Change of plans, part five

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Harbend had always enjoyed coming here from the very first time he was invited years earlier. Not only was it quaint in extreme but the artificial seclusion also allowed him to forget the noisy city for an afternoon, and this one had been busier than he cared for.

Grateful that the partial immunity clinging to the outworlders had extended to himself this time he wanted to celebrate his luck in style. He intended to show Arthur how civilized men enjoyed their meals.

Even though they had certainly eaten together the past few days they still had never dined together. He'd been forced to watch Arthur simply approach the nearest stand selling roast fowl, or meat and once even a bland soup. Harbend, unwilling to let his client look like a fool, then had to buy himself something as well and eat it standing on the sidewalk like a simple laborer.

They chose the westernmost tree cottage he preferred and entered its single room, a table already laid with sweet fruit, chilled water and thin crisps of white bread awaited them.

The cottages were of different size. One large enough to host ten diners, but most built to accommodate four. The walls surrounding them glimmered with blue and green as if they were sitting in an open forest a summer day. Whatever magic magecrafters had wrought here all those years ago before they were banned still worked its charm making him feel genuinely welcome and wanted.

Arthur stared in amazement and Harbend enjoyed the childlike happiness sparkling in his eyes. If Arthur was so easily moved by simply coming here there was little doubt he would be thoroughly happy when they had eaten.

They ate their dinner in silence broken only by the muted sounds of steps when a servant brought in a new course, and this was repeated two more times. At the end only Harbend, who knew what to expect, had enough of an appetite left to truly give the last course justice.

"This is better than street food, eh?" he said when the last of their platters was finally carried out. They were left with a crystal goblet each and one bottle of red wine, a vintage Harbend had chosen carefully.

"Heaven!" Arthur sighed. Childish happiness spread over his face, and suddenly the outworlder looked twenty years younger.

"Truly, I cannot abide by the things you have had the misfortune to mistake for a proper meal. You have a stomach like a millstone."

Arthur, apparently misunderstanding the friendly barb, got serious at once. "We have magic of our own where I come from. At least I believe the field of medicine we call genetics would be like magic to you. I could probably digest anything short of a synthetic poison with little ill effects."

Harbend carefully analyzed what he had just heard. "Do not explain this genetics of yours. I will probably fail to understand. However, what does synthetic mean?"

Arthur looked back, smiled and explained. "By the way, I expected to see more people with swords, other than the soldiers that is."

Harbend frowned at the memory of their encounter with the Inquisition. Well, it wouldn't do lingering. "You all say that when you come here the first time. I fail to understand where you got the notion." Harbend raised an open palm to indicate peace. "No civilized city allows everyone to carry weapons. Brawls would get dirty. Only soldiers are allowed to have them. Now, what constitutes as soldiers may vary between cities, of course."

Arthur seemed to be content with the answer. He merely sipped more of his wine to allow Harbend the next question.

Harbend grabbed the opportunity. "Now, something I should have asked the first outworlder trader I represented. Your days are shorter than ours I have heard. Is that not a problem for you, or is it solved by this genetics of yours?"

Arthur laughed and put down his goblet on the table. "Interesting idea, but I'm afraid the answer is far simpler." He looked thoughtful for a while. "It takes many, eh, eightdays, to journey here. The ship has no windows so all light inside is artificial. During the journey from Earth to here they make each day a little bit longer than the previous."

"I should have guessed." How elegantly simple. "Almost a pity it was not one of your technological wonders though."

They spent the rest of the afternoon there, comparing notes about things unimportant, both of them carefully avoiding any topic of potential danger. Neither of them told enough to compromise their positions and both told more than they were aware of, which is the natural way of sharing words in the company of fine wines. When the bottle was empty, and another as well, Harbend ordered a coach and they returned to Two Worlds. He told the driver to wait for Arthur.

Harbend made sure Arthur's new clothes had been delivered and went to the closest bathhouse while Arthur prepared himself in privacy.

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