“What is that you’re eating, Sarge?” Iric asked.
“It’s something from a village south of the mountains,” Vott said between spoonfuls. “Something to take your mind off the hot weather, they say.”
Iric’s nose stung with each shallow breath; the pungent smell was almost incapacitating.
“That’s got quite an odor to it, don’t it?” Iric said.
“That’s half the charm. Look, kid, if you don’t like it you can wait outside. Mine was a friendly invitation.”
“No offense, Sarge. It’s just new to me.” The younger watchman studied his mentor, searching for a tactical route back into friendly conversation. “So…how did you discover this particular dish?”
Vott stirred his spoon around in the bowl, collecting the bits of meat that remained. The food was thicker than a stew, yellow and creamy. Iric could feel the spiciness of the dish in his eyes, which watered like those of a young child who had just lost her dog. The effect was almost magical in its reach.
“Well…” Vott said, pausing to shovel some more into his mouth. “I was part of a team that was sent after a smuggler who fled south. We tracked him to a village called Hrabvil. Must have been his hometown. The council wizards knew this, of course, and told us where to look for him. And we found him. But the guy refused to surrender…so we had to put him down.”
Vott stopped his story, staring down into his empty bowl. Iric wasn’t expecting such a serious recollection; he always tried to avoid prodding the worst memories of the veterans at the watch house. This seemed to be one of those.
“It’s okay, Sarge. You don’t have to tell me.”
“What’s it to you, runt?” Vott said with a smirk. “It was a long time ago, when I was not much older than you. Those things stick with you…I’m sure you will find that out someday. Not even magic can clean a blood-stained soul.”
Vott pushed his bowl to the side of the table and took a drink from his mug. Iric felt bad for turning the man so grim.
“Anyways,” he continued, “I needed some time to get over what had happened. I hadn’t been expecting it to go so wrong. So as we were recovering ourselves from the hard trip, and the fight, I went searching for something to eat. I found this little place in a back corner somewhere. I figured I hadn’t died in the fight, so what’s the worst that some genuine southern food could do? And, well, I discovered I had a taste for it.”
“Have you ever been back there?” Iric asked.
As Vott finished his story, a drunken man stumbled over to the table, clearly angry.
“What makes you think you’re welcome here, Vott?” the man said. “Don’t think we forgot what you and your boys did down in our town.”
Iric was about to rise in protest, but Sergeant Vott grabbed his arm and gestured for him to stay seated. Instead, the big man himself rose with a long sigh.
“Are you going to pick a fight every time I come here, Amid?” Vott asked. “You know this is the only place in the city to get proper Hrabvil food. You should be proud to have the business.”
“Everyone here knew Kabir. He was family. And you hunted him down.”
The man moved closer, until his face was right next to Vott’s. The pair locked eyes.
“He was criminal. And I was doing my job. Walk off, Amid.”
The drunken man took his chance with a feeble blow. Before Iric knew what had happened, Amid’s head was bouncing off the table. The man groaned from his new place on the floor.
“Sorry for the trouble, Anya,” Vott said to the hostess. “I will take this trash out for you. Come on, kid.”
Iric helped his sergeant drag the drunken man out to the street. To his surprise, Vott set the man down gently, leaning him against the side of the building and straightening his collar.
“Why are you being so nice, Sarge?” Iric asked.
“He’s only trying to take care of his own,” Vott said. “You can’t hate him for it. He was never the same after his brother died.”
Iric was shocked to see such a gentle side to the grizzly bear—the same one who harped on him mercilessly every day. But he decided it was best to let the issue lie for now. He simply followed his sergeant back to the watch house, with a much deeper appreciation for the man.