Contributed by TEC player who wishes to remain anonymous.
"What did he say?"
"He babbled. You know how bartenders are."
"What did he say?"
"Well, he said..."
* * *
They always come into my bar at around the same time every night. They buya lot of drinks and swish them around in their glasses a lot, but they don't drink nearly all of them. They just sort of walk around, chatting loudly, patting people on the back, and drinking a sip, then leaving the glasses lying around. I'm sure most people don't notice, but I can't help it. I'm the bartender, but I'm usually the guy who cleans off the tables, too. I don't have enough money to hire a whole lot of people, and when it gets busy, I pitch in and help with everything from the cooking to the tables, and trust me: they buy a lot but they only drink a little.
Now don't get me wrong: I appreciate their business, and here I am trying to make ends meet, to make my place popular and sock away a little change for me and the missus in our old age. I'm always glad when people buy drinks, even if they don't drink them. But I can't help wondering why they go to a bar if they don't plan to drink. I'm not stupid, even if I am a bartender. I know they're probably doing some kind of business here. I worry that it's spying. I'm patriotic, for the most part, and I've got no desire to see Iridine, the Eternal City, fall to the damned slavers. But I don't *know* that they're spies, and I don't want to be remembered as that crazy, paranoid bartender who drove all his customers away by accusing them of spying. So I just watch them, and I listen, but I try not to act like a psycho.
I think what bugs me is that I can't understand them. Most people who come into my bar are easy to read. Lost someone in the war, or to the slavers, or to another man, or to another woman. Lonely or bored or looking for business connections. Sure, those are reasons to go to a bar. And while you're waiting for your dead son to come back to life or for your wife to come back to you or for the opportunity of a lifetime to drop into your lap, you drink. They come, they talk, and I listen. They pour out their hearts and souls and fears and dreams, and I nod my head and pretend I haven't heard it all before. I don't mind. I like people, or I wouldn't be in the business I'm in, and I don't mind giving them a shoulder to cry on.
These guys, though- they're mostly different. They talk a lot, but they don't really say anything. You don't realize it right away. They walk around and they're loud and they've always got drinks in their hands, but they talk about the weather or sports or construction work on the city wall, all really friendly and sociable, and it's not until you've seen them four or five times that you realize that they never really say anything at all. At least, nothing that matters.
They also have their own language. It's spooky, because I'm pretty sure they aren't foreigners. A couple of them are from Windward. You can always tell a Windwarder by the way they make their 'th' sounds into 'd'. "Dose guys" or "Dese over here" or "Da one over dere." They speak Iridian okay, and Windward, which I can understand a few words of, but here I am in Iridine, the Eternal City, Crossroads of the World, and I thought I'd heard every language there is to speak, but I've never heard one like this one. No one else in the bar can understand them, either. I get people from all over the world passing through and drinking my beer, but as far as I know, none of them has ever had a clue what these guys are saying. It's weird.
They have these weird little inside jokes together, too. It's like they all grew up together years ago. I can't tell if they love each other or hate each other or both, but there's some kind of a kinship among them that I just can't place. There's always one of them carrying around this big stone wherever they go, and sometimes he drops it in another guy's lap and they argue in that weird private language they've got. I asked one of them what it was once, and he just said, "You had to be there. Do you want a kidney?"
I said, "Huh? What kidney?" And he replied, "You had to be there," and shrugged. Their language is like the same thing. Once I asked that kind of rough-looking guy, "What language is that you're speaking, anyway?" And he said something in that language. When I asked what it meant, he said, "You had to be there." It seems like they're almost crazy, but they don't have that weird look in their eyes, and they're not stupid. It's just something about them. They're... different.
I don't know where "there" is, but wherever they've all been together, it made some kind of a tie between them. I don't know if it's good or bad. All I know is that it's there, and that they know something and they're doing things that not just anyone does. I'm pretty happy with my life and my bar, and I have a wife and family, but I can't help wondering, down in my heart, what "there" was and why I had to be there and what that stone is all about anyway.
It's not just the way they talk, though, and it's not their inside jokes, either. Like I said, a lot of business gets done in my bar, and sometimes it gets rough. One time- well, I could tell you who they were and why they did it, but it's kind of beside the point. One time these guys made an organized assault on my bar. It had to do with one of my patrons and owing money- my bar was just a bystander. Anyway, it was the middle of the night, and they covered the windows with tarps. They came into the bar all casually, pretending they were just coming in for a drink, but they walked to the lamps and, all at once, they charged at this guy who owed them the money. The thing is, one of those guys was standing there, having a really loud fight with one of the other guys about that rock. They were all red and screaming in that private language of theirs, and it was like they didn't even see these guys ready to cut them down. The guy who owed the money hid behind them and pulled out this smarmy little sword. Well, the skinny guy doesn't even stop talking. He just walks around behind the guy with the rock and takes the sword *swoop* right out of this guy's hand and he gives it to the guy with the rock. And the guy with the rock leans over and swings the sword around a couple of times and there's this *crack* noise of broken bones and there's a couple of grunts and a scream and then someone's intestines are all turned inside-out on my table, which is pretty bad, because I serve food in here too, and you know, I'm just trying to make a living. So the skinny guy goes around behind the guy with the rock and he just keeps talking, like nothing happened, and the guy with the rock turns around and clocks the guy who owes the money on the head, and then the two of them throw him out of the bar and just keep talking.
So one of the guys in the bar blinks and says, "Wow, where'd you learn to fight like that?" And the kind of strong guy goes, "I learned dat on a deserted island." And the guy goes, "How can you learn to fight on a deserted island?" And the guy with the rock just goes, "You had to be dere," and he keeps on talking.
Well, I can't take it anymore. Tonight I'm going to ask them where "there" is, and I'm going to ask them if they're spies, and I'm going to ask them why they keep coming into my bar if they're not going to drink. Really. I am.
* * *
"Anyway, that's what he said."
"So will he ask them?"
"What do you think?"
"So will he ask them?"
"Of course not." That's what he said, anyway. But he was wrong. I did.
I just walked right up to the kidney-joke guy and I said, "Tell me about Cullaiden," and he just raised an eyebrow at me, and I thought he was just going to say, "You had to be there," and I was all ready to argue with him and stand my ground and tell him how much I really wanted to know, but he didn't say it. He just looked at the other guy and said something in their little language, and the other guy started talking back, and then he sat down and said, "Buy me a drink." And I did, and he took a long sip, and then he started talking.