Artrem drew one hand back, his fingers covered in cobwebs. "Aran's teeth, Wasyl," he said, "how long has it been since you cleaned this thing?"
"A while," Wasyl said, from his perch at the counter.
"You can't expect us to clean this!" Artrem complained.
Wasyl looked up from his ledgers and adjusted the tiny spectacles he was wearing. "You could help Roth muck out the stables, if you'd like. Or you could clean the outhouse... I'm not sure when that was last emptied."
Artrem grumbled at that, but went back to his work.
Wasyl glanced back at his numbers. In truth, for all its size and extensive clientele, the tavern didn't make much in the way of money. Wasyl couldn't figure it out at first -- he did spend a good deal of time refurbishing the place, and it did see a lot of business from the local mercenary groups. Eventually he put it down to a combination of factors: Unpaid tabs, hush money, the occasional bar brawl... taken together, the figures were almost as intimidating as the stuffed dragon above the fireplace. Almost.
The trick, as Wasyl had learned in his proprietorship, was that sometimes you had to be as intimidating as the numbers themselves. If it meant forcing your clientele to do some of the filthy work for you, then so much the better. Especially if they hadn't paid in months.
The heavy tread of iron-shod boots announced Roth's entrance. The huge man was broad-shouldered and stripped to the waist; He held an old shovel over his shoulder as though it were a weapon that he could swing as easily as any blade.
"Roth likes stables," Roth announced.
Wasyl glanced suspiciously at the floor. "Roth," he said, "you were supposed to wipe your feet."
Roth looked down at his boots, suddenly noticing all the muck that he had tracked in. "Roth sorry," he said, and tramped his way out while Wasyl shook his head.
"It might not look like it, but he's actually smarter than he looks," Artrem pointed out.
Wasyl drummed his fingers on the counter. "When you're done with that dragon up there," he said, "go inside and find the mop."
"I'm just an honest man, Wasyl. I'm not your personal manservant."
"It's either that, or the outhouse. You should feel lucky that I didn't just pay anyone to bring me two of your fingers, archer."
Wasyl sat at the tiny table at the corner of what was generally considered to be his bedroom. He uncorked a bottle of wine -- fine Vanarumite red, if that ever counted for anything -- and poured some of the contents into a waiting tankard.
He was getting old, he knew. His eyebrows had begun to turn a queer shade of bushy gray, his joints had started to act up, and his liver was already giving out on him. There was a time when Wasyl was capable of emptying seven bottles of rotgut per night; now the ale-mug was there to remind him that he had to cut down on the hard stuff.
Those were good times, he mused. Wasyl the tavern-keeper didn't exist then; instead it was Wasyl the mercenary, Wasyl the sometime bandit, Wasyl the legend who once strangled a bronze dragon with little more than two broken spears and some stout cord. Those were times when a sackful of reward money would last him no more than five days of debauchery. Now he was an old man with financial security to last him the rest of his days, and he didn't like it one bit.
He stood and walked over to the mirror that sat on his nightstand. His eyebrows weren't a dull brown anymore, that was for certain. What with the spots and the wrinkles and all, a scraggly old-man beard would only have complemented his facial ensemble.
He felt his bones creak as he shifted around. Soon it was going to be all applesauce and prune juice for him. And then there were the spectacles -- there was probably some morbid humiliation in his having to go to the glassblowers seven blocks down the road.
Damn it all, how could he have gotten so old?
Now his patrons were a different story altogether. The Wyrm's Roar wasn't just a hangout for thieves, spies and other scum -- it's was Wasyl's hangout for thieves, spies and other scum. For a man who wasn't about to buckle his sword-belt and go adventuring with the other folks, sitting behind the counter and watching the fights take place was the closest thing Wasyl had to entertainment.
He just wished that most of them would pay their tabs sometime. Or at least once in a while. Gold crowns didn't just grow on trees, after all.
"Sixty-five crowns?!" Sabine asked, incredulously.
Wasyl raised his spectacles. "Sixty-seven," he corrected. "Including the time you staggered in here bleeding like a pig in a slaughterhouse."
"You charged me for that?!"
"Bandages don't come cheap. Neither does hiring somebody to wipe the blood off the floor."
"That's highway robbery!"
Wasyl drew himself up. "No," he said, "that's your business. Mine involves charging my customers what I see fit."
Sabine's response was not something that Wasyl would have preferred his mother, his siblings, or even his dog to hear. It involved placing any number of objects in places where they didn't belong, for some reason.
When she finally tired herself out, Wasyl was ready. "I can give you a room for the meantime," he said. "Seven days would do it. No extra cost as long as you do what I tell you to do, and as long as you don't start any fights with the customers."
"What in Aran's green earth are you talking about?"
"Work," Wasyl said.
"And what makes you think that I'd work for you?" Sabine threatened.
"First," Wasyl said, "you don't have the sixty-seven crowns. Second, you wouldn't pay me back even if a mound of treasure suddenly dropped from the sky and into my front yard. And third, I have a hundred insurance policies sitting behind you, just waiting for you to make a wrong move."
Sabine turned suspiciously. It was a crowded night for the Wyrm's Roar, and the tables were full with disreputable mercenaries. Some of them were watching the exchange with amusement.
She turned back to Wasyl. "And what makes you think that they're going to stop me, old man?"
Wasyl frown turned into a deep scowl. "Where else are they supposed to get beer for half-price around here? Where else can people tromp about and hire them at a regular rate? Where else can they drink in peace and not get thrown out by the nightly patrols?"
"You think that's enough?" Sabine asked, laying one hand on her weapon.
There was a sound of grinding wood, and a sudden overwhelming silence. The majority of the tavern patrons were suddenly on their feet. Some of them had hands on their own weapons, and the sight of so many blades and points and spikes was more than a little discouraging. Most of them were actually smiling now.
Sabine paused for a moment, and then brought her hands as far away from her belt as possible.
"Am I going to expect more trouble from you?" Wasyl asked.
Sabine didn't answer.
Wasyl cleared his throat. "Am I going to expect more trouble from you?" he repeated.
"No," Sabine mumbled.
"Good. Now sit down."
She grudgingly obliged. The other patrons slowly slunk back into their chairs, and eventually resumed their goings-on.
Wasyl glared at her. "Never," he said, "underestimate the power of beer."
She glared back at him, but wisely decided to remain silent.
"As I said," Wasyl reminded her, "You get a room in the back. You wear an apron, you listen to what I do, and you don't smash up the furnishings. Eight days, Sabine. Eight days of good, clean work."
"You said seven days," she grumbled.
"You just bought a drink for everybody on the house right now, that's why," Wasyl said. "Think of it as a way to... show them that you've got no hard feelings."
A look at Sabine's expression clearly showed that she, in fact, still had those same hard feelings.
"Don't argue with me, Sabine," Wasyl said. "You're going to do it anyway, and it's a lot easier than me taking it out of your own hide. And at least this way, you don't find out how it feels to bleed like a pig in a slaughterhouse again."
Wasyl glanced around. It was now some hours after moonrise, and the bar was finally closed. Even the unconscious drinkers had already gone, dragged back into the shadows after a judicious rifling of pockets.
Wasyl took one more look to make sure that no one was watching, and then lifted the heavy studded mace from where it sat behind the counter.
He used it more as a deterrent nowadays. It was amazing how a man would react when you waved a weapon in their faces, but every now and then there were also some... incidents... where he couldn't help but get involved. They were few and far between, though, and Wasyl figured that he hadn't had occasion to wield his own mace for some weeks now.
It was practically covered in dust. Dust, of all things. Wasyl remembered when the weapon had been strapped to his own leather belt. It didn't stay grimy and unused back then... in fact, back then, if he found himself cleaning it, then it certainly wasn't for any dust at all.
He set it down on the counter. Aran's tongue, he could barely even lift it some days... it was like all his muscle had suddenly turned into flab overnight. Now all he had left was a way with intimidation, and once he got a few years older and memory loss started to set in, then he'd lose that too.
So much for making a name for himself. Now he was just going to be remembered as the man who served people beer at half-price.
There was a light snoring sound in the background. Wasyl decided that it was too late to feel sorry for himself, and returned the weapon to its usual place after giving it a good cleaning. His final tasks done, he walked out from behind the counter and onto the bank of tables in the center of the room.
Sabine lay face-down on one of the tables, a dust rag between her arms. She actually looked good in an apron, although she was likely the last person to admit it. Wasyl's heart would have warmed at the sight, were it not for the woman's snoring.
He pushed her enough to make her shift position. "You," he said, "wake up."
She continued to snore.
Wasyl thought for a moment, and then figured that he was too tired to start another argument. There was a time where he was never too tired to start an argument, and often such times would have result in somebody coming away without the use of an arm or a leg or an eye. But such times were gone now, and Wasyl was tired. Just plain tired.
He hoisted her up, draped her left arm over his shoulder, and adjusted position. It was the barman's three-legged walk, and Wasyl was used to it; he often had occasion to dispose of the bar's unconscious remnants, or the walking wounded, or the unfortunate dead (in some rare cases).
Sabine continued to snore. Wasyl drunkenly steered her around the tables, past the counter, and through the doorway leading to the back rooms. If he was going to have to collect eight days from her, then she was going to have to get some rest. In fact, he was going to have to get some rest.
He deposited her on a convenient bed in the most unkempt manner possible, then shut the door and began walking towards his own room. Wasyl's jaw ached, his joints ached, even his fingers ached. He was going to need that bottle of Vanarumite red.
At least life was still interesting, he mused. It was a different kind of interesting now, but Wasyl wasn't one to complain out loud.
After all, he still had a tavern to run the next day. That was all that mattered, Wasyl thought. That was all that mattered.
He wondered why the words left such a sour taste in his mouth.