In the meantime, Raiya O'Cheran had found a captain to take her to Biarkh, more specifically, to the port city of Rolar, a two days' ride from Merinsk. It took a lot of effort to convince the drunken captain to take her, and a bagful of money too.
They embarked on the journey two nights ago. The sea was kind to them. The wind was fairly strong, and the waves were manageable. She was standing by the schooner's railings when her thoughts took her back to Aslanor, and Vanessa, who'd risked everything to help her leave.
Vanessa had indeed taken a great risk. On the land Raiya had left behind, Vanessa was tending to her bar when a man in a gray three piece suit barged in. It was pretty late in the evening.
Many cloaked customers were enjoying their ale while whispering inaudibly. Vanessa's Corner was known for its acceptance of shady people, many of whom came to conduct secret deals or talk about the latest 'work'. In their jargon that meant the next target to kill.
Vanessa recognized the man instantly, as did everyone sitting in the thirteen tables. Her heart jumped to her throat, her breathing had quickened. The man slowly walked to the bar and settled on one of the free thirteen stools.
She approached the man, trying her best to keep her hands steady. She gave him her best fake smile and asked for what he'd like to drink. She wasn't one to ask people's names or addressed them as such, even if they knew her.
"Give me two pints of that ale you're so famous for," the man said, wearing a fatherly smile.
"Waiting for somebody?" she asked. Her voice betrayed her nervousness. She spoke in a thrill squeak, instead of her usual neutral tone.
"Pretty much," he said. Find authorized novels in Webnovel，faster updates, better experience，Please click for visiting.
She came back a few seconds later with two large pints, and placed them in front of the man. Her hand slipped, and some of the dark brown liquid spilled on the wooden surface.
"You look nervous," the man said.
"I've had a long day," she said as she hurried to wipe the bar clean.
"Didn't sleep much?" he asked then took a sip. "Hmmmm…" he went on, his benevolent smile unfading. "This is the stuff. No wonder your bar's always full."
"Only in the evening," she said then chuckled nervously. It was the least she could do to chase the hundred questions that swarmed her mind.
'What was he doing there? This isn't his crowd, nor is it his territory. Was I found out? Did someone rat me out?' Her hands trembled, and she fought to calm her shaking knees as well.
"Yet you keep it open during the day," he said.
"Work helps me relax," she said.
She realized that she needed a smoke. She needed to get busy doing something to help her calm down.
"Why don't you take a sip from that second pint," the man suggested, as though he read through her mind.
She prayed it wasn't the case. That madman was known to read through people's minds. She used to think that the stories spread about him were exaggerated. Now that she was facing him, she thought they were an understatement.
"I don't drink on working hours," she replied.
"You found it clearly acceptable to exchange a drink with a cloaked traveller, three days back," he said. "Do me this favor too, huh? I bought it for you after all." He slid two gold coins her way.
She cast a quick glance at the man in the elegant suit. It was dangerous to look him in his steely eye. People say his madness reflected in them. They were not wrong. One quick glance was enough to give her an ominous feeling.
It felt as though someone had just poured a bucket of cold ice over her head. She was now shivering uncontrollably. She reached for the gold coins, and the man caught her trembling hand.
"Don't be afraid," he whispered. "I know my reputation precedes me, but I'm just here to enjoy a pint of ale. That is…" he added in an even fainter whisper, "unless you have something to be afraid of."
He smiled at her once more. Vanessa's eyes were fixed on the gold coins, and the man's hand. The way he gripped them told her the man wasn't in for a friendly chat, despite him saying the opposite.
"I have other customers to attend to," she said, trying to wriggle out of his tight grip. She had a bad feeling about him. She didn't want to extend the conversation any longer.
"They won't mind if I keep you to myself for a little while," he said. This time his voice was loud enough to be heard across the entire bar. "Do you?" he turned and asked everybody, his hand was still tightly clutched around the bartender's.
n.o.body answered. The silence in the bar was now unsettling. Some of the customers were already shifting in place, getting ready to leave.
"Don't forget to tip this lovely bartender as you leave," Theolonius Stalwart called out to them. "She busts her a.s.s here for you, day and night. And she keeps your secrets to herself. Be kind to her."
The sound of coins clattering on the thirteen tables filled the bar. Soon after, everyone started leaving, in complete silence. The bar became deserted, save for Vanessa and her uninvited guest.
"Now we can talk in peace," he turned to look at her.
His fatherly smile had disappeared. She could clearly see the madness in his eyes. She felt his energy slowly seeping inside her. Her legs shook terribly. She knew she was now, for lack of better a term, in deep s.h.i.t.
Vanessa met the man's eyes. She couldn't detach herself from him, neither from his hand nor his steely eyes. She fought hard to keep the thought of her friend away from her.
"I don't like probing good citizen like you," Stalwart said. "Besides, the king will have my hide for it."
"Why are you telling this to me?" Vanessa asked.
"Do you know my family's sigil?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
Everybody knew the formidable Stalwart Sigil. "It's a snake," she said, "with two wings."
"An allegory to Lord Osmen," Stalwart said. "He's the symbol of power to all people in Hera. I do my best to live up to Osmen's expectations, and I pride myself in doing so."
Vanessa remained silent. There were too many things she wanted to tell this mad wizard, but she couldn't bring herself to do so. She usually dealt with aggressive customers with force, but not him, not the man who makes the king tremble from fear.
Theolonius stared at her, a.n.a.lyzing every move she made.
"Do you know how a snake hunts?" Stalwart asked.
She shook her head. What was this all about?
"It smells its prey," he said. "Not with its nose, no, but with its tongue. That's why you see them always sticking them in and out. They follow their prey's trail, and never give up. They're relentless, in their pursuit, and in their execution."
Vanessa felt the man's grip get tighter. It almost crushed her bones.
"I have something similar to a snake's tongue," the mad wizard went on. "I can tell my prey has been here. And not too long ago, someone reported walking into your bar in the morning. It was deserted, and you were drinking alone by that table."
He pointed at the one she and Raiya had shared a drink in.
"It's strange, don't you think?" he said then leaned toward her.
He jerked his hand toward him in that motion, which caused Vanessa to lean in closer. Her eyes met the wizard, and she could see his madness, his anger, his fury. Her entire body started shivering uncontrollably. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When he continued speaking, his hiss was akin to a snake's, sensing its prey.
"A bartender serves two pints of ale, on a business day one could only call, dry! Do you enjoy drinking? You don't seem to have an appet.i.te for it now, do you?"
She was found out, she knew it. She should never have helped her.
"I'm not in a drinking mood tonight," she said, trying to sound neutral and calm.
"Would you like a smoke?" Theolonius asked. "That ought to loosen your tongue a little. I hear you like the pipe."
Vanessa nodded. He let go of her hand, which had turned tomato red. She could still feel his fingers wrapped around it as she rummaged in her drawer for the pipe. She stuffed it with tobacco then hurriedly searched for the matches.
"There's no need for that," Stalwart said. "Come here," he beckoned her forward.
He clicked his fingers and a small orange flame appeared. Vanessa took a few puffs, then settled on a stool on the other side of the bar.
"You know what they call me, don't you?" Stalwart told her after a while.
She had finally managed to catch a breath, grasp the situation she was in. She nodded.
"Tell me then," he said. "I want to hear it."
She raised an eyebrow at him.
"I won't get angry with you," Stalwart a.s.sured her. "I'm not the kind to get angry over such frivolities."
Vanessa considered the wizard's words for a moment then spoke. Her voice was much calmer this time.
"They call you the mad wizard, or madman," she said.
"Do you agree?" he asked.
She was taken aback. Smoke got stuck in her throat and she coughed it out in short, continuous rasps. Theolonius smiled at that reaction.
"Now," he said. His eyes had narrowed, his voice was again steely, threatening. "Tell me how you helped Raiya O'Cheran escape, and I will not touch a single hair of your body. I know the king abhors probing, but I'm just a madman!" he suddenly burst out laughing, patting his lap as he did so.
Vanessa's heart was pounding heavily against her chest. It was the moment of truth. Would she protect her friend, or save her poor soul?
Theolonius's laughter disappeared as quickly as it appeared. He looked at the bartender, ready to hurl himself at her, tear her apart from limb to limb.
"Where is Raiya?" he asked once more. "You have three seconds to answer."