35: A Bold Venture
The moment he stepped through the front door, he almost stumbled back outside, choking on the smoke. It smelt like Joel’s breath after an extended cigarette break. Willing his lungs to endure the trial, Dante ducked through the nearest doorway.
Half a dozen eyed rolled to face him, old eyes, scarred eyes, eyes bloodshot from the weed in their owner’s long pipes. Some of the men laughed, mocking the youthful newcomer from the depths of rugged grey beards. Others turned their attentions elsewhere, back to their goblets of bubbling froth, to the screen on the far wall, above the well-stocked bar, where a figure in sleek armour emerged from a blazing inferno as if it were a light drizzle of rain. The room cheered at the sight, slammed their drinks together, raised a toast to the fearsome warrior the screen dubbed ‘The Magic Gun Alchemist’. As the camera cut to another figure, a feathered beast of a thing some five metres tall, smoke billowing from its reptilian mouth, the crowd called for action, for a final, decisive blow.
“Out of the way, kid!” cried a voice, and Dante felt a large hand grasp his shoulder, shove him aside as a man, twice his size, staggered into the room to cheers from his companions. Wishing he could just retreat beneath his cloak, Dante slipped back into the hallway. There was another room opposite, quieter, but no less inviting. If ever there was a time for mind-numbing alcohol, it was now.
Something light pressed into the small of his back, a hand, gentle, fragile, cold. Emily’s hand. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see her cloak drop, her crescent-moon smile emerge from the fogs. “Come on,” she said, taking his arm in hers. “Let’s at least try to look normal.”
They entered the quieter of the two rooms. Some of the patrons did a double-take when they noticed a Maiden had graced them with her presence, but most tried their best to ignore her. To those who had the courage to speak up, Emily replied with smiles and quick hellos, nods of acknowledgement as if she were greeting old friends. With a presence like hers, it didn’t take them long to reach the bar. The bartender, a leather-faced woman with streaks of grey in her curled hair, was quick to greet them.
“A seer and a eunuch,” she said, giving Dante the slightest glance. “I guess that means you’re with Solo. He’s upstairs. Booth seven. Told me to put your orders on his tab.”
Emily thanked her, but there was no time for drinks.
Though no less smoky than the rooms below, the first floor of the White Rabbit was somewhat more sedate, its single wallscreen playing out its gladiatorial games in silence while all attention focused on various games of skill and chance, from the clank of pool and thud of darts to the shuffling of cards and twangs of pinball, all accompanied by the ever-present jingling of coins. Emily made for the booth marked with a bronze seven, its occupants hidden behind a dirty green curtain. As Dante watched a bloated, purple beast emerge from a lake on the nearby wallscreen — ‘Charybdis’, according to the caption — she prised the curtain open and peeked inside.
Then she turned to Dante, a look of incredulous disbelief on her face.
Originally, there was time for drinks. Editing is fun.