It was the three shots that had done this to her—the three shots and the two boys who had invited her to the bar with the idea of seeing her drunk. Tea had started with a cider. That one she had ordered herself. It had come stronger than she had expected, but Tea knew cider and had been pleased to lose some of the tension from her shoulders to the sharp bite. Next had followed two shots of distilled agave and coffee—liquors and a recipe imported from the south, brought by the traders. The last shot had been chased with a larger shot of orange juice and had tasted strangely of pancakes once the initial fire of the alcohol had started to pass.
Now Tea sat on the stool, certainly tipsier than she ever had been before, and she watched her companions in the pub converse and intermingle. She might have joined them, but they had drifted away from the bar towards the center of the room and joining them would have required standing. Tea was less than sure about her ability to stand steady, but a strange peace had settled upon her, and her smile sat easily on her lips.
One of the boys—Rafe—came back to sit on her left. He bent his close-shaved head toward her and said over the babble and the fiddle, the quavering voice of the musician in the corner, plying his trade for the pennies that easily left drunken men’s hands, “He sings of the land to which we travel.”
“You speak the tongue well enough to understand their song?”
He threw out a phrase in which she caught only every third word (even when at her request he repeated it more slowly), but which she understood to mean, “Yes.”
“I only know a few words,” Tea admitted, and she listed them: “Storm, monster, applause, winter, pancake, hello.” The confession was as easy and as a hello and small talk about the good summer weather.
“You’ll need more than that,” Rafe chided, “if our trip is to be successful.” He tried to add a few words to her vocabulary, but maybe he noticed that to her right now they were mere nonsense, because he quickly gave up the attempt. Instead, he told Tea, “The song tells of the cliff-side caves that meet the sea in a shout of joy beside their greatest port. The sea comes to the caves like a lover.”
She grinned at the vivid analogy, imagining the push and pull of the sea against her legs as she waded out into the high tide. “Smuggler’s caves?” she wondered.
“Maybe. Or sea dragons, the legends say.”
“Sea dragons aren’t real. Are they?”
“Wouldn’t the dragons attack the city if the caves were theirs?”
“The sailors offer sacrifices to the dragons. There’s a festival each year.”
“Virgins,” Rafe said. “And gold.”
“Human sacrifices.” Tea shuddered.
“Dragons have to eat.”
“Whales and men or girls.”
“Men would make a better meal.”
Rafe shrugged again. “I can’t tell you about a dragon’s palate.”
“So you’ll make sure that I’m not one of those virgins?”
Tea rolled her eyes. For a moment the alcohol was hot in her veins. “That’s not what I meant.”
She felt surprisingly safe despite Rafe’s crooked grin. She gave him a light, playful shove, grinning back. “But you will, right, keep them from throwing me to the sea?”
“Foreigners don’t taste as good,” Rafe assured her, “not enough salt, and we’ll be keeping low. They won’t want us lifting their priceless artifacts.”
“Where will the sword be?”
“Hopefully not in those caves. Or I might be the one pushing you into the sea.”
“Do you think it will be?”
“Legend has it that it’s within a stone,” Rafe reminded. “Could be that means a cave.”
“Could be,” Tea countered, “that means it’s never been forged nor mined.”
“In which case we’ll have to hire a blacksmith as well as thief.”
She shoved him again. “Quickfingers,” she corrected. “And I haven’t agreed to come with you yet.”