The Pulver Chronicles – 6. I’m In The Band


Jackson was led inside the Hazy Narrian. They entered a small lobby, with no furniture or decoration. There was a door opposite the entry, through which Jackson could hear muffled voices, coughing, and a slow tune played on a chord instrument. The Lizardman working the reception desk recognized the Goblin, and gave him a silent nod. He picked up a key and knelt behind his desk. There was a rattling, then the unmistakable sound of slightly rusted hinges. Jackson followed the Goblin as he walked around the desk, and saw an opened trap door, leading to a set of stairs.

The basement of the Hazy Narrian was dry and a bit cold, but rather well lit. A portion of it served as a wine cellar, but the main part was furnished like the cross between a meeting room and a breakroom. There was a round table with chairs, a wooden board along with several posters, and some lit lanterns around. A drawn blue curtain, near the back, seemed to lead to another room. Four people were already present.

The first was a female Orc, taller than even most specimens of her species. Her skin was the color of malachite, her hair, short and dressed in cornrows, was ebony black. Two tusks adorned with silver rings protruded from her bottom lip. Another silver ring decorated her nose, and she wore silver bracelets on her wrists. She wore a thick suit of mail armor, steel tassets, and leather boots reinforced with iron. The whole outfit had clearly seen some action, going by the wear and tear. Her arms and legs were entirely free, presumably because they were too bulky to tolerate any kind of restrictive clothing.

The second, seated on a barrel to the Orc’s right, was also a woman, looking to be in her mid-twenties. Jackson could intuitively tell she wasn’t truly Human, but wasn’t sure why, or what exactly she was, as none of her features were uncharacteristic of one. She was about four inches smaller than him, had a triangular face with a pointy chin, chestnut eyes underlined with a bit of black makeup, and an olive skin almost entirely covered in tattoos. Even her bald head was inked. Those tattoos were all black, green and red in color, and were drawn in various styles, probably by different artists. Jackson imagined each of them told a story. She wore a pair of black pants with brown-red boots. Above the waist, she wore only a dark green linen band at chest level; Jackson tried not to look at that region, yet couldn’t help but wonder if it was tattooed as well.

The third one, standing near the curtain in the back, looked like a Demon, but with several important differences. He -Jackson assumed the creature was male- was scrawnier, smaller and leaner than the other Demons Jackson had seen so far, and had a skin almost as dark as night. His eyes were entirely blood-red, and shone like a pair of rubies in the dancing light of the candles. The fingers on his hands looked more like talons. On his head were not two but four horns, each twisted along different patterns, an even darker color than their skin. A couple of pointy, Elf-like ears underlined the lower pair of horns. He was dressed all in black -naturally. The quasi-Demon was reading a book whose cover bore no title or illustration.

The fourth was a Human male, seated at the table, shuffling a deck of cards. He was probably in his late thirties, but seemed to have aged prematurely: he had more than a few wrinkles, his long dirty blonde hair was in the process of graying, some of his teeth were missing, and red blotches dotted his skin. He had burly arms, and a muscly chest covered by a brown, dirty brigandine. A large beard encircled his face; it evidently had not been shaved in a long while.

The Goblin took Jackson by the arm and gestured to the others.

“Meet the Children of Nayros,” he said. “Children, meet your new brother.”

The bearded man nodded to Jackson, then cut his deck. The bald woman waved at him with a kind smile. The Orc grumbled a greeting. As to the Demonlike creature, he simply blinked before going back to his reading.

“This is Argyro,” the Goblin said as he gestured to the Orc. “Our heavy infantry. If you need something bashed, bent, or broken, she’s your mate. Don’t ask her for her clan name, though. As far as you’re concerned, she’s the only Orc in the world to not have one.

“Here is Enita,” he pointed at the bald woman, who jumped on her feet and went to shake Jackson’s hand. “Our sorceress.”

“And, yes,” Enita said, smiling brightly, “I know what you’re going to say: “who’s ever heard of a Leylen sorceress?”. That’s quite a story.”

“It’ll be for another time,” the Goblin said. “She handles the offensive spells, a few wards, as well as the occasional healing.”

Very occasional,” she commented.

“Yes… This is Durnin,” he said, gesturing to the bearded man. “Our elder brother. He was part of the family long before any of us. He’s probably forgotten more about wielding a sword, a mace or a spear than you’ve ever learned. If you’re smart, you’ll come to him for advice.”

“And if you’re not,” Durnin said in a baritone, with an accent that sounded a bit like Jackson’s “uncle” Jared’s Scottish accent, “you’ll challenge me at a game of bleekes. Are you much of a gambler?”

In his mouth, the word “you” sounded like “yeh” or “yee”. It was inconsistent, however, as if he was trying to hide his natural accent.

“Yeah, sometimes,” Jackson said. “It can be fun.”

“So long as you’re not betting money,” the Goblin said. “And finally, this is Jowallan.”

The dark, Demon-like creature looked at Jackson again. At least, Jackson assumed they were looking at him; their red eyes didn’t seem to have any pupils.

“Jowallan is a magi, but of a very different breed than Enita… or indeed most magis you may have met. What he does is… Well, I think he would prefer to keep it a surprise. Wouldn’t you, Jowallan?”

The Demon had already lost interest in the conversation and was once more back to his book.

“Oh, and before I forget,” the Goblin said, “my name is Marrmad.”

“And what do you do?” Jackson said. “Aside from throwing newbies through weird tests?”

“To sum up, I’d say I do the talking.”

“He sure does,” Durnin said.

“You do the talking? What does that mean? You bore your enemies to death?”

“Oh, I like him,” Enita said with a chuckle.

“It means I handle the more social aspects of our work,” Marrmad said. “I find our contracts, I negotiate our pay, I keep abreast of the local laws and politics, I deal with the nobles and such. But enough about me. Why don’t you introduce yourself to your new brothers and sisters?”

Jackson turned to face the others, reminded of those times when he was the new kid in school, and had to give an introduction to the other children. Boy, had he hated those times.

“Uh… Okay. So, my name is-”

“Greenleaf,” Argyro interrupted. “Definitely. Written all over your face.”

“Aye,” Durnin said, laughing. “Greenleaf. He even has the clothes for it!”

“Greenleaf it is,” Marrmad said, slapping Jackson on the back.

“What? What does that even mean?” Jackson said.

“It means you’re as green as grass, boy,” Durnin said. “Greener than an unripe tomato. Never known war, that’s obvious. How old even are you, lad?”

“Nineteen, going on twenty. And I’ve served in the army, jackass.”

“Aye, but not in a proper battle. Or am I wrong?”

“Look, my real name is-” Jackson said, ignoring the question, but he was interrupted again.

“We don’t use real names, among the Children of Nayros,” Enita said. “No real names, no asking about our past, that’s the rule.”

“That’s right,” Marrmad said. “When you join our family, you are born anew. What you’ve done before, and who you were before, becomes immaterial.”

“Like I got baptized a second time,” Jackson said snarkily.

“What?” Argyro said.

Jackson shook his head. “Nevermind. But “Children of Nayros”? What’s Nayros?”

“She’s the goddess of luck, fortune, and opportunities,” Marrmad said. “I take it she’s not one of your deities. No… You look more like the type to worship Tewiz, or Ullur.”

“Don’t know those ones either.”

“Where are you from, Greenleaf?” Durnin abruptly said. “Tewiz and Ullur are worshiped even in the Hexacracy.”

“I thought we didn’t ask about our past,” Jackson said.

“He’s right,” Enita said, smiling.

“Anyway,” Marrmad said, “this goddess was chosen as our main deity because we all experienced our share of misfortunes in the past, and by embracing this new family, we’re hoping to turn our luck around.”

“Huh,” Jackson said. “Yeah, I get that, actually.”

“We have built a small altar for her over there,” Enita said, pointing at a dark corner. “If you care to make an offering.”

“Maybe later.” Glancing around at the basement, he said: “So, this is your hideout?”

“Yes,” Marrmad said. “Feel free to come and go as you please, so long as you make sure never to miss a gathering. There’s a separate section behind the curtain where you’ll find cots to sleep, as well as a training room. As for the matter of payment, every one of us gets an equal share. This is not open for negotiations. No privileges, no advance payments, and certainly no credit.”

“Fine by me,” Jackson said.

“Well, that’s it,” Marrmad said. “Now, I have some errands, so I must leave you.”

The Goblin gone, everyone went back to what they were doing. Argyro went to the back and pulled the curtain behind her. Jowallan continued reading. Jackson sat at the table, opposite Durnin, who was still shuffling his cards.

“You can drop that in one of the chests in the back, if you want,” Durnin said, pointing at Jackson’s backpack.

“Thanks.”

“Do you know how to play bleekes, lad?”

“No. Is that anything like poker?”

“Poka? Never heard of that one.”

“Well… What do you say you teach me how to play bleekes, and I’ll teach you how to play poker?”

“Sounds good to me, lad.”

“Count me in,” Enita said, grabbing a seat.

Bleekes was a rather simple game to learn, although Durnin had clearly mastered a few subtleties -which he didn’t bother explaining to Jackson. According to Byron, who was watching over the game, it was played a bit like whist. With his advice, Jackson managed to not embarrass himself too much, and actually won a couple of games. Durnin, unsurprisingly, won most of them, and Enita a few.

“Are you new in town?” Enita asked, as she distributed the cards.

“Yeah, just got here yesterday.”

“It’s funny, you look like a Hastadish, but you don’t speak like one. I’ve never heard an accent like yours.”

“What’s a Hastadish?” Jackson couldn’t help but ask.

“Are you serious?” Durnin said, guffawing.

“I’m new in town, I just said that.”

“Flea-bite! There are Hastadish all over Varda, and on the other continents too.”

“They’re a Human people,” Enita said. “Native of Varda, but like Durnin said, you can find them in many places. Most of them live in the Eastern Empire, though. In fact, every Emperor has been a Hastadish for as long as I can remember.”

“Darrel the Fair was a Narrian,” Durnin said.

“He was just an usurper. He ruled for less than two years, and never even entered Velenopolis.”

“So who’s the current Emperor?” Jackson said.

“Damian the third,” Durnin said. “Not even thirty years of age yet, but everyone says he’s willing to walk in the steps of the previous Damians.”

“What does that mean?”

“Damian, the first of his name, was the one who conquered the Narran kingdom,” Enita said, “and made it part of the Empire. Damian the second did the same with the South.”

“Until Wiltan IV lost it,” Durnin said, grimacing.

“Well, that’s not quite fair,” Enita said. “Wiltan began to lose them. But who can blame him? They called him Wiltan the Grim for a reason: the poor man all but spent his life in mourning. He had lost his father to a jealous suitor at ten, then his mother took her own life out of guilt, then his first wife died falling from her horse…”

She began counting on her fingers.

“Then, he remarried and had children. That was when the Purple Plague arrived in the Empire, supposedly from Odrod, and took both his second wife and his eldest son. Then, the Hexacracy decided to exploit the Empire’s weakness and invade the South. The war raged on for eight years, and cost Wiltan his second son and his brother. Finally, his nephew -who they say was like another son to him- was killed during a tourney.

“Damn,” Jackson said.

“Nobody really won the war. After all the fighting was done and all the treaties were signed, the South became the Southern Marches, more or less independent. Atvello bought its status as a free port, an offer which the Empire was too eager to accept after the war had emptied its coffers. Some marquesses still swore fealty to the Emperor, but most started enjoying their newfound independence. None turned to the Hexacracy, though.”

“Not then,” Durnin said. “Not until Helbert the Weak.”

“Right,” Enita said. “About twenty years later, Helbert II was crowned. He was not… the most competent ruler. During his time, the Empire’s remaining influence over the Marches began to wane, and the Hexacracy began to ogle them again.”

“And then, he mysteriously died,” Durnin said with a knowing smirk, “and his son Damian III was crowned.

“So he wants to retake the Marches?” Jackson said.

“So the rumor goes,” Enita said, shrugging. “It’s true that the imperial army has been growing these last few years, and the Inquisition has been more active in the Marches.”

“Why are the Marches such a big deal?”

“Well, first of all, there’s the fact that they once belonged to the Empire,” Durnin said. “The Emperors don’t like it when their toys are taken away.”

“There’s trade, too,” Enita said. “The Marches are close to the continent of C’fa and its Leagues. There are quite a few ports here, Atvello being the biggest.”

“And all of this iron, gold, silver and what have you in the mountains probably doesn’t hurt,” Durnin concluded. “Neither would be the prospect of trouncing the Hexacracy, maybe even bringing it down.”

“I take it that Hexacracy is the Eastern Empire’s biggest enemy.”

“Aye, you could say that,” Durnin said. “They’ve been at war a couple of times, but there’s more to it than that.”

“Such as?”

“Well, it’s the first real threat the Empire has faced since its creation,” Enita said. “The Narran kingdom, the Leylen tribes, the Buphetii kingdom… even the Sea Empire of Tyragio; the Empire fought them all off, and grew stronger for it. But not the Hexacracy. Like Durnin said, they have waged several wars against each other -mostly border conflicts-, and neither has truly gotten the upper hand on the other.”

“So it’s a pride thing,” Jackson said.

“Pride’s part of it, sure,” Durnin said. “But there’s more.”

“Who’s in charge in the Hexacracy, anyway?”

“Well, that’s the other reason,” Enita said. “The Hexacracy is ruled by the Archdemons -six of them, as the name implies.”

There was that word again, “Archdemon”. Jackson remembered the Inquisitor mentioning it.

“What’s an Archdemon, exactly?”

“Bugger, mate,” Durnin said, “I’m starting to think you’ve been living at the bottom of the ocean your whole life!”

“The Archdemons are, simply put, rulers of Demons,” Enita patiently said. “Well, except for the Demons who exiled themselves to the Marches and beyond. They each hold a tremendous amount of power over the Western Realm, be it military, economical, magical, or otherwise. For the longest time, they have been mostly fighting each other…”

“As people of power are wont to,” Durnin said.

“But some time ago, six of them concluded an alliance. They joined their forces, their powers, and even their realms, to an extent. A few other Archdemons opposed them, but they were quickly dealt with. Everybody expected this Hexacracy to last but a few years before their six leaders turned on each other as Archdemons always seemed to. But, surprisingly, the alliance is still going strong.”

“Having a common enemy probably helped,” Jackson suggested.

“I don’t know,” Enita said. “The Eastern Empire and the Archdemons were enemies long before the Hexacracy. Maybe there’s something else this time.”

“Possibly Elyon is powerful enough to keep the others subservient,” Durnin said.

“Elyon… That’s one of the six Archdemons, I take it?” Jackson said.

“Yes,” Enita said. “Elyonn, the Archcommander of the Gold and Crimson Legions. Supposedly, the most powerful of the six. His troops make up the bulk of the Hexacracy’s armies. They say he wishes to rule over the whole continent, and perhaps more.”

“This all sounds like a pretty messy situation to be in,” Jackson said. “Especially if we’re in the middle of this.”

“For others, it’s messy,” Durnin said. “For us mercenaries, it’s an opportunity.”

“It’s true we haven’t been aching for work lately,” Enita said. With a sigh, she added: “Although we are not actually at war, yet. Things are bound to get worse should that change.”

When that changes,” Durnin said.

Enita bit her lip, her gaze distant. Jackson cleared his throat, a bit uncomfortable. Durnin dropped his cards, snapped his fingers, and said:

“All right, enough of this talk. Let’s go to the back; I’d like to see how Greenleaf fights.”

“I’ve already passed my test,” Jackson said.

“No test, lad, merely practice. How good are you with a sword?”

“Err…”

“Ever wielded one, at least?”

“Technically, yeah,” Jackson said, thinking back about that plastic sword he had been gifted for his ninth birthday. There was also that dagger, back in the necromant’s castle, but he didn’t really wield it, more like clumsily plunged it into his enemy’s eye.

“How about axes, maces, spears? What’s your weapon?”

“I guess I don’t really have one,” the young man said, vaguely gesturing at his ax. “I mean, I have this, but…”

“You’ll not go far with that. It might have worked on those bandits, but in a real fight against trained enemies, you’ll need more.”

“I agree,” Byron said, appearing on one of the seats. “If you want to fight in this world, you must learn how.”

“Okay, fine,” Jackson said to both of them.

“Right,” Durnin said. “Argyro, how about it? Want to teach Greenleaf a thing or two about taking a blow?”

“Sure,” the Orc said, uncrossing her massive arms.

“Woah…” Jackson said. “I don’t know about this.”

“Don’t worry, lad,” Durnin said, slapping the young man’s backside once again. “Just practice, remember?”

They went to the back, past the curtain. In the smaller room behind it were several cots, which didn’t look anywhere near as comfortable as the bed Jackson had been sleeping in at the inn. There was another doorway, also barred with a curtain. The third room was only two-thirds as big as the first one, but the fact that it was less cluttered made it seem bigger. Several weapons were displayed on a rack: a few swords of various sizes, a couple of axes, a pike, and a hellbeard. Several shields were piled beside it. Durnin pulled a sword about as long as his arm, then held it out to Jackson, hilt first. Jackson took it, and almost immediately dropped it, surprised by its weight. The sword had seen better days: the blade was dirty, and the leather that covered the hilt was used; the edges were blunted, as well.

“Let’s see your posture, first,” Durnin said.

With some hesitation, Jackson raised the sword in front of him with both hands, his back slightly hunched.

“Wrong,” Byron said.

“Oh, and what do you know?”

“Experience,” he simply answered. “Put your left foot forward, and carry your sword on the right side, pointing toward your target. Open your shoulders. Also, this is not a two-handed sword.”

“It’s too heavy! I can’t use it with one hand.”

“That’s what training is for.”

Jackson grumbled, but nevertheless followed Byron’s instructions. Durnin nodded.

“Not bad, but you look a bit stiff, lad. Take a deep breath, then show us a thrust.”

The young man let the air fill his lungs, then threw his sword forward in a stabbing motion, letting out a “huh!” as he did.

“Push on your right leg when you thrust,” Durnin said, “and withdraw quickly after. Try it again.”

His sword striked the air again. And again. And again. After a few more tries, Durnin gave him a satisfied nod.

“Better. Now try a downward slash.”

The exercises continued for a while: slashes, swipes, thrusts… Sometimes Durnin would correct Jackson’s form and gestures, sometimes Byron would. A couple of times, both advised him at the same time, much to Jackson’s exasperation.

“You show some promise, lad,” Durnin said. “All right, let’s move on to something more involved. Argyro?”

While Jackson was training, the Orc had picked up a shield and fastened it to her left wrist. It was a large targe, made out of wood and iron. It was painted white and red, but the paint was chipped to the point where the sigil was barely discernible. Argyro stood before Jackson, her gaze focused on him, her knees slightly bent like she was about to charge.

“This is a simple one,” Durnin said. “Pass through Argyro’s defenses and land an attack on her.”

“You call that simple?” Jackson said.

The Orc was about two feet taller than he was, and twice as muscular. In addition, it was almost a given that she had much more experience in close combat than he did; the scars he noticed on her skin were testament to that.

“If that makes you feel any better,” Durnin said, “you’re allowed to use any tricks and wiles you wish.”

“Great,” Jackson grumbled.

He tightened his grip on his sword, and swallowed his saliva. A minute passed as he stood there, barely moving, waiting until he saw an opening, although he wasn’t certain he’d recognized one if it presented itself.

“Ye’re waiting for her to grow moss, lad?” Durnin said, amused by his hesitance.

Jackson finally made his move, raising his sword above his head, then bringing down hard on Argyro as if it was a hammer. The Orc raised her shield by a few inches, and the sword bounced on it with a loud sound. A bolt of pain ran through his fingers, and he inadvertently dropped his weapon.

“Ah, dammit.”

“What are you trying to do, break through her shield?” Byron said. “Strike fast, not hard.”

Grumbling, Jackson picked up his sword and went back at it. His next attacks were more prudent, more controlled. Still, Argyro parried them with little difficulty. Between the late hour, his sword’s weight, and the fact that he had been training for a while now, his muscles were beginning to quit on him. Were it not for his army training -and the number of additional push-ups he’d been made to do as punishment for his numerous misbehaviors-, he would have already yielded.

His frustration grew faster than his fatigue, however, and he used it as an alternative source of energy. He turned it into aggressivity, and his strikes became faster for it. Eventually, Argyro had to make bigger moves with her shields to deflect or block the attacks. Twice, she even had to take a step back. Now, it was her turn to be frustrated. As Jackson felt the tide turning in his favor, he thrusted his sword as quickly as he could, aiming for her right shoulder. Argyro reacted faster, however, and in a way that took Jackson completely by surprise. Knowing she wouldn’t have time to block the strike, she instead used her shield to violently push Jackson back, making him fall on his butt.

“Hey!” he said, angry. “You didn’t say she would hit back!”

“Didn’t say she wouldn’t,” Durnin said. “D’ye yield already?

“No way,” Jackson and Byron said simultaneously.

Jackson was only half-conscious of what happened next. It felt a bit like when he fought the bandits earlier. He charged at Argyro, sword firmly in hand, and cleaved. The Orc immediately raised her shield to protect the left side of her head, but the attack was just a feint. In the blink of an eye, Jackson’s ax had appeared in his left hand. He made a quick side-step to the Orc’s undefended side, and thrusted. The weapon’s edge connected with Argyro’s hip. Fortunately for the Orc, her skin proved tough enough that the ax left only a scratch.

The corners of Argyro’s mouth curled, revealing the bottom of her tusks. Jackson took a knee, his heart racing a mile a minute.

“You didn’t say you were left-handed,” Durnin said.

“Didn’t say I wasn’t,” Jackson said with a smile.

Durnin was visibly amused by the retort. Argyro, however, let out a grunt, and threw her shield back on the pile. As she walked towards him with a stern expression on her face, Jackson began to wonder whether he would live to regret that victory, but the retaliation he anticipated took the form of a light punch on his shoulder.

“Got some skill in you, Greenleaf,” she said. “Mind you, that trick won’t work on me next time.”

And with that, she left.

“Aye, can’t wait to see you in a real fight,” Durnin said. He yawned, then added: “Oh, time for me to suck on Illen’s teat.”

“What?” Jackson said, arching an eyebrow.

“I’m going to sleep, ye woodhead! Are you staying the night here, by the way?”

“Oh. Yeah, might as well. Good night, Durnin.”

“Good night, Greenleaf.”

Jackson found himself a cot, as well as a cover made out of some smooth animal hide. As he laid on it, he yelped in pain. He had, once again, forgotten about the pistol in his pants. I should get some kind of concealed holster for that thing. Maybe that tailor guy can make one. Oh, the tailor! With everything that had happened, Jackson had completely forgotten about that outfit he had bought the day before, and that he was supposed to pick up tomorrow. Oh, and before he forgot about something else…

“Mind explaining what just happened?” he thought-said to Byron, who appeared in front of him, sitting against the wall.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I’m not left-handed.”

Byron leaned back his head against the wall. “I figured you needed some… guidance.”

“Is that also what you did with the bandits outside? You “guided” me?”

“Yes, I believe it is.”

“I thought you didn’t know what happened.”

“I didn’t. Not then. That’s also why I intervened during your duel: I wanted to know. Now, I think I understand… at least a little.”

“Well, feel free to share with the class,” Jackson said, kicking off his rangers.

“It obviously has to do with the fact we’re connected. And I would venture a guess it’s also how I knew about the Dorsetts.”

“So… what? My mind’s an open book to you, now? And I’m your goddamned puppet, on top of that?”

“I didn’t want to look into your memories, Jackson. In fact, I didn’t even realize I had until you mentioned your foster parents. As to the other thing, it wasn’t voluntary either, at least not the first time.”

“But what about the second time? You were doing another experiment, weren’t you?”

“Well, not at first. Initially, I just got… into it, I suppose. That round of practice reminded me of when I was taught medieval swordsmanship.”

“With Venyamin Kovalyov,” Jackson immediately said.

Both men stared at each other with round eyes.

“It’s working both ways,” Byron said.

“That… can’t be good,” Jackson said.

“No? It saved your life, remember?

“Doesn’t mean I want you in there!” the young man said, pointing at his temple. Worried that someone might have seen this gesture, he looked around. The only other potential witness, thankfully, was Durnin, and he was already fast asleep -and snoring.

“For the last time: I’m not happy about this either!” Byron said. “But that’s the situation, so I suggest we make the best of it.”

Jackson sighed, then took off his fatigues and fashioned a pillow out of them.

“Let’s at least make an effort to stay out of each other’s business,” he said.

“Agreed,” Byron said. “As much as we can.”

“God, I’m tired,” Jackson said, stretching his arms. “Hey, can you still feel tired?”

“Not exactly. I can tell when you feel tired, but it’s… different.”

“Well, good night anyway, I guess.”

The night went by in a wink. Jackson vaguely remembered being awoken at some point by Argyro taking a cot near his, but almost immediately went back to sleep.

 

Everybody had woken up before Jackson, the next morning. Enita and Jowallan were in the common room, playing a card game at the table and drinking from wooden mugs. Jackson watched them play for a moment. The game was played with seven cards in hand, plus a number of cards in front of each player, face up, forming a series of columns like in solitary. He tried to make sense of the rules as he pulled up a chair next to Enita.

“Was your night restful?” Enita said.

“Slept like a log.”

“Interesting expression,” she said, smiling. “Do you want some eyelet milk?”

She poured him a mug without waiting for an answer. Jackson peered into it, his stomach reminding him that he had skipped dinner the previous evening. What Enita had called eyelet milk was some kind of pink-purple beverage, with the thickness and the texture of milk. It tasted sweet, and a bit syrupy.

“This is good,” Jackson said, smacking his lips.

“And it will wake you up in no time,” Enita said.

“What are you playing?”

“Batallions,” she said. “You want in?”

“I don’t know the rules.”

Enita tried to explain them as quickly and succinctly as she could, but only managed to confuse Jackson. From what little he gathered, the goal was to create as many series of cards, or “batallions”, as possible along certain orders (different orders scored different amounts of points), while preventing the opponent from doing the same by placing cards on their series to disrupt them. She proposed to do a practice round, which ended rather quickly with Jowallan’s victory.

“You should have broken their series,” Enita said.

“I didn’t know how to,” Jackson said. “Yours were easier.”

He could have sworn Jowallan smiled at that. But, on second look, his face was still impassive.

“They were clearly doing a cohort at the end. You could have broken it with your Ten of Swords.

“How? I thought a cohort was a series of even numbers.”

“No, that’s a legion. A cohort is a series of odd numbers.”

“I’m never going to get the hang of this game,” Jackson sighed.

“How about you choose the next game?” Enita said. “Do they have card games in your land?”

“Sure. I still have to show you how to play poker.”

“That sounds fun,” Enita said, smiling.

Jackson distributed the cards, two for each player, then placed the five community cards face down near the table’s center. He then did his best to explain the rules of Texas hold’em poker. It was by far the card game he had played the most, and essentially the only version of poker he knew how to play. His foster dad Brent had been a big fan of it, spending nearly all of his bounties on it. Jackson’s explanations were a bit too hasty at times, and he gabbled and sputtered a bit, but Enita and Jowallan seemed to get the gist of it.

“So it’s a bit like the liar-gambler,” Enita said.

“Err, I guess, if you say so. So, you in?”

“Oh, I welcome any new experiences. Jowallan?”

The quasi-Demon nodded.

“Yes, I didn’t think you would pass on an opportunity to play a game that involves bluffing,” Enita said. To Jackson, she added: “Watch yourself, Greenleaf. You never know what’s going on inside their skull.”

“Oh yeah?” Jackson said with a little smile. “I can’t wait to see that. We just need something to gamble; preferably not money.”

“There’s a bag of blue beans, over here,” Enita said.

Each player was given fifty beans, and the cards were distributed again. Enita immediately picked up hers, and stared at them intently, no doubt trying to remember all the hands Jackson had taught her. Jowallan glanced at his, then put them back on the table. Enita put forward one bean as her small blind, followed by Jowallan’s big blind of two beans. After the first round of bets, Jackson turned the flop.

The cards of this world were also divided in four suits: helms, shields, swords, and spears. There were also two colors: swords and shields were black, while helms and spears were white. A basic card game also included fifty-four cards, although its figures had different names: from lowest to highest, they were barons, counts, dukes, and marquesses. According to Enita, certain games in the Empire used kings or emperors in lieu of marquesses; she didn’t know what they were in the Hexacracy. In addition, the aces -simply called “ones”- were normally the lowest cards, not the highest.

The stakes were modest during the first round. Jackson won it with a pair of eight (which he got out of pure luck thanks to the river card); Enita was clearly going for a color, but missed it by one card. As to Jowallan, it seemed like he had nothing.

They played for a few more rounds. Enita very much enjoyed the game, even though she only won once. She wasn’t lying about Jowallan: the horned creature had the perfect pokerface. He had won several rounds by getting the others to fold, and there was still no way to tell if he even had anything. Eventually, Jackson had to cut the game short to go get his new clothes. Enita offered to accompany him.

“Bajtra! I shouldn’t have folded during that last round,” Enita said as they left the vondo parlor. “They had nothing, I just know it.”

“Wait, why do you call Jowallan “they”?” Jackson said. “I thought he was a man.”

“They’re a…” Enita hesitated. “Well, I don’t know if they’d want me to tell you, but basically, they’re neither a man nor a woman. Not really. Marrmad calls them “he” just because it’s simpler for him. But… Heh. Honestly, the word “simple” doesn’t apply to anything about Jowallan.”

“What is- What are they? A Demon?”

“Yes and no. Again, it’s not simple, and I cannot explain it without revealing some things they might want to keep to themselves.”

“Alright.” Jackson nodded. “You seem to be pretty close to them.”

“Of course! We’re all siblings, among the Children of Nayros. And just because we’re not supposed to ask about our pasts, doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. For instance,” she smiled “I don’t mind sharing my story with you.”

“Really?” Jackson said, smiling in turn. “How about over lunch?”

“Good idea! There’s a bakery near the docks that I like.”

“It’s a date,” he said.

Enita didn’t seem to know that word, but as her smile became wider, he saw that she had inferred its meaning.

Baellien’s Boutique had more customers, this time around. They were mostly women of high status, judging from their accouterments. Jackson had to wait a long while, as the tailor was busy with one of them, an elderly female Elf who seemingly couldn’t make up her mind as to the color of her tunic. After what seemed like hours, she finally settled for a light purple, and was undeterred when Baellien informed her it would cost extra.

“Welcome back, sir,” the tailor said to Jackson after the Elf left. “Everything is ready. If you’ll follow me, please…”

The clothes had been laid on a table near the back. There was the cape, the vest, the gloves, the pants, the shirt, and the undershirt. Jackson looked around for a fitting room; the closest thing there was was a wood screen. Jackson changed as quickly as he could. As he thought, the new clothes were a bit too small. However, as he put them on, they seemed to adjust to his size. When he closed the last button of his new vest, everything fit him like a glove -especially the gloves.

The whole outfit was much lighter than it looked, even with the cape; the undershirt felt a bit rough against his skin, but he figured he could get used to it. He folded his old military clothes and put them away in his backpack, along with his cape -it was too sunny outside to wear it. One of the satchels on the side of his belt proved big enough to contain his pistol, although it wasn’t nearly as convenient as a holster. There was no mirror in the shop, but the expression on Baellien’s and Enita’s faces filled Jackson with confidence. He held out his arms and spinned

“Well?”

“Not bad,” Enita said with an appreciative smile.

“Quite dashing, sir,” Baellien said. “You look like the protagonist from a melodramatic play.”

The tailor was laying it on a bit thick, but Jackson didn’t mind, not at all. He paid the man his due, his stomach tightening a little when he saw that his purse was now more than half-empty. Oh well. Money’s meant to be spent, right? Plus, I got a job now. And a girl I’d like to treat… He heard a familiar groan to his right. Byron was there, once again shaking his head.

“Anyone ever told you you’re a killjoy?” Jackson said to him.

“Anyone ever told you you should be a little less carefree?” he retorted.

“Oh yeah!” Jackson laughed. “Tons of people. But I didn’t care.”

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