The Tavern was as alive as ever that night. Gurjin and Rian had made the trek out here many times before, but tonight was special. Mira's rotation schedule finally matched up with his and Gurjin's in a way that allowed them to head out to the Castle Shadow Tavern for the night and make it back for their next patrol. The tavern was built within an hour's walk from the Castle of the Crystal. Rian imagined it was built by some enterprising gelfling who realized the guard would need something to do on their time off other than polishing boots or running drills. It also fell along a well-worn travel road, which made for a good mix of regulars and new-comers.
On this particular night, Rian sat in a booth with Gurjin and Mira. The sounds of chatter and revelry echoed around them. Above it all, Gurjin's voice rang out, regaling them with his Captain Ordon impression.
"And that, recruits," he boomed, keeping his back straight as a steel rod and his face stiff as a board, "is why if you don't polish your boots until you can see your reflection in them, you have failed both as a guard and as a gelfling, and your ancestors will weep in shame." A mischievous twinkle entered his eye. "Unless you're Gurjin, of course, in which case, you can do no wrong."
"Of course…" Rian sighed, hiding an amused smirk in his cup of ale.
"Is all that understood, Mira?" Gurjin went on.
"Yes, Captain," she answered with mock severity. "The state of my boots will make my ancestors proud."
"Don't encourage him," Rian said, rolling his eyes. "He'll keep this up all night, and he has."
"Silence, Rian," Gurjin commanded, keeping in character. "Don't disparage your fellow guard. You should be more like Gurjin. He's loyal, brave, hard-working, handsome…"
Rian let out a burst of laughter. "Stop complimenting yourself in the third-person!"
"Yes, you've broken the illusion," Mira added. "Our captain would never give that much praise. Up until that, though, I thought it was spot on."
"You thought it was good?" Gurjin asked, sitting down and reverting back to his own voice.
Rian shook his head. "Trust me, it gets old after hearing it five or six hundred times."
As if accepting a challenge, Gurjin snapped right back into his stiff, upright posture. "Rian, as your father, I must tell you that you need to lighten up a little."
"Okay, now I know that's not the captain," Mira said.
"Sure, I may be stiffer that the Emperor's beak and believe any smile lasting longer than a third of a second is a sure sign of deception…"
Rian let his gaze linger on a spot just over Gurjin's shoulder. "Oh, hello father."
Gurjin practically jumped as he looked behind him. When he saw nothing there, he turned back to his friends with a wry smile. "Ha, ha, very funny…"
Rian flashed him a smirk. "How's that for lightening up?" he said, taking a drink.
Gurjin made a non-committal sound and conceded defeat by taking a swing from his stein. His eyes shifted to the tavern's bar, in search of some new amusement. His face broke into a grin when something caught his eye. "Hey, look at those two Spritons over there.
Rian followed his gaze. He saw two Spritons, a male and a female, accepting their drinks from the bar keep. Travelers from Sammi Thicket, he guessed. Both had shiny black hair and were laughing at something one of them had said.
"Got your eye on one of them?" Mira asked.
"Either? Both?" Gurjin shrugged. "What ever their preference is. I'm flexible."
"Both?" Mira gasped in disbelief. "At the same time?"
Gujin put on a cocky grin. "It's happened before."
"Not to you, though," Rian added. He and Gurjin shot each other the kind of mocking looks only long-time friends can share.
"Hey, you may have a steady catch, but some of us are still on the hunt," Gurjin shot back.
"Any gelfling would be lucky to have you," Mira said warmly.
Rian clapped him on the back. "And half of them don't deserve you."
"Thanks, but you don't have to puff me up. I know my worth." He finished the last of his beer and got up from the table. "Well, I'm going to go try my luck." With that, he sauntered off to chat up the Spritons.
"Alone at last," Rian sighed, turning his smile over to Mira.
"You really think he's going to go for both?" she asked, watching Gurjin approach the Spritons.
"Might have just been bravado, but he's open to anything, really." He looked over at Gurjin. Something he said caused the Spritons to burst into a fit of laughter. "As long as he's happy, I'm rooting for him."
She looked back at him. Her pale blue eyes were soft and inviting "Have you and Gurjin been friends a long time?"
"We went though training together," he explained. "We were sparring partners for our first combat exercises. He knocked me down flat quite a few times, but I learned to be quicker and more agile. WE'd taunt each other throughout the session, but it was all in jest. We started bonding outside of training and we've been like brothers ever since."
"I can tell." She scooted in closer to him. "Must have been nice, being so close to someone here."
Rian moved in closer as well. "Surely you had friends in the Har'ar guard."
"I did and I still write them sometimes, but if I had a friendship like yours and Gurjin's, I might not have transferred."
"Well," he said, reaching for her hand, "who says you can't have that here?"
"You certainly made me feel welcome," she teased, running her thumb along his knuckles, "what with your, observatory tour and all."
"Not much of a tour when you beat me up there."
"Neither was that sparring match," she said with an impish twinkle in her eye.
"That's not fair," he argued in mock-offense. "I was distracted by how beautiful my partner was."
"What makes you think I wasn't distracted?" she purred back.
They leaned in closer, seeking to close the gap between them. Rian shut his eyes, waiting for her kiss, but Gurjin's voice interrupted them.
"Hey Rian, come play darts with me."
Rian opened his eyes and cast an irritated glance in his friend's direction. "What happened to the Spritons?"
"Turns out they're childhood friends who just started going together and I wasn't about the get in the middle of a love story like that," he explained. "Come on, just one game. Loser buys the next round."
"Alright," Rian said, getting up from the table and following Gurjin to the dart board. "I guess you know my taste in beer well enough."
"I know liquid gold wouldn't be enough to satisfy your pretentious tongue," Gurjin playfully shot back, "not that I'm going to need that knowledge though."
"Don't be so sure." Rian smiled at Mira who watched from their table. "I've got someone special cheering me on."
"I know." Gurjin handed Rian his darts. "And I doubt you'll be able to see straight, making those googly eyes."
Rian and Gurjin took turns tossing darts and exchanging playful insults. Rian kept glancing over at Mira between shots. She looked at him with a sly smirk on her lips. She was always concocting some mischief, he could tell. There was always something up her sleeve, though never anything malicious. Whatever it was, it would surely give them a laugh. He could hardly wait to find out what she was thinking.
By game's end, Gurjin proved to be the victor. "Ha! Take that you cross-eyed bean pole," he jeered when his dart hit the bullseye.
"You won by one point," Rian argued.
"And that was enough to beat you," Gurjin countered. He pointed Rian in the direction of the bar. "Go on, drink slave."
"Fine, anything specific?"
"Surprise me," he said, flashing a mocking grin. "You know my taste in beer well enough."
"As you wish," Rian sighed. Gurjin headed back over to the table while Rian went to the bar.
"I think I'll grab another drink too," Mira said, getting up. She joined Rian at the bar. He leaned against the counter and waited for the bar keep to take his order. "So," she said, sliding in next to him, "what are you thinking?"
"I'll just get him an elm brew," he said. "That's one of his favorites."
"Or you could get him the opposite of his favorite," she suggested, a wicked smile on her lips.
The tantalizing mischief in her voice tugged at his ears. "What are you saying?"
"The bet was, you buy him a drink," she explained. "He never said it had to be a drink he liked."
His wicked smile matched hers as he considered the tempting idea. The look he imagined on Gurjin's face was entertaining. Ultimately, he decided against it, though. "Nah, that wouldn't be sporting. I'll just-"
"You're taking your sweet time over there!" Gurjin called from across the room.
"What?" Rian snapped, looking back at him.
"I said you're taking your sweet time over there!" Gurjin called again.
"Hush!" Rian shouted back. He turned back to Mira, a mischievous grin plastered on his face. "You know, I started out with the best intentions."
"You did…" she said, sly smile growing.
"But he had to go flapping his lips."
"Yup." She nodded. "He could stand to learn some patience."
Rian winked at Mira and flagged down the bar keep. "Excuse me, miss," he said once he had her attention. "What's the weirdest drink you can make? Like, something you'd have to be out of your mind to order?"
A few minutes later, Rian put a stein full of a greenish-brown liquid down in front of Gurjin. "Uh, what's this?" Gurjin asked, inspecting the drink from a safe distance.
"You did tell me to surprise you," Rian said, a rascally gleam in his eye.
"It looks like you dipped the stein in the castle sewers."
"I can, in fact, verify that Rian got that drink from the bar keep," Mira added as if she were giving a patrol report.
"Ah, so she's the one who dipped it in the sewer."
Mira laughed. "She called it fizzgig dung."
"How appealing…" Gurjin looked down at the cup as if the name was literal.
"Drink up, pal." Rian clapped a hand down on Gurjin's shoulder. "That's all for you."
"Alright." He pulled a face like he was about to single-handedly conduct the deterge. "Here goes nothing." He lifted the stein and tapped it against his friends' cups.
"Vliya!" Mira cheered.
"Eh, vliya yourself," Gurjin grumbled in return.
Rian chuckled. "That doesn't even make sense."
"Eh, shut up." Gurjin put the drink to his lips and, never one to do anything by halves, swallowed a large gulp. He slammed the stein back down as he gagged and coughed. "Ugh that is rancid," he said, tears forming in his eyes. He sunk down and put his head on the table. "Someone fetch my mother. I want to go home."
"It can't be that bad," Rian said.
"It can." Gurjin's head snapped up. "Why in Thra would you do that to me?"
"I was going to get you an elm," Rian explained, "but you had to start yapping like a fizzgig. Thought you could use a lesson in patience."
"Lesson learned." Gurjiin slid the stein over to Rian. "You try it."
Rian slid it back. "Why would I want to try it?"
"'This is terrible, you try'", Mira laughed. "What a compelling argument!"
Rian looked down at the half-empty cup, curiosity seeping into his brain. "I mean… you know what? Okay."
Mira looked aghast. "You can't be serious!"
"Well…" Rian shrugged and offered her a half-hearted smile. He really had no explanation other than the solidarity of sharing a disgusting experience with a friend.
As he lifted the drink to his lips, Gurjin shot him a wicked smirk. "Hey Rian," he said, "Vliya!"
"Yeah, right, Vliya." Rian drank and felt a burning sensation down his throat. The taste was indescribable. "Ugh, I just drank Arathim poison!" he shouted, slamming the stein down.
Gurjin roared with laughter. "Not so funny now, is it?"
Rian took a sip of his beer, begging for it to wash out the aftertaste. "The name warns you about the taste, but not the burning."
"No it does not, but hey!" Gurjin slapped Rian on the back. "Think of it as practice for the day you and I try Grotton glow spirit."
"Uh-huh," Rian grimaced. "And that'll be the day I die."
Gurjin nodded and took a drink from Rian's beer. "Yup, just dig a grave behind me so I can fall backward into it."
"Oh, I know about glow spirit," Mira put in.
"You've had it?" Gurjin asked. He looked almost impressed.
"No, but I've heard rumors."
"So have I. Apparently it's ten times stronger than Uncle Norlan's secret recipe."
"Who's Uncle Norlan?" Mira asked.
"My Uncle Norlan," said Gurjin.
"Drenchen moonshine," Rian explained. "I've had his uncle's secret recipe. If glow spirit's any stronger, it'll melt the spires off the Castle of the Crystal."
Mira grinned. "Well, in that case, we have to try it."
"Yes, but until then, what do you say we wash the taste out of our mouths with a song." Gurjin grabbed a pair of spoons and set them down in front of Rian.
"Oh, we've reached that point in the night, have we?" Rian said, picking up the spoons. He pinched them between his fingers, ready to play.
"I didn't know you could play spoons," Mira said, smiling at him.
"I had to learn." Rian smiled back. "Gurjin's inner-bard comes out after a few drinks and he demands accompaniment."
"What am I, if not a crowd pleaser?" Gurjin smirked. "Go on, start."
Rian adjusted his spoons and got his knee into position. "You start, I'll follow."
"Very well." Gurjin stood up, took another gulp of Rian's beer, and launched into a classic Drenchen folk song. Rian did his best to keep the beat. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mira beaming at him.
"What other secret talents have you been hiding from me?" she purred.
His heart pounded and his face flushed. He missed a few beats, but Gurjin didn't seem to notice. He played on as he lost himself in Mira's beautiful eyes. This night, he decided, was a complete success. And he was sure, someday, when he was old and gray, he'd look back on this night and the memory would warm his heart like a cozy fire in a lively tavern.