trademark grin. “Didn’t ya hear me? I’ll do the job. For my fee, of course.”

Huh? Something had changed her mind. But what? Maybe she had lost out on her commission for winning the drinking game and now needed the money.

“About time,” said Sagar with the graciousness of a pig.

“What he means,” says Nuthea, “is ‘thank you’. We’d be glad to have your help”

“Yeah,” said Elrann, “well, try to keep a rein on your dog--I can always change my mind.”

Ryn fancied he could almost see the steam coming out of Sagar’s ears.

Elrann’s eyes found him. “That was pretty impressive, that fire trick you did back there. Not seen anything like that before, and I’ve seen a few things in my time. You’ll have to show me how you did that sometime.”

Ryn’s body ached. He couldn’t think of a good response. “Er..sure,” was all he came up with.

“Right,” said the engineer. “Now, where’s this ship of yours? Let’s get to it.”

Nuthea regarded Ryn with a crinkle in her forehead.

“It’s late,” she said. “And the airfield is a good distance away. We can take you to it in the morning. For now we should find lodging somewhere in the city. Don’t you agree, Sagar? Do you have enough coin for us?”

“Rrr,” grunted Sagar, probably in assent.

“Do you know of anywhere?” Nuthea asked Elrann.

“Well,” said Elrann, “I was going to spend the night in the Traveller’s Rest, but I don’t think any of ya should be going back there in a hurry. And it’s going to be a while before that brawl settles down. I know a few other places, though.”

“Thank you,” said Nuthea.

Sagar cursed under his breath.

Ryn yawned.

“Come with me,” said Elrann.

They followed her into the night.

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About the author

Faenon

Bio: Hi, I’m Faenon, from Oxford, UK.

I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve even been lucky enough to complete a paid creative writing course and get some short stories published (PM me if you are interested in reading them as it involves telling you my real name).

I’ve written four novels so far but haven’t been able to get any of them house-published--though I came close to getting an agent with one.

So although I’m going to keep trying, I’m also getting fed up with the traditional publishing industry.

That’s where the internet comes in!

I’m going to be posting my novels online one by one, anonymously, in the order I wrote them. And then I'll start posting my latest project as I write it.

If you enjoy my novels, please support me on patreon to get chapters ahead of time and access to early drafts, and then I can devote more time to writing!

(I have a wife, a kid, and a non-writing job.)

One more note. I've studied Theology and Philosophy to postgraduate level, and you may see these things turning up in my stories sometimes. You have been warned.

To support my writing and get access to early chapters go to https://www.patreon.com/faenon

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