Whenever Christa visited the upper district, she was able to dream of what it would be like to wake up every day in the luxurious mansions that occupied its spacious streets. But whenever she walked back to the lower district, she was always brought back to her own hopeless reality. And this walk was no different. With each step, the buildings would become smaller and more decrepit than the last. The wide and straight streets would become more narrow and winding. High-end restaurants became dives, and boutiques became cheap stalls for items of the lowest quality. Despite being in the same city, the two district were two very different worlds on opposite sides of the river Vira. But this world, the one that sat on the southern bank of the river, was her home.
Christa’s feet were tired, but at last, they had made it. She stood before the Grimm Inn, a modest establishment nestled within the winding streets of the lower district. The building was unremarkable, with its simple wooden facade and plain sign hanging overhead. But for Christa, it was a welcome sight after a long journey.
She looked back at Orin, the walk had definitely not been kind to him. Towards the end, he had lost a lot of pace, and so the walk took longer. She was almost sure that he had lost more weight since the time by the river, but how that was possible, she did not know. “We’re here,” she told him, pushing on the large doors.
As the doors parted open, the scent of ale and roasting meat filled her nostrils. The inn was dimly lit, with flickering candles casting shadows across the room. The patrons were a mix of working-class locals and weary travellers, huddled around tables and murmuring in hushed tones. Her stomach rumbled as if it had a mind of its own and was begging her to fill it. She heard Orin’s stomach grumble as if responding to her own.
“Hey, you do have coin on you, right?”, Orin said, his eyes wide open.
“Yes…” Christa responded. She did not know where Orin had found the energy from, she could hardly believe that this was a man who was struggling to walk just minutes ago. But he had ran up to the bar to make his order before she could finish what she had to say. “… but you’ll have to pay me back” she finally finished to ears that weren’t around to hear her. She sighed and made her way to the bar, her eyes scanning the room as she went. The inn was small, with only a handful of tables and a single fireplace providing warmth on this chilly evening. But it had a certain charm to it, a sense of belonging.
Orin had already ordered and gone off to find an empty table by the time Christa got to the bar. Kai, the burly bartender, looked up from his cleaning with a grizzled smile, his wild mane of hair framing his rugged features.
“Well, well, well,” Kai greeted her with a warm chuckle. “If it isn’t Christa. It’s been a while. I’m guessing that man over there is with you?”
Christa glanced over at Orin, who sat at a nearby table with a frothy ale in hand, his bearded face split by a grin. You’d almost think the God Motriar himself had died with how much he was smiling. "Hey, yeah I guess you could say that."
"He's a little too old for you, don't you think?" Kai jested, his eyes twinkling with mirth.
Christa rolled her eyes, a hint of amusement playing at the corners of her lips. "It's not like that," she replied quickly, turning back to Kai.
"I'm just yanking your chain," Kai said, wiping a glass with a ragged towel. "So, what'll it be?"
Christa hesitated for a moment, staring nervously at the bar counter. "Kai?" she asked, her voice tinged with anxiety. "Do you think I could get one ale, please? The Dirty Blonde, I think that was Jax's favourite."
Kai raised an eyebrow suspiciously, his eyes narrowing. "And what are you, fifteen, not even sixteen? You know I can't do that. Jax would kill me if he found out I was serving you alcohol."
Christa's eyes grew misty, tears glistening in the flickering torchlight. Since it had happened, she hadn't spoken the words out loud. Now, saying them felt like ripping off a bandage. "Jax is dead," she whispered, her voice cracking.
Kai’s eyes widened in shock, “What? How could that be?” He asked, his voice laced with disbelief.
Christa looked up at him, her eyes haunted. “He was killed” she explained, her voice quivering with emotion. “I just wanted to honour him just this once, with his favourite ale.”
Kai's expression softened; his rough features etched with sympathy. "I'm so sorry, Christa,” he murmured, "I didn't realise." He hesitated for a moment, then relented with a sigh. "Okay," he said, reaching for a glass. "Just this once, and it's on the house. Anyway, head over there; the food will be out soon. I believe that man ordered for you too. Said you’ll be paying, so I’ll bring the bill over shortly.“
"Thank you," Christa said, her voice barely above a whisper. She took a deep breath, then picked up the glass and made her way over to Orin, her heart heavy with grief. As she approached the table, she could see the froth from the ale clinging to Orin's thick beard, with his glass already half empty.
He gestured for Christa to sit down “Here, sit down.”, he said, his voice jovial. He was still smiling wide and bright to the point where it was infectious. It must’ve been a while since he had last tasted alcohol, let alone had a proper meal. Knowing what it was to eat after starving for so long, Christa couldn’t help but smile back at him as she sat down with her own ale in hand.
She raised the glass to and nervously took a sip. She contorted her face in disgust and placed it back down.
Orin laughed at her reaction. “First time?”
Christa nodded, her cheeks reddening. "Why would anyone want to drink this?"
“The flavour grows on you.” Orin said as he took a big gulp of his own ale. “Anyway, who are we here to see?”
Christa looked at him sheepishly. "Well, actually, I don't know. All I know is that we had to meet her here."
Orin wiped the froth from his beard with the back of his hand. "I should've guessed. It's a trend with you. Seems you don't know who or what anyone looks like."
Christa looked up at him, her eyes wide. "Yes, I usually leave all of that with Jax."
"So what's the plan?" Orin asked.
"We just wait here until they come. I still need to get paid for this job," Christa replied, picking up her glass and taking another, slightly less hesitant sip.
"Okay, and if they don't come?" Orin queried.
"We'll get a room here and figure it out," Christa said, bracing herself for the taste of the ale as she took another gulp.
“Well, sounds like you’ve figured it out to the point of figuring it out.” he said, shrugging his shoulders. He stared at Christa for a moment before his eyes widened in delight. "Here's the food!" he exclaimed.
Christa turned to see the barmaid placing an enormous amount of food on the table. Her eyes widened in shock at the sheer amount of it. It was enough to feed a small army. How he would manage to eat even just half of it, she had no idea.
Before the barmaid could walk away, Orin handed her his empty glass. "More please," he said, not even bothering to ask if Christa wanted a refill.
Christa stared at him in disbelief. The audacity of this man, expecting her to pay for all of this! Orin picked up his fork and knife, ready to dig in to the food. "Where are my manners?" he said, pausing with his utensils ready. "Shall I wait for your food to come too? Did you order something?"
Christa took a deep breath, trying to suppress her annoyance at the realisation that he didn’t order her any food. "No, I did not," she said bluntly.
And with that, Orin started to eat whilst Christa took another sip of her drink hoping her palate had adjusted somewhat since the last. But yet again her tastebuds recoiled at the acrid bitterness. The ale was still rough and earthy, with a hint of sweetness that did little to mask its unyielding bite; despite this Christa was determined to soldier through.
"This one is for you, Jax," she thought to herself as she took another sip.