I've had a crap day, so I'm posting this a week ahead of schedule in order that I may feel productive. Cheers!
The inn was one of those Paradiso after-fuck establishments, cheap beds and cheaper booze. It was the sort of place you could stumble into after dawn woke you prostrate in a gutter. This was fortunate for Robert, because that was exactly the position he found himself in.
“Gin and tonic,” Robert told the barkeep, sliding onto a stool with a wince for his aching back. “Light on the tonic.”
The barkeep took in Robert’s rain-soaked hair, wine-soaked cloak, and sewage-soaked boots in a single disinterested glance. No doubt it wasn’t the worst he’d seen on a Bacchanal morning. While he fixed the drink, Robert attempted to smooth his hair back into some semblance of a lord’s knot. It stubbornly resisted. Appropriate, really. He’d never felt less of a noble in his life.
When the gin arrived, Robert knocked it back in a gulp. The vegetable bitterness of it went a long way towards clearing his head. Of course, having a clear head meant that certain details of the night before came rushing back with punishing lucidity.
“I am a fool,” Robert informed the barkeep matter-of-factly. “Very possibly the worst fool the world has ever seen.”
“Don’t know about that, sir,” said the barkeep, rubbing the shine from a glass with a blackened rag. “There’s always that lord wossname, what climbed into the rhinoc’rous cage at the king’s menagerie and got hisself gored to death.”
Robert winced again. “My father, actually.”
The barkeep almost dropped the glass. “I – I didn’t mean nothin’ by it—”
“No, you’re quite right,” Robert said, trying to massage the ache from his temples. “Congenital idiocy. All that inbreeding, no doubt. And don’t look so alarmed, I’m not going to challenge you to a duel for the family honor. Nothing so melodramatic. I’ll be quite content to punish you with my company as you keep the drinks coming.”
The barkeep nodded hastily. “I’ve a nice dry gin in the back if you’d prefer it, m’lord.”
“No, give me the cheap stuff,” said Robert. “If I’m going to keep up the family reputation for drunken stupidity I may as well leave my pretensions at the door.”
The barkeep nodded again, this time a polite incline of the head, coupled with a rather awkward bow. When the drink arrived, there was a slice of lime in it. Robert decided not to comment.
The gin went down less easy this time. Grandfather had insisted that Robert cultivate a palate for fine wine, and drinking bad malt liquor seemed to offend every particle of his tongue. He congratulated himself for managing not to spit the astringent stuff back into the glass.
“My grandfather’s drink, this,” Robert told the barkeep. “It puts him in a pliable mood. I’m sure to pour him one whenever I want my allowance raised.” He took a deep, savoring sip, and gagged. “Ughn. I prefer wine myself, but after tonight—” He shook his head. “Never mind. Pour me another?”
Two drinks later, Robert was beginning to think that it wasn’t that bad, really. Rather earthy, as a matter of fact. Like licking bark.
“It is hereditary, you know,” he told the barkeep, leaning over the bar. “Stupidity. At least on my father’s side. I think my grandfather must have gotten the recessive gene for sense, but him aside, we’ve been idiots all the way back to the second age. Bloody mooncalfs all. Ever in love, ever out…My glass is conspicuously empty, you know.”
Another drink later, Robert was seriously considering giving up wine altogether. Things had gone rather fuzzy around the edges and his insides were pleasingly warm and rumbly.
“It’s forgetting that’s the problem, you see. And just when you think you’ve managed it—” He trailed off. “What was I talking about again?”
“You were explaining to me about your Lord Adrian what gave you the drip,” said the barkeep helpfully.
Robert winced. “Ah. Yes. Right. I think that indicates another drink is in order.”
Another drink was quickly furnished. Robert downed it, pushed the empty glass back across the bar, and wiped his mouth with his hand.
“Right,” said Robert. “I’m going to tell you a story. It’s important – terribly important that I tell it to someone. And here you are. Someone of absolutely no consequence who has to listen to me. Perfect audience, really.”
“Glad to be of service, m’lord,” said the barkeep, refilling Robert’s glass.
“Quite right,” said Robert. “What did you say your name was?”
“They call me Half,” said the barkeep. “Half Johnson.”
Robert choked on his drink. “I – what an interesting name.”
“’Cos I’m half Johnson, y’see,” the barkeep explained. “On me mum’s side.”
“Ah,” said Robert. “Right. That sort of…johnson.”
“Your story, m’lord?” the barkeep prompted.
“Indeed.” Robert drained his glass and pushed it across the bar to Half for a refill. “But before I tell it, I must ask if you have ever been in love.”
The barkeep squinted. “Once,” he said. “Name was Fanny. ’Prenticed to a dressmaker in Drewer’s Market.”
Robert nodded sagely, trying to communicate that he was one well versed in the ways of seducing seamstresses. “Beautiful, was she?”
“Face like a hatchet. But she had a bosom—” The barkeep made an expressive gesture, his face working as he tried to think of an appropriate adjective. He settled on, “Phwaor.”
“Ah. Yes. Bosom,” said Robert, trying not to shudder. “So what happened with this Fanny item?”
“Waited too long,” said the barkeep ruefully. “She pulled a runner with some Island darkie who ran a donkey show behind the Dog and Reel.”
Robert choked on his drink again. “You – you don’t say.”
“Yeah, he had that donkey trained up a treat,” said the bartender. “Could do all sorts of tricks. Seen it jump through an ’oop of fire once, I did.”
“Ah,” said Robert faintly. “Right. That sort of…donkey show.”
“Anyway, I married her sister,” the barkeep concluded. “What about you, m’lord? Ever been in love?”
Robert shook his head. “Not me, no,” he replied. “But a friend of mine, now, he was in love. The sort of mad, stupid love they write epics about. Love that knocks the wind out of you, love that, that shakes the trees, moves the stars, you know.” Robert waved his hand. “That sort of thing. Leave it to the poets to describe. What do I know, I’m just a drunk. But this friend of mine, he was a lover for the ages.
“The first thing you have to know about this friend is that he was a whore’s bastard. His mother was a dance-hall girl, and his father—well, she said he was a noble, but she said a lot of things. He wasn’t terribly bright, this friend, and not terribly handsome either. Bit of a shite protagonist, to be honest with you, but there you are.
“So this friend of mine was a boot-boy in the country manor of a minor noble, a man of certain appetites which his father, the old lord, forbad him from indulging in at home. One day the old lord died, as old lords are wont to do, and before the earth was fresh on his grave his darling son had brought a boy home from the city.
“This boy…Well. He changed everything.”
Robert paused to take a draft of the fresh drink the barkeep pushed across to him. He raked a shaky hand through his hair and continued,
“I told you I wasn’t a poet, and it would take one to do him justice, but suffice it to say that this boy was beautiful. Beautiful like – like the sun is beautiful when you’ve lived all your life in the dark. And my friend, this stupid, stupid friend of mine, he loved this boy, I swear to you, more than anyone has ever loved. He was fourteen, just getting some down on his lip and thinking himself a man for it, but this boy made him feel as weak and dumb as a swaddling babe. Love like that – it’s more like pain than anything.
“But the funny thing, the truly mad and ridiculous thing, is that this boy loved my friend as well. You wouldn’t have believed it, you know, this, this perfect creature loving some gangly moon-eyed peasant with crooked teeth and more nose than sense, but he did, gods, and I didn’t even know—my friend, my friend didn’t even know, how lucky he was. To have someone like that love someone like him.”
Robert stopped abruptly and became very busy with finishing his drink. The barkeep politely pretended not to notice that Robert had become suspiciously wet about the eyes.
“If you know anything about love stories you’ll know that this one was doomed from the start,” Robert went on once he’d drained the glass. “The boot-boy and the bed-slave. Sounds like an opera, doesn’t it? And not a particularly good one at that. But this friend of mine, he didn’t know anything about love stories, or operas, and he thought, he truly did, that his love would last forever.
“Business had kept the noble lord away from the country for most of the year, and that fall he decided to move his household to Lyonesse. This friend of mine, his grandmam was the noble’s cook. She feared they’d be caught, the boy and my friend, that the noble would kill them. She begged my friend to leave the boy alone. He should have listened, but he was stupid with love, drunk on it. The idea that someone could take away the boy, his boy—it was madness.
“Of course we were caught.”
Robert stopped, coughing back what was certainly not a sob. When he began again his voice sounded strange, echoing, as though coming from a very long distance.
“Well, my friend wasn’t killed, but he and his grandmam were tossed into the street without references. Which, in Lyonesse, in winter, is close enough to a death sentence. But the boy—” He broke off. When he was able to speak, the words came choked. “The boy – he…Well. My friend never saw him again. And later he found out – that the noble had – had murdered him. Strangled him to death.”
There was a long silence. Robert stared into his empty glass. The barkeep wiped down another tumbler with his filthy rag.
“So what happened to your friend?” the barkeep asked finally, carefully.
“He died,” Robert replied. “Killed himself. He couldn’t live without the boy, you see. To live, after that—it would have been cowardice. It wasn’t the sort of love you can survive.”