The Laughing Beholder (Book Excerpts)

The Laughing Beholder was a local landmark.  Not because it was big, or busy, or scummy, or especially ritzy, but because its proprietor was a genuine-article beholder.  Shaundar had heard of Large Luigi – who hadn’t? – but he thought the creature a selkie-story.  Not so; he (if he was the accurate term) floated serenely behind the finely-carved, rounded oak bar, using one of his eyestalks to direct a polishing rag around in circles.  The other nine peered out in all directions, wriggling from the crown of his maroon ball of a body like Medusa’s tentacles, while the enormous, heavy-lidded green central eye that took up most of his “face” gazed straight ahead.  Unusually for the beholders that Shaundar had seen, all of his eyes matched.  He was humming a slightly off-key star shanty to himself in a gruff baritone.  When he saw them his eyes brightened and his broad mouth opened into a grin that was somehow cheery despite the many dagger-sharp teeth that filled it.  “Molly!” he exclaimed in a friendly way.  Then he scowled, and that was truly fearsome on his alien face.  “Okay girl, tell me about it,” he demanded, leaving the rag behind and gliding over the tables and chairs to the arched double doors with paned windows where they had come in.

“Hi Luigi; I need you to keep my friend out of the hands of the Elven Navy,” Molly explained, slapping Shaundar’s upper thigh lightly, “and he needs a job.  I highly recommend him for bouncing work.  Shaundar, this is Large Luigi.”

Lacking a hand to shake, Shaundar opted for an elven bow.  “Well met, sir.  You’re pretty famous in these parts.”

“That’s just because people aren’t used to seein’ beholders who aren’t tryin’ to kill ‘em,” he said dismissively.  “Well met indeed, Shaundar!  I could use a good bouncer.  This place gets all types.”  He looked him up and down.  “But I guess you can handle it, eh?”

“Thus far,” Shaundar returned.

Luigi seemed to find this amusing because he let out a hearty chuckle.  “I get the feelin’ that survivin’ is what you do best, boy,” he replied.  He fixed Shaundar with a serious expression and pointed out, “You know the Elf Navy don’t have no authority here on the Rock, don’t you?”

Shaundar couldn’t help it; a cynical bark of a laugh escaped his belly.  “The people with the weapons are the ones who have the authority here on the Rock, aren’t they?”

Luigi grinned.  “You should have no trouble then, lad.  At least not with me around.  We’ll watch out for each other, we will.  Stow your gear and I’ll show you what’s to be done.”

“Thanks Luigi,” Molly beamed.

Shaundar thought she looked genuinely relieved and that touched his heart.  He knelt down so that they were about eye-to-eye and he kissed her.  “Thank you, Molly,” he smiled.

“Come back when you can,” she whispered; then she patted his shoulder and skittered by him.  “I better go.  When they come looking for you, I’ll send them away.  Thanks again, Luigi!”  She blew them each a kiss and headed back out the door.  Shaundar watched her go with an ache in his heart.  Should have known better than to get comfortable, a voice at the back of his mind hissed.  Shaundar sighed.

He turned back to Large Luigi, who was studying him with a focused gaze.  With all of those eyes it was a little unnerving.  “Do you really think that I can stay ahead of the Navy here, or were you just trying to reassure Molly?” he queried bluntly.

The beholder cleared whatever passed for his throat, indignant.  “I don’t tell fibs, not even to spare another’s feelings.  Though I don’t promise to tell all I know.”  He started floating up a winding banister that circled around to a second floor, and most of the eyes on his eyestalks whirled about to study Shaundar pointedly, as if to ask, are you coming?

Mollified, Shaundar shouldered his haversack and followed, his boots clomping up the solid oak steps.  His hand traced the brass banister and he suddenly missed being on a ship’s deck.

He was shown to a room at the top of the stairwell.  “That’s so’s you can come runnin’ if I need you and you’re sleepin’,” Luigi explained.  He aimed an eyestalk at the door; the brass knob turned and it cracked open.  Shaundar was pleased to note that the well-oiled hinges hardly squeaked when it swung wide.  The beholder bobbed into the room, just squeezing through the doorway.  A tindertwig struck itself against a desk and then lit a lamp.

The space was warm and inviting, though much more simple than his quarters in the Temple-Brothel.  A simple chest, a brass coat rack, a small desk and a plain cot with a wool blanket and cotton sheets comprised the furniture, but an equally beautiful painting adorned the wall, illuminated by the lamp-light.  The artist had immortalized sunrise around Selune, with her Tears trailing like spilled diamonds against the midnight of Wildspace.

“You like it?” the beholder asked him, rotating around to fix him with that mammoth central eye.

“Looks comfy,” he admitted.  He indicated the painting.  “That’s beautiful.”

Luigi chuffed and his grin devoured his face.  “Really?  That’s mine.”

Shaundar was aghast.  “You painted that?  Did you paint the Colour Spray Nebula for the Sune Temple?”

If it were possible for a beach ball to puff up, Luigi did so.  Shaundar thought he tipped his body upwards just a little and his eyes certainly gleamed.  “As a matter of fact, I did.”

The elven marine shook his head in admiration.  “I’m humbled by your talent.”

The beholder tilted his body and his eyes slightly downward, and his eyestalks crumpled.  It somehow managed to make him look embarrassed.  “Well, thank you.  Thanks a lot.  It’s just a hobby.”

“I couldn’t help but wonder,” Shaundar added, “what did you use to capture the nebula’s glow?”

“Oh!” Luigi exclaimed, stretching out the eyestalks again.  “You’ve seen gossamers, right?”

Shaundar nodded.

“Well, you can extract their blood,” he explained.

Shaundar smiled.  He hadn’t thought of that one!  “I’ll remember that,” he promised the beholder.  “Thanks for the information.”  He tossed his haversack haphazardly into the chest at the foot of the cot.  Probably no point in unpacking, he mused sourly; and weariness washed over him in a wave.

The beholder fastened that intense gaze upon him again.  “You don’t have to worry, lad.  The Elf Navy knows better’n to mess with me.  And they’ll learn not to be messin’ with you soon enough.”

“Why would you do this?” the elf demanded.  “Why go out of your way and possibly risk your own safety for someone you don’t even know?”

“Because Molly asked me to,” he shot back, almost as though he was expecting the question.  “And I really do need a good bouncer,” he added.  “You can keep that armour on; you might need it.”  He twisted about half of his eyestalks in the direction of the chest, and said, “If that’s all the stowin’ you’re doin’, come with me and I’ll walk you through your duties.  We open in an hour.”

“Of course,” Shaundar agreed.  The giant creature sailed back out the door.  The elf closed it behind them.

*****

The Laughing Beholder was a hopping place.  A few of the patrons cast Shaundar strange looks as he drew draught in his orcish armour, but not as many as he expected.  Then again, next to a bartending beholder, what would look strange?  Watching Luigi direct tankards under taps with that levitating eye was more than enough entertainment for one evening.  He was downright chatty too.  Customer after customer greeted him like an old friend, and they came in every race known to space.

Shaundar quickly saw the clever design of the furniture.  For instance, the barstools had a couple of rails mounted at strategic points along the stem.  A gruff dwarf with a red beard streaked white and an ivory peg leg was able to stomp himself up on the stool by using one of rails as a step.  He lit an oversized calabash pipe and the room was quickly filled with sour tobacco smoke like the stuff Shaundar was smoking before he came to the Temple-Brothel.  At the other end of the bar, three hin bards accompanied their attractive and talented front girl with fiddle, mandolin and accordion.  Shaundar dropped a few of his limited coins into their fiddle case.  Two dracons stretched out on couches playing backgammon while a human free trader discussed business eye-to-eye with a tinker gnome in a high chair.  A trio of robed mind flayers huddled in a corner couch, wriggling their tentacles in animated discussion; everyone else gave them a wide berth.  The bar’s other employee, a pretty blond human girl, asked them if they were done with their drinks and would they like another.  One of them waved an empty glass with its strange three-fingered hand; the barmaid took it away with the others and returned a few moments later with something green and bubbling.  A pair of decorated giff came in about halfway through the night; they took over a table with big, sturdy oaken chairs and proceeded to sing three hours worth of off-key military chants, unfortunately drowning out the skilled halfing bards, while they put away so many shots of rum that Shaundar figured they must have disposed of about a cask between them.

Before Shaundar knew it, Luigi was bellowing, “All right, that’s it folks!  Last call!”

The illithids and the hin were gone by then, and the gnome and his human business partner had been replaced by a gaggle of well-dressed young ladies and a pack of young dandies kissing on their hands.  The rakes were putting on a show and the ladies were falling for it, which irritated him.  “We’ll each have one for the road,” the leader of the dandies demanded.

The barmaid brought them a pitcher and some glasses.  As she leaned over the table to pour, one of the rakes goosed her – hard.  She started and dropped the decanter, which shattered when it hit the hardwood floor.

“Hey!” roared Luigi.  Shaundar marched over and grabbed the lad’s collar and hauled him to his feet.  “The maid ain’t for sale!” the beholder growled.

“I think it’s time you and your friends said good night,” Shaundar explained matter-of-factly.

“We’ll have our damn beers first!” another one of the piqued playboys insisted.  The dracons downed their drinks and made for the door as the one in Shaundar’s grasp narrowed his eyes and took a swing.

Shaundar grabbed the lad’s fist, bent his arm up into a chicken wing and marched him to the door on his tiptoes.  “Ow, ow!” he howled.  “You’re hurting my arm!  You’re breaking my elbow, let go!”  Shaundar tossed him unceremoniously into the street.

“You’ll pay for this!” the youth shrieked.  “Do you know who my uncle is?  I’ll .  .  .” and that’s when the doors swung closed, so Shaundar turned to his companions and said, “I suggest you pay your tabs and go home.”

One of the young women pretended to swoon, but nobody paid any attention.  “And your mate’s too,” Luigi insisted with a truly frightening glare at the gentlemen, which emanated from all eleven eyes.  Some of them looked to Shaundar but he stood in the doorway and folded his arms.  Without another word the boys began to produce coins from their purses.  “Sorry for the trouble,” a dark-haired one apologized as he skittered past Luigi.

“Sorry,” added a blond lad to the barmaid.  Shaundar stood aside so they could go.  The girls followed after one of them hissed, “Knock it off, Charlotte!” and the fainting girl glanced around, blushed, and gathered her skirts around herself as she fled.  Shaundar watched them leave and marvelled with a sigh that they were all probably around his equivalent age in human years.

“Nicely done,” one of the giff said approvingly.  He studied Shaundar through his monocle.  “Military man, are you?” When Shaundar didn’t answer he harrumphed and said to Luigi, “A fine establishment, sir, as we’ve come to expect.  Have a good evening.” They paid their bill and between the two of them managed to roll out the door.

The tavern was now empty except for Luigi, the barmaid, Shaundar and the dwarf with the peg leg.  Shaundar was pleased to note that the dwarf was now on his feet.  “Don’t worry about it, Elsa,” the barkeep soothed her when she came out of the back with a mop.  “Shaundar and I can get it, right Shaundar?”

“Sure,” he agreed, taking hold of the mop.  They traded smiles.

“You go on home, hon,” urged Luigi.

“Thanks Luigi,” the woman beamed.  “Thanks Shaundar.  Nice to meet you.” She gathered her cloak from behind the bar.  “Good night!” she waved.

The beholder floated the sharp ceramic fragments into a trash barrel before he let Shaundar at it with the mop, which struck Shaundar as both practical and thoughtful.  “Well, no point in you maybe cuttin’ yourself when I gotta levitate stuff anyway,” the aberration grumbled, bobbing back over behind the bar.  “When you’re done with that, mop the rest of the floor, then start wiping down the chairs and tables.”

“Ain’t seen you around here before, lad,” the dwarf observed to Shaundar as he pushed his mop while Luigi polished the spigots.  Since Luigi didn’t seem inclined to throw their guest out, Shaundar swabbed the floor around him without comment.

“This is my first day,” Shaundar told him.

“Well,” the dwarf chuffed on his monstrosity of a pipe, “folks call me Cap’n Gyudd.”

“How do you do, Captain?” Shaundar replied, clasping the hand extended to him.  It was hard but the calluses were old and partially healed.  He’d once been a starfarer, but now he did something else.  Shaundar thought it best that he not offer his name; word was less likely to get back to the Navy that way.

“So I thought the last bar wench was Elsa,” the Captain observed with a smirk.

“You still here for a reason, Cap’n, or are you just jaw-jackin’?” demanded Luigi of the dwarf.

“I want to know when that next cargo of IEN one-offs is due in,” Cap’n Gyudd announced, leaning back a little on his heels.

“It’ll cost you, Cap’n,” the bartender warned as he directed the flying rag to dip in a wash basin and wring itself out.

So that confirmed the rumours; Large Luigi was an information broker.  Shaundar’s heart started to pound in his chest.  If his sister was here on the Rock, Luigi would likely know; or know who would.  On a side note Shaundar wondered why the Elven Navy was selling off their supplies, but he assumed it was natural that they would need to demilitarize after the War’s ending.  His heart ached as he thought of Dukagsh again and he forced the vision away.

The Captain folded his corded arms.  “How much?”

Large Luigi allowed the washcloth to drop and studied the old salt with a whole lot of discerning green eyes.  “I could sell that to the highest bidder.  You want exclusive on that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Cap’n Gyudd cast him a pained expression.  “After all we’ve been through together!  Luigi, you wound me.”

The beholder laughed aloud.  “The only reason why I’ll even think about givin’ you exclusive on this is that we have been through a lot together.  So cough up or walk.”

The Captain sighed and stroked his whitening beard.  “All right, all right; fifty gold be the standard rate, ain’t it?”

“That’s right,” Luigi agreed amicably.  He aimed that eyestalk (the first one on the right, Shaundar noted) at a wooden chest under the bar-shelf and opened it.  Reluctantly the dwarven post-captain unfastened his purse and deposited a handful of gleaming coins.  The coffer snapped shut and Luigi made it disappear back under the bar.  “Pleasure doin’ business with you,” the beholder rumbled with a pleased smirk.  “A merchant-trader from the Sindiath Line is due day after tomorrow at about six bells of the mornin’ watch.”

Cap’n Gyudd nodded.  “Thanks Luigi, I owe you one.  Guess I’d best be off then, let you close up.”  He limped towards the exit.  “Keep him out of trouble, will ye?” he asked Shaundar, and he headed into the night.

“Bolt those, will you?” the barkeeper requested of Shaundar, so he slid the bolt and locked it down.  As the rag resumed its widdershins whirlygigs on the oaken surface of the bar, Shaundar put away the mop and started wiping down the chairs and tables as he had been directed.  The silence was soothing after the evening’s chaos.

“You did good tonight, lad,” Luigi assured him.  “Fine work!  And I ain’t talkin’ about your deck-swabbin’ skills; though I see you’re right handy with that too.”

Shaundar nodded his thanks.  He ought to be good at mopping; he’d certainly done enough of it aboard ship in his early days as a Midshipman.  And he didn’t take much joy or pride in the evening’s earlier business; though he supposed he ought to be pleased that no one had been hurt.  “Why do they call you ‘Luigi’?” he asked.  “I’m sure no beholder ever had that for a name.”

The beholder came to drift casually along the front of the bar to tighten the spigots.  It sounded like it actually took concentration to telekinetically force the taps to seal off because he was grunting with the effort between twists.  “Because .  .  .  it’s not that far .  .  .  from the beginning of my name .  .  .  really.  Humanoids .  .  .  have trouble .  .  .  with the pronunciation.  Ha! There!  That’s got her, miserable bitch of a barrel .  .  .  right then.  My name is actually .  .  .” and he made a horrific noise that was somewhere between a snarl and a gargle, but damned if the beginning of it wasn’t something like, ‘Luueeejjjeeerraaaggghh.’

Shaundar shook his head.  “You’re right.  There’s no way I could ever pronounce that right.”

Luigi rolled and shifted his eyes up and to the right while the stalks themselves folded in a little and his body bounced slightly.  The impression was that of a shrug, perhaps.  “S’all right, I can’t go home to them anyway.  They don’t get me.  I’ve been through something that’s changed all that I am, and my own people don’t understand me no more.”  Shaundar’s mouth twitched upwards.  Were they kindred souls of a sort; he and this beholder?  “I understand that completely,” he admitted.

The barkeep fixed him with all of those eyes again and his expression was studied and concerned.  “Thought you might,” he said.  He might have seen Shaundar’s curiosity in his eyes, because he added, “The orc armour kind of gave that away.”

That wasn’t really what Shaundar was wondering about, however.  Once again the question went to motivation.  Why would a beholder choose to tend a bar and associate with a bunch of humanoids? And how did he get into selling secrets? Beholders in space would be a xenophobic, genocidal menace if they weren’t so busy killing each other over minor physical differences in their own species; and grounding beholders most often lurked underground in solitary darkness like hunting spiders.  As a rule, they weren’t friendly creatures.  “Must have been some experience,” he observed.

A bottle uncorked and tipped itself onto a clean rag.  The acrid tang of vinegar wafted through the air and the cloth started wiping down the windows and mirrors.  “I imagine you could say the same, eh?” was Luigi’s reply.

Shaundar considered the long, convoluted journey that was his experience of the War.  “I could, I suppose.” They fell silent.  The only sounds were low wooden clunks as the legs of the tables wiggled against the floor and the squeaking of the cloth on the glass.

“Now, just the sweeping,” Luigi announced.

“I’ll get that,” Shaundar volunteered, exchanging his mop and pail for the broom and dustpan.  The beholder barkeep levitated chairs one after the other and flipped them over to stack on the tables, while Shaundar swept.

“A good night’s work,” declared Luigi with satisfaction, and he lifted an overstuffed green velvet pillow from behind the bar and flopped it onto one of the stools.  He sank into this with a sigh.  “You want a drink?”  He lifted a bottle of rum and two cups off the shelves and poured one for each of them.  He didn’t bother re-corking the bottle.

Shaundar perched on the stool next to Luigi’s.  “Thank you,” he smiled in gratitude.  They drank in silence for a few minutes.  Neither one of them winced much at the strong spirits.

“So, what brings you to Bral?” the beholder asked him.  “You don’t look like a local.”

Shaundar figured he would never have a better opening.  “I heard a rumour that my sister might be around here,” he told him.  That wasn’t exactly true; the person who had passed this on to Shaundar certainly could not be trusted.  Quite frankly, Shaundar strongly suspected that his sister was dead with the rest of his homeworld.  But he had to know for sure.  “If you did know, or could find her,” Shaundar added slowly, tasting his caution, “what would something like that cost?”

“Thought you were flat busted,” Luigi commented, peering at him with three eyestalks and the corner of the big one.

Shaundar nodded.  “I am.  But then I’d know how many free days labour I’d owe you.  Which I will serve before you tell me, of course.”

Luigi turned like a lazy susan to look at him.  “Are you an elf of honour, Shaundar?” he asked directly.

Shaundar shrugged.  “Depends on who you ask, I guess.”

“I’m askin’ you,” the beholder pointed out.

Shaundar contemplated his answer.  “I do my best,” he finally decided.  “Sometimes I fall short of my own expectations, which I imagine is pretty normal.  But I do try to be.”

The beholder nodded, if a creature that was entirely a head could be said to nod.  “Okay, here’s the deal,” he said.  “You work for me for a standard month, room and board only.  Maybe I ask you to do a couple of extra things for me.”

“Like what?” Shaundar demanded warily.  “I won’t do leg-breaking or anything like that.”

“Who says that’s what I want?” Luigi snapped back.  “No, like maybe I need you to go defend the girls and boys at the Temple, or maybe I want you to stand watch while I talk to a client like the good Captain there.”

Shaundar unbristled.  “All right, fair enough.”  He was silent a moment and then added, “I’ve been offered some of those kinds of jobs before, and this is the Rock of Bral.  You’re in the information business; it was important to be clear.”

“Guess that makes sense,” the barkeeper grumbled.  “Do we have a deal?”

“Agreed,” Shaundar confirmed.  They clinked their cups together and drank.

“Molly said your name was Sunfall, right?” the beholder inquired.

Shaundar nodded.  “Gul, av.” He shook his head to clear it.  “I mean, yes.”

“That name sounds familiar somehow,” Luigi observed.  Shaundar’s heart started pounding again.  It was familiar?  “Not that I want to get your hopes up,” he put in quickly, but of course it was too late.  “Let me look into it and I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Thank you,” Shaundar smiled.  A little of bit of raised hope was certainly better than none.

“Here, you finish that,” the beholder offered, leaving the bottle and his glass.  “I get the feelin’ like you need it more’n I do.  Try to get some sleep; tomorrow starts earlier’n you think!”  He flew off of the pillow and tossed it back over the bar with his eye, wiped down his cup and flew it back to its proper place in the cupboards.  “G’nite; sleep well!”  And he bobbed up the stairs and through one of the doors, which swung closed behind him.

Shaundar considered what was left of the bottle.  Two thirds.  He figured it ought to be just enough.

– from Sable’s Privateers (Toy Soldier Saga book 3).

Diane MorrisonDiane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author.  Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012).  Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year.  Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.

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