By Neil Beynon
The tavern is almost empty.
He sits on a wooden chair near the back, eyes where he can see the exits. He draws the occasional stare from the scattering of customers. He does not look like he used to: he has grown pale and clammy, his skin run with sores and his shaking hand raises a dirt encrusted pipe to his lips. I am unsure what he has done to himself. There are no bite marks and so my hand drops from my sword hilt. I am appalled.
Appalled at what has happened to this person I once knew, or thought I did.
The barman eyes the weapons on my belt: the flintlocks and the sword. His hands drop below sight, it’s probably just a piece of wood he’s fingering under there but I reassure him with a nod and a wave. No one much likes outlanders these days. It’s understandable.
I slide into the seat opposite him. There is a moment of silence; we look at each other, a yawning chasm of words unspoken bridged by a worn wooden table. The barman breaks the silence by sliding a beer down next to me, then he shuffles away, cowed by the silence.
“You came,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I keep my word,” I reply.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why?” I ask. And in spite of the plan it is a true question, I still want to know.
“Why?” he replies. “Listen: some of what he told you is true. I don’t deny that I betrayed them both but there really was no other way.”
This raises a smile, although I am not laughing. “So tell me what did you do?”
“I told the garrison about them,” he said. “I had to. And the others: Utha and Malgow. But not you or Chin – I wouldn’t do that to you. We’ve been through too much.”
He’s good. Very good. We have indeed been through a lot together, this man and I. I have seen him lie before, seen him disassemble and I did indeed believe myself immune to his – thus far – petty betrayals. Yet his most recent transgression was not minor, indeed the depths of it are still echoing across the land and my wounds still itch against the fabric of my jerkin.
“We have been through a lot Sajud,” I reply. “And I’ve always been able to tell when you’re bending or throwing away the truth. I thought you understood this.”
He looks at me now, uncertain. Can I really tell? He’s always believed himself the smarter and now he doubts because he knows he’s broken, I can see it in his eyes and the pallor of his flesh. His sores are weeping.
“Why didn’t you just ask me?” He sounds aggrieved. Unbelievably he sounds hurt and frightened and – unbidden – guilt flowers in my chest. He always was a good actor.
“I didn’t want anything to do with you,” I said. “You were always someone to handle with care: a thief, a liar and a mark all rolled into one. I couldn’t trust you anymore…hell I’ve killed men for a lot less than what you did.”
“Then why now?”
I do not tell him the truth.
“Because I am tired of this and I have no friends left, now even imperfect ones must be made use of,” I reply.
He nods sagely, trying to regain his composure. He knows what I’m referring to and it has made his already pallid skin practically grey with sickness. Still the ballsy bastard stays sat down in front of me. I’m touched, that kind of loyalty from a liar is rare. Then I remember the others and it fades. I do not feel bad for using him. He used us for so long.
“What happened to you?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“Your skin, your eyes, you look…a mess,” I said. “You look half-drained.”
His eyes snap up at this and I see real fear in his eyes.
“Nothing,” he says. “I haven’t been up to anything. Just under the weather.”
This is so blatantly a lie it makes me angry and I cup the handle of my flintlock while I drain my glass.
“Is that so?” I ask.
“Well Sajud, I’m going to leave you now to your drink and we can talk some more in a few days,” I say. I am sick of the sight of him. Having renewed contact now I just need to wait for him to…well to be Sajud. Then I will have them.
See Sajud: staring at me like a frightened doe. Sajud who thinks only he can tell a convincing lie and who weaves his intricately designed paper-thin web. Well Sajud – you’re not the only one who can weave.
He waves to me as I leave and I return the gesture. I smile as I walk out the door, he does not see; I’ve turned my back on him.