Sylas was very good at what he did. Some, perhaps, would say he was the best, although most likely didn’t understand what being a good bartender really meant. And perhaps to everyone it meant something slightly different–but to Sylas it meant listening. Listening to everything the customer had to say, audible and inaudible: understanding them. Encouraging them.
Perhaps it would seem more impressive if you knew he did this all without ever saying a word.
Sylas was a half-Elf, and although mixed-bloods (or the less friendly slur, “halfies”) were rarely well-loved by either race they descended from, no one seemed to mind Sylas’s ancestry when they came to talk to him. Perhaps he was one of the “good halfies,” or perhaps he was a “credit to his race.” Whatever the reason, the people who came to talk with Sylas conveniently ignored the unfortunate matter of his breeding and even came to joke that perhaps those extra-pointy ears helped him hear more. Understand more. Ferret out things that they hadn’t even really thought through until they came to see him. And in fairness, they weren’t all wrong: Sylas’s hearing was particularly acute. But it was his attention that was his true skill.
Tonight Sylas was tending bar for three people, two of which had been drinking for half the night already: a woman, recently left by her husband; a dwarf, drinking for the love of it; and a peculiar man swathed in a dark cloak, his face hidden. He was the interesting one.
The half-elf bartender glided between them effortlessly, the very picture of a prim and proper server. He wore a plain doublet with very little frill and his hair was close-cropped: he was the opposite of any depiction of a stereotypical Elf, with their flamboyant fashions and their universally flowing locks. To them hair was a source of pride, and a way they found to look down on the shorter-lived races: as if to say “imagine, if only you lived as long as I you might be able to grow locks this long, but alas…!” but to Sylas it was simply a means to an end. He was very utilitarian. Everything behind his bar had a place and a reason for it, even the arrangement of the glasses from tall to short to champagne to mug. The rags he carried, seemingly perpetually cleaning glasses, had a home as well underneath the counter, and his poisons sat beside them.
Tonight Sylas had paid his visits to the dwarf and the woman, re-establishing his old connections with them. He already knew a great deal about both: the dwarf was old even by the standards of his race, and crippled by an injury he wouldn’t detail. Sylas knew it to be an arrow wound suffered to the back of his leg, knew it by the particular way the old Dwarf walked into the tavern. Knew it by the lingering stare he paid bows and quivers when adventurers equipped with them sat near.
He had grown to despise other Dwarves and avoided their watering holes whenever possible. Sylas had seen the way he looked at other Dwarven patrons and the simple fact he chose to drink here, not elsewhere.
And although he seemed stout and sturdy from the outside in, a rot had taken hold in his lungs in the past few weeks and the Dwarf was growing worried he couldn’t shake it. The cough he tried to quell: the shortness of his breath from simply walking in. And many more things.
“Abominable weather,” the Dwarf grumbled, and nodded to himself as Sylas smiled. “Must be the gods pissing down from the sky.” He happily accepted the drink that the bartender set in front of him, something old and vaguely fiery. Sylas hadn’t needed to ask what he wanted since the first night he’d come in, although even the Dwarf hadn’t known what he wanted then. The drink helped him forget the Human village he’d crushed with rocks and mud.
The Dwarf’s name was Belthzed, and he was neither good nor bad. He was simply a person.
Sylas knew a great deal about the woman he served as well. She was a retired guard who’d spent her entire life no more than a day’s walk from this city, as many did. He knew all about the three guardsmen she’d seen killed in her time, and the one woman, although she never spoke of her. The girl’s name had been Amira, and she had died to to a stray crossbow bolt. There was nothing her comrades could have done to save her, but it would have been impossible to convince any of them that. Sylas never tried to.
She had married young with one of her surviving comrades and become completely attached to him. The two of them had enjoyed a happy marriage, at first, and did their best to push away any problems that did occur. It wasn’t as if the two of them were perfect for one another, but both believed no one else could understand the suffering they’d experienced. There was no one else they could open up to.
He was also aware of the miscarriage she’d suffered in her first trimester. She was not so young, anymore: perhaps she wouldn’t get another chance. He was aware of what it had done to their marriage. Sylas had seen the way she’d begun to walk protectively of her stomach, even when no bump had swelled it: he’d seen her absence and the way she drowned herself with drink after.
And he’d known what the end result would be. Of course he did: he even knew who the woman was her husband had been sleeping with three months before their separation. He knew, but he did not say: if the woman learned she would kill him and his lover both. If she never did she would only kill herself. The calculus didn’t matter to him: it was not his place to inform her.
“Another year gone,” she sighed, and shot him a wink when he set down a glass of something exotic in front of her. “But you never change, do you Sylas?” and he simply smiled. She hadn’t known what she wanted to drink before she came here, but he had known simply by looking at her.
The woman’s name was Ada, and she was neither good nor bad. She was simply a person.
And some of Sylas’s attention remained on the two, and some of his attention was devoted to the tavern behind them. But the bulk of his time was spent with the man at the very end of the bar, the one in a cloak that covered him nearly completely. He was a mystery, as much a man could be a mystery to Sylas: this was the first time he’d ever set foot in this bar, and yet he’d walked into it with the ease and the care that a frequent visitor might possess. The bartender had been watching him since the man had entered his tavern. The attention had been mutual.
Sylas raised an eyebrow as he stood once more before the newcomer, his hands preoccupied as usual cleaning a barely-dirty glass. The question seemed obvious: what will you be having? but the man hadn’t spoken the whole night. Perhaps he never would.
And then, “Something strong.”
“Like you gave her.”
And a small crossbow bolt peeked out of one of the heavy cloak’s sleeves, silver and glinting.
Sylas didn’t flinch. He nodded, smile fixed on his face like it was carved there, and he turned to find an appropriate bottle. The man continued to talk, like he’d been waiting to speak for longer than just one night.
“Imagine,” he said in a half-fake rasp, like he was trying to sound older than he really was. “Imagine a girl came to trust a rotten half-blood, even accepted him into her home despite her family’s advice. Continued to see him even in secret when they forbade it. Refused to believe the growing mountain of evidence that emerged as they went digging. And even said she’d run away if she had to…” the newcomer shuddered, one hand clenching and unclenching on the top of the bar. while the small crossbow remained motionless. Sylas had found a decanter filled with amber liquid and he poured it now into a medium glass filled with ice.
“No.” the fake voice had been slipping, but now it was back: harsh, growling. “Pour two. I don’t trust your alcohol any more than I trust you.” Sylas nodded, still facing away, and took up another glass. “And imagine if that half-breed killed her,” he hissed, “all because she’d begun to ask too many questions. Imagine if he stuck her with a knife and left her to bleed. Left her for her brother to find her.”
Sylas had finished pouring. Now two slices of fruit went into the drink, to mute the spiciness. A single stir to mix it. “Imagine how it must have been to find her there, wondering if something more could have been done.” The voice was gone, and then so was the hood: a fair face, so similar to his sister’s. Beautiful and slightly uncanny, with pointed ears and angular features. An Elf, and one who was very far from his home.
The drinks were done, and the young Elf saw it. “Put one down in front of you, and one in front of me. Let’s have a drink to my sister’s memory.” He glared at Sylas, moreso when the bartender’s expression utterly failed to change: that ghost of a smile still played on his lips. “Don’t forget I hold your life in my hands,” the Elf hissed. The hand crossbow slid ever so slightly out of his sleeve, cocked and deadly. One slight pull of his finger would send a silver bolt singing into Sylas’s chest, and no amount of bartending or observation would save him from that.
Sylas just nodded.
“Give… that one to me, and the other will be yours.” The youth pointed at random and chose his drink. He’d seen that Sylas hadn’t put anything into either: both of the drinks were identical. As he set them down the glasses clinked together, and a few drops spilled out. The bartender reached below the counter and froze as the young Elf’s hand crossbow twitched. Sylas held up a hand and very gently, very carefully, took out a rag. When the Elf didn’t shoot, he expertly swiped the rim of one glass with a part of the rag, then the other with another part, and when they were spotless too he cleaned up the few drops on the bar. Then the rag went carefully, slowly, back below the bar. Only then did both relax, and the crossbow’s tip slipped back into the sleeve.
“Good. You first,” the Elf said, and Sylas hesitated for just a moment. Then he picked up his glass and drained it, showing no sign of discomfort at the strong liquor. His opponent watched very carefully, but when he could find nothing amiss, dipped a finger in the alcohol and smelled it, tasted it slightly, and finally took a sip from the glass. He tried his best not to make a face, but his nose wrinkled. He continued to sip, clearly not wanting to seem like he couldn’t handle the drink.
“Enjoy the rest of your shift,” the young Elf hissed. “When it’s over, you’re coming with me. We’re going to have a nice talk.”
The two of them stared at each other for a long moment. Sylas considered him fully, contemplating all he knew:
The Elf was young, and he was headstrong. He had embarked on a plan clearly none of his remaining family would have signed off on. He was embarrassed by his youth, and he was trying to appear older than he really was. His voice; his mannerisms; his unnecessarily straight back. And yet he had at least some skill in killing, and had planned in cold blood. The Elf had contemplated the stage and the manner of Sylas’s death, as well as the many ways he could be foiled. He was a dangerous opponent, to be sure.
And from all of this, Sylas could hardly have told if he was a good person or a bad one. He was clearly motivated by the wrongful death of his sister, but what else? Was he moral? Was he kind and courteous? Perhaps another man would have discovered these facts, or cared, but to Sylas–
He was neither good nor bad. He was just a person.
But he had threatened Sylas’s safety, just as his sister had, and for that reason his cup’s rim was coated with poison from the rag below the bar.