The Companions find themselves waiting again, this time on their own within the grand manse. After having been met at the front entrance by a pale, hairless lad in a fine black suit who introduced himself as Leone, they were brought to this chamber, which the ghostly doorman referred to as Lady Le Campe’s sitting room. Bowing, he had left them here alone.
Presently the five adventurers stand around, peering at the various fancy and expensive items scattered throughout the room: paintings of unfamiliar personages on the paneled walls, possibly Le Campe ancestors, which Hamfrd stares intently up at; ornamental swords, long knives, and other bladed weapons displayed on brackets along one wall, which Scarlet leans forward to inspect; another entire wall devoted to floor-to-ceiling shelves packed full of pristine leatherbound tomes with gild-edged pages and elaborate and intricate decorative metalwork on the covers, where Elaine stands with her head tilted to the side so that she can read the titles inscribed on the spines; Gods, even the furniture is fine, thinks Jake, with complex patterns and pictures sewn into the many colorful cushions and pillows, so that he considers sitting, but can’t decide whether the sofas and chairs are simply for show.
“Bet her liquor cabinet is stacked,” says Scarlet, glancing around the room. Her nose, however, is scrunched with distaste. Despite the superficial beauty, everything in the room, she thinks, appears unpractical due to its obviously exorbitant monetary value. Like, what’s the point of a chair that’s too nice to sit on? Or a blade that exists only to hang on a wall? She shudders to think of a cache of booze locked away somewhere because it is too expensive to actually drink.
“Aye,” rumbles Hamfrd. The big man, after a full day of travel, would like nothing better than to relax with a drink himself. Presently he’s peering down into an ornate ceramic vase, looking almost as if he intends to gulp down the water he finds there. Actually, he’s just confirming the flowers within are real. He feels one fragile petal between his big thumb and forefinger, but can’t decide. Their perfection seems to defy nature somehow, as if they must surely be incredibly lifelike reproductions; and yet, he’s mostly convinced that the orange blossoms in the vase before him are real. They are standing in real water anyway.
“The Philosophies of Crye,” mumbles Elaine, standing before the bookshelves. “A History of the First Empire by Makavi. Theories of Life and Afterlife by Schroeder.”
“Are you just saying book titles out loud?” asks Scarlet.
“Hmm?” The cleric glances up. Her fists are clenched by her sides (to keep herself from touching any of the books) and she trembles with an eager giddiness.
“Words,” growls Scarlet. “You’re saying them. Out loud.”
“Am I? I didn’t realize.” She tugs at her ponytail, which down hangs over her shoulder whenever she tilts her head. “This is quite a collection, that’s all. And such exquisitely beautiful copies.” Elaine turns back to the books, sucks in her breath. One entire shelf is devoted to the most gorgeous editions of the Book of Legends that she’s ever seen. She can’t help but wonder how soon before Volume III, which includes the Legends of the Crown of the Sun King, will be amended to include the name of the Darkblades. Perhaps it already has been. The set in front of her is in such immaculate condition, it must surely be an Original, like the copies in the library at the Temple. A wild thought to pull down the tome and check the text crosses her mind, but she doesn’t. “I’d be afraid to even open these copies,” she says, more to herself than as reply to Scarlet, “for fear of ruining them.”
“Nonsense, cleric,” says a voice from the room’s doorway.
Madeline Le Campe is a diminutive woman, who at first glance appears to be about fifty. Or perhaps older. Quite possibly younger. Jake finds it difficult to judge. The longer he studies her, the less certain he becomes. Her hair is short and straight and silver with age, but her face retains a youthful glow. Only slight lines at the corners of her eyes and a pattern of shallow wrinkles that appear briefly around her lips, caused perhaps by many years of forcing smiles, hint more accurately at her true age. She wears a long-sleeved dress jacket, black, buttoned tight across her chest, which leaves only a sliver of white skin visible at her throat. The jacket matches form-fitting trousers of the same material and color. The legs of the pants are tucked into her high-heeled black leather boots, which stop just below her knees and shine like liquid oil. She wears no visible jewelry except a necklace of cloudy grey pearls each the size of small bird eggs, each identical in their smooth round perfection.
She slips easily into the room, a tall glass in hand that is partially filled with a golden liquid that might be champagne. “All books are meant for reading.” She stands beside Elaine, gestures with her glass at the bookshelves. “Even these. Otherwise, what’s the point? Can a thing not be both beautiful and useful?”
“Of course, I didn’t mean–”
“And as for drinks.” Madeline Le Campe leaves Elaine’s side, crosses the room to stand before a dark wooden cabinet, which she opens with a deft twist of a handle. Inside, bottles of various shapes and hues are thus revealed, along with many empty drinking glasses. She pulls several of these out now, sets them on the nearby endtable. Reaches back into the cabinet and withdraws a square glass bottle, mostly full. She pours the brown liquid into four glasses, each half full, one after the other in rapid succession. Takes her time handing out the cups: to Scarlet first, who smells the offered drink suspiciously; Hamfrd, who grins and raises the glass in salute to his host; to the mage, Mathos, who peers at the drink from a few different angles, swirls it gently, and says with an impressed tone, “A Cormarian whiskey, a rich one,”; and finally, to Jake, Madeline Le Camp hands the final glass.
Their host glances towards Elaine, the bottle held aloft. “Cleric?”
Elaine shakes her head.
“No, I thought not,” she says. Setting the bottle down, she narrows her eyes. “My information is apparently out of date,” she says. “I recognize each one of you via description, but I’m afraid I didn’t realize that you had a cleric among you.”
“Elaine is a recent addition,” Jake says, sniffing his drink cautiously, trying to gauge its strength. He looks up. “Surely that’s not an issue.”
“Of course not,” the silver-haired woman replies smoothly. “The Light of the Allway is always a welcome sight. It’s merely of interest to me insofar as my business requires that I know everything there is to know. And this reveals a failure somewhere along my chain of information; however, learning of this failure is itself valuable information to be scrutinized and utilized, you see.”
She turns and gestures towards Mathos.
“And your mage impresses. It is indeed a Cormarian whiskey, a quite expensive one. From the same batch as the royal reserves themselves. And now,” she says, holding her glass aloft, “we shall drink to doing business together.”
“I’ve drunk mine already,” says Hamfrd sheepishly. He shows his empty glass.
“Yeah, me too,” says Scarlet. “I didn’t realize we were doing a whole thing.”
Madeline Le Campe’s smile doesn’t slip; if anything it widens, but the tiny wrinkles around her lips become tighter, more defined.
She gestures to the bottle, waits as Hamfrd first fills Scarlet’s glass and then his own. Thus refilled, they raise their respective drinks.
“May this be the start of an advantageous business partnership,” Madeline says.
They all drink, save Elaine, who holds no glass and watches from beside the wall of books, arms crossed over her chest, hiding an irritated roll of her eyes. Jake, who generally prefers beers and ales to hard liquors, takes a hesitant sip, twists his face at the taste. Mathos sips inquisitively, relishes the flavor of the rich and costly whiskey, savoring it in his mouth before swallowing and sucking a breath from the subsequent burn. Hamfrd drains most of his second drink in one go, then pauses, embarrassed, and peers over the top of his glass to see how much the others are drinking; he watches Scarlet toss back her entire second glass in one go, and the big man, grinning through the residual burn of the whiskey, promptly follows suit.
Madeline Le Campe, once more holding the glass of golden liquid she entered the room with, takes such a delicate sip, Jake wonders whether it does more than wet her lips.
* * *
“So what exactly is your business?” Jake asks, holding the glass of sour burning whiskey down at his side; he has no intention of finishing it. He notices Hamfrd eyeing the bottle and then the empty glass in his big hand and then the bottle again.
“Mmm,” says Madeline Le Campe. “Right down to it. Very well.” She sets her drink aside and puts her hands together, steepling the fingers. “Bluntly put, I’ve lost some valuable, sensitive goods in a stretch of nasty wilderness you’ve all no doubt heard of.”
“The Trollbriar,” Jake says, nodding. “Yes, we have first-hand experience with it.”
“Very good,” she replies, “and not unexpected. Your reputation precedes you, and it is . . . suitable.”
That’s something like a compliment, Jake figures. Enough of one that he shrugs and grins.
“Your employer, patron — the head of your guild, Sir Elton Highstar — I presume he’s filled you in with the details I provided him. I’ll briefly reiterate: the aforementioned goods, transported via two wagons, and the man tasked with delivering these goods to me, have failed to arrive at the appointed time. Now three days ago as of this evening. Additionally, a few armed men accompanied the wagons acting as . . . security. Believe me,” she continues, seeing Jake begin to speak and intuiting his remark, “I have meager expectations that my man or the drivers of the wagons or the guards remain alive, if they indeed were lost in the Trollbriar as it would seem. I’d have heard some news of them by now.”
“Yeah, they’re dead,” Scarlet says.
Jake shoots her a dark look, having sudden deja vu back to this same exchange in Sir Elton’s study.
Madeline Le Campe seems unperturbed. “I suspect so,” she says dryly, glancing over.
Scarlet shrugs, although it’s almost an unconscious gesture in response to the sudden unblinking scrutiny of their wealthy host upon her.
“But there remains a chance that the wagons shall be found intact,” Madeline continues at length, “and the goods still safely contained within. If the trolls have left them alone.”
“Is it anything a troll would be interested in?” asks Jake.
“Oh, who can say with those beasts?” Madeline asks with a light laugh. She reaches for her drink, and this time, clearly swallows some of the golden liquid, throat bobbing.
“Right,” says Scarlet, growing bored with the conversation. “So we go to the Trollbriar, find your wagons, and bring them back here.”
“That would be the best case scenario,” Madeline agrees. She sips her drink again.
“And the goods are . . .” Jake prompts.
“Sensitive,” their host repeats. “And for the time being we shall leave it at that. Operating under the possibility that you find nothing left of my wagons or my goods, I’d prefer it if the contents remain . . . unmentioned. Information is the lifeblood of business after all, and so the less you know, the less there is potentially for any of my competitors to learn, you see. And if you happen upon the wagons still in one piece”–she gestures with her drink towards Elaine–“then by the Light of the Allway, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Jake frowns, not satisfied with not knowing. He looks to each of the other four Companions, sees wary faces, but no opposition. Elton, in fact, had prepped them to expect this highly secretive attitude from Madeline Le Campe, who apparently has something of a reputation herself — as a powerful, wealthy, and brilliant businesswoman, one known for prizing and hoarding information above all else.
“Very well,” Jake says. “And finally, regarding–”
“A message shall be dispatched immediately to Farport. By tomorrow, the promised payment shall be in the hands of Sir Highstar. With additional funds to be paid upon receipt of information concerning the fate of my goods.”
“And your men,” says Elaine. “The fate of your men.”
“Of course,” replies Madeline smoothly. “My men.”
“Gods, they’re dead, Elaine,” growls Scarlet. She tilts her empty glass above her, peers up into it, as if expecting its state of emptiness to have somehow changed. “We’ve been over this.”
“They could still be alive,” the young cleric insists, frowning at the other woman’s language.
“The Light willing,” Madeline intones solemnly.
“Any more of that whiskey?” Scarlet asks, ignoring Elaine’s look. She gestures to the bottle with her empty glass. “I thought we’d be done talking by now.”
A smile accompanied by tight wrinkles returns to Madeline’s lips. “Please. Help yourself,” she says.
Hearing this, Hamfrd perks up, watches as Scarlet pours a fresh glass of the rich brown whiskey. Madeline’s smile tightens further. She waves a hand, indicating that the big man may also refill his glass. Eagerly, he does so.
“So, why the Trollbriar?” asks Jake, and Madeline returns her attention to the swordarm. “Is that a common route for you? Surely this sort of thing was to be expected.”
“It’s something of an experiment, you might say,” Madeline suggests, nodding slightly. She holds the glass of golden liquid near her lips, but doesn’t drink. “Speed, after all, is the lifeblood of business. And the journey through the Trollbriar, although perilous, presents the possibility of a day or more of saved travel time over every other possible route coming from the southwest.”
“I thought information was the lifeblood of business,” Jake says.
“Information. Speed.” Madeline Le Campe offers a smooth smile and sips from her glass. “Business is a bloody affair.”
Jake opens his mouth to ask more about the wagon’s route through the Trollbriar, but Madeline silences him with a raised hand.
“There will be more time for talk in the morning before you set out. I’m afraid I was expecting you then, rather than this evening. I am, in fact, hosting a small get-together, and I’ve stepped away for too long already as it is.”
“Of course,” Jake says.
“However, I do appreciate your coming so quickly. You shall now be able to set off first thing on the morrow.” Jake shoots Scarlet a look. “Or sleep later into the morning and rest up more completely perhaps. Whichever you feel is best. I leave it to you.” Scarlet returns the look, smirking.
“Tomorrow morning, then” Jake says, nodding. “For now, we’ll find accommodations in the city and return–”
“Nonsense,” says Madeline. “I have numerous guest rooms right here. Leone will show you to them. I’m sure you’ll find them quite comfortable. Whenever you decide it appropriate to depart in the morning, bedding down here will save you time.” She tilts her head back and drains the rest of her drink. “Time, the lifeblood of business.”
She raises her now empty glass. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Jake watches Madeline Le Campe leave the room, and a moment later, the same pale, bald-headed lad who led the Companions into the manse appears in the doorway.
“I’m to show you to the guest rooms,” he says in a dreary monotone.
* * *
The Companions are provided with an entire wing within Madeline Le Campe’s vast manse. A shared common area, comfortably furnished with cushioned chairs and sofas, is decorated with numerous thick rugs laid over the stone floor. In one corner, straight-backed seats are arranged around a hardwood table. Branching off the room, a pair of short corridors, where private bedchambers, one for each of them, have been prepared. Beds sheeted, fires glowing and crackling in hearths.
Leone leaves them to the comforts of the common area, waving a helpful hand towards yet another stash of expensive wines and liquors neatly arranged behind a bar along one wall. Several plates and bowls are set out with fruits and nuts and cheeses and other foodstuffs.
Scarlet is already pouring a drink for herself, a rich brown liquid that looks like the whiskey from the sitting room they’ve just left.
Jake watches her. “Is that . . . did you take that from the other room?”
“Yeah,” says Scarlet, shrugging. She sets the bottle aside, scoops up the glass. “She said to help ourselves.”
“I’m not sure that’s what she meant,” Jake says, but Scarlet’s only response is to take a drink, and then smack her lips and sigh with satisfaction as the liquid’s sweet burn spreads through her chest. Hamfrd bellows a laugh, grabs the bottle and pours himself another of his own.
Elaine fills a kettle, begins to boil water.
“Do you have any idea how much this whiskey is worth?” asks Mathos, glancing at Scarlet and Hamfrd. His tone is close to admonishment, but as he speaks, he takes the bottle and pours another glass for himself. He doesn’t share Jake’s concern about whether it is appropriate for them to be drinking the whiskey; rather, he suspects Hamfrd and Scarlet don’t appreciate it as much as they should.
Scarlet shrugs. “No.”
“A lot,” says the mage. He brings his drink forward, inhales deeply of the liquid in his cup. “A whole lot.”
“Whiskey is whiskey,” Jake says, waving a hand dismissively and moving around behind the bar to look through the numerous bottles arranged there.
“Oh no, Jake. There is whiskey, and then there is whiskey. And then there is this stuff. Literally made for a king.” Mathos holds up the bottle, peers through the remaining brown liquid with the glow of one of the wall torches behind it. “Look at the color,” the mage marvels.
“It looks like any old whiskey from the Sailor.”
“Are you kidding, Jake? This one bottle alone would probably pay for the Winsome Sailor, and you’d still have enough left over to hire someone to finally sweep clean the back corners.”
“And you’re drinking it all?” Jake asks appalled, looking from Mathos to Scarlet to Hamfrd.
“Yeah,” grunts Scarlet. “You want us to save you some?”
“No! And I don’t think–”
“Good.” She slides her empty glass to Mathos. “More for us. Pour me another, mage.” Mathos, who is still peering dreamily through the bottle, now lowers it and fills Scarlet’s cup as requested.
“I just mean,” Jake says, “if it’s as expensive as you claim . . .” He finds a bottle of a spirit that he is able to identify by the label and from its scent as plumrain. He pours himself a glass of this. “Maybe you shouldn’t drink it all.”
“Look at this place, Jake,” says Scarlet, scowling. “Do you think she’s going to miss one bottle? Of anything?”
“I just wish she had some good old fashioned ale. That doesn’t seem to be too much to ask.” Jake instead drinks tentatively from the glass he has poured. Grunts in surprised satisfaction. “Mmm. That’s actually quite good.”
“What did you find, Jake?” asks Mathos, examining the bottle of plumrain. “Oh, wow, look at that. Made with plums harvested from the King’s personal gardens. Talk about expensive. This is probably worth more than the whiskey.”
Jake spits a mouthful across the bar in a shocked spray.
Mathos doesn’t seem to notice, gazing at the bottle of plumrain like a treasured lover. “I must try some of this,” he says, bringing the mouth of the bottle to his nose and inhaling deeply. “Oh my, that’s glorious,” he says, sighing.
“To Madeline Le Campe,” Scarlet says, holding her whiskey aloft. “And her booze. Why can’t something be both beautiful and useful?”
Jake leans on the bar, coughing.
* * *
Elaine blows on her second cup of steaming hot tea, sips gingerly. “So we all noticed that this Madeline Le Campe answered none of our questions, right?”
Scarlet shrugs, eyes bloodshot and unfocused. “Yeah, the woman likes her secrets.”
The young cleric frowns, peeks over her cup at the other woman. “Remind you of anyone?” she mutters softly as an aside.
“You say something?” Scarlet growls.
Elaine shakes her head. “Hmm? No. Nothing.”
“I still have no idea how she makes her money,” says Jake. “Or what we’re looking for in the Trollbriar exactly. I mean, apart from her two wagons.”
“And a few dead men,” adds Scarlet.
“And why the Trollbriar?” continues Jake, missing Scarlet’s attempted poke. “I mean, she answered, but she didn’t. Why would you risk taking anything of value through there? Just to save a day?”
Scarlet shrugs again, rubs her eyes. “Let her keep her secrets. We’ll do what we were hired to do, get paid, and be done with it.”
“So, you’re back on board?” Jake glances over. “Earlier you called this a worthless chore.”
“You’re right. It’s a job,” she says, looking at her empty glass, and then at the empty whiskey bottle, an empty bottle of brandy, and the mostly empty plumrain bottle beside them. She frowns at the fruity liquor, which is too sweet for her liking. Anyways, her head is swimming more than pleasantly already. She leans back into the cushions of the chair, the empty glass in her lap. “Jobs are good. I feel fairly compensated.”
“You look overcompensated,” Jake tells her, which earns a snort from Elaine.
“Har, har,” Scarlet grumbles, and then she makes her way unsteadily to her feet. The empty glass, forgotten in her lap, falls onto the floor, clunks dully as it settles at her feet, landing safely on carpet rather than stone. “I’m going to turn in. But only because I’m choosing to.” She raises a finger in warning, daring Jake to contradict her. “It’s nothing to do with your condescending attitude.” She intends to say something rude to Elaine, but sees the young cleric watching her, cringing in anticipation, and feels her scowl soften instead.
“Sure. Speaking of overcompensated,” says Jake. He nods towards Hamfrd, who has sprawled out on one of the sofas, and is softly snoring.
Scarlet smacks the big man’s foot as she passes. He startles awake. “We’re turning in,” she tells him, leaning over the back of the sofa towards his face. “Go find your bed.”
“I think I was already asleep,” he grumbles, rubbing his face.
Jake turns his head and looks back over his shoulder. Mathos is seated on a stool at the bar, head down and resting on his curled arms. The mage, growing ever more excited with each cup, has been sampling all of the various bottles, or as many as he could before losing the battle with unconsciousness. Without his running commentary concerning the production history and the flavor qualities of each new spirit and liquor in his cup, the common area seems almost too quiet.
The swordarm reaches out with his scabbard and jabs the mage, pokes him in the leg. “Go to bed, Mathos,” he says.
The mage jerks awake, hands dancing through the beginning of a defensive spell. His mumbled words of magic change to muttering about his head as he recognizes his surroundings. He stands, sways, balances with one hand on the bar, then straightens hesitantly.
Jake and Elaine watch as the mage staggers down one of the side corridors to the guest room that’s been set aside for him. Scarlet and Hamfrd have already shuffled off to their respective rooms.
After Mathos has stumbled into his bedchamber and shut the door behind him, a silence settles over the common room, where only Jake and Elaine remain.
“Are you worried?” asks the young cleric, eyes sober and serious.
“About tomorrow? The Trollbriar? Not worried,” Jake tells her. “Cautious. We’ll be cautious, and do as Scarlet said. Exactly what we’ve been paid to do. And let the woman keep her secrets if they’re so important to her. The Trollbriar is dangerous, but nothing we can’t handle.” Elaine, new to the group and not from the region, is the only one of the Companions who has never been through the Trollbriar at one time or another. The region is famous among adventurers as much for the deadly beasts that call the forest home as for the endless rumors of lost treasure and buried riches that forever persist. “Just stay close and keep your eyes open,” he tells her.
She nods, sips her tea.
The moment stretches on.
“So . . .” He flashes a smile. “Wanna make out?”
“Nope.” Feet up on the edge of the seat cushion, Elaine pulls her knees close to her chest. She holds her steaming tea with both hands, stares into the dying flames in the hearth. “I sure don’t.”
“Yeah. Me neither.”
Elaine glances over, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“Look,” says Jake. “About earlier . . .”
“Back in Longview. This morning. If Scarlet and I upset you . . .”
“I should be used to it,” says Elaine. “You’ve all been teasing me since the day I joined the guild.”
“Come on now,” Jake says, running a hand through his hair. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it?”
“Literally the very first day, Jake.”
“I don’t remember that,” he says, scrunching his brow.
* * *
INSIDE THE FRONT PARLOR OF HIGHSTAR HOUSE, TWO MONTHS EARLIER
“So you’re the cleric of the Allway?” asks the man called Jake Redstone. “The one the Temple sent?” The swordarm is looking her up and down, arms crossed over his chest.
“I am,” she answers, chin high.
“Your whole order is celibate, isn’t that right?”
“What?” she blurts, feeling her cheeks begin to color. “What the hell type of question is that?”
Hamfrd, the big warrior with the red hair, booms a laugh that echoes around the parlor.
“Not just celibate,” says Mathos Arthollos, the mage at Jake’s side. “Clerics of the Allway are actually virginal. Those who join already in an impure state are restricted from reaching the highest levels of the order.”
“Impure state?” sputters Elaine.
“And you can tell from the medallion she wears,” he continues, “that this young lady is a member of the Elevated class. That’s quite an advanced level. And given her youth — how old are you? Twenty? Give or take a couple years? She’s also clearly gifted in the divine arts to have ascended so swiftly.” He nods, smiling with smug satisfaction at his knowledge and correct deductions. “So yeah, Jake, definitely a virgin.”
Elaine’s mouth opens and closes as she tries to work words out. Finally, blushing red, she manages to say, “I’m standing right here, you . . . you creeps.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Mathos assures her pleasantly. He places a hand on his chest. “Take myself, for instance. I was a virgin until only a few years ago. Well into my late twenties–”
“Ooh,” says Jake, raising a hand. “Questions.”
“–and look at me,” continues the mage. “Happy. Well-adjusted.” He grins, spreads his arms wide. “No shame at all.”
“That’s obvious,” Jake says, with a sideways glance at Hamfrd, who rumbles a laugh.
“I am not ashamed,” Elaine insists, shaking with anger.
“Eh, less obvious.”
She opens her mouth to retort, but swallows her words. Stares instead.
A woman with dark hair and clad all in black comes bounding down the stairs into the parlor. The woman’s fierce gaze takes in everyone, and then fixes onto Elaine, the newcomer.
“What’s going on?” she asks, scowling.
“This is Scarlet,” Jake says, gesturing towards the woman. “Scar, this is the cleric of the Allway. Elaine.”
Scarlet strides right up to Elaine, so that their faces are only inches apart. Eye to eye with the young cleric, her lips curl into a smirk. “Cleric of the Allway, huh?” She snickers. “Virgin.”
She steps around Elaine and exits through the front door, leaving the blushing younger woman to stare after her.
Hamfrd roars with laughter.
* * *
INSIDE MADELINE LE CAMPE’S MANSE, THE PRESENT
“Wow,” says Elaine, cheeks red, remembering. “I forgot how mad you all made me that first day.”
“Yeah. I remember now.” Jake chuckles at the memory. “Virgin,” he teases.
“Seriously, Jake?” She glares at the grinning swordarm. “It doesn’t upset me that I’m a virgin, you know. It upsets me that you think it upsets me.”
His smile vanishes. “I’m sorry,” he says sincerely. “I just . . . I make stupid jokes sometimes. All the time, sometimes.”
The cleric sighs. “I know. It’s okay.” She stands and walks over to him. Pats the swordarm’s head. “You can’t help it. You’re just a child.”
“I am,” he agrees, nodding. “I really am.” His eyes go wide. “Wait, what!?” Face suddenly alight, he leaps from his chair and rushes to a nearby table, staring at the plates of food arranged there. “Have these cinnamon bread sticks been here the whole night? How am I just seeing these now? I love these!”
“Good night, Jake,” says Elaine, shaking her head with an amused smile.
“Yeah, okay.” He bites into one of the crunchy sticks. “Guess I’ll turn in, too,” says the swordarm, chewing noisily and swaying with drink. He waves with the half-eaten bread stick in hand, dropping crumbs onto the carpet. “See you in the morning.”