It began quickly. Afterwards, there was absolutely no doubt in Underby’s mind that his decision is what prompted the visit. Though, he was astounded by how quickly the reaction sprang.
It could wait no longer, and though all of his preparations were not fully in place as of yet, today would be the day he awoke the clockwinder. He made the decision as he unlocked the doors of the Bucket in the early morning light, they having only been locked less than two hours earlier by the new barmaiden; ten minutes of silence transpired while Underby sat drinking tea, and then the door opened and closed.
Babbagers rarely time their drinking, but even this was a little early for most of them.
Underby looked up from his usual spot at the end of the bar, and recognized the gentleman immediately. It had been close to a year since he had met him first and seen him last, but he recognized those large blue eyes. Why should he not? He had been in love with a similar set for some time.
He stood, keeping his eyes on the gentleman, and moved behind the bar, using his right hand as misdirection to pick up some peanut shells on the bartop while he palmed an item from beneath the bar with his left hand, slipping it into his coat.
Underby smiled. “A fellow traveller of the rosy-fingered dawn.”
“Ah,” said the gentleman with large blue eyes. “…an Ancient Greek epithet lazily translated into common parlance. Are you a scholar, sir?”
“Nay sir,” replied Underby. “…merely a mountebank with pretensions of grandeur, I genuflect myself before your obviously high station in life.”
The gentleman smiled slightly. “Do not taverns make equals of us all?”
“I suppose we do all lay on the same floor, but some might do so without snoring. This is what truly separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.”
The man stared at Underby. His eyes were large, wide, and wild. “Have we indulged in the prerequisite polite subterfuge for the preferred amount of time? Or do you wish to continue, Mr Underby?”
Underby bowed ever so slightly, keeping his eyes on the man. “It is my role as host to indulge the peculiarities of the customer… if the gentleman prefers to pretend he did not beat me within an inch of my life with a branch of wood less than a year ago, who am I to spoil his masquerade?”
“I only wish you had shewn a similar state courtesy to my late sister. Perhaps she would still be amongst the living today.”
Underby’s face hardened slightly. “You speak of that which you know nothing, sir. My affection for your sister was genuine and complete. I was not the person responsible for her death.”
The man smiled. The smile was not entirely sane. “And whom, pray tell, was responsible for her continued existence after her untimely death? This same phantom assailant?”
“That was I.”
“Ah. So your claim of affection was yet another of your deceptions.”
“Quite the opposite.”
The man smiled again. “I do look forward to beating you again savagely, sir. This time I will not leave with the job half finished. You fooled me once. Never again.”
Underby took out his personal bottle of Black Adder and poured two glasses. One he placed in front of Winston Soup, and the other he kept in front of himself. He stroked the lip of the glass with two fingers, and said with a slight smirk: “I think you might find that when not disadvantaged by a fall from horseback and three feet of snow that I am not the easy mark you take me for.”
Underby drank his glass, keeping his eyes on the man.
“Mark?” the man asked, then his face relaxed. “Ah yes, carnival slang. My sister mentioned you had travelled with carnivals. I suppose you were the mind reader who stole the life savings of grieving widows. That seems your type of game.”
Underby moved to return the bottle to the back bar. “I did play that role, sir, and with some flair if I do say so myself. Though, I moved into that part later in my carnival career, before that time I apprenticed under many others…”
Turning his back to the man whilst replacing the bottle, he continued: “I apprenticed as a clown, but wasn’t much good. I found it easier to make the children weep than laugh. I also apprenticed as a juggler, but I could never quite do it the right way whilst speaking… and patter is absolute must…”
He heard the gentleman stand and take something from within his coat, and at that same moment he reached within his own coat.
“…however, my favourite apprenticeship was as…”
Underby spun around on one heel and his right hand extended and opened in one swift move. Winston dropped his hammer, his eyes bulging even more widely than usual.
“…a knife thrower.” Underby finished with a smile.
Winston looked down at the knife handle which protruded from his chest. He blinked, seemingly unable to believe its existence.
“And see?” Underby asked. “See how good I became? There wasn’t even a single rotation on that throw.”
Winston placed one hand on the bar, to steady himself, and tried to raise his other hand to grasp the handle of the knife. It seemed to cause him great difficulty.
Underby walked casually around the bar, saying: “As you seem to be a student of my peculiarities, sir, I will let you in on one more. I am slightly vain. Yes, hard to believe, I know, but true all the same. So, as is my wont, I feel I should point out that knife throwing is considerably more difficult from such a short distance.”
He pushed Wintson, who was now sputtering and wheezing, to the floor. He fell between two stools, a puddle of rich vermillion spreading around him.
“Not only that,” Underby said whilst placing a foot on Winston’s torso, grabbing the knife, and pulling it out. It escaped with a gurgle and a splatter. “…but I am out of practice. So you can easily imagine my pleasure at this moment.”
He squatted down over Winston, grabbing him by his lapels and pulling his face close. “Not only because I am rusty, or because you are abominably incorrect about my relationship with your late sister, which I assure you even now in the midst of your death rattle was genuine, but because there is one trait in men I categorically cannot stomach, and that -my friend- is undue smugness. It causes my gorge to rise, sir.”
Underby dropped the man back to the floor and stood, taking out a handkerchief and wiping the blood from the blade on it. Another bloodstain on the floor. He sighed.
Looking down at the figure, who was in the midst of breathing his last, Underby said, “Despite having said what I did about genuine affection, I do lament the fact that I won’t have your sister here to clean up your gore.”
He smiled down at the man, whose eyes saw no more, then picked up his untouched glass of Black Adder and drank it back.