Nakaz walked down the stairs into the common room of the Buzzard’s Roost Inn, prepared to play for his supper. His lap harp was in his hand and he was dressed to make an impression, in tight leggings and a green tunic under a leather vest embossed with harps and stars. His blond hair was bound back with a thin circlet and he had shaved his handsome face smooth. Two small emeralds as green as his eyes pierced each ear, and silver rings glinted on three fingers.
He needn’t have bothered. The clean, small common room, with its spotless walls, gleaming floor, and benches and tables that looked new, was nearly empty. Other than the innkeeper behind the bar in one corner, there were only two other people in the room. One was an old woman dressed as a trader in a long, dusty coat and large-brimmed, floppy hat who sat close to the fire, staring into the modest flames. The other was the handsome young man that Nakaz had met briefly at the blacksmith’s earlier that day.
The bard decided to introduce himself to the latter occupant. Despite the strange reaction he’d had upon first meeting the chestnut-haired man in the blacksmith’s courtyard — as if Nakaz had been there before, doing exactly the same thing, though he had never been to Pyinalt’s Crossroads before — he wanted to get to know the aristocratic-looking man.
As Nakaz walked across the room, he looked over to the innkeeper and signaled for a drink. When he turned back to his destination, he found himself being stared at. Two deep grey eyes in a handsome face were locked on him with an intensity that took him by surprise. As soon as the young man noticed that Nakaz was looking at him, he dropped his gaze and took a drink, choking slightly in his haste.
The bard stopped across the table from the young man and said, “May I sit here?” When the table’s occupant only coughed harder, Nakaz asked, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes … yes, I’m fine, just fine,” he hacked. Then, clearing his throat and gesturing with his hand, he said, “Please, sit down, lord bard. Ah, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing more than be company,” said the bard as he sat down. “I’m Nakaz, a bard as you have noticed, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” He held out his hand and the young man shook it.
“I’m Aldan … ah, Lord Aldan , son of Baron Chak Bindrmon, um, likewise.”
“Bindrmon, eh? I can’t say I recognize it,” said Nakaz. Aldan was silent for a moment, and Nakaz looked up to see that he was being stared at again, but this time he couldn’t read the young lord’s expression.
“Well,” said Aldan eventually, “Bindrmon is in the northern part of Welspeare. I’m sure that nothing worthy of the notice of a bard has ever happened there.”
Nakaz laughed and said, “I wouldn’t be so sure.” Aldan seemed to miss his sly glance, and just looked puzzled. Shaking his head briefly, Nakaz ventured, “What brings you this far from home?”
“I am … on business,” replied Aldan.
“A task from your father, perhaps? What business could Bindrmon have more than a sennight from his borders?”
“A sennight?” Aldan looked stricken. “I’ve been traveling thrice that!”
“Truly?” asked Nakaz, his voice filled with surprise. “And I was being conservative in my estimate. Someone who knew their route, and rode long and to purpose, could make it this far in five or six days. Riding at leisure might add three or four more. But twenty-one speaks of near wandering,” he finished with a shake of his head.
“Ol’s pizzle!” Aldan exclaimed. Nakaz grinned at the crudity of the oath. The young man clutched at his temples, and his face squeezed down into despair. “At this rate, I’ll never reach Dargon!” he wailed and hung his head over his mug.
Before Nakaz could make a consoling remark, the innkeeper arrived with the drink he had ordered. Looking up at the weathered face of the lanky man standing beside him, he quietly ordered another ale for Aldan and two mutton stew dinners. As the innkeeper walked away, Nakaz turned his attention back to the young lord opposite him.
Continuing the conversation as if Aldan’s outburst hadn’t happened, the bard said, “Dargon is a long way from Welspeare, my friend. What business could your father have on our kingdom’s northern coast?”
Aldan was silent long enough for the food to arrive despite the deliberate pace of the innkeeper. Finally, as Nakaz was sampling the surprisingly tasty bread, he spoke. “My journey is not on my father’s behalf. In truth, I left without his permission or even knowledge. But I must get to Dargon before … ah, soon. I can only hope that those … that my business does not know its way any better than I.”
Unaware — or uncaring — of the number of questions his explanation had given rise to, Aldan drew his plate over and began to eat. Nakaz wondered what secrets the young lord harbored. What did he mean to do in Dargon? Why was he traveling without the knowledge of his father? Why did he try so hard to conceal his purpose? And what was it about his purpose that required him to make haste?
They ate in silence. Aldan never once lifted his eyes from the table; Nakaz never once took his eyes off the young lord. There was something compelling about the man, something he had felt first in the blacksmith’s courtyard that morning. It went beyond his own attraction to the handsome lord, and even beyond the interest he had seen in Aldan’s eyes that had been hidden ever since.
Several sennights earlier, Nakaz had been traveling with a purpose himself. He had seen a bard named Kethseir at an inn, but the man had not been dressed as a bard, and he had not responded to Nakaz’ attempts to communicate with him using the bardic silent speech. Suspicious, he had investigated and learned that the man was calling himself ‘Kresh’ and associating with some very rough people.
Nakaz had also met a young lord named Yeran at the inn, who had been murdered shortly thereafter and robbed of an heirloom ring. Kresh and his friends had fled, and Nakaz had followed, catching the three in time to have to choose between taking the murderer to justice, and chasing Kresh the false bard.
He had done the only thing he could. Once the killer was in gaol, Nakaz had returned to the inn in an attempt to find Kresh’s trail again. Unfortunately, the thief had changed horses, leaving Nakaz with no choice but to give up his chase.
After that, Nakaz had wandered both north and east from that part of Duchy Magnus. No purpose had driven him, or kept him in the area; he was not scheduled to resume circuit duties until the following spring. Every choice he had made since then had kept him in the region, moving from town to town, visiting tiny hamlets that seldom saw a bard, spending a few days with a trading caravan, carrying news from place to place when the need was great, but always within this particular area. His travels could have taken him anywhere; he had thought to visit Monrodya at one point, but that was to the west and just as he had turned his horse toward the setting sun, he had been persuaded to deliver a message to a town to the east.
Sitting across from Aldan, whose freshly-washed hair hid his face, Nakaz wondered if his own wanderings these past few sennights had mirrored Aldan’s aimless course, as if fate were trying to arrange their meeting. Aldan seemed to need to get to Dargon with some haste, and was failing at his task. Nakaz knew he was capable of helping the lord, but he wasn’t completely sure he should. The trip would take more than a month, and he had no idea what the young man intended when he arrived. In the other tray of the balance, though, was their fate-directed meeting and he was sure there were the makings of a story in Aldan’s plight.
As the bard blinked, a fleeting image appeared behind his closed eyes. He seemed to see the strands of Aldan’s hair forming into interwoven bands and taking on the gleam of metal before his eyelids flicked up again and the picture vanished. His decision was made, and he forgot about the strange vision.
Nakaz broke the long silence with, “I can get you to Dargon, Lord Aldan.”
The young man raised his grey eyes to look at Nakaz through the fringe of his hair. “You? You can? But … but why?”
Nakaz grinned at the incredulous tone in Aldan’s voice. “Should I not render aid to a noble of the realm?” he said
“Well, ah … I did say I was not on baronial business.” Aldan raised his head and looked Nakaz in the eye. “The matter is personal, and perhaps not one that I should involve others in. I know that bards serve the kingdom wherever required, but … well, I do not want to take you away from those duties. Surely the requirements of your office wouldn’t allow for such a journey.”
“My time is my own until next spring, Lord Aldan. I assure you that you take me away from nothing more pressing. I have much experience traveling around this kingdom. My knowledge will speed your journey greatly.”
Nakaz waited for Aldan’s response. The young man looked back at his plate and sopped up the last of the gravy with his last crust of bread. Nakaz knew that the young lord could profit from his help, but would he take it? Would Aldan accept his aid, or was he too proud to take even the assistance a bard had to offer? Nakaz wondered whether his own interest was great enough to warrant following Aldan if his help was refused.
Before he could decide whether the mystery was that compelling, Aldan said, “I would be glad of your aid, Bard Nakaz.” The young man looked up and once again extended his hand across the table.
Nakaz shook it and said, “Excellent! We should get started as soon as possible. Your horse will be ready tomorrow?”
Aldan slid his plate to the end of the table and drank down the last drops in his mug. “Firesocks has been reshod and is ready now,” he said. “I would have left this afternoon, but Joos over there told me that the next inn to the northwest was a full day’s travel.” The young lord gestured toward the innkeeper with his mug, his movement large enough to both indicate the man he had named and notify Joos that he wanted a refill. Turning back to the bard, he continued, “So I decided to spend another night here. Good thing I did, straight?”
“I would modestly agree, Lord Aldan,” said Nakaz as he set his own plate atop Aldan’s and tapped his finger on his mug after attracting Joos’ attention. “You are aware, though, that as we get farther and farther north, there will no longer be inns spaced a convenient distance apart? Have you made preparations for sleeping under the stars?”
“I’ve been made aware of that, yes. I have some supplies, and was planning on acquiring more in Port Sevlyn.” The sentence hadn’t been phrased that way, but the question was in Aldan’s face, as if Nakaz was already completely in charge, even of decisions the young man had already made.
“Port Sevlyn will be soon enough to make those purchases, and there will be a fine selection of goods there.” Aldan relaxed, which made Nakaz smile again. The bard continued, “So, how soon do you need to be in Dargon, Lord Aldan?”
“Soon. As soon as possible … well, as soon as is feasible.” Aldan tipped his mug up again to get the very, very last drop. Nakaz followed his gaze to see Joos slowly pacing across the room with their refills. “One last thing, Nakaz.”
“Yes, Lord Aldan?”
“Stop calling me ‘lord’, straight?”
“Straight, Aldan. We leave no later than second bell.”
“I’ll be ready.”
They sat in silence, staring at Joos’ snail-paced approach.
“You’ve been here a night already, yes?” asked Nakaz. Catching Aldan’s nod out of the corner of his eye, he continued, “I don’t suppose that this place gets more customers later in the evening, does it?”
The mugs arrived with the shake of Aldan’s head. Nakaz sighed, and took a drink. “I didn’t think so.” After a moment of silence, he said, “Do you want to hear a song?”
The next morning, Nakaz walked into the courtyard between the inn and its stables not long after the town’s single clock-bell had softly welcomed the new day. To his surprise, Lord Aldan was already there, helping a frowning, rumple-haired stable boy ready both of their mounts.
Nakaz watched Aldan work, noting how expertly he handled his horse. Nakaz was impressed, though he knew he should really have expected a noble to know horsemanship. He had to remind himself that just because Aldan didn’t know how to get himself to Dargon did not mean that the young man couldn’t ride at all.
Aldan was dressed for the road as well, in leather leggings and a tightly-belted tunic. Even his long, chestnut hair was bound back severely into a queue. Nakaz could see the wear that the past three sennights had put on the gear of both horse and man, but the quality of both also showed in how well they were holding up.
The stable boy grumpily took Nakaz’ belongings out of his hands, and before long both horses were ready for travel. Nakaz watched Aldan slip two Bits to the stable hand, which caused the frown to vanish completely from the boy’s face.
Aldan turned to Nakaz and asked, “Are you ready to begin?” The bard didn’t hesitate to nod. “Shall we, then?”
Nakaz climbed onto his horse, Riesta. Aldan was soon secure in Firesocks’ saddle, but the young lord didn’t take the lead out of the courtyard. Nakaz looked over to find Aldan waiting. He gestured to the lord, but Aldan simply shook his head once. Nakaz realized that, as with the unspoken question the night before, Aldan was putting the entire trek into his hands.
Accepting the duty, Nakaz flicked his reins, and Riesta started forward. He heard Firesocks’ new shoes sounding on the cobbles behind him as he led his charge away from the Buzzard’s Roost Inn, out of Pyinalt’s Crossroads, and northward to Dargon.
By the time they stopped to rest the horses and eat a brief lunch, Nakaz realized that none of his expectations for the journey were likely to be met. He had already accepted the idea that instead of being an advisor to the young lord, he was to be the leader of the expedition. However, he had not expected to be the absolute leader; Aldan offered no input whatsoever on any decision to be made, from when to rest their mounts, to which of two northward forks to choose. Nakaz guessed that Aldan’s previous wanderings had made him wary of his own directional sense, and wanted to rely fully on the bard’s travel experience.
The young man’s silence went even further. Nakaz was naturally gregarious — could a bard be less? — and tried for bells to interest Aldan in casual conversation. The young man made only curt replies, and then only to the most direct of questions. Nakaz had hopes that as time went on and they both became more accustomed to each other’s company, this might change.
Soon their quiet rest period was over, and they were on their way once again.
Nakaz had great experience traveling under diverse conditions, both alone and in varying company. He well knew how to keep himself occupied while on the road, and applied those techniques that worked best when he rode by himself. If Aldan was bothered by the humming and singing, he made no more comment than a pack horse might. Even when Nakaz purposely practiced his voice exercises, or tried dozens of slightly altered phrases of a new composition to find the correct cadence, Aldan never uttered a word. It bothered Nakaz inordinately to be unable to provoke the young man into speaking until he glanced around to find Aldan with a long-suffering frown of annoyance on his face. Much mollified, the bard decided to stop teasing the lord.
The promised inn was reached shortly after nightfall, with the light of the just-past-full moon illuminating their way to its door. Nakaz was relieved that Aldan’s resolution to be silent did not extend into their time there. To his disappointment, however, he was unable to coax any meaningful information out of the young lord: not about his past, nor about his current business. Their conversation was more than casual, it was utterly superficial, and Nakaz wondered whether Aldan might even prefer total silence.
The next few days passed in essentially the same way. Aldan remained aloof from the bard, though he did not shrink from doing his share of the work, from fetching water to grooming the horses at the one inn they stopped at that was too small to have a stable staff. And no matter how he couched his requests, Nakaz learned little more about his charge.
Port Sevlyn provided a small clue. They arrived in the large port town on the Laraka River in the early afternoon of their third day together and gladly halted their journey to shop. As Nakaz had already told Aldan, the farther north they went, the more they would have to rely on what they carried, as neither towns nor inns would be as conveniently placed. After securing rooms, they sought out the shops around the river docks and on the outskirts of town.
At one point, walking down a wide street lined with open-front shops displaying leather goods, baskets, blankets, and the like, Aldan suddenly cried out “Fox!” and bolted. Nakaz dashed after the young lord, who seemed to be following a tall man with red hair. Aldan caught up with his quarry and grabbed his arm, which startled the man into running, darting between two shops. Aldan followed, but by the time Nakaz reached the small alley, both of them were gone.
Nakaz made the pragmatic choice. Aldan knew where they were staying, and the sun was setting. If they were going to leave the port on the morrow, they needed to be prepared. With a shrug and a sigh, Nakaz went back to shopping.
Aldan returned that evening, meeting Nakaz in the common room of the inn. “I’m sorry, Nakaz. Did you search long for me?”
“No. Who were you chasing?” Nakaz made the question as casual as he could, taking a large bite of his supper and not looking up at the young man standing next to him.
“He … I thought …” Aldan was silent, and then he walked away. Nakaz looked after him, but he was only fetching his own supper from the window that gave access to the kitchen. He returned and sat down across from the bard as usual. Before eating, though, he said, “He was not who I thought him to be.”
“Oh?” responded Nakaz. Aldan applied his fork to his meal, giving no sign that he intended to answer the implied question. Nakaz tried another tack with, “I’ve acquired the last of our provisions. We’ll leave at about dawn, as usual, unless there is anyone else you wish to chase?”
Aldan looked up at Nakaz with a hard, closed expression on his face. “I’ll be ready,” was all he said.
As their journey continued, they camped by the side of the road under the waning moon many more nights than they slept at an inn. Nakaz discovered that Aldan’s skills extended to gathering firewood and cooking a passable meal, as the pattern of their previous days together continued. Sy was the last month of summer, and the days were slowly cooling toward fall so that sleeping under the heavens was no hardship.
On the ninth night since crossing the Laraka, their meal consisted of biscuits and rabbit, courtesy of Aldan’s culinary skills and Nakaz’ trapping ability. After the remains had been cleared away, Nakaz unpacked his mandolin to practice. Something about the night — the sliver of the waning moon, the warmth, the breeze sighing through the trees — reminded him of his deceased lover Shorel, which led him to the style of music he decided to play. He knew that he hadn’t been as bereaved by Shorel’s loss as he should have been, but at least his music didn’t suffer for it. Bards needed to be able to enact any emotion and Nakaz was well versed in that.
He first kept his voice silent as he practiced playing music that evoked sadness and loss. Some instruments were better than others for that, and he might have been better served using his lap harp, but he thought he was successful enough with the mandolin.
Next he began to sing songs of loss. He chose the saddest he could recall and poured all of his craft into them, imagining that he had been set the task of making the very rocks in the ground weep.
He looked up at one point to see tears on Aldan’s cheeks as the young man stared into the fire. The sadness on his face was too deep, too raw to be only the result of the sad songs. Nakaz recognized a loss as intense as the one the bard wanted to have felt for Shorel’s passing. He wondered whether he had accidentally discovered what was driving Aldan north, but stilled his excitement when he realized that it could just as easily have been something else in the young lord’s past.
Nakaz finished his song, and immediately began something of a more neutral emotion, slowly modulating that into something brighter, happier, lighter. He watched Aldan’s emotions slowly fade from his face as the music progressed. When the young man blinked and looked up, Nakaz shifted his gaze to the treetops, not wanting Aldan to know his pain had been observed.
Nakaz heard rustling, and looked to see Aldan standing and walking out of the radius of the fire’s light. He let the man go, trusting he wouldn’t go far. Continuing to play light, airy tunes, he let his mind wander. Before long, he thought about the fragment of the stone sculpture he had retrieved from Shorel’s belongings in the dungeons of Frasilk Keep. He had an impulse to fetch the thing out of his saddlebags and show it to Aldan; it seemed to be a very important thing to do, but only for a moment. He swiftly realized that to show the stone, with its carved cat and fox, and the interwoven gold, silver and glass bands connecting them, would mean that he would have to explain how he had gotten it. That would mean telling of Shorel’s death, and he feared that Aldan’s pain was still too raw to be able to deal with that tale.
Fighting the feeling that he was making a mistake, Nakaz packed his mandolin away and made ready for bed. As he banked the fire for the night, he idly wondered when he could reveal the sculpture to Aldan. They should reach the city of Valdasly in two more days; maybe then the time would be right.
The bedroom on the third floor of the Black Fox inn had been severely rearranged. The bed had been removed to another of the six rooms that Bresk’s Band had rented; the table from that room had been transplanted to this one. Chairs from the common room had been spirited up the stairs, and now the bedroom was an improvised meeting room.
Shan, a big, bulky, dark man, sat behind one of the tables. In front of him were several pieces of age-worn parchment, an inkwell, and a selection of fine brushes. Next to these items was an old book with a blue cover open to a strange illumination.
He looked up and said, “We should really do this in the reverse order, Voesh. It’s better to age the parchment after it’s been written on; the effect is more complete that way.”
“We simply do not have the luxury of enough time for the ‘right way’, Shan,” said Voesh, sitting behind the other table on the opposite side of the room. “You have aged six pieces of parchment in the same period as you could have done two, and now we have leeway should one of us suffer a mishap.”
“Yes, the copying,” said Joal, a wiry, fair opposite reflection of Shan, as he leaned against Shan’s side. “Wouldn’t it be easier just to show the book?”
Voesh’s perpetual scowl deepened, making the crescent-shaped scar in the middle of his left eyebrow stand out even more. “No, Joal, it would not. The scroll I shall compose will consist of fragments taken from the book, carefully selected and edited so as to disguise their full meaning. Additionally, the book should be known about by as few people as possible. Thus, Shan’s copying task.”
“And the aged parchment?” asked Joal. Shan was already leaning over his parchment, brush in hand, studying the illumination. He shifted slightly, and Joal eased reluctantly away to let him work.
“Simplicity itself, my friend,” replied Voesh icily. “We will tell our target that these scrolls are heirlooms and thereby avert any tricky questions as to their origins. Shan, your scroll must be an exact copy of that page, down to the smallest dash or curl. I am unsure of its purpose, but the surrounding text marks it as vital.”
“Of course, Voesh, of course. You’ve already made that clear. I can do it, you know.”
“Yes, yes, I apologize, Shan. It is getting dark; we should make haste.”
“One more thing,” said Joal, interrupting Voesh’s reach for his pen. “This ‘subject’ you’ve mentioned. How do you know that someone in Valdasly is going to have the answers you’re looking for?”
“Because,” Voesh said, clacking his pen forcefully onto the table, “the clues all point to this area. I have a … feeling that the time and place are right. Tonight we must be ready.
“Are you satisfied now, or should I go over it a few more times, Joal?”
“We always used to go over things, Voesh,” said Joal, raising his voice. Shan glanced up at the sudden vehemence, but quickly returned to his work. “It used to be that we came up with plans together, with everyone agreeing before we began. Lately, though, it’s just you and your schemes, directing us like pawns on a board. We should be called ‘Voesh’s Puppets’ instead of Bresk’s Band.”
Joal stood as his anger took him. He bumped the table slightly, but Shan was dipping into the ink and no harm was done. Joal said, “And where’s our coin coming from on this one, eh? Why go to all this trouble, faking scrolls and sneaking answers, if we’re not getting anything out of it? It’s been all spend, spend, spend since you got that scar on your little trip. Trekking all across the kingdom, wasting sennights in Magnus trying to recoup that outlay of jingle you said was necessary. Then there was what you gave Kale for that ring! So far, we’ve only seen the hazards of your quest, Voesh, and I’m beginning to think that the Marg–”
“That is enough!” shouted Voesh, and silence followed his outburst. Rising slowly from his chair, he glared across the room at Joal and said, “You chose to be part of my ‘quest’, Joal, along with the others. If you are having second thoughts about that choice, perhaps you should talk to Bresk about your options. Now –”
Voesh was interrupted in turn when the door slammed open and Meelia strode into the room. She glanced at the two men standing and the one who was still intently bent over his work. She swaggered over to Voesh’s table and grinned. “Why aren’t you working like Shan?” she asked. Her sleekly-muscled adult’s body was totally at odds with her ten year-old’s voice.
Voesh began to bluster, but Meelia, eyes twinkling, said, “Never mind, never mind. I’ve found the perfect victim. A bard just rode into town!”
Voesh’s expression lightened, coming remarkably close to a smile. “Perfect, Meelia, perfect. Thank you. Go find Bresk and Yera and let them know. Then find out where the bard is staying, and if he is performing somewhere. We need a place to meet.
“Oh, and perhaps you could take Joal along?”
“Sure thing, Voesh. Come on, Joal, let’s leave the scribers alone. Fancy a drink?”
Joal glared at Voesh, then leaned over and kissed Shan on the cheek. He followed his blond friend out the door.
Voesh stared at the door for a moment before sitting down again. He began taking deep, even breaths to calm himself down. He focused on the blank parchment in front of him and cleared his mind of everything but what he had to compose. The silver ring with the grey-blue stone glinted in the light from the window as he picked up his pen and began scratching letters into the parchment.
The White Spike tavern was two-thirds full of people and three-thirds full of noise. Nakaz contributed his share from the low platform next to the fireplace, strumming his mandolin and belting out a rousing song about blood and death. Those tables closest to him were crowded with people singing and drinking along, but the rest of the patrons pursued their own entertainment, heedless of the bard at the front of the room or whether their own noise interfered with him.
The White Spike was not the kind of place that Nakaz would have played, given more of a choice. It had a low, rough ceiling and wooden walls darkened by smoke from the oil lanterns and the grease of the unwashed bodies that pressed up against them night after night. Sand covered the floor. While it was there to make the place easier to sweep out at closing, it was a measure that a classier establishment would not have needed. It was the type of place that made an entertainer work to keep the attention of the patrons.
Nakaz idly scanned the room while his audience took the chorus. Along the wall to the left was a group of tables set aside for those who enjoyed the effects of certain burning herbs. Different colored smoke rose from the small pots on each table and drifted among the quiet patrons seated there, who inhaled the fumes and savored their reactions in silence.
Next to the open front door was a table where three men played some kind of betting game that involved trying to stab their own fingers with very large knives. Perhaps the real goal was trying not to stab themselves, but Nakaz wasn’t exactly sure owing to the number of nicks and cuts on the hands of the players.
Other, safer games of chance were conducted at various other tables around the room. Nakaz saw dice being rolled and cards being dealt, and every table, occupied or not, was piled with mugs of ale and beer both full and empty. He wondered whether it was his performance, or a lack of enough dice, bones, and cards that kept his audience listening to him.
He was bombarded with requests for the next tune as the last notes of the song he was singing rang out. Some he had played already, some several times. The drunk by the pillar shouted hoarsely for the tune he had just finished, but Nakaz had been ignoring her all evening since she was obviously far too intoxicated to hear him anyway. He plucked a title out of the air, began strumming its notes, extending the introduction until the inebriated cheering died down, and then plunged into the familiar chantey.
Nakaz might have preferred a less diversion-filled venue, or at least one with a higher class of clientele, but the city of Valdasly, the seat of a barony of the same name in northern Arvalia, hard by the Darst mountains, was in many ways a frontier town. It boasted many taverns and inns, but only one — the Blue Frog Inn — could be considered anything other than a dive, and its doors were closed for a merchant meeting.
It had taken more than a bell to convince Aldan to come out with him this evening. They were staying at the Yellow Wren, an inn that was no more reputable than this tavern but without a common room of its own. Nakaz had felt the need to play for an audience; opportunities to do so would be dwindling as they traveled on. From the moment he had entered the tavern, though, Nakaz felt that he had made a mistake; this place stood to be dangerous to one of noble birth. His concern melted when Aldan fell into the spirit of the place, calling out raucously to the barmaids for service the moment they had claimed a table. He had shooed the bard toward the front of the room shortly after their second round of drinks, and Nakaz had gone without reservation, his charge having surprised him once again.
Nakaz glanced over to their table and saw that Aldan was playing bones with a pair of rough-looking men. He saw Aldan’s lips moving, and realized after a moment that he was singing along. Nakaz wondered where the son of a baron had learned the words to a bargeman’s chantey.
Cheering broke out when the tune was done, and as before, requests were shouted out. A very distinctive voice cut across the noise. It was a high voice, the voice of a child but possessing a volume that couldn’t possibly come from the lungs of a little girl. “Sing something about the Margre Chalisento!” it called.
A commotion erupted from the rear of his audience, and the voice didn’t call out again, but Nakaz had become intrigued. The Margre Chalisento was the subject of a tale from the time before time, when magic was as prevalent as water and wizards were as ubiquitous as peasants. But more than that, it was an obscure legend, something only a bard or a scholar of the ancients could possibly have known about. This was not one of those characters that had story after story, song after song written about her. He couldn’t fathom where anyone in a dive like this would have heard about the Margre Chalisento.
He knew a few stories about the sorceress, though. He chose one that played up the more exciting aspects of the legend, and matched it to a dramatic piece of music he had written. The first notes rang out and even though no one recognized the tune, the mood of the music caught their interest. They quieted slightly — down to a dull roar — and Nakaz began to play.
“What did you think you were doing?” hissed Bresk, his hand clamped over Meelia’s mouth. Joal was holding her down by one arm while Bresk’s other hand pulled at the other. Meelia struggled against her friends, the mischief in her eyes becoming anger at being so roughly handled. Voesh gestured for the others to let her go, but his narrowed eyes indicated his own disapproval.
Meelia slapped both men lightly when they had freed her. By then the handsome, blond bard had started playing, but hadn’t yet started singing. Meelia whispered, in her little girl’s voice, “I just wanted to see if he knew!” She slapped Bresk again, just for good measure, before continuing, “It won’t matter. He’s not going to connect anything up.”
Joal snuggled back up against Shan before saying, “How do you know?”
Meelia replied, “Because I just do! Now shut up and listen!”
The bard had started to sing. The story he told was about an ancient sorceress betrayed by an associate, beset by her enemies, thwarted in her ambition. Voesh was nodding, but not in time to the music, more like he was agreeing with the points of the song. The other five around the table wore smug smiles; they already knew the story that everyone else in the tavern was hearing for the first time. In fact, they knew more than the bard was telling.
The story ended with the Margre Chalisento being vanquished, and the front of the tavern leapt to their feet, cheering wildly. The six, however, just smiled and took a drink. Each of them knew that the bard had ended the story early; the most important part had not been told.
The bard stepped off the platform, pleading a dry throat and the need for a rest. His audience tried to persuade him to continue, pressing drinks and Pennies at him, but the best they could extract was a promise to return in half-a-bell. Meelia watched the bard walk back to his table where his companion was still gambling with the strangers. The game broke up shortly after the bard arrived, and the two of them were alone again.
Turning back to her friends, she asked, “Is it time?”
Voesh nodded, and placed a scroll on the table. Shan produced the scroll he had been working on, and shoved it over in front of Yera.
Joal, who was massaging Shan’s neck, said, “You know, I don’t think Yera is the right one to send.”
“Why not?” asked Bresk.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Joal said playfully. “It’s just … maybe I would be the better person to talk to them. Or even Shan.”
Meelia giggled, but Voesh said, “Stop it! You see two men together and assume … But your fantasies have no place here, so just shut up. Yera’s looks have nothing to do with the choice. Her bearing is more likely to suggest the honest possession of an heirloom.”
Meelia said, “Hey, you shut up, Voesh. You used to be much more easy-going before you got that scar. He’s just playing; he knows it’s not likely that they’re sharing a bed as well as a table. He doesn’t really want to change the plan, do you?”
Joal contrived to look bored and smirk at the same time. He said, “No, of course not.”
Yerianolya had been silent the whole time. Finally she said, “Let’s go.” And after a long pause she continued, “And Meelia’s right, Voesh. You were more fun, once.”
Aldan slammed down his wooden mug and licked his lips. He shouted for another and smiled at his traveling companion. Nakaz was smiling back, but his mug was still half full. Aldan knew that he was drinking too much, and he also knew that he would regret his indulgence in the morning. He didn’t fancy riding with a curdled head, but he was enjoying himself too much to be reasonable about it. His quest was progressing well and he deserved to celebrate, so celebrate he would. Why, just the other day, he had actually seen Mount Voldronnai, the famous volcano! At least, he was pretty sure he had seen it. Nakaz had pointed it out to him above the trees, far off in the distance, but Aldan was almost certain he had picked out the right one from among the peaks that the bard had pointed at.
Wouldn’t that be a story to tell his father? Wouldn’t Chak Bindrmon be impressed that his son had been close enough to the volcano to see it with his own eyes? And think of how impressed Tillna would be!
It took a moment for his drink-addled brain to remind him that Tillna was dead, and would be impressed by nothing he did. Sadness soaked his spirits like a sudden downpour as he recalled just why he was so far from home and seeing such exciting sights.
Then, just as suddenly as a spring shower passes, his sadness vanished, replaced by the warmth of his need for revenge. He would find the remaining members of the Menagerie, and they would pay for taking Tillna away from him. That was why he was in Valdasly right now. And Valdasly was almost Dargon, after all!
Aldan wished that he could be more open with Nakaz, but he was afraid to. Aldan wanted the Menagerie dead, and he didn’t know whether the bard would allow that. It was hard to keep himself so silent, but silence was easier than maintaining a convincing set of lies. Lies and sad songs and lonely roads … Aldan took a gulp of his refilled mug and tried to return to his celebrating.
Nakaz was trying to ask him something, but before Aldan could focus his attention on his companion, he was diverted by two people who were walking over to their table. The two were an interesting pair: the man was short and had short black hair, while the woman was tall, with very short white hair that looked as soft as fur. Both wore frowns, but somehow the man’s seemed more permanent. The woman had a refined-looking face: narrow, long, with a regal-looking nose and tight, red lips. The man’s most distinguishing feature was a crescent scar in the middle of one eyebrow.
The pair reached the table and the man with the scar spoke first. “Your pardon, sir bard. My name is Voesh, and I wondered if I could presume to request a moment of your time and knowledge?”
Aldan watched as Nakaz gestured the man to a seat. The pair of them bent their heads over a scroll that the man with the scar spread in front of them. The woman stood watching them, and Aldan watched her. She was beautiful in a distant sort of way, and he wondered whether her hair was as soft as it looked.
He let his gaze drift lower. He hazily wondered if her breasts were as soft as her hair looked, and he giggled to himself. Aldan was about to let his attention dip lower still when he heard her say, “Excuse me.” He looked up and said, “Yes?”
“May I have a seat?” she asked with disdain. Aldan smiled an inebriated smile and kicked the chair next to him out. She scowled down at him, but sat. She spread a scroll in front of him and said, “Your pardon, my lord. My name is … Yera, and I wondered if you might be able to help me. This scroll has been in my family for centuries, and I have been seeking its meaning for a very long time. I came to ask the bard, but while I wait, I thought that it couldn’t hurt to show it to you.” Her tone implied that she expected less than nothing from Aldan, but he found that funny too. He heard her mutter, “And maybe you’ll stop ogling me,” which only made him laugh harder.
Aldan finally got control of himself, but he had forgotten why the woman was sitting next to him. He stared at her, trying to focus on her face, trying to recall. She stared back, her brown eyes narrowing, until she finally pointed at the scroll again. Recollection dawned.
From what Aldan could overhear of the conversation between Nakaz and Voesh, they were talking about some kind of translation that was couched in riddles and misdirection. Expecting words on the scroll in front of him, Aldan was surprised to see only lines and pictures. He sat up straighter, trying to sharpen the blurry edges of the lines. He grabbed for a tankard and gulped half of it down. He almost spit the liquid across the room when he tasted it, and coughed until his eyes watered once he had swallowed it — it had been some kind of raw distilled liquor and not ale as he had expected.
When Aldan turned his somewhat sharper attention to the scroll under the withering stare of Yera, he realized two things. First, the lines had not been blurry due to his vision; and second, that though some effort had been made to make the scroll look aged, it had been recently done. His training at the hands of Sestik came clearly to mind, and he could see the signs easily. Both the blurred lines, where the ink had bled into the rough paper, and a large blot in one corner with just a hint of still-wet ink at its center, indicated that this was no centuries-old document.
As he was about to announce his discovery to the frowning woman, he noticed something else about the lines. Aldan turned his attention back to the drawings instead of what made them up, and started seeing the patterns there almost immediately. It was an ability he’d always had, to find the patterns in things. He’d used it to discern the strategy behind the movements of game pieces, but it applied to other things as well. He couldn’t have put his finger on exactly how he was able to resolve meaning from the seemingly random drawings, but the patterns were present. Hidden within the lines was what looked like a map, with certain pictures taking on more than decorative significance when taken as part of the whole.
Aldan started blurting out his findings to Yera with an odd excitement. She hadn’t thought much of his ability to contribute, but he was proving her wrong. She followed the lines he indicated and her frown faded, turning instead to a look of concentration as he extracted the meaning out of the scroll for her. He showed her which designs indicated the path, and which were just decorations. He revealed the cleverly hidden clues that indicated traps within the maze of pathways and how to disarm them. He pointed out the false branches as well as the center of the maze, though he wasn’t able to make any sense out of the glyph that was drawn there: his gift could extract no special meaning from the strangely star-shaped leaf. Long before Nakaz and the scarred man were done talking, Aldan had finished revealing the secrets of the woman’s scroll. She stood and thanked him, and walked away. Aldan was sure there had been a smile on her face as she turned away; he was sorry he hadn’t been able to see more of it.
Aldan tried to follow the exchange Nakaz was carrying on, but either he was too drunk to understand what they talked about, or they were no longer speaking Baranurian. At loose ends, he drained another tankard — after making sure it was ale first — and considered trying to find his way back to the Yellow Duck or Hen or wherever they were staying. He had just about levered himself to his feet when the man with the scar stood and said, “My thanks, Nakaz. My friends and I will be forever in your debt for helping us to solve this riddle. Fare well.”
When they were alone again, Aldan said, “So, you did it too, eh, Nakaz?”
“Too? What do you mean?” Nakaz responded, looking up and rubbing his eyes.
“The woman. She had a schrull … scroll, too. I solved it for her. Just like you.”
“Really? That’s nice.” Nakaz took a drink from his tankard, and then peered at Aldan. He continued, “And how much have you had to drink in the meantime?”
“Almost enough,” Aldan said. He belched loudly and laughed, slapping the table with glee.
“More than enough, more like,” Nakaz muttered. “Perhaps –”
Before the bard could continue, Aldan interrupted with, “Look, look. They’re leaving. Farewell! Farewell!” The scarred man and the white-haired woman were leaving with four other people. Neither of them acknowledged Aldan’s drunken exuberance, but the young man heard a high-pitched giggle from the only other woman in the group. Nakaz seemed startled by the sound as well.
There was one other detail Aldan noticed about one of the other members of the group. Two of the men walked very close to each other. They were physically dissimilar, but they wore clothing that matched, and their mustaches were clipped exactly the same. The shorter and stockier of the pair had his arm around the taller, slimmer one, and Aldan noticed that the fingers resting on the taller man’s hip looked ink-stained to a familiar light brown.
Nakaz led him back to their inn then. All the way back, and in the brief moments between being led to his bed and falling asleep, Aldan tried to work out the significance of that final observation, but he succumbed to exhaustion before making the vital connection.