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The sign of the Trough
But that was all in the past. Ancient history. Forgotten unpleasantness.
Things were looking up!
First of all, we were back in New Sfinctr.
Not many people, I'll admit, would share my delight at returning to New Sfinctr. Home town or not, the simple truth is that the place is a pesthole, even by the standards of Grotum. "Armpit of the continent," they call it, when they're not calling it something obscene. But it was a great city for a strangler and his agent. Business opportunities everywhere, you tripped over them.
As soon as we arrived back in town, of course, I headed straight off to The Sign of the Trough. Best ale in the world they've got at The Trough. Although I'll admit The Swill As You Will in Prygg comes in a very close second. And the Free Lunch in the Mutt is always entitled to honorable mention.
But before we go any further in our story, I should take the time here to describe the setting. Much of the action—and most of the thinking—will transpire in this sacred place.
The lowlife's temple. The world's finest alehouse.
The Sign of the Trough.
It's in the Flankn. New Sfinctr's Thieves' Quarter, as I believe I mentioned. Right in the very center of it, in fact. The heart and soul of the Flankn, The Trough's often been called.
From the outside, The Trough looks like a huge building—bunch of buildings, maybe, all crunched into eachother; it's hard to tell—some three or four stories tall, depending on which angle you look at it and how drunk you are. (Rumor has it that some of the towers are five stories tall. Could be.) The thing covers an entire block, and—I'm talking frivolous architecture, here, not serious drinking—makes absolutely no rhyme or reason.
Just think of an edifice put together by some kind of architect's crazed patron saint in a drunken stupor. Insane, and huge.
But it's way, way bigger than it looks.
On the inside, that is. Don't ask me how it works, but every real Trough-man knows that The Trough is bigger inside than out. The famous mathematician Riemann Laebmauntsforscynneweëld once visited The Trough. Rumor has it that's where non-Euclidean geometry got started.
So we'll skip over the rest of the exterior description. Who cares, anyway? The ale's inside.
Though I might point out, as we head for the door, the huge feeding trough hanging over the entrance. It's The Trough's only sign. Stolen, they say, from some minor farm god's hogpen. Wouldn't know, myself. I didn't consort with deities. Even the lesser ones were bad news, even though the Church said they didn't exist.
And I might also suggest, as we reach the entrance—my civic duty, this—that we give the door itself a moment's scrutiny. The thing's big, and heavy, but it swings open well enough on account of it's kept well-greased. The door's made out of oak, mainly, but there's plenty of wrought iron to give it some extra strength. Which it needs, as the many deep gouges and gashes demonstrate. Been many the desperate deed been done at the entrance to The Trough. And, yes, those dark stains covering the door are blood. Along with some other stuff. Delicacy forbids precise description.
Inside! Into the holy chambers!
As soon as you step into The Trough, you find yourself in the taproom. The "main" taproom, I suppose I should say, since there's any number of smaller ones scattered through the place. But, by hallowed tradition, it's just called the taproom. (I don't have much truck with the smaller ones, anyway. Those are for sissies.) You cast your eyes about, examining its cavernous interior. Immediately, you notice—
You can't see a blessed thing. You're blind as a bat.
Yes, the lighting is dim. Dim. That's the way your proper Trough-men like it. Keeps the snoopy eyes of officialdom under a handicap, of course. But, what's more important—your porkers don't venture into The Trough too often, and when they do they come in such hordelike numbers that there's always plenty of warning, anyway—it allows the Trough-man planted on his favorite stool that blessed moment wherein he can discern the figure of the new arrival before the new arrival's eyes have had time to adjust to the gloom.
Important, that. A lifesaver, it's been, often enough. Many's the Trough-man who's alive today, with sane spirit and functioning kneecaps, on account of how he had time to slip into the maze back of the taproom before the newly-arrived grudge holder, enforcer, bill collector, feudist, outraged (and-now-armed) victim, disgruntled husband, insensate father, insensate mother, insensate wife, insensate you-name-it, serial killer, homicidal maniac, gibbering lunatic or evangelist had time to spot him in the throng and nail him.
Soon enough, your eyes adjust, and now you can make out the full splendor of the vista.
The taproom's huge, huge. A single room, basically, though the thick wooden pillars give the illusion of walls. The ceiling's a bit on the low side, which allows the smoke to gather properly. On a busy day or night—and which aren't?—the pipe and cigar smoke is so thick that you can't really see the further corners of the room. Through a glass, darkly, your poets might say. If you squint, you can spot the multitude of little nooks, crannies, alcoves and corners which adorn the various sides of the room. (How many sides? I'm not sure. Sober, I'd say the taproom's more or less hexagonal. Other times—more sides. Lots more.)
But fie on all that! Never bother with the nooks and alcoves, myself. I'm for the main floor, I am, along with all your other proper Trough-men stalwarts. There's tables scattered all over the place, and plenty of chairs. Crowded, true—always is—but there's usually a chair to be found somewhere.
Be a little careful walking, if you would. The floor's so clean it would actually glisten, if there were any light worth talking about, and it can be slippery to walk on. Novices to The Trough are always surprised at how well scrubbed the floor is. If they survive the first month, they understand the reason for it. If they don't, they're the latest occasion for the mop.
First, though, it's time for genuflection. Turn to your right, and worship—
The Bar Itself.
O, Eighth Wonder of the World!
The Bar Itself runs the entire length of one side of the taproom. You can't usually see the end of it, on account of the smoke and the gloom. It just kind of fades away, like all your first-class religious mysteries. It's wood, of course—none of your foppish hoity-toity stuff. Oak, mostly, although you can find almost any other kind of wood used to patch up the many busted sections.
Contemplating the Bar Itself is the closest I ever get to philosophy. Willingly, I mean.
I'm serious. All the fancy problems that philosophers waste their time fretting over can be solved just by studying the Bar Itself.
The distinction between Essence and Appearance, for instance, shows up in the way the Bar Itself actually dissolves into its many components. Each portion of the Bar Itself has its own distinct identity.
First and foremost, there's the Old Bar. That's the first twenty or so feet of it, right by the door. The Old Bar is actually an upturned watering trough which, legend has it, served as the original bar when the place first opened in the dim mists of ancient history. (Yeah, I know—that conflicts with the legend of the minor farm god. So? Legends conflict, it's the nature of the beasts.)
In modern times, this original section of the bar—also known as The Trough Proper, by the way—is reserved by right and custom for the most aged of The Trough's customers. These heroes—sure, they're a lot of doddering oldsters, but you have to be a genuine hero to survive the number of years it takes to be elevated to the Old Bar—sit there for hours on end quaffing ale through toothless gums and squabbling over their reminiscences of days gone by. They also, I might mention, serve The Trough as its Court of Final Appeal.
Next to the Old Bar, as we move away from the door— Oh. Yeah, I should mention that there's an elaborate nomenclature by which directions in The Trough are specified. I won't get into it—way too technical for laymen, don't you know?—but, for the record, moving down the Bar Itself away from the door is called "nethering," or, by your real hard-core Trough-men, "nether-reaching."
Anyway, nethering from the Old Bar we come to Anselm's Cursed Yard-and-a-Half, as the next stretch is called. But we won't linger on Anselm's Cursed Yard-and-a-Half. Nobody ever sits there, not since Anselm cursed it some two hundred years ago. (And if you don't know who Anselm was, or why he cursed it, or why anyone worries about an old curse, that's tough. I'm a proper Trough-man, I am, and there's some things you just don't talk about.)
The next stretch, comprising some thirty-five feet in length, are called the Blessed Planks. The oak slabs which make up most of the Bar Itself are absent here. Sometime back in the dawn of history—after the Suspected Soap Bead Uprising, according to legend—they were replaced by planks of cheap pine. Miraculously, as century succeeded century, the pine lasted. Unscarred, ungouged, uncarved, pristine and perfect. This, given the nature of The Trough, is an obvious miracle. Most Trough-men believe that a pot of ale served up on the Blessed Planks is better than any served elsewhere.
Superstitious sots. I've got no truck with that nonsense, myself. Ale's ale, and there's an end to it. The ale at The Trough is the best in the world, and that's that. Doesn't matter where it's served or where you drink it, just as long as it makes its way down your throat.
Our hearts lighten, now, as we come to the next portion of the Bar Itself. This is where I hang out, whenever I'm not sitting at a table like I usually am on account of how Greyboar and I are too couth to belly up to a bar like your average lowlifes.
Eddie Black's, it's usually called. If you want to get formal about it, it's The Stretch Where Eddie Black Was Probably Conceived. And if you really want to go black-tie over the matter, it's The Stretch Where Eddie Black Was Probably Conceived If You Believe His Slut of a Mother and If You Ignore The Bloodstains Which Is What's Left of Smooth-Talking Ferdinand After Eddie Black's Father John-the-Ill-Tempered Carved Him Up On Account of How Eddie Black's Pop Was Convinced That Eddie Was Actually Conceived Over There In What's Now Called Ferdie's Folly.
My spot, this. Always has been, since I was old enough to prop my chin on the Bar Itself.
And that's the end of the tour. I'm thirsty, and enough's enough.
"Welcome back, Ignace," said Leuwen, shoving a mug across the bar. I contemplated the sacred object for a moment, before its contents disappeared into my gullet. Leuwen was obviously bursting with curiosity, but he's the best barkeep in New Sfinctr—hands down—and so he waited for me to quaff two more full mugs before he started questioning me.
"So, how's Prygg?" he asked. This, of course, was a meaningless question, nothing more than dancing around before he got into the juicy stuff. Leuwen's interest in Prygg ranked somewhere below his interest in the taxonomy of flatworms.
I could dance too.
"Still there" I replied.
"Glad to hear it," he intoned cheerfully. "How's Magrit? Still the same old proper witch?"
We were now bordering on a real question. Normally, I would have responded with a polite and reasonably informative answer, but the truth was that Magrit happened to be on my shit list at the moment—very high up on the list, in point of fact—and so I satisfied myself with a noncommittal grunt.
Leuwen wouldn't let it go. "Hear she had to take it on the lam"
I didn't think it would work. And it didn't.
"Word is," Leuwen plowed on, "she was mixed up in that business that brought in the Ozarine troops."
Now we were treading on dangerous ground. I decided a grunt would be worse than an answer, so I tried to head Leuwen off.
"Yeah, that's what I hear," I said casually. "Wouldn't know myself, Greyboar and me only bumped into her the once or—"
"Word is," interrupted Leuwen, "she had some help in that little business. Real serious help. Serious muscle-type help, in fact."
I sighed. It's just as the wise man says: "Wisdom drops dead. Stupid shit'll haunt you forever."
There was no point dancing around it. Leuwen looked like a walrus, but nobody had ever accused him of having anything between his big ears but brains.
"All right," I growled. "What've you heard?"
Leuwen grinned and started wiping his hands on the rag he always kept tucked into his belt. I watched the project carefully. The experienced Trough-man could gauge Leuwen's exact mood and manner by the precise way in which he wiped his hands on that rag. Don't ask me to explain the subtleties. Can't be done. You either knew how to read them or you didn't.
The hand-wiping looked ominous. I could read avid interest combined with rabid curiosity combined with—this was bad—shrewd deductions combined with—this was worse—experienced surmises combined with—oh, woe!—detailed half-knowledge of way, way, way too many facts.
"Well, let's see," he mused. "First off, I heard the proper witch managed to get into the Ozarine embassy and wreck the gala affair being held there to celebrate the recent wedding between Prygg's very own Princess Snuffy and the Honorable Anthwerp Freckenrizzle III, scion of Ozar's third richest multi-zillionaire. Trashed the social event of the season, she did. Or so people say."
I frowned. Bad, but I could live with it.
"But," continued Leuwen, as I feared he would, "the word is that Magrit's little comet strike on high society wasn't nothing but a cover. A diversion, people say, so that other parties could sneak into the top-secret super-security part of the Ozarine embassy and steal one of Ozar's three Rap Sheets."
I tried to control the wince, but I couldn't. Leuwen didn't miss it, of course, and the hand-wiping went into high gear.
"Yeah, no kidding, that's what people say. Can you imagine that? Stole a Rap Sheet! One of the real Joe relics!" He pursed his lips, frowned, pretended to be thinking idle thoughts. "What are there—five Rap Sheets, total, in the whole world? Maybe six?" He shook his head mournfully. Wipe, wipe. "But that's what people say." Wipe, wipe, wipe. "Among other things."
"What else?" I grumbled.
Leuwen wasn't even trying to keep his grin under control anymore.
"Well, people're saying that whoever snuck into the embassy and took the Rap Sheet must've had some real bruiser along with 'em. On account of what happened to all those elite-type embassy guards. Broken necks, snapped spines, crushed windpipes—even say one of 'em had his spine tore out and that same spine used to garrote another. Can you imagine that?"
I was glaring into my mug.
"Now, who could do such terrible things?"
By rights, the ale should have started boiling by now, just from my glare alone. It was one of the many problems with having the world's greatest professional strangler as my client. He couldn't stop showing off.
One glance at Leuwen's wicked smile told me there was no point in trying to act dumb. Leuwen knew what it said on Greyboar's business card as well as I did:
"Have Thumbs, Will Travel"
No Gullet Too Big, No Weasand Too Small
My Motto: Satisfaction Garroteed, or
The Choke's on Me!
Leuwen was now in full steam:
"Yeah, that's what people say. Whoever stole the Rap Sheet—and thereby pissed off the world's most powerful empire so bad they up and invaded not only Prygg but three other sovereign nations of Grotum—also managed to get away with it—and thereby also pissed off the Church and sent the whole Inquisition into a frenzy—and even seem to have dropped out of sight entirely and are wandering around loose with one of the real Joe relics—thereby plunking themselves right smack in the middle of all that Joe business, which is the worst business anybody can possibly get mixed up in, on account of sooner or later God Himself is bound to come down on them like a ton of bricks"
Wipewipewipewipewipe. Wipewipe. Wipe, wipe. Wipe.
"Who knows?" I asked glumly.
Leuwen shrugged. "Nobody actually knows, Ignace. Cheer up. It's not all that bad, really. The authorities are too stupid to figure it out, and the lowlifes what aren't too stupid to figure it out won't really believe it on account of"—here his face grew solemn and serious—"no lowlife in his right mind is going to believe for one minute that Greyboar would have been stupid enough to get himself mixed up in such a mess. Much less you."
I relaxed, slightly. Only slightly, however, because I could see the next—yeah.
"So why did you get mixed up in it?" he asked quietly. "More of Greyboar's philosophy? Wasn't it enough he got you chased out of New Sfinctr with that foolishness?"
"Wasn't philosophy," I grumbled. "Worse. Gwendolyn?"
"Ah." Wipewipewipe. "Ah."
I scowled at the bar top. "What was I supposed to say? No—we wouldn't do it?"
Scowl, scowl, scowl. "You know with a Rap Sheet in Grotum, Gwendolyn's as good as dead. Every porker in the land's been looking for her for years. The damned thing's a Joe relic. Most powerful magic there is. They'd find her in a heartbeat. Then—chop, chop, chop."
The bar top was suddenly subjected to a vigorous cleansing. "Ah."
"Can't you say anything else?" I demanded crossly.
He shrugged his fat shoulders. "What's to say, Ignace? Gwendolyn's family. Only family Greyboar's got left, now. For that matter, she's the only family you've got left. After your parents all died when you were youngsters—their mom and your pop—the three of you brought each other up. Like your own little miniature clan."
He chuckled. Leuwen's chuckles were kind of a signature piece. Large, rolling, heavy—and somehow very dry at the same time.
"And just as fierce in your feuding as any clan of Groutch legend, too! God, the three of you were ferocious, if anybody messed with any of you. Even you, tiny as you were. I still laugh, now and then, thinking about that time old Stinky Gerrin started pawing at Gwendolyn when she got off work at the packinghouse after her first day on the job. What was she then? Twelve? Maybe thirteen?"
"Twelve," I muttered. "We'd just celebrated her birthday two days earlier. Greyboar'd caught a juicy rat—one of those fat ones that hang around the slops—and I'd, uh, obtained an apple pie that some baker must have misplaced." I smiled for a moment, remembering. "We even spent the money to buy a candle for the pie. Couldn't afford but the one, so we invented a new arithmetic where one equaled twelve. Laughed, we did, telling ourselves we'd revolutionized mathematics."
Leuwen's ensuing chuckle rolled over in a laugh. "Good old Stinky! Never could resist a girl just coming of age" Another chuckle rolled over. "Wish I'd seen it! They say you were on his shoulders biting his ear off before Gwendolyn even started breaking his fingers."
I couldn't help chuckling myself. "Stinky was right! Yuch! Nastiest-tasting ear I ever bit into. Spit the damn thing out as fast as I could. And I can't tell you how happy I was that I didn't have to take off the other one. By then, of course, Gwendolyn was breaking his wrists and it was pretty much all over."
A companionable silence followed, for a few seconds. Then Leuwen mused: "Yeah, good old Stinky. He disappeared the next day. When they dredged his body out of the river a few weeks later, the corpse was in such wretched shape they almost couldn't identify him. But the cause of death was obvious enough. They say his neck hadn't been broken so much as pulverized."
Leuwen gave me a speculative glance. "Even at the time everybody figured that was Greyboar. His first choke."
I kept my mouth shut. Actually, it'd been Greyboar's second choke. Stinky hadn't been the first lecher to think a dirt-poor orphan girl would make easy pickings. But the first one had been a vagrant, so nobody had noticed. In his own way, Stinky had been a well-known fixture in the Flankn. After he, ah, "came to a bad end" nobody bothered Gwendolyn much anymore.
Leuwen accepted my silence readily enough, and didn't try to pry anything loose. Even a man with his curiosity can accept a stone wall when he sees one. He went back to wiping the bar, chatting idly.
"Yeah, I can still remember the first time the three of you came in here. Three kids—even if two of them were already huge—swaggering into The Trough bound and determined to order their first real, by God, ale pot. Trying to swagger, I should say"
He emitted another chuckle. "You couldn't afford but the one pot to share. I remember the three of you counting out the pennies, almost sweating blood you wouldn't have enough."
"We didn't have enough," I growled. "Short one lousy penny, we were. We tried to wheedle you into giving us credit. Chintzy bastard! You wouldn't budge an inch."
He smiled, shrugging. "You know how it is, Ignace. But look at the bright side—I did agree to give you a pot not quite full. Bent the hell out of professional ethics, if I say so myself."
He gave the bar an idle swipe, before pointing with the rag to a stool several feet down. "That's where the three of you sat. Gwendolyn had to hoist you onto the stool. You couldn't get up that high on your own." He laughed outright, now. "The thing that impressed me the most was how all three of you split the pot. I thought for sure you'd get shorted, what with those two giants. But—no. You got your fair share, just like they did."
I could feel the old ache coming, and shoved it under. Ancient history, dammit! Let it stay buried with the rest of the ruins. Then, sighing, I drained the mug and pulled the handful of coins out of my pocket.
I stared at them glumly. To my surprise, Leuwen filled the mug up.
"On the house," he said.
That was a lie, actually. Under the circumstances, "on the house" meant: as long as you keep my interest up, you can keep drinking. Bullshit me and you die of thirst.
Terrible thing, death from thirst. It took me all of two seconds to decide to spill the beans. The fact is, there wasn't much harm in it anyway. He obviously knew too much already, and, being as he was the best barkeep in the world, Leuwen practically wrote the book on Barkeep Professional Ethics.
Posted December 9, 2008
Anyone who knows anything about professional assassins knows that Greyboar is usually the best at the trade. However, if the intended victim can engage Greyboar in his passion, not sex but philosophical discussion and debate, the target might survive in a Sherherazade type of way. <P>Like any pro, Greyboar has an agent Ignace and he hopes a significant other in the nearsighted swordswoman Cat who he just met at his favorite drinking spot the Sign of the Trough. However, Greyboar has also learned that his estranged sibling, the amazon Gwendolyn has a lover who apparently has vanished perhaps into the bows of hell or some place even worse geographically. A commission for his sibling is not what Greyboar or Ignace prefers, but family, even a card-carrying member of the dwarf liberation movement, is still family. <P>A visit to THE PHILOSOPHICAL STRANGLER is a visit to weirdness where even Rod Serling would wonder if this might be one step beyond the Twilight Zone. The story line is satire at its sharpest as the cast skewer many of modern society¿s values. The plot is more a series of vignettes tied together by the key cast members rather than a novel, but fans of ironic fantasy will devour this tale and demand more from Eric Flint. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.