Makena Acquati is not quite sure whether he’s having a good night, or a bad one. On the one hand, his regular customers, the people he relies on for daily turnover, have all left the inn in dribs and drabs, most of them casting suspicious looks at the group of strangers occupying the big table in the corner. On the other hand, those strangers are currently paying him a great deal of money.
Acquati has learned not to judge too harshly. He sees all sorts in his inn, from the gently crooked watchmen who scam beers in return for nebulous ‘protection’, to the career criminals with more sense of duty and honour than a queen’s knight, and every variation in between. He’s good at reading people, knowing when to refuse service, and more importantly, how to refuse in a way that won’t reward him with a broken jaw or smashed furniture. But these strangers have him baffled. Their clothing is slightly out of style, their way of speaking is faintly grating, and there is a subtle sense of wrongness from them that he can’t describe in words.
He’s beginning to think that they might not be entirely human. That the children of Murphy have come to visit his inn. Nothing good can come of that. His grandmother told him stories of the fair folk, scaring him with ancient tales of incomprehensible pettiness and terrible gifts. He never imagined he’d ever meet one. He certainly never thought he’d see a band of them settle in his inn.
They seem harmless enough, he supposes. But their otherness becomes more obvious the more he watches them.
The leader of the band is a thin creature with half-blind milky eyes. There is a terrible anger and sadness about him, as of many things lost. His name is Corwin. He’s not spoken to any of the staff, instead letting his companions order food and drink for him. There is no sword at his hip, yet his manner suggests both a great capacity for violence, and an expectation that others will commit it for him. A general, then. Or a prince.
Next is a skittish man, brown of hair and clothing. He seems torn between a need to protect Corwin, and a desire to be elsewhere. He is called Random. There is a rapier on his hip, and a dagger unsheathed in his hands. He plays with it nervously, frequently checking the main door, the kitchen door, the large window, the bar.
The third man is also thin and wary, wearing layered leathers and that were once black but are now worn to something like the texture of sand. Various knives and pouches are festooned around his person, and he carries a strange weapon of some kind on one hip, that his hand hovers near.
It’s when looking at all three in turn you begin to see the family resemblance. The eldest is clearly Corwin, by his simple poise and expectation of respect. Random is the youngest of them, seeking praise from his elders. The third man, Talion, is the pivot between them. The middle child, slightly apart, but speaking earnestly with the elder, trying to convince him of something, perhaps.
Then there are two others, plainly not as puissant as the brothers. There is a young woman, calm and confident, called Glory. She has done her best to put Acquati at ease. The other is a boy, skittish like Random. His name is Ty, and he’s spent most of the evening tucked in his seat with his arms around his knees, his gaze flicking between the people and the exits.
It’s hard to say who reacts first when the main door opens. Acquati is certainly not expecting any more guests this late at night, and as he glances at the figure in the doorway, he’s half-wishing he’d thought to lock the door. Corwin’s head tilts up at the sound, but nothing else changes about his manner. Random and Talion both start, but in different ways – Random’s fingers close around his knifehilt and he tenses for an attack; Talion moves slightly forward in his chair, the better to defend Glory and Ty.
But the figure in the doorway doesn’t enter. Acquati has time to register the slightness of the figure, swaddled in a heavy cloak but clearly female; the delicate fingers that casually toss a ball into the room before pulling the door closed.
Several things happen all at once.
Random has time to look confused.
Ty yells “Grenade!”
Talion and Glory push the table over as cover.
From the object on the floor there is a faint ‘pop’ and a greasy smear of sticky grey light.
And nothing happens.
The quiet stretches, broken only by Acquati’s harsh breathing.
“Is that all?” says Random.
“Grenades normally make a bigger noise,” says Corwin, sounding as though he doubts there was ever such a thing.
“Maybe it’s defective?” says Glory. She and Talion peer over the edge of the table. Ty joins them a moment later, frowning fiercely.
“Old powder, maybe,” says Talion. “Or a rusted pin.”
Corwin elbows Random in the ribs. “Go and see,” he says.
Random scowls at his brother. “And lose a hand when it finally decides to blow up? No thanks.”
“Wait,” says Ty. He stands up, leaning over the table edge to get a better look at the object on the floor. “I think I know what that is.”
“Yeah, most of us have seen a grenade before, kid,” says Random.
“My mother always kept one in her purse,” continues Ty, ignoring the older man.
Glory blinks slowly, then a look of surprise dawns over her face. “So did mine,” she says, almost to herself.
Ty nods, as though Glory’s comment has confirmed his suspicion. “It’s not a grenade,” he says firmly. “It’s a time bomb. And it’s already gone off.”