Hearts and Bones
Disclaimer: I don't own Death. Well, nobody does. But if anybody ought to have a right to, it's Terry Pratchett.
Author's Note: Hmm, I've never written a Discworld story before. This one just randomly grabbed me. It's pointless, not to mention somewhat untimely, but... what the hell.
Theloneus Boulger was becoming increasingly disconcerted by the stranger at the end of the bar.
It had seemed like such a good idea, when Lena had suggested it. Hang up little paper hearts in the windows and put out trays of putrescent pink candies, get the punters in to celebrate Saint Wossname's day - he still wasn't entirely sure who Saint Wossname actually was, some foreign bugger who'd gone and martyred himself or something equally silly, but still, the ladies seemed to like it. He'd even spotted Lena in the market, speculatively eyeing some alarmingly frilly ladies' underthings.
Given the size of Lena, that was quite some impressive yardage of frills. He'd decided to avoid thinking about that as much as possible - the mind seemed to be somehow drawn to morbid contemplation, against its will - and had so far spent much the evening ducking looks from his barmaid that didn't so much smoulder as splat in little sodden heaps, like a bonfire that had seen a bucket of water hastily dumped over it. (1)
(1 - Not Ankh water, of course. That didn't so much tend to douse fires as flatten them with an audible thump.)
But anyway, it had seemed like a good idea when it started, and at first it hadn't been so bad. The couples ranged from sickeningly cute to venomously resentful of each other, but it had mostly been a quiet night. He'd had to break up a fight between a rowdy group of dwarfs, which had apparently developed over the fact that they'd all become so drunk that none of them were entirely sure what sex they were, and he'd never actually dared to go over and find out what that pair of trolls was actually doing that was making that odd hollow clinking sound...
And then, there was the drinker at the end of the bar.
It wasn't that he looked... Well, it was more that he sounded a bit... He was just very... Very. Yes. He was definitely very something.
Very drunk, for a start.
He'd consumed, over the course of the evening, a rather impressive quantity of alcohol for somebody who was still within a reasonable span of degrees of the vertical position. Exactly how much, Theloneus couldn't quite recall, which was odd because he was normally scrupulously exact about that sort of thing.
He wasn't entirely sure how much money he'd been taking for it, either, although he was aware of cash exchanging hands. Not that he had any recollection of the stranger's hands, except that they were cold. Extremely cold.
Cold hands, warm heart - wasn't that how the saying went? In his experience, it was usually the opposite. In this area of Ankh-Morpork cold hands usually meant a stopped heart, owing to the application of a blunt object to cranial areas not normally suited to that purpose.
The stranger was currently engaged in a deep and philosophical contemplation of his drink. After several minutes of this, he apparently came to a conclusion.
Theloneus felt that he was required to make some comment at this juncture. "Yes," he ventured cautiously.
IT'S PINK. IT INHABITS A PART OF THE SPECTRUM NORMALLY RESERVED FOR UNDERCOOKED MEAT AND RATHER IMPRACTICAL LOOKING BIRDS. THE DRINK IS PINK. WHAT PURPOSE DOES THIS SERVE, OTHER THAN TO MAKE LIFE EASIER FOR RATHER UNIMAGINATIVE POETS?
The barkeep polished a glass somewhat nervously, transferring the dirt from around the rim to a more even patina across the whole interior of the glass. "Well, it's, you know. Romantic."
THE DRINK IS ROMANTIC? IT EXPERIENCES AMOROUS FEELINGS? The drinker swirled the little umbrella, in the suspicious manner of someone who has limited day-to-day experience of two-inch high brightly coloured umbrellas, and harbours extreme doubts about their position in life in relation to anything shortly to be ingested. TOWARDS THE LITTLE UMBRELLA, PERHAPS? OR OTHER DRINKS?
"No, it's, you know... For Saint Wossname's day. Like they paint everything green for that other bugger. Gives the place... ambulance." Except, was it him, or was it developing a distinct chill in here?
AND WHAT MAKES IT PINK?
"Well, it's just drinks, see. You just takes an ordinary drink and adds... pink stuff (2)."
(2 - In this particular case, ground shrimp. Given, however, the general quality of alcoholic beverages served at the Boulger establishment, there was very little this could do to the flavour that wasn't an improvement.)
AND THIS, IN SOME WAY, ENHANCES THE AESTHETIC QUALITY OF THE DRINK? IT MAKES IT MORE ROMANTIC?
He was a little foggy on this theory himself. "Well, it definitely makes it... pinker."
AND THIS PUTS PEOPLE IN AN AMOROUS MOOD?
He shifted uncomfortably. "I suppose. Ladies, and the like. They like pink things. And frills."
The frills were definitely sticking in his mind.
FRILLS. AND PINK ALCOHOL. The drinker repeated this in the fashion of somebody committing the elements of an unknown formula to memory, for careful contemplation later. His attention turned to the little dish of candies. AND SWEETS. ALSO PINK. MORE... AMBULANCE?
"Yes," he nodded quickly, on firmer ground here. "You can have one, if you like," he added generously. "On the house. Watch out for the little round ones, though, they'll crack your teeth."
NOT MY TEETH.
"No, I suppose not. Those are... very good... teeth... you've got there." There was, in fact, something profoundly disconcerting about the stranger's smile - was he smiling? For some reason, despite his morose mood, he certainly gave the impression of being smiling - that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Which, he was distantly aware, in some locked off corner of his mind, was possibly not such a bad thing... as he suspected that it was one of those things that, should you put your finger on it, would turn out to be unpleasantly wobbly. And probably sticky.
The drinker picked up a sweet with oddly delicate fingers - something definitely... strange... about those fingers - and popped it between his jaws. There was a single gunshot crack. No chewing. And not, indeed, any sound of a gulp.
PEOPLE LIKE THE TASTE OF THESE? the stranger pondered, after a moment.
"Well, I think so. Those that survive never have any complaints, anyway (3)."
(3 - In the majority of cases, this was because they no longer had any functional use of their jaws.)
DRINKS. FRILLS. SMALL, HARD, SUGARY OBJECTS. OTHER... PINK THINGS? he surmised, in the tones of one hazarding a very carefully considered guess.
"Well, there's flowers," Theloneus said tentatively. "They don't have to be pink, mind; almost any colour will do, as long as they're not dead."
ALL PLUCKED FLOWERS ARE DEAD.
"I suppose." Funny how he'd never really thought of it that way, although he guessed it was the truth. A bit worrying, really, that you were supposed to symbolise your love for people by going out and mass-murdering plants. "And poems." That seemed safer. "People give each other little poems."
ABOUT PINK DRINKS?
"Possibly, possibly," he hedged. "And..." He dredged up the last of his decidedly limited knowledge of St. Wossname's day traditions. "They give each other hearts. Paper ones." He held up a small, symmetrically shaped piece of paper in nervous fingers. "See, it's a... it's a little heart."
I'VE SEEN HEARTS. THEY DON'T LOOK LIKE THAT.
"I suppose they... don't... really. Would you excuse me? I really ought to go and serve this man a drink."
There was actually nobody else in the bar at this point, but the stranger didn't seem to mind, or notice. He continued to stare thoughtfully at his alarmingly hued beverage.
THE DRINK IS PINK. I THINK THE DRINK IS PINK? IF I BLINK, IT WILL STILL BE PINK. ALSO IF I WINK. IF I DROP SOMETHING IN IT, IT WILL SINK. IT DOES NOT STINK.
He would have liked to have said that it was the worst attempt at poetry he'd ever heard, but some days they got groups of wizarding students in from the University. He hurried into the back room.
"Theloneus, darling, didn't it go well?" Lena gushed at him. She was a big woman. There was a lot of gushing.
"I suppose..." he agreed vaguely, edging back towards the bar. Apparently, he'd chosen his route of escape rather unwisely.
"Are we alone now?" she asked, in tones that might have been called flirtatious if his brain hadn't preferred to label them ominous.
"No, there's still a..."
He paused and frowned, suddenly aware that the outer room was indeed empty. He hadn't heard the door. "Did you see where that..." - for some reason, his brain stumbled over using the word 'man' - "feller at the end of the bar went?"
Lena frowned, a big, gap-toothed and gruesome, yet somehow oddly comforting frown. "What feller was that, honey?"
"The one with the..." But, try as he might, he couldn't recall a single distinguishing feature.
Lena smiled at him. As expressions went, it was several degrees scarier than the frown. "Well, never mind him, darling. It's just us now, and we have all these lovely decorations just going to waste..."
Theloneus hesitated. Well, it was St. Wossname's day, he supposed...
He thought of the stranger at the bar. Maybe there were worse things out there than yards and yards of frills, if it came to that.
Before following Lena, he went back to lock up the main door of the pub. It turned out to have been bolted already. From the inside.