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Short Story

A Well-Earned Tip

By Laura Michet

Up in the mountains that separate Demacia from the Freljord, there aren’t a lot of jobs that pay coin.

Lore

Up in the mountains that separate Demacia Crest icon.png Demacia from the Freljord Crest icon.png Freljord, there aren’t a lot of jobs that pay coin. Some pay in furs, or in loaves of frost-hard bread... But Aegil’s baby sister was born sickly. The family needed coin to keep her well-fed, and to buy her medicine.

So Aegil’s father cut a deal with Aegil’s uncle, Jasper. Aegil would become a servant in Jasper’s inn at the mountain pass, selling ale to passing traders.

“Work hard, all right?” Aegil’s mother told him. “For your sister.”

One night, a season after Aegil started working for Jasper, a whole crowd of customers arrived just as the inn was closing. It was strange for travelers to arrive so late after nightfall in the winter.

Jasper peered out the window. “I don’t know them,” he said, tugging nervously on his wild black beard.

The door slammed open and a crowd of shaggy-haired men thumped inside, shaking the snow from their boots and cloaks. They parted ranks, and an old fellow with a velvet-trimmed cloak approached the bar.

“Good evening,” he said with a Great City accent. “Our business associate is arriving in a few minutes. What’s on offer?”

Uncle Jasper pointed numbly at the drink list hanging behind the bar. There were twelve brews there—an impressive selection for this part of the Demacian hinterlands. But one by one, the guards all ordered the absolute cheapest: Forsyn’s Red. Aegil had never tasted any other beer, but even he knew it wasn’t good stuff. That’s why it was so cheap.

Aegil hurried into the back room where the kegs were kept to pour their ale. As the skunky beverage foamed into the cups, he wondered how much these guests would tip. Would he get one big tip from the leader, or eleven small tips, one from each? His heart raced.

Then Aegil heard a heavy step on the path outside. The door creaked open... and the next step made the tavern floorboards groan.

Aegil wheeled the drink cart out into the main room. The newcomer was the absolute biggest man he’d ever seen. His head scraped the ceiling beams. His limbs were pure muscle, as thick as tree trunks, and his face was covered in a bristly red beard. The grisly scars criss-crossing his vast sides looked like he’d really lived through the gruesome battles Jasper’s drunken patrons liked to brag about.

The velvet-clad man raised his hand toward the stranger. “Gragas Gragas, I presume?” he called.

Gragas didn’t answer. His eyes were fixed on the drinks list hanging behind the bar.

“You are Gragas? The brewer?” the merchant repeated impatiently.

Gragas turned his huge shoulders and gave the little old man a red-faced glare. With a voice so loud it reminded Aegil of an old god speaking from below the snowpack, the newcomer growled, "I’m buyin’ a drink."

The air in the room felt like it does when a thunderstorm gathers overhead. Aegil began handing out the ales. His hands were shaking.

“What’s that ‘Karsten-Flower’ stuff?” Gragas asked Jasper, pointing at the list. “What flower’s that?”

“That’s just the brewer’s name,” Jasper said. “It ain’t got flowers in it. Sorry.”

Hmmm,” Gragas rumbled.

Aegil handed out the final drink to the old merchant, then stood patiently, waiting for his tip... but the merchant ignored him. His glinting gaze was fixed on the huge newcomer—like a fox’s eyes before the pounce.

“I’ll take... the Sungold Porter,” Gragas announced. “That’s a precious one, I’ve heard.” Jasper scurried into the back to pour it, and Gragas thumped over to the table to sit down. “Now, what d’ya have for me?” he asked.

The old merchant started digging around in his huge coat. “I heard you’re in the market for Shuriman goods,” he said. “Floodplain grains. Cactus blooms.”

“I’m... innerested,” Gragas said.

The merchant noticed Aegil standing there. “Shoo, boy,” he said.

Aegil froze. No tip?

“I said shoo,” the merchant snapped. All the guards laughed.

Tears starting at the corners of his eyes, Aegil hurried into the keg room behind the bar. Jasper was pacing back there, tugging nervously at his beard.

“Damn that man,” Jasper seethed. “The Sungold Porter? I don’t have any!

“We ran out?”

“We never had it! I can’t afford to stock any of those rare ales. They’re on offer to impress people. Almost nobody orders them—they’re too expensive! And when they do, I just mix some stuff together! Nobody can tell!”

To Aegil, this seemed like stealing. “You should tell the big man,” he said.

Jasper laughed. “Why? It doesn’t hurt anyone. I have a business to run, boy! One glass of the porter is a week of earnings here at the inn.” Jasper squared his shoulders. “He won’t be able to tell.”

Jasper snatched a massive stein off one of the hooks on the wall and started filling it at the Forsyn’s tap... then Eigen Ale... then Karsten-Flower.

As that murky mixture foamed toward the brim, Aegil realized he’d have to deliver Gragas the concocted drink. Cold washed over him like a night wind over the snow. When Jasper thunked the stein into his outstretched hands, he almost fell over.

“Keep a straight face!” Jasper ordered.

Aegil thought of his sister. He thought of money clinking in his palm. Then he tottered forward across the empty floor of the inn, struggling to hold the stein aloft.

Gragas’ booming voice filled the room. “...The recipe I’m working on has a very spicy taste already. I need somethin’ to balance it out.”

As Aegil approached the table, the merchant leaned forward. “So. We arrive at the real business.”

“Yeah,” Gragas grunted. “The real business.”

The merchant reached inside his coat and drew out a palm-sized lockbox covered in gold and glinting jewels.

The shining box was absolutely the most valuable thing Aegil had ever seen in his life—it was probably worth ten lifetimes of Jasper’s smelly ale. Standing near it felt like standing beside the sun.

“Azir’s Tears,” the merchant said. “Ancient heirloom spice. Ground from tomb-herbs found only in the ruins of the Sun Disc. The Sun Emperors used it to season their mead.”

“Really...” Gragas said.

“When I heard about your quest—the greatest ale ever brewed! Well, I immediately sought out the Tears. The trades I had to make! The spice is worth a fortune, but I knew you’d be good for it.”

Gragas nodded slowly, thinking. Aegil suddenly realized that if anyone was going to be able to notice a substitute drink it would be a master brewer on a quest to make the perfect beer. He reached for the stein, thinking frantically of an excuse—

But he was too slow. Gragas noticed Aegil, and the beer sitting at his elbow. “Thanks, boy,” he said, and grabbed the stein himself.

He drank deep—and immediately, Aegil saw his bushy eyebrows furrow. His nostril twitched. His bearded lip curled into a hint of a grimace. His gaze traveled across the room... and fixed on Jasper.

Aegil felt like he was going to melt. He knows we’re tricking him!

But the master brewer did not shout out his displeasure. Instead, Gragas held his hand out for the jeweled box.

“So lemme see,” he said. “Show me your perfect spices.”

The merchant handed it over. Gragas lifted the lid of the lockbox and sniffed.

And again, his nostril twitched. That sensitive sense of smell had found another flavor that troubled it.

Aegil felt his heart stop. They’re tricking him too. It’s a FAKE!

One forgery was forgivable. Two? Over the same pint? Not as much. Gragas glanced at Aegil—just for a moment.

It was warning enough. Aegil dove away from the table like a snow hare leaping for the safety of the treeline.

Then Gragas stood. He flipped the table as he rose, and simultaneously, each one of the guards produced jagged hatchets from beneath their cloaks.

Gragas just took out his fists.

Aegil saw only bits of the ensuing fight. He saw the merchant flee toward the bar... then Gragas followed with huge strides. There was a sound like an explosion. Jasper gave a high-pitched scream and skittered straight out the front door. Then the kegs all rolled across the floor toward the guards, a thundering avalanche spraying ale and foam in every direction. It flattened them—all but one, who hid behind a table, then popped up, ready to throw his axe—

But Gragas grunted, a barrel flew across the room, and the guard simply vanished. So did half of the back wall. Aegil heard the guard’s tiny scream disappear down the mountainside.

Aegil crawled out from under a table to see Gragas pouring the grey, dusty contents of the shiny lockbox onto the groaning merchant at his feet.

Mummy dust,” he growled. “Have some respect!”

Then he caught sight of Aegil. His wild brows narrowed. “Boy,” he called. His booming voice made shards of broken glass tremble on the floor. “Come here!”

Cautiously, Aegil approached. He thought of his sister. He wondered whether he could run faster than a thrown barrel.

“Tell the innkeep to go lighter on the Forsyn’s next time,” Gragas said.

Then Aegil saw the lockbox in the master brewer’s outstretched hand. A huge smile parted that bushy red beard.

“Yer tip.”

References

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