They laughed and drank throughout the evening, now that the serious conversations had been taken care of. Although there was still an air of tension, the knowledge that at any moment Alohym soldiers or writ-hunters could show up, for the most part Tythel was able to find herself able to relax and breathe easy for the first time in what felt like months.
“I have a joke,” Tellias said. His cheeks were flushed and he was slurring his words, but the flush was due to a minor irritating Eupheme had given them to rub on their faces, and the slur was an act. No one would believe they would do what came next if they were sober and clear headed, so they had to act that part of drunks to sell the ruse.
“Is it one Tythel will get?” Eupheme asked, giving Tellias a teasing grin.
Tythel hung her head and sighed heavily. Tellias’ last three jokes had fallen flat. One had featured a philandering couple, one had featured a priest of the Light and a brothel, and the final had involved a serpent and a cave. “I understood the jokes,” she objected. “I just don’t understand why they’re funny. I mean, two people having an affair with the same person is an odd coincidence, so I guess I see the humor there. And priests do frown on brothels, so going to one is outside their expected behavior. I don’t know why it’s funny that he tried to preach about a whore’s hidden shadow.”
“It’s a euphemism for her-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel cut her off.
“I understood that. But why would he preach to her about the sanctity of it. Do priests believe those are holy?”
“Say holy again,” Eupheme said. “But say it slower. Sound out each syllable.”
Tythel took a deep breath. “Fine. Hole…oh, I just understood.” Tythel sputtered as both Tellias and Eupheme laughed uproariously at her discomfort. “I’m beginning to suspect that you’re telling these jokes because it’s fun to laugh at my confusion” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Tellias.
“Me? Take advantage of your naiveite like that? That would hardly be gentlemanly of me.” Tellias said in overblown affront.
“Yes, it would. Which I notice isn’t a denial.”
Tellias gave her a wide grin. “Very observant of you, your high-Tythel.”
That had been the signal. It was time for Tythel to make sure they were noticed. And if Tellias had slipped honestly, she was more than happy to assume it was the signal if it meant they would stop mocking her.
Not that she minded, not really. They weren’t mean about it, and she never felt they were laughing at her. Still, it was good to have an excuse. “Well, gentleman you may not be, but I have doubts of your manhood.” She ignored Eupheme’s snicker and placed her elbow on the table. “Twenty keys say that I can force your arm down.”
She made the announcement loudly enough to draw the attention of a few tables nearby, drawing curious looks from the other patrons. Tellias put down his coins and reach out to take her hand. “I’ll look forward to taking your money,” he said.
Tythel gave him a sweet grin and the contest was begun. Tellias strained to push her arm down with all the strength he could muster. Tythel sat there, letting him struggle. She took time to sigh deeply, covering her mouth with exaggerated mockery. “You can use both hands if you want,” she prompted.
Tellias reached up and strained against Tythel’s hand. He leaned forward out of the seat, deliberately knocking his chair over in the process. The loud clatter drew more attention to the spectacle of a man with a soldier’s muscles leaning with all his might to bring down Tythel’s single outstretched arm.
Tythel let it go on until beads of sweat began to form on Tellias’ brow. A crowd was beginning to gather, cheering Tellias raucously. “Bored now!” Tythel announced. With a slow, deliberate gesture, she began to lower Tellias’ hand towards the table. He cursed and tried to stop the motion, but Tythel’s strength was far too great for him to overcome.
“I yield!” he shouted when his knuckles gently touched the hard wood of the table. A round of cheers rose up at the display. These people were mostly far too drunk to really think through how the whole process had played out – that what they’d witnessed should have been impossible. They just saw a show, and they appreciated that.
“Who’s next?” Tythel said, raking over Tellias’ money. “Twenty keys say not a man in here is strong enough to bend my arm.”
Chairs began to scrape as a half dozen men stood up. The large fellow she’d seen earlier, drinking all comers under the table, shouldered his way through the crowd. “I could wrap my hand around your bicep, girl,” he growled.
“Yes,” Tythel said, giving the man’s hands an appraising look. “They are rather large. But as mighty as your sinews might be, do you really think you can push down my hand?”
The man reached into his pouch and threw out an assortment of keys. Tythel didn’t bother to count them – there were close enough to twenty. She forced herself to smile, hoping his intoxication would prevent the expression to be too off-putting, and motioned for him to take the seat across from her.
He did so, putting his elbow on the table and raising his massive arm. “I don’t even know what sinews are, but I assure you I am more than strong enough to handle you.”
Tythel reached out and clasped his hand. “Then prove it,” she said.
Immediately, he surged forward, pushing against her hand so hard the veins began to appear in his neck in seconds. His forehead bulged and he clenched his teeth, grunting at the exertion. He was strong, stronger than Tythel had expected.
Her elbow almost wobbled.
She set herself a bit better, strengthening her grip and pushing back just a hair more. “As I said before, you can use both hands-”
The man roared in frustration and lunged forward. With the inaccurate determination only obtainable by the heavily intoxicated, he wrapped his free hand over the other and leaned with all his might against Tythel’s arm.
She let her arm give, bending backwards. In truth, the full force of this behemoth of a man trying to bend her arm was probably more than she could have resisted even if she wanted to, but they’d known going into this they’d have to lose the keys. If Tythel had won the bout, they would have been accused of cheating or playing a confidence game. That would have drawn the attention of the local constabulary, which would have been more attention from the Alohym when they wanted.
The man roared in triumph, pumping his fists into the air, and Tythel made a show of reluctantly pushing her keys across the table towards him. “Almost had you,” she said, making her voice as mournful as possible. “Anyone else want a go?”
Encouraged, more men surged forward to take her challenge. She made a point of losing more than she won, enough to keep the game interesting for them while never seeming like a scam.
By the end of the night, half of the men and a couple of the women in the tavern had sat across from her, staring her directly in the eye and the patch. Some would remember her the next day, and at least one was certain to connect her to the face on the writ posters. Word would reach the Alohym, but not in enough time for them to prevent the trio from leaving the town.
There was a small chance one would send word tonight, but they’d all agreed that was an acceptable risk. Even if they could, it was unlikely that any of their pursuers would be able to arrive in enough time. It was a gamble, but an acceptable one in their estimation.
The three retired when the night was still young. As Tythel curled into the bed, her stomach full, her friends safe, and her eyes sore from blinks of laughter, she felt content for the first time in far too long. Tomorrow, there was a vehicle to steal, a chase to escape, and a return to her father’s grave not to pay her respects, but to lure her adversaries.
At she drifted into sleep, she was surprised at how little that weighed on her.