By the time my recovery was over, I was about ready to be getting gone. The Academy was a great place, but I had other things to take care of. Only problem was, a week of not doing much of anything had left me feeling not quite up to my usual standards of physical fitness. It wasn’t like just walking around left me out of breath or anything, but I could tell that trying to travel a good day’s journey would probably be over well before a good day was. So I stuck around another few days, training with the students in some of the less cerebral disciplines the Academy taught: swordfighting, unarmed fighting, horse riding, and of course one of the most important skills for thieves everywhere, running.
I gave a pretty miserable accounting for myself the first few days. It’s not that I was in bad shape per se–it had only been a week–but neither was I in particularly good shape either, and most of the students were. The folks running the Academy took the position that the mind and the body were two parts of one whole, and both should be encouraged to grow strong. So I went to bed each night exhausted and sore, but it was a good soreness.
The third day I was really getting better, though. I was pushing myself pretty hard, but it was staring to pay off. Once all the activities were over in the evening, I decided to go for one last run around the grounds. I felt well enough when it was over that I figured I’d be heading out the next day.
Sarah didn’t take that so well, of course. At least she wasn’t in a scary form this time. In fact, this was probably the least unusual of all her myriad forms, or the most unusual, depending on how you looked at it: the “other half” of her this time was… human. Apparently this is how she had always looked, prior to the start of her transformations.
“So then that’s it?” she asked, flashing me an obnoxiously cute pout and tossing her long blonde hair with a flip of the head. “Feeling better, time to move on, goodbye and thanks for the snuggles, see you in another six months?”
I blinked at her. “What snuggles?”
She flashed me a playful grin. “Oh, that’s right! There weren’t any! So you should stay until we have time to fix that!”
I just rolled my eyes at her.
“Well at least tell me where you’re going?” she asked.
“The Bards’ College,” I said, grumpily, trying to throw her off.
It sort of worked. “Well, that’s about the least useful answer in the history of answers. Where are you going?”
Hmm… not surprising that she would ask that, considering. I just shot her my cheekiest grin. “If you know enough to ask… try and find me.” I figured that would keep her busy for a while, at least.
“Ooooooh,” she groaned. “You are insufferable sometimes!”
I just grinned at her. “It’s part of my charm.”
Sarah insisted on hanging around as I got ready, but by the time I was actually getting up on my horse and about to ride off, she finally disengaged herself. She wasn’t actually a very good rider, I’d found, because she had always lived in places where she could just get around by teleport to places that were too far to walk. I wondered how she’d go about tracking me down now.
I felt kind of bad, treating her like that, but she kind of put herself in a bad position. I wanted to stay on her good side–and on her family’s good side, more to the point–and I tried to be a friend to her. I liked her, but I didn’t like her, and she never seemed to quite get that. I had to admit, though, it did get real lonely riding all alone like this. It would be at least a week to my destination, and I kind of missed the last adventure I’d had. For all the crazy crap that had happened, I’d at least had good company.
My thoughts as I rode away were filled with Aylwyn… and Sarah. Argh.
* * *
It was always hard to find this place, especially right around now, the twilight hours of the evening. The Bards’ College wasn’t located in one specific place–that would be kind of silly for a group of itinerant minstrels. Of course, not everyone knew that. There was a specific place that was known as the site of the Bards’ College in the Kingdom of Cleron, but that was another week away from here. I’d spent a few months there when I first studied among the Bards, but I didn’t really pick up much of anything useful.
Eventually I realized that the watered-down pap they were teaching was mostly worthless, and I got to thinking. This was all a show. They were going through the motions of educating new bards, but without any actual valuable education being imparted. And yet, the Bards’ College was an organization that produced plenty of skilled minstrels. The only explanation, when I thought about it that way, was that the actual educating was taking place elsewhere.
But when I asked around, all I got were a bunch of knowing smiles and less-than-useful encouragements, on the order of “you know, that’s a pretty good observation.” Absolutely nothing useful, until one day I manged to piece together enough little hints from overheard conversations to decide that where I really needed to be was the tavern in the nearby town of Solen.
I spoke with the innkeeper there, and to make a long story short, it turns out that the “real” Bards’ College was scattered all over the town, teaching acting, singing, playing instruments and the like. But after a while I got to thinking. An old programming adage: two is just a special case of infinity. It basically means that, if you’re going to go to the trouble to set up more than one of something, there’s no good reason to limit yourself to two or any other small number. So if the Bards had this campus, how many more might there be?
I went looking for clues again, and so far I’ve found four of the secret campuses. It’s considered bad form among the Bards to speak of ones you’ve found to others who don’t know of them, and quite a breach of etiquette to ask another Bard how many they have found. No one seems to know exactly how many there are–or if they do, they’re not saying–but each discovery is known as a “string”, making me a Bard of the Fourth String. I did ask Patrick one time, and he said that an Eighth String or higher is enough to be counted as a Master, and that he didn’t know how many Strings there were, but he suspected it was “closer to a harp than a lute.” The implied complexity and depth to the organization was nothing short of astounding, and sometimes just a little bit sinister. I haven’t quite met anyone I’d confidently call a Leliana or Marjolaine type just yet, but I’ve seen enough to wonder…
So anyway, here I was, deep in a vast evergreen forest in the middle of nowhere, searching for the Amber String camp. Amber String was mostly dedicated to forestry and wilderness survival skills, but it was also where they studied the building of instruments. And it happened to be reasonably close to the capital, which was only two days’ journey from Tem’s Falls.
The trees grew fairly thick in every direction, with just barely enough space between them to slowly walk my horses on in. It was rumored that hundreds of dryads lived in the forest and cared for the trees, but no one had ever actually seen one. (Of course, given the rumors regarding the nymphly propensity for… ahem… wearing out and exhausting to death those with the dubious luck to meet one, perhaps that didn’t mean much. I’d had a brief encounter with a water nymph a while back, and only the Twist had saved me from that fate. She turned out to be a very pleasant and reasonable person, actually, when she wasn’t all worried I was going to destroy her with my fearsome powers.)
It had been several months since I’d been here, and the dense trees made it difficult to find the way. The Amber String camp was well-hidden, enough that you could walk right on past without ever knowing you’d been within fifty feet of an inhabited area. I’d found my way here by realizing that a certain practice song was actually a list of landmarks and directions, and right now I was getting close to the end of the song, looking for a stream with a flat-topped boulder near the bank.
I came across the stream, but no big rock, and in the dim light it was hard to tell whether to go left or right from here. Ugh. If it were fully light out, I could see a lot further, and if the sun was all the way down, they’d have magelight and singing at the camp, and by this point I was close enough that I could probably see or hear something to help me find my way, but that wouldn’t be for another hour and it was getting cold already.
I gave some serious thought to just sticking it out for a while. With the way my luck had been lately, whichever direction I chose would probably be the wrong one, and I could end up traveling a pretty good distance before finally convincing myself that I wasn’t going to come across the rock. But it was getting cold, and after a few minutes, I felt pretty strongly that I should go right.
So I went left. And I’d barely gone forty yards when I ran across the familiar boulder. Looks like my luck was changing! I forded the stream, and from there it was straight on ahead and I came across the tree with the fallen top, leaning on the one next to it. In between those two, and I could see a building made of logs, a lodge at the edge of the camp. I was there!
Now that I was here, it was a lot easier to find my way around. I’d been here several times before. I walked up to the lodge, then around the side, and off to the right a little, to the stables, to get my horses some lodging for the night. Once they were taken care of, I headed into the lodge.
“Peter!” There were several bards sitting around eating and talking, and one of them recognized me as I walked in, my friend Lucas Collins. He called out in a loud voice, “Our hero returns!” Everyone turned to face me and the room erupted in a raucous cheer.
Time to get into character. I took a deep bow as I closed the door. “The hero returns!” I echoed, “And he’s hungry! Can someone bring me some rabbit?”
“Ha! So modest!” he replied. “A great bard such as yourself deserves only the finest. This evening, you feast on cow’s heart!”
Woah. They were really rolling out the red carpet for me today. It’s not widely known back home, but heart is actually extremely tasty; it’s just kind of heard to prepare because, being a muscle that is constantly in use throughout the entire lifetime of the cow, it tends to be very tough. (That’s also what makes it so yummy.)
I shouldn’t be too surprised by the welcome, though. Afterall, I had done the College a great favor a couple years back, that they were still telling stories about: I had found a priceless lute of great antiquity, crafted by a master whose work was thought to no longer exist, and returned it here to study. It was made clear that it still belonged to me, but it was too valuable for me to risk traveling around with, so I kept it here where it would be safe.
However, even so, such treatment doesn’t come for free. It’s sort of a bard thing; everything’s a (good-natured) competition. I’d have to win it from him somehow. “Oh, you would cook something like that, for me? That’s so heartwarming of you!”
He groaned as I chose my weapon, challenging him to respond in kind. “Fie on you, Mr. Parker. You think I would be cowed so easily?”
(Yeah, puns work. Even though it’s a completely different language. So does rhyming and verse and meter and all that good stuff. I stopped thinking about it too hard after the first few minutes, because it hurts my brain.)
“Perhaps not, Lucas,” I responded. “But were that the extent of my wit, I’d feel rather sheepish at the least.”
Lucas scoffed. “Better to feel a little bit sheepish than to be an utter wool-head,” he retorted.
Wow. His heart really wasn’t in it tonight. Lucas and I had had some epic punmanship duels in the past, but here he could not have given me a better set-up if he’d tried. “Such a shame, then,” I grinned at him. “Perhaps if your head was wooly, it could be shorn, spun, and knitted into a sweater…” I paused, savoring the look that was starting to creep across his face as realization dawned. So I gestured to him and nodded, and he groaned softly.
“…to warm my heart. Very well, you win this one, Parker.” He rose from his seat at the rough wooden table as the audience–everyone else in the room–laughed good-naturedly, and I approached. We clasped each other in a brief man-hug. “It’s good to see you again. So, what tales of adventure do you bring?”
I sighed at him, shoulders slumping as I sat down at one of the tables. “Alas, my life has been thoroughly devoid of excitement these past few months. I searched from the coast to the borderlands, and found nothing but citizens going about their lives.”
His brow furrowed. “No more travel with angels and wizards?” (They knew a heavily edited version of what had happened a couple years ago, and that the bard Peter Parker had been tangentially involved.)
He was trying to play Stick-To-Your-Premise? All right, I’d play along. The College always feels like coming home; it’s a place I can just relax, hang out, and have fun with a bunch of people who don’t mind being a bit silly. “I tried that, but alas, the angel was too busy talking about fighting evil and living righteously to actually seek out any wrongs to right, and the wizard spent every spare moment with his nose in a spellbook, muttering about formulas and energy requirements and whatnot. So dull.”
Lucas scowled. “Then you ought to have gone exploring. Maybe come across something interesting.”
I yawned. “I tried that. Made my way to a cave, and it turned out to be the lair of a dragon. But the dragon was sound asleep, its enormous body completely blocking the treasure chamber, so there was nothing interesting to be done there.”
His eyes widened. “Well surely you met some interesting women along the way? You must have stopped at some inns to rest…”
I just laughed. “There were wenches and barmaids aplenty, but all too old, too ugly or too skinny for my tastes.”
“Peter Parker the Bored Bard!” Lucas grinned. “You’ve had no success at anything. Why, if I were in that position, I would go create something of interest.”
“Oh, I tried. Got into a brawl, and the watch threw me in jail for a few nights. I thought I might meet some interesting characters there. Instead, I learned that the only scoundrels in prison are those who do such a poor job of scoundrel-ing that they get caught!
“So then they let me out, and I came here, where my luck holds, as I can see that nothing of interest is going on here either!”
Lucas clasped a hand over his heart melodramatically. “You wound me!”
I smirked at him. “If I did, it would not be in the chest, but the throat, to put an end to all the wearying banter!”
He laughed and slapped me on the back. “I’ll leave you in peace, then.” He wandered off to the kitchens, hopefully to place an order for me.
One of the other bards came over, a guy in his late teens, which was pretty young to have found this place. “There is one interesting thing going on here, actually.”
A bunch of groans went up around the room. “Don’t waste his time with that, Cory,” one of them moaned.
I looked over at Cory. “What’s this that everyone thinks is a waste of time?”
Another bard answered for him, “Young Tucker here thinks he’s a Royal Engineer! He’s trying to build a bell-chiming machine.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well, that does actually sound interesting. Certainly more so than the banter around here, at least! Show me?”
Cory led me out and to another building, where he had a very interesting contraption set up. It began with a rack of tubular bells. I have no idea how he got one of those out here; they’re far too big and heavy for a bard to travel with! But then he had constructed some crazy Rube Goldberg mechanism in front of it that held several mallets, one for each bell, with pivots and springs and specially-shaped pieces of wood whose function I could only guess at, connected to an array of little polished wooden levers. It was quite the bizarre contraption, and if the basic principle wasn’t already familiar to me I’m sure I would be just as mystified by it as the others. But I had an unfair advantage: I knew what this was supposed to end up as.
I spent several long moments looking it over from various angles, then moved to tentatively press on one of the levers. Articulated pieces moved against each other, and a mallet struck a bell with a dull thud. Not very impressive, but… hmm…
I released the lever, and it sprang back to its resting state. So I tried again, this time giving it a sharp tap and releasing my finger immediately. The mallet struck the bell and rebounded, making it ring out this time.
Cory grinned at how quickly I got it. “I knew you would understand it, even if the others don’t. There’s something odd about you, even among odd folk like us.”
I laughed. “I’ll try to take that in the sense it was intended.”
“Ah, you know what I mean, Peter.”
I did. I started tapping at the keys–I was already thinking of it as a keyboard–trying to work out the notes and figure out a melody. “If you can get this to work reliably,” I mused, “this will make it much simpler to play music on the bells. You’d be able to switch between notes very quickly, and if you only have to move your hand and not your whole arm, you wouldn’t tire as easily. As I see it, there are still two problems to work out, though.”
Cory nodded. “The mallets strike the bells but don’t fall back unless you pull your finger back immediately, which deadens the sound. And if you can get a bell to ring out, it just keeps ringing until the strike fades, so the sounds get jumbled after a while.”
“Those were the same problems I saw,” I said with an approving nod. “But if you can figure out solutions to them… it would be a remarkable development.”
“I think I could attach a piece of leather to the mechanism, which would clamp against the bell to dampen it, and be pulled back when the lever is pressed. But even then, that would do no good unless the mallet were to be detached from the lever mechanism somehow so that it will strike and fall free. That is the difficult part. I think it might need magic to accomplish.”
I knew that it didn’t. No magic or industrialization would be needed to do what he was thinking of. Unfortunately, that was as far as I knew. I had no clue what actually went on inside the machinery of a piano that decoupled the hammer from the key, or I’d try and explain it to him. But that particular feat was beyond me. So I gave him the best advice I could.
“I think it could be done without magic; you look as if you’ve almost got it to work. Try speaking with some of the engineers at the Royal Academy. I hear they’re starting to accomplish remarkable things lately.”
He nodded slowly. “But then it wouldn’t be my invention anymore.”
I just laughed. “It still isn’t. You didn’t invent these bells. And I know you didn’t invent these flex-coils you’re using in the mechanism, because I’ve met the engineer who invented them! If you want to look at it that way, you didn’t invent a single thing here; you just came up with something new to do with them, and that is a useful and novel invention. So why worry if there’s one more piece in the mix that you didn’t come up with?”
He chewed on his lip a little. “I’m not sure,” he mused. “You make a good point, though…”
I smiled. “And if you’ll accept one other piece?”
“What is it?” he asked, curious.
“A rack of bells has a very limited range of notes it can play. This might be useful for working out the principles of the striking mechanism, but if you want to introduce a truly marvelous new instrument…” I grinned at him. “Find a way to make your completed striker smaller.”
He gave me an odd look. “Smaller? How small? What do you mean?”
“Small enough to play against the strings of a harp.”
His eyes widened as he began to imagine the possibility. “Oh! Yes, you’re right, that would be glorious if it could be made to work!” He had that look on his face, the one that I’d seen plenty of times before with the engineers at the Academy. It was a shame he already knew me as Peter Parker; I’d bet he’d make a decent engineer over at Tem’s Falls, but there’s no way we could recruit him now!
I excused myself and headed back over to the tavern hall, leaving him to muse over design details while I got caught up with the other bards and waited for my food. The heart was delicious, if tough, and the company was good, and we talked and sang into the night. But eventually some of us started getting tired and taking our leave, and I was among the first to do so, heading to the dormitory hall and claiming a bunk.
I’d had a long day, but it had been a good day, or at least a good ending to one. I lay down and drifted off, content and relaxed, probably the most so that I had been since getting out of Duke Graymont’s prison.