The old man had seen all kinds of weather in his lifetime. People had frozen to death before his eyes. He had seen the heat kill others. Great storms once flooded large portions of the city. Snow had caved in rooftops. When he was much younger, the chill and the dark had been barely noticeable; he used to revel in the crisp air of winter. As a boy he had gamboled about barefoot in the autumn rain. But now, at his advanced age, he found he wanted nothing more than to escape the dark chill of the city by being inside this bar with a roaring fire in the fireplace, surrounded by a hundred of Urbana’s lower class. Their body heat and drunken zest for life made the room one of the warmest in the city, if also the smelliest.
Despite the heat, the bent old man sat alone beside the fireplace, still wearing a luxurious blue velvet overcoat. He scanned the room, sizing up each patron individually. Directly in front of his small table sat a group of rough-looking young ladies with exposed bosoms and loose hair. A few of them coughed ungracefully into their hands. Next to them was a plump gentleman sitting alone in a chair beside the window.
He might be as old as I am, the old man thought.
He continued scanning the crowd, looking for that special something.
He would know it when he saw it.
They’ve all got at least two feet in their graves already.
That’s how he thought the saying went.
Finally, he glimpsed a young man with white hair and matching skin who sat at the bar across the room. He was talking animatedly with a woman. She was pretty, but nothing special. This woman was a little bit too thin and her tattered dress did no favors to hide the sharp points of starvation.
The curse of poverty.
She had an upturned nose and lips that were just too small to cover her front teeth. Certainly she could have any man in this bar, but in the endless years of his life, the old man had seen and would see prettier still.
That young man, however, was exactly what the old man needed.
The old man could almost remember the time when his own skin was as taught and flawless as this man’s. Gas lamps reflected their light on his pale, wrinkle-free flesh. This establishment was too poor to afford the new electric lights that the nicer places had. The old man was thankful for this; the electric lights were unnatural. The constant buzzing of electricity threatened to drive him mad. And though he had left that life behind, he could never forget that Nature mothered all things. Mostly, electric lights did not twinkle like flame.
The young man glanced over at the old man briefly, fire dancing in the his eyes. His luxuriously white-blond hair was cut short despite the fashion of the time. Even the old man adhered to the fashion trend and had his waist-length hair tied up in knots and braids on the top of his head. The man’s untattered green suit had only a few spots of dirt. He was the cleanest man this establishment had ever hosted.
Hand in his coat pocket, the old man absentmindedly fiddled with the small glass bottle that was stored there. Without making a sound or removing his gaze from the target, the old man stalked through the crowd, passing table after table of dirty people. It smelled like a sweaty latrine, but the beauty before him held his attention.
The young man looked up from his conversation with the woman as the old man approached the bar.
Sliding down from the tall chair, the woman excused herself with a gracefully feminine bow. She was actually shorter standing up than she had been when she was sitting.
The old man just didn’t have the energy to deal with two tonight, especially if the one was as unfit as the female specimen.
The young man stood to excuse the lady, returning her bow. His was the choppy and unpracticed bow of an outsider.
So polite. So tall. Yes. This one will do nicely.
The perfect man glanced over at the old man, catching his eyes. The old man smiled warmly, and the young returned the gesture with glee. Behind that smile, his color-shifting eyes glinted with acknowledgement and mystery.
I know what you are, young man. Exactly what I need. Oh my good fortune!
“I’m Ambrose,” the man stated with an extended hand. He hadn’t stopped smiling.
The older man took Ambrose’s hand with a wry smile, not nearly as big as Ambrose’s own. The flesh was soft, but strong.
“Enchanted. I’d like to buy you a drink.”
“Sure. I will have a whiskey. I like whiskey.”
“Sir!” the old man called out to the bartender, “Two Chagar Fifteen Years please.”
The men sat down together, the old man taking the woman’s vacated chair.
“Of course, I’ll have those for you in a moment,” the bartender replied, hardly looking at his customers.
The old man’s drink order no longer shocked the staff here. It was not a cheap drink. In fact, it was the most expensive drink in this particular bar. In similar bars, the bartender might have regarded him with wide, shock-filled eyes. However, in classier bars, the bartender’s pity-filled eyes would roll.
The bartender returned with two small clear glasses filled with the golden red whiskey. The old man pulled a few bills from his breast pocket and placed them in the bartender’s hand.
Ambrose swirled the liquor, smelling it as it sloshed around in the glass, his eyes darting back and forth between the whiskey and the old man. He brought the cup up to his mouth, about to drink.
Instead, he spoke. “Might I ask you a question?”
“Of course, lad.”
“Are you from Inside?”
The old man smiled and bowed his head in a polite nod.
A bowed head? A polite nod? How long have I been Outside? I’ve forgotten my own customs.
Quickly, the old man stood and placed his right hand on Ambrose’s left shoulder in the traditional Goodfolk greeting.
Ambrose did the same. The old man did not think it was possible, but Ambrose’s smile widened further.
The excitement lasted only a moment. Ambrose’s expression darkened. In hushed tones, he went on, “It is said that the last Folk to leave the Ring left a hundred years ago.”
Ambrose trailed off into awed silence.
“Indeed, boy. I’ve been out here a while. A long while.”
Ambrose’s smile returned, and he held his head up to meet the old man’s eyes with his own.
There was trust in those young, gentle, and naive eyes.
The old man fingered the small bottle in his pocket, trying desperately not to uncork it and drink the whole thing himself.
Ambrose mused, in awe, looking the older man up and down, “You’ve been Outside for a hundred years, yet the Blight has not taken you.”
The old man didn’t speak for a moment, then replied, “It’s not easy out here, Ambrose. It’s a struggle.”
“I must know how you do it. So many of the Folk suffer Inside.”
The young man stared silently at his whiskey for a moment.
Shaking his head, the old man replied, “I cannot go back.”
The Goodfolk followed tradition strictly, and rarely did a Wanderer find his way back into the Ring, and if he did, the Folk never played nicely. He had often wondered how his own life might have changed had he returned to the Ring. Only Weigla might have made it worthwhile. But she had forgotten him long before his Outing.
Ambrose raised his glass once again, but continued, “You won’t help us?”
The old man shook his head mournfully, imagining her eyes.
He blinked away the memory, and Ambrose’s smile was gone again.
After a moment, the old man asked, “What’s her name, lad?”
“Laurel. If I could just help her mother…”
The old man tried to smile outwardly, though a distant part of himself—an aspect that hadn’t shown itself in a hundred years—wanted to cry for this Laurel and her Ambrose.
A perfectly engineered moment of silence seemed to drag on for seventeen minutes until the old man confided, “I will share with you what I have discovered. But first, we celebrate our finding one another.”
He uncorked the bottle in his pocket, dripped a little into each of their glasses and lifted his glass of whiskey. Ambrose lifted his own glass, smelling it once again.
“A toast,” the old man said. “To long life.”