The roar of celebration was overwhelming. Harael and Teramus cheered, mugs of ale held aloft, as a group of young red-robed apprentices linked arms and danced in the street. A four-piece band played on the nearest corner, and their pace picked up when they saw the youngsters dancing.
The increased speed led to mistakes, and one fresh-faced lad stumbled over an uneven cobblestone. The whole line of apprentices went down in a pile on top of and around him. Laughter erupted from the bystanders, and more drinks were poured. Serving girls from the taverns on the street wove through the crowd, collecting empty cups and mugs, passing out pitchers of ale and wine and more potent drinks. It was pandemonium, and it gladdened Harael’s heart to see it. If anything could redeem his friend in the Faith, it was a display like this.
Fires burned all around, blue tongues that burst forth from brackets and lamps, brighter than on any other night. The Faith was strong, here, and the flames responded. Here in the Third Tier, they were perhaps brighter than anywhere else in the world, on this night. The Night of Ten Thousand Fires was the ultimate celebration of Pirinism, the start of a new year, and the might of the Empire.
Teramus appeared at Harael’s side, waving two refilled mugs of ale. Foam and amber liquid splashed out over the cobblestones. “Harael! Another round!”
Unable to deny his friend’s challenge, Harael gulped down the last bit of his ale and took the full mug. He was not drunk yet, and did not spill.
The cool liquid went down smoothly as he gulped. After surfacing for air, Harael, clapped Teramus on the back and dragged him further up the street.
“Where are we going?” Teramus shouted over the din.
“The Sixth Tier!”
His friend stopped dead and stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “The Sixth? We’ll get killed up there!”
Harael laughed, shaking his head. “On any night but tonight! There is no crime on the Night of Ten Thousand Fires!”
Teramus reluctantly let Harael resume their trek up the cobblestone streets and into the Fourth Tier. Here, where the flames burned piercingly yellow, the risqué murmurs that always bubbled under the surface now burst forth. Women and men danced almost naked in the streets, wrestling matches were bet on under the eaves of wealthy merchants’ manors, and spirits flowed everywhere. Whenever someone did something stupid, whether from anger at being spurned or pure drunken idiocy, there were always a dozen people on hand to make sure it didn’t escalate. Crime, this night, was punishable by death.
Nothing would mar their great festival.
Young women approached them with eagerness, asking for blessings and hinting that they might exchange services; Teramus began to show disgust at them, and seemed on the point of an outburst before Harael reached over and clinked mugs, regaining his attention.
Teramus did not hesitate to join him in a drink, but after wiping his mouth with the back of his hand said, “It is not right. They show no sense of propriety at all.”
Harael sighed, noticing that the streetlamp under which they stopped seemed to flicker. “It is their way, Brother. Not all people are Pallonian, nor even do all people in this city follow the same morals. It is the Faith that binds us together.”
Teramus grunted. “The Faith. Yes. Always the Faith.”
Harael grabbed him by the shoulder with his free hand. “Listen to me, Brother. This is no time to question. You know our reverence is needed, and deserved. These people count on us.”
The flickering lamp above them suddenly steadied. “I suppose so,” Teramus replied, glancing around at the cavorting citizens. “They do not know the way.”
The flame in the streetlamp glowed more brightly as they walked away. Harael couldn’t stop a smile from spreading after even such a small victory.
The revelry did not diminish as they passed through the Fourth Tier and upward into the Fifth, though the rampant displays of sexuality cooled off a bit. Here, among the beneficent glow of hundreds of orange fires, sat the great military warehouses and training rooms, interspersed with barracks and courtyards for maneuvers and marching orders. The crowds were mostly men, soldiers doing their best to enjoy the day off duty. No few had their wives with them, and Harael suspected that at least a few of the women about had snuck up from the Fourth Tier to ply their trade.
Harael caught Teramus eyeing one scantily clad woman with distaste, and nudged him. The Pallonian man merely shook his head and moved on, hunting for a vendor to refill their mugs. Harael, by then, was definitely beginning to notice the effects of the ale.
The cobblestones underfoot were, of course, slick with spilled drinks of all varieties. When soldiers—clearly further into their cups than were Harael and Teramus—began getting rowdy, it almost seemed as though the streets themselves were policing them. Before any fights could progress beyond more than a shove, one or both parties involved would slip and end up nursing bruises while the crowd around roared in laughter. More often than not, the previously belligerent men joined in.
By the time Harael got his mug refilled with some potent-smelling concoction, Teramus was almost back into good spirits. Seeing common soldiers act like such buffoons seemed to amuse him, and the further they traveled through the Fifth Tier, the fewer whores they saw. When they finally made it to the Eastern Avenue, there were none to be seen. Teramus began to joke again, exchanging casual ribs with drunken soldiers and simply enjoying himself. The orange flames never wavered around him as they turned onto the Avenue and began the walk up to the Sixth Tier.
Not far into the Sixth Tier, Harael turned off of the main avenue. Teramus plodded along with him, cheerfully nursing a freshly-filled mug. He would be drunk, soon.
“Just up here,” Harael said, aiming with his mug. “I know a place.”
Teramus nodded, enthusiastic, and spilled a bit of his drink. Dark brown liquid splashed on the stones beneath his feet, and he gurgled his discontent through a mouthful.
The sign hanging above the tavern, illuminated by a pale red flame, displayed a grinning, painted face. “The Jester,” Teramus muttered, unhappy. “Are you kidding me?”
Harael grinned nearly as widely as the character on the sign. “What?”
Teramus glared at him for a moment, his eyes looking eerily demonic with the reflection of red flames. “People die here. All the time.”
Harael waved his waved in dismissal. “Not tonight!” he yelled, and walked inside. Still muttering, Teramus followed.
Despite the crowd, the barkeep spared not a moment in greeting Harael. His bald head bobbed in a reverent bow before a grin split his face.
“It’s good to see you, lad!” Master Tylan’s accent was comical at best, sometimes—as tonight, when he’d clearly indulged in a mug or two himself—being so thick as to be almost unintelligible, and had skin of a shade darker than most people Harael knew. He supposed the man was originally from some remote end of the Empire and moved to the capitol later in his life. No Letaalese native ever spoke like that, nor looked so.
Nevertheless, the man was friendly, and operated one of the rowdiest taverns in the city. He claimed it was a family heritage.
Harael did not hesitate to step forward and shake his hand. He could not stop a grin from spreading on his face. “And you, Master Tylan!” The alcohol he had consumed was getting to him, and his greeting was much more jovial than usual. “I see you are doing fine business, tonight!”
Master Tylan nodded. “Quite so! No night like Ten Thousand Fires. I can spend time attending my business, instead of worrying about fights or vandalism.”
Teramus coughed discreetly from next to Harael, and Harael introduced him to the barkeeper, embarrassed. Tylan bowed low, properly impressed by the acquaintance of a second priest of the Fifth Shade. Such rank was prestigious, and far above what he normally saw in the crowds of soldiers that frequented his place.
Indeed, he hurried to clear out four soldiers—already well into their cups, judging by their inelegance in rising—from a booth along the far wall. While Teramus and he settled themselves, Tylan sprang off to fill their orders for ale.
“I suppose this place isn’t so bad,” Teramus mused, looking around at the rowdy, but controlled, crowd. Soldiers yelled and diced and sang and were generally drunk, but they behaved themselves. Not one of the waitresses, wending her way through various clusters of customers, was bothered in an improper way, nor did any man become belligerent. The mood somehow fit the rich wood paneling and mounted fish on the walls. Festive, but still respectful.
Of course, that all was only because it was the Night of Ten Thousand Fires, and Harael told him so. “On any other night, you might see a man stabbed, here. And you’d certainly see the girls get a few slaps on the bottom—and, likely, dish out a few slaps of their own.”
Teramus snorted, reaching up to take his mug from the freshly-returned Master Tylan. He seemed much calmer, ale in hand and away from the debauchery on the streets. Harael could only shake his head and accept his own drink. They each knocked back a healthy swig of the brown liquid.
“So, any word from the Reaches?” Harael asked, quick to swallow. Master Tylan hesitated before leaving their table.
“Word, aye, but I don’t know if I can make heads or tails of it. It doesn’t sound right.”
“Doesn’t sound right?” Harael laughed. “When does rumor ever sound right?”
Master Tylan hesitated, and Teramus looked up at him, his eyes much sharper than his apparent intoxication would indicate. For a moment, in the light of the fire, his eyes seemed lighter than their usual brown. Harael knew how piercing a stare his friend could give.
“Well, sirs—and I heard this only today, mind you—the men say that a scouting company returned from the north. Or, what’s left of it, at least. A few tried to come ‘ere for some, ah, refreshment after the journey, but the Phoenix Guards escorted ‘em straight down to the First Tier. Rumor is, Avernen killed off a bunch of ‘em. And that their resident priest had the Faith fail ‘im.”
Harael laughed, sure in his heart that it was untrue. Teramus, on the other hand, seemed much more willing to buy into the story. His brows drew down, and his eyes darkened.
“The Faith failed? How?” Teramus asked, his voice calm and even. Harael knew that he sounded like that when he was trying to completely settle himself.
Master Tylan glanced around again, and lowered his voice despite the din. Harael was forced to lean forward to hear, since Tylan addressed Teramus. “They say that he couldn’t make any of his prayers or summonings help them. They say he was worse than useless in the fighting.”
Harael tried to catch Teramus’ eye, to try to assure him that it was rumor only, but the other priest only stared back at Master Tylan, impassive. Teramus blinked; blinked again. Finally he turned his head and stared down into his mug, his motions the very image of a man moving slowly to hide his drunkenness. Only moments ago he’d seemed perfectly lucid, if a bit tipsy. Now he was clearly intoxicated.
“Teramus,” Harael began, but his friend cut him off with a wave of his hand, curt and sharp.
Teramus picked up his mug and drank, and all the while, Master Tylan stood over them, clearly anxious. He was not blind. He could see the effect his words had on both of them.
“Perhaps I should have mentioned something else…” Master Tylan began.
“You don’t say?” Harael snapped. He had worked too hard over the last several hours to bring Teramus out of his dilemma for it all to be wasted by a mouthy barkeeper. “Why don’t you go get us another round and let us speak in private?”
Master Tylan bustled off, certainly guilty and probably peeved at Harael’s manner. He didn’t care at the moment, though; his friend needed to be assuaged.
“Listen, Teramus,” Harael paused, collecting his thoughts. “Rumors like this are always floating about. Why, I heard just last week, in this very place, that the Faith is so corrupted that missionaries are being used for assassination! Can you imagine how preposterous such a thing could be?”
Teramus glanced up from his now-empty mug. His eyes were dark, brooding, and an eyebrow twitched upward. “Are you so naïve?”
Harael was taken aback by the venom in the other man’s voice. “What?”
Teramus leaned forward, intense, perhaps more so than Harael had even seen before. “If you think that missionaries are harmless, then you are a fool. They are devout, yes, and ardent—and they are devastating when used in war.”
Harael’s mouth worked, soundlessly, for a moment. Finally, he said, “But they are never used in war! They are far too valuable to be spent on the front lines….”
Teramus laughed, a maniacal laugh so unlike his normal jovial chuckle. “Missionaries are not on the front lines.” Anger began to twist his mouth. “They are sent ahead, clearing paths for the army through conversion or murder. Murder, Harael. Those men are heartless.”
Harael gaped. This was a different man sitting across from him. Those words could never have come from his friend. “Missionaries are the backbone of the Faith!”
“The backbone, of course. Just like the Phoenix and Dragon Guards are the backbone of the Empire. They are there to enforce the will of the powers that be upon those who disagree. Which, in the case of Pallonia, was everyone.”
Harael suddenly saw where this all was going, and it scared him. Teramus was always silent about his past life, before the Faith and the Flame. There was something there—and drink was bringing it out, slowly. But do I want to know?
The question lingered in Harael’s mind as Master Tylan returned with fresh mugs of ale and placed them on the table in silence. The raucous atmosphere intruded and Harael once again realized that he was in a crowded, rollicking bar. This was not the place for conversations about past transgressions or long-buried scars.
“You don’t need to speak of this, Teramus. Certainly not here and now, and not with that in your hand,” Harael said, gesturing at the mug of ale as Teramus gulped from it. He lowered it and wiped his lips with the back of his arm, slowly, as if to prove his disregard for the robe he wore.
“I can speak of anything I wish,” Teramus growled. “Why, I remember a missionary….”
He trailed off as voices were raised across the room. Harael turned to see what the commotion was, his attention moving in time to catch an angry man in ornate robes shout.
“Well, at least my namesake is real, you little prick!”
The room grew quiet as the man finished his jibe. Another man, facing him, stood up from his seat. He was huge, easily a head taller, and wore armor as black as midnight. The stylized ornamentation on it was reminiscent of scales and flames, twisting up his arms and down his back. His helmet sat on the table, but it didn’t seem as if it were really necessary if it came to blows.
“Oh, Oblivion take us,” Harael muttered. “Flaming Phoenix Guard can’t keep his mouth shut.”
Teramus snorted quietly, his previous anger seemingly vanished under the fascination of the confrontation. “The Dragon Guard could eat him alive.”
Indeed, the offensive Phoenix Guard seemed to realize his mistake. He was not small, nor did he appear weak, but faced with that monster of a Dragon….
The Dragon Guard shoved his chair to the side with his leg and took a step forward. His voice was a low rumble, and poured into the sudden silence. “You upright little pissant. All of you Phoenixes are the same.” The Dragon’s massive hands met, one in a fist, and Harael heard knuckles pop. Things were going to get ugly, soon.
The Phoenix recovered a little of his poise, and his hands ostentatiously found their rest atop the hilts of two daggers at his waist. A finger on his left hand trailed down the hilt, almost caressing it. Harael suddenly wondered if perhaps this Phoenix Guard wasn’t being so overconfident, after all. There was a familiarity to the way he touched that dagger.
“The same, are we?” The Phoenix had nerves, all right. He stepped toward the larger man, looking up at him in a way that made it clear there was no fear present, on his part.
The Dragon stared down at him, perplexed and likely somewhat awed at the audacity of the smaller man. Before he could reply, though, Master Tylan was there.
“Please, gentlemen. Please. Remember your places!” Tylan begged. “And for the Flame’s sake, remember what night it is.”
That stopped both of them where they stood. The Phoenix glanced around, as if noticing the revelers, drinks, and flames all about. Harael watched the change come over his face as it sunk through his sodden skull. His eyes widened, almost comically, and his hands sprung away from the weapons at his sides. He rubbed his palms against his shirt, as if to wash away the violence they’d been prepared to unleash.
The Dragon Guard, meanwhile, blinked rather quickly. The sight was oddly incongruous for such a big man; Harael had him pegged for the more ponderous type. He imagined the Dragon must be deceptive in combat. Perhaps the Phoenix wouldn’t have had much of an edge in quickness, had things come to that.
Suddenly, the Phoenix Guard laughed. Harael jumped, already on edge from the gravity of the situation, combined with the rapidly-mounting effects of alcohol. He wasn’t the only one to be unnerved, but the Phoenix only laughed harder. It seemed that the ale and wine was too much for him, after all, and he sat back down with speed that would surely leave him a bruise in the morning. He pounded his fist on the table, tears streaming, and roared with laughter.
The Dragon Guard slowly smiled, then chuckled. In no time at all, the entire room was back to its previous raucous state. Harael saw the Dragon clap the Phoenix on the back before stumbling back to his own friends.
Turning back to Teramus, Harael realized that the two guardsmen were not the only ones overcome with drink. Teramus was wavering in his seat, his mug emptied and turned over on the table before him.
“Teramus,” Harael said, reaching across the table to shake his arm. “Are you well?”
At least, that’s what he meant to say. The words came out garbled, slurred, and slowly. Somehow, Teramus seemed to understand. He nodded with the slow deliberation of a man drunk on thoughts as well as drink.
They rose from the table together, none too steady, and made their way to the door. Master Tylan intercepted them, and while Harael had vague thoughts of some annoyance with the man, he couldn’t quite part the haze of ale to put a finger on it. Instead, he handed over some copper for the drinks and graced Tylan with a short bow. He and Teramus stumbled their way out the door and into a walk down to the Third Tier, a walk he only remembered as a blur of flames, cheering, and very, very hard cobblestones.
Read the next chapter: “Dragon and Phoenix”