John leaned against the heavy wooden door, fighting the icy wind that threatened to push it back open. He gave a final shove and won the battle. He shivered as the warmth of the bar slowly eased its way under his clothing. He hugged his crusda cloak around him tighter, not wanting to relinquish the warm fur just yet.
“Can you believe the taste of this?”
“I think mine has fur in it. Give me another one, on the house.”
John heard a soft slow growl, which could almost have been the wind. He turned, not sure what to expect. Walter told him about this place; said it was a great bar: quiet, cozy, decent food. What he saw as he turned did not fit the harsh voices of the two trudan crystal encrusted drunk men at the bar.
Zithma’s Place, as Walter called it, was warm despite the wooden walls. There were paintings on one wall, all with the same green marking in the lower left hand corner. There were a few tables and some booths, enough for about thirty people. An old burgundy wood bar at the back gave off a strange reflection of the room. An antique from Earth, Jon guessed. There were ten seats at the bar and two were occupied. John ignored the men and took a seat at the opposite end. He felt their angry drunken gaze upon him and turned toward them when he was settled in his seat.
“Gentlemen.” He nodded hello and turned back to the menu written on the wall, cringing when he heard the unmistakable sounds of two men tripping over themselves trying to climb down from bar stools.
“You’re the new guy.”
“You reported us.”
“You must have me confused with someone else.” John thought of the balst in his inner coat pocket, hoping it would keep still.
“We lost our jobs because of you.”
“They’re sending us back to Earth. Earth! There are no jobs there.”
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen you before in my life.” John silently repeated the Da’hiat Tla, the Prayer of Calming he had learned as a boy. As he finished the short prayer, he touched a stone hanging around his neck and released his will. The two men backed up a step or two then went back to badgering him.
John had not come in here looking for a fight. He had been on Terra Suul for four months now and made his peace with the ice planet. He worked in the trudan crystal mines and left most of the others alone. He considered himself a peaceful man and didn’t fight unless he had no other choice.
He softly recited the Da’hiat Tla again, touched the stone and released his will. This time, the spell took. The men stopped mid insult and went back to their seats. They were dazed for a few moments then slowly went back to drinking their local beers. John had no idea how the bartender convinced these two humans to buy the vile brown brew. Probably said it was the only thing in stock.
John looked forward when a shadow fell across him. A Suulian, presumably the bartender, stood across the bar from him. Like all Suulians, he was rather tall and very sleek. He had purple-stripped fur and a mad look in his eyes. The man leaned forward, his flat feline nose almost touching John’s longer human nose, and sniffed.
“You look like a human, are dressed as a native, and yet smell like a Mah’tia monk. Who are you?” He bared his sharp teeth, challenging John’s presence.
John pulled his right hand out of his cloak pocket, palming a small metal disk. He held the hand out to he bartender. “My name’s John. Walter told me about this place. Said it was where to go if I wanted real Suulian food.”
The bartender took the offered hand after a moment’s hesitation. He did not acknowledge the disk, but visibly relaxed. His voice became friendly. “I’m Zithma. Where’s Walter these days? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
John dropped his gaze. “He’s sick. Pneumonia. Doc Shandler isn’t sure Walter’ll get better. Said a man his age usually doesn’t last long on this planet.”
“Walter’ll surprise you. This isn’t the first time he’s had pneumonia. Before you leave, I’ll give you something to take back to him. Care for anything?”
“Crusda steak and plenty of targ.”
Zithma pulled back, a look of surprise on his face. “You drink targ?”
John shrugged. “One of the Suulians at the camp had some. He offered me a drink. It was good.”
“Humans often complain that the stench makes them sick.” He was preparing the brew now, carefully scooping delicate florescent blue petals out of a trudan crystal jar into a mug.
Targ was often the only color visible in the eternal snow that was Terra Suul. The native wild plant grew on top of the snow, and needed neither sun nor dirt to grow. Terra Suul only saw the sun five weeks out of the year, and was never above freezing. The ground, when it could be found, was frozen and not very fertile. Targ was a perfect example of Suulian adaptation and evolution.
Zithma was pouring hot water into a cup, stirring slowly. The smell hit John as soon as the steaming water touched the first petal. To John, it smelled of earth and decaying trees. It brought to mind the many long nights he had spent in the forests of Thand, listening to the night creatures as they scuttled around, and sometimes in, his tent. John breathed the scent deeply, wanting nothing more than to drink the smell and let his memories come forth.
“What is that stench?” To other humans, targ smelled of death and decay, not of green growing things.
Zithma and John both sighed as the two men started in on the stench of targ. Zithma gave John a small smile and a sly look. “Ten to one it drives them out.”
John smiled but shook his head. “Only one thing will drive them out.”
“Another Mah’tia spell?”
Zithma grunted and gave the other humans a dirty look. He didn’t like uninvited guests. He gave the two another look and turned back to John. “How long have you been on Terra Suul?”
John took a long slow sip of targ tea before answering. He let the rich earthy aroma invade his nostrils and inhaled deeply as the cooling light liquid danced over his tastes buds. The tea’s flavor reminded him of breathing through his mouth on cold mornings: icy but not numbing. The taste and flavor mingled together to remind him even more of his stay on Thand.
He placed the mug on the bar top, giving Zithma a faraway smile. “I’ve been here four months.”
“No human becomes acclimated to Terra Suul that quickly.”
John shrugged. “Perhaps I’m not human.”
“As I said before: you look human, are dressed as a native and yet smell like a Mah’tia monk. Care to explain?”
“Perhaps over some steak?”
“My cook heard your order.”
John nodded, satisfied. “My father gave a year of his life so that I could learn from the Mah’tia monks.”
Zithma blinked, not really believing this human. When a person gave a year of their life to the Mah’tia monks, the person actually died a year sooner than they should have.
“Why did he do this?”
“That is the first question I plan on asking him if I ever see him again.”
Although Zithma had seen and felt the spell John let loose, he still had a hard time believing the man. Life with the monks meant hard work and hard discipline. Humans, although great workers, often lacked a certain spiritual quality that aided the monks in their lives and spells. Zithma didn’t think John was lying; it was just hard to believe. Other questions floated to Zithma’s lips, but just then Fen came out with John’s food.
The room became very quiet when Fen stepped out. It was rare to see a female Suulian. They were not sheltered, but for the most part, they kept to themselves, wherever it was that the Suulians lived. It was also sometimes hard to distinguish between a male and female Suulian. With Fen, it was obvious, and Zithma wished she had not come out. She usually stayed out of the main room, unless most of the customers were regulars. Zithma didn’t know what was going through his stubborn cousin’s head.
John was transfixed. The woman was beautiful. She was tall and sleek, covered in purple-stripped fur, much like Zithma’s. Unlike the bartender though, Fen’s fur was not as thick. Suulians had enough fur to keep relatively warm without clothing indoors. They usually only needed one fur coat to stay warm outdoors. John barely noticed her lack of fur though, as Fen’s yellow eyes held his green ones and seemed to look right through him, making his breath catch. Her look help him captive.
Fen walked around the end of the bar, behind the two drunken humans, her eyes still on John. As she walked by the men, one reached out to touch her. John was behind him and had him in a headlock before he even touched her. Zithma barely had time to move.
“Do not defile her with your filthy hands.” His voice was calm, low, and even.
“She’s a bar wench!” The man struggled futilely to get free.
John felt the balst stir in his pocket. Not wishing it to fully awaken, he picked up the drunk and carried him to the door. Zithma was already there, holding the door open. John threw the man into the snow. The other man followed them and was yelling obscenities and threatening revenge as he ran out the door to his friend. Zithma shut the door behind them and locked it. Regulars would know to knock.
John turned to find Fen giving him an odd look as she balanced his tray in her hands. “Thank you, but was it really necessary to throw them out?”
John regarded the two Suulians carefully, wondering how much he could tell them. “Yes, it was.”
Fen held his gaze, angry that this human had thrown out the other customers. “This is not your bar. It was not your place to do so.”
John bowed low to the woman, wondering how to appease her. “Your pardon, lady. Next time, should I let them assault and insult you?”
Fen, too angry to find words, hissed at him, slammed his food tray on the bar and stalked into the back room.
“That is the first time I’ve seen my cousin speechless. I didn’t thing it was possible.”
“I’m sorry if I offended her.”
“Why did you toss them out?”
“I have my reasons. Perhaps I will tell them to you one day.”
“Just not today?”
“I don’t know you.”
Zithma gave the human an odd look, trying to figure him out. Being closed mouth himself, he let the matter drop and walked back to John’s seat. As John came back to the bar, Zithma arranged the food for John, wiping up the spill his cousin created, then left John to his steak.
Once seated, John started in on the large steak. The crusda was the largest of the animals on Terra Suul. The animal had long thick, shaggy hair, and the snout was flat with broad nostrils. Otherwise, it reminded John and other humans of a polar bear. Its fur was great for cloaks, its meat was nutritious but only Suulians could hunt the creature.
Most of the time the crusda was very tame and would often wonder up to lost humans and Suulians and keep them warm until others arrived. There were stories that a few crusda’s had even led Suulians back to safety. Their tameness was the reason humans could not hunt the creature. The Suulians didn’t think it appropriate to kill a creature that walked right up to a hunter and sniffed their gun. The Suulians only hunted the animal during the warm season.
During the warm season the crusdas went into heat. The males became more aggressive and would often attack. This aggression grew as the days went by until the last week of the warm season. During this week, any male that had not found a mate would attack anything they saw, including the snow, and had to be killed.
The fur and meat stores were filled during this time, and rationed out in order to keep a nice supply in stock. This made it hard for new comers to buy the warm fur. John had traded a protective spell for his cloak.
After the first bite or two of steak, John realized it tasted familiar, but did not taste of any meat that he was used to. It was very tender and still pink in the center. The meat was not fatty, and tasted of the open flame it had been cooked on. He turned to Zithma as the Suulian emerged from the kitchen.
“You use targ wood for your oven.”
“Adds to the flavor. The meat itself doesn’t taste like much of anything.”
Zithma leaned against his side of the bar, and wondered at his instructions to Fen. He had asked her to prepare a drink for Walter, and told her to make one for John. Most humans did not get a taste until their third of forth visit, once Zithma decided if the person was to become a regular. Apparently some part of him had decided John was.
When Fen came out, John was once again transfixed. He watched as she gracefully glided behind the bar, carrying a tray with a glass mug and a canteen. Her long tail was swaying as she walked, almost hypnotizing John. The only difference was the look on her face. She looked angry. He half expected her to hiss at him again.
Fen set the mug and canteen down in front of him, being careful not to spill. She growled something to Zithma in Suulian then stalked out. John couldn’t help but watch as she left. He then turned his attention to the drink and watched as the liquid swirled in greens and blues. It continued to shimmer and shift even though nothing moved it. The steam rising from it in thin wisps caressed John’s face and tangled itself in his brown hair before fading to nothing. He could feel the heat radiating from it and moved to touch the glass.
Zithma placed a hand on his arm, stopping him. “Carefully.”
John had a hard time listening to the advice. He had yet to find anything on the planet that stayed warm very long. Even his tea and steak were lukewarm to cold. On a planet where almost everything was frozen and the wind usually blowing, even ovens needed constant care to stay warm. The trudan crystal mines where he worked were also rather cold, regardless of the heat the crystals generated.
John’s shaking hand reached for the mug. He wrapped his hands around it and let the heat burn his skin. He brought the mug close to his face and inhaled. The smell reminded him of the long days he had spent in his grandmother’s sunroom on Thand. The windows would often be left closed, making the room smell of heat and dust. The sun would shine through the tall windows, turning every dust mote visible.
He brought the mug to his lips, inhaling the liquid into his mouth. The odd brew spun over his tongue, teasing taste buds, warming them. It tasted of new spring days, endless and sunny. He swallowed and felt the heat travel down his throat into his stomach. John knew how to stay warm on this ice planet, with Mah’tia breathing techniques, but had not been comfortably warm in all his time on Terra Suul.
Now, he felt heat spreading throughout his abdomen, seeping into every corner of his digestive track. The more he drank, the more the heat spread. Soon, his skin was warming, and he actually felt as if he were sweating.
Halfway through the mug, he put the glass down. He removed his cloak and set it on the chair next to him. John, sweating just a little, his hands wrapped around the wonderful beverage. He smiled oddly, regarded Zithma calmly, then cocked his head slightly and glanced at his still steaming mug. He looked at Zithma, held the Suulian’s gaze for a long time.
“First timers are never served this.”
“No.” Zithma expected more questions, but John stayed silent, slowly sipping his drink. Zithma, unnerved by the unusual silence, started cleaning the glassed behind the bar. “You work for the mines, don’t you?”
John took his last sip of liquid warm and nodded.
“Why is it that you’re not covered in crystal shards?” Trudan crystals were attracted to warmth and attached themselves to anything that gave off even the tinniest bit of heat. Most of the mineworkers did not mind this, because the crystals gave off warmth as well as took it. Hard to get rid of, the miners soon stopped trying to brush the shards off. John had not a trace on him.
“I made my peace with this planet the first month I was there.”
“And that means-?”
“My first month on this planet was spent in a tent on the far side of the plateau.”
Again, Zithma had trouble believing him. Suulian’s could generally keep warm on their native planet. They were used to the climate and the fur help. A human out in the snowy wind, trying to stay warm? Not possible, unless…
“A crusda helped you.”
“I accepted the help of one toward the end of that month.” Revealing too much to anyone was never a good idea. John tried to distract Zithma. “What is that drink called?”
Zithma, more and more questions rising to his lips, bit them back. Fen was often like this about her stay on Mah’tia, although she had only been there for three years. Now, he had another enigma on his hands. However, being respectful of others wishes, Zithma let the subject drop and answered John’s question.
“Humans have given it two names. ‘Warm’ and ‘Curse’.”
“Appropriate.” John glanced down at the empty mug, still feeling the heat swimming through his veins. He was not a greedy man, but the warmth was intoxicating. “How many am I allowed?”
“You are allowed as many as any other human. One per day.”
John felt the heat within him, enjoying it, wondering how long it would last. “Why the limit?”
Zithma almost dropped the glass he was cleaning. He looked up at his new customer. “The first and last human who ever had two burned from the inside out.”
John considered those words. He held out his empty teacup. “I’ll just take more targ.”
Zithma smiled, liking the human more and more. He set about making more tea. “Wise choice, my friend. Welcome to Zithma’s.”