The pub is almost empty. Lunch is over and it looks to be a quiet afternoon. Ali'ast is in the kitchen arguing with the dish washing machine and Paivi is on the bench out front smoking her pipe. In the main room are the pub's four guests. Their plates are empty but their pints are not. The music's turned down low. A song no one knows but everyone recognizes can be heard through the speakers. Quiet enough for conversation. Loud enough to fill the gaps where no one speaks.
At one table a young man and a woman, the man with a newspaper and a half-full stout, the woman with a paperback novel and an untouched pint of lager. Neither of them reading, both trying and failing, to seem as if they're not listening to the conversation between the two old men on the table one over.
The men don't notice, or don't care; it's hard to tell.
“A paladin? You sure?”
“Yeah. Annie heard it on the radio. You'll see it on the news tonight.”
“Hmm? That's no good.”
The man looks doubtful. He strokes his beard as if in thought and leans forward, shoulders hunched up and elbows on the table. His companion, large and nearly bald doesn't seem worried. Enthusiastic almost. He takes a swig from his beer and puts it down, firmly, with a thud.
“Of course it is. We could use a bit of a shakedown here.”
“You sure? What about Komost?”
“Well, that's different! Komost was a shit hole and they'll be better in the long run.”
“I'm not so sure. My Rob was over there last summer, said it was still pretty bad.”
“They had it coming, at least they're honest now. You can't say it was healthy what went on there before.”
The big man leans back in his chair and crosses his arms over his chest as if defying his companion to say he's wrong. The bearded man, looking glum, takes a swig from his pint. He wipes the foam from his moustache with the back of his hand and looks out over the room.
“Yeah, I don't know. Never been there and wouldn't know for sure. Could of been it's all just rumours.”
“You know that ain't right. A paladin wouldn't go for something like that if it wasn't bad. They can sniff out bad business just like your Edith can smell you had a pint too much.”
“Never know how she does that.”
The two men fall silent for a moment, sipping at their beers, looking out the window. Someone singing about having a hard time can be heard on the speakers. Blues.
“Still though. Paladins are good guys. They wouldn't of gone for Komost if it wasn't bad. Not three of them at once.”
“Three? Wasn't it just Lok and Barnabas?”
“No, not them. Lok and Barnabas was in Ferring and that was real bad. Komost was Harald, John Goode and Veronica.”
“Right, right. When was Ferring then? Must of been what, six, eight years ago?”
The big man stops halfway to another sip and puts the glass down with a thud, shakes his head and sighs in mock disappointment.
“Lars... Ferring was in eighty seven. Nine years ago. These are big historical events.”
“Yeah, yeah, eighty seven it was. I just hope he won't make a mess of Kul Viller. It ain't so bad here, is it?”
“It'll be fine. It's just one of 'em anyway. Probably just gonna crack down on some gang boss or some other scum. We'll be better off for it.”
“Yeah yeah, I hope you're right Pat. Did they say who it was?”
This time the man finishes his sip before answering. He slowly puts his glass down, sits straight up with his hands on the table and stares off into the distance. The singing gives way to the crooning of a saxophone.
“Nope, wasn't me who heard it. Annie just told me they said on the radio there was a paladin on the train from Border.”
“On the train! They're in a hurry then. Maybe I should call Edith and warn her.”
“Easy there ol' bud. It'll be fine. It's just one guy and he'll be off hunting crooks. Edith's gonna be safe at home, right? I mean, she probably has the radio on and heard about it already. She knows to keep safe your Edith.”
Lars sighs, looking unconvinced. He leans his pint back and forth, the foam catching on the sides of the glass and then places it on one of the beer mats. A wet circle marks the spot where it just stood and he reaches for a napkin to wipe it up before he puts his arm in it.
“Yeah, true, I guess you're right. Still, can't help but worry, paladins are bad news.”
“Now, now Lars, don't be like that. Paladins do all the bad jobs little people like us can't.”
“I know, I know. I just worry. You know how it goes when the crooks get nervous. Like Komost. Hostages and shoot outs and all kinds of bad shit.”
“Take it easy Lars, we're in a good part of town, no one's gonna take you hostage.”
Pat laughs, picks up beer mat and flicks it at Lars with a grin. It goes wide, hits the wall and comes to rest in the dust behind a radiator. Unless some rat makes off with it the matt will stay there as long as the house still stands.
“I think I'd feel better about it if I knew who it was. I mean, Lok seems like a decent enough guy you know. Him and Harald, they just get their stuff done. No messing around like John Goode, or that Veronica. Shit gets messy when they're around.”
“Can't be John Goode, he was on the news the other day, hunting some terrorist cult down by the coast.”
“Ah, yeah. I saw that too. No way he'd make it up this far in just a week. Good, good.”
“Could be Lok or perhaps Nicholas, they've been travelling the river lately. Lok passed through Gosmarin just the other week.”
“Oh, nice. Lok would be good. I like him. Hope it's him.”
“Aye, Lok's good news. Nicholas seems good too but he's new and young. No one really knows much about him yet.”
“Yeah, not heard of him before. Sounds good though. I hope it's not Veronica.”
“Seriously Lars! Don't you ever pay attention? Veronica's disappeared. There's no way it can be her.”
Pat's almost upset for real now He shifts around in his chair, straightening his back and putting his hands in front of him on the table as if he's about the start lecturing Lars on the importance of Paladins. First a sip though. He taps off the beer matt that's stuck to the bottom of glass and then drinks deep.
“You really don't know do you?”
“Uhm, didn't she come through here last winter or so? Haven't heard anything since then.”
“That's just it though. No one's heard a thing. She went north and now she's gone.”
“Really? North? The Republic?”
“Yes, really! The Republic hasn't said anything, well they never do, but she's not back. We would know if she was back 'cause she would make a mess and it would be on the news. You know what she's like.”
“Yeah, yeah, Komost, that was her, right?”
“Aye, her, John Goode, Harald. That was such a mess. Poor Harald, he's usually the tidy type but... yeah, you know what went down. Bad stuff.”
“Yeah, bad business all around Komost was.”
Lars seems to be cheering up. He's crumpled up the damp napkin into a little ball and is absent mindedly toying around with it while looking out the window. A new song comes on over the speakers. Lars nods approvingly as he recognizes the opening chords of The Ballad of Mary Bellows and Richard Slade.
“Good though, it's not John Goode and it's not Veronica so it can't be that bad.”
“Aye, I guess they're the worst ones. Then again, could be anyone. Paladins travel all over the place for the strangest reasons. Who knows really?”
The two men sit quietly for a bit, Pat sipping his beer, Lars starring out the window, clutching the crumpled napkin in his hand and nodding along to the music. The song was a bit of a hit back when he was at the university. He hasn't heard it for years.
“Strange life though. Going around all over the place, shooting bad guys.”
“Aye... couldn't live like that myself. Risking my neck for some god or something. Not my thing.”
“Yeah, gotta be hard on them.”
“I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't mind them doing it. If I was young and strong and backed by a major god I would probably do it myself. But I'm not, never was and never will be. Not me.”
“Yeah, we've all dreamt of adventures like that. Every kid wants to be a paladin, or a fire fighter or a doctor or something.”
“Aye, aye, I remember when I was young. There were these movies about Hernando, the World's Greatest Paladin, you watch them too?”
“Yeah yeah yeah! Hernando! I loved those movies. Used to go see them at the matinée all the time. Good times.”
The two old men fall silent again, reminiscing about the past. The pub's quiet. Even the music's stopped. The song ended and the next one hasn't started yet. Pat rubs his scalp, looking uncomfortable.
“Those Hernando movies... I picked them up as a box set last year thinking I should watch them with my grandson.”
“Nice. Did he like them?”
“We didn't actually watch any of them.”
“Oh, why's that? Anything happened?”
“Well... I was thinking I'd watch one an evening when Annie was off. Nostalgia you know. The first one, the one with the dragon and the evil elf witch.”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember that one. My favourite. What happened? Crappy disk or something?”
“No, no, I wish it was. Disk worked just fine. It's just... let's say it hadn't aged very well.”
“Oh... I see... And I was thinking I should borrow it from you.”
“Better not. Was great when kids. Not so much these days.”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess you're right. Maybe just as well I don't watch it.”
“Trust me. We done here? You do the honours?”
“Yep! Done! Moment.”
Lars empties the last of his pint and sets it down a little more firmly than really needed, puffs out his chest and yells at the top of his lungs.
“Ali'ast, those guys just left without paying.”
A harangue of curses and expletives erupts from the kitchen and a dark skinned little man appears, bolts through the room and disappears out the front door. As the door slowly swings shut behind him he can be heard yelling for someone to come back and pay. The two old men look at each other and burst out laughing.
Pat walks over to the couple at the other table, to apologize to the man and woman, disturbed in their reading of newspaper and book by the ruckus. He's smiling, almost giggling.
“Sorry about the noise. It's traditional see. Never gets old.”
A stern new voice from the door. It's Paivi, break interrupted by her assistant running screaming from the pub.
“That's mean and you know it.”
“But it's traditional.” pleads Lars. “He'd be disappointed if we left without doing it. And he gets some fresh air and a break of his own.”
“Wasn't talking about him. You've ruined my break before I was done with the pipe. Now pay up and be on your way.”
The two old men chuckle to themselves, pay for their food and beer and shuffle out the door. As they leave Paivi saunters over to the table where her two remaining guests still sit quietly, no longer pretending to be reading.
“Right, sorry about that, did the old fools bother you?”
“No, not at all.” the man replies. “They kept to their own and didn't really make any noise until they played their prank on your assistant. Will he be OK?”
“He'll be fine. He knows what he's doing, they all do. It's just a stupid old ritual for when it's time for Ali'ast to take his break and for me to start preparing for the evening. Same deal every single Tuesday. Every single Tuesday.”
Paivi fidgets a little as if she wants to say something but in the end choses not to and instead heads for the kitchen. In the door, just before she's out of sight she stops and turns around.
“The meal's on the house, just be careful out there.”
Then she disappears into the kitchen and despite the music still playing the pub is suddenly very quiet.
The man is the first to break the silence.
“I guess we weren't as subtle as I thought.”
“Told you so. Paladins don't do subtle.”
“Well, they know you're here. But they don't know who you are.”
“True, true. I guess that's something at least. Then again, someone did recognize me.”
“Yeah, but you knew that already didn't you. Why did we come here anyway? I don't like it. It's not safe. I mean for her.”
“I have my reasons, and it's safe. Trust me.”
“With my life. Let's get moving. Church will have my hide if I let you walk around town without announcing yourself much longer.”