An Excerpt from The Balance of Silence

Copyright © 2010 Reesa Herberth and Michelle Moore
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication

When the song wound to a close he found himself near the piano. The man playing it didn’t look up until Riv leaned one elbow on the top of the aging instrument, and then only a slightly fearful dart of his eyes gave away that they were blue.

“Do you take requests?”

No answer, but another song started up almost immediately, and Riv took that as a no. Shrugging it off, he left a stray coin from his dinner on the piano lid and stood a little farther away, enjoying the music.

“He don’t talk.” He nodded at the bartender, taking a refill of the local rotgut, which tasted pleasantly of fruit punch when it wasn’t trying to kill you.

“We found him like that one day. Just sitting there at the piano, happy as a clam. No ID, and he won’t tell us a damn thing. I’d turn him over to the clinic in Patchous, but he doesn’t hurt anything and he keeps people drinking.”

Riv wondered about the explanation, then remembered that he was still wearing his ReliefCorp tags. It was amazing how many people thought he had some kind of authority just because he trucked vaccines and seeds through the forest.

“You’re kidding. You just found him sitting at the piano?” Incredulity made him repeat the statement, and he stole a look back towards the silent blond man.

“Thought that’s what I said.”

And that was why he generally tried to avoid repeating himself, especially around people with no discernable sense of humor. “So did he walk in or did somebody drop him off?”

“Don’t know. Don’t really matter, does it? He’s here now.”

Considering it had taken him a good four hours in a well-equipped hopper to get here, and the trip had been anything but easy, it did seem like a relevant question, just not one Riv was sure he wanted to ask again. “Did you look around to see if he left a truck or a hopper somewhere?”

The derisive sneer was followed by a laugh. “Think we would’ve noticed one, if that was the case. Spotted you as soon as you showed up.”

Curiouser and curiouser. That meant Piano Man had either come in under his own power, a feat not to be taken lightly, or that someone had dumped him in this town at the end of the world. Beyond the how was the why, although if you were looking to disappear, this wouldn’t be a bad place to do it.

It wasn’t a bad place to help someone else disappear, either.

“Why don’t you go ask him yourself if you’re so interested?” Turning back, the barkeep started wiping down the greasy counter, apparently considering the conversation closed.

Riv thought about pressing the matter, but it was a brief moment of insanity. He didn’t know anyone here, and a hopper could disappear into the jungle faster than you could blink. No sense pushing his luck and becoming one of Marta’s cautionary tales. Instead, Riv shrugged, carefully schooling his face into studied indifference. “Not really my business anyway. I’m going to finish what I need to do and be on my way.”

“And when exactly would that be?”

He wasn’t used to this level of hostility. Most places were glad enough to see him and the meds he trucked in. A good number actually managed gratitude. “I’ll be meeting up with some folks tomorrow, make my deliveries and then I guess I’ll see.”

The spark of interest this inspired was hardly comforting. “What sort of deliveries would that be?” The barkeep’s eyes narrowed, dirty rag in his hand slowing and then stopping its movement.

“Aid supplies, meds mostly. Why?”

“Wondering’s all. Don’t see many outsiders here. Haven’t seen anyone from ReliefCorp in almost a year. Anyway, I suppose you need a place to doss down tonight then.”

This sudden friendliness wasn’t doing anything for Riv’s comfort level. In fact, if the hair on his neck rose any higher, he’d be able to comb it. “Yeah, I suppose I could,” Riv said cautiously. “You have a suggestion?”

The man jerked a shoulder in the direction of the piano. “He’s in a lean-to across the street. Nothing fancy, but since he ain’t paying for it, you can stay there.”

“He doesn’t seem really eager for the company,” Riv muttered under his breath. “Thanks. It’s been a long day.” He got a grunt in reply, which was enough, and he sat there finishing his drink as the place filled up.

Most of the customers paid no mind to the piano man, and on occasion the drone of voices outclassed the music. He hardly seemed to notice, moving from one song to the next. Apparently he knew that Riv was watching him though, and would look up for half a second between one song and the next.

“You want another?” The bartender’s voice woke Riv out of his pleasant doze, and he was about to reach for the refill when the music changed again. It took him a second to recognize it, since it wasn’t normally a piano piece, but the planetary anthem of Karibee was fairly hard to mistake. He looked over his shoulder, surprised to see blue eyes meeting his for just a second. His accent was nowhere near as pronounced as it had been when he’d left, but it was still there, caressing every word he spoke. Obviously it had been recognized, and Riv wasn’t so oblivious as to not notice the attempt to garner his attention.

“Thanks, but I think I’m gonna head for that promised bed. I assume it isn’t locked?”

“Nope, just let yourself right in. He won’t be much longer, so you’d better stake your claim to the bed fast.”

Riv nodded, swaying a little more than he needed to as he got up and made his way to the door with exaggerated care. The wet heat of the night struck him almost immediately—within seconds he was drenched to the skin. In the slanted spill of light given off by the doorway behind him he could just make out the structure across the way. Calling it a lean-to was generous, as it was decidedly more lean than to. The whole thing creaked ominously when he pushed aside the scrap of tin serving as a door, and he glanced behind him to see if anyone had followed him from the bar.

Satisfied that he was alone, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded bag, dumping two small black tablets into his palm and swallowing them dry with some difficulty. He couldn’t be certain the food had been drugged, but he was also used to going with his gut instincts. Riv waited, riding out the immediate wave of dizziness, and when he couldn’t keep it down any longer he slipped back outside and bid a fond farewell to his dinner in the bushes. He was quiet as he could be, kicking dirt over the mess when he was done and heading back into the hovel to find that somewhere in the intervening minutes he’d gained company.


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