“Turek demands another!” he shouted, speaking in the third person, which he often reverted to after a flagon of Akevit.
Several other patrons to his right and left turned, while the bartender’s attention remained on the cleaning of the mugs. Turek glared at the man’s back; its frame exceeded his own. Years of tossing out drunkards and halting fights before they destroyed his establishment gave him that build.
Turek shifted in his stool, causing the one short leg to lift up and squeak when it plopped back down. Going to speak, the bartender beat him to it.
“I heard ya… damn fool…” The man picked up another mug with his back still turned. “I’ll get it when you’ve recovered from the last one.”
Turek scowled and patted the knife secured to his hip, under his coat. “Maybe I’ll just bleed you and take another?” He unlatched the weapon.
The bartender, Shempthey called him, halted—not out of fear, but his movement looked like one of irritation. The others seated at the bar tried to pretend they didn’t hear what was said by taking sips of their drinks, but it only made them look more frightened.Shemp set down the mug and rag. His shoulders rotated back as if preparing himself for something.
Turek chuckled.“What you gonna do, old timer?” Shemp was only two years his senior.
The bartender swung around with a shard of glass in his hand. Turek dodged and knocked it away. He slammed his blade into the bartop, it held straight up in the wood. He yanked Shemp face to face. The other patrons froze, eyes fixed on them. Shemp panted through mouth and nose as he stared into Turek’s eyes. He latched onto the blade. “Time to die now.”Shemp’s face went pale.
The bartender pushed him back. “You always take it too far!”
Turek burst into laughter as he leaned back on the stool, almost tipping over.
“You should’ve seen your face!” He motioned to the others at the bar—their eyebrows raised and eyes wide. “Theirs too.”
“Now I got a bloody divot in my new bar top, Turek!” Shemp said as he ran a figure up and down it.
“I’ll pay for it… as always. Besides I need a good laugh on my last day.”
“And stop saying that!”
“It’s true though. Tis my last day gracing this bar, this city, this country, this… everything.”
Shemp snorted as he turned and resettled his clothes into their proper fitting places. The other customers seemed to catch on that what happened, happened regularly and bore no real concern. They went back to their conversations and drinks. Shemp removed a bottle of Turek’s favorite Akevitand reluctantly set it before him.
He removed the cork from the green bottle—the aroma of the familiar spices, shades of dill and parsley, roused him immediately. The drink, his everything now, sang to the one tiny crevice remaining within that still felt joy. Small, indestructible, he knew, for he tried to wipe it out because it made his profession impossible to perfect, but it would die only when he did.
The burnt yellow liquid poured smoothly into his grimy glass—dirtied on the outside by his hands. He threw down the equivalent of three shots without hesitation. The tingle of the pure alcohol soothed the need for drink.
Shempreturned and leaned in with both forearms resting on the bar top. “You’ve been going on how this is your last day. What the hell ya talking bout?”
Turek sniffed once and poured another three shot serving. “Just like it sounds. I’ll be dead by tonight.”
“How would you know about that unless you were performing the act yourself? You’ve certainly performed it enough on others.”
He let out a single laugh as he went to shoot down his drink. Shemp grabbed the glass and set it a few feet away. “No more of this leading on and being vague… you tell me what’s happening tonight! I’ve done saved your skin too many times to be toyed with.” The older man downed the shot himself without flinching.
Turek ran both hands through his greasy brown hair. Like his beard it needed tending to.
“You’re right.” He sighed. “You’re right.” He turned on the stool and stared out the window next to the front door of the establishment.
A litany of merchants, farmers, town folk and even the whores walked by. Mere feet beyond them, the Boa River rushed the trading ships away from the port down south to all manner of destinations. The snow melted over a month ago and the movement of spring commenced.
“Someone’s coming to kill me.” Turek finally spoke, his tone not as serious as it should be for such an admission.
“Surely this isn’t the first time?”
“No it’s not… yet it’s the first time they’ll succeed.”
Shemp grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him back facing the bar—the grimy glass there to greet him. The candlelight shined off his bald head. His face, clean shaven as always, scrunched into an expression between anger and bewilderment.
“Get the hell out of here then. Go somewhere they can’t find ya.”
Turek shook his head. “I’ve arranged for money to be left to you if any damage is done to your place.”
“I’m not worried about this sty!” Shemp whapped a hand against the bar. “I’m worried about a man so lost that he knows death is coming and does nothing to escape it.”
“You get to a point where enough is enough.”
“You’re talking like an old man, one on his last leg. You’ve got a good thirty years left.”
Turek poured himself another three shooter and sent it down to join the first bottle. A tug of hunger panged at his stomach, making him realize he hadn’t eaten in over a day. He ignored it and poured another drink.
“Who’s gonna do it?” Shemp asked, giving up on trying to talk him out of it for now.
“They say,‘he’s the next Turek.’”
“A bounty hunter?” The bartender’s brow furrowed.
All Turek could do was nod.
“Blimey aye son’s a bitches.” Shempspouted his quintessential curse when life’s irony became too much to handle.
A call from the far end of the bar asked for a pint of mead. Shemp left him to cater to the new customer. Turek took down another shot. All the talk of the end made him think of the beginning—his first contract—although not his first kill. A wealthy landowner, they were always wealthy, hired him. The poor couldn’t afford the luxuries of professionals to take out their enemies. Lord Tenow, his name, owned half the city of Ceverdeen on the western border of Reen. He explained to Turek that another lord, by the name of Szetin, had started the rumors of him aligning his political forces against the king. If these rumors gained steam, he could lose everything and even be put to death.
Turek took half the money upfront—the other half when he delivered Stetin’s finger with the family ring attached. It took two days to make it passed the lord’s guards on the outskirts of his land. Then another three to make it inside the castle. On the sixth day he entered the man’s chamber in the cold of night. For hours he sat in a dark corner behind a five century old armoire, listening to the man breath. Neither wind nor bird or pattered toe made a sound while he fought the demons in his head. Every time courage seized control and he went to make his move, fear and the only thing he could describe it as—humanity—dropped him down again.
When day’s first light crept over the hills to the east, the young Turek startled awake. He had fallen asleep, waiting for inspiration or some other force to will his body into killing. As so it happened, panic, became that force. It propelled him into action. With a knife in hand, he rushed to the lord’s bedside and severed all manner of vital parts in the man’s throat. In his haste he almost left without the ring. Cinching it off, before the knuckle, he almost retched at the crackle of bone. It took him another day to escape without being seen.
Upon his arrival back to lord Tenow, he didn’t even care if he received the other half of payment. Although the man compensated him without delay, he reveled his deception. A mark, on the back of his neck, was exposed as he bounced with excitement over the other lord’s death. All usurpers of the king bore this mark. Turek knew he had been lied to. He said nothing of it, made no accusations. Although, he vowed he would never be conned again—and he never was.
Coming back out of his reverie, he watched as Shemp laughed at a simple joke made by the new customer. The bartender knew how to feign interest in others. Turek looked away as the older man deposited some coins in a safe and came back to him.
“I can’t just stand here and wait for you to be murdered.” Shemp wasted no time, trying to save him for a second time.
“You stood there while I murdered others.”
“That was different.” The bartender came closer. “I never saw you do it and never knew any of the folk you sent to the afterlife,” he said in a quieter voice.
“Saw me, knew them—it makes no difference. The deeds were still done.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that you’re being killed for the schemes of others. You were a tool used to fix things.”
“Nevertheless… I’m waiting for this man to remove me.”
“You sound like you won’t even put up a fight.”
He drew the glass to his lips. Its cold surface felt good in the warm tavern. “I don’t intend to…”
“Your stupidity knows no bounds.” Shemp turned away.
Turek finished the drink and held off pouring another. The sound of a woman’s boots came from behind. He caught her out of the corner of his right eye as she stopped at the bar. A tall, yet slender woman with blood red hair wore a violet dress that showed more than ample amounts of thigh and bosom. The boots looked exactly as they sounded. They were of high quality leather, tanned and dyed to a rich dark brown, similar to her skin. Turek new the type, for they had always been his favorite—a lady of the night.
“Barkeep—shot of whisky.” she ordered like the thousand times before.
She turned Turek’s way as Shemp went for the spirit, making no attempt to hide her looking him up and down. No doubt his dour demeanor gave off the “lonely” pheromone. To one such as the heavenly creature before him it was like a wounded rabbit’s cry to a fox.
“A man looks as dark as you should get some sun.” she said as she pulled down her corset slightly to reveal a golden pendent, resembling the great ball of fire in the sky, that hung from her neck and nestled between her breasts.
Turek smirked. A year ago, heck a week ago even this would have been just the antidote to the poison of his thoughts. Not today though. His plan was simple and simple he intended to keep it. Throw a woman into it, even if it did involve money, would only deter him—give him that push to say he could keep going and must avoid his end.
“My heart is like skin burnt by desert rays, for I must hide in darkness to heal my wounded vessel.”
She let out a closed mouth laugh. Much like her walk and manner of words, it was rehearsed. “I think I know that one… Veltera is it?”
“Close. His student—Ishew.”
“Aaahhh… that was my first guess.”
“Always go with your first instinct.” He winked.
“Judging by your looks I would have never guessed you for a poet or a scholar.”
“I beg your pardon, but I could say the same for you,” he responded in jest.
“No pardon needed. I’ve taken worse jabs.”
She downed the shot in an easy motion. Tossing another shem on the bar as a tip, she turned for the door. “If you’re healed by sundown ask the barkeep where to find me.”
Turek bowed his head and watched her leave. She had confident strides—more like a warrior than a siren of midnight. Perhaps that played in her favor. Another gentleman stumbled up from his chair and held the door open for her. She brushed a hand against the man’s cheek, causing him to turn as red as her hair.Turek turned back as he caught the last glimpse of her dress disappear.
“That’s it right there!” Shemp said, rubbing his chin. “There must be a special lady somewhere that is worth staying alive for.”
Turek chuckled. “How long have you known me—ten years?”
“More or less.”
“When have I ever mentioned someone?Recall any times you’ve seen me smitten?”
Shemp thought to himself and gave up after a minute. “Never, I suppose.”
“Exactly.” Turek said as he poured another glass.
“Yes, but men in your profession aren’t keen on dispersing intimate details of their lives. So, start dispersing now.”
“This is foolish.” He paused mid-shot and put it back down. “I’ve been with countless women. I can’t possibly remember any that I had feelings for. Between the tainted whores, lovely dullards, pristine countesses, and other men’s wives, there was no room for love. Besides, laying with a woman you love for a night is far different than one you love for a lifetime… I prefer the former.” He finally took the shot.
“That’s rubbish…” Shemp took the bottle and placed at the back of the bar with the other bottles.
Turek sighed and shook his head, tired of playing this game.
“Every man has one and until you tell me about her, you aint gettin this back.” The older man tapped the cork down till it fit snug.
“Why would you do that?”
“I’m like you. Use a man’s greatest weakness against him.”
Turek stared at him for minute, hoping this would coax Shem to returning the bottle. He held true though with his hands pressed against the bar counter, waiting patiently with a “talk to me” look. Turek knew that look and how stubborn his friend could be. Opening that door to the one, the only one, he ever dared to feel anything with—pain—stifling pain always followed. How he wished he could bore the images, the conversations, the memories from his mind. No tool existed other than death.
“What’s that?” Shem asked, looking genuinely confused.
“Now we’re gettin somewhere. Continue.” The man motioned with his hand as well.
“How much do you want to know?”
Shem just stared at him.
“She had black hair. Not cold like night, but beautiful like a mare’s when it catches the sun.” He took a deep breath to settle the quiver in his chest. The feelings, unearthed after so long, shook him like an earthquake. After a moment he continued. “To call her beautiful is a compliment, yet it is like a half finished poem—incomplete. There is an Ethendian word for such a woman…Wrev…”
“What does it mean?” Shem asked with eyes wide.
“It means: love unhinged, aura ethereal, piety led, strength beyond, thought divine… she was all these things.”
An ache, a gnawing relentless ache, made his arms draw in and wrap around his shoulders—as if he was cold.
“What happened?” Shem asked.
“My father had a saying, the only one I remember him having before he left, ‘Beware the mire of a man with itchy feet.’” He shook his head. “Like my father, I lack the power to live with contentment.”
Shem’s lips pursed and eyes looked off somewhere. “She left you… didn’t she?”
He managed a slight nod as the vision of her dancing toyed with his resolve. “It was my fault though. I believe she left because she was with child and thought it better to raise it alone—without my influence… she was probably right to do it.”
“Did you ever find out for sure?”
“Years later I heard she had a son. Strong lad by others’ accounts. However, I never found out the true reason she left. I know my general unease, which underlined everything during the good times, wore on her. I never bothered her after that.”
Shem laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, mate… forgive me for prodding you down that road again.” He retrieved the bottle of Akevitand placed it directly in front of Turek.
The pop of the cork extracting and the solemn sound of the liquor filling the glass eased the ache slightly. He threw back the shot—dulled it—if but for a minute.
A ring of the bell came from the back wall. “I have to tend to a delivery out back, shouldn’t take long. Keep an eye on the place for a minute, would ya?”
“It’ll be as if you never left.”
Shemp nodded and passed through the back door into the alley. A delivery carriage sat there, waiting for him.
He turned on his stool a little too fast and it took a few seconds for his vision to stop sloshing. When it returned, he scanned the tavern patrons. There were the two to his far left and right seated at the bar. Only three of the twelve tables had people at them—not uncommon for midday on a Tuesday. Each of the tables could accommodate six full-grown men on both sides. In the evenings it was not uncommon for all of them to be full, along with the four cushioned and upholstered chairs at the fireplace and the two round tables tucked in alcoves at both front corners with the windows to their back. He didn’t care for those nights—too loud for one who seldom raised his voice.
One of the tables with three men sitting at it drew his attention. The youngest looking of them with long black hair and a beard to match appeared to be in the middle of an adventurous story. He faced Turek and the two other men. His arms waived like he conducted an orchestra or casted spells. Something caught Turek’s eye. On the inside of the man’s forearm bore a brand of a half-circle. To most it would look like a C or that the mark was incomplete, but he knew better. It was the symbol of the Shabrin Knights, an elite sect in the country ofEiram’s army. The reason for the half circle was to remind one that he was incomplete without one’s brothers. When they greeted each other and shook forearm to forearm the circle completed. Turek knew the symbol well and how deadly its wearers were. He learned this on one assignment, one he’d never forget.