The Innkeeper’s Song
Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle

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The Innkeeper’s Song



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The Innkeeper’s Song

Copyright © 1993 by Peter S. Beagle

Note (Hal’s): While this story does have something like “chapter” divisions, they are unnumbered and their headings are not titles but the name of the narrating character. I nevertheless reproduce them and, for more use in locating quotes, add a division number in brackets, starting from the Prologue as [1].

— end note

The Innkeeper


I am not a bad man.

I am not a particularly good one, either, though honest enough in my trade. Nor am I at all brave—if I were, I would be some kind of soldier or sailor. And if I could write even such a song as that nonsense about those three women which someone has put my name to, why, then I would be a songwriter, a bard, since I would certainly be fit for nothing else.



He’s no thief—which is absolutely the only reason we stay here—but his virtues end right there, as far as I know. There’s no imagination in him, no generosity, and certainly no charity. He’d give his best room to a family of scorpions—if they could pay—before he lodged one penniless wanderer under his leakiest outhouse roof.


I had no plans: I knew that whatever I did might likely mean my death, and I was frightened but not paralyzed, no more of that. I have done a great many foolish things in all the years between that night and this, but never, never again through inaction, and I never will until I do die.
The Innkeeper


There is a queen in this country still, in her black castle down in Fors na’Shachim. Or perhaps it’s a king by now, or the army back again, no matter. The tax collectors stay the same, whoever rules. But king, queen, or jumped-up captain, one day I mean to travel there and seek audience. It will be a hard and tiresome journey, and any highwaymen will have to wait in line for whatever the coachmen and hostellers leave me; and then it will take the last coins hidden in my shoe-soles to bribe my way into line to make my complaint. But I will be heard. If it costs me my head, believe that I will be heard.

“Your Majesty,” I will say, “where in all your royal scrolls and parchments of law is it decreed that Karsh the innkeeper is to be forever denied a single moment of simple peace? Where have your noble ministers set it down that when I am not being racked by the daily balks and foils of running my poor establishment, I am to be plagued by an endless succession of zanies, frauds, incompetents, and maniacs? And please, just to satisfy an old man’s curiosity, sire, where do you get them?”





Tilgit? It’s a kind of marshweed: you dry it out and pound it forever and it makes a perfectly disgusting porridge that seems to keep people alive until they’d rather die than eat any more of the stuff. Oh, we did look forward to fast-days at the convent.”



“I was honored in a way, even grateful, and I still am. If they had not offered me the chance of power, I might never have been certain—as I was, on the instant—that power was not what I wanted.”
They know each other like lovers, I thought, past love itself, past hatred, past questions, past trust or betrayal.


I had no choice. I know perfectly well that most people who say that mean only that they have no excuse for the choice, and more than likely I was no different.



If there is one thing in this world that I was raised and trained to know, it is that there is only so much you may ask of the gods. Victory in battle is their lightest gift; a quiet heart is your own concern.





It is fortunate that I have had very few chances to learn with what terrible ease gentleness finds my heart. I give thanks for my good fortune every day. Oh yes, I do.



“You always wonder about it, you know, if you are one of those who cannot resist the enticement of teaching. What will happen when I meet someone with a greater gift than my own? It is easy enough to be kind and helpful to those who do not threaten me—but how will it be with one who is my master and does not yet realize it? How will I be in that day?
We knew that particular rasping, hopeless sigh as we knew the reproachful murmur of our own blood in our eardrums: another thoughtless minute gone, another tick like the tock before—how many, how many, how many of those do you suppose you have? He always sighed like that to inform his students that their answers to his last question had shortened his life by a measurable degree and filled his few remaining days alive with quiet despair. It always worked on me, even after I knew better.





Let it be a wind that puts your fire out, and often you can nurse it back to life, if you are patient enough and feed it and blow on it just so. But let it be a splash of rain, and you will build a new fire in a dry place or go without. I think the old man was waiting to learn, those early days, whether it was wind or rain in his heart, or in his spirit, as you will.


Laughter does not always mean to me what it does to others. I have heard too many madmen laughing in my life: men, and women too, who were not too mad to realize that they had the power to do anything they wanted. Yet I am alive, having heard them. I have even heard the laughter of the red sjarik at noon, and I am alive, and not many can say that. But this was the worst of all, this sound over those naked stones. There was no quickness of any kind to it, good or evil: no proper chaos, no surgingly joyous cruelty—no smile, even in its triumph. I will remember the dreadful smallness of that laughter when I have forgotten what it is to see a river stop flowing.



In my village, one of our priests says that love between men is a great sin—the other argues that nothing at all is sinful except weak ale, overdone meat, and building a fire in any way but his. As for me, my notions in such matters are my notions.





Her face was a stranger’s face, which was as it should be. Love each other from the day we are born to the day we die, we are still strangers every minute, and nobody should forget that, even though we have to.



text checked (see note) Oct 2006

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