It was raining the night Morgan came to the Slime Bucket, soaked to the bone and shivering with chill. Her long red hair was plastered to her face, her shoes splattered with mud, but she still refused the help of the door man – a large dreige with red skin and lambent, flame-like hair – in favor of striding straight to the bar where Anka held sway. The tiefling innkeeper watched the human girl advance, shaking with more than just cold, and set her hand down on the counter.
“Morgan Honeydew,” Anka greeted with an arched eyebrow. “I distinctly recall your mother telling you to never come near my establishment again. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Mom left,” the young woman said in a hollow voice. “I want a job.”
* * * *
“The fast and dirty version of the rules,” Anka explained, bright and early in the morning and with an air of someone who has absolutely no time to spend, “is this: don’t steal, don’t start fights without cause. You’re going to stare at people, but don’t be rude. Don’t freak out about anyone until or unless I do. Rusty and I are more than capable of keeping things contained until the Watch gets here.”
“Yes ma’am,” Morgan said primly, suppressing the urge to yawn with the aid of how nervous Anka made her. Morgan liked the tiefling woman, who always had a warm smile and a cold drink, but something about her three shadows and the way slow silhouettes of blackness moved beneath the color in her eyes made the human girl nervous.
“Adventurers come through here often. They’re hard, dangerous, deadly people. Don’t trifle with them, girl. Be friendly, be courteous, and if you think you’re in trouble you get me or Rusty. You got me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Morgan answered again. Anka set down a folded-up pile of clothes and a hair clip depicting a smiling, grey-green slime.
“Your uniform. Lightly armored for tavern brawls. Comes with a dagger, a whistle, and a spare set in your footlocker upstairs. Key’s in your pocket. I can be your friend if you want me to be, but if you’re tore up about family stuff, you be tore up off of my clock. Fair?”
“Fair,” Morgan agreed. Her stomach rumbled, loudly, and Anka smiled indulgently.
“Get some food in you. You start at eleven.”
* * * *
Not every night was busy at the Slime Bucket. Though the village of Misthaven was a hub for adventurers, mercenaries, and sellswords of all kinds – usually seeking riches in the nearby ruins, where archaeologists and psionicists alike toiled to uncover new secrets daily – not all seasons were the same. Morgan had arrived in the autumn, when the lashing rains, flooding rivers, and icy snaps of frost kept business to just the town locals. Many gossiping wives and judgmental husbands had things to say behind their hands or into the ears of their friends about Morgan’s employment, but none were stupid enough to say it where the girl or, worse, Anka, could hear. One young woman, freshly married and deep in her cups, made the mistake of opining that no decent man would take Morgan now that she’d soiled herself as a barmaid.
Anka’s web spell pinned the young wife to the wall for many minutes and ruined a haircut that had taken many careful hours.
Autumn and winter gave Morgan plenty of time to get familiar with the staff. There was Anka Hollowshade, the tiefling owner and innkeep, who had retired from a life of adventuring to run the Slime Bucket. Rusty, the doorman, was one of Anka’s old partners and, if town rumor was to be believed, lover, though Morgan doubted it. For one thing, someone would have heard the bed breaking by now.
Bridgette the Twin and her assistant Alexander ran the kitchen, turning out meals of surprising quality for a countryside inn. With them came the older bar girls, who had worked with Anka for years – Friday, Goldie, and Mouse. Friday marshaled the bar girls, kept the peace in the taproom, and handled the tips. Everything got split evenly, though Anka paid far more than starvation wages, handing over her silvers with a sideways smile and a reminder that the busy times would more than make up for her lean ones. Goldie talked a big game about how she was going to leave Misthaven, but she was going on twenty four and hadn’t left yet. Mouse, on the other hand, barely said anything at all, though her dagger spoke volumes when drunks got handsy. Out-of-towners groped Mouse once. Just once.
Autumn gave way to a pitiless winter, with choking snow and thick fangs of ice that grew from every roof in Misthaven. People stayed at home with their families, keeping warm and attending to the business of their own houses. It was snowing sideways when the door opened, just before dusk, and admitted a group of half-breeds. All of them had some similarities to elves, though that was where the similarities ended – one slithered in on a snake’s body, clothed in thick wool and looking miserable in the cold. Another had white scales around her eyes and small white dragon’s wings, and wore nothing to keep her warm. A horse-woman clopped in, shaking snow off of her hooves, and behind her came a tall, stocky elf-breed with a gem-like nub in her forehead.
Morgan stared until Anka cleared her throat meaningfully. The human girl startled and bounced over with a broad smile. The ladies took their places around a table and ordered a round of wine glasses, which the barmaid scurried off to retrieve.
Wine in hand (or teeth, in one case), the part-elves turned their attention to the snake girl. The one with the gem in her forehead raised her glass.
“We welcome our newest sister with our traditional greeting,” she said solemnly, though she smiled.
As one, the women raised their glasses and toasted, “Seriously Dad, what the hell.”
Morgan laughed so hard she had to hold herself up with a chair.
* * * *
Spring came, eventually, bringing the truth-seekers and the adventurers who dogged their heels for scraps of wealth and danger. Morgan learned the delicate dance of smiles and warning gestures to deal with drunken sellswords and arrogant mages, as well as – to her embarrassment – what it meant when patrons started slipping her extra silvers on the side. She took to bouncing the coins off of the table and into the drinks of those who offered them, usually to the amusement of their companions. Goldie, on the other hand, often came onto her shift in new scents or with exotic little touches to her uniform that spoke smugly of newly-acquired wealth.
The town guard had to come break up quite a few fights, including an altercation that threatened to become a magical duel between Anka and a pair of twin sorceresses with too much drink and too little clothing. Captain Greenwych broke it up with a well-timed dispelling, which had Morgan cheering until she realized that her fellow barmaids were glaring at her.
At the edge of summer, Morgan found herself staring wistfully at the Captain during one of her breaks, a mug in one hand and a pout on her face.
“Men, right?” a tiny voice next to her said glumly. Morgan looked around and noticed a small, four-inch woman made of little colored dots of ink sitting on a tiny chair on the counter, a thimble of ale between her palms and an annoyed expression on her face. Her eyes glared at a half-elven man who was flirting with Goldie across the bar.
“Yeah,” Morgan agreed, with a sigh. “I’m Morgan.”
“Revise. But you can call me Ree.”
“The half-elf is with you?” Morgan asked sympathetically.
“Yeah,” Ree answered, taking a sip from her thimble. “Got the ‘just friends’ speech from him last week. Bastardy bastard. Full of bastardness. With extra bastardry.”
“Don’t forget the knavery,” Morgan suggested, playfully.
“That too. That watchman on break yours?”
“No,” Morgan said with a sigh. “I haven’t even talked to him. Every time I try I just get so…y’know.”
“No worries. HEY, GUARD GUY! BUY THIS REDHEAD A DRINK!”
Morgan turned red with mortification, but Captain Greenwych laughed that rich laugh of of his and tossed a silver at Anka before beckoning Morgan over. A little nervously, the young woman crossed the bar.
“Morgan, right?” the Captain asked.
“Yessir,” Morgan answered primly. “…And you’re Darius, right? Darius Greenwych. You moved here last year.”
“Nice to meet you at last,” the Watch Captain offered, scooting a chair out for Morgan.
“Same,” the barmaid answered, with a crooked grin.
* * * *
The summer heat was high on the land when Morgan met the lightning rod seller.
She had a crooked walk and a crooked smile with white, crooked teeth, and she stood a little cocked to the side, like she was in a stiff breeze. Half-elf, half-human if Morgan was any judge these days – and Morgan was – with short, dark hair and deep green eyes that lit up her face with a friendly joy. She entered the Slime Bucket all clanks and rattles from her overlarge pack, from which jutted dozens of metal rods festooned with charms and carved with rusty runes.
When she set it down, the whole floor shook.
The half-elf put her feet up on the table and beckoned Morgan over with an excited gesture, like a teenager with something amazing to say, and she ordered a pot of coffee and a jug of whiskey and “Enough eggs that the local chickens need to start worrying about their species, y’hear?”
She smiled, and it made Morgan smile. She flirted, and it made Morgan shake her head, and the lightning rod seller just smiled broader and stopped flirting, and packed away coffee and whiskey like both were on the verge of being outlawed.
She was very drunk when Morgan decided to come over and sit on her break. The saleswoman grinned broadly, clearly sloshed, but the light in her eyes was still undimmed.
“Nice t’meet’cha again,” the lightning rod seller said loudly, offering a hand to shake that was black with soot and scarred with burns. “I’m Levie. Levie Glasshammer.”
Morgan shook the half-elf’s hand and cocked her head curiously. “That’s a dwarf name.”
“You’re not a dwarf.”
Morgan leaned in, curious. “Reincarnated?”
“Nope,” Levie said, shaking her head.
“This’s the only skin I’ve ever worn,” Levie teased.
“Then you’re pulling my leg! You’re obviously not a dwarf!”
“Sure I am,” Levie said with a friendly shrug. “Adopted daughter of Clan Glasshammer, raised by Undercount Rorek as his own child and let out into the world to seek my fortune for fame and clan. The thing about being a dwarf is that being born a dwarf is just…you know, a head start. Dwarfness is something you are, something you live. Looking like a dwarf doesn’t mean you’re a dwarf, and looking like an elf doesn’t mean you’re not.”
“Levie,” Morgan said with a slow chuckle. “I served wine to a man with tentacles instead of arms and that is still the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Glad t’hear it,” Levie answered playfully. “What about you? Born a barmaid, were ya?”
“Nah,” Morgan said with a grin. “Picked it out for myself.”
“Gonna abandon this life for whirlwind adventure?”
Morgan looked thoughtfully out the door; she could hear the tramp of a Watch patrol walking past. She smiled broadly.
“I don’t think so, Levie. One of these days, I’m gonna sleep in Anka’s bed and run her inn.”
“Good luck,” Anka called out from behind the bar. “Two minutes!”
Levie dug in her pack and pulled a glass jar from it that glowed and crackled with fierce white light. “For you. Fer the conversation and the company.”
“What is it?” Morgan asked, curiously.
“Just lightning in a bottle,” Levie said casually, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “I’m sure you’ll find a use for it.”