They Call Her Lady Warrior Ch.2
And Then There Was Nick, Part I
Cianna jumped as the door to the Soltown tavern burst open with a clatter and a rush of cold air. The soft, plaintive melody she'd been absentmindedly playing on the piano died away. A youngish man, clearly the worse for drink, stumbled through the door. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, pushed his cloth hood off, and glanced around the room.
"Barkeep! Barkeep! Another round, if you please."
"Ya haven't had your first yet, mate." The grizzled old man behind the bar said, laughing. "At least not here. But you've definitely had a few rounds somewhere else, by the looks -- and smell -- of ya."
The scattered patrons in the tavern laughed, the young man joining in with them.
"But, isn't this the Fire Lotus Tavern, good man? It's not? Hmmm, I could have sworn I was in Owl's Head." He shook his head as if to clear it. "I seem to have lost a continent. Well, no matter, let's remedy this problem on the spot. Barkeep, my usual, if you please."
The barkeep beckoned with his finger. "Come here, my boy," he said, a look of bemusement on his face.
The young man swayed as he ambled up to the bar, leaning across the counter so he could hear the barkeep. "Yes, my good man?"
The barkeep whispered, loudly, so the room could hear, "Seeing as you've never been here before," he said, "I don't know what your 'usual' is. Do you see my problem, mate?"
As the crowd laughed again, Cianna rose from her seat.
"He'll have a whiskey," she said. "You can bring it to my table."
Everyone turned to look at her as she spoke, the young man turning a bit slower than the rest, trying to maintain his balance as he went. He looked at her in confusion for a moment. Cianna thought she saw concern pass over his face, but if it was there, it quickly vanished.
"Milady? Is that you? By all the Watchers in Adoris, it is! It's you!" He turned to a hefty man sitting on a stool near him. "It's her!" he said to the man. "The love of my life, the apple of my eye, the...."
Cianna strode forward and gripped the young man by the elbow. "Quiet, please, Nick. I don't care for too much scrutiny in public."
"Shhh, shhh, yes, milady. I understand, I do. I'll be quiet. Quiet as a....as a...."
"Foghorn?" said the barkeep, stepping past them to place a whiskey on Cianna's table. "Anything more for you, miss?" he asked.
"No, I'm good, thank you." She handed him coin for the whiskey.
Cianna steered Nick to her table, helping him to maintain an upright demeanor. She pulled out the nearest chair and guided him into it. She looked him over with a smile lurking at her lips as she sat down again.
"So, we meet again. How are you, Nick?"
"Ahh, but it's good to see you again, milady."
"Stop with the milady business, will you? Cianna's good enough for me."
He raised his eyebrows, then took a sip of whisky. "Cianna it is, then. Only trying to be respectful to my lady love." He winked at her.
"I'm not your lady love, Nick. We barely know each other." She laughed at his pouting face. "It is good to see you, though."
"And it's grand to see you," he said. "Your beauty brightens up the day. Puts the very sun to shame, and makes the moon cry in his cups."
Cianna laughed again.
"Your laughter is cruel, madam. You break my heart."
"Nick, I'm quite sure that you flatter all the young women this way, and perhaps even the older ones, too. The girl who takes you seriously will get her heart broken, I fear."
"But, I do not mean to flatter you, milady, I mean to woo you -- with love. . .and perhaps a little whiskey?" He held his glass out to her with a smile.
Cianna shook her head, still laughing. A movement at the bar caught her attention. Two men had entered the tavern and were ordering drinks. They looked rough, as though they had ridden for days without stopping. The conversations in the tavern had gone quiet. Even Nick seemed more subdued.
"Who are they? Do you know?" she asked. He held a cautionary finger to his lips.
"Well, look who it is," he bellowed, turning suddenly in his chair and sending it crashing beneath him. He grinned up at the men from the floor. They scowled before turning their backs on him.
"Barkeep! Another round!" Nick called out, struggling to his feet. He rose and clasped both men by the shoulder, not seeming to notice their obvious annoyance.
"What brings you here, gentlemen? You're a long, long way from Rats Nest. Is there something good in the works? Anything I can help with?"
"Shut up, you idiot," said the tallest of the two. "Barkeep," he yelled toward a back room, "make it quick with that order!"
"Stocking up, are you?" Nick asked in an exaggerated whisper, moving in close as if to hear a secret. "What's in the barrels they're packing up, boys? Come on, you can tell ol' Nicky."
The second man pushed Nick away roughly. The barkeep returned and took their money. "Is it all there?" the tall one asked.
"It is, damn you," said the barkeep. "Now get out of my establishment. You're bothering my customers. And tell the Baron not to send anymore of his...residents...to me. I don't like doing business with the likes of you."
"Boys, boys," Nick called out as the two men headed for the Tavern door. "Cut me in on the deal, won't you? I could use a job. And the Baron speaks very highly of me!"
The door closed loudly behind them. Nick stood still for a long moment, then returned to sit beside Cianna.
"What was that all about?" she asked. "Who are those men?"
Nick's thoughts seemed far away. "They're from Rats Nest. An island town off the Northwest Coast. Not a particularly nice part of the world, I'm afraid."
"You mean they're outlaws?" Cianna asked.
Nick grinned. "Well, I wouldn't put it quite that genteelly, but yes, they're outlaws."
Cianna stood quickly.
"Hey, what...? Where are you going?"
"I have to catch up to them. I need to talk to those men."
"Whoa, girl, hold on a minute." He grabbed her arm. "You can't go running after men like those. You'll get yourself killed, or worse. Those are tough men, and they wouldn't waste time being polite with you, if you catch my meaning."
Cianna's eyes blazed. "I can take care of myself, thank you very much. And you don't understand. I must to talk to them."
"Okay, okay, sit down and explain it to me."
"But they'll get away! Let me go, Nick!"
He held firm. "Not until you tell me what's so damn important that you have to chase after men like that. Besides, I can tell you where they're going. You can follow them -- if you still want to -- when we're done."
Cianna struggled for a moment more, then sighed and sat down.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" she asked, as she glared at him.
"Am I?" Nick furrowed his brow.
"You seem to have sobered up rather quickly."
"Ah, yes, that." He glanced around the room. "Listen, let's get out of here. We need to talk."
Without another word, Nick lurched to his feet. "Come, milady, let's take a stroll around this fair town. I'm in need of fresh air and your charming company."
"I'll give you charming company," Cianna muttered to herself. She rose and took the arm that was offered to her. Nick leaned heavily on her for support. "If you fall flat on your face out there, I'm leaving you where you drop," she warned.
"Ah, my angel, I do so love when you say sweet things to me." Nick waggled his brows at her. In spite of herself, Cianna laughed.