Once she was sure the rest of the party was otherwise occupied (mainly with bathing, she figured), Ghia took her card and her purse and stole downstairs to the bar.
For some reason, she felt weird about having her first birthday drink in front of the rest of them. She’d not told anyone it was her birthday and doubted anyone here knew. Not many people outside the hospitalis did know when her birthday was. She certainly did not want her introduction to drinking to have an audience of more experienced drinkers – all of them officers in the military.
Besides, it might prompt Yarrow and Jules to another drinking contest and, despite the bellica’s obvious influence with the innkeeper, Ghia doubted he’d appreciate what the officers were capable of while drunk. It’d be harder to smooth things over with him than it was with her aunt.
Xavier was behind the bar again, and Ghia steeled herself to face him. Curmudgeon, Yarrow’d said. She had nothing to fear from a grumpy old man.
The man regarded her sourly and she gave him a look to remind him whom she escorted. He sighed and said wearily, “What do you want, girl?”
“It’s Ghia. And I’d like a drink, please,” she said nicely, deciding courtesy would be better than hostility.
He gave her a glance that told her he didn’t believe her legal. “You got your card?”
She held up her card and placed it, very deliberately, on the counter. He picked it up and silently mouthed the words on front, and then flipped it over. He shrugged. “Looks official. But I’ll need to see that the prints match.”
“Fine,” said Ghia, unperturbed. Her thumbprint hadn’t changed in the past day and a half.
He placed a clean piece of parchment in front of her and an inkpad. Ghia pressed her right thumb to the pad and then to the parchment, leaving an intricate design – her own unique signature. Xavier took the parchment and spent an interminable time comparing the two pieces of paper. Ghia tried not to fidget.
Finally he shrugged again and wrote her name and birthdate on top of the parchment and filed it, and gave her card back to her. “Thank you,” she said, for all that it was standard procedure.
“So what do you want?” he said, looking at her impatiently.
Ghia stopped, suddenly unsure. What did she want? Not ale – if it tasted the same as it smelled, she was sure she’d retch. Shandygaff? No, that wasn’t much better. Sweet Althea, I should have thought of this sooner. “What would you suggest?” she asked coolly.
“First time drinking? Sangria and fruit wine are popular.”
She’d heard of them both, and knew they were both very sweet in comparison to other drinks. “Which one’s sweeter?”
“Fruit wine, I hear.” It was obvious from his demeanour that he thought little of those who liked sweet drinks.
Well, how lucky for me that I don’t. “I’ll have a Sangria, then.”
He poured the drink and gave it to her, but when she moved to pay he waved his hand. “You kidding? Yarrow’d kill me.”
She shrugged and flipped a coin into the tip jar, which he didn’t protest. It probably went to the serving wenches anyway. Ghia put her purse away, grabbed her drink, and chose an out-of-the-way table. She could see the whole room from that vantage point and, although not hidden from view, not easily seen, either. Seated, she regarded her drink warily. It was a deep, red colour – like blood, which would explain the name – and smelled…not sweet, but not sour either. She couldn’t place it. Here goes nothing, she thought, and took a cautious sip.
Goddess, that was good. Not so sweet as she’d been led to believe, which she was grateful for, but a medley of flavours ranging from bitter to sour to sweet. There was a definite kick to the taste, proving its alcohol content, but it was not strong. Very light, with a hint of oranges in the summer sun. Liquid summer.
As she sat back to enjoy her birthday drink, she wondered how long it would take for her to get buzzed. For what was one’s twentieth birthday without a splitting headache in the morning?
Four glasses of Sangria later, Ghia still felt nothing. She could taste the alcohol, feel it warm her belly, but beyond that…nothing. No fuzzy thinking, no lassitude of the limbs, no urge to sing loudly and off-key, no belief in her amazing dancing ability, no nausea – nothing! No symptoms at all of heavy drinking.
She sat and fumed in her corner. What was wrong with her? She should at least be tipsy by now! She’d never had anything to drink before in her life, so she’d expected to get drunk incredibly quickly. She’d watched enough of-age birthday parties at her aunt’s tavern to know what to expect.
Maybe it was the sangria. Maybe I should try something stronger. Brandy? Ugh, no – all she could think of was Aro’s breath the other day. Oh, wait – rum. She’d heard good things about rum. Apparently the spiced one wasn’t too sour.
When the serving wench came to collect her glass Ghia ordered a spiced rum cider. The girl gave her a look that Ghia knew very well, having given it to patrons herself, but the healer ignored it. She couldn’t care less about the woman’s opinion of her.
Her rum arrived shortly. She grabbed it and took a gulp so quickly that she didn’t notice Jules enter the taproom and stride angrily over to her table.
“Ghia!” he hissed, and she nearly choked on her rum, which had given her mouth a strange numb feeling. “Ghia, what are you doing?”
She looked at him levelly. “I’m drinking, Jules.”
He sat beside her and gripped her elbow. “I can see that. I can also see you’re underage – or did you think leaving Atherton would change that?”
Angrily she extricated her arm from his grip. “No, Jules,” she said clearly, removing her card and handing it to him. “I figured my birthday would.”
She hadn’t really wanted anyone to know, and cursed her inattentiveness. Now they’ll probably spend all night trying to get the “alcohol virgin” drunk. Not that she didn’t want to get drunk – she did. Just…on my own terms.
Jules studied her card for a moment, then looked up at her. “Happy Birthday, wench. Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
She shrugged, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. “Didn’t seem important,” she mumbled, taking a sip of her drink.
He snorted with laughter. “Selfless Ghia, forever thinking of others,” he teased, and she glared at him over the edge of her cup. “So what do you want?” he said, unrepentant.
She groaned and fell back in her chair. “I want to get drunk. Or at least buzzed.”
He quirked his lips in a half-smile at her, and she couldn’t help but think how attractive he was when he did that. “Give it time. Takes more than one drink.”
“This is my fifth, Jules.”
“Your fifth rum?” he said, eyes boggling. “And you’re not drunk?”
She blushed. “I had four sangrias before this. But I’m not even buzzed. It’s not fair.” She was whining but didn’t care. It wasn’t fair.
“Maybe you just have a high tolerance,” he said, chuckling.
She glared at him again. “How? I’ve never had anything to drink before today.”
“You’re virtuous,” he said, eyebrows raised. “But some people just naturally have higher tolerances than others – no matter how used they are to drinking.” He shrugged, but Ghia felt a bit better. Maybe it would just take a few more drinks. “Anyway, aside from inebriation, which I’m sure you’ll achieve eventually, at the rate you’re going, what would you like for your birthday, Healer Ghia?” His eyes focused on her intently and Ghia felt her breath catch in her throat.
You mean aside from you? She couldn’t stop herself from thinking it, and she wanted to kick herself. Just. Friends. “Um,” she said, hesitating. She’d not given it any thought. What do I want? “I don’t know. Something…something incredibly practical and amazingly beautiful.”
“Ah, the impossible gift. I should have known you’d ask for that,” he said dryly.
“No, Jules,” she protested, really not wanting him to spend his hard-earned money on her. “I was answering your question. I wasn’t asking for it.”
He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “You’re still going to get it. I know exactly what you want now.”
“Jules,” she said, quite serious now, and his eyebrow quirked up in response. “I don’t expect you to get me anything. Really.”
He looked at her and grinned lazily. “Good. Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
“Jules!” she protested, again, but he didn’t respond – just leaned back and closed his eyes.
Exasperated, Ghia finished her rum and ordered another. “Whatever you do, Medic,” she muttered at him, knowing she was fighting a losing battle, “don’t spend too much.”
“I’ll try not to,” he said, but Ghia knew he was only humouring her, and she felt like kicking him. Maybe I’ll just kick everything in sight.
Instead she sat back and waited for her drink. Getting drunk seemed a good alternative to violence.
And that I will do.
Nightfall found Ghia in the tavern still, on her twenty-first drink. She was still stone-cold sober. The only changes she’d noticed had been a slight numbing of her mouth and tongue from so much alcohol, and several trips to the privy.
At this rate I’ll die from cirrhosis before I get buzzed at all, she thought angrily.
She was thoroughly pissed off with her body. How dare it stay sober on her birthday! Where did it get off, giving her these cramps again? Surreptitiously she grabbed her abdomen as the pain came and went. This is really too much. First I can’t get drunk, and now this stupid cramping thing happens again. If you’re not careful, body, I shall have to trade you in for a new one. Right along with my conscience, she threatened, but both parties seemed unperturbed.
Jules had left a while ago, claiming business in town, with a saucy wink at her. She knew what he meant – he was in search of a gift. Curious, she wouldn’t snoop around. The anticipation of an unknown was sometimes better than the anticipation of a known. Part of her hoped that he would give up at some point and they’d forget the whole silly mess, as she didn’t want him to spend his gold, and yet another part of her was incredibly pleased the Jules cared so much for her. She tried to shut up that part of her, the silly part that flipped her hair and giggled too much. She really hated that side of herself. She much preferred sensible, calm, sometimes passionate, sometimes playful Ghia. Silly-tomboy Ghia seemed to take centre stage when Jules was around, which vexed her terribly.
Since his departure, the tavern had filled slowly but steadily, and now the room was full of people, all in various states of inebriation. Except Aro and myself, she thought, glancing across the room where the two majors sat, deep in conversation. Unless ‘sober’ lies somewhere on the scale of drunkenness.
It was so busy that when she finished her current drink, no servers noticed. Understanding what it was like to work in a taproom and not wanting to be a hassle, Ghia moved to stand by the bar, where she’d be more easily dealt with. When Xavier noticed her and she asked for another, he frowned.
“How many have you had, girl?”
Ignoring the diminutive this time, she shrugged. “A lot. I apparently have a very high tolerance,” she added grumpily.
He shook his head in bewilderment. “This is your last one – last thing I need in this tavern is you dying from too much.”
She didn’t respond. If this drink didn’t do the trick, she gave up. There was no point in drinking Xavier into bankruptcy just to get a little buzzed. She could try again at her aunt’s tavern.
Suddenly a large form jostled her and huge hands pawed at her clumsily. “Charity!” belched her attacker in her ear, and the sour smell of ale wafted over her. “Been a long time, girl,” he slurred, and moved in to kiss her.
Ghia slipped out of his grasp and skirted just out of reach. “I think you have me confused with someone else,” she said coldly.
“Now doan be like that, wench – I know you missed me,” he said, lumbering after her, and she backed up nervously.
Another man came up and grabbed the giant, stopping him, and looked at Ghia closely, squinting at her features. “Now, Trevor,” he said placatingly to his friend, “this ain’t Charity. She left for Atton what, over twenty years ago!” Trevor nodded blurrily, absorbing the information, and the second man looked at her again. “Sure do look like Charity though. ‘Cept the hair,” he added, and belched.
Ghia was looking for an escape route, as the men stood between her and the rest of the tavern, when Trevor lumbered towards her again. “Oo cares? She’s a wench, ain’t she? And if she looks like Charity maybe she’s like Charity. C’mere, you, gimmee a kiss.” This time his friend didn’t stop him, and Ghia just narrowly escaped the bigger man’s meandering paws.
She reached the other side of her corner table and realised belatedly she’d boxed herself in. “Leave me alone,” she said savagely. “I’m not a wench.”
“Sure you ain’t,” Trevor said, winking grotesquely. Ghia shuddered, and as the man lumbered around the table she looked around desperately for a rescuer but, besides Trevor’s friend, no one had noticed the small commotion in the corner of the room. After all, what was wenching in Mudflat? Very common.
She jumped onto the table and tried to scramble over, but Trevor grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. She fought against him desperately, but he pressed her against the wood with his body, and her strength was no match for his. “Leave me alone!” she yelled at him, pushing against his chest with both hands. He chuckled, sending more sour ale breath over her, and moved in closer, pursing his lips to kiss her.
Suddenly his arm disappeared as it twisted around behind him, and he grunted in pain.
“I believe the lady told you to leave her alone,” said a voice laced with cold anger, and Ghia nearly cried in relief. Jules!
She kicked Trevor in the leg and scrambled out from underneath him to stand beside Jules. The CMO gave her a worried look, but had no chance to say anything else, because Trevor had regained his senses and freed himself from Jules’ grasp, pushing the medic to the floor.
Ghia gasped and raced to Jules’ side, but he waved her away and jumped to his feet from his back. Impressed, Ghia took a few steps back, for she could see the two males were squaring off for a fight and she had no wish to be in the middle of a dominance struggle.
“Push off, ‘alf-pint! I saw ‘er first; you can wait your turn.”
Jules raised his eyebrows calmly as he rolled his sleeves up. “That’s a dangerous policy – how you know she’s not already spoken for?” he asked, angling his body into what Ghia assumed was a fighting stance.
Trevor started laughing at Jules’ suggestion, and Ghia felt offended. Not that I am spoken for, but still. Too bad I can’t just fry this fecker.
“Wha, by you?” Trevor said, gesturing at Jules disbelievingly. “As if you’ve got wha it takes ta satisfy a woman.” He laughed again.
“More than you,” Jules said mildly, but Trevor was done bantering. He swung at Jules, but the CMO had already ducked.
He jabbed the man in the stomach and got a faint ‘oof’ for his efforts. Taking advantage, Jules then clopped the drunk on the chin with a swift uppercut, and there was a ‘click’ sound as the man’s teeth clacked together in his head.
Ghia thought for sure that would knock the man out, but the behemoth just stumbled back and landed against the wall. Jules straightened and cracked his knuckles, point proven. Trevor was not to be dissuaded so easily – he picked up a chair and rushed the medic. Ghia yelped as Jules rolled away from the downwards-swinging chair, narrowly missing a crack to his skull. The chair smashed over the back of another patron instead of Jules’ head.
That did it. A full-fledged bar fight broke out as the third man began attacking Trevor. As more blows hit the wrong targets, people left, right, and centre began pummelling, kicking, and swinging limbs like maniacs. Soon the sound of breaking glass joined in with the medley of shouts, screams, and wood on wood as tables were overturned and flung.
Ghia crouched down by her corner table, watching Jules worriedly as he got pulled into the fray. She’d never seen a bar fight before – all the patrons of the Cauldron feared Kasandra too much to dare any hostilities. She’d not had to deal with people thinking her a wench, either – not since Kasandra had dealt with the first person to do that. These days the only person who calls me a wench is Jules, she thought, smiling despite the fighting around her. That was only good-natured teasing.
The whole tavern was in chaos now. She couldn’t see Aro and Caelum but she was sure the majors were in the fray as well. How could they not be? She looked for them for a moment but soon gave up. It was hard enough keeping an eye on Jules, who was right there in front of her. And an incredible fighter, as far as Ghia’s knowledge of such things went. No matter whom he was hitting or kicking or dodging, he somehow managed to make a brawl in a tavern in the worst dive in Athering look…elegant.
She still flinched at every hit that almost landed on him, sure that this time it would knock him out.
A sudden flash of steel caught her eye, and she saw someone had drawn a knife. He was heading right for Jules.
“Medic!” she screamed, and Jules looked at her after knocking out the ruffian he’d been hitting. She gestured wildly to the knife-wielder, who, she now saw, was Trevor’s smaller friend. Jules spun as the man lunged and the medic’s arm went up to protect himself. There was the bright red of spilled blood as the knife cut him, and he grunted in pain. Ghia held her breath, sure that this was it. In a moment she’d have to kill this man with her powers and then wouldn’t they be in a right fine mess? But Jules disarmed the man with a bone-crushing wrist grip and then kicked him in the stomach. The man doubled over and Jules kneed him in the head, at which point he fell to the ground, out for the count.
Jules turned to smile a quick thanks at Ghia, who was slowly allowing herself to breathe again, and turned back to the fight, only to be punched in the face.
He stumbled backwards and would have recovered had a chair not come down on his head. He fell to his knees and then collapsed to the floor, unmoving.
Ghia saw with horror that no one had noticed Jules on the floor, and fighting patrons were coming dangerously close to trampling the medic.
She skittered out from her hiding place and tried to wake him, but he was well and truly out. Seeing nothing else to do, she dragged him back to the table and pulled him underneath with her, where she sat to wait out the fight.
She didn’t need to wait long. There was the sound of steel across leather, and Ghia looked to the stairway to see Bellica Yarrow with her sword drawn threateningly. “All right, you slovenly lot,” the bellica shouted, and several people stopped fighting to look at her. “One more punch and I start taking heads!”
The whole room went still.