Startusk’s

Startusk’s

story by Geoff Bottone

Phyll’s grandmother Nanny Startusk was the premiere alchemist among the various orc villages that clustered on the shores of Lumpanok Lake. When he was a child, Phyll used to visit her small hut overlooking the lake, sit on the bench underneath the kitchen window, and watch her brew up all manner of comestibles and concoctions.

“Nanny!” he would shout, sometimes multiple times each visit, “Can I help?”

No matter how many times he had said it, she would always say the same thing.

“Come over here and stand next to the counter.”

Dutifully, and with great excitement, Phyll would hop off of the window seat, run to the counter, and stretch up as straight and tall as he could. Sometimes, he would even push his fingers into his dark, spiky hair, trying to get it to stand up bristle-straight.

Every time, though, he was shorter than the countertop.

“When you can see over this,” Nanny said, tapping on the old, acid-scarred wood. “Then you can help me.”

And, dismayed and somewhat frustrated by the linear progression of time, Phyll would go back to his window seat.


It finally happened on his first visit to Nanny Startusk’s after a particularly long and icy winter. He asked to help. Nanny summoned him from the window seat. He marched up to the countertop and, even before he tried pushing his hair into free-standing spikes, he realized something.

 “I can see over the top, Nanny!”

His grandmother looked down, her yellowed, chipped tusks pulling the corners of her mouth up in a smile.

“Now, Phyllyp,” she said, in mock admonishment. “You’re not standing on your tippy toes, are you?”

Phyll thumped his heels on the floor loudly, just to prove it to her. “No, ma’am!”

“Right then,” she said, handing down a mixing bowl. “Here’s what you can do to help your old Nanny. First, I’ll need you to stir these ingredients together until they turn smooth and purple. And no lumps!”

Phyll stirred and stirred until he thought his arm was going to fall off, but he couldn’t stop grinning.


Phyll learned a lot from his grandmother, so much so that his family was sure that he would follow in her footsteps and become a full-fledged alchemist. Phyll was fairly certain of this, as well, and had already spoken with his grandmother’s various alchemical acquaintances about work-study programs and apprenticeships when something happened that would change his life’s path forever.

His father was a skilled baker—one of the best on Lumpanok Lake. Phyll had always accepted what his father did, but he didn’t feel quite the same kinship with it that he had with Nanny and her alchemy table. His father’s work kitchen was too big, too noisy, and too hot for his tastes, and his father was always grunting and sweating and punching bowls full of dough into submission, the better to honor the fighting spirit of his orcish forebearers.

It came to pass, shortly after Phyll’s rite of passage into adulthood, that his father fell ill with the Magenta Fever. Phyll nursed his father back to health, fortifying him with the rejuvenating elixirs he had learned how to make at his grandmother’s table. Even with all of Phyll’s skill, his father’s recovery was very slow.

“Phyllyp,” said his father one morning, in between thready coughs. “I’m going to need you to do me a favor. The harvest festival is coming up. I’m responsible for the pastries and things.”

His father took a deep breath. “Well, I’m in no condition to bake anything this year. Be a good lad. Run to the next village. See if their baker could work double time. Send us some baked goods for the festival. I’ll pay.”

“Of course, father,” said Phyll, as he mopped his father’s brow with a damp cloth.

Later that day, Phyll put on his walking boots, fetched up his travel pack, and prepared to take the long walk to the next village. On his way out, he passed by the open doorway that led to his father’s massive kitchen. Phyll paused, looking at it. It had been cold and dark and quiet these past few months. He knew that his father would make a full recovery, and he knew that, one day, this kitchen would be as hot and as noisy as it had ever been.

But alas, not before the festival. Not before his father’s favorite orcish social event of the season, when the work was non-stop, the dough was particularly insolent, and the whole house smelled of cinnamon, ginger, and molasses.

Phyll shook his head, turned toward the door leading to the backyard.

And stopped.

As he strode into the kitchen, for the first time in a very long time, Phyll remembered something that Nanny Startusk had said to him one day, a long time ago.

“You may think what your father and I do is very different. It is not. Not really. Though he would deny it, there’s quite a lot of alchemy in baking. Reactions between yeast and flour. Making sure that you have the proportions right. Applying just the right amount of temperature for just the right amount of time. Do it right and you can make amazing things. Do it wrong?” At this, she tapped the edge of her spoon on the current mixture Phyll had been working on, which he had overstirred into a dense, greenish sludge. “And all you have is a mess.”

Phyll pulled his father’s apron on over his clothes, tossed some kindling into the largest of the three ovens, and tried to remember where his father had stowed his battered and broken-spined recipe book.


“I think,” said Phyll, as he surveyed the smoky kitchen, “that Nanny was oversimplifying things just a little bit.”

The cookies had come out all right. A touch burned on the bottom and hard around the edges, but otherwise fine. The pastries fared much less well, with the still raw outer dough barely containing their soupy innards. The rolls could double as catapult stones, while the cakes were so unleavened and so hard that they could likely substitute as roofing tiles.

Phyll nibbled on one of the cookies absently. Then he put it back. He’d need at least a gallon of milk to wash it down.

“What is that smell?”

His father stood in the doorway, still dressed in his fur-lined sleeping garments. Phyll rushed over to him and helped him into the chair by the door.

“Nanny once said that alchemy was a lot like baking, so I thought…”

“You could just do it yourself?” His father coughed. “I admire your gumption, son. You’ve never shown much interest in baking before, other than the eating part of it.”

“It’s the best part,” said Phyll brightly.

His father grunted. “So, you’ve had your first taste of baking. Whaddya think? You feel like tossing in the apron and talking to the baker in the next village, like I asked you to?”

“It was fun,” Phyll said, with a conviction that surprised him. “And it is kind of like alchemy. I’m sure you’d rather have me take a trip to the next village, but I’d like to try again. I’ve realized where I went wrong, and I know that I will do better next time.”

At this, his father smiled. “All right. Well, I’m still too sickly to be running around the kitchen. Tell you what. You do the legwork and I’ll shout advice from the corner. We’ll be a team.”

Phyll smiled and rested a sore, flour-covered hand on his father’s shoulder. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too, son. Me, too. We’ll have you punching down dough in your ancestors’ names before the day is out, but first things first! You see all that stuff you have on the table? Throw it in the trash!”


His next few batches were much better, thanks to parental supervision, good enough that Phyll wasn’t embarrassed to try to feed them to other people at the festival. Encouraged by the tusky smiles and the immodest burps of the festival patrons, Phyll went back home and continued to try and master the baking arts. Soon, his father had made a full recovery, and Phyll worked with him in the kitchen, perfecting his technique and helping out with the daily orders.

Phyll was happy to help his father, and glad that he had become skilled enough to stand on his own as an alchemist and a baker, but he still felt that he was destined for bigger things…


“You want to open a tavern?” his father huffed.

“Yes. Sort of!” Phyll pointed at the diagram again. “It’s a tavern, in that people can go to it and get drinks, but they can also get food.”

“That’s a tavern,” said his father.

“I’m not explaining this well, obviously.” Phyll waved his hands in the air. “Let me try again. You come to this place and I serve you a little something. Not a full meal, though. More like a snack, like a nice pastry or a slice of cranberry bread. You also don’t come in here to get drunk, either. There’d be drinks of course, but not drinks. Well, I’d imagine there’d be some ales and other fermented products, but the thing I’m going for here is presentation. You know. Colorful glasses. Alchemical tricks to make them foam and glow and stuff, so they’re more a statement than a way to get drunk.”

His father scratched his tusk. “So… you want to open a bad tavern?”

“Don’t make fun of me. Please. I’m serious.”

“I know you are, Phyllyp,” said his dad. “I’m trying to wrap my old, doughy brain around your idea, but I just can’t seem to understand it. That’s my fault, though, and not yours. I guess I’m just a simple, country orc at heart, and these ideas are too pie in the sky for me…”

He snapped his fingers.

“Hey, though. Here’s a thought. What if you went to Greyport?”

Phyll wrinkled his nose. “Greyport? Why would I go…”

“Son,” said his father. “Hear me out. Greyport’s full of a lot of people from a lot of different places. All of them have different ideas and experiences about the world–way bigger and more complicated ideas that we’ve got here on the shores of Lumpanok Lake. Here’s what I’m thinking. You take a trip to the city for a bit–say a couple of months. Maybe you get a job in one of them high end taverns. Spend a little time seeing how the business works, what you’d need to do to attract customers, whether or not there’s a market for your own tavern.”

Phyll looked at his father, moisture clouding his eyes. They had stopped working hours ago, so he couldn’t even blame it on the flour. “You’d… let me do something like that?”

“Phyllyp, just because I don’t understand what you’re talking about here,” his father gestured at the crude drawings on the napkin, “it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to support you. Take some time–as much as you need. If things work out, that’s great. If not, you can come back here, take everything you’ve learned in Greyport, and figure out something else you want to… oof.”

And here the conversation ended, mostly because Phyll was hugging his dad so hard that he couldn’t talk.


Phyll was hunkered down in the basement of the Red Dragon Inn, slowly squeezing an eyedropper full of brandy into his latest, custom drink.

“Phyll!” said a voice from the door.

He twitched at the sound of his own name, convulsively squirting too much brandy into the glass. The liquid inside shuddered and became the pale color of straw. 

He looked up at the somewhat annoyed face of Warthorn Redbeard, the inn’s owner and Phyll’s boss. Warthorn descended the stairs into the basement, large smoking pipe cradled in one hand. 

“Hi,” he said, standing up. “Mister Redbeard.” 

“They’re almost out of light and dark ale upstairs,” said Warthorn.

“Oh, sure,” said Phyll, running over to the rack of barrels. “I assumed we were good, because no one said anything, so I thought I had time to work on…”

Warthorn clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and the sound froze Phyll in his place.

“It is your job to check with the bartenders to make sure they have everything they need,” said Warthorn, who sounded very disappointed. “Just because you’re stationed down here doesn’t mean you get to stay here and do whatever it is you’re doing with your time.”

“I was just working on a new drink,” said Phyll, hefting the small barrel of dark ale to his shoulder and gesturing back to the table with his free hand. “I call it Purified Potent Pixie Power Punch. Since you liked my other ideas, I thought…”

Warthorn paused to light his pipe and blow a massive smoke ring, watching it as it floated up to the ceiling. “Phyll, my boy. You’ve worked for us for what? Two months now?”

“Two-and-a-half,” said Phyll.

“Yes, that’s right. Now, in that time, you have done many fine things for this establishment. I still remember that day when you decided to carve the ice for the gamblers’ grog into dice. That was truly inspired. Dice ice.” Warthorn chortled at his own little joke.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Warthorn sighed and Phyll was fairly certain he knew what was coming next. “While I appreciate your alchemical precision with some of our more complicated drinks, your innovative ideas, and your experimentations, that’s not what I hired you for. You’re a barback, not a mixmaster.”

“I know, Mister Redbeard.”

“I know you know, Phyll,” said the dwarf. “And yet you, me, Olivia, we keep on having this same conversation. You’re very gifted, and I think you’re going to go far once you find your own niche. Unfortunately, it’s become clear to me that your niche isn’t going to be carved here, at the Red Dragon Inn.”

Phyll sighed. “So I’m fired, then.”

“I’m afraid so, my boy.” Warthorn reached out with one hand and laid it on the barrel of dark ale. He withdrew his hand only when Phyll moved to place the barrel back on the rack. “I hope that this doesn’t cause an issue between us. You are a fine, upstanding young man, and I am very fond of you. Just because we don’t mesh well as employer and employee, it doesn’t mean that we can’t still be friends.”

Phyll reached around his back to unfasten his apron. “I’d like that, Mister Redbeard.”

“Good,” said his former employer, with a twinkle in his eye. “Come pick up your pay at the end of the week. And please, just call me Warthorn from now on.”


That night was the longest of Phyll’s life–at least, so far. He found himself wandering the upper parts of Greyport, crisscrossing back and forth between the mazy streets that surrounded the Mages’ Collegium, as the rosy color of dawn gradually filtered into view on the eastern horizon. He had meant to go back to his rented room, but instead he took to the city streets to outrun his thoughts of failure. Phyll knew that he could go back home to his dad, without any shame or disgrace, but he still wanted something to show for it. Being fired after working for two-and-a-half months at the Red Dragon Inn wasn’t the badge of honor he was hoping for. If only there was…

He stepped out onto a four-way intersection, no more than a stone’s throw–if an ogre had thrown it–from the walls of the Mages’ Collegium. He saw four buildings of note, each at one of the corners of the intersection. They were a second-hand scroll shop, a recruitment place for one of Greyport’s less well-known magical guilds, a store where a sign advertised “All Natural Components,” and an empty, fire-blackened building whose charred sign proclaimed that, “Discount Potions Bought and Sold–CHEAP!”

Phyll found himself walking across the intersection to the burned out wreck of the potion shop. He peered through the front window and saw scarred shelves, twisted alchemical equipment, and a floor covered with glinting chips of glass. The front door was closed, sealed by order of the Greyport City Council. A small notice, tacked to the door, read, “Retail Space Available Contact Owner–CHEAP!”

The sun had by now just crested the horizon, throwing a smoldering, yellow-orange light across the damaged storefront. Phyll looked from the notice, to the other three corners of the intersection, to the interior of the shop, and back again. 

Lots of shops and specialty mage boutiques on this street. Maybe some apartments. A place where one could buy alcohol in bottles and kegs. But no place where one could sit and drink. Or eat. Or talk. Lots of shops meant lots of customers. Lots of customers meant lots of hungry people. And thirsty people. Or people who just wanted to take a load off. And the presence of lots of people like that, in an area where no little eateries existed, presented Phyll with what he had most desperately wanted when he came to Greyport in the first place.

An opportunity.

He tore the notice from the door and, with his energy renewed, hunted down the address of the landlord written upon it.


Cheap, Phyll quickly learned, didn’t necessarily mean affordable.

Even with his final paycheck from the Red Dragon Inn, even with the money he had been saving up to move to a better apartment, even with the rather stringent loan he had begged out of the Merchants’ Guild, he still didn’t have enough liquid assets to make an offering on the former potion shop. He had become so desperate that he had briefly considered joining an adventuring group and delving into a dungeon. It was only the recent, and harrowing, tale of a group of novice adventurers getting mostly dissolved by blob monsters that put him off this plan.

Uninjured, but still short of cash, Phyll took another long wander around the streets of Greyport and considered his options. He could take another job, but he doubted he would be able to get enough money in wages before someone else leased the store out from underneath him. He considered volunteering as a monster attack victim to train new healers at the Grand Temple, or to test experimental new magics at the Collegium, but, while those jobs paid relatively well for very little work, the side effects were known to be capricious and long-lasting.

Before Phyll could get too footsore or dispirited, his attention was attracted by a large, colorful poster that had been put up on a nearby wall. “Baking Contest This Korashday,” it read. “All Confections Judged By Famed Chef Myyra Arbuthnot. Cash Prize!”

Phyll ran up to the poster to read the fine print. He was delighted to discover that there was still time to enter, and that prize–plus his other finances–would just about cover the lease on the shop. Knowing that there was no time to waste, he hurried across Greyport to register.


The contest took place in the finest kitchen that Phyll had ever been in. It was fully stocked with both tools and raw ingredients. Even with everything provided to him, Phyll had still brought, and preferred to use, his own utensils and his own secret blend of spices. He noticed that the other cooks had brought along their own personal items to use as well. Some of these Phyll recognized. Others of them were both unfamiliar looking and bizarre to his eyes.

The initial pack of ten contestants, each of whom was provided with their own cooking and prep station, were put through their paces by Mrs. Arbuthnot, an elderly human lady who barely came up to Phyll’s waist. Her head was crowned with a poof of white hair that looked like spun candy floss, and she had a puckered expression on her face that made it seem as though she had sucked on a raw lemon by accident. She was aided by her assistant, a stodgy-looking, iron-bearded dwarf named Mr. Kailash, who seemed more interested in taking careful notes than in any of the proceedings.

Which was too bad, because there certainly were a lot of proceedings. The contest passed through a series of rounds–during which contestants were each given an hour to bake something–followed by a round of frankly harsh judging from Mr. Kailash and Mrs. Arbuthnot. Phyll had managed to hang on through all of the preliminary rounds by the skin of his tusks–though if Mrs. Arbuthnot tittered amusedly to herself while complaining that one of his tarts had a “soggy bottom” one more time, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to restrain his “orcish fury”.

It was very late in the day, with but one final contest–and only one other contestant–still remaining. His name was Duncan, a chubby, youngish human man with olive skin and long, braided black hair. He was dressed in sumptuous robes of blue velvet and wore a Collegium ring on a silver chain around his neck. He wasn’t the best baker, but he had that easy-going, friendly demeanor that Phyll had never quite mastered, which allowed Duncan to ingratiate himself quite well with the judges. 

Duncan also had a secret weapon. Several secret weapons. All of which were arranged neatly in his prep area in small burlap sacks.

“My family is from the south and owns a large coffee bean farm,” Duncan had explained, during the initial interviews of the contestants, which Phyll felt like happened somewhere north of a thousand years ago. “We have excellent soil, good water, and the cleanest air in our portion of the valley, which allows us to imbue our beans with the finest flavors and aromas imaginable!”

His family legacy had worked out quite well for Duncan. Each round, in addition to the requested baked good, he had also brewed up a pot of coffee of a complimentary flavor to match. Phyll had to admit that the brewing coffee always smelled quite good, and he could have done with a cup or three to pep him up as the long day wore on. Duncan’s coffee’s bold notes were strong enough to mask the slight mistakes he had made each round, and Mrs. Arbuthnot seemed to forget limp cakes, bland frosting, and soggy bottoms when confronted with another steaming cupful.


“Mr. Descoteaux, Mr. Startusk,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot, her head barely visible above the judging table. “Welcome to the final round! One of you will be going home with riches and acclaim. The other will get nothing!

Don’t remind me, thought Phyll, as he knotted a dishrag in his hands and waited to hear the rules for the round.

“You have both impressed the judges today,” continued Mrs. Arbuthnot, “but now we would like to see you both at your best. You have one hour to prepare for us one of your personal creations–your signature dish, if you will. You may make anything that you like in that time, and the ingredients here in the kitchen allow.”

Phyll gulped. All day, he had chafed beneath Mrs. Arbuthnot’s strict guidelines, making desserts he had never heard of, or being forced to bake some old favorites using methods and recipes with which he was not familiar. On the one hand, he was glad to finally be given some freedom. On the other hand, he now felt like a penned up ox that suddenly finds itself let loose in the field, completely paralyzed about where he should go.

“Hey,” said Duncan. The young man held his hand outstretched, which Phyll hesitantly took and shook. “I know we haven’t had a chance to talk before now, but I wanted to wish you the best of luck.”

“Likewise,” said Phyll, finding that Duncan’s graciousness had done a lot to push back the resentment that had been building up throughout the day. “You baked some quality stuff, and your coffee smells like it’s to die for.”

“Thanks,” said Duncan. “All your confections look great, too. Honestly, I think you’re way better at this than I am, no matter how much the old lady talks about your pastries having too much moisture.”

Phyll chuckled. “What can I say? We orcs don’t typically serve stale old tarts.”

Duncan seemed surprised at his own, sudden laugh. “I bet!”

“Gentlemen,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. “No fraternizing in the ranks now, all right? Remember, only one of you can win the prize.”

“Yes, Mrs. Arbuthnot,” both Duncan and Phyll said in unison.

“Very good. And now you may…” the little old lady took a deep breath, held it, then lifted her chin.

“Begin!”


Phyll baked like he had never baked before. He pounded the dough with a ferocity and arm strength that would have been the envy of any orcish axe fighter. He stirred until he couldn’t feel his shoulders, until his batter was as smooth as liquid silk. He tested, tasted, and retested his flavors until they fairly sang on his palate. He watched the oven with the unblinking eye of a mother bird, making sure that his bottoms came out of the fire firm, but not burned.

And yet, he wasn’t sure that it would be enough. Phyll glanced over at Duncan’s table and could not suppress the growing alarm at his competitors plates of confections, and of his mugs of perfectly prepared coffee. Phyll needed an edge. Something that would showcase all of his skills, something like…

“Goodness,” said Mr. Kailash, looking up from his notes. “There goes Phyll tearing back into the pantry.”

“It’s awfully late to be rummaging for ingredients,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot, with more than a touch of haughty condescension. “I do hope he hasn’t forgotten anything.”

“I did!” said Phyll, loading ingredients into the crook of one arm. With the other, he pulled down some empty glass jars off of a nearby shelf. “I’ve been showing you everything I learned from my dad, but there’s more to me than that. I think there’s still time for me to introduce you to Nanny Startusk.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?” shouted Mrs. Arbuthnot.

Phyll raced back to his station. “No time to explain now! You’ll see in a bit!”


Footsore, sweaty, and exhausted, Phyll carried his platter of baked goods and his tray of drinks to where Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mr. Kailash sat. The old woman sat with her hands steepled on the table in front of her, mouth set into a slightly pruned line. Mr. Kailash had finally put down his notes, and was staring at the offerings with an almost unseemly hunger.

A moment later, Duncan approached the table, a tray of cookies in hand, coffee grounds smeared all down the front of his sumptuous wizard robe.

“Very good,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. “Shall we start with Mr. Descoteaux?” 

Phyll waited, shifting from foot to foot, as the two judges thoughtfully sampled Duncan’s cookies and coffee. Mr. Kailash reached for a second cookie, only to have Mrs. Arbuthnot slap his hand away.

“Save some room for Mr. Startusk’s entries.”

The dwarf grumbled and put his hand in his lap. “Anyway, it should be obvious that I quite liked it. And your coffee this time was weighty and bitter, just the way dwarves like it!”

Mrs. Arbuthnot waved dismissively at Duncan. “Now then. Mr. Startusk. If you would be so kind.”

“All right,” said Phyll. “I’ve decided to up my game and provide you with a drink as well as something to eat. This is what I call a ‘Startusk’s Moonlight Sugar Stealth Tea,’ which I made using alchemical principles taught to me by my grandmother. It’s made with tapioca pearls, blueberry tea, and milk, which I’ve paired with my mango pomelo sago with grapefruit, because the flavors compliment…”

It became obvious to Phyll that Mr. Kailash and Mrs. Arbuthnot were focused only on eating and drinking. He stopped talking. 

A moment later, Duncan elbowed him in the ribs. Phyll turned and saw that the wizard was offering up a cup of coffee.

“I had extra,” he said. “And you look like you could use it.”

“I have extra, too,” said Phyll, nodding at the still partially-full plate and a third, untouched glass of bubble tea. Help yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Duncan. 

Phyll held out his cup of coffee. “Cheers?”

Duncan tapped Phyll’s mug with his glass, sending a clean, ringing note around the otherwise silent kitchen. They drank.

Damn, thought Phyll. This is good coffee.

“Oh!” said Duncan, almost at the same time. “This is really good!”

Mrs. Arbuthnot cleared her throat for what seemed to Phyll, an unusually long amount of time. He and Duncan both fell silent.

“If you two are done fraternizing,” she said, somehow looking down her nose at both of them at the same time. “I believe we have reached a decision.”

After a significant and, to Phyll, totally unnecessary, dramatic pause, she said, “the winner of this contest is Phyll Startusk.”

As Mr. Kailash applauded loudly and Mrs. Arbuthnot tapped her fingertips together primly, Phyll reached out a gracious hand to his competitor. Duncan shook it, smiling.

“Congratulations,” said Duncan. “If I had to lose to anyone, I’m glad it was to you.”

“Thanks,” said Phyll. He wanted to add that he wouldn’t have minded losing to Duncan, except that he really would have minded losing, and he didn’t want to lie about it.

“Got any plans for the prize money?”

“Yeah,” said Phyll. “I’m going to use it to rent out this shop near the Mages’ Collegium and turn it into… well, kind of like a tavern, but with really interesting drinks and snacks.”

“Neat,” said Duncan. “That sounds like it would be a welcome addition to the area. The students up there love sweets, anything weird or interesting, and anything that gives you pep. I’m sure you’ll do really well.”

Phyll looked down at the coffee cup in his hand.

Coffee!

“Actually,” said Phyll, “you own a coffee farm, right?”

“Actually,” said Duncan, “my family owns a coffee farm.”

Phyll smiled. “In that case, I might just have a lucrative business proposition for your family.”


It had taken three months of solid work, but Phyll had cleaned up the broken glass, taken down the broken shelving, sanded out the burn marks, and adopted out the sentient and feral chair he had found crouching in the back room to a Collegium professor. After that, it was just a matter of giving everything a fresh coat of paint, installing rugs and furniture, and clearing the last of the alchemical residue out of the chimney. 

While Duncan took a trip home to visit his parents and sell them on Phyll’s coffee contract, Phyll handled the finishing touches. He had decorated the room with several shelves of decorative plants from the Lumpanok Lake area and the specialty glasses, bottles, and mugs used to hold his new drink formulas. He had also decorated here and there with some orcish fiber crafts to make the place more homey. 

The last thing that was needed was, of course, the sign.

“I got it all hung up out here, Phyll,” said the kobold sign painter. “You want to come out and take a look?”

It was early in the morning, but there was already quite a lot of traffic through the intersection. The great majority were Collegium masters and their bleary-eyed students, on their way to the first of the day’s classes. Interspersed amongst this crowd were merchants and peddlers heading to the high market, and a handful of tourists interested in seeing the sights of the upper city. 

While most were preoccupied with getting to their destinations, Phyll saw, to his satisfaction, several had turned their heads to look at the new establishment on the corner, which had a sign out front that announced its grand opening.

This sign, however, was not the one that was the focus of Phyll’s or the kobold’s interest at the moment. That sign had been a simple one, hand-painted by Phyll and lightly enchanted by Duncan so that it would be visible and legible from far across the intersection. No, the sign in question was another, fancier sign made of expertly carved and painted wood, which hung, medallion-like, from the eaves over the shop’s front door.

This sign depicted the heavily stylized face of an older orc, her eyes closed, her tusks arranged in a slight, meditative smile.

“That looks great!” said Phyll. 

He took a deep breath, taking it all in. He was doing it. He was really doing it.

“Glad you like it, Phyll,” said the kobold, who was in the process of taking down and folding up an ingenious wooden ladder. “I tried to do what you said on the face. I hope it works for you.”

“It does,” said Phyll, smiling. “It looks just like my nanny.”

The kobold sign painter tucked the folded ladder under one arm and picked up his toolbox in the other. “Fantastic. Well, I’ll get out of your way, then. It seems like you’re going to be busy.”

Phyll turned and beheld, for the first time, the small crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk out in front of Startusk’s. An exhausted looking elven apprentice surveyed Phyll with red-rimmed, sunken eyes, her mouth slightly agape.

“I missed breakfast,” she said. “Do you serve breakfast?”

“We serve muffins, pastries, cookies, and several types of bread,” said Phyll, trying to remember the rhythm of his salesman’s patter that he had been practicing in his mirror the night before. “We also have an assortment of specialty drinks and coffee.”

“Coffeeeeee,” moaned the apprentice, as she shuffled, zombie-like, past Phyll and into the shop. “I need coffeeeeee.”

“Come on in then,” said Phyll, gesturing at the crowd on the sidewalk. “Startusk’s is officially open for business!”


The Red Dragon Inn 8 launches on Kickstarter on Feb 23, 2021!

RDI 8