Every pub in the world had atmosphere. But the Rusty Arms had nuance. If there hadn’t been so many drunk morons weighing her down, she could have flown away.
Candlewick Reed stood under the sign, contemplating the esoteric symbol beside the name. It fit his own thoughts. The hermaphroditic sign that could not decide one way or another.
It had been named by the original owner, a man keen on robotics. The man had crashed and burned as an inventor, then had apparently gone acceptably crazy and stuck giant robot arms on either side to make a unique-looking pub.
The symbol, a distaff and spear drawn from the same circle, was meant to show that the owner and his wife had equal partnership. The current owner, their oldest son Andrew, was unmarried, but claimed he would carry on the tradition when the time came.
Most pub-goers didn’t know or care. But Candle needed to know. The more trivia living in his mind, the less real thinking he could do.
He shrugged his way inside and headed straight for a lonely spot at the bar.
Second Son Damon was working the bar. He tended to be more liberal than his siblings. At least in the application of alcohol. He snagged a mug with one finger, twirled it to stop under the tap. Beer hissed up to a line barely contained by surface tension.
Destined to spill immediately, Candle eyed the mug. A dramatic quaff would be fun, but it would leave him sticky and unsociable. He sipped delicately at the brim of the mug until the beer level was low enough to prevent the floor becoming his inadvertent drinking buddy.
Before he’d even set it down, Damon had whipped out a bar rag. “Drowning sorrows?”
“This much beer will drown me first,” Candle said. “My sorrows are taller than me.” Even after draining a second pint, his head was too clear. He tilted the mug to stare at the glistening bottom. “Got anything stronger?”
Without a word, Damon turned around and retrieved a bottle from the shelves behind the bar. He set a shot glass and poured with his usual generosity.
Candle knocked it back without examining–or smelling–it too closely. The taste hit him like an elbow in the nose. He nearly gagged instead of swallowing, but he managed to overcome the reflex. The liquid burned as it travelled down his throat. He made a face to avoid coughing.
“Family recipe,” Damon said, laughing with his eyes.
“Fantastic. Gimme another.”
Damon obliged. The drink’s second attempt to overwhelm Candle was not quite so powerful, but he didn’t mind. His head felt as though it were made of warm, fluffy fabric, and everyone in the bar looked lovely.
Particularly in the corners. Blondes were not his usual style, but some people wore it better than others. Candle leaned over the bar, relying on peripheral vision. Tall, broad, and brooding like a legend. A man like that needed someone who listened.
But not in a place like the Rusty Arms. Candle gave himself an exasperated shake. There was another blonde, one not hiding in a corner. She was flushed and, if her build was any indication, generous. She laughed as her companion, another young woman, spoke animatedly.
Candle felt his gaze wander between the two blondes. He tapped the bar absentmindedly, and Damon re-filled the shotglass. It still burned, but Candle was too distracted to react as strongly as before.
The woman’s companion left her to approach a cluster of men, giggling the whole way. Candle swept in to take her place.
She looked up at him in cheerful confusion. “Are you real?”
“I just might be.”
Her loud laughter startled him, but he noticed that she ignored her drink. She rested her chin in her hands. “Then maybe I shouldn’t be alone with you.”
He flashed her his most charming smile. “Or maybe that’s exactly why you should be.”
Thick black lashes held a screen over her painfully blue eyes as she laughed again. It was a huskier laugh than before. Not as loud or high in pitch. Candle focused on her face, still not quite drunk enough to stop thinking.
Her name was Belinda. Probably not her real name, but everything else about her was real.
Candle woke up slowly, like molasses coming to life. An arm was draped over his chest, so warm that his skin was beginning to feel sticky.
He reached under the blanket to shift the arm, then froze. Belinda’s arm would have been smooth, limber but light. This arm was hairy and muscled to the point of local envy. But the head on the pillow beside his was just as brilliantly blonde.
His groan woke the other man.
Before Candle could say anything, he found himself on the receiving end of a blinding smile and holding a well-worn dollar. He had only just managed to make an offended noise after the man had been gone for five minutes.
A disjointed curse bubbled almost literally out of Candle’s mouth, but he recognised the room he was in. One of the “guest” rooms of the Rusty Arm’s neighbour, the Open Arms. Along with everything he’d had to drink, the room would cost at least ten pennies.
As he handed over his ill-won dollar to the sultry woman in what could only be called the Lobby, she winked at him. “You’re popular for a newbie.” She handed him a white envelope.
Inside were three dollars and a note from Belinda asking to meet again at a specific time. Lipstick marks and all.
Once outside, Candle practically ran home. This required a bit of thought.