Malost found the wine here in the City of The White Boar a good match for the weather; cold, toneless, and none too agreeable to the palate of those not born of these northern climes.
Toneless or not, he reflected, swaying slightly as he turned from the bar, it serves.
Finding his cup empty and the serving maid being groped by a largish man who had her on his lap, Malost decided he must head to the bar himself. Squinting, he marked its location and set out across a floor that seemed to roll under his feet like the seas surrounding the tiny homeland he’d left behind years ago.
He dropped another coin on the bar, slammed the cup back. Had another served, started on it.
Malost closed his eyes and muttered a prayer.
The smell of salt and sea, gulls crying on the wind, Najia’s smaller hand strong in his.
Malost grinned, rejoicing in the sense of being back on the shores of a place torn from him many measures back.
A belch welled, found release, brought him crashing to the present with its thunder.
He blinked back tears.
Almost, but not quite.
He again closed red-stained eyes, trying to find that place he needed to be, right on the edge…
Two Pathless hunched over a table, one with a tentacle waving, another with a hard shell covering half a twisted face, both before a third Pathless whose malformed skull had a raised crown of points and barbs along the brow.
“Patience,” the Crowned One urged, “the triptych will arrive in a few days. Until then, you must stay here.”
Ignoring the complaints of his companions, the Crowned One drank and upended his cup, ”I will bring more wine, food, and a proper offering before we make the next attempt.”
Malost knew, then, where they were. It was not so far from where he swayed.
Stars, then bright light. A youth, as much boy as man, striding from the light, sun in his hair, speaking words Malost could not hear but understood, despite not knowing his name, to be those of his namesake.
The same boy, now more a man, with grapevine wound through his hair, a song on his lips, and a jug of wine in hand, guiding others through a complex dance.
A sudden push sent Malost stumbling, stiff-legged, from the bar.
An elderly woman, care and tears marking her face more than the years, her hair a mess, coughing, eyes begging a son to stay when her voice failed. The son laughing as he strode out her front door, her few coins jangling in his purse and the last of her wine in hand.
The vision shattered, leaving him breathless and blinking, struggling to gather his thoughts.
A man stood between him and the place he’d occupied at the bar, required a moment more to recognize the broad back as belonging to both the vision itself and the cause of its abrupt end: the son, a local, had shoved him aside, bent on getting a drink.
He briefly considered pointing out, for the benefit of all present, the niceties of tavern manners by way of application of his fists to the softer parts of the man’s anatomy. Concerned he would lose details of the vision in the fog of battle, he decided against it.
Besides, Khadoz waits, and you know how patient that bigoted fuck can be. Still, I cannot let such behavior go unrewarded.
“Vintas bless,” he said, dipping a finger in the wine staining the bottom of his cup and daubing his lips with it. Pulling three full marks from his purse, he waved them at the barkeep over the man’s shoulder. “Barman!”
“What?” the barkeep answered, eyes locked on the silver in Malost’s hand.
“A drink for everyone in the house save this man,” he answered, pointing at the local who’d shoved him aside.
The man still had his back to Malost and didn’t realize he was to be left out until everyone’s eyes came to rest on him and the taproom grew silent with their regard. He slowly turned to face the room as the barkeep moved to fill Malost’s order.
“What’s this?” the local asked, one big hand tight on a tankard.
Reaching past him, Malost slapped the coins down on the bar, said in a voice that cut across a sudden quiet in the taproom: “What is this?” he waved a hand at the other patrons, “Well, for the rest of these folk, it’s a free round of drinks on me. For you, it’s nothing, nothing but the shame of having these fine folk know you robbed your own mother of money for her medicine just so you could get the drink in your gut.”
The man’s face went whiter than was usual, even for a northerner.
“That true, Pellon?” someone called from further down the bar, as Malost knew they would.
“I-“ Pellon reached for rage-filled denial, but the words could not come at his call, seeming caught in his throat.
“I always knew you for a low sort, Pellon, but that’s just foul!” someone else shouted as Malost stepped away.
More than one hiss from the crowd, then a voice shouted: “Let’s have our drink, then go round to Pellon’s home and see what we can do for her, eh?” the same voice as asked if the story were true. Malost tracked the words to their owner, saw a man rosy with good health and a few cups, and said a silent prayer for him.
A general rumble of agreement with man’s idea was still making the rounds of the taproom as Malost stepped, unobserved, out into the cold northern night.
The ice on the wind made his face prickle and kicked him with the sudden urge to piss. He paused on the porch of the tavern and quickly undid his trews. Groaning with relief, he drained his bladder and tried to ignore the cold. If the calendars didn’t agree Stag Night is upon us, I’d call any man who said this day marked the first of spring and the first mating of Jagma to Nisha a filthy liar!
“Done?” the lone word issued from the darkness at his elbow.
Not in the least bit finished, Malost’s urine still slowed to an uncomfortable trickle as surprise drew tight what had to be relaxed.
Mahok! No man so big should so quiet. Khadoz must be even more impatient than I thought, to send his favorite torturer.
Looking at his freezing cock, Malost said, “Yes, Mahok, I am done. Go, tell the Quaestor I have what we seek.”
A sweet whistle Malost recognized as a few lines of Inn-Keep’s Daughter, then: “Tell him yourself, he’s still at the inn.”
Malost sighed. “Mahok, do as I say.”
A creak of old boards under the big man as he leaned close enough his breath steamed the air above Malost’s shoulder with each word: “And if I don’t?”
“Then Khadoz will ask why he was unable to attend his duty, and I will tell him you thought of yourself above his duty.”
“No, I would not lie: I won’t be able to find my way from the inn.”
Silence for a space of heartbeats. Then, from some paces away, Mahok resumed his whistling of Innkeep’s Daughter, the sweet tune receding in the direction of their lodgings.
Malost’s bladder required the whistle fade entirely into the distance before releasing.