Upheld

Here’s a short story from my realm, Hashan.

I pull the dustiest, darkest bottle from the dustiest, darkest corner and start rubbing it down, avoiding the commander’s eyes.

“I can’t reckon, sir. He didn’t seem worried about anything.” This is the new guard in town. Some big city fellow, moved out to this flea-on-a-mountain’s-back town and slid straight into a command post. Thinks he’s going to teach these boys how it is. He doesn’t know how it is. He doesn’t know the code.

“Mister Thickett,” he begins. “You’re a barkeeper. You hear things.”

He doesn’t know I can’t tell him a word.

“Not everything, sir.” I answer slowly, my eyes on the glinting dark glass of the bottle.

I know everything.

“Mister Thickett. I know you know something.”

I know I can’t tell him. But I know I will.

“What can you tell me about your brother’s murder?”

There’s something tacky on the bottle’s neck. I lick my thumb and rub the spot till it squeaks. I run my cloth over the gleaming bottle one last time, delaying the inescapable. I want to get it done with quickly, but the words drag as they leave my mouth, slow as ever.

“Two-Pint Thom. Tall fellow, wiry. Dark eyes, square chin. Got the sour end of a deal, lost a lass. Headed out yesterday morning, northwest gate. Pro’lly making for Bear’s Glade.”

“Thank you, Mister Thickett.” He sounds smug. They’ll have told him, back at the guardhouse; Ole’ Thickett never talks. No one in the lower city breaks code. Till today, they’d have been right.

I break the seal on the bottle and take my time polishing up my goblet before I pour, red richness spilling out in an elegant fountain.

The man stands there like he thinks I’m going to offer him a drink. I look him in the eye for the first time since he came here, since he came to this town.

“You better catch him.”

“I assure you, every effort will be made to uphold the law.”

I nod. Finally despairing of a free pint, he turns his high horse and marches out the back door.

The law will be upheld, and so will the code. I look into my cup, into my face, distorted, reflected in the blood red liquid. The penalty for breaking the code is death. I tip back the goblet, tasting the bitter bite of poison beneath the rich sweetness of the wine.

The code will be upheld.

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