“I can’t believe you guys talked me into this,” Jagati grumbled, glaring over the glittering tavern, into which John and Pyotr had disappeared the moment they arrived, leaving Jagati, Eitan, Rory, and Kallik to make their way to the bar.
From there, Eitan had stayed long enough to order a drink before sliding into the crowded pub, no doubt in search of a companion or two, or three.
And the place was crowded, Jagati mused, despite the fact that the wind was still whipping violently enough to knock a person off her feet—and would have, had John not blocked Jagati’s just before her butt hit the path.
Eitan had similarly kept the rail-thin Rory from a similar fate, while Kallik and Pyotr both managed the trek with little difficulty.
Then again, Kallik and John were both from Moosehead, and Pyotr, from his accent, at least, a native of Stolichnaya.
For them the numbing cold and bitter storms were just weather, rather than the curse against humanity Jagati knew them to be.
Apparently, the locals held a similar view as, storm or no storm, the entire populace of Upsilon appeared to be in the tavern, crammed at tables and cozying up on benches, talking, laughing, and drinking, and paying just enough attention to their kids.
Apparently pubs in Stolichnaya were a family affair, serving tea, cider, and packets of snacks that would appeal to the tiny monsters.
Still, it was odd seeing infants and toddlers bouncing on knees while their older siblings raced between the tables of a pub.
“I can’t believe the locals build this place, every smogging year,” Rory, at Jagati's right, studied the vaulted ceiling which, like the walls, tables, chairs, benches, stools, and bar itself, were all made of ice.
Ice that had been stacked, shaved, or carved from blocks hauled by crawler from the nearby Lake Valhal.
That last detail they'd learned from Keld, the red-bearded bear of a bartender who'd served their drinks and dropped some knowledge with the booze.
“Not only build it," Kallik, seated next to Rory, raised their glass towards the arched ceiling. “Pyotr told me that every year the Upsilonians have a contest for the best design, so they construct an entirely different tavern, to different specifications, every year.”
“But, why?” Jagati asked.
“Tradition?” Kallik guessed as Jagati huddled deeper into her coat.
“Or just something to do during the cold months,” Rory suggested.
“Which probably start in August,” Jagati muttered, raising her mug and inhaling the steam from the hot drink Keld had promised would thicken her thin, Fordian blood.
Since she’d been too swarming cold to play “my colony’s better than your colony,” Jagati had taken Keld’s suggestion, and was glad of it. The drink was not only warming, it was delicious, reminding her a little of Macintosh’s famed cider, but with more kick.
With a sigh she sipped the fragrant liquor and snuggled onto her stool which was, thank the Keepers, covered with a thick wool rug, as were all the other stools, chairs, and benches in the place.
Apparently even the rugged citizens of Upsilon resented a cold rump.
Similar rugs, or tapestries, she supposed, hung from the walls, breaking up the unrelieved white of structure which, combined with the glitter of lanterns throughout, could easily lead to a case of snow blindness.
A loud chorus of, “Skål!” drew her attention to where a group of kids looking for a hangover raised their shot glasses, also made of ice, before downing them all at once. “Don’t they worry their lips will freeze to the glass?” she asked no one in particular.
A deep bark of a laugh had her turning to see Keld had returned to their section of the bar.
“Never worry,” he said in his Stoli-accented Common. “The alcohol in the drink will keep them safe, as long as they don’t linger.”
“Or lick the outside,” Kallik offered.
“Ack!” Jagati squawked at the image.
“True enough,” Keld confirmed with an affable grin. “But there are always some who dare another to try, meaning we keep a kettle on, just in case someone needs a glass melted from their tongue.”
“Why would anyone do it, then?” Rory asked. “They’d have to know what would happen.”
“Of course,” Keld agreed, his great red beard quivering with mirth. “But—who can resist a dare?”
“I can,” Jagati decided with a shudder. “What?” she asked as Rory snorted. “I can!”
“Whatever you say,” Rory agreed as Keld raised a bottle of Campbell’s Best. Both Rory and Kallik held out their tumblers—made of actual glass—for refills.
Once he poured the drinks, Keld used a corkscrew to slash two hashmarks on the ice tablet set before them.
“Takk,” Kallik said to Keld.
“Varsa,” the bartender nodded, and took himself down the bar to the next thirsty party.
“Do you speak Stolichnayan?” Rory asked the young doctor.
“Enough to get around,” Kallik replied.“‘Please, thank you, where does it hurt?’ Thanks to Common, being multi-lingual is more an option than a requirement, but I’m also fluent in Inuktiway.”
“I’ve a bit of the Keltican, myself,” Rory said, referring to the Campbell Isles’ creole.
“I have a friend from university,” Kallik said, leaning around Jagati to better see Rory. “She’s part of an anthropological linguistic study of the languages of Fortune—Exodus Common and regional, alike—tracking the evolution of the spoken word from Earth to the present day Fortune.”
“Why?” Jagati asked.
“Because language shapes the way we think, the way we perceive, the way we feel,” Kallik said, their eyes alight with interest. “The shape of our thoughts and emotions extend to shaping our societies—how we live, what we value, how we treat one another. So, even though everyone on Fortune learns and uses the Exodus Common specifically developed for a post-Earth society, colonies or states with particularly dense populations from a specific territory of origin often have a second, or even third, more organically mutated, creole such as Stolichnayan, or Inuktiway, or Keltican,” they added, nodding at Rory. “What Tamara and her team want to determine is, how much impact the roots of regional languages have on the people raised in each of those societies—how they view the world, and themselves in it.”
“Yeah,” Jagati nodded, “make sense, I guess.”
“I, for one, would love to know why it is the Midasians are so waste-bent on trickery,” Rory muttered. “Nothing is ever what you think with those nobs.”
“That could be useful,” Jagati said. “But what I want to know is how Avonians got aluminium’ from ‘aluminum’?”
“While we’d like to know what Fordians have against that wee little i,” Rory countered. "What did it ever do to you?"
“I’ll be sure to ask Tamara if that comes up in her research,” Kallik said with a chuckle, before turning their attention to the main tavern. “Eitan’s found a new friend,” they said, with a combination of amusement and appreciation that Jagati would have felt even if she couldn’t feel it.
“He always does,” Rory murmured, and from him Jagati sensed something else—something closer to sorrow.
Or maybe pity?
At which point she realized she was sense-dropping and, with a silent curse, took a moment to steady the bubble-like barrier around herself that Eitan had helped her create.
Once she felt secure, she followed Kallik’s gaze to spy the man himself, seated at one of the ice tables with a party of locals, speaking quietly with a man whose weathered skin was a few shades darker than Eitan’s, braided hair threaded with silver, and eyes milky with cataracts.
As she watched, the blind man laid his gloveless hand on the table, and then Eitan raised that hand to press his lips to the palm.
“Clearly his charm goes beyond his looks,” Kallik observed.
“I don’t get it,” Jagati said, then as both Kallik and Rory shot her wide eyed looks said, “Not Eitan. I get that. I just don’t understand how anyone can go without gloves in this joint,” she added, nodding to the local’s bare palm in Eitan’s gloved hand. “Even you Mooseheadians are gloved up,” she added, glancing at Kallik.
“Well, it’s my first ice tavern,” Kallik said with a smile. “But your captain appears to be comfortable enough without his gloves,” they added, nodding at the raised stage near the back of the tavern, where John shared a bench with the two of the musicians.
There she saw that John was running his, yes, ungloved fingers over the strings of a guitar while having a fairly intense conversation with the guitar’s owner.
Automatically, she sought out Pyotr, and found both he and the drummer easing through a clutch of drinkers standing near an arched doorway.
“Where are they going?” she asked, gesturing towards Pyotr with her mug.
Kallik followed her gaze. “Maybe there’s a snug.”
“The ice tavern has a snug?” Jagati’s brows hiked up.
Rory glanced her way. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“It just seems like an ice tavern’s snug wouldn’t be very…”
“Snuggly?” Kallik offered.
“Exactly,” Jagati raised her mug in a toast as Keld returned to their section of the bar.
“So, Keld, do you lot ever get tired of it?” Rory asked, angling to lean his elbows in the slab of ice.
“Of what?” As he spoke, Keld flicked a cloth over his shoulder in the manner of bartenders the world over, leading Jagati to wonder how one wiped down a bar made of frozen water
“Of seeing all this melt away in the spring,” Rory gestured around with his glass. “Do you mourn the loss?”
“But it is not a loss,” Keld replied, tapping the bar as he spoke. “The tavern may melt every spring, but the cycle remains, in the people who build it.” He gestured to the crowds. “Every year we come together and create a new vision of this place. And every year we gather inside, sharing our achievement. It is a comfort,” he added. “Knowing we have this perinne—this tradition—year after year, generation after generation. It is part of our elinkaari, our cycle, you would say.” As he spoke, his gaze ran down the line and, seeing a gesture from another customer, snagged a bottle from beneath the bar and, with a nod to Rory, departed to fill more glasses.
“That’s us told,” Jagati observed, sipping her drink.
“Maybe,” Rory said, then shrugged. “Can’t say as I come from a long line of traditions, unless you count the passing down of the family lock picks.”
“I think that counts,” Kallik decided, just as a fluid run of notes soared above the tables, stilling rumbling waves of conversation throughout.
As one, Jagati, Rory, and Kallik turned to the stage where the harpist, a small woman with close-cropped hair dyed a deep purple, ran her fingers over a lap harp.
“Whoa,” Jagati murmured as the liquid notes shivered achingly up her spine.
“You enjoy music, then?”
She glanced at Kallik, who’d spoken.
“Sure, I enjoy music,” she said with a shrug. “You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it.”
Their eyes twinkled. “And how do you know you are not good at it?”
“Because you need patience to be good,” she replied before adding a firm, “Patience is what I am not good at.”
“Except patience isn’t a skill,” they said. “But, in my experience at least, when a person wants something enough, patience simply is.” At which point their gaze shot to the stage, where the strumming of the guitar had joined the harp. “I’d say John has patience to spare, to play as he does.”
“John?” Jagati echoed, then turned from the young doctor to the stage, where John had taken the guitarist’s place. His head was bent over the borrowed instrument as he accompanied the harpist.
And not just plucking out a melody, either.
Even Jagati could see, from the way his fingers moved over the neck, John had skills.
She raised her refreshed drink and took careful sip of the warming liquor. Not so much because she was thirsty, but because something about seeing him like that, so focused in the moment, and on the instrument in his hands, had her chest turning in a strange way.
How did she not know he played guitar?
Jagati thought back, trying to remember if she’d ever seen an instrument aboard the Kodiak, where they’d first served together.
Or maybe he’d learned to play later, after the court martial, as a way to ease the pain of being grounded?
Jagati took another sip of her drink, reminding herself it was stupid to feel affronted by this new revelation—this part of John she’d never seen—but she couldn’t stop feeling it.
And then her jaw dropped—and the affront fell with it—as the person she would have sworn, only five minutes ago, that she knew better than anyone on Fortune, began to sing.
“As I look to the skies above
I think back to those before
To the lost and lonely travelers, whose home was no more…”
It was one of the oldest songs on Fortune, penned by one of the descendants of those who originally fled Earth.
“Ten thousand souls sailed a stark and airless sea
They carried little but their sorrows
Weighed down by sins they dare not repeat.”
“They carried a might more than sorrow,” Roy observed, dryly. "Else we'd never have a retrieval job."
"And we know at least few sins that have been repeated," Kallik added. "Otherwise I wouldn’t be going to the Stoli border."
“Mmmmph,” Jagati grumbled while her hand waved them to shut it, eyes locked on John, not noticing the glance the other two shared over her head as she leaned forward.
"They would never see their destination
Their hope lay in a future blind
Yet they sailed on to a distant promise
their children's children might someday find
Ten thousand souls who came before
Sailed a cold and endless sea
They carried little but their sorrows
And a hope they would never meet
Still they sailed on
They sailed on to Fortune
They sailed on home."
As the song came to a close, everyone in the tavern held a collective breath, an instinctive moment of silence to honor those distant ancestors who had taken flight from Earth, knowing they would never reach Fortune—not even knowing if their grandchildren would reach their promised home.
Or, if even if they did, that the planet they reached would have been successfully engineered to support human life.
The history books were full of the trials of that mass exodus, including tales of the ships that hadn’t survived the journey.
There were songs about those ships, as well.
But the ballad John had sung was more than a history lesson, or a reminder of what had been lost on Earth.
It was, in its way, a love song—not to a person, or even a place—but to an idea.
To hope, she supposed.
And as that thought struck, the entire tavern shimmered back to life, first with a series of released breaths, then a few discrete hands flicking at tears, and at last, the thudding rush of gloved hands clapping or striking tables.
It was then, as the thunder of appreciation in the pub rivaled the howl of the wind outside it, that John looked up, his eyes unerringly landing on Jagati’s.
Even from the other side of the room, she felt the weight of his gaze, just as she sensed the tug of his longing.
And, even though she wanted to deny it, the answering tug of her own.
Then, as she watched, her heart turning, he handed the guitar to its owner, and rose.
As he did, she set her mug aside and slid from her stool.
She heard a low whistle and a soft cheer, from Kallik and Rory, respectively.
Any other time, Jagati might have responded to the audience commentary with a rude gesture, but here, tonight, all her attention was fixed on the man walking towards her, even as she wove through the tables towards him.
They met halfway, coming to a halt in the middle of the tavern.
Already the musicians, still minus their drummer, had moved on to another number, a sprightly call and response that encouraged the audience to clap and sing along.
It made for a noisy background, a wash of sound to match the blur of motion around the spot where she stood in front of John, who had yet to take his eyes off hers.
“Why didn’t I know you could do that?” she asked, pitching her voice low enough to undercut the raucous music.
"Do what?" he asked, leaning close enough for her to hear the reply. "You'll have to be more specific," he added. And there it was, that little twitch of the cheek that told her a smile lurked in wait.
She hated that lurking smile.
No, she thought, she didn't.
"Smog it," she muttered, and even as her hindbrain shouted, Bad Idea, reached out, grabbed John by his open coat and hauled him in, almost oblivious of the hoots and applause from the nearest tables because the rest of the tavern, already a blur, faded entirely from her awareness as the kiss shot heat from her crown to her toes, as potent as a drug, and as enticing as that first kiss on the Errant.
Except, she thought, as long-denied urges hummed along her skin, this time she wasn't bleeding out on the deck.
She pulled away, then dove back for more—Keepers the man could kiss—then pulled away to see John's gaze had gone dark and intense in a way she'd never seen. "'Ship," she said. "Now."
"Now," he agreed, grasping her hand and angling towards the exit.