Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Drunkards & Drag-ins

(The following appeared as an Infinite Lives column in Vue Weekly)

The grizzled old rogue, obviously uncomfortable here in the sumptuous heart of the gypsy-elf chieftain's impossible crystal tent/palace, tries not to finger the hilt of his trusty cutlass as he speaks the timeworn lines of his profession's fundamental ritual: "So, how much am I getting paid?"

Hakan, the chieftain, looks up from his nest of pillows and slavegirls and squints through the haze of hookah-smoke he's just finished generating. He seems confused, as if he never considered that this elementary detail of business would be considered. He snaps his fingers for more wine, fire-brigaded to him by the mass of nubile beauties that fill his tent-within-a-tent, and takes a long draught of the potent nectar to buy time.

"Payment, yeah..." he drawls. "Well, I got a deal for you, see. See her?" He directs the veteran fighting man's gaze toward one of the other two supplicants kneeling in the hazy chamber, a haughty young elf-maiden in the darkly ornamented robes of hill-clan royalty, her eyes like a hunting cat's. "She's honourable, right? She's loyal.

"And this, uh... this guy?" The chieftain waves an indifferent hand in the general direction of a lean young half-elven man dressed in heavy travelling leathers, his chest crossed by two bandoliers weighed down with a dozen gleaming throwing knives, his hands and his attention occupied in tuning a two-string banjo that lays across his lap. "He's been reporting to me for, like, five years. So... so... um. What... what was my point, here?"

"The money? Some kind of deal?" the rogue prompts; his apprehension is quickly fading into boredom.

"Oh, yeah! The deal! OK." The increasingly wasted bigwig attempts to bring a gravity befitting his station into his voice. "Ahem. Human, I offer you the sum of like, 650 golds..." -- "That's a lot; I haven't really figured out the currency," he stage-whispers --"... in the currency of your people. Or, you can help yourself to whatever shit you find in the ruins of the Abbey. My point was, these guys will be watching you to make sure you don't, you know, do both." He punctuates his oration with a little shrug and self-consciously gulps another cupful of the Gallo Clan's potent vintage.

"That's... that's kind of a weird deal."

"Well, yeah, I mean... I just um thought it would be kind of funny, you know?"

"OK. Can I have fifty gold for expenses?"

A sigh from the elf-maiden interrupts this virtuoso display of the art of the deal. "I'm going for a smoke," she announces with regal finality. Her eyes take on a glazed and faraway look, as if she can neither see nor hear what's going on around her. Almost immediately she returns to consciousness, for just long enough to address the bartering rogue -- "You coming?" -- before her mind drifts once more into another plane.

"Yeah, just a sec," the man mutters before returning to the business at hand. "So," he says, pulling out a note pad, getting ready to take down the particulars of yet another dangerous mission, "where is this... Abbey? Abbey. Where is it?"

Hakan gets a panicked look in his eyes. His gaze flicks around to his coterie of slavegirls, all of whom make lovely little 'I dunno' faces. With the instincts of a life spent steeped in both the criminal underworld and the intrigues of clan politics, he deftly passes the buck: "Where is it? Shit, I don't know; ask Hamit, here." He points an elegant finger -- a finger charged with the power of life and death in this, his hard-won sanctum -- at the leather-clad halfbreed with the banjo. "He's the guy I pay to know this stuff. He sent me the memo about the Icon of Mercy. Hamit, tell him where it is."

The half-elven musician looks up from his instrument. When he was summoned to this audience, not an hour earlier, he'd been "working in his garden" and the redness rimming his half-open eyes displays the fact for the world to see. He makes a nervous clicking sound with his tongue before grinning, "It's in the Abbey of the Sun, right?"

"Yeah, we know that. It's in the Abbey. But where's the Abbey? Go ahead, man... just tell me. Roll with me here! We need to collaborate on this. Make something up!"

The knife-wielding bard's grin widens, and he gives a coy little stoner nod. Turning to the exasperated swordsman, he takes on a patronizing tone. "I know where it is, man. Dooooon't worry. I know where it is. I know where it is."

The grey-bearded fighter spreads his hands wide and makes frustrated circular motions of encouragement. "OK. Where is it? North? South? What?"

Another bleary know-it-all nod: "I know where it is. Don't worry."

The road-hardened rogue scrubs at his face with his hands. "Fine. I'll let you guys figure this out. I'm gonna go have a smoke." With that, his eyes take on the same unseeing not-there look that earlier overcame the gypsy-elf girl. The banjo player and the chieftain are left alone with the slave girls, the hookah, and the cask of Gallo. They look at each other in silence, each one in his own way empathizing with the other's drunkenness, stonededness and overall fatigue. The dark-haired musician breaks the silence:

"So... I've got sixteen throwing knives, right? Sixteen?"

"Fuck, dude, you've got as many knives as you want. Sixteen's fine. Something tells me you're not going to get the chance to use them tonight."

"OK, 'cause you said 'a dozen' a little while ago."

The chieftain makes an interesting attempt at drinking wine while still holding his head in his hands and massaging his temples; he looks like one of those Drinking Birds that once took pride of place on the bar of every man of status. "I was just (slurp) talking about the (slleppp) bandoliers. I thought maybe you've got four... I dunno; taped to the back of your banjo, or something."

"OK, cool." The bard's half-lidded eyes turn inward for a second, taking stock of his condition. "Fuck, I'm wasted. We should start earlier next time."

Karhan... no, wait; Hakan sighs heavily and reaches for a fresh goblet. "What you mean is, I should have been better prepared. I'm basically just making this shit up as we go along. Four hours and you're not even on the road, yet. Damn, I suck."

"No, no! It's good, man, it's good. It's just been a while; you just gotta remember everything you learned back in the day. Everyone's having fun." The banjo-picking thief, one of the indispensable undercover agents who act as the eyes, ears and hands of his people in the cities of humanity, leans back and considers the universe. Suddenly he starts forward, an urgent thought coming to his lightning-quick mind.

"I've got a nice yard, right? I've got a nice yard? I'm the type of guy who'd have a nice yard."

"Dude," replies the fatigued chieftain, his head lolling back into the lap of a voluptuous dwarven co-ed, a cavern-next-door undermountain girl working as a concubine to pay her way through blacksmith school, "you can have anything you want. This is collaborative storytelling."

At that moment, both men notice a flicker of sentience returning to the face of the tough old mercenary who'd "gone for a smoke". Before the man can come fully to consciousness, the hookah-smoking chieftain barks out a sharp command with the voice of one used to being obeyed:

"Wait! Don't sit down! Go flip the record; I want to hear 'Don't Let It Bring You Down'. Fuckin' Neil Young, man... that guy's singing into eternity."

1 comment:

mike w said...

This is brilliant.