The upstairs wasn't an awful place by any stretch. Not by any stretch at all.
Wrapped in the warm embrace of several rounds of whiskey, this was Arnell's immediate thought. And, looking around, it really wasn't. "Everything you'd want in a watering hole," he said to no one, squeezing one eye shut to get a fresh sense of his surroundings. There were tables and booths scattered haphazardly about the room, almost all of them occupied this time of day with common laborers eager to piss away their daily wages on however many drinks it took to knock them out until they awoke at dawn, bleary-eyed, ready to repeat the cycle.
There were a few more fortunate folks at the bar, merchants and low-powered politicians whose pockets weighed a bit heavier, who contented themselves with fancy cocktails and various strange-looking smoking implements quite unlike the crude wraps and clay pipes of the lower classes. "Leave it to the petty aristocracy to overcomplicate the pursuit of pleasure, eh," he muttered, still to nobody. Overall, it was a fairly wholesome place. A place a man could come, plop down without pomp or circumstance, and pass the time with a relaxing drink or several.
Arnell had never been fond of grand entrances. He had encountered too many wayward souls of various dignities--warriors, magi, scholars, politicians and royals, merchants and tradespersons, high- and low-status members of many races and professions--and he'd long since learned far too many of them were overinterested in making tremendous impressions. He admitted to himself this displeasure owed, in no small part, to his having absolutely no talent for it. Hard to project an aura of formidability when you're begging a noble's servants for water after a slog through the desert, or when you've just come stumbling out of the jungle looking for someone to gently pull the leeches off your grapes. It was one of the most redeeming features of public halls that, generally, nobody felt the need to flourish a cape or turn up their chin upon walking through the front door. Everybody knows the rules, he mused, knocking back another round.
Well, almost everybody.
During the past hour--something like four or five drinks ago, he reckoned--two large men in heavy armor had clambered their way into the cramped space, one a few minutes after the other, a noticeable entrance if not a grand one, and had proceeded immediately... away.
Bars were the same nearly everywhere, he had realized some time ago. No matter what part of the world you're in, there are always two sides to each of them. Some of them served food alongside their ale. Some of them doubled as taverns, wrapping two or three floors of rooms around the bar top and the central hearth. Some of them were cut into sections to entertain the new "nonsmoking" trend among those of the working class who, by sheer dint of luck in the wake of increased trade from near and abroad over the past several years, had become something of a nouveau riche eager to spend its money even as it charted its own unique cultural waters. Put a little extra jingle in their pockets and they're suddenly too good for the pastimes of their former fellows. Who'd've thought?
This bar, he had discovered through his contact, belonged to that unique class of establishments which conducted two altogether different kinds of business. Or, rather, it catered to two entirely different types of entrepreneur.
Arnell signaled the barkeep, a gruff-looking but ultimately reasonable man who had provided unexpectedly engaging back-and-forth throughout the course of his visit. Generous in conversation and pour alike. A better man than I could have asked for. "I'm afraid, my good man," he slurred slightly, covering his mouth to stifle what he hoped was only a burp, "that I must close out my tab." He leaned forward, bringing his voice low. "You see, I've got to meet some friends of mine just south and open a new one."
The bartender leaned in even closer at that, his eyes darting back, forth, and back again. He tilted his head up just a bit and looked Arnell right in the eyes, studying him. Then, in almost a whisper, he said:
"I was wondering when you'd get the fuck out of my bar."
By every stretch, the downstairs was less awful still. Dimmer, smokier, seedier--and there are some lovely women down here, if you're into those sorts of girls. In the high spirits begotten of low spirits, he decided that he was. He was on the verge of rudely propositioning a woman turned squarely away from him when he caught the two big men sitting by themselves in a murky corner. "Always with the shadows," he mumbled, and turned to walk toward them.
"Whiskey, three please," he remarked as he passed the small bar. Looking to one side, he noticed the barkeep, a greying man in traditional attire--dark pants, a vest, a red tie--leaning hunched against the wall and staring back at him from behind a complicated-looking mechanical drink-slinger. Arnell had his right foot pointed up, paused in the motion of the next step toward the table, and he poked his head further around the contraption to make direct eye contact. "Sir, three whiskeys please?" He stuck out three fingers in a triangle and pointed toward the table where the two men were sitting. "For my friends and I. On me, of course." He couldn't tell whether the barkeep was glowering at him or on the verge of falling asleep, but three shiny coins, placed with a smile on the counter, bought him at least a weary nod.
"Gentlemen," he began as he came up to them, placing his hands together as if to pray, "A delight and pleasure to make both your acquaintances, I am sure." He hiccuped, then flashed them both a wide grin, revealing two rows of perfect white teeth. "Oh, excuse me. I don't often partake, and the stuff really goes through me." The pair were sitting opposite each other, so he took a seat immediately adjacent to both. He looked left, then right, then left again, at Dryston. "I am Arnell, of the esteemed Waymakers. I was made to understand you have urgent need of a professional guide and traveling companion, and I am happy to report for duty."
Three glasses of dark amber liquid were suddenly slid before them. He turned around to thank the old bartender, but but the man was somehow back behind the counter by the time Arnell went to speak. Craning his neck further, he noticed there were no waitresses to be seen. Only the machine, clicking and whirring as it parsed the orders, appeared responsive.
"Curious..." he remarked offhandedly. "But admirably efficient." He turned back to the table, his grin still in place, and pushed a glass toward each man before taking one for himself.
"A drink, then?"