Fourteen games of Finkle later, Shoto was starting to get the hang of the little dots on the dice. He was pretty certain that Kai was cheating, but he couldn’t do anything about it because he didn’t know the number words. What he did get was that you wanted the dots to match. So he’d started putting them next to each other and looking at them carefully.
At the bar, Kamboolii had finished an entire bottle of scootch and chased it back with several mugs of the muddy ale. Oddly, this seemed to have little effect on him other than to enliven his speech a bit. He and Brendy had gone off on an extended conversation involving the lives of the people who frequented the Inn. She was an incredible gossip when someone was willing to listen, and Chambeeta seemed to have an interest in everything she was saying.
“You mean to tell me,” he said incredulously, “that Rosemary’s baby is actually Lonnie’s child, even though she’s been having an affair with Doug?”
Brendy nodded. “Aye, y’see, she and Lonnie had a bit of a going’s on one night after they’d both got tippy and her husband Max was out of town. But Rosemary didna even remember it! Course, when the babe was born, we all knew right off who fathered the whelp on account of Lonnie havin the same wine stain on his right cheek. Lordy! So, she goes teh Ezwald, the skinscribe.”
“Oh shit,” interrupted the ArchMage. “Let me guess, Max was out of town when the child was born, and she thinks she’s going to be able to cover up the wine stain with a tattoo.”
“Aye!” laughed Brendy. “Ken yeh believe it? She’s so dumb. We all told her it weren’t gonna work, but she don’t listen on account of bein desperate, so’s she takes the babe to Ezwald and tells him teh cover it up with something that looks like ordinary skin. And Ezwald looks at her and says are you fookin daft yeh dumb wench? I canna do that! The best I ken do is teh draw something on it. And Rosemary thinks about that and then tells him teh do it, but she don’t know what to put on there, so Ezwald says how about a Max’s face?”
“NO!” exclaimed Chambeeta, slapping the bar.
“Aye!” insisted Brendy, “tis true. So Max, he comes home, and what does he find? He’s got a baby with his face scribed on the right cheek. And Max, he ain’t as dumb as he looks, even though he looks pretty dumb, and he knows right off who’s the father, and he tells Rosemary that they oughta give the whelp up fer Chakko teh raise on account of she’s Lonnie’s wife. And that’ how Chakko ended up with Rosemary’s baby what’s got a tattoo of Max’s face on his cheek.”
Chambeeta took another swig of the second bottle of scootch and shook his head in amazement. “By Wu it is interesting to hear such tales. Nothing so fantastic ever occurs in the Realm of Celestus.”
Brendy raised her eyebrows as he drank. “I canna believe you can put back so much ‘o that.”
“It’s a talent,” admitted Kamboolii. “I have a secondary profession, you know. Some call us mindwarriors, veterans of the psychic wars, but I prefer to think of it as mental exploration. Usually I consider myself as a psychonaut – an explorer of alternative states of consciousness. It’s a serious responsibility,” he added. “Someone has to go where no one had gone before and come back to speak of it, and it is my duty to do so. Some of the most fascinating places can be reached without even moving.”
The fat barmaid looked confused. “Them is strange words, and I can’t say I understand ‘em so well, so you’ll pardon me if I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, I don’t want to bore you,” said the ArchMage. “Tell me more gossip. I find it endlessly interesting. What did Doug do when he found out about Rosemary’s baby?”
They were suddenly interrupted by the door opening and a man entered, throwing back the hood from his head and smiling at the group. Instantly, the minstrel, who had fallen asleep next to the fire with the three old men, woke up and took attention. “Bob!” he declared.
“Evening everyone!” said Bob, grinning from ear to ear. “Or good morning, I should say. The sun will be rising not long from now, and the emerald moon should be dropping as well. Good times all around!”
Kai and Shoto looked at him, decided he wasn’t a threat, and went back to their game of Finkle. Brendy waved happily at the newcomer and invited him over to the bar. The minstrel picked up his lute and started strumming a soft little tune. The three old men next to him kept snoring.
Up at the bar, Bob took a seat next to Kamboolii and laid his hands on the counter. “How about an ale?” he asked Brendy.
She poured him a mug of the muddy beverage and introduced the two. “This here’s Bob,” she told the ArchMage. “He’s a semi-regular what always brings good cheer when he pops in. Lordy, though, I jest realized that you two have something in common! I ain’t never seen anyone throw back as much scootch and stay standin as Bob here, up until you come in old man.”
“Oh really!” declared Bob in surprise, looking Kamboolii up and down. “A man after me own heart then. But you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name and I don’t know yours.”
“Kamboolii,” replied the ArchMage, shaking Bob’s hand. “Chambeeta Kamboolii, but most people just call me Kamboolii.”
“Where you from Kamboolii?”
“I’m from Celestus of late, here on order of the Wu. Yourself?”
Bob looked stunned. “I’m, uh… who cares where I’m from! Hell, man, you’re actually from the Wu? I ain’t never met anyone from another realm. I mean, we hear about it, and lots gets said now and then, mostly from the priests, but we never actually SEE someone from there.”
Kamboolii nodded. “I do suppose it is a rare occurrence for you. The Realm of Kuldorii is not one frequently visited, mainly because of your Kuduu infestation. Not meaning any insult to your home, but Minth isn’t a world most would consider a place to vacation.” He poured a glass of scootch for the man and slid it over to him. “Here, you might as well join me. Brendy has been very hospitable, but she refuses to drink with me.”
“Can’t very well run the Underscale from the floor now, can I?” she chuckled. “Speakin ‘o which, I’d best run upstairs for a bit teh check on the girls. There has been an occasion now and then when they’ll sneak out fer a bit of a rendezvous teh make a their own scratch. Not that It’s likely under an emerald moon, but I oughta count heads nonetheless.”
“Say hi to Star for me,” waved Bob. He turned back to Kamboolii with a challenging glint in his eye and whispered. “So, my friend, what do you say to a little wager?”
“What kind of wager?”
“The only kind worth having! A drinking wager. If Brendy says you’re able to put down more scootch then me, then I got a reputation teh defend! How about we split a bottle and see who stays standing?”
Kamboolii gauged his capacity and the fact that he’d already had one bottle of the stuff, but decided not to mention that. The idea of getting completely shit-faced right before meeting with the Regent after not having any sleep appealed to him. If you’re going to be a rude obnoxious asshole to an illegitimate overlord, then why take half-measures? Besides, drinking other people under the table was one of his favorite hobbies.
“Very well, but we haven’t agreed on a wager yet.” He pulled out his purse and tossed a handful of non-descript gold coins on the table. “I’ll wager thirteen gold coins that I can drink you down.”
“Aye, well, that might be a bit rich for me my friend.” Pulling out his own coin purse Bob gauged the weight of it. “I’ve got enough to say ten. That should cover three bottles of scootch.”
“Three!” exclaimed Kamboolii. Brendy had ripped him off, dammit. “You must get the house price. When Brendy comes back, you do the haggling.”
“It’s a wager then?”
“Done, glass for glass.”
He poured and they both drank, slamming the glasses on the table. He poured again, and they repeated.
Bob looked a little rosy in the cheeks and shook his head. “Blech, but I hate the taste of this stuff. So tell me, Kamboolii, what is the Wu up to again? Kuldorii isn’t under a threat of invasion from the Drathraq I would hope.”
Pouring the third round, Kamboolii felt a little buzz coming on. It was a pleasant hazy sensation. A pity it never lasted very long. “No, nothing like that,” he assured his opponent. “We’re just here to find some Princess and haul her ass back to where she belongs. It’s sort of a luggage retrieval mission. You travel much?”
“Not really,” said Bob.
They held their glasses up.
“Two for the Wu,” said Kamboolii.
“Two for the Wu,” repeated Bob.
They drank, and the ArchMage immediately poured the fourth round. Bob was starting to get a little worried. He was going to have to slow this down or he wasn’t going to last very long. Who knew an old man could handle so much scootch!
“Well,” continued Kamboolii, “When you travel a lot, you don’t like to carry dead weight. So, when you’ve got something you aren’t going to need for a while, but it’s important for later, you stick it in storage. Let’s say, for example, a coil of rope. Very handy if you’re going to climb a mountain, but you don’t do that very often, so when you go travelling you don’t always take it with you. Still, it’s nice to have it someplace easy to get to and where no one is going to steal it until you need it. So you find a dry cave to put it in, and you pile rocks on top of it so that no one else will find it. Now, later, when you’re going mountain climbing, you know exactly where it is, and you just go get it. That’s what we’re doing here. The time has come to climb mountains, and we’re here to get our rope.
“Two for the Wu.”
“Two for the Wu.”
They threw back the glasses and slammed them down on the bar.
Bob felt his skin starting to get numb, and the room was looking a little misty and somewhat smaller than it had before. A little nauseous, he watched Kamboolii pour the fifth round. Inside, a little voice seemed to be talking to him. It was saying something about a coil of rope and mountain climbing. Bob had never climbed a mountain before, but he knew people who had.
“My cousin John climbed a mountain once,” he told Kamboolii. “He fell off a cliff and died. They never found his body. They think he was eaten by the Kuduu on the next emerald moon.”
“Poor bastard,” sighed the ArchMage. “It’s funny how so many people overestimate what they’re capable of. Take Shoto over there. He’s the big guy in the armor. Shoto doesn’t know his capacity. He hasn’t a clue. And he’s fearless. He’d take on an entire army if the opportunity presented itself, and you know what? He’d probably win. That’s the interesting thing about Humans. You people tend to overestimate what you’re capable of and then, when you attempt it, you usually die. Shoto’s people, on the other hand, usually do incredibly STUPID things and yet somehow manage to survive.” He shook his head. “Amazing people the Groll. Ugly and brutish, but amazing.
“Two for the Wu.”
“Two for *HIC* D Wu.”
After throwing back the scootch, Kamboolii regarded his opponent with a critical eye. “You feeling okay Bob?” he asked.
“Fine…” Bob slurred back with a half smile. “I’m doin great! How YOU doin?”
“I’ve got a bit of a buzz that I’d like to cultivate,” Kamboolii revealed. “I like to think of them as pets. Sometimes I give them names. I think I’ll call this one Hal. Yep, Hal and me are doing fine. Hal’s just a baby though, well, more of a toddler really. And he needs to grow bigger before I can let him out to play. That means we need to feed Hal, because Hal won’t grow unless you feed him.”
He poured the sixth round and slid Bob’s glass over to him.
“You know they make this stuff out of fungus?” he asked Bob.
“Yesh,” gurgled Bob. “Itsh from duh whoobat stalkz in duh South field.”
“Right,” nodded Kamboolii.
A great stomping came from the stairs. It was Brendy coming back down. She brushed her hands off as if she’d just finished a monumental task and regarded the two men at the bar. “The girls is still sleepin,” she reported. “Don’t look like any ‘o the little angels flew off on me. You feelin a’right Bob? You’re lookin a bit green around the gills.”
“Ish nothing,” replied Bob with a big grin. “I’m feelin no pain. We’re jest havin a lil contest iz all.” He picked up his glass. “Two four dee Woo!”
Kamboolii echoed the cheer and slammed down the scootch. Bob followed a second later. He seemed to have trouble swallowing it, but he managed to get it down.
“Yeh know,” he told the ArchMage, “there’s no WAY you’re gonna be able teh out drink me old man. I got me *HIC* an iromen constitutional. Everyone says so. I done out drunk everyone in here!” he said, gesturing to the empty bar.
The minstrel chuckled at that. “You sure did Bob,” he said.
“Thatsh RIGHT! Remember that one time, that one time before the other time when I was drinkin against Jasss Jess Jasper! Yeah. Remember that time? He thought I was a lightweight cause I was shlurring me wurdz. *HIC!* Little did he know that it was all part ‘o me special tactikzz.”
“Ah!” declared Kamboolii. “It was a ruse. That’s very sneaky of you Bob. Yes, I was starting to think the same thing. But now that you’ve revealed your tactic to me, it will no longer affect my assessment of your mental state. Verily, but I will declare that it is ON!” He then poured the seventh round. “And, to be quite honest, Hal is starting to shrink. He needs FUEL!”
“Er… who’s Hal?” asked Brendy.
“Hal’s my buzz,” explained the ArchMage, holding up his glass to Bob. “Two for the Wu!”
“Tooo four D WOO!” exclaimed Bob, downing the glass. “Shee? I may shound drunk, but I’m only foolin you!”
Kamboolii shook his head. “You’re amazing Bob.”
Bob nodded. “Thanksh. Hey, what about yur other friend over there?” He lowered his head and whispered conspiritually, “the gurl,” he grunted. “She’s aboshowlutely fabulous, really. I mean, her legsh go all the way up. Shooo… I gotta ask, you think a guy like me has a chanss with shumone like that? *HIC!*”
Kamboolii knew where this was going, and felt obliged to give warning. “Sadly not my friend,” he asserted. “Kai is an Eloki, a cross-breed of High Elf and Musae, and she doesn’t think much of Humans. To be honest, she rather kill your entire species just to brighten up the landscape, but as you don’t pose much of a threat, she lets you live. Most of the time.” He opened another bottle of scootch and poured the eighth round. “Eloki are amazing too, and not all of them are as bitter or as arrogant as Kai. I actually don’t know that much about her particular circumstances yet. I haven’t worked with her before. All I know for certain is that you don’t want to be on the wrong end of her bow. Unless, of course, you’re immune to being shot with arrows.”
“Arrowsh… bleh, arrowsh don’t bother me.”
“Hmm… yes, this is what I meant about Humans not understanding their capacity.”
“No, really, I’m immune to arrowsh. I have a magical field shurrounding me that keeps arrowsh from hitting me.” He giggled. “Itsh a shecret though, sho don’t tell no one.”
“Two for the Wu.”
“2 4 D Wu.”
Kamboolii was, frankly, surprised that Bob had managed to follow him this far. Hal was getting to be a big boy, and it would be time to let him out soon. Yet here was Bob, still trundling along behind him like some kind of zombie hungry for brains. Picking his brains, yes, that’s what Bob had been doing. Asking all the questions, and what did Kamboolii really know about Bob anyway? For all he knew, Bob could be a spy sent by the Regent to find out why they were here in Hezwuuld. Actually, that made a lot of sense. If he were the Regent, he’d probably do the same thing.
“You ever work for the Regent Bob?”
Bob burst out laughing. “The REGENT!? BWAAAAA HA HAAA” His head dropped to the bar. “Thatsh the funniesht thing I ever herd. The Regent is a poser. That shack of shit hash NO RIGHT to be in power. He should be dishposed!”
“Hey!” interrupted Brendy. “Maybe you’ve had enough Bob. These ain’t topics we wanna bring up with strangers. Ever.”
“Shuddup, Brendy, you know what I been through.” Hanging his head, he sobbed. Then he picked up the bottle and, amazingly, poured a ninth round, spilling only a small amount on the bar.
“2 4 D Wu!” he bellowed.
“Two for the Wu.”
For a moment, they sat quietly. Kamboolii pondering his own thoughts, and Bob trying not to puke everywhere. After what he felt was a suitable time, the ArchMage said, “you want to tell me about it? What did the Regent do to you?”
“It wasn’t me,” he snapped. “It wuzz me son. Me only boy. He wash born weak, en he had a bad leg. Never shoulda been on the wall. Regent said all men of a shertin age had teh go. He fell off an DIED!”
“It was a long time ago,” Brendy told the ArchMage. “We had a breach in the wall. It was an emergency. The Regent called for everyone teh come, all men over fifteen. We lost three Gardeners that day, and a dozen fighters. Bob’s boy was one of ‘em.”
“How did he die?”
Brendy made a face, but answered the question anyway. “He got knocked off the wall during the fighting and fell into the gate gears. He was alive for a little bit, but they couldn’t get him out, and they needed to raise the gate teh flank the Kuduu or we was gonna lose the city. So they… raised it anyway, and the gears…”
“Chopped him up!” howled Bob. “I can still hear the screaming.” Tears were pouring down his face now. Sniffing intensely, he tried to compose himself. “Shorry. Thinking about that alwaysh makes me cry. But then crying helpsh me get shober. So…” he said eyeing the glasses. “Letsh do it.”
Kamboolii poured the tenth round. He hoped Bob hadn’t brought all of that up on purpose. It was a horrible story. No, he couldn’t have. The very thought of it was vile.
“Two for the Wu.”
“2 forty Wu.”
Brendy groaned and shook her head angrily, wiping up the spilled scootch on the bar with a rag. “This is getting teh the point ‘o bein dumb. You two oughta just give this up. You’re both gonna be sick. Most folk’d be dead by now.”
Deep in the back of Kamboolii’s brain, the ‘wise old man’ portion of his personality agreed with this. But in the middle of his brain there was that adolescent punk kid who kept egging him on. And in the front of his brain there was a drunk asshole who didn’t give a shit. It was difficult to reconcile these three aspects. Usually the one in the front, when he wasn’t so wasted, served as arbiter for the other two. Right now, that wasn’t the case.
He did feel sorry for Bob. The loss of a son was no doubt a terrible emotional scar, but that didn’t mean he was just going to let Bob win the contest. Also, he wasn’t even halfway drunk enough. Bob had no concept of Kamboolii’s alcohol tolerance. If he had, he wouldn’t have suggested drinking against him. Chambeeta could probably drink a vat of this stuff and walk away. Well, that might be going too far. He might live through it, but he wouldn’t be walking anyway. In any case, he decided that he wasn’t going to throw in the towel, not yet. And besides, Bob looked like he could handle a few more rounds.
“Uhhh…” gurgled Bob.
Well, maybe not.
“Are you going to vomit?” Kamboolii asked him. “Maybe we should go outside and get some air. We could run a few blocks. That always help burn off some of the alcohol.”
“You’re a nice old man,” said Bob. “I really like you, y’know? I probably shouldn’a come here tanight.” Letting out a long sigh, he shook his head. “But I’m afraid I’m not gonna dust letcha vim dis king, I mean win this thing. Letsh do one more. *HIC!* I betchu canna handle ONE MORE.”
Giving Brendy a shrug, Kamboolii poured the eleventh round. “Are you sure you want to drink that?” he asked, sliding the glass in front of Bob. “It could kill you you know. I’ve seen people die from drinking too much.”
“Aye,” nodded Brendy, agreeing strongly with Kamboolii. “Dinna do it Bob. You’ve had too much already. You ken barely talk.”
Bob waved his hand in the air, slapping himself in the face by accident. “Don’t be ridicolos,” he protested. “I aready toldja, I gets a little shlurry with me speech after a few. It don’t mean nothing.” He held up his glass, hand shaking.
“2 4 D Wu.”
“Two for the Wu.”
Wiping his hand across his mouth, Kamboolii set his glass down and waited. Bob hadn’t drank yet, he was still holding the glass in front of him, looking at it and trying to get up the intestinal resolve to dump it down his throat. Almost as if he were fighting a battle, his arm brought it closer and closer while his hand shook more and more. At last, he leaned forward to close the distance and then bent back to tip the liquid into his mouth. Making a face, he swallowed hard.
“Sho,” gasped Bob. “Shtel me abothis Prinshesh yur commin teh get. Yeh know who she is?”
“Oh, aye,” replied Kamboolii. “Her name is…”
Bob fell of his chair and landed on the floor with a heavy “thunk.”
Kai and Shoto looked up and came over to see what was going on. Brendy rushed around the bar and even the minstrel stopped playing and watched to see what was happening.
“Damn it to hell,” swore Brendy. “He’s totally gone.”
“You mean he’s dead?” asked Kai.
“No, I mean he’s completely blotto. Too much scootch’ll do this teh anyone. He’ll have one hell of a headache when he wakes up.”
“Well when he does, he owes me money,” snorted Kamboolii, who poured himself another glass, this one completely full. He got up from the bar to find himself a nice table where he could kick his legs up.
“Wouldja help me get him over to the mantle?” Brendy asked Shoto. “The fire will keep him warm.”
“Unh,” grunted Shoto. “Shoto will help.”
Kai looked disgusted. “Well I’m not touching him.”