Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Enter The Dragon
A Mare Inebrium Story
By B. H. Marks

    The Mare was at one of its quieter times – meaning that Max could take one of his rare breaks and let Larrye sort through the yells, requests, and pleadings for more intoxicating beverages. Of course, a bartender’s never really off duty – even leaning back on his chair, Max kept one eye on the customers, and one eye on the Mare’s double doors. (It’s a bartender thing. You wouldn’t understand.)

    Max had him down as a hunter almost as soon as the older man stepped inside. It was a fairly safe bet – as an Immortal, spending enough time in one specific space-time continuum made one a pretty good judge of character. The man’s walk was quick, to the point, and aimed directly at his target – which seemed to be the main bar in the Main Room of the Mare Inebrium Bar, City of Lights, Bethdish. Which might also have marked him as a drunk, had a drunk been capable of walking to any point, let alone quickly or precisely.

    “Welcome to the Mare Inebrium,” Max said, smiling. He gave the immaculately polished bar a few careless swipes with a soft cloth. “What’ll you have?”

    “Tullamore Dew, if you have it,” the man said. It was a low voice. Not low enough to be a growl, just low enough to pierce the Mare’s usual background ruckus.

    Max nodded, adding a mental page to his mental book. He’d never seen the man in the Mare before, and whoever he was, he wasn’t suffering from “Mare Syndrome”, the classic shell-shocked stare that usually marked a first-timer’s first time in the Mare. He had graying hair, swept back from his temples. Running a little thin at the top, with sideburns that tracked down the side of his face and swooped up into a thin mustache.

    His whole face would have been sharp looking, except for the fact that age had sandblasted most of the hard edges from his features. The rest of him was either military or ex-military, or a member of any culture that spends its life in constant war, or struggle, or hunting. Of which the Galaxy probably had a good few thousand. Already, after just a few moments of subtle scrutiny, the Mare’s bartender could have picked him out of a police lineup, if need be. “First drink’s on the house,” Max smiled, waving away the offered credit chip. “This your first time here?”

    “That’s right, Max,” the man replied, stuffing the chip into a pocket of his well-worn black-brown uniform, and taking Max’s offered drink with his other. He leaned back, sipping the drink appreciatively, eyes sweeping left and right.

    “I believe you have the advantage of me, friend,” Max said. He paused for a moment to pour the Gremlin at the end of the bar another shot of Panther Sweat, right on schedule.

    “Oh, I just try to do my research before I go anywhere,” Mustache-man replied, wiping a drop of whiskey off  of his upper lip hairs. “I don’t go in anywhere blind. Not if I can help it, anyway.”

    “Then you knew the first drink was free,” Max laughed.

    “Of course, but I didn’t wish to presume. Courtesy is something all too often forgotten in this galaxy,” said the hunter.

    “You got a name, stranger?” the Mare’s bartender asked, sliding the Sweat down the mahogany bar towards the silent drinker.

    “My name?” the other man blinked. “My name is Joachim Gratz.”

    Max whistled. He’d never seen the man before, but he’d certainly heard of him. Joachim Gratz, warlord. Outright owner of a dozen planets, owed loyalty by a dozen more – in this sector of space, there wasn’t a lot Warlord Gratz hadn’t done or hadn’t seen. He looked at the uniformed man’s breast pocket, looking for the dozens of medals and ribbons that usually festooned a military leader’s chest. But except for a pair of pens sticking out of the pocket, it was bare. Not even punctures in the material that might have indicated recent removal. A matched pair of stars on either shoulder was the only indication of the man’s rank.

    “Looking for something?” Gratz inquired, matching Max’s questing look with one of his own. “I can provide valid ID, if you so require.  I’ll admit that I thought the gray hairs proved how old I was.”

    “Most of the military leaders we get in here have so many decorations, it’s a wonder they don’t fall on their faces, Warlord,” Max said, shrugging.

    “Most of them have a lot to prove,” Gratz commented, shaking his head a little. “I don’t really have anyone I want to impress. Not anymore, anyway.” He sipped the amber Dew.

    “What brings you to City of Lights?” Max asked. It sounded like a story, and if there’s one thing Max liked to collect, it was a good story.

    “An ending,” Lord Gratz replied. “An ending to a very long story.”

     “It’s a rather auspicious day today,” Gratz said, leaning forward onto the bar and steepling his fingers. “The man responsible for uniting the Dezarra Star Empire will be in your bar today.”

    “Um, one more time?” Max said, leaning forward to hear him better. “I thought he was already here.”

    “Told you it was a long story,” Gratz said, smiling in amusement. “Oh, don’t fear – you’ll get the condensed version, all right?”

    “Right,” Max said, raising an eyebrow. Usually when a customer said that, you were in for a long haul.

    “Forty years ago I was a young man on planet Dezarra,” Gratz began, his eyes taking on a reminiscing look. “Imagine, if you will, a young man madly in love with a woman fair and wise, who loved him with a passion that only the stars were large enough to understand. I was that young man, and Yanari was the woman.” He smiled at some half-remembered memory.

    “Sounds like a nice romance so far,” Max confirmed. “Who stole her heart away from you?”

    “Dezarra at the time was a mockery of a world. Central authority was a shambles, individual petty chieftains and lords tried to maintain law during the rare times that they weren’t breaking it themselves. I’m quite surprised we didn’t bomb ourselves back to a Neolithic culture sometimes,” Gratz admitted. “And Riegar Mortz and his gang of thieves found Yanari one day, and stole many things from her. Money. Valuables. Innocence. Eventually they took her life.”

    Gratz’s eyes narrowed. “That’s the day my mission began.”

    Max had heard stories, of course. While Warlord Gratz recounted his tale, Max’s mind wandered back forty years to the newscasts that chronicled a dying star empire’s renaissance. A man named Joachim Gratz had taken control of his clan, and using a mixture of rhetoric, passion, and military genius not seen in a thousand years, taken control of the Dezarran Empire’s central world. Only world, at that time, thanks to a period of political upheaval. Five years was all it took to make Dezarra a bustling powerhouse of a world, safe, stable, rich, and (as it later turned out) spoiling for a fight.

    One at a time, the twenty-four worlds of the Dezarra Empire came under either direct military control or economic dependence on Dezarra, stunning 99% of the galaxy’s military advisers, political pundits, and armchair quarterbacks. And none of  Dezarra’s holdings had looked back, either. While dozens of ex-Warlords’ bones littered Dezarra’s spaceways (and dungeons), the twenty-four worlds underwent an economic and cultural boom. Nobody seemed inclined to revert to the barbaric infighting of forty years before.

    “Forty years it took to unite the Empire,” Gratz was continuing, in a monologue remarkably free of boasting. “And always he eluded me.”

    “Who?” Max asked, frowning.

    “Riegar Mortz,” Gratz replied, interlacing his fingers. “I caught one of his men on every planet I conquered, and executed them. Now only Riegar Mortz is left. He is the reason I did what I did.”

    Max’s eyebrows shot up until they almost hit his hairline. “Are you trying to tell me you engineered the military campaign of the millennia for a woman?!”

    Warlord Gratz tilted his head back and drained the last of the Tullamore. “Might I trouble you for a refill, Max?” he asked, graciously. He pulled his credit chip out of his pocket, and slid it towards Max.

    The bartender ran it absent-mindedly through the cash reader, and reached for the bottle of Tullamore. Halfway there his hand stopped, and slid two bottles over to the right. “This calls for a Krupnik,” Max said, a little subdued.

    “No, thank you,” Gratz said, shaking his head. “I’m rich enough to afford it, but I’d prefer the Irish variety. It’s hard to get on Dezarra.”

    Max’s hand moved left two bottles. “Ok, Dew it is,” he shrugged, pouring the drink. “You conquered an empire over a woman. Impressive.”

    “No, Max, for all your astuteness, you’ve gotten it wrong,” Warlord Gratz said, putting his chip back in his breast pocket. “Empire had nothing to do with it. I simply had to find Riegar Mortz. And I couldn’t find him on Dezarra. So I had to look elsewhere. First he sheltered with rival clans. So I conquered them. Then he sheltered on another continent. So I took those, too. Eventually he ran out of land to hide on, so he sought refuge on another world. I took that one as well.
“Eventually I ran out of worlds,” Gratz said, taking another sip of whiskey. “And that is why I am here.”

    Max leaned back, the hair on his neck standing up. “Gratz, Bethdish is out of your area. There are three dozen races who have mutual defense treaties with us. You’d never win.”

    “Max, I’m a practical man,” Gratz said. “Invading Bethdish would be silly.”

    The Immortal Bartender ran a hand down the back of his neck, smiling. “Beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to presume.”

    “I knew full well I couldn’t make war on the galaxy,” Gratz said. “I can do math as well as you. But I had to find Riegar Mortz. And in my researches, Max, I found the one place in the Galaxy, where sooner or later, Riegar Mortz would be forced to go.”

    The Warlord of a dozen systems whirled around on his bar stool and thrust out a hand over the assembled, room. “Here, Max! Here, the Mare Inebrium, in the City of Lights, on the Planet of Bethdish! Here is where everybody shows up, sooner or later, and here it is that I will run my quarry to ground! And after forty years of hunting, he will come to me!” His voice had reached a crescendo, and there was a sudden quiet in the main room.

    Where up until then they had been engaged in quiet conversation, now all eyes, (from Ambassador Kazsh-ak Tier, Trixie, Blanche, and JJ down to the smelly amorph next to Andrew Huntington-Smythe) were on him, and him alone.

    Gratz smiled a new smile and Max suddenly didn’t like it one bit. “Gratz, whatever you want to do, don’t do it in here. The Mare has a few rules here, and not everyone survives breaking them.” And then he saw that Gratz’s hand had curled into a fist, with one slim finger aimed right at the Mare’s main entrance.

    “Come in, Riegar Mortz!” Warlord Gratz called out. “I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time.”
For the entryway to the Mare Inebrium was occupied. It was a tallish man, hair snow-white, hands shaking with either fear or palsy. The clothes on his back could only be considered clothes by a large act of charity. He was thin and pale, wild, wide eyes glancing left and right at a crowd of bar-goes, all focused on either him or a hungry Warlord.

    “Hello, Joachim,” Riegar croaked, his face turning a delicate shade of green. He stumbled forward, avoiding tables and chairs with only the greatest of luck, worn shoes somehow managing to trip and catch on the Mare’s perfectly smooth marble floors. “I don’t care anymore, Joachim. I’ve nowhere else to run. Do what you like.”

    “Max, a drink for Mr. Mortz,” Warlord Gratz suggested, nodding his head towards the new arrival. “He needs a last drink, don’t you think?”

    Max uncorked the Tullamore and poured it into a fresh glass. “I’m telling you, Gratz, don’t make a mistake you’re going to regret.”

    “Now why on earth would I regret putting a rabid dog down, Max?” Gratz inquired, equal parts delicate and patronizing.

    “How did you know he was going to be here?” Max asked, trying to change the subject. He pushed the full glass towards Mortz.

    “A poetic explanation would be fate, or karma, or Divine Will,” Warlord Gratz replied. He leaned on his elbows and started into his glass. “An honest explanation was that he was only just ahead of my men on Tourann, and it wasn’t horribly difficult to find a faster ship than his.” He sipped at the amber liquid. “That said, to run to the ends of the galaxy, you’d need to find a ship from the other end of the galaxy. Or one from this end, going there. And that’s where your Mare Inebrium came in. Her name kept popping up, again and again. The Sea of Drunkards, a place where you could find just about anyone or anything.”

    Max chuckled. “It’s not my place, Warlord,” he said. “I work for a living.”

    “Consider the statement suitably modified, then,” Gratz shrugged. “The Mare is here, and that is what concerns me. Riegar Mortz is here, which concerns me even more.”

    “Well, if you want a bartender’s advice,” Max began, but Gratz cut him off.

    “I’m well aware you’re highly thought of, Max,” Warlord Gratz said coldly. “However, this is a matter between him and myself. Why his fate worries you I’m sure I have no idea.”

    “Because he’s the only thing keeping you alive, isn’t it?” Max asked, softly.

    Warlord Gratz paused with his drink halfway to his lips. He placed it back on the bar with a thud, some of the drink splashing out. Max wiped it up with a cloth. “What did you say, bartender?” he asked after a moment, with emphasis on the final word.

    “He’s the only meaning you had in your life for forty years,” Max said. “You’ve been hunting a dragon for forty years, and now you’ve finally caught him. I’ve been tending bar here for a long time, and I know what happens when someone loses the meaning of their life. They no longer have any reason to live...and so they don’t.”

    “Outrageous!” Gratz sputtered. “Riegar Mortz will die before the day is out, by my hand.”

    “And who’s hand will you die by?” Max asked quietly.

    “Are you threatening me?” Gratz demanded. Bruce the bouncer started edging slowly across the room at that.

    “I don’t have to,” Max said. “Think about your future for a minute. Tell me what your life will be like without Riegar Mortz.”

    “Without Riegar Mortz?” Gratz shouted. “He must pay for his crimes! Evil will not triumph because I will act!”

    “Look at him, Joachim,” Max said, shaking his head. “He’s a broken man. On the run for forty years, one step ahead of his fate. Don’t you think you’ve done enough to him?”

    The look on Gratz’s face was hard to gage. It looked as though equal parts hate, rage, revulsion, fear, and pain were traveling across his synapses in dozens of different directions. The bar had ceased to breathe.

    And then Warlord Gratz, ruler of Dezarra, sighed and turned back towards the bar. He pushed his credit chip towards his nemesis.

    “Take it,” he said. “Get out of my life. I recommend a very distant world. Another galaxy if you can arrange it, of course, but start with another world.”

    Riegar Mortz reached out a trembling hand, and closed it around the chip. Confusion was written all over his face, but slowly he turned around, and staggered his way towards the Mare Inebrium door.

    Before a minute had passed he was lost to view. Gratz dropped his head into his hands. For long minutes he didn’t move, and the hustle and bustle of the Mare Inebrium flowed around him as if it was an ocean and he was a rock. And Max sat there, just watching him.

    “Max,” Gratz said, lifting up his head at last.

    “Yes, Joachim?” Max inquired, the picture of a perfect bartender.

    “Do you remember when I said he was responsible for the resurrection of the Dezarra Star Empire?” Warlord Gratz asked.

    “I do indeed,” Max confirmed.

    “I know what I’ll do now,” Gratz smiled. “I’m going to go home. And then I’m going to build him a statue.” He stood up, and reached into his pocket. “Rats,” he said, the smile fading. “I’m going to have to call in some funds from my ship.”

    “Don’t worry, sir,” Max said. “It’s on the house.”

-- The End --

© 2005 B.H. Marks

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