Bard of a Different Feather
Interview with Bernice Gordon
News for October
Break Out the Colored Pencils
Redemptionby Megan O'Shea
Elliot of Wilshire's morning had begun poorly enough; he'd woken late for his vocal lessons, had stubbed his toe on the way to the washbasin, and discovered he'd forgotten one of his fancier tunics in Ulhare. As he'd hurried to his master's bedroom to rap on the door, preparing profuse apologies for why he'd slept in, he hadn't thought that the day could get any worse.
He'd been wrong.
Now he coughed, eyes watering, as some of the acrid tavern smoke invaded his lungs.
The Tipsy Pony was a Spartan place, cheap food, watery ale, and harried barmaids to serve it all to patrons who seemed to rise from the gutters themselves each dawn. The man across from Elliot had had more than his share of all three in his time and smelled of it..
"I almost got you beat, kid." Stert of Glenmire's mouthful of rotten teeth was a putrid sight. Elliot felt his stomach churn in disgusted irritation. "You told me when you walked in here that your daddy was a master with the Kilteran cards and he taught you all he knew. I think you lied." Grimy fingers played over the last card the fellow held. If that went down on the table to join the pile, the game was over. A grim tear of sweat ran warm down the back of Elliot's neck. There were three cards left in his hand and he needed to find a way to get rid of all three in order to win.
His eyes drifted up to the middle of the wooden table. Three glass spheres, the only light in the place, sat emitting a soft, magical glow. The one in the middle was full, its shine crimson against the white of the other two.
"I wasn't lying." Elliot spoke with a confidence he didn't feel. He wished Liall was here himself to hear the way Stert's voice was changing. In the span of an hour alone, Elliot could begin to hear subtle differences, the way the syllables the oaf spoke were getting gentler, lilting, musical. It would take time for the won ability to transfer from the sphere to Stert, but its affects were already manifesting. He was sounding more and more like the master bard with each passing minute and if Elliot went back empty-handed, would permanently.
"You're as stupid as that dandy that walked in here last night," Stert asserted. His grin got wider. "Coming in here drunk already, then challenging me. I'm gonna enjoy having a golden throat, that's for sure. The ladies will, too. Soon I'm gonna be movin' up in the world. Shame about that performance y'all was supposed to give tonight at the inn." He tapped his last card with a black fingernail. "Maybe I'll do you a favor and get up there to do it myself."
The boy scowled even as his stomach gave another twist. This was the first performance he and Liall had been able to secure in months. Their coin-purses were dangerously light already and they'd been barely able to pay for the room they were staying at now. Elliot pushed hair out of his eyes, holding back a frustrated sound.
His master had been in no condition to tell him why he'd gotten drunk, challenged this man, and then bet his ability to sing in a magical game. It had been difficult to get a straight answer while the musician had been leaning over the washroom basin. Whatever replies Elliot had managed to get were sick croaks and moans, laments that were lost above pleas to fetch him water right before Liall had passed out.
Stert reached a paw across the table and picked up a card. Squinting at it in the murky light, he gave a bark of triumph and returned it to the discarded portion of the deck. "Looks like another match for me," he announced. He raised his eyebrows at Elliot. "You tryin' to throw this game?"
"No." The number of icy worms in his belly was multiplying. He'd grown up playing these sorts of games for fun, but he hadn't wanted to make bets with them, take them seriously, and now here he was with so much depending on this outcome. He shut his eyes and feeble candlelight beat across his closed lids.
"I suppose you'll need to take him, then." His mother's voice as she'd stood with Liall in their sitting room was resigned. "There's nothing else he's suited for -- no head for scholar's sums and reading, no brawn to be a soldier. He doesn't have the conviction to be like William. A bard's apprenticeship is the only thing I could think of that may afford him anything like a decent living."
He'd had to turn away from the sitting room door on hearing that. Several mornings before, his mother had pounced on him and asked him just what he was going to do for the rest of his life. He was getting to be, in her words, 'of that age now.'
"How about those card games, Elliot? You can be like your papa."
His mother couldn't have looked more stricken if he'd slapped her. "But I thought... You could make a fine living at it, like he did."
"I -- I want to do something else."
Arms had folded. "And what might that be?"
"I...don't know yet?"
And so she decided for him, sending for Liall right after. Brunel of Wilshire was well-known for her sulky silences and had treated her son to a spectacular one for the week it took the bard to travel from Bramblewood Providence to their doorstep. Things happened speedily after that. His first vocal lesson had gone well, and the second and third after that. Then Elliot had needed to sing alone to a small audience in Jansweir.
'Disaster' hadn't been quite the word. Elliot's voice had whispered and cracked on the high notes, his heart beating so fast in his chest he'd needed to be ill after. Liall tried to be encouraging even as the look he gave to his apprentice suggested pity. He was stuck with Elliot when he could have chosen anyone else to benefit from his training.
He'd decided then to find a way to be of some use to Liall even if he couldn't sing.
"I bet my voice to a thing called Stert last night in a magical bet. Big creature, black hair, missing teeth. Oily." Liall moaned before his bloodshot eyes fell closed. Their conversation had been going in circles for the twenty minutes since Elliot had come into Liall's room and that had been the first and only thing to make some sense. "Oh, gods."
"At the Tipsy Pony. But, I need to tell you--" He broke off to retch.
"Later. Get some sleep. I'll be back after I get some herbs to help your hangover."
"Gentlemen, your next draw, if you please?" The acolyte mage standing beside their table made a face as a fresh billow of smoke wafted into the air from the kitchen at their backs. Elliot's eyes opened to find her. It still shocked him at just how much the young woman looked out of place in her long robes, a bright swatch against an otherwise dull background. Her accent was foreign. Without someone present that was skilled in it, magic couldn't be transferred or used. For this, she was their mediator, the one that held their contact and kept it legal. Elliot had signed the parchment that now stuck out from under her tucked arm. He found himself wondering again how far away from home she was and what she must think of this place.
He saw Stert eye her before reaching to the card pile, his gaze falling to linger in key areas. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, eminence." He smirked at Elliot, who rolled his eyes and moved to choose a few more cards to add to his hand.
The game progressed. Both the stench of burnt meat and sweaty Stert grew worse. The acolyte coughed into her sleeve. A patron began to loudly complain about the service. Cards were laid down and picked up.
He wasn't sure when the tide began to shift and his cards began to match so he could lay them down. Elliot looked from his hand to Stert as the latter swore then felt his eyes go wide. There was only one card left between his fingers.
Another card on the table matched it. Numb inside, he laid the last card down, a grinning jester staring back at him.
"The winner is young master--" The woman took the parchment and unrolled it with a crisp sound, reading the names inscribed there. "Young master Elliot of Wilshire. He may now select an ability from Master Stert of Glenmire of his choosing, and have returned to him the ability of his master as per the terms of this contract."
Stert slapped his hand down on the table. "I want another game. This whelp--" a finger was stabbed at Elliot, "--came in here with an unfair advantage. He had more past experience."
"Past experience you played to obtain for yourself, no doubt." The acolyte clicked her tongue. "I've overseen a month's worth of your games and if you hadn't gambled your winnings away to other people, you'd be handsome, intelligent, able to imitate birdcalls and musically talented, in that order. You were arrogant and it's no fault of anyone else's that you lost those." A smaller piece of parchment and quill was presented to Elliot. "You agreed to just one game. That's all I have time for. Perhaps you should have considered gambling for better luck as well." Her lips twisted, wry. "Choose carefully, young master."
Elliot didn't hear her. He blinked at Stert. "Able to imitate birdcalls?"
"I know a woman -- never mind, choose whatever you like," the loser spat. "I ain't got all day."
Elliot looked into that stormy expression, considering. Stert didn't look like the type of person to have too many good qualities Elliot would want for himself. He hadn't considered what he might take if he won except for what he'd come there for.
No, he realized. There was one thing he wanted after all.
He touched the magically inked quill tip to the parchment.
He wrote a single word, and Stert almost cried upon being told what it was.
"I suppose you'll need to take him, then."
Liall knew his elder brother's wife well enough to see that she was masking her anger. The missive she had sent was pointed, telling him that his nephew was to come with him lest he should become a wastrel for the remainder of his days.
"Brunel." Liall removed his cap to the jingle of its sewn-on silver trinkets. "You can't expect me to -- not after -- you know I can't." He kept his voice low. Something had rustled in the doorway and he'd caught a boy-shaped shadow retreating when he glanced over.
"You can and you should. You did say you owed my poor late William a debt, didn't you? You promised."
He had. "Things have changed since then. We were young. I didn't understand what I was asking for and he didn't realize what he was becoming a part of when he started playing those confounded games."
"You've played them, too," she reminded. "And you benefited from them."
There was never an occasion where Liall didn't feel uncomfortable in this sitting room, decorated with spoils William had earned in a roundabout way from his card games.
"I don't want to benefit from them anymore. I thought I did and then I went out into the world and saw how damaging it can be."
"Too late for regrets now." His sister-in-law smiled. "You wouldn't leave your own nephew out in the cold, would you?"
He woke. The inside of his mouth tasted horrible. Night had long since stolen into his room. The cobwebs of his dream lifted.
The performance! Liall scrambled to free himself of his bedsheets. His head pounded like a war drum and pained eyes found the ticking clock on the wall.
Two in the morning. Dear gods. Not only had he missed his own performance, he'd slept three hours past when it was supposed to be over.
It took four tries to find the way to the corridor in the shadows. He supposed he and Elliot would need to travel all the way to Yenir and beg an audience of the innkeeper there. If that didn't work...
"Elliot?" The name slurred past his lips as he staggered next door to the lad's quarters. When his knock went unanswered, he tried the knob.
The door opened into the disaster beyond.
Clothes were strewn over the floor, the furniture, discarded as their owner had made his way to bed. Elliot's tangle of fair hair was gold against his dark sheets. He was on his stomach, dead to the world.
Liall picked his way over a doublet that had been tossed aside and noticed another curious thing. Bouquets of flowers -- lilies, roses, daffodils -- bundled together with ribbon, their petals scattered. They were the gift of choice from besotted young women to their performers of choice.
The master bard picked one up to turn it over in his hands.
There has to be some mistake, he couldn't have...
Yet he could think of no other reason for why they'd be there. Liall had returned enough times himself from such happenings to recognize their aftermath. Elliot had given the show by himself. But how, when only yesterday he couldn't hold a note in front of an audience to save his life?
He stooped to scoop up Elliot's belt and purse from the floor. He almost dropped it again as something cool thrilled through him, something familiar but startling. Nearly everyone had felt magic before in one breed or another in their lives, no matter how fleeting the experience.
The sensation got stronger when he opened Elliot's coin-bag. Pink light washed over his fingers, filled his senses. His. The skill contained inside the magic sphere had been part of him. His ability, the very thing he'd lost on purpose.
Elliot had gone to get it back without his knowledge.
He shook out the purse when he sensed something more. Another one?
He let it drop into his hand. The puzzle over Elliot was solved immediately.
The master bard sighed.
William had come back from his travels that night years ago, smiling. Something glowed in his hands. Here, he'd said, you don't need to be a soldier now.
He held both spheres in his palms, feeling their heft. Their energy warmed his flesh, calling to him, promising years of comfort and money.
He shivered with desire before opening both hands. His burden glowed bright for a moment, a star condemned to fall, before snuffing out with the soft crunch of broken glass.
Tomorrow, Elliot's true training would begin.
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