As the city gates swung open, Tyler was awed by what he saw. It was like he was in a dream and a whole new world was being opened up just for him. In front of them, in the center of gate square, was the largest fountain that he had ever seen. It was round, and looked to Tyler as it must have been a hundred feet in diameter with a wall around it about three feet tall. It had a single jet of water shooting high into the air, a good thirty or forty feet from what he could estimate. From where they were still walking through the gate, he could see a lot of children that were playing in the water, making it like a giant shallow pool.
The sounds of the city were fantastic. As Rin and Tyler made their way toward the fountain they could hear the laughter of the children playing in the fountain, splashing water on one another. He heard noise of the chatter from dozens of people, young and old, men and women, making their way down the street of the city that spread out left and right. He heard the sounds of cart wheels being turned over the brick streets, and the shoed hoof beats of the animals that lead them. There was, what he could only assume to be, a husband and wife loudly scolding a child for running off without them. And just to their right and down the street about three buildings, was a shop keeper yelling at a customer about not getting anything more until he paid his bill.
Looking down the street, Rin said “Welcome to Nestropia. This is Southern Street. Go down either one of these lanes,” he said pointing to his right and left, “and you will find houses of the wealthy of the city. Fine picking ground if you ask me,” he said with a slight smile and smirk on his face. Tyler could only imply from that that Rin had meant pick-pocketing the rich. Rin started to lead them to their right down Southern Street. He could tell that Rin was right about this area being rich. Even never being here before, the houses neatly cramped together, and the exterior so clean that they looked liked they had just been washed.
As they walked down the street they saw maids pounding out rugs over railings of the stairways, children playing with toys in the small grass yards that were in between the houses and street. Unlike in Longstown there were no sidewalks. The grass yards here in Nestropia started at the base of the stairways and went the ten or so feet until it met the brick street. They saw well dressed men and women coming and going from a few of the houses, along with several well dressed children. The sight reminded him of Sunday mornings when he used to have to get dressed up and follow his mom and dad going to church. Because it did not look like the children really wanted to go with their parents. Tyler just smiled at the sight and kept up with Rin who was just a few yards ahead of him.
Rin turned around and started to walk backwards saying, “We should be to Billick's in just a couple minutes. We will get him to take your measurements and then we will go get something for our stomach's”.
“Sounds good to me,” Tyler replied. “I'm nearly starving.”
Rin flashed Tyler a big smile then turned around again marching down the center of the street. It was with a little laughter that Tyler thought to himself “He really does think this city is his”. Within a couple of minutes Rin started veering to his left, and nestled in between two lavish house fronts, Tyler could make out a simple doorway that looked a little out of place with all the others. It was a deep brown wood, looking like it was hundreds of years old. On either side was a single pane window that was maybe two feet by two feet. Over the door hung a shiny brass shield with the capital letter “B” on it. “This must be Billick's, the clothier,” he though.
In just a couple seconds Tyler had caught up to Rin who was standing in front of the door with right hand on the knob. When Tyler reached to where Rin was, Rin pulled the door open ushering Tyler in with an “After you,” and a sweep of his left arm.
When Tyler entered the store the first thing he noticed was the darkness. It was only being lit by a couple of candles that were on the counter about thirty feet to the rear. It also smelled musty. He thought it felt like being in an old attic that hadn't seen the light of day in a few years. Along the right side of the wall were cubby holes, each about a foot tall and standing five high in ten stacks. Each one looked like it held one or two pieces of clothing. Centered above the stacks was a board with the word “Unders” painted on it in white lettering. When he looked over at the opposite wall he saw the exact same set up. Except on the board above the stacks was the word “Uppers”.
From what Tyler could gather just from the look of the place, this was not a store where the rich folks of Nestropia went to get their clothing. In his mind he imagined this being the equivalent of a second hand store being stuck between Hollister and Express at the mall back in Longstown. It was in the middle of that thought when Rin called out, “Billick, are you here?”
The boys took a few more steps toward the counter in the back when they saw a shadow come out of the corner on the left side and then step into the light from the candles, standing in the center of the counter. The man took Tyler by surprise. He was a large man, about six feet tall and maybe three hundred pounds. His fingers resting on the table were thick and his arms meaty. He wasn't fat, but Tyler thought he could definitely use to get to the gym more often. He wore a leather sleeveless vest that had silver buttons down it's right side, and silver hooks down it's left. But it was a size that Tyler knew he would never be able to clasp them shut. He was bald on the top of his head, though he had a mustache that completely covered his mouth, and a beard that came down to the center of his chest.
“Who are you, boy” he said in a demanding tone like he had been interrupted from important business. “And what are you doing in my shop?” The gaze in the man's eyes was hard and cold, and made Tyler look away to the floor quickly.
“He is with me, Billick,” Rin said as he came out of the shadow behind Tyler and stepped closer to the light. “And we came to request new clothing for him. Unless you prefer us to go see someone else.”
“Master Rin,” Billick bellowed at the sight of him. “Why didn't you step forward first and I wouldn't have been so hard on the boy,” he said raising his hands up above his head. Slamming his fists down on the counter he said, “Come here. Come here. Let me get a look at you.” As the boys walked closer to the counter Billick made his way to the other side so he was now standing face to face with Rin. “You have gotten a few inches taller since the last time I saw you. Rumor had it for a while that you had been caught and sent to the prison mine in the Hedgerich.” Putting his chubby hands on each of Rin's shoulders, continued, “But I knew that couldn't possibly be true. First they would never send a child there. And second,” he said looking at Tyler, “Rin wouldn't be so dim witted as to do something that would get him caught”.
Then Billick moved in front of Tyler, taking him in from head to toes. “So I can see why you are wanting new clothing for him. I've never seen unders quite like this,” he said as he took hold of the waistband of Tyler's cut off jeans. Very unusal. Where did you get these?”
“He is a friend that I met in a village on the Plains of Argola near the Great River. His parents were killed in a battle of the Five Realms War.” As Rin was starting his explanation of who Tyler was, Billick started taking measurements of him. “When he heard that I was coming to Nestropia he asked to come with as he had no other family left in his village to take care of him.”
Kneeling down, so he could take Tyler's inseam and waist measurements, Billick looked coolly up at Rin, and with a half smile said, “you tell a tale taller than I am young man. So you bring him to a city where in order to live he would have to do the same as you, beg off the street, or steal from the rich, or what ever else it is that you do?” As he finished up the measurements and writing them down on a piece of parchment with an ink quill, he said, “That is the story that I will say too if ever I am asked. But someday I will find out about you. You are a strange fellow Rin,” he noted as he made his way to the other side of the counter to where he was first standing. “Everything I've ever known about you is a little odd.”
“When do you think we can come back and pick up his things.”
“Give me until the sun rises above the fountain,” he said taking a few stacks of cloth from another counter behind him and placing them between him and boys. “He should have a decent enough outfit for you by then. But now be gone with you so I can get to work.”
“By your leave then,” Rin said and bowed just slightly toward the clothier.
“Shoo now”, Billick gestured with his hands towards the door.
As Tyler and Rin approached the door and opened it to exit, they heard Billick bellow, “And don't forget my payment, you little sewer rat,” as the door closed behind them.
“Come on now,” Rin gestured to Tyler as he started to walk down the street the same way they were going before. “It's only another few houses and we will be having the best food in all of Nestropia.”
At the mention of food Tyler's stomach roared. Until that moment he hadn't realized just how long it had been since he had last had a meal. It had been lunch time, the day before yesterday, at his house, in his bedroom, before all this had started. It was right before he was about to eat dinner that he had met Rin and this little adventure had begun. Up until this point he had only shared the water out of Rin's canteen, and the little magic trick that brought up a glass of soda. To say that he was a little hungry was an understatement. He was thinking to himself that it was all of the new adventures, and sights, and sounds that had kept his mind off being hungry until now. The ride across the plains on the Jincocks, walking into the city, and visiting Billick. But now that he knew the next stop was food, he realized he was about to collapse from hunger. It was at that point of realization when Rin led him to a door that had no external markings on it whatsoever. But the aroma coming from inside was enough to make his mouth water.
They walked through a wooden door painted red with a brass doorknob. When they walked through the smell of the food overtook Tyler and made him weak in the knees. He could smell the soft scent of fresh bread baking in the ovens, and meat being grilled over open flames. Rin had to take Tyler's hand and lead him over to table on the left side just a few steps inside the door. When he had led them to a table Tyler sat down immediately while Rin stood and took in a deep breath and had a huge smile on his face. “Does he ever not smile,” Tyler thought as Rin finally sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the table.
Barely getting his butt on the chair a middle age woman, who Tyler thought could have been Billick's sister came up to them saying, “What will it be boys?” Recognizing Rin she then added, “Oh, it's you. Take it you want your usual?”
“Yes, ma'am,” he replied, “and make it two. For my friend here.”
“And how about you show me payment first,” the woman said holding out her hand palm up. “I think you still owe me for one or two meals yet.”
“I'm sorry,” Rin answered. “I probably do owe you.” He had taken off his pack and set it on his right side away from the crowd and was digging into it when after a few minutes, and what seemed like and eternity to the woman, finally came back up and put two coins in her hand.
“Hmmm. I'm not going to ask where you got them, but it's enough to pay off your debt and give you a credit for another meal.” With that she turned around and headed off back into the kitchen area.
“How is there a restaurant here,” Tyler asked looking around. They were in a building that was probably not to much larger than the first floor of his house. It was maybe about fifteen feet to the ceiling, and had twelve tables, each of which had three chairs. The back of the building had two doors, one on the right side and one on the left side. From watching the woman come in and out he could tell the door on the left was the door to the kitchen and the one on the right was used to leave the kitchen. This made sense as there were no windows on the doors. You wouldn't have been able to tell if someone was coming from the other side. Other than the older woman there was a younger girl who was about their age also waiting on the tables. Tyler guessed that this was the woman's daughter and it was probably her husband that was in the back doing the cooking.
“What do you mean,” Rin asked. Calen, Dora, and Rika serve the best food that you will find in all of Nestropia. Even the rich, who wouldn't admit that they dine here, would agree if nobody else was listening.” While waiting for their food Rin explained that this corner of the city had been run down and a lot of the homeless who had once called this area home were pushed to the Low Quarter when the rich started buying the houses, tearing them down, and then putting up the fancy ones that they had passed on the way here. Calen, the cook and owner, had refused to sell, and after many petitions for him to sell he invited the Governor of the city to dine and taste his food. The Governor had said that he had had a wonderful meal, and there was no reason they had to move. He said that the food gave the street a good aroma that was in likeness to the houses. And since it was on the corner Southern Street and the East Gate High Road the rich wouldn't have to worry about coming into great contact with the Low's who came to eat.
Just as Rin was finishing the story, Dora returned with her tray of plates of food for them. In front of Rin she placed a large hunk of meat that was cooked a dark brown and had a shiny pasted glaze to it, also on the plate was an ear of corn, slathered in butter, and on second plate a half loaf of bread. She then put the same thing in front of Tyler, who could hardly wait any longer to dig in. Tyler and Rin just sat there looking for another minute at the food that had been presented to them while Dora returned with the utensils to eat it with and a large mug of drink that to Tyler looked and smelled like beer.
“We are closing tonight as sundown,” Dora said before walking away. “We have personal business tonight. So that give you about an hour. So don't pick at your food.” Then she went back into the kitchen.
The room was about half full at the time with diners, but the moment that Tyler started in on his meat, he could have been the only one in the room. The meat was so tender that it almost melted in his mouth. He didn't have to chew it but twice or three times before it was ready to swallow. He could taste the wood that was used to cook it over, a slight hickory taste. But it did not taste like any steak he had ever eaten before. This was so much better.
It was just then that he came to a shocking realization. If he was inside the game, there were no cows here. This was not a cow steak. “What kind of meat is this,” he asked Rin as he took a huge swallow of drink, which was, in fact, beer.
“Calen is the best at skinning and chopping a Rally Cat. I don't know how he does it, but this is why his meat cost so much.”
Though the meat was delicious, and he had to agree it was the best cooked meat he had ever had, it made him choke a little that he was eating a Rally Cat. How many of these things did he kill in the game to earn points to buy stuff. When he killed one in the game it simply vanished. Tyler had no idea that they were a food source for the characters.
Once they had each eaten about half of their meal, Tyler looked up to Rin and asked, “So can you tell me what exactly we are supposed to be doing? I don't ever remember anything about a Sword of Kings, or the Five Realms War. And I thought I'd played ever possible situation at least twice.” He took another large swig of drink and looked at Rin to reply and added “I guess you don't have to be 21 to drink here either. They don't exactly enforce no shirt, no shoes, no service either.”
Rin kinda cocked his head at the last statement, no sure what Tyler meant by “no shirt, no shoes, no service”, but he did know what he was asking about in the first part. “Do you ever wonder what goes on in the background of the game that you play, or the television shows that you watch?” Taking a bite out of the ear of corn, he added, “don't you think there is a life behind those characters?” He said, picking his teeth with a pic, “I'm one of the few in this world that know what we really are. Someone imagined us to place us in this game and that we would be used to fulfill the outcome. Someone imagined this world, all the people in it, and the lives of those people.”
“But if someone programmed you to be who you are and do what you do, then how am I here, and doing something that isn't in the game?
“That, my friend, is a very good question that I do not have an answer for.” Rin had finished his meat and drink and Dora had come back and refilled their mugs for the second time. “I could feel you. I don't know how else to explain it. I was drawn to the Plains the other day and was pretty much minding my own business when I saw the bridge. Nobody had ever gone south of the Plains before. Nobody knew you could. I was thinking about how to go about searching for the Sword of Kings when I just heard a voice tell me to find Tyler of Longstown. Once I crossed the bridge I knew just where go go.
“Time for you boys to leave,” Dora said as she came up to the table. She had already had a couple of other tables get up, and Rika was doing the same on the other side of the room.
“It was a pleasure to dine with you again, Dora,” Rin said as he stood up.
“Yes, I'm sure it was,” she replied. “No get, before I skin you, and serve you for lunch tomorrow.” Now she was gesturing the boys toward the door as the other patrons were getting their things together as well.
“Wait just one minute,” Rin said digging into his pack again. When he was done digging he asked Dora to open her hand. When she did he placed three silver coins in her hand. “One for each of you.” he said.
Dora's face flushed as if she had seen a ghost and closed her had so tightly around the coins he knuckles were turning white. Tears were nearly rolling down her face when she grabbed his face, fist on the right, open palm on the left and kissed him on the forehead. She turned around and quickly ran into the kitchen.
“What was that about,” Tyler asked.
As the boys made their way outside, Rin replied, “I'll tell you about that later. For now we have to go to the Low Quarter and find us a lodging for tonight. Tomorrow we have a special person to visit after we get your clothes.”
They again started walking east on the Southern Street for only a block before they turned left to head north on the East Gate High Road. As they rounded the corner the sun was just beginning to dip down below the wall of the city. Tyler didn't know why but he felt the urge to put his right hand into Rin's as they made their way north. Rin just looked at Tyler, smiled, but said nothing. It had been an incredible day. The Jincock ride, the entrance into the city, the meeting with Billick, and then that meal. Now he was walking literally into the sunset with a person who for the first time in a long time he could call a friend.