I have an alter-ego in an on-going RPG who – among other things – runs a tavern. A growing body of fiction has developed from this character’s interactions in his fictional, shared world, and I’ve found it refreshing to write pieces that must answer to nothing but the character, nothing but the sheer joy of telling a tale. Here is one from a late-night tavern encounter.
The Wine of Lethe
She comes in late each night, battle-scars standing stark against her dark skin. Her name is Selvia, and I’ve never asked what she does or what company she associates with – if any. I suspect that her calling is much like that of my own crew — and thus I know it is best not to ask. Besides, when they come into the Badger, they don’t always come to talk business. Most come to forget the murder and bloodshed that is rife in the world.
Last night, she came to forget.
Her face was uncommonly grim. She’s a proud woman, this Selvia, and she rarely carries herself with any sign of defeat. But you could see the burden of some loss in every line of her form as she approached the bar and asked for the strongest drink I had.
I’ve seen her drink. I knew not to bother with a glass. I handed her a bottle and let her try to drown whatever sorrows held her heavy heart.
Another came in and approached her. They spoke of what had to have been a job. A necessary killing – or at least one that was ordered. And Selvia, though she spoke little of the actual circumstances and gave no details away, made it clear that when she is given orders, she follows them.
No matter who that means she is asked to kill.
She went through two bottles of hard drink, as did her friend. I tried not to listen as they discussed in a circumspect fashion the incident that had leveled Selvia’s mood to such a desperate state. When they left — with a paladin of questionable intent hot on their heels — the two women could barely stand.
I wanted to ask. But I knew better. And I had other customers.
She came in later, when the only other person — beyond myself — was a quiet woman intent on a hot meal before she made the final few steps of her journey home to her own bed.
Selvia — still wobbling from her indulgences earlier — asked again for the strongest I had. A glass this time. Even she didn’t trust herself with a whole bottle — and she probably knew at this point it would do little to dull the pain.
So I offered her the Wine of Lethe. This is not on the menu. It is not casually left in the cabinets under the bar. I keep the few bottles I have under lock and key. They are rare and precious, and what I have to go through to retrieve them is better left unsaid. I don’t brew the drink myself – I’ve seen it done, long ago, and in this suspicious age, I know better than to dirty my hands with such a process. Better to use my memories to guide me to where a bottle might be hidden away after all these years.
But I digress. The wine is a vintage of no ordinary fruit. It is a product of magic – dark and complex. The bottle itself requires a rite to construct and more shadestone than is healthy for normal people to be around. And the fluid inside – murky, thick and with an oily sheen – is not something you drink for the taste.
The bouquet is like an abandoned field after harvest, when the last ears of corn rot on the stalks. It is like a late autumn forest, denuded of leaves, with all the bare branches whispering together under the lightless eye of the new moon. It smells of death, decay and emptiness — and that is what it is. Lethe. Forgetting.
I explain it to her before pouring. I would never just thrust this on someone unawares. There is a moment in death – just after you’ve finished the messy part of dying with all the pain and delirium. In that moment before your spirits stands over your corpse in the Grey, there is a sudden sense of peace. All the pain leeches away and the limbs grow heavy. The lungs no longer crave air. The mind no longer races. This is not a release precisely, but you no longer care about the pain. You are heavy and numb and still.
That is the Wine of Lethe. It captures a taste of that moment. Just a taste — it does not last.
But in her state, Selvia needed it.
I uncorked the bottle with its runed silver stopper. I poured the potent fluid — black as old blood. And she drank.
I don’t think she had believed me. When I picked her up off the floor, a little chill of death still clinging to her lips where they had kissed the glass, she murmured and fretted and asked for more.
More would likely kill her. I offered to show her the threshold, not push her over the edge.
I carried her to an upstairs room — I won’t let any harm come to those inside the Badger when I’m on shift, not if I can prevent it. I let her sleep it off.
She was gone once I woke for the day and braved the crushing light of afternoon to get to the tavern. I can only hope that little taste of the absence of pain helped soothe her restless heart.