“So she just gave you her horse and said ‘ride to Keliar on this’?” Sarah asked as she floated along beside me. It was a bit disconcerting, really: she had set up her magic so she floated with her head at the same height as mine as I rode, but she was moving smoothly while my head was bobbing up and down with the movement of Wyntaf beneath me. Not to mention the fact that she was glowing from all the magic she used. It was part of her current angelic nature.
“Lent me her horse,” I emphasized. “That point was very clear.”
She nodded. “Yours to use, for a clear purpose, because your need was greater than hers? But with the understanding that this is an extension of trust and you’d better not abuse it?”
“Yeah, exactly. How did you–”
“Such as by absconding with her horse on a personal quest that will add several weeks to your journey?”
“Yes, I’ve thought of that. I just have to hope she trusts me enough. And for her own sake as well as mine; the worse this curse gets, the less useful of an agent I am to her.”
“And it’s a Celestial thing,” Sarah explained.
“That attitude, the interplay of property, need and trust. It’s a part of their culture.”
That was interesting. I wouldn’t have taken her for a student of anthropology, though in retrospect I guess it made sense, what with her changing forms. “Where did you learn about Celestial culture?”
“Granite string, of course.”
Granite string? Never heard of it. She caught my look and let out a naughty little giggle, looking for all the world like a girl much younger than herself who just got away with something while Mommy and Daddy weren’t watching. “Oops! You don’t know about that one, do you?”
“How many strings do you have?” I asked, surprised. For some reason, I had the feeling that I’d be rather embarrassed if the number turned out to be greater than four.
I probably shouldn’t have asked; that question earned me a very different kind of naughty giggle in response. “Why Paul,” she breathed, floating just a little bit closer and regarding me with an expression I’d give just about anything to see Aylwyn send my way, “that’s a very personal question!”
Wow, something inside me thought, her attitude changes like Amber’s speech! I couldn’t help but wince a little, though, when she called me Paul. Even out here on the roads, with no one around, I was supposed to still be Peter Parker the bard, not Paul Twister the notorious outlaw.
“All right, forget I asked.”
“Five,” she grinned. “And how many do you have?”
…figures. “Four.” I tried not to sound too sullen about that.
That earned me an obnoxiously cheerful smile. “Not bad!” That didn’t really cheer me up any. But then after a moment, she went on. “Especially since you haven’t been doing this for long!”
“What do you mean?”
“I was fifteen years old when I found my first String.”
That actually did make me feel a bit better; she’d been at this a good while longer than me. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a nice thing to feel good about. I never claimed to be a particularly good person.
We were heading mostly northward along a secondary highway that would take us up to Dlen province, which bordered on the Ele mountains, a major range running east-west. It would take about four days to get that far, and then we planned to turn westward and be at the Treasury in another week or so.
Sarah mostly amused herself as she floated along beside me by playing music. Her instrument of choice was something she called a “flute,” but she held it down from her mouth, not sideways. I couldn’t decide if it was more of a recorder or an ocarina.
Her tastes seemed to run mainly to the light and whimsical. I even caught her playing the melody to The Lay of Paul Twister at one point.
I gave her a sidelong glance, and she just giggled and grinned at me. “Come on, sing!” she encouraged. “It would be fun to hear it as performed by the man himself!”
“You do know the guy in the song bears very little actual resemblance to me, don’t you?” Wow, it was like deja vu all over again.
“I know,” she said, pouting at me. “That Paul is a lot more fun!”
And that right there, I think, is the core of why I’ve always been uncomfortable with her attraction to me. I’d always understood, at some level, that it was “that Paul” who she was really infatuated with. And I’m not him; the poor girl never quite seemed to understand that she had fallen for my marketing campaign.
* * *
We stopped for the evening at a little small-town inn. After getting Wyntaf stabled and cared for, we headed inside. The common room was well-lit and not quite half-full, with a low murmur of muted conversations going on throughout the room. Kind of boring, actually, so I wasn’t surprised when the proprietor hailed us as we walked in and he saw the lute case I was carrying.
“Welcome, welcome good sir. Are you a minstrel?”
I smiled at him. “We both are.” I made a show of looking around the room. “It would appear that your house is in need of some entertainment tonight. Perhaps if you could meet the needs of two weary travelers, we could see to yours in return?”
Wow, I probably should have phrased that better; that came out sounding kind of dirty. But he just smiled. “Very well; what do you require? Dinner and,” a brief moment of hesitation, “a room?”
Sarah smiled brightly. “That’s right!”
I sighed. “Dinner and a room each,” I said by way of clarification. Sarah shot me a wounded look, which made those patrons who were paying attention laugh.
Was she serious, or just getting into character already? It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Dinner served two purposes. The first, of course, was getting the two of us fed and letting us rest from the road a little. But while Sarah and I were enjoying bowls of the innkeeper’s stew, he was sending the kitchen boys out into the town to announce to everyone nearby that there was going to be a show soon. Over the course of the next hour, people gradually made their way in and the inn’s main function was slowly transformed from “house of hospitality” to “performance venue.” Folks ordered food and drinks, conversations were struck up, and so on. There’s a good reason why a guy with a lute can get free accommodations at most inns: bards are good for business!
Once we had eaten and the place had filled up with patrons, we got up and introduced ourselves, then began to perform. Unsurprisingly, Sarah tended towards her father’s style, alternating between playing notes on her flute and singing, whereas I was free to strum and sing at the same time. We traded off, back and forth for a while, singing a few numbers and then taking requests from the patrons, and they seemed to like both of us. Sarah was pretty good on her flute, and me… well, I’ll never be Eddie Van Halen or Brad Paisley, but I can play well enough to make a crowd of townsfolk enjoy the music, (and toss me a bunch of silver coins as tips,) and that’s good enough for me.
Of course, Sarah just had to push things, blatantly flirting with me throughout the show, and I took up the role of the exasperated pursuee, which really wasn’t that big of a stretch. Made for some good laughs, though. And then, also of course, about half an hour in, Sarah raised her flute and started playing an intro to The Lay of Paul Twister. “Sing,” she encouraged me in a low voice, then, to the crowd, “you may have heard this one before, but have you ever heard it performed by the bard who wrote it? I was very excited to meet the author, because it’s always been a favorite of mine.”
There I was, kind of on the spot. So I started strumming the catchy four-chord melody and singing my way through the verses, while Sarah played a counterpoint. When I got close to the end of the song, the part where a devious dragon kidnaps a princess and our roguish hero has to rescue her, she gestured to me to stop singing but keep playing, and threw in an improvised verse of her own.
I am here all alone, trapped in walls made of stone
How oh how will I ever get free?
Will no hero arise, strong and cunning and wise,
To outwit this vile beast and save me?
She was taking some liberties with the meter, but worse still, she was rather obviously singing to me the whole time, fluttering her eyelashes at me. It had the audience laughing. Me, I was somewhat less amused. So I played the last couple verses, where Paul confronts the dragon but is outwitted in the end, leaving the poor princess to effect her own rescue.
Sarah really hammed it up there, giving me an excessively disappointed look. Then she started in on another verse of her own.
What a great disappointment this outlaw has been
who cannot even free me from this dragon’s den!
Now I make my escape, and I think what I’ll do
is to find a new hero that I’ll look up to!
She raised her flute to her lips and played a saucy little sting, then lowered it and stuck out her tongue at me impudently while the patrons cheered, laughed and applauded.
Sarah beamed and waited for the applause to die down, then raised her flute and started playing something new, something a bit different for her. It was soft and slow and kind of sad, and the notes just seemed to float on a night breeze. It seemed simple enough at first, but then, just when I thought I could predict where the music would go, she added something, and the pattern changed slightly. And then it did again, and again, gradually, continually building on itself, the music becoming more and more complex and beautiful as she went on.
By the time two minutes had passed, the house had fallen silent, except for her flute. Everyone was held rapt, fascinated by the haunting, intricate tune, even me. I predicted a few of the changes, but it was more lucky guesses than anything, and yet the music wasn’t chaotic or random; it always made sense afterwards. It just followed its own logic, a pattern I couldn’t quite grasp. It was almost like listening to a fractal in melodic form. And it was far more intricate than anything I’d heard Sarah play before.
When she finally lowered her flute, she let out a slow, deep breath and breathed in a new one, and began to sing, a soft, sad ballad about unrequited love.
Beneath the light of the ever-changing moon,
she waits for her true love, but he pursues another,
and he knows not that his heart’s desire,
has a love of her own, long since vanished and gone,
to seek his fortune far away.
And she waits and hopes that he will return to her soon,
each night, by the light of the ever-changing moon.
The plight of the poor lovers just got worse and worse, as the second woman’s beloved had been imprisoned in a far-distant land for earning the wrath of a certain mercurial princess by refusing to kiss her… and so on, and all the while, the moon looked down in silent amusement at the antics of the poor mortals below.
The song didn’t quite match the music she had just played, but it… went with it, somehow. I found myself wondering who had written this song, and why I had never heard of it before.
The ending was unsatisfying, though. Just as one of the many forlorn lovers had finally decided to set into motion a chain of events that could resolve things, the ever-changing moon came out, full and brilliant on that cloudless night, and looked down on them all and wept… and Sarah raised her flute and played a sad, soft winding-down over the course of half a minute or so, and then it was over.
There was no cheering, no applause, just stunned silence for several long moments, punctuated by one of the patrons sobbing openly until he managed to compose himself.
“Why didn’t you join in?” Sarah whispered to me, low enough that no one would hear.
“I don’t know the song! Where did you learn it?”
She just gave me an incredulous look, and said nothing. Must have been at one of the Strings she had been to but I hadn’t.
On the other hand, if she had been to Oaken String, she would have known that throwing out such a powerful, melancholy song like that so early on wasn’t the best of ideas. It kind of killed the mood of the performance, and things petered out pretty quickly after that. Maybe with Aylwyn around, we could have revived things–she had an amazing singing voice–but now most of the energy was gone.
We sang and played a few more songs, but things sort of wound down, and in the end, the show lasted less than an hour. The innkeeper was a bit disappointed by that, but he knew better than to try and make trouble for us; bards talk, word spreads, and that would be a good way to not have any more bards stop by and put on shows. But by way of apology, I shared some of our tips with him, which mollified him somewhat.
I asked Sarah later on why she had pulled out a song like that. She said she had wanted to practice it.
“What for? I mean, The playing was amazing, but… why do you want to practice singing something so confusing? And it doesn’t even have a proper ending!”
She scowled. “I haven’t learned the ending yet! That’s why I need to practice it.”
“Nevermind. If you don’t know about it already…”
So she thought I should know that one. She thought I obviously should know that one. Why? Well, the only thing she could be sure of is that I had been to Amber String camp…
…oh. It kind of was obvious, in hindsight. “You learned that from Amber, didn’t you?”
She gave me a look. “I shouldn’t say.”
“When has that ever stopped you?”
She sighed. “You never even asked her what she can teach you, did you? How could you have been to that camp and not realized right away that she’s the most significant feature?”
“I did,” I said. “I just figured it was a puzzle, that she’s got something to do with finding another String.”
Sarah nodded. “Well at least you’re not as dim as some of the bards who think she’s a spy or something.”
I shrugged. “I’m not convinced she isn’t that also. Who’s to say someone can’t be both?” I wiggled my eyebrows and grinned at her. “So you think her song is part of the clue? That doesn’t really feel like a clue-song, from what I heard of it.”
She grinned. “That’s how I know it is one!”
Huh. What exactly do you say in response to logic like that?
We headed off to bed not long afterwards. Took me a while to fall asleep. I couldn’t get that melody out of my head.