“May you live in interesting times.”

The heavy wooden door to Clancy’s Tavern opened up with a scrape, but none of the men sitting at their tables turned to look at the newcomer. Showing too much interest, they knew, was an easy way to get killed.

Instead, they kept their eyes locked firmly on their own drinks, and instead listened to the footsteps as the newcomer entered.

After all, there’s a lot that a man with a good set of ears can tell about someone, just from listening to their footsteps.

If the footsteps are uneven, with one leg thumping like it’s made of wood, the newcomer might be a pirate captain, armed with a pistol and giant, rusty cutlass, on shore leave to spend his ill-gotten gold on grog and loose women.

If the footsteps are feather-light, accompanied by the soft swish of silk, the newcomer might be one of those ninjas, from the Far East, able to kill a man in a dozen different ways without making a single sound.

If the footsteps are heavy and thudding, maybe accompanied by a dragging sound, the newcomer might be a troll, as likely as not to be high on a variety of illicit powders and ready for a good old-fashioned brawl. Depending on the moss hanging off of him, he might be straight out of the highlands, not yet used to the idea of a society where all disputes weren’t settled by a club to the head.

So the men sitting in the bar listened carefully to the steps – and, as one, they frowned. These footsteps sounded light and, well…

…normal.

Finally, a scarred brawler named Mother[1] turned around, glaring belligerently at the newcomer out of his one eye. “And what the hell do you think you’re doing in here?” he snarled, one hand slipping into his tattered leather jerkin to wrap around a pair of bloodstained brass knuckles.

The newcomer blinked, looking back at the hulking man with suicidal directness. “Er, I’m here for a drink,” he said politely.

Several of the other men sitting in shadows around the tavern sat up, checking their weapons. No one spoke in that calm and reasonable of a tone unless they were looking to get themselves killed and robbed before midnight.

Perhaps not realizing that he was in imminent danger, the newcomer advanced to the bar, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a couple coins. “Can I get a beer?” he politely asked the bartender, dropping the coins on the counter.

The bartender headed, clicking his long snout as his claws tapped on the grimy glass in his hand. He usually didn’t feel like giving perfectly good beer to someone who’d be dead before they could digest the stuff, but money was money. “Erm,” he hissed, his forked tongue flicking back and forth in agitation.

The newcomer felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and found Mother looming over him, cracking his knuckles. “You know what happens to people like you who wander in here?” the big brawler growled.

The newcomer shrugged. “They have to wait because of slow service?”

A hiss echoed around the tavern. Speaking ill of the bad service, even if it was true, was not a smart strategy.

Mother grinned, sensing that the other tavern occupants were on his side. “Nah, smart guy. They end up in half a dozen alleys in the city.” His hand came out from inside his jerkin, thick and stubby fingers holding his brass knuckles. “Now, that’s gonna be you.”

“I wouldn’t,” the newcomer replied archly, raising an eyebrow.

Mother hesitated. Normally, he didn’t think twice, or even once, about getting into a fight – but something about how this otherwise ordinary man stood confidently and without fear made him pause. “Why not?” he grunted.

“Because I’m cursed.”

Everyone in the tavern scooted their chair a few inches back, away from the man, as if he’d announced that he was carrying a full load of unstable dwarven explosives – which might as well be true.

“Cursed?” Mother echoed, not liking the note of uncertainty in his own voice but unable to keep it out.

The man nodded. “Indeed.”

Mother cast about for what to say next, but fortunately the man turned back to the bar as, with a clink, the bartender slid a beer over the counter to him. “Here you iss,” the bartender hissed, moving hurriedly over to the other end of the bar.

“What’s the curse?” Mother asked, not quite able to let this confrontation go. He couldn’t just back down, now that he’d drawn out his knuckles.

The man sighed, sliding onto a bar stool. Around the bar, all of the occupants leaned in slightly, craning their ears. “May you live in interesting times,” he said.

For a moment, nobody moved.

Mother furled his brow, the half a dozen neurons in his brain frantically firing back and forth. “How’s that a curse?” he snarled, tightening his hand on the brass knuckles once again.

The man shook his head, lifting the pint glass to his lips. “Oh, it’s a bad one. You’ll see soon enough.” He swallowed the sip of beer, and then grimaced. “This really is quite awful.”

A couple of the other patrons of the tavern, those far enough in the shadows to not be spotted, nodded in agreement. Clancy served the worst beer in the area, everyone knew that. Mother, however, took another step forward, his brow dropping down until his eyes were squeezed practically shut in slits of rage.

“Listen, you little snot, I ought to reach down your throat and tear out your-” he began, lifting the brass knuckles high to deliver a blow, but then paused.

From behind him, his ears caught the cracking of wood. Some dim, faint little self-preservation instinct clinging desperately on for life in Mother’s brain screamed at him to turn around, dear god, look behind you!

Mother made a mistake.

He turned around.

As the massive dragon lunged in through the flying splinters of Clancy’s front door, its jaws closing on Mother as the brawler let out an agonized scream, the man sighed, taking another sip of the beer.

“Really, quite awful,” he sighed, as the tavern around him devolved into chaos.

[1] As in, “oh Mother, he’s a big one!”.

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