A Mare Inebrium Story by Iain Muir
Mare Inebrium universe created by Dan L Hollifield
Max is a good bartender. The Gremlin’s shot of Panther Sweat is always waiting, right on time, the carbon dioxide cube bubbling away. It’s gotten to the stage where Max and the Gremlin haven’t spoken in over three years. Every night at twenty hundred the Gremlin stalks in, wrapped in the same long grey cloak, and makes for the same stool in the far corner of the bar, where he can sit, sip his drink, watch the room, and listen.
He’s seen a lot over the years, has the Gremlin: incursions from other dimensions, ghosts re-stocking the jukebox, multiple homicides with the same victim every time, you name it. He never bats an eyelid. Aye he sits, and aye he watches, and aye he sips his drink, and never a word says he. Nobody’s quite sure what his name is. ‘The Gremlin’ just seems to fit. Nobody will swear to his species, even. He’s humanoid, though his skin is greyish and his ears are vaguely pointed, and in the right light you can just catch the suggestion of scales on his forehead. Since he never talks to anyone, it’s a moot point anyway. ‘The Gremlin’ the staff refer to him as, and that’s good enough for most people. Not for all, mind you, but most. There’s always some smart-arse who has to poke his nose in.
It must have been getting on for midnight, City of Lights time. In the corner, Blanche was serving drinks to a group who seemed to be having some sort of family reunion. The oldest was on his third Absinthe of the evening, and was arguing furiously with the other white haired fellow, a dandy in a frilly shirt. Two little dark-haired fellows were egging them on, chipping in alternately whenever the argument looked like dying out.
Trixie was doling out radioactive sludge to a couple of D’rrish and a cyanide gas hookah to a Grigg sharing the table with them. Max was mentally taking a note to keep an eye on the party crowd when a new player made his entrance. Other people just walk through the door. This fellow made an entrance.
He swept to the top of the short flight of steps at the entrance, and ostentatiously gave a cape that would have driven a Ferengi colour-blind to the check-girl. He stood and looked down into the body of the bar with a look on his face that indicated an offensive smell somewhere just south of his prodigious nose and just north of the curled and spiked moustache which adorned his top lip, while he adjusted the fall of his wrist lace. His iron-grey hair was piled high in something that would have had Madame Pompadour grinding her teeth in envy.
"Aye em seeking," he announced in the most horrendously affected accent that many of the patrons had heard in years, "the Empress Esmerelda. Word hes it," and here he looked around in haughty disbelief, "thet she can be found in this... esteblishment. Aye demand to be teyken to har, immediately!"
A silence fell. The assembled bar patrons looked up from their drinks at the apparition in the doorway, at his sky-blue silk waistcoat, his lace cuffs and delicately embroidered pantaloons. As one, the crowd decided that as problems went, this one definitely belonged to someone else and turned back to their drinks and interrupted conversations. An improbably long scarf lassoed Trixie and drew her across to take another order at the corner table.
By all evidence, the smell under the newcomer’s nose intensified. "Aye sed: teyk me to har Imperial Mejesty!" he declaimed to the room at large. The room at large studiously ignored him. He slowly took the three steps down to the bar floor and advanced on the bar, fastidiously avoiding the tables around which he was forced to navigate. He waved an imperious hand at Max.
"You theah! Fellow! Wheyah is har mejesty?"
Max spoke without looking around, carefully polishing a highball glass.
"There’s no royalty here, pal. You’ve made a mistake," he said.
"Nornsense! May sources were most specific. Har Mejesty is heya somewhere, though what she could porsibly be doing in such a ... a dive is quite beyornd me!"
Max picked up another glass and polished it with dedicated precision.
"Look, pal. I don’t care about your sources. I’m telling you we have no royalty in the place at present, unless you count the D’rrish prince in the corner there, or the Narnian delegation in the Arabian nights room. I’m fairly certain that none of them answer to the name ‘Esmerelda’. You’ve got the wrong place."
"Pel? Pel?" squawked the newcomer. "Aye, sirrah, em no ‘pel’ of yowaz! Aye em the Plenipotentiary In Especial of the Government in Exile of the Romany Imperium!"
"The what?" scoffed Max. "Look, pal, I don’t care if you’re the King of the Gypsies himself. The Romany nobility were all wiped out twenty years ago at the Night of the Crimson Tablecloths. Your world’s been a Republic ever since, and your Government in Exile is a bunch of ageing Whenwes wishing they could turn back history. Now either order a drink or get the heck outta here. You’re disturbing the rest of the customers."
The plenipotentiary looked around. The rest of the customers didn’t look particularly disturbed. In fact the two at the nearest table, a seedy looking type in a loose white shirt and black waistcoat, and his hairy companion, were looking up from their chess game to watch the free floor show.
The plenipotentiary spotted the motherly figure of Blanche as she bustled in the direction of the Valhalla Room, carrying a set of empty tankards. The newcomer’s eyes lit up like the spaceport landing lights, and with a rapturous cry of "Mejesty!" he performed an elegant dying swan, ending in a decorous heap at her feet.
"Mejesty!" he cried again, his voice somewhat muffled by the fact that his face was now pressed firmly to the carpet. "Great news! The Government in Exile has sent me to tell you that the time is now! We shall take back the Motherland and restore you to your reightful place as Empress of the Romany!"
From the dizzying height of her full 5’2", the waitress looked down at the heap of lace and embroidery on the floor, an earth mother figure in a peasant blouse and gypsy skirts. Hooped gold earrings peered out from under her dark curled hair. She was carrying four two-litre beer steins easily in each hand. She nudged his head with one slippered foot.
"Will ye get up, ye idget", she drawled. "Yer makin yerself look even more stupid than yer already are."
The plenipotentiary rose to his knees, his powdered face a picture of confusion and woe.
"But, Mejesty!" he wailed.
A grey-scaled hand fell heavily on his shoulder.
"Get up," hissed the Gremlin. "Get up. Shut up. And leave. You have made a mistake. There were no survivors of the Romany massacre."
The plenipotentiary followed the arm up to look at the Gremlin’s expressionless face. He paled, but dredged up a reserve of courage from somewhere.
"Eh, Eff this is nort the Empress," he stammered, "then what is one of har Draken guard doin’ here protectin’ har?"
Still the Gremlin’s face showed no trace of expression.
"I am here," he said, "drinking myself to death, trying to live down the dishonour of failing to perform my duty twenty years ago at the Feast of Thaddeus. The Imperial family died that night, and all my clan were dishonoured. I am dishonoured, for I live, where those I was sworn to protect do not. The Princess Esmerelda died, twenty years ago. Is that clear?"
The plenipotentiary swallowed visibly.
There is another multiversal constant. For every bar, there is a bouncer. These are usually individuals large enough to have their own gravity wells, and in extreme cases a small moon or two. Many of them never need to fight; the mere sight of them elegantly cracking their knuckles (or the equivalent menacing gesture for their species) is often enough to persuade the quarrelsome types to take the fight outside. Igor is the current bouncer at the Mare. He’s a heavy worlder, about seven feet tall and four feet wide. His usual spot is just outside the door of the main bar, where he can explain to potential troublemakers the virtues of leaving their worries (and weapons) at the door.
It was at about this point that Igor burst into the main bar. Backwards. About three feet off the ground and on an orbital trajectory. When gravity remembered what it was supposed to be doing, Igor’s flight was intercepted by a table, which sort of crumpled under him. Igor lay very still.
He was followed through the door by a trio dressed in black. Two of them were decidedly anthropoid in aspect, knuckles not quite dragging on the ground. The third was tall, thin, with ice-blonde hair. Somewhere in his ancestry a sword appeared to have mated with an iceberg. They wore what were obviously uniforms: thigh-high boots, sharply-creased jodhpurs, black tunics highlighted with a silver lightning-bolt insignia, and long coats. Leather featured strongly in the ensemble. The blonde man looked around slowly, evaluating the room and the people in it. His head stopped tracking when he located the tableau in the centre of the room. His face showed no expression, but he immediately stepped down into the body of the bar and made for the trio.
Max ducked from behind the bar and moved to intercept them.
"Welcome to the Mare Inebrium, gentlemen!" he beamed. "Unfortunately, we have a strictly ‘no weapons’ policy here at the Mare. We find it encourages repeat business. If you’d be so good as to check your sidearms in at the front desk, the first round is on the house."
The blonde barely looked around. His right arm snapped out, producing a beribboned scroll, which he handed to Max.
"Out of the way, Bartender!" he snapped. "We are here to execute a legal warrant of arrest, issued by the President of the Romany Democratic People’s Republic. We are here to apprehend the traitors Erich von Kronstein, styling himself ‘Plenipotentiary of the Imperial Government in Exile’, and Esmerelda von Rosendorf, the so-called ‘Romany Empress’. Do you not interfere, and no-one will be harmed."
"Just a minute!" said Max, as he was bowled aside. "This isn’t legal! You have no jurisdiction!"
The blonde man never looked around, an ice sculpture come to life.
"We claim hot pursuit," he said. "Take it up with the Patrol. When you wake up."
One of his goons lashed out and clipped Max neatly behind the ear. The bartender slumped to the floor.
The blonde man addressed the group in the centre of the room.
"Erich von Kronstein, Esmerelda von Rosendorf, you will come with us!" he barked.
Erich tried to hide behind the Gremlin, whimpering.
"Will none of yers listen ta me?" asked Blanche. "Me name is Blanche Rourke, not Esmerelda von Rosenwhatsis. I’m a waitress, not a bloody empress! Now will ye all just bugger orff and leave me alone?"
The blonde reached casually for his side-arm. "If you attempt to resi-" was as far as he got, before the Gremlin’s retractile claws, now extended from their sheaths, took him in the throat. His two companions fared a little better. One actually cleared his gun from its holster before the Gremlin removed any further opportunity to cause trouble.
"Sorry about the mess," the Gremlin said, helping Max up from the floor, his expression still deadpan.
The Reever’s men had been and gone, and the verdict was in: clear case of mass suicide, advancing on a Draken with drawn weapons. Erich von Kronstein sat at a table and whimpered. The Gremlin sat next to him. On the other side sat Blanche.
"Eye’m so sorry, Mejesty," he sniffled, "Eye never meant to lead them to you. They must hev forlowed me!"
Blanche leant across and patted his hand.
"Will ye git it through yer thick head," she said, "I’m not yer empress. She died twenty years ago at the Thaddeus Day Massacre, alright? I’m a waitress named Blanche Rourke. Never bin near Romany in me loife, and never plan on goin’ there. Ye’ve made a mistake."
The Gremlin leaned closer.
"You. Have. Made. A. Mistake," he said, enunciating each word clearly. "Go back to your ‘government in exile’ and tell them that you were wrong. Live with your disgrace. As I am."
Erich looked into the Gremlin’s eyes, and slowly drew himself upright.
"Yers," he sniffed. "Quaite. Aye ken see thet now. Might be best if Aye looked somewhere else then, hmm? Jest for appearance's sake? Before Aye go beck and tell them we were wrong?"
"That might be wise," agreed the Gremlin. "More than one place, even."
"Quaite. Well. Sorry to hev bothered yew, really. Mesire Draken, Mistress... Rourke." He nodded to them each, got up and tottered to the door, his high heels skating on the polished floor. Collecting his garish cloak, he staggered out into the night.
"Eedjit!" snorted Blanche.
Trixie, passing with a tray of glasses, paused long enough to look at her and mouth "Empress?"
"If I were a frickin’ Empress," Blanche replied, "would I be servin’ beers ta them yahoos in the Valhalla Room? Speakin’ o’ which!" she bustled off, a matronly cherub, tankards in hand.
At eight the next night, Blanche started her shift as usual. At twenty hours precisely, the Gremlin stalked into the Mare. His first glass of Panther Sweat was waiting for him, the cube of dry ice bubbling gently away.
© 2000 by Iain Muir
Iain Muir was born in British West Hampstead in 1969 and is not yet dead, fifteen years of falling off motorcycles notwithstanding. Iain lives in a suitcase in various towns in Europe, but pays rent on a place in Warsaw, having seen the writing on the walls and gotten out of Africa, his home for the last thirty years. In between catching flights, he attempts to write science fiction, poetry, and fantasy. Iain blames his father’s reading him to sleep at night as a child (Narnia, Tolkein, Kipling – the good stuff!) for his interest in the genre, for which he is eternally grateful. Any pointers concerning how many people Iain killed in his last life to deserve this one can be sent to:Iain_muir@hotmail.com. Money can be sent in plain brown envelopes.
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