Conversations Between Outsiders - Ch. 2: Speaking Easy on Local Drama

By billtremendous

DONG, DONG, DONG.

The town bell rang out, marking the impending evening curfew hours, a period where only vagrants, cutpurses, and other nefarious creatures still roamed the streets.

“Alright everyone, that’s the evening bell. Finish up your drinks and get your lanterns ready. It’s closing call.” There was a collective groan between the patrons that were still left in the bar interior. No one had bothered to drink outside in the patio tonight, it was just too chilly out. “Ay, no groaning, it’s not my decision to make. Believe me, none of us want Mr. Tarrant to wake up from his nap to have to deal with anyone who disagrees with it. But I tell you, I’ll see what I can do to have our hours extended.” One by one, the patrons left their respective coinage on their tables and filed out into the night, their thirst for alcohol begrudgingly sated. No one was left inside the bar but Lawrence and the completely empty mugs and glasses on the tables.

Lawrence let out a sigh and adjusted the cap on his head, relieved of customer expectations. Despite the lack of prying eyes, however there was still Tarrant’s strict expectations to deal with. There was cleaning the bar, ensuring that stocks would be ready for tomorrow, and, of course, counting money and ensuring not a single coin of it went missing. Little by little he was clawing his way out, but there was still tonight to get through. One thing at a time.

It had been a mercifully quiet evening, and Tarrant had gone to sleep an hour before, leaving Lawrence to manage everything. He turned down how much the lanterns burned to a dim light; it was enough to see what he was doing, and to put on a front that the place was closed for the evening. He quickly set about cleaning the establishment, wiping down the bar with a rag and moving to clear mugs and glasses away to be cleaned later. “No sticky spots!” Tarrant had scolded. “This establishment is a place of refinement for the appreciation of fine liquor, not some hovel for lowborn to act as swine.” As if.

He honestly preferred working alone like this. Though it left him alone to clean up everything, it gave him a semblance of liberty that he so desperately craved. The façade of running and managing his own little place in a medieval city. Though, granted, there wasn’t much he could talk about with customers. Listening to the gossip and drama of the city and surrounding lands did make for decent entertainment, at least. There was all the buzz about that recent invasion or something about how one count was attacking another, it was all a blur, really.

As he set about wiping down the bar, Lawrence spotted a dark silhouette against one of the windows out of the corner of his eye. The silhouette was of a man, with bushy hair and a hunched over frame that stalked and towards the side of the building.

Towards where the side door was, which lead directly into the backroom storage.

“Son of a bitch,” Lawrence muttered. It was Chauncy again, the vagrant that had been the bane of his existence ever since he started here. An utter nuisance, he was a complete alcoholic who seemed to constantly scheme at getting his thirst for booze satisfied however he could. Between harassing customers and begging right next to the bar, he had been a thorn in Tarrant’s side and, consequently, Lawrence’s as he was inevitably assigned to deal with him. Yet even by driving him away by daylight, he’d only got worse over time. Now he couldn’t even let him just pass by without paying him mind, especially at night. The last time it happened he walked directly into storage and drank himself into a stupor, right in the middle of it. Though the door had a lock on it now, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he decided to try and break in.

The worthless guards didn’t bother helping since they had apparently thought the most moral option was to just let himself drink into oblivion. They failed to understand that was money they expected to be given away, and money that specifically came out of Lawrence’s pocket. Damnable altruism. Of course it was the same here as it was back at home.

At least they had the decency to not care when he took matters into his own hands, or more specifically an axe handle, to drive him off. Not quite as dangerous as the sword, but it was more legally acceptable to scare someone with a club than with sharpened steel.

Taking his trusty baseball bat adjacent with him, Lawrence quietly stalked to storage with a lantern in hand, ready to repel the repugnant booze raider. He worked quickly to unlock the side door and stepped into the darkened alley. Chauncy was immediately to his left, sitting slumped against the wall, naturally. All that was left was confrontation.

“OY!” Lawrence growled, tapping the axe handle against the door frame. “How many times do I have to go over this with you, you booze hound? You aren’t going to stink up the place with your vagrancy, and you’re sure as hell not going to waltz in whenever you please to drink yourself stupid. Beat it, before I beat you!” Chauncy did not respond with his typical muttering and slurred speech and didn’t stumble off when the threat was issued, as was the routine. More disconcertingly, he simply tilted his head slowly over and looked at Lawrence out of the corner of his eye before looking away. Afterwards, he sat unmoving in his position, practically a challenge.

Despite the lack of action, Lawrence took a step back from the scene, put off by the lack of a response. Something was wrong, something horribly wrong. He’s never been like this, every single hair on his body was standing on end. Still, what could that drunk even do? Lawrence still had the handle, as good a bat as any, and he should be covered legally, if what Tarrant told him was true about property and driving folk off. And hey, if he fought back, he was perfectly fine to deal with it as he saw fit! His grip tightened on the handle as he stepped forward.

Between losing on his salary and having to beat off a drunk, he preferred the latter.

He raised the handle upwards, delaying his swing for a moment to wait for a reaction, before bringing it down as a hammer of order. Mid-swing, Lawrence noticed the gleam of steel emerge from one of Chauncy’s hands as it was thrust towards him. Aborting his swing, Lawrence awkwardly brought the handle back upwards to deflect the blade going for his belly. With deceptive speed, Chauncy stood up and grabbed Lawrence by the cuff of his shirt, bringing him face to face with the vagrant’s unusually sharp gaze. For a moment, the two locked eyes with one another, each trying to intimidate the other. So this was the bastard’s plan, Lawrence thought, then fine.

Dropping the lantern, Lawrence brought his own hand up to cup the vagrant’s skull, before shoving his thumb in his eye socket. With a startlingly high-pitched grunt, Chauncy released Lawrence and shoved him away with fierce strength. Recovering his footing, Lawrence thought nothing but to end the fight, now that Chauncy was off balance. Chauncy seemed surprisingly brutal when he seemed sober, a strength he couldn’t allow to regain its bearing. When Chauncy made a wild swing with his knife, Lawrence was quick to punish him, swinging his handle to strike at the knife hand to get Chauncy to it. With a dull clink, Chauncy’s arm went wide across his body as the handle made impact with it. The knife, shockingly, was still firmly in his grip. Hoping to pin Chauncy with his back turned to him, Lawrence moved to smash his hand against the wall, hoping thusly to disarm him and to teach him manners.

Grabbing his wrist, Lawrence noticed, with horror, that Chauncy’s wrist was not as thick as he remembered it to be. In fact, it seemed as if his arm had ENDED with the knife, as if grafted upon a stump! Repulsed by the visualization, Lawrence thought to bring the bat about to strike Chauncy across the head with a backswing, hoping the shock would be enough to end the fight. But as he brought it around to swing, he spotted another gleam in the darkness, hurtling straight towards his head.

Jerking his head back, he flinched as he felt the handle shatter into splinters in his hand, something metallic impacting against the stone wall as he made distance from the beggar. He looked to the remains of his weapon, now utterly destroyed, as he looked back to Chauncy in fear. Now, not only did Chauncy have the knife for his hand, but now something else lurked in the darkness with him, a spearhead like appendage that trailed downwards behind him like a snake. Of course it wasn’t Chauncy, of course there was something wrong about all of this!

Slowly, in the brief pause of the conflict, Lawrence debated between trying to run and standing his ground and drawing his sword. He couldn’t hear anyone coming down the street, but he’d probably be better in the open than in this alley with whatever was glaring murderously at him. Unconsciously, Lawrence took a step backwards as he tried to contemplate a plan of action; it was the excuse the thing before him needed.

Quickly closing the distance, the thing launched the spear at his head, as the dagger in its sleeve disappeared from sight. Deftly ducking the spear, Lawrence reached for his sword, only to have his wrist grabbed midway across his chest and shoved against his body. The Chauncy-thing’s other hand shoved against Lawrence’s face, pushing him down to the stone street as he felt his leg pulled out from beneath him. The side of his face being pushed against the ground, Lawrence reached out with his free hand to push away at Chauncy, only to witness the tail transform into another blackened hand before it pulled his own away. It was over. He was done. Pinned to the street, Lawrence just knew death was standing over him, whatever it was Chauncy was.

“Stupid, stupid man.” The Chauncy thing spoke, its voice not Chauncy’s own. “You could have just listened to your instincts and walked away, but no. You just had to go and get my dander up!” The thing pressed Lawrence harder into the street, as if to emphasize the point. “You chose the wrong person to slight with your poor excuse of a threat. But don’t worry, when I release from whatever sad life you led up to this moment, you may rest knowing that I will be the last one to enjoy your little life.” Out of the corner of his eye, and through the Chauncy-thing’s fingers, he could see it.

The gleam in the eye, that familiar look of superiority, that familiar line, that horrid, crunching of bone as his jaw distended into a worm-like maw of razor-sharp teeth…

Christ alive, was that-

“Christ!” Lawrence muttered through gritted teeth, “Miri?! Ish…that-”

The Chauncy thing paused, its mouth returned to normal as the pressure against Lawrence’s face subsided. Its face contorted to confusion at the expletive, and the name that was muttered. “How do you…” With a sudden shock, the thing stopped pressing against Lawrence’s face and gripped it, forcing him to look directly into his eyes. “…Lawrence?!”

“Hey! Miri!” Lawrence joyfully called out, his fear quickly dissipating for however dim a hope recognition was. “Hey! Sorry about the handle and all that, I, I didn’t know it was you! I mean, you understand the need of protecting one’s business endeavors I hope right? Hey, it was nothing personal and I’d really appreciate it if you let me up and please, God, don’t kill me.” The Chauncy-thing, Miri, withdrew from her stranglehold on Lawrence, who took the opportunity to sit up from the ground. Miri characteristically put her..his…her Chauncy-like hand up to her chin as a feminine, more familiar chortle escaped her chest. More and more of those haughty mannerisms reared their heads as she looked upwards, amused at the entire situation, as her tail wagged behind her.

“My, my~! Lawrence dear! I hardly recognized you, wearing such a dumb little hat at this hour!” Miri flicked a finger at Lawrence’s brimmed hat, teasing him for his choice in attire.

“Uhm, well, I like thank you very much!” Lawrence deflected. “But hey y’know, for dumb as it looks, it looks even dumber with you having mounted me like this out in public.” As if remembering where she was, Miri quickly dismounted from Lawrence and helped him back up. “Thank you.” Lawrence continued. “I know this seems a little quick, but how about we catch up on this conversation inside? We’ll look a lot less suspicious than talking out in an alley at this hour and I’ll even close the door behind me this time.” Miri pursed her lips in thought and crossed her Chauncy-arms.

 “Hm, I’m not sure…” She mused. “I was hoping to find one more easy meal before I moved on tonight. Things have been getting a bit touchy around here as of late.”

 “Ah c’mon, you’re starting to sound like me. Surely you’ve enough time for a drink or two?” Miri looked off elsewhere as she mulled over the offer.

 “…will you be covering?” She asked. Lawrence stopped himself from cringing as he considered the potential cost she might run him.

 “Of course! Only right for a host to provide to a guest he invited!” She gave a toothy smile (what was considered toothy, for whatever teeth Chauncy had had left) at the response.

 “Why that sounds lovely~.” Despite the positive answer, Lawrence could feel a sense of static on the breeze, an air of suspicion that filled the alleyway.

 “Great! Just, ah, keep your voice down while we’re inside.” Lawrence warned, hoping the disclosure would help keep Tarrant out of things. “The last thing I need is a complaint about noise.” With a cheeky gesture to her mouth, Miri followed Lawrence into the back storage, and into the main bar area. Halfway inside, Lawrence stopped their entrance and asked, “Oh, uh, would you happen to know where Chauncy is, by the way?”

“What the beggar?” Miri asked. “Yes. They’ll probably find him when they comb the city tomorrow for bodies on the witch hunt. Most likely to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t.”

“O-Oh…” Lawrence shakily replied. He had heard about the hunters that were staying in town recently, supposedly on the lookout for some sort of doppelganger, as they put it. To think, Miri was probably the one that was responsible for bringing them around! Though he also breathed a slight sigh of relief. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Chauncy anymore; and, of course, that it was her to begin with. He doubted any other kind of imposter would quite as welcome to conversation.

Locking the side door, and dimming the lights further to near darkness, Lawrence showed Miri to one of the clean bar stools available. Lawrence asked, keeping his voice down the entire time, “So is there anything I can-” before stopping himself as he looked back at Chauncy’s face staring back at him. A disconcerting situation, knowing the man who it belonged to was probably a mere husk at this point. “Miri, I’m sorry. Can you…turn back to your regular face or something? Seeing his face like this is just hitting me right in the uncanny valley.” Miri raised a brow before silently shifting her face back to its true, infernal form; horns, fangs, and all.

“The ‘uncanny valley?’ I presume you mean it’s that point where shifters such as myself are frustratingly close to emulating one of your kind, but off the mark just enough to the point where we’re instantly recognizable as nonhuman.”

“That’s the gist of it.” Lawrence replied. “Ah, but before we get too far into me, let’s get into you. Anything in particular you like?”

“Well…” Miri replied, considering her options. “What do you have?”

“Well, if it’s something you can find in the empire or the theocracy, I probably have it.” Miri’s expression lit up at the presumed variety.

“Oooh, do you happen to know how to make a thing called ‘Eternal King’s Last Sup?’” Lawrence racked his brain trying to remember if anyone has ever ordered something like it, to no avail.

“I don’t believe I do.” He answered.

“Ah! Don’t worry about it. It’s a special drink mix anyways. If you can’t do it then I’ll have some Taganair wine if you have it.” Lawrence winced at the alternative. Taganair wine was expensive, and a missing glass would certainly be noticed. Noting that it would put a dent in this week’s salary, Lawrence decided to inquire on the other option.

“Well, what’s the drink mix? If I have the booze needed for it, I can try my hand at making it.” As if on que, Miri began to list off the specific recipe details of the mix.

Lawrence almost wept. Miri listed several expensive liquors that were required for the mix, along with various little embellishments that were imperative for the overall taste. Of course she’d have the most expensive tastes it really was he was back at home. Miri must have noted the distress on his face as she stopped her recounting of the exact number of swirls needed to mix the booze together. “Is everything quite all right Lawrence? You look rather wan. If it’s the mix I can help cover the cost; money’s a means to an end for me.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Lawrence rebutted. He had offered, after all. “I just, need to get the stuff from the back.” Lawrence excused himself from the bar and took his time gathering the liquor, trying to figure out how the hell he was going to hide the difference later. He could probably fill them part way with water, which should fool Mr. Tarrant. It’s not often that anyone ordered them either, so he could probably get away with explaining away the taste by adding a drop or two of grain alcohol from the alchemist. Not that the customers would notice the difference.

Hopefully.

Lawrence made several trips for the bottles (and the odd orange), not wanting to risk clinking them together and making unnecessary noise. The ingredients assembled on the bar, Miri asked, “Will you need me to recount the recipe, Lawrence?”

“No, no I should have it all. Uh, it’s Worsely before Faifnar right?” Lawrence clarified.

“Yes, it is.” Miri replied, straight backed in her seat. Without a word Lawrence got to work, combining the spirits in the specific order requested in a glass. That old feeling, that sense of danger Lawrence had when he first met with the demoness before him, was back. Not quite as pervasive, but still a spike in his chest as he kept to his own work. But despite the obvious fear, there was something else present, a dull, hollow throb in his chest he couldn’t put his finger on. It was just adrenaline, from the tussle in the alley, he thought. Standing across a bar little less than arm’s length from the patron before him, a mass murdering demoness, probably didn’t help matters any.

“Y’know Miri,” Lawrence started, hoping that conversation would calm his nerves. “I, y’know, it- you seem to not mind me calling you that nickname I’ve noticed.”

“You’re traipsing closer to the edge on that than you think.” Miri responded. “But I’ll admit you’re tiptoeing it well. The fact you didn’t use it when I was about to kill you is very telling that I might not have to deal with you- watch your elbow by the way.”

“Shit!” Heeding Miri’s warning a little too late, Lawrence accidently elbowed one of the bottles near him, knocking it off the counter. The conversation wasn’t helping at all with his nervousness. However, with sharp reflexes, he managed to catch the bottle just before it could shatter on the ground. He certainly didn’t remember ever being so fast. Maybe it WAS adrenaline. “Well,” Lawrence declared, looking between the recovered bottle and Miri, “seems I’m quick on the draw in general tonight.”

“Very impressive~.” Miri commented as Lawrence continued on with mixing her drink. She let out a little gasp as she leaned into the counter, the Chauncy-esque clothes ruffling against what was probably just Miri’s head on Chauncy’s body; a mental image Lawrence did not enjoy conjuring. “That little display reminds me Lawrence. I thought about your situation and, as a lark, decided to consult an acquaintance of mine about an outsider such as yourself.”

“Really? And what’d that turn up?”

“Basically, just as there are certain outsiders like my kind that manage to force their way in, so too can more divine ones, angels and the like. Though it seems that, on occasion, there are certain other individuals, such as yourself, that manage to make their way in, though it’s usually not without divine intervention that it happens. Apparently, they benefit from certain boons that sprout from their unique presence or mana.”

“Hmm.” Lawrence contemplated the implication as he poured a particularly fruity liquor from on high, as instructed. “Yes that is very interesting…wait,” He set the bottle down and looked Miri in her half-lidded, playful eyes, “are you here to kill me?” Miri let out a throaty chuckle as she leaned into the counter, her tail once again playfully swinging above and behind her. Like a cobra.

“Maybe~.” She coyly responded. “Maybe I just find you too enjoyable to just do away with. Maybe I’m just enjoying a brief pause from my work before I get back to it. Who knows~?” She knew what she was doing, teasing him like that. It seemed par the course with her, but the fact she didn’t end him despite recognizing him was probably the better answer to his question.

“Lovely. Well, enough about my strange little situation,” Lawrence started, his confidence returning as he thought on how to divert any further discussion about his person, “why are you in town? I imagine a place like this is a little too large for you to drain yourself.”

“You’d be right. I’m just checking in on my own little stake of territory since I heard there was trouble recently. You know of succubi, right Lawrence?”

“To an extent,” Lawrence answered, counting the swirls of the drink. “Demonic, sexual predators that drain men and women or something right?”

“Yes, but unlike a lady such as I, those harlots don’t know the beginning of restraint. They find a nice little nest area to dwell in, and instead of biding their time between meals, letting things breath for a bit, they devour any and all they can. No sense of decency or of a long-term plan, just seduce and drain. Day in, day out.”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Lawrence prodded, testing the waters for how far he could go, “did you not drain an entire village not too long ago?”

Miri scoffed at the accusation, scolding, “That’s hardly comparable! It’s not like I had a-” As if catching herself, Miri lifted her body from the bar, holding her hands up to create an invisible barrier for herself to stop at. A very telling answer for Lawrence. She got angry, certainly, but it was of a different shade of fury on the spectrum.

It wasn’t murderous, or even savage, but rather that of annoyed embarrassment. She didn’t seem quite as liable to tear his throat out for saying the wrong thing. Though what was more interesting was her answer to it. Not like she had what? A choice? Restraint? Either he had inadvertently called out her hypocrisy, or poked at some other, personal problem of hers.

Recovering her standing, Miri leaned into the bar, not seductively but certainly more exasperated as she rested her arms across each other. “As I was saying, they have no restraint at all, draining any and all who fall for them. In fact, they’re the reason the hunters are in town as we speak. And me, for that matter.”

“Oh?”

“You were there when I had that dour conversation with the captain. Those gauche, opportunists are constantly trying to creep into my territory and, as a result, ruining the nice little food supply I’ve available.”

“And you’re here to kick them out?”

“Did. Ordinarily I would’ve slaughtered them and been done with it, but with the witch hunters in town I had to get more creative to get things to die down. Rather than dirty my hands with it I thought to help them with their little investigation; give them a false sense of accomplishment. After that, I was thinking to lay low for a while, maybe draw them away by draining some unfortunate traveler elsewhere to have the place to myself. Unfortunately, because those whore’s loins are always on fire and they can’t stop their emotions, they came after me directly.”

“I take it they weren’t successful.” Lawrence noted, seeing the lack of injuries on the demoness.

“Ugh.” Miri rested her head in her hand and looked towards the barren wall of the bar. “They were successful in being a thorn in my side. Going and forcing me to end them instead of waiting to die at the hand of the hunters. Now the hunters will be searching until snowfall and I’m out of a hunting ground. Is that drink ready yet?” She cast a sideways glance to her bartender, visibly bored at the conversation.

“One more thing, that orange topping I think.” Corking the last bottle and setting it aside, Lawrence moved onto the finishing touch of the drink. Taking a knife, he skinned the fruit of its outer layer, a fine mist erupting from the orange as the blade pierced its quarry. Choosing the most promising section of the orange, he quickly retrieved the seed from within and placed the slice on the rim of the drink glass. It was veritable fruit basket of a drink, made up of several fruit-based liquors mixed into a rainbow of various shades of red and violet. If he had to guess, the orange slice was more for presentation.

“Here you are,” Lawrence presented, “One ‘Eternal King’s Last Sup.’ Though I’d be damned if I know why it’s called that.”

“Ah, it’s a little drink I picked up while mixing with the nobility of the Theocracy. It’s something they whip up whenever a new pope is coronated or something like that.” Miri took the glass in hand and brought it half-way to her lips before pausing. She let her eyes trail to the drink before trailing back to Lawrence, that look of suspicion ever present.

“Something wrong?” Lawrence asked, playing things coolly.

“I’ve just had a thought Lawrence,” Miri mused, eyeing the glass, “this is your first Eternal King…why don’t you taste it first?” She offered the drink back, putting forth a façade of playful confidence. “It’ll help you get the taste for it in the future, as well as a little sample in case you like it.”

It was a bullshit excuse and Lawrence knew it. “What’s the matter?” He teased in response. “I figured poison didn’t work on your kind. Does that mean alcohol don’t work either if that’s the case?” Miri wordlessly set the glass down on the bar in response. “Suit yourself.” Taking a small spoonful of the mix with the mixing spoon, he dropped a sample onto the side of his thumb near the wrist before supping it down.

The taste was as expected, a vitriolic punch of alcohol that was accented by a veritable grab bag of fruity flavors, of apples, oranges, grapes, and cherries. Physically wincing at the taste, he cocked his head to the side as he took in the flavors of each of the alcohols mixed with one another. Worsely, the orange focused spirit mixed glumly with the Faifnar apple, and the combination of cherry from the Banai and the grape taste from the Neutone served as a bittersweet capstone to the entire affair. Overall, it tasted as a gluttonous, overpriced drink special you’d see in a cheap bar.

“Certainly fruity. I’ll give it that.”

“Never hurts to test the waters, Lawrence. Yes, poison has no effect, and I’d truly have to try in order to get drunk. Not that I ever look to do it, mind you.” Miri took up the glass once again and took a sip from it. Upon letting the liquor touch that devilish tongue of hers, Miri swooned with pleasure as her eyes rolled upwards in satisfaction. The glass, now, was a quarter empty. “Mmh, goodness. It’s been so long since I’ve had one of these.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” Lawrence responded. “Sad to hear about your, uh, territory thing, but cool to hear you’re doing well overall.” Without anything else to add to the conversation, the ball essentially in Miri’s court, Lawrence restarted his nightly duty to clean the bar. Grabbing the previously discarded rag, he started to idly wipe down the bar to rid it of sticky splotches of spilt alcohol and ale as he let his patron partake in her drink. He didn’t pay her much attention, in all honesty. He was satisfied enough to give her a moment of rest and a relaxing drink to enjoy.

It’s why he jumped when Miri suddenly asked, “What do you want from me Lawrence?”

“Ehb, pardon?” He stammered. Miri was looking directly at him, her drink resting against the bar. Her eyes were stern, with an equally serious expression that sent a chill up Lawrence’s spine.

“Quit with the sweet talk Lawrence. What are you buttering me up for?”

“I’ve absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” Lawrence denied. “’Buttering you up?’ I’m just being nice is all.”

“That’s what irking me. Why ARE you being so nice to someone who’s nearly killed you on several occasions? What are you hoping to get out of this?” Miri demanded.

“That’s…actually a really good question.” Lawrence paused his wipe down of the bar and held his own chin in thought. Why WAS it he was being so kind with his money that he so desperately needed? And why Miri, who has nearly slaughtered him several times in the past, let alone the past couple of minutes, and not towards someone like Chauncy? And why is it that, even with everything calmed down now, why did it feel like his heart was going to pound out of his chest? Why was his chest still throbbing?! Why did it feel so, so, EMPTY? “Let’s see…actually, I got one. As much as I hate to say this, I think you’re the one person who bothered listening to me about where I was from or the crap I put up with, and with interest at that! And, as dopey as it’ll sound, it was kind of you to tell me where I was, as well as regaling with your home, in exchange.”

Miri was visibly taken aback at the answer. “What, you think I’m…” After an amused scoff, she let out a loud “HA!” before quieting herself down as Lawrence hurriedly shushed her. He glanced upstairs, waiting to hear the creaking of floor of Tarrant waking up over Miri’s prattling. “A ‘kind person.’ That’s rich of you. Wiser humans wouldn’t dare to call me a person Lawrence, for good reason. I think you’re mistaking a passing interest for genuine concern.” If Tarrant had woken up, he’d hear the floorboards creaking, Tarrant was fat enough that he should hear it. At least, he thought he should hear it, from when he went upstairs earlier tonight.

Sure he didn’t hear Tarrant wake up, Lawrence turned his concern back to Miri. “I think you’re being too grand with how inhuman you are. You’re thinking and talking like anyone else, so the fact you listened to me warrants some respect, at least to me.”

“If you say so.” Miri took another drink of her Eternal King, her glass only half full, half empty. A bemused look came across her face as a thought came to her. “I say…on the topic of you, how ever did you come into a place such as this Lawrence? I didn’t take you as one to quickly learn about alcohol, let alone to hit the ground for running a business.”

“What? Ah, nah, nah!” Lawrence quickly attempted to deflect. “I mean, it’s nothing. There’s really nothing to it really. Nothing at all.”

“Come now. You can’t expect me to believe you just had the knowledge to know what to stock in a place like this, or the contacts to get them in the first place.”

“Hey, maybe I happened to find a book or something about how to run the place or what to stock for a fine establishment such as this!”

A masculine voice called out from the staircase on the other side of the bar, “You mean the fine establishment that I LET you run, Lawrence.” Lawrence tensed up in utter fear as his worst-case scenario began to play out before him. He looked to the stairs, to the bulbous, perpetually red-faced owner, Mr. Tarrant, his boss. His owner. How on Earth did he not hear him coming down the stairs?!

“MR. TARRANT!” Lawrence stuttered, withdrawing his arms closer to his body. “I was, Uhm,” Getting caught with Miri was assuredly a death sentence, what with her infernal nature. He quickly glanced to Miri, trying to figure out her reaction to things, as well as to look to her for direction, only to find that Miri had shifted her head to look like Chauncy once again, completing her disguise.

“What is he doing in here?” Mr. Tarrant demanded in a low, serious tone as he waddled down the rest of the stairs. “And moreover, what is HE doing with a glass of MY liquor?!” Turning the lights down on the interior lanterns had been a good decision, he couldn’t see Miri’s true face clearly from where he was.

Ok, he was safe from being burned at the stake. Though there was still the matter of serving liquor after hours…

“He uh, he came in while I was closing.” Lawrence replied, leaning against the bar and putting a hand in his pocket. He still had his pocket gold on him; he could use this! Maybe he could bribe him, in a way. “He had coin enough for a drink, so I figured he’d be fine with no one else in here.” Tarrant, with an ever-present glare, made his way over to the bar and stood next to Miri who kept to her hunched over look in her seat, eyes wide like a guilty party caught in a crime. She glanced over to Tarrant, much in the same fashion as she did Lawrence earlier. Dear god what was she going to try and pull?

“Get out of here you DRUNK.” Tarrant growled in Miri’s face. “I don’t want your stench anywhere near this place. So help me if Lawrence won’t take the handle to you I will! Get lost!”

Miri stared at Tarrant for a brief moment, casting a glance over at her drink. Lawrence could practically see the wheels turning in her head, as if she were considering every little option for what to say, or to say anything at all. Was she considering if Tarrant would recognize what Chauncy should sound like? Abruptly, Miri gave a curt, bum-like “Yes’m.” before pushing away from the bar counter. Lawrence watched, with a sinking heart, as his only potential collaborator for a deception walked right out of the door, leaving him alone to deal with his ogre of an employer.

Tarrant turned to Lawrence, standing directly across the bar from him. “You say he paid?” He asked.

“He did.” Lawrence replied.

“Show me.” Quietly, Lawrence took out his gold pouch and began to count the amount he would need to give over. He’d need to be careful; he hadn’t had the chance to put away any of the liquor bottles, let alone to refill them. If he knew Tarrant any, he’d already have the total calculated in his plump skull. Looking at the amount he had on hand, he was going to have to use all of the gold in his personal spending money. He’d just have to go the month without a visit to the bathhouse.

“There you are.” Lawrence dutifully answered, handing the gold over to Tarrant for inspection. “That’s just about all he put in. From what I’ve counted it should more than cover-”

The slap was sudden and powerful, and made ever more painful with the adage of the karat gold.

Lawrence fell to the ground, the clatter of coins following him as he was momentarily stunned from the blow. “That’s for letting the booze hound drink in here.” Tarrant scolded. As Lawrence stood up from the blow, Tarrant helped him up by pulling him upwards by the collar of his shirt, before sending him back to the ground with another powerful slap. His hat flew off from the force of the blow, exposing his buzz cut head. “And that’s for letting anyone drink in here after hours, despite my strict directions!” Yet again, Lawrence felt himself pulled up by the collar as Tarrant practically dragged him across the bar, bringing him face to face with his fury. “Are you trying to ruin my establishment Lawrence? What have I told you time and time again?! Image is everything for this place! And I can’t have someone like Chauncy polluting it with his stink! You’re not purposely trying to ruin this place are you? You DO remember the debt you owe me don’t you?!”

Fighting back the urge to gag from Tarrant’s breath, Lawrence forced himself to shake his head and to spit out, “I haven’t forgotten, Mr. Tarrant.”

“Then you know that what you did was wrong, right?” Lawrence gritted his teeth. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Then you know you’ll have to pay to fix this wrong.” Damn it! If Lawrence knew Tarrant any, it was going to be a week’s salary that he’d be taking! A week’s worth of time for the debt to rack up!

“Of course, Mr. Tarrant.” Lawrence responded.

“Good. Then clean the bar and get ready for tomorrow. I’ll have no more of this nonsense tonight.” As Tarrant released Lawrence, he turned to leave before pausing where he stood. He turned back to Lawrence and once again grabbed him by the collar. “Actually, one more to make sure the point sticks.” Lawrence braced himself for another blow as Tarrant brought his arm upwards to wind up for his final strike.

A strike that, thankfully, never came.

A clawed hand grabbed Tarrant’s wrist from behind, stopping his arm mid swing. As the bar owner turned to face whatever had so rudely stopped him, his expression turned from incredulous anger to utter horror when he realized the injector was a horrific demoness. Another hand gripped his throat, forcing him against the bar as the demoness glared into his eyes, some unknown power forcing the fat bastard to go limp in her grasp. Wordlessly, Tarrant stood up from his slouch against the bar and was allowed to slowly trudge back upstairs to his room, like a puppet on string. Miri had dropped all pretenses of her disguise, her true form laid bare for Lawrence to take in. That same wily, womanly form.

“You did it again.” Lawrence quipped, rubbing at his cheek.

“Nonsense,” Miri denied, lacking her usual suave tone, “I simply didn’t finish my drink.” Miri sat back down at her seat and collected her drink glass, taking another sup of her order. “I can only assume you haven’t been at all truthful with me.”

“Gee, what gave that away?”

“Come now, we’re well acquainted with one another Lawrence. We shouldn’t be hiding such minor details from one another. I told you what I was up to, didn’t I?” Lawrence, feeling as though he was being disarmed of any wittiness he had stored up, let his shoulders slump in defeat.

“Ah, what the hell.” He admitted, caving in to the probing. “I’m going to be honest, things have gone to complete shit.” Lawrence leaned into the bar as Miri idly tended to her own glass of booze. “The stuff I picked up from where we met didn’t sell well at all; not the gold, the blades, nothing. Nobody would give me any deals or hire me for anything either, due to being a complete stranger. With the weather getting colder and colder, I couldn’t stay in the vagrant camp any longer and made the mistake of begging for shelter in exchange for service.”

“Hmm.” Miri hummed. “Fell for the indentured servitude trap, did you? I assume he’s providing a bed and food, which he deducts from your pay, if it’s even enough to pay for it. Is that why you cut and tried to hide your hair?” Lawrence reached a hand to his head, just now realizing he wasn’t wearing his cap.

“Yes, actually. Tarrant forced me to cut it. Said that it would scare customers or something like that. Anytime I ‘mess up,’” Lawrence bent his fingers for emphasis on the sarcasm, “or even appear to slight him, he either hits me or docks my pay and I can’t do anything about it.” Lawrence looked down at the bar as he recounted his dreary experience working with Tarrant, and of tending the bar in his stead. “For fuck’s sake, I can’t even talk to anyone else about it. It seems like everyone either just brushes me off or ignores me. Almost like they can tell that I don’t belong here and, as a result, want nothing to do with me. Even the regulars that come in barely wish to talk to me at times. And even when I CAN talk to them, I barely understand what it is they’re talking about in the first place. From politics to whatever drama is going on in town, I just, can’t connect to them whatsoever.”

Lawrence paused in his account, almost on the verge of tears, as Miri idly stared at him, expecting him to continue. “But you want to know the worst part about all of it though, Miri?”

“Worse than the beatings?” She mused.

“Yeah, worse than that.” Miri, seemingly interested now in his plight, set her glass down on the counter and leaned inwards to absorb every word. A glass mostly empty. “It’s not enough that I’m stuck here, practically a slave, that can’t even connect with other people. It…it feels like I’m right back at square one.”

Miri raised a brow. “’Square one?’”

“All my life it’s felt like I’ve been getting led along. From following in someone’s footsteps, living in their shadow, or being told every little thing I needed to do. It’s as if I’ve never gone in a direction that I’ve wanted.” Miri cocked her head in curiosity, a very visible tell to elaborate. “I mean, I just, want to set out on my own path, for once. I don’t want anyone else lording over me, telling me what to do with my life. And now I’m in the exact opposite of where I want to be.” Slumping fully against the bar, Lawrence resigned himself to wallowing in the misery of his situation.

“Sounds like you’re stuck in a place you don’t want to be.” Miri commented.

“I just don’t know what to do. It’s not like I can get another job or even just punch Tarrant. He’ll just call the authorities on me for trying to evade my debt and they’ll throw me in prison.” Lawrence let a half-lidded eye drift back to Miri who took to finishing her drink. Sitting up straight, she set the empty glass on the counter and filled it with a shot from the nearby Faifnar bottle before pushing it closer to Lawrence. A glass empty, but now refilled, if only partially.

“I don’t suppose you’re hinting that I should call in that favor?” Lawrence questioned.

“Not at all.” Miri answered softly. “But I do have an idea of what you’re going through. Tell you what Lawrence, I’ll help you.” Lawrence raised his head from his arms, looking at his infernal companion with suspicion. “Keep the favor. Consider this a free blessing.”

“Really now.” Lawrence questioned. What was she getting up to? “What exactly are you thinking?”

“If memory serves me correctly, then the laws of inheritance of property here in Threnfollow go as such: blood heirs first, then to whomever is closely associated with the deceased. This includes servants, indentured or not, whose debts are doubly forgiven due to the passing of whomever holds it.” Of course that’s what she was getting up to.

“I see. I assume you’re not worried for any investigation?”

“With what I plan to do his death will be so unnatural that no one should suspect you. I don’t believe anyone’s seen me entering this place or conversing with you, so no worry of an investigation there. Do you know if the fat man had any distant relations or family?” She was looking at him with a neutral expression now. Not angry, not devilish, not even self-satisfied. It was as if she were merely discharging a duty of service that she had done time and time again. Lawrence shrugged in response.

“Never talked about ‘em.”

“I see. It’s not a problem, I’ll ask him myself. Where do you typically sleep?”

“A room separate from where he typically sleeps.”

“Alright. I’m going to deal with him while he’s in bed then. What’s your typical routine from this hour onward?”

“I typically clean up the bar, get it ready for tomorrow, then go to bed. I usually work quickly so I don’t go to bed too late. I presume I’ll tell them of my usual routine?”

“Exactly. When those witch hunters inevitably ask you what you did tonight, and if you’ve seen Tarrant, you’ll tell them you closed up, as per usual, and you went straight to bed and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Don’t add any details you don’t need to; they’ll look for anything that can contradict your story. Understood?”

“Got it.” Lawrence nodded.

“Good.” Miri moved to stand but stopped herself as she looked at Lawrence’s face. “Goodness, you’re already starting to swell up.” As if remembering what happened, Lawrence winced as the soreness in his cheek swelled up all at once.

“Damn it that actually smarts.” He cursed, tasting the blood pooling in his mouth.

“Let me see.” Miri reached across the bar and pulled Lawrence’s hand away from his face, getting a better view of the bruising. “Oh my, that’s actually starting to welt up. Did he strike you with those coins you were giving him?”

“He did.”

“Such a brute that man. Here, I’ll help make it feel better.” Before Lawrence could react, Miri gently pulled him forward over the bar and planted her soft, velvet lips upon his cheek. With a soft peck, she kissed the site where he had been struck before pulling away. Lawrence clutched at his cheek as Miri gave him a small grin as she pulled away from the bar. “Take care Lawrence. Oh, and say a bottle hit you on the cheek as you were putting it away.” Miri, in all her seductive glory, sauntered towards the stairs and upwards to Tarrant’s room.

Who did she think she was? Giving a man a random kiss on the cheek like that? Recoiling from the sudden display of what had to be faux affection, another thought crossed Lawrence’s mind. A question he had been meaning to ask ever since that day in the woods. “Hey, Miri,” Lawrence called out. Miri stopped where she was on the stairs, a hand resting on the handrail. “Just one more thing.”

“Yes, Lawrence?”

“Why did you leave me alone that day?”

“…What do you mean?”

“When I learned your name. You said you worked hard to have forgotten. Why didn’t you just off me then and there?” Miri, who had not been one to break eye contract from distress, turned her head away from Lawrence and towards the wall. She stayed in that position for some time, as if contemplating how to answer in a fashion as Lawrence did earlier. With how haughty she was, it struck Lawrence that she was being exceptionally careful with the words she chose.

“I…did mean it when I said I enjoyed our conversation. I thought it’d be a shame for such an interesting outsider such as yourself to perish so quickly in this world. Good luck in your future endeavors, Lawrence.” A cop out answer, but a safe one.

“Take care Miri.” Lawrence responded, eager to say farewell on this occasion. Miri didn’t turn back to Lawrence as she ascended the stairs, leaving Lawrence to nurse his hurts and his bar. Seeing no other course, he took the glass Miri had filled for him and downed the shot in a single gulp. The taste of the alcoholic apple was sharp, to be sure, but a refreshing boost as he continued with his regular cleanup of the bar. Once he had finished and locked up, he journeyed upstairs and past Tarrant’s bed, deathly silent from his usual snoring, into his crummy little closet of a room. Slumping into his own bed, it took some time for sleep to come over him.

A glass empty, but eager to be refilled.

******************************************************************************

 Lawrence awoke the next morning to find Tarrant a dried husk in bed, the window leading outside fully open with curtains fluttering in the chilly fall breeze. Because of the preternatural nature of the barkeep’s death, and Lawrence’s “ignorance” as to what happened, no indictments were given. Blame, therefore, was instead levied on the same fiend that had drained Chauncy and so many others in town. Frustrated by their lack of progress, the witch hunters eventually left, pursuing the trail of infernal influence that led elsewhere in the kingdom.

 Several days later, the only blood heir to Tarrant’s bar and Lawrence’s debt, Tarrant’s son, was found on the side of a far distant road. He was found dumped in a ditch, his throat slit and missing his gold pouch. As a result, Lawrence was the sole inheritor of the bar, for lack of anyone better. Not that Lawrence complained.


2 Hits