THE crowd in The Shrieking Mermaid was about as wholesome and friendly as Melech had expected it to be. It was perfect to slip into because of it, and with a little light-fingered work he could sit at the end of the bar for the evening without spending a single credit of his own money. He settled happily on a barstool and ordered his first drink, more delighted than even he’d expected to be on solid ground again. He couldn’t help but moan softly at the first mouthful of something that wasn’t recycled, distilled water or inaccurately described protein bars. If he ever did find one that tasted remotely like what it was supposed to, he expected that he’d die of shock.
He smiled at the little figure engraved on the glass he’d been handed—a quaint, almost childish depiction of the old mermaid myth from Earth. The walls were also adorned with images of attractive women with scaled tails, and a few more masculine ones broke up the scenes of flowing hair and perfect breasts. This was a nice place indeed for a break, and he looked forward to an evening of relaxation and peace. He scanned the crowd looking for a likely someone to share it with, but no one jumped out at him immediately. No matter—the night was still young, and there was bound to be someone passable who worked for the place. He’d happily take his pick of people making a living in the trade, and feel better about contributing to the economy of the small and largely unremarkable planet.
Just as Melech was contemplating the sheer joy of getting something to eat that wouldn’t come out of a foil packet, or that would at least be well disguised if it did, a blond man in a rather tattered, out-of-date Enforcer’s coat flew through the crowd to land at his feet, hitting his head on the toe of Melech’s boot as he went down. Another man, heavy and with rather an impressive beard followed, with a very new, very shiny, very lethal energy pistol trained on him.
Perfect, Melech sighed inwardly. Now we’re all going to get arrested.
The rules on the outer planets were fairly simple: don’t kill anyone, and no one will bother you. Just about everything else could be ignored, but murder always drew a more watchful eye. This idiot was about to break the rules, and while he’d never been much of a man for convention, all Melech wanted today was a quiet drink. An interrogation at the hands of the Peace Corps wasn’t in the cards if he could help it. He stood up, putting himself between the barrel of the pistol and the man he’d just accidentally kicked in the head.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” he stated calmly.
The bearded man huffed and waved the pistol at him. “Get out of the way so I can kill him.” He spoke with a gruff, heavily accented voice; clearly not a local, then. That was a good sign.
“But if you do that, you’ll ruin my night,” Melech pointed out. “And if you ruin my night, I will be deeply unhappy. You don’t want me to be unhappy, do you?” The entire bar had gone perfectly still, waiting with bated breath for the outcome. In places like this, fights were all part of the free entertainment.
The other man frowned for a moment, apparently considering whether or not he wanted to make a man he’d never met before unhappy. He seemed honestly confused, Melech thought. It was a challenge not to laugh.
“Why would I care if you were unhappy?” he finally managed to ask.
“You might not,” Melech answered honestly, “but the man behind you does care when I’m unhappy, and he’s very, very good at what he does.” He trailed off to a dangerous whisper.
The bearded man took another moment to consider his position, glanced behind him to see a tall, thin man with a completely blank expression standing behind him peacefully, and then lowered the energy pistol. “You’re right. Scum of the system down there isn’t worth it.”
Melech watched as the man left in a decided huff, and then climbed back onto his barstool. He nodded to his shipmate, who seemed to have caught the attention of a strapping Dakkan that looked to be exactly to his taste—rather large and not especially academic, but very attractive if you were fond of men who might accidentally crush you, which Myron certainly was when the mood struck him. At least one of them was going to enjoy their evening.
He looked back to see what had become of the Human he’d just rescued, just in time to see him pop up in front of him, bright green eyes dulled, probably from the accidental kick in the head he’d received earlier. He wasn’t a large man, though there was an obvious sort of wiry strength and determination about him. Melech found the dark red Enforcer’s coat more than a little intriguing, since the man had either killed an Enforcer about fifteen years ago who was freakishly similar in build to himself, or it was in fact his coat to wear.
“Hello,” he smiled cheerfully. “Come here often?”
The blond blinked at him a few times, then dragged himself onto a barstool and leaned heavily against the polished wood. “Nidari,” he pointed out in a quiet voice with an accent that placed him as an outworlder. “You kicked me,” he added, seemingly as an afterthought.
“I believe you’ll find you fell onto my boot.” Melech continued to smile, though he was cautious of a man who would greet him by race. “It’s the ears, isn’t it?” He turned his head side to side to show off the sharp points characteristic of his race. “They always give me away. I ought to invest in a hat. Perhaps something with a feather?”
The man stared at him for a moment, and then shrugged. “Nothing wrong with them. I knew a Nidari girl once. Well, I say ‘knew’….” He trailed off. The point he was making was still clear—I’m not racist, just aware of race. Often dubious logic at best, but for an old soldier, potentially life-saving.
“I like your coat,” Melech said easily, taking up his drink to sip it as though this wasn’t a conversation with the potential to end in another fight. The blond huffed and pulled it a little more tightly around him, raising his hand in the direction of the barman for a drink and ignoring Melech so pointedly that it was almost a physical force of ignorance.
“All right, not a subject we’re going to talk about,” he continued as though they were actually having a conversation. “I take it you come here often, if you’re getting into bar fights.”
“Nowhere better to be,” the man explained without turning to look at Melech. “What’s it to you?”
It was Melech’s turn to shrug. “I’d just been wishing for someone attractive to spend the evening with when you very nearly fell into my lap. I’d call that a sign, if you’ve a mind to believe in that sort of thing. And you clearly have a taste for pointy ears.”
The other man swallowed visibly, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat in a way that Melech rather liked. It went along with the rest of the spareness about the scruffy man that Melech was beginning to find deeply intriguing.
“Does that often work?” the stranger asked disdainfully, though it smacked heavily of protesting too much.
“You’d be surprised. I suppose you’re one of those insufferably old-fashioned types who wants to be wooed?” Melech continued to keep up his good cheer. Even if he didn’t get quite what he wanted, he’d be well entertained by this one. “You can call me Melech, if you’re the sort who likes a name.”
“Aiolos,” the man grunted. He seemed to be coming around, though not with any great speed. “Thanks, by the way. If I’m going to end up a matter stain on the floor of a bar somewhere, I’d like it to be somewhere a bit closer to home.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t ask where home is?”
“You won’t have heard of it. Destroyed twenty years ago, during the war.” He spoke with little emotion, as though it were a long-cauterized wound that was never going to heal, but didn’t hurt any more either.
“And that’s why you joined the Peace Corps,” Melech added for him. He wasn’t terribly unlike a lot of people who’d been displaced, except that he was getting into bar fights on worlds that could disappear without anyone batting an eyelid, instead of working on his state-issued plot of farmland. “Didn’t take to farming?” he asked gently.
“Farming didn’t take to me. I couldn’t grow a weed, let alone anything worth having. Could have started a good trade in rocks, though.” A small smile spread across his face at what was clearly an old joke that didn’t get told enough. “You got a room here, or are we traipsing halfway across the planet to get to your ship?” He took up his drink, a dark ale that Melech had always thought of as rather too bitter to actually drink, and swallowed it down without taking a breath between gulps. It was impressive, in a way that he wouldn’t really want to imitate, but Melech could already think of other applications for the talent.
Melech grinned brightly and showed him the little metallic stamp on his forefinger that would open a room here for the evening.
“Then I’m all yours.” The man grinned and gestured for Melech to go first toward the upstairs rooms.
Considering what was on offer, Melech felt that food could wait. He wasted no time in bounding toward the room he’d arranged earlier, pleased to hear the sound of footsteps following him the whole way. He pressed the little stamp against the door handle and listened to the mechanical whirr-click that told him the door had unlocked before pushing it open.
The room was basic, but more than sufficient for anything he could dream up for the evening, and he’d been assured that the bed was completely designed for what he had in mind. The other man was clearly used to these rooms, moving into this one with a confidence that Melech found appealing. He shed his coat quickly, revealing simple, practical clothing underneath. Melech found himself staring when that began to come off, as well. He had been right about the man—lean muscles hugged tight on an otherwise bony frame. There wasn’t an ounce of flesh on him that didn’t need to be there. He watched, mesmerized, as muscle and bone shifted under the skin of his back when the slightly tatty undershirt came off.
The urge to take him home and feed him, as one might a stray cat, hit Melech straight on as the other man stepped out of underwear in a similar condition, and a slightly sunken belly and sharp hipbones became visible. It wasn’t that he looked unhealthily thin—he was obviously in very good shape. It was simply that Melech felt the need to fill him out a little.
“You keeping your clothes on?” The now-naked Aiolos raised an eyebrow in Melech’s direction, looking up and down his still fully-clothed body.
“I was just admiring the view.” Melech smiled coyly and let his own coat fall from his shoulders with a heavy thud that betrayed the contents. He paused warily for a moment, then went about disarming himself anyway. He didn’t take Aiolos’s lack of weapons to mean he wasn’t prone to violence, but if he were confident enough in his abilities not to be carrying anything obvious, and to have undressed first, then there was little point in being armed, anyway. The risk was clearly worth the reward, if it were to come down to that.
As he set the last of his small arms on the table near the door, Melech watched Aiolos come over to inspect them. He ran clever fingers over the curves of outright antique weaponry—some of it nearly ancient—as though he knew it as well as anything modern.
“Collector?” he asked, turning an ornately carved pocket knife over on the table.
“In a manner of speaking. I’ve always found that the older models are more reliable. They weren’t supposed to be disposable, so they tend to work. That one even fires in a vacuum.” Melech nodded to a small, black pistol that appeared better suited to the purse of a wealthy woman than to a mid-sized personal arsenal.
“D’you get much call for that?” Aiolos picked it up and turned it over, handling it like a combination of expert and admirer.
“You’d be surprised,” Melech replied cryptically and reached out to touch the man before him. It really had been far too long. He heard the pistol being set back down, and the hand that had been holding it soon covered his own on Aiolos’s shoulder.
“Undress,” his companion whispered, suddenly the picture of seduction. A pang of lust hit Melech in the stomach, and his hands went to the buttons of his shirt without argument. There were hands at his belt, working just as quickly, and he was standing naked before he knew it.
Suddenly, a knife nudged at his throat. He had an awful feeling that it was his own. He looked at the arm holding it to find it was clothed in an ancient Enforcer’s coat, as was the rest of the body of the attractive blond he’d just been getting acquainted with. He wasn’t sure what it said about his sanity that he was more disappointed than frightened.
“That’s an impressive trick. You’ll have to teach me it.”
Aiolos—though that probably wasn’t his real name—chuckled. “A Magician never reveals his secrets, Melech. Though as a consolation prize, I’ll say I would have waited until after if I wasn’t in a hurry.” He picked up the purse Melech had lifted earlier and dropped it into his coat pocket. “You won’t miss it, will you?”
“What’s mine is yours.” Melech sighed tiredly, ego already bruising from the knock it had just taken, and not at all soothed by the slightly backhanded compliment. “It was lovely to meet you, by the way. I do hope you don’t get on the wrong side of someone who could be bothered tracking you down.”
“Don’t worry.” The man grinned. “I’ve always been good at picking my targets, and you like me. Cheers.” He dropped the knife, leaving his victim with a fine cut to the side of his neck, and jumped out of the window before Melech could even hope to follow him, even if he weren’t naked and largely indifferent to the theft.
Defeated, he flopped down on the bed to wallow in his disappointment. He hadn’t been asking for much, just a quiet evening and someone to spend it with who’d enjoy it as much as he did. The worst part was that he was fairly sure they would both have enjoyed themselves. It wasn’t as though he had any particular problem with criminals, or indeed any basis on which to dislike them even if he were inclined to, being one several times over himself and not even considering the possibility of reform. He just wished the little bastard had robbed him in the morning instead.