There will be a table of contents very shortly.
â€œGive me another.â€
The bartender coughed delicately, looking at the bottles already arrayed before the large man at the counter. â€œUm, milord, I donâ€™t really know if â€“â€
â€œNOW!â€ A gout of smoke followed the pronouncement, and the bartender quickly grabbed the outstretched mug before it cracked from the heat. Refilling the mug with apple brandy as quickly as he was able, he set it down on the counter, breathing a sigh of relief as the man hunched over the bar took it with a gruff nod. â€œMore like it. Talk back to a prince of the Earth. Hah!â€
A big hand reached up, absently scratching at his short red hair, as the man at the bar stared off into space. â€œUsed to be, people knew their places. Didnâ€™t talk back to a child of the Dragons. There was order.â€ He looked down, taking a swig of the brandy. â€œOrder meant something. But nowâ€¦ whatâ€™s the point, really? When the very backbone of our nation seeks to destroy everything we stood forâ€¦ when we fight for meaningless honours, what right have we to demand fealty? We followed a lie and lost everything. Even bartenders think they know better than us.â€ One eye blearily regarded the frightened-looking mortal. â€œMaybe they do, huh?â€
â€œSirâ€¦ Iâ€¦â€ The bartender gulped. â€œI donâ€™t know what youâ€™re saying.â€
The man frowned drunkenly, and went over his statement in his mind. Seemed clear enough. Straightforwards. Butâ€¦ he rolled a syllable around on his tongue. â€œWas I speaking High Realm, or Low?â€
â€œUm. High? I think? I really donâ€™tâ€¦â€
â€œHah!â€ The man laughed, slapping the counter hard enough to leave slight cracks. â€œCanâ€™t hold my ale like I could.â€ He chuckled. â€œBig surprise. Ninety years since my last drink, you know. Good stuff. Good bar.â€ He frowned again, looking at the bartender more carefully. â€œOh, donâ€™t look like that. Iâ€™m not gonna hurt your bar.â€ Seeing that the bartender looked unconvinced, he raised one hand unsteadily. â€œPasiapâ€™s Honour.â€ He frowned, looking down at the wood grain of the bartop. â€œâ€™M just waiting for the fourth.â€
After a moment, the bartender decided that a response was in order. â€œThe fourth what, milord?â€
â€œDisaster.â€ One side of his lips curved into a self-mocking smile. â€œSee, five is the number of balance. Five elements. Five paths to enlightenment. Four is the number of imbalance, destruction. Bad things come in fours.â€ He raised one hand, ticking them off. â€œFailure, knowledge, betrayal. Need a fourth.â€
The bartender considered that a moment. â€œKnowledge is bad?â€
â€œSometimes.â€ The statement was loaded with implications, and the bartender decided to avoid them. He moved to the far end of the bar, and began wiping the counter halfheartedly.
â€œSifu.â€ The voice came from the doorway, and the bartender looked up. The man at the bar did not.
â€œIâ€™m not your sifu, boy.â€ His voice was flat. â€œGo home.â€
Cathak Citrios narrowed his eyes. â€œYou know that I canâ€™t do that, Sifu. Weâ€™ve come to take you back.â€
â€œNot going back. Thereâ€™s nothing back to go to.â€ The man downed the rest of the brandy in one gulp.
â€œSifu, what happened?â€ Citrios shook his head. â€œI canâ€™t believe that you would turn against the Realm, against the Order, but thisâ€¦â€ His face hardened. â€œYou have to come back with me, Sifu. If not, the others will destroy you.â€ He stepped forwards, into the room, his face grim. Behind him, Alina crouched by the doorway, watching in concern as her master confronted his.
â€œHah.â€ The man rose in a single, surprisingly fluid motion. Heat radiated off him as he burned away the alcohol within him, and he grinned lopsidedly as he regarded his old pupil. â€œChallenge, then?â€
â€œChallenge. If I win, you will return with me.â€
â€œAnd if I win, I can guarantee that I wonâ€™t.â€ The master chuckled at his own phrasing, and nodded. â€œWalk with me, Citrios. This is a nice bar, and we can cause serious property damage, you and I.â€ He drew some coins, tossing them on the counter as he strode from the building. Outside, the other Dragon-Blooded stood, but they paused as Citrios walked forwards.
â€œI am challenging him.â€ As Sesus Gavrin opened his mouth to protest, Citrios shook his head. â€œThis is my only chance to bring him back without his death, Gavrin. You know that. If it comes to all of us, he will fight to the death â€“ and he will die. Please.â€ His expression was earnest, and he stared the older Dynast in the eyes. After a few moments, Gavrin sighed and nodded.
â€œI think itâ€™s a terrible idea, Citrios, but I will allow it. But if you lose, we will strike. Does he know this?â€ Citrios nodded sadly, and Gavrin made a face. â€œVery well, then. I fought under him at the siege of Arvali, and I know what greatness he was capable of. For that memory, you may challenge him.â€
As Citrios marched grimly towards the edge of town, Alina hurried up to him. â€œMaster, please donâ€™t do this.â€ She could hear the tears in her voice, but she pressed on. â€œMy vision â€“ this canâ€™t possibly end well.â€
â€œProbably not.â€ Citriosâ€™s face softened as he looked down at Alina, and he cupped her chin in one hand. â€œBut I canâ€™t believe that he would kill me, andâ€¦â€ He trailed off, looking ahead to where his old mentor waited. â€œAnd I would give anything to save him. Pray for me, my little raven.â€ He kissed her lightly on the forehead and then gently pushed her away from him, striding forwards. â€œI, Cathak Citrios, issue a formal challenge to you, Sifu. If I am victorious, you will return with me to the Blessed Isle to face judgement for your desertion.â€
â€œAnd if I win, you will back away, and let me fight these others alone?â€
â€œYes.â€ Citrios bowed low.
â€œThen I, Cathak Lodaris, accept your challenge.â€ The master drew his swords, and settled into the pose of the Fire Dragon, Essence licking around him. â€œAnd I am nobodyâ€™s Sifu.â€