"So a duck walks into a bar," Ace began.

Joker groaned, but he was drunk enough and the bar was clavish enough that the noise of disapproval was completely lost on Ace. Beside them, Queen rolled her eyes and masked her smirk with her tankard. She was old enough now to have dimples in her cheeks that stayed there when she stopped smiling. Joker and Ace's wrinkles, though, were more animated and mutable.

It was sweltering and beastly outside, and the tavern was packed. The Twelfth Unit was crowded around its usual table in the corner, but the team of six didn't have as much sprawling space as they usually did. It seemed as if fully half of the men in Caleria had some reason to plaster themselves to the nostrils tonight, and--Jacques had checked--this bar wasn't the only one on the street with this dense a crowd in it. The pub scene was looking to be almost ouroboric, self-serving, a cycle of overheated bodies and cold drinks and rapidly lengthening tabs. Ace would have some heavy "creative accounting" to do once his hangover subsided, come morning.

In the meantime, though, there was a new joke. "And he waddles up to the barkeep," Ace went on, "and he plunks his feathery ass down on a barstool--" which Ace accompanied with a jostle of his own chair, "--slaps the counter with his wing--" which Ace likewise accompanied, though he used his palm, as he was not a duck, "--and yells, 'barkeep! Some service, pyrati rella!'"

Queen chuckled to herself. "Some duck." She wrinkled her nose--which was a touch rosy--and slid her elbow a plank closer to Geddoe, sitting placidly to her left.

"Hey, hotshot." Joker whacked the heel of his boot against Ace's stool. "Since when do you speak duck?"

"I make it a point to know how to ask for whatever's on tap in any language I can," Ace replied, a little more defensively than was probably necessary.

The Twelfth was as much a motley crew as it had always been, even almost two decades since the Second Fire-Bringer war that had seen them to their current population. Aila and Jacques were still more interested in each other than the drinks, though there were three empty glasses in front of Jacques, all containing the same sweating, pale-orange residue. Aila had her dark fingers folded crisscross around her glass--soda and something else--sipping sleepily through a straw with her concave cheek resting on Jacques' shoulder. Ace was to their left, a flurry of graying hair, frenetic gesticulating, and a sloshing ale tankard, but the quiet couple didn't seem to be listening. As ever, Joker sat on Ace's other side, his long braid and short moustache almost entirely white, so relaxed into his stool and the wall behind it that his purplish-brown tunic almost blended into the woodwork. There were eight empty pint-tankards between the men and a half-pecked plate of inordinately spicy beer-battered bunny. Three sheets to the wind herself, Queen was content to peck at some carrots, wipe her damp black hair out of her eyes, and tolerate the joke.

"And the barkeep puts down his rags and his glass and comes up to the duck, and he says, 'what can I get for you?' And the duck kinda grins at him and asks, 'got any grapes?'"

Geddoe sat in the shadows, where he could see every entrance and exit to the room. He was careful, even when he was this plowed. He'd stacked his four tankards neatly on the windowsill beside him, open to the frothy Calerian air and the high, waning half-moon looming over the mountains. He still had his gloved hand curled around the handle of the most recently emptied tankard and was staring at it, or through it. He watched as, across the crowded room, an eager bartender--Mijad--waved his hands and splayed six fingers. Geddoe nodded at Mijad's reflection in the glass, and Mijad went about tapping another round for the Twelfth. Knowing how Ace's jokes tended to turn into shaggy dogs, Geddoe figured they'd need it.

"The bartender goes, 'no, we don't have any grapes. We've got wine.' The duck says, 'I'm not here for wine, I'm here for grapes.' And the bartender says, 'Well--" blessedly, when Ace waved his tankard around, it was close enough to empty that no one ended up with a face-full of ale, "--well, we don't have any grapes.'" As it stood, he almost smashed the glass into the unassuming cleavage of the prostitute behind him.

Geddoe seriously considered rescinding his call for another round.

He watched the bar move. Through his one remaining, unpatched eye, the throng blended into itself. Tables like his, careful and harried waiters, dancers and brooders and high-rolling braggarts and their admirers; "people" in general were a mess of cloth and spittle and sweat. Between Ace's theatrical narrating and the relentless clamoring of the bar at large, there was almost no hope of anything individual coming to his attention. The bar was an overwhelming force of distraction. Brash. Seedy. Dismissible. Of course there were shady dealings going on all over the place, but not even all of the dealers were sober enough to notice.

"And the duck says, 'well, that's too bad,' and he hops down off the stool and waddles right on out of the bar. And the bartender goes back to cleaning the glasses and dealing with the rest of the customers and he completely forgets about the duck."

"Don't tell me that's the end," Joker said.

"Are you kidding?" Queen reached for another carrot and dipped it in the shallot-sauce. "The sun hasn't risen yet."

Ace snorted. "Funny."

To Geddoe, the bar was teeming with its perpetual kind of half-life, if more pertinently than usual. Everyone's faces seemed hollow-eyed and grimy, as if every bare chin had a five o'clock shadow and every wrinkle was a fingernail clipping deeper. The swarm of Calerian robes was lackluster and the glasses beaded with water that could have easily been half dust, and the armor of the mercenaries and the frippery of the whores didn't rightly shine. The oil lamps and rune-lanterns died every time someone crossed in front of one, and to a man without proper depth-perception the world was dizzying indeed.

"So the next night's a busier night," Ace went on, "and the barkeep is dealing with a couple of customers when, again, a duck walks into the bar. It could be the same duck, but the bartender isn't sure, and besides, he's supposed to greet all the customers with the same kinda gusto, so he turns to the duck and asks, 'what can I get you?' And the duck plunks his feathery ass down on the same stool as yesterday's duck and slaps the table--" Ace performed the same gestures he had before, but this time the discarded tankards suffered a bit for it, "--and he asks, 'you got any grapes?'"

Someone walked in through the swinging front doors and managed to stand out, at least to Geddoe.

Jacques made a quiet, curt sound that might have been a laugh, but no one in the Twelfth bothered to ask.

"And the bartender's still not sure if this is the same duck as yesterday, and thinks that maybe it's just a duck thing to go into a bar and ask for grapes. So he tells the duck, 'I'm sorry, but we don't have grapes. We've got wine, you want wine?'"

The newcomer was not a duck. It was human, far too tall and a bit too broad-shouldered for Geddoe to assume it was a woman, so he started thinking of it in terms of "man". The man was not dressed for the distressing humidity outside, which might have been what caught Geddoe's attention. Instead, the man wore a long, high-necked sweater and thick pants, both of a deep grey, and he had a wide mountaintop-green scarf around his neck and shoulders. The scarf was long enough to mark him for a noncombatant, despite the fact that he was carrying a silver cane that Geddoe knew had a sword in it. The cane wasn't peace-bonded. The man's hair was harder for Geddoe to discern the color of in the tricky and jacitating lighting of the bar, and Geddoe hadn't even had the opportunity to look at the man's face. He had the feeling he should.

"And the duck says, 'I'm not here for wine, I'm here for grapes,' and of course the bartender tells him 'We don't have any grapes.' And the duck quacks or sighs or something and gets down off the stool and waddles out the door, and the bartender's so busy that he doesn't give the duck a second thought."

Geddoe watched the newcomer's silver cane. It didn't touch the ground. The man was wearing gloves, thin ones, white and leathery like a baby Harmonian aristocrat's ass. He walked and dressed like a True Rune Bearer, or so Geddoe thought, but any True Rune Bearer stupid enough to walk into a Calerian bar dressed for autumn in Kalekka wouldn't have been alive long enough to acquire the affectation.

The man apparently knew he was being watched. When Geddoe looked up, they managed a second of stable eye-contact. The lights in the bar were playing for Geddoe's team; the rich newcomer's hair was dark red, his eyes were the same color as his inappropriate clothing, and he was Albert Silverberg. In these two decades, the Strategist had aged, gracefully but specifically, like a musical instrument.

Albert didn't otherwise acknowledge Geddoe and continued walking toward the counter on the far side of the bar, sidestepping the occasional thugs, traders, and whores as if they were merely cracks between cobblestones. Perhaps he didn't stand out as much as Geddoe thought he did--no one seemed to be eyeing Albert or his valuables. Hell, perhaps only Geddoe could see him. Things like that had happened before.

Geddoe felt Queen's elbow rap into his, once. Apparently he was wrong--she'd seen the nobleman too. Whether she recognized him as the Great White Turncoat remained to be seen. Geddoe turned back to the window and passed Queen's eyes on the way, and signaled with a passive pique of his eyebrow to let the man be, at least for now.

Ace made sure to completely drain his tankard before resuming the joke, but kept it clasped in his fist to continue serving as an inaccurate substitute for the duck's wing. "So now it's the third night, and it's busy like the night before, and the bartender hasn't really looked at any of his customers, he's so busy filling all the glasses. And it's loud, so he hasn't been giving a damn who comes in and out of the bar so long as they tip him. And he's pissed, because he's busy."

By now, Albert had nearly gotten past the clot of bodies and Calerian robes to the counter. Majid stepped aside to let him through, balancing his tray with four tankards of ale and one each of whatever Aila and Jacques were having. The bartender had on a face that Geddoe knew to look for--the kind that said, "that one better tip well"--and Majid brought over the Twelfth's fifth round of drinks a little too quickly. So Geddoe wasn't hallucinating. There was a Silverberg in the bar, not a duck. Geddoe wasn't sure which was stranger. He was sure, though, of which angered him more.

Unfortunately for Majid, Albert had already waved over one of the other bartenders, a gesture that was as subtle and slight as applying pressure to a doorknob. He asked for a drink--or for grapes, for all Geddoe could tell--and the barkeep nodded and said something about the price. Geddoe reached for his newest drink and barely tasted it.

"And the barkeep finally stands up and gets to face the new customer and asks him, 'what can I get you?', and the customer asks, 'you go--"

"--'got any grapes?'" Joker guessed, groaning through the bubbling stripe of foam perched on his moustache.

"Exactly!" Ace exclaimed, thumping the table and sloshing ale down some of the new pints by proxy. "And it was, in fact, the duck! And he was sure by now that it was the selfsame duck!"

"Some duck," Queen said again, this time with a slide to her voice that Geddoe recognized as a reference to the Silverberg, not the joke. Geddoe let his eye focus on what Queen appeared to be commenting on, and saw that Albert was apparently using a book for a coaster. The book's cover was green like the scarf, lizard-skin. Maybe it was hollow, maybe it was ancient, maybe it was stolen, Hell, maybe it was Bazba. Whatever it was, it wasn't Geddoe's business, and he raised his heavy eyebrows at Queen again to tell her so.

"And the bartender is pissed off, and he gets in the duck's face and he tells the duck, 'no, we don't have any grapes! This is a bar, not a goddamned trading-hut, and we don't have any grapes! We've got wine, we've got beer, we've got a few hard liquors in the back and if you're hungry my wife'll fry you a pigeon but we don't have any grapes!"

Albert was drinking something short, pale, and expensive-looking, served in a rocks-glass. He held the glass with only three of his fingers, and the littlest one was curled inward in a neat arc, like a mantor's tail. Geddoe watched the bartender that had served the Silverberg put something back on the top shelf. It was probably part of whatever code this transaction was operating under. A guy walks into a bar, sticks out, orders something off the top shelf, leaves his parcel behind. He'd seen it all before. Maybe the duck should have asked for blue fruit instead of grapes.

"And the duck's completely nonchalant about the whole thing and he tells the bartender, 'I'm not here for wine, I'm here for grapes.' And the bartender's all to ready to smack the duck across his goddamned face, but he holds back and tells the duck, 'we don't have any goddamned grapes, and if you come in here and ask for grapes one more time I'm gonna nail your bill to the bar!'"

Queen and Joker snickered. When Joker snickered, he covered his mouth, and realized that he had sticky froth from the ale all over his hairy lip, which only made him laugh harder.

"Hey, hey!" Ace whined, "I'm not finished yet!" He pouted--which really emphasized how bad the sunspots on his chin and nose were getting--and leaned forward, jostling the empty tankards with the cross-strap of his armor over his chest.

Joker flung an arm around Ace's shoulders, narrowly missing the back of the head of the person sitting behind them. "The one time you tell a decent joke, you complain that we like it?"

"But there's a punchline!"

"It's funny enough that the duck's going to get his 'bill' nailed to the bar," Queen said with a drowsy-eyed smile. "Glad to see you've picked up a few good puns hanging around us."

"Okay, whose idea was it to be Ace, Queen, and Joker?" Ace pointed markedly at his own chest, just to make certain there could be no doubt. "The cracks about how stupid I am got old faster than Joker did."

Joker tightened his arm around Ace's neck, which swerved their barstools into each other rather precariously. "You're not so young yourself anymore," he reminded Ace.

"I'm still younger than you were when we were at Budehuc."

"No you're not! I wasn't even fifty!"


Joker grinned. "I was a damn sight more powerful at forty-six than you were."

On the other side of the bar, Albert made some apparent small-talk with the washed-out prostitute next to him. It resulted in her making an obscene gesture and crossing the room to gossip with her friends. She had her long-nailed hands open the entire time, so Geddoe surmised she'd been the real thing, just an opportunist and not a contact. Albert sat, straight-backed--could he possibly sit any other way?--with the rocks-glass still in his glove. His back was to Geddoe and the Twelfth, but when he reached up to tuck some hair behind his ear, Geddoe saw that Albert still had that one ear pierced like an elf, like a woman. Was he really so arrogant, did he trust his world-knowledge so much, that he thought he could get away with being so distinctive?

Geddoe realized that Albert had probably already gotten what he wanted. Instead of intervening, people were gossiping and staring and dismissing him as strange, Geddoe included. And the other answer was yes, Albert was that arrogant and was that trusting of his own abilities, which in turn meant that yes, he was as dangerous as ever, and that no, he was thoroughly unrepentant. Two decades were apparently insufficient to bring down Albert's ivory tower. Then again, Albert had built that tower on a pretty damned strong foundation. It would be very hard to knock down a mountain of corpses that high, especially when they had been so strategically laid.

Geddoe tipped back his tankard and drained it down is throat. He could hear the shutters behind his ears opening and closing, and the fumes from the fermented liquid rushed up his nose like overzealous cavalry.

"And better looking, too!" Joker finished, swaying his side and the barstool underneath him into Ace's with a mighty thwack. The stool teetered for a bit, but settled under Joker's weight.

Ace righted his own stool and edged it closer to the table. "You gonna let me finish the joke or not?"

On Geddoe's other side, Aila giggled and lolled her head over Jacques' shoulder. "Nailing his bill to the bar," she muttered, belatedly, with a slightly drunken lisp. The remark at least got Joker to stop ribbing at Ace and start laughing instead, which was just what Ace needed to finish the story.

Ace cleared his throat. "So it's been four nights, now, and the bar's not too busy, and the bartender's in a better mood because he's pretty sure that he's never gonna see the duck again."

"Fat chance of that," Queen said.

Ace ignored her. "But sure enough, the duck walks into the bar--"

Albert took a last sip of whatever he was drinking, left a tip--probably worth about as much as the head of the mayor of a small hamlet--and slid off his barstool. Geddoe set his empty tankard on the windowsill, closed his eye, and rose as well.

"--and he waddles up to the barkeep, and he sits his feathery ass down at the same seat as before--" Ace apparently didn't notice that Geddoe was leaving the table, and kept on with the motions of the joke as if nothing was amiss. "--and thumps the table with his wing and asks the bartender--"

He cut himself off, and probably meant for it to be dramatic. About the same time, he realized that Geddoe had left the table.

"--'got any nails?'"

Geddoe was halfway to Albert by the time Ace went silent. The Captain of the Twelfth sidestepped and wound his way through the crowd, much as Albert had done on his way in, but his low shoulders and dark leather armor made him even even more dismissible to everyone but his unit. He trusted Queen to remain in her seat and if she didn't move, the others likely wouldn't. Besides, he knew he wasn't walking for combat, and Wild Geese was peace-bonded on his hip, not that it really mattered. He caught Albert's eye as the Silverberg turned around to leave--the green-skinned book was still on the counter, under his lone empty glass--and Albert remained still, just out of reach of the bar itself.

When Geddoe came to just inside an arm's length away from Albert, he stopped. Albert was still taller than him, Geddoe realized, probably because his ego never let his spine get any rest. Their faces were all but blank. Geddoe's eye was relaxed and his cheeks sallow, and Albert's eyes and lips narrow as ever. The bar seemed quieter.

Geddoe blinked once, then curled up his right glove and punched Albert clear across the face.

Albert went reeling back into the bar, then skittered and slid down after his shoulder hit it. His silver cane rammed into and dented the bar's face on the way down, but didn't unsheathe the sword inside it, and the chairs on either side of the recumbent Silverberg topped over. The crowd went silent, then fremescent, then silent again. The lights held still for a few good seconds, and Geddoe's world settled and stopped being so hazy as he lowered his arm and glared down at Albert on the floor.

Again, neither man moved. No one in the bar really did either--Geddoe was the closest thing to a bouncer this place had, after all--except to dart their eyes between the eyepatched mercenary in black and the nobleman on the floor and wonder what the Hell was going on.

Albert gathered himself together and stood up, brushing off his grey slacks and retying his long, unnecessary scarf. He didn't seem to notice or care that he was already developing a massive shiner that spread from his left cheekbone to nearly the center of his nose. He smoothed his red bangs over the mark of the Pale Gate Rune on his forehead, the color of the rapidly pooling bruise around his eye. He didn't even breathe any more deeply than he had been before; he only raised his eyebrows and gave Geddoe a polite nod, then simply walked out of the bar. The prostitutes and locals and mercenaries parted for him, which sickened Geddoe, even though it was bound to happen.

Geddoe glanced back at the countertop, and, as he suspected, the rocks-glass and the green-skinned book were gone. With a shrug, he started back to the table the Twelfth was still gathered at, except for Jacques (who, as he tended to do, had snuck into the shadows and armed himself, and was probably disarming himself by now). The reverberating swing of the door breathed the noise back into the tavern, and by the time Geddoe sat down it was already bursting with the swish of cloth and the clink of glass and complaints about what the heat does to crazy people. Geddoe slinked into his seat between Queen and Aila, and signaled to Majid for another round.

"So," Geddoe asked Ace, and leaned back against the wall behind his barstool, "what's the punchline?"

"...Er... So the duck asks the barkeep, 'You got any nails?' Barkeep says, 'No.' And the duck grins and asks, 'so, got any grapes?'"

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition

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