Hyperion is more than a normal man. He’s a soldier with a secret that makes him special, and a mission that makes him deadly. For days he’s been observing his target, the mayor of a secluded village by the Dark Forest. His target’s young wife, Ligia, has caught Hyperion’s eye against his best wishes, and he has awoken feelings in her that make her willing to take too high risks. In this scene Hyperion’s mystery begins to lift, and action breaks loose.
They call this place “Fancy.” It’s anything but. A sorry bar, the cigarette smoke thick. Old men with wool vests throw dice, lads play pool and drink themselves wobbly. Some of them are underage, but no one gives a darn in this forsaken village, not with someone like the Swine on the mayor’s stool. I keep the hood over my head and take the darkest corner at the bar. My ears sharpen.
The Old Loon doesn’t tardy in making his appearance too, seeking his way through the smoke with his cane. Some still have enough self-awareness to pull out of his path, some even manage a stuttered, “Evening, Father.” It’s outrageous, but he’s a regular here, so no one gives him any more attention after that. As he takes the place next to me, his stench abuses my nostrils even worse than the smoke.
“You not only look like a mummy, you reek like one too,” I sneer.
“Good evening to you too,” he rasps in that eerie voice of his. “And mummies don’t reek.”
“You get the gist. How does anybody ever confess to you, you smell and sound like the devil.”
“Maybe I am the devil.” He grins his rotten grin.
“You’re a bad joke, that’s what you are.”
He shifts in his seat, embarrassed by his failure to impress, but recovers in a minute. “Why are you here, Hyperion? You don’t need exposure.”
“I need information. First hand.”
“These people won’t talk about him. The walls have ears.”
“Those who want him down won’t talk. But his supporters will.”
“What can you possibly get out of servile praise?”
“More than you’d expect.”
He shrugs. “You’re the expert.” He gulps down his vodka and makes an ugly grimace at the heat. “And why did you call me here?”
It’s my turn to take a mouthful of cheap alcohol. It flashes down, making me grimace too. “You have something of mine. I want it back.”
Another grin, a wicked one this time. “Why bother with such absurd a request? You know damn well the answer can only be no.”
I lower the glass easily onto the counter, keeping calm while I give him a clear picture of his situation. “You’re old, which holds a veil of protection over you as it does over women and children. But all these no-can’t-do’s will eventually cost you this immunity.”
He gives a small rasping laugh. “A gentleman even in your threats. And if I give you what you want, Hyperion, what will hold you to complete this mission?”
“If you don’t, how do I know you won’t use it to force me into a next one?”
“I’m a man of my word.”
“Forgive me, but I don’t think much of your respectability. Plus, there’s more reason why I need it now.”
“The Swine. If he is a Night Wraith, he’s unusual. Unusual ones always turn out to be special in some way. I need to know his strengths and weaknesses. I need my years to gain his trust. There’s no way he’ll let a young stranger around him.” Or his wife.
“You’ll have to find a way to do without your years, Hyperion. You are the best. That’s why the Employer sent me for you, and not another.”
“There are others in your power? How many have you dispossessed of their senility?”
“Mock all you want, but we didn’t dispossess anyone. We only picked up what the likes of you have lost when you, well, changed.”
I look down at my fingers around the small glass on the counter. I’m hyperaware of the strong hands and the hard forearms under the leather straps keeping the blades in place, while the Loon’s closeness reminds me of where I should be.
“It’s been a long time, old man,” I think out loud. “Longer that anyone should have to endure. I’ve earned my rest.”
“There’s a reason creatures like you come into being, Hyperion. You don’t get to rest, not yet.”
A faint breeze in the reek of smoke draws my attention. It’s not cologne, but the milky smell of young and clean flesh. I stiffen and don’t dare react as a small white hand settles beside mine on the counter, brushing my skin a little in the process. I look to my side and see her profile, a blue eye, thick lashes hanging tired in slow blinks as she faces the bartender.
The kerchief covers Ligia’s hair, but the memory of it slipping off her golden locks the night she followed me through the dark forest fills my mind’s eye. My gaze slides down her porcelain cheek to what is visible of her neck, and I realize she’s dressed like the old ladies in the village. Some girls of her age are here, hair open and tangled, laughing and drinking. Ligia is prettier than all of them, yet her life is restricted to a fat, greasy bastard who might as well cover her from eyes to toes in a burka.
She asks the bartender for two bottles of Tequila. The man goes to get them, and she uses the moment to address me. There’s an unfamiliar buzz in my ears, and I understand most of it by reading the words off her rosy lips.
“The store’s closed. Only place to get liquor for the Swine at this time,” she explains. “Meet me tomorrow at midnight by the well.”
All she gives me before she leaves is a glance, but it conveys a volume. I know the other night she only sought me as rebellion against the Swine’s control, but my rejection made her interest real. I struggle not to return it.
“This is a bad idea,” I hear the Old Loon warn as I watch Ligia head for the exit. I’m not the only one who does.
“What is a bad idea?”
“Come on, Hyperion.” He actually sounds like a worried parent. I’d like to say something nice to him for a change, but before I get to, a big guy flings himself into the picture. He leans on the counter very close to my face, his cheeks furrowing under the stubble as his mouth stretches in an aggressive grin. He’s about thirty by the robust look of his body, a decade older by the alcohol-transformed face. His eyes are foggy but he’s tall and broad, so he’s more confident than he should.
“I haven’t seen you around here before.” He lifts his big hand and throws off my hood. I remain motionless. “What’s your name, Prince Charming?”
I don’t answer. He gives me time, reeling a bit on his elbows as if he’s about to fall asleep. Then, all of a sudden, he raises his lids and stutters again. “I see you’re shy. That’s all right, no problem, I can always ask Ligia. She clearly knows you.”
Her name in what sounds like a threat breaks my ice. “Does she?”
“Oh, good, you found your tongue. Let’s start properly then. What’s your name, boy?”
The Loon snorts to suppress a laugh, and I’m sure it’s “boy” that triggered his reaction. The idea that in truth I may even outage the mummy worsens my mood.
“Romeo,” I reply dryly. “And who are you, the village bully?”
“Nah, tonight I’m your best friend. Keep your hands off Juliet, Romeo-boy, that’s my first friendly advice.”
I’m still cool and even capable of leaving it alone, thinking of ways to reverse the unwanted attention the short interaction with Ligia brought about, but the Village Bully can’t help pushing it.
“Or I’ll have to tell Mr. Mayor his wife’s nightly errands have side-purposes,” he says, leaning close to my face and lifting his thick arm to slap my back. I don’t know what sets me loose, his renewed threat to Ligia or his gesture.
The smallest signal is enough for the Loon to rise from his seat quicker than anyone would expect from an old priest, giving me cover from prying eyes. That very second I pull my hood back down, prop my feet on the stool base and bolt up, my arm blocking the bully’s and locking around his neck. I leave the front of it open, lifting his chin with the back of my hand, and haul him against the counter edge with just enough force to keep him alive but make him cough and stick out his tongue. With the same hand I keep his head down, while I slide the other palm swiftly along the counter to gather dust and spilled salt left behind by Tequila drinkers. Then I slap it on his tongue, the dust and salt making my palm dry and capable to keep his wet snake of a tongue in place. It happens too fast, he’s in shock, no reaction. I bend close to his ear.
“The plan was to ram a knife into your talented organ of speech,” I hiss. “But luckily I see use for it. I hope you enjoy this new scenario.”
Just a few moments later the bully and I leave the bar like best drinking friends, him leaning on me almost unconscious. I sing “Rasputin” with a bottle in my hand, the Loon following quietly behind us.
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