24 March 2012

ELVEHELM: Eldisle V - Ante Feralis

            “Has anyone got a spare mouthpiece?” Oscinis begged, glancing around the salon and looking tremendously flustered.

            A half-dozen heads shook a negative.

            Ciris looked up from the silk packet containing her collection of plectrae.  “What’s the problem?”

            “Melicuso’s had himself a little fit,” the younger woman replied.  She was red-faced and sweating; the combination of heat and stress were taking their toll both on her composure and on her stage makeup, which was starting to glisten and look streaky.  Her ear-tips were bright pink.  “He broke his reed.”

            Ciris sighed heavily.  Putting the silk pouch aside, she rummaged through her instrument case.  “The big pipe, or the small one?”


            “What happened?  He drop the thing again?”

            “No, he…he’s a little nervous.  He bit through it,” Oscinis replied, wringing her hands as her mistress barked a laugh.  “Any luck?”

            In a moment, Ciris had produced the required item – two pieces of bamboo, bound back to back with silver wire and shaved to a hair’s thickness at the upper, splayed end.  “I’ve used it once before,” she warned. “If he doesn’t mind a little spittle, it’ll serve him fine.  And in any case…”

            “…beggars can’t be choosers,” the younger woman cried with a sigh of relief.  “How much?”

            “It’s used,” her mentor shrugged.  “He can stand me a beaker or three after the show.”

            “My thanks!”  Oscinis seized the older woman’s hands and kissed them, plucking the reed from her fingers with finesse worthy of a pickpocket.  “Myran bless you!”

            Ciris snorted.  “Myran can kiss my nether eye.”  She waggled a finger at her protégé.  “You need to calm down.  You and your mate both.  Him especially, if he’s taken to gnawing on his shalm.  Remember, this is just another gestio.”

            “Easy for you to say,” the girl harrumphed.  “You’ve played the Starhall.  The closest we’ve ever come is third-stage at Convallis.”

            “I was a lot younger when I sang for Callaýian,” Ciris reminded her apprentice.  “That was four centuries ago, and more.”  She tapped her throat, smiling wryly.  “My pipes are in no better condition than your mate’s these days.”

            “They were good enough to win the fronda,” Oscinis reminded her mistress.

Ciris put a hand to the circlet of silvered laurel leaves that was woven into her elaborate coiffure.  Callaýian, the king, had himself placed it on her head, standing at the foot of the Filigree Throne under the eyes of the whole of the court.  For a year and a day, she’d been the toast of Starmeadow.  Every door had been open to her; the rafters of every great hall had shivered to the splendour of her voice, and the gifts had showered down like sweet summer’s rain.  The King had asked her back to the Palace more than a score of times - although (she reminded herself with a grin) on each of those ‘encores’, as he’d called them, she’d had to come cloaked, and had been ushered through the servants’ entrance by a grim-faced, tight-lipped praetoriana. 

Remembrance of those nights called up a shiver of delight.  By the lord Hara, what a man he’d been! 

She stroked the delicate coronet unconsciously.  The silver – quite unlike her recollections of the late King – was badly tarnished; but tradition forbade polishing it.  “That was an age of the world ago, child,” she said complacently.  “There’s a reason I sing counterpoint instead of solo these days, and wring tunes out of the cythara, instead of taking centre stage alone.” 

She closed her satchel and retrieved her packet of plectrae.  Without further fumbling, she selected one made of oiled hornbeam – large and stiff, yet smooth to the touch, and yielding nicely to knowledgeable fingers and the right kind of pressure.  Just the way I like’em, she thought with a half-grin. 

Just like Callaýian had been.

Oscinis was still silent.  With difficulty, Ciris clawed her way out of the quicksand of memory.  “What is it?”

            “You didn’t have to sing for Alycidio, either,” the girl grumped moodily.

            Hara Sophus!” Ciris laughed.  “Is that it?  The Master Harper frightens you, does he?”

            “He frightens everybody!” the girl exclaimed.

            “Only those who don’t know him, child.”

            Oscinis’ flushed, florid face took on a tragic aspect.  “But he yells at me!”

            “He yells at us all,” Ciris shrugged.  “Don’t take it to heart.  It’s his way, especially before a performance. 

“You just wait,” she chuckled, reaching for her instrument.  “Once the show’s over, and the Duke’s offered him the Cantor’s Cup, and the crowd has settled, he’ll be as gentle and biddable as a lamb.  Applause and a good belt of brandy are his weaknesses.  Like water to a man dying in the desert.”  Tweaking the strings gently with a thumb, she fiddled with the tuning knobs, getting the pitch exactly right.

            “That’s no help now,” the girl muttered.  “He’s out there on the parapet, warming up.  Can’t you hear the obligattoes?  In a minute he’ll be in here, shrieking at us like a madman.”

            “And by moons-height,” Ciris said soothingly, “it’ll all be over, and Alcyidio will be fuddled with wine and basking in the glorious adulation of the crowd.  And I’ll be doing my best to empty the Duke’s cellar, and counting the bucket-load of aureae that’ll be flung our way.

“And you” – she winked – “you’ll be trying to decide how high to raise the bidding when every son of the Twelve in town tries to buy his way into the new songbird’s sheets.” 

Oscinis, her eyes wide with shock, put a hand over her mouth.

Ciris laughed at the girl’s obvious discomfiture.  Her talented fingers danced a subtle glissade along the strings.  “Best part of these court shows, if you ask me,” she added with a wicked grin.  “If you sing like I know you can, and manage your time right ‘twixt midnight and dawn, you could add a few choice items to your jewellery chest tonight.”

            The girl’s cheeks turned bright red.  “But…that’s…”

            “Stop gibbering, sweetling.  I’ve taught you better than that.”  She waggled a finger.  “And so help me, if you quote Dîor’s dusty Codex at me, I’ll put you over my knee.”

“But this is Dapis Adfarum!  The feast of farewell!” the girl protested in a shocked whisper.  “For one of the Twelve!”

            “Two of the Twelve, you mean, and two more of the upper crust besides,” the older woman corrected.  “So?  There’s no better place to find a lonely nobleman to console.” 

Her eyes narrowed, calculating.  “Maybe you should try for the Duke himself. He’s said to stand at the very pinnacle of honour, but I wouldn’t let that stay me.  Those who put themselves too high above the herd are often the first to fall.  And he hasn’t taken a mate since the missus went missing, threescore years since.”  She winked.  “This’ll be a rough day for him.  Wife and daughter and best friend and chaplain all called to wind, and then a big fight at the Lucum.  Pretty young thing like you could be just what he needs to take his mind off the day’s trials.”

            The girl’s mouth flapped open, but nothing coherent came out.

            Ciris looked up from her cythara and raised an eyebrow.  “What is it now?”

            “What about Melicuso?” the girl whispered.

            The older woman shrugged and struck a jangling, dissonant chord on her instrument.  “What about him?” she asked, eyes wide.  “You’re lovemates, not lifemates.  If he’s any sort of skald, he’ll be bal…er, he’ll be ‘entertaining’ some equally lonely lady within half a stick of the last note being sung.  One with clean, cold sheets, and a heavy purse. 

“Don’t worry,” Ciris added in response to her apprentice’s stricken look.  “He’ll be back in the morning.  They always are.” 

She pursed her lips suddenly.  “Actually,” she added in a thoughtful tone, “on second thought, you’d best leave poor Kaltas alone.  Rumour ‘round the kitchens has it that his custodia, the Princess Myaszæron, has got her drawers all damp for the dear Duke.  She’s a humourless old cow, to be sure, but a terror with blade and bow.  And even if she weren’t, you wouldn’t want to make an enemy of that house.”

“That didn’t stop you when…when you…”

Ciris raised an eyebrow.  Had the tale of her long dalliance with Callaýian gotten that far ‘round?  “No,” she acknowledged slowly, “it didn’t.  But his – and we’ll use no names here, my dove – his mate had already passed into the Long Halls, and there were no contenders for his heart in the picture.  Certainly none like Myaszæron, who’d spent their lives wading hip-deep in the blood of their enemies.  And besides, it was worth it.”  She grinned wickedly.  “Someday you’ll find out just how much you’re prepared to risk for a real man.”

Ciris hadn’t thought that her apprentice could flush more deeply.  The girl looked as if she had developed a sudden sunburn.

“And there’s the Codex, too,” the older woman added, picking up a soft cloth and applying it to her instrument, buffing the wood to bring out its natural beauty.  “Much as I think it’s a lot of rot, folk tend to cling to Dîor’s law out here in the hinterland.  The rules are different in the capital.  A lot different, where Dîor’s line is concerned!

“No,” she concluded with a nod, “best set your eye on someone a little lower down the ladder.  The potential rewards are less, but then so’s the risk.”

By the end of this lengthy disquisition, Oscinis’ face was glowing scarlet.  There was, however, something coldly speculative in her gaze.

The older woman raised an eyebrow.  “If you’ve aught on your mind,” she said coolly, “then let’s have it out.”

Oscinis hesitated a moment, then blurted, “Is this how you won the fronda?”

Ciris’ smile vanished.  “I won it through my song,” she said calmly.  “But I won all the rest of this” – she gestured at the costumes, the array of instruments, and the dozens of musicians and servants crowding the private dining room that they had been allotted to prepare for the Dapis by the Duke’s seneschal – “through judicious use of my other skills.  All of them.  And,” she added with an equally penetrating glare, “I had a damned good time doing it.”

The younger woman grimaced.  “It’s…that’s…”

“What?  Reprehensible?  Singing will only make you famous, girl,” Ciris shrugged.  “It takes all of your talents to make you wealthy.”

Oscinis glanced involuntarily at the door that led out to the Great Hall.  “And is that how Alycidio did it?”

Ciris snorted.  “No,” she admitted.  “But I never had that sort of talent.  Nor his ridiculous flair.  Nobody does.  He’s a prodigy, that one.  One of Myran’s pets.  Like Divine Andhra reborn.

“And in any case, he’s never cared about wealth.”  She shook her head in amazement.  “All he’s ever desired is fame.”

The girl looked back at her mistress.  “ ‘All’?  Nothing else?”

“Nothing,” Ciris confirmed with a meaningful look.  Her fingers plucked out a melancholy air on the cythara.

“What a shame,” Oscinis said thoughtfully.  The Master Harper was, after all, a remarkably attractive specimen of high elven manhood.

The older woman saw the girl’s expression, and laughed.  “Don’t waste your time, missy!  I made that trial long ago.  And failed it,” she added without rancour.

“Well,” the girl said, shrugging, “if I can’t seduce Alycidio, and I daren’t get him drunk before we play, then how am I supposed to put up with the crotchety old bastard?”

Ciris smiled.  “Listen.”  With her plectrum, she struck out a complex phrase, tapping the toe of her slipper in time to the rhythm.  When she had reached the timbre and beat she desired, she sang a short series of phrases in an unfamiliar tongue.  The words seemed to intertwine with the music, floating away into the air like smoke from a guttering lamp.

Bemused, Oscinis listened closely, trying to remember the tune – haunting, syncopated and irregular – and the lyrics.  She couldn’t quite make them out.  But she seemed to hear sounds of battle in her mentor’s music – eager stallions pawing at the earth, banners snapping in the breeze, and the ring of steel.

Ciris finished the short piece and put her plectrum away.  When she noticed that the girl was still staring blankly into space, she snapped her fingers.

Oscinis came back to herself with a start.  She thought she might have missed a question.  “Yes?” she asked, a little flustered.

“I said, ‘Do you feel better’?”

The girl blinked.  “You know, I do!” she said, surprised.  She did.  It was as if a weight had been lifted from her.  Her lifebeat no longer throbbed in her ears, and her knees felt a good deal sturdier than they had, moments before.

She turned a querulous glance on her mistress.  “What did you do?  What song was that?”

Cantormagicum,” Ciris replied.  “A spell.  It’s called Poistaa Pelko, in the wyrms’ speech.  That’s how I sang it.  In our tongue, it’s Abrogo metum.”  She shrugged.  “Works in any language.”

“ ‘Abstraction of trepidation’?”

“Just so.”  The older woman’s eyes narrowed.  “ ‘Remove fear’, for short.  Do you remember any of the phrases?”

Oscinis blinked, trying to recall what her mentor had sung.  She could almost reach the distant, mesmerizing stanzas, but at the last instant, they seemed to slither out of her memory.  “I’m sorry, mistress,” she said at last, chagrined.  “No.”


“Not a word.  What…what does that mean?”

Ciris sighed.  “It means, child,” she said softly, “that you’re not ready for that aspect of our profession.  Not yet.

“But,” she added in a crisp, assured tone, “you’re ready for tonight.  Aren’t you?”

Oscinis nodded, grinning.  “Yes, I am.  Now.”

“Good.”  She pointed at the reed clenched tight in her apprentice’s hand.  “Go give that to your mate, with my compliments, and then come back for a few scales.  You’re going to earn your own fronda tonight, my dear.  And you’ll do it on your feet, too, with honour,” she added with some asperity.  “Not on your back.”

The younger woman nodded again, serious once more.

“That comes later,” Ciris winked.

Her face flaming, Oscinis fled.


            “You’re not wearing that, are you?”

            Bertanya, startled by the unexpected words, shook herself out of her contemplative reverie, blinking furiously.  The fact that she was stiff told her that she had been squatting on the rock for several hours, and the purpling sky overhead confirmed it.  The Lantern had dipped below the eastern horizon.  From her vantage, she could see over the rooftops of Locupletis, the nobles’ suburb just across the gorge from the Palace, to the surface of the sea beyond.  The water was as smooth and reflective as polished steel.  Not so to the north; dark clouds still hovered there, moving gradually southwards.  Another storm seemed likely.

            The cat-woman had found a comfortable, quiet spot for her evening devotions.  It was not one that most would have chosen, nor was it one where she had thought it likely that she would be disturbed.  The ducal palace was perched on the heights of the west fork of the Gula, the deep channel that led from the port to the sea.  Behind the curtain wall, a narrow path, hardly wide enough for goats, meandered along the cliff.  If one didn’t mind dangling over empty nothingness while skirting the buttresses and the bases of the towers, it was relatively simple – given sufficient sure-footedness – to make one’s way out along the cliff.  The view was spectacular, and except for the periodic clash of arms on the parapets above as the guards changed post or moved about, it was relatively silent.  Except, of course, for the odd bird-call, and the calming whistle of the wind.

Bertanya had found a small wedge of granite that projected out from the cliff a few paces, and had been squatting contentedly on it, contemplating the sunset, and seeking the peace and wisdom that Istravenya sent through the Lantern’s divine fire. It was a long way down to the water – seven, maybe eight-score paces.  She didn’t mind.  Her only company had been a nest of eagles a few paces further along.  Until now.

            She knew the voice, of course.  Without turning or otherwise disturbing her precarious perch, she replied, “Clothes don’t make the cat, highness.  What’s wrong with my attire?”

            “Well, for one thing, it’s hardly appropriate for…for…look,” the newcomer pleaded, “could you please come back here?  By the wall?”

            “Why don’t you join me out here, warrior?” Bertanya grinned.

            “Because I’m not exactly dressed for cra…ahh, damn it!” 

Bertanya turned to look at the speaker.  Myaszæron had her back to the curtain wall of the palace, and was looking both exceedingly out of place, and exceedingly nervous.  The former was due to the fact that she was dressed for the evening’s feast of remembrance, in splendour appropriate to one of her station, in a long, flaring gown of emerald silk picked out with gold lace.  The bodice – indeed, the entire upper half of the gown – appeared to be woven out of gilt-edged emerald flowers.  Her hair, uncharacteristically, was down, confined only by a slender coronet of gold and green stones, enriched rather than concealed by a knee-length veil of fine gilt gauze.  In the fading light, her waist-length tresses looked to be almost the same deep, rich green as her gown.

Her arms and shoulders were bare, and Bertanya couldn’t help but notice the subtle musculature of a trained fighter – nor the intaglio of fine scars that even the most careful application of concealing cosmetics would never be able to hide. 

The elf-woman’s nervousness was due to the fact that she was balancing on a ledge about half a pace in width, with her back to the palace wall, her arms spread along it, and her fingers clutching for purchase in the joints between the stones.  The position wasn’t doing her gown, her hairdo or her manicure any good.

“Fancy dress for a stroll along a precipice, princess,” the priestess chortled.  “I hope you’re not wearing heels under those hoops.”

“No, praise the...the White Fire,” Myaszæron replied, stumbling slightly and catching herself.  Bracing her back against the stone, she tugged on a corner of her gown and stuck out a toe.  She was wearing light slippers of green silk, with thin leather soles.  Socci.  There’s liable to be dancing tonight, and I didn’t want to risk turning an ankle.  I’m a little out of practice.”

“Good for the salta, but not so good for climbing the parapets, eh?” Bertanya asked.

“No,” the princess confirmed.  Her cheek twitched nervously.  “Will you please come off there?  I don’t like heights, and I want…I mean, I need to speak with you.”

The cat-woman nodded.  “Certainly, highness.”  Unfolding herself from her precarious seat with characteristically unconscious grace, Bertanya rose to her feet and leapt lightly back to the wall-side path.  The princess looked as though she were biting back a squeak.

Bertanya eyed the noblewoman with tolerant sympathy.  She didn’t understand height-fear.  None of her folk suffered from it; indeed, it seemed to be an affliction peculiar to the Kindred. 

In her normal humour, she would probably have gently mocked the princess, the vast difference in their social ranks notwithstanding.  Another advantage of being a daughter of the Prides was that, standing as she did outside of the rigid pecking order of elven society, she had no ego to sate, no aspirations or jealousies to feed, and – thanks to the Codex – no status to gain or lose.  Among her people, there was no such thing as rank; simple courtesy was enforced by fang and claw.  Leadership of the Pride was by acclamation, not inheritance.  And respect was owed only to those who achieved great victories, great fame, great skill, or great age. 

Or, she reminded herself with a wince, to females who regularly threw large litters of strong and healthy kits.  That route to glory wasn’t open to her yet.  Nor was it like to be, so long as the White Fire’s service kept her away from the Prides, and hundreds of leagues from any eligible mates.  She grimaced to herself.  That was going to be a problem, when early summer came and she found herself incalesco once again.

For some reason, though, tonight she stayed her jibes.  It wasn’t just the fact that the princess was a serious sort, who had a tendency to take japes to heart; there was something else in her demeanour.  Bertanya wondered whether her recent communion with the Lady had heightened her perspicacity and made her more receptive to the feelings of her fellows.  Or whether she was just imagining things.

Back at the wall, she took Myaszæron’s hand, steadying her.  “Nervous?”

“I don’t like heights,” the princess repeated.

The cat-woman nodded.  “Hold still a moment.”  Feeling the Lady’s power swelling within her, she ran a claw lightly down the woman’s arm.  Hutanibu mendengar,” she whispered, “berikan sentuhan wanita ini laba-laba memanjat.”

The princess shuddered for a moment.  Then she grinned.  “That wasn’t necessary,” she said.  “I prepared the kynaleta this morning.  If I’d fallen, I would’ve just cast that, and wafted away like a leaf on the wind.”

“Well, now you won’t have to worry about falling at all,” Bertanya replied placidly.  She felt powerful, confident, as if she could crush stones between her paws.  Wielding the Lady’s power always affected her physically, leaving a hot, heavy glow deep within her jiwa.

“You wasted a spell, is what I meant,” Myaszæron said.  She laid a hand against the stone wall and pulled, bemused when her skin seemed to freeze to the stone, coming away only when she willed it.

“There can be no waste when the Lady’s power is spent in her service,” the cat-woman replied.  “If I’ve eased your mind one jot, then I rejoice.”  She cocked her head.  “Pardon me, highness, but you said you wanted to speak to me.”

“I do,” Myaszæron replied, her nervousness flooding back.  Bertanya was certain that it had nothing to do with heights.  “I do.  But not…not as ‘highness’,” she said.  “Is there some place that we could talk?  Some place private?”

Bertanya glanced around, then turned her gaze back to the princess, eyebrows raised.  “More private than this?”

Myaszæron sighed.  “A little more comfortable, perhaps?  Where we wouldn’t have to cling to the cliff-side like a pair of mountain goats”

The cat-woman laughed and nodded.  “Follow me.”

Instead of returning northwards along the goat-path, she led the princess to the south, towards the sea.  The trail rose and dipped precipitously, following the contours of the palace wall.  Myaszæron, reassured by the effects of Bertanya’s spell, grew increasingly confident, running one hand along the close-laid stones and watching her footing carefully, but otherwise keeping up with the priestess.

They skirted two more towers and a dozen heavy buttresses before the cat-woman halted.  The light was failing fast now, although they both had the eyes to see the path easily by the light of the stars above and the city below.  When they reached a spot where a small patch of grass grew out from the wall, Bertanya halted.  “Have you ever been here?”


“I found it the last time we met, just before Jule.  I was looking for a place where I could touch kesatuan without being interrupted.  Notice anything?” she asked, nodding at the wall.

Myaszæron looked at the stone.  The path had dropped quite a distance, dipping down between two towers.  The parapet was a good twenty paces over their heads, and one of the towers – the southernmost one – was graced with an elaborate trio of jutting outworks.  “That’s Rykki’s – I mean the Duchess’ boudoir, isn’t it?”

Bertanya nodded.  “And the wall?”

“What about it?”

The cat-woman rapped the stone with her knuckles.  It gave off a hollow thud that sounded entirely unlike rock.

Myaszæron gaped.  “Wood?”

“Sally port,” the cat-woman replied.  “Don’t get your hopes up.  It doesn’t open from the outside.”

“With your spell, I could just climb over the wall,” the princess replied.  She put her hands against the rock and pulled herself off her feet by main force.  Her dress scraped over the rough stone, and she winced.  Then she thought about the long drop to the water, and shudderingly lowered herself to her feet.  “Well, maybe I could,” she amended.

“You can try that later, if you like,” Bertanya said.  She pointed away from the wall, towards the cliff.  “We’re going this way.  Watch yourself.”

And so saying, she strode to the edge, stepped off, and dropped like a stone.

This time, Myaszæron really did shriek.  She ran to the cliff, slowing as she approached the precipice, and glanced over it.

Bertanya smiled up at her.  The priestess was standing on a narrow stone ledge two paces below the lip.  From her new vantage, Myaszæron could see a long, narrow staircase snaking down the cliff-side.  “Escape route,” the cat-woman explained.  “Come on.”

The princess sighed.  She thought about sitting down and squirming over the edge, but realizing the damage it would do to her garb, she discarded the notion.  It took all of her considerable courage to step off the cliff and drop the six feet to the stone ledge.  She landed lightly, bending at the knees to absorb the impact.

Bertanya nodded approvingly and led the way down the stairs. 

It was easy in the starlight.  After perhaps a hundred steps and a dozen or so twists, turns, and switchbacks along the cliff face, the stone staircase debouched – to Myaszæron’s astonishment – onto a garden.

The overhanging cliff had been hollowed back, and the ledge before them broadened, leaving a platform that was perhaps five paces wide and fifteen long.  The path led between a forest of vines, flowers of all types and colours, and even a number of small trees clinging valiantly to the vertical stone wall.  At the other end of the ledge, the stairs continued downwards, descending towards the waters of the Gula.

“What do you think?” Bertanya asked, grinning.

“It’s beautiful!” the princess replied.  She stepped closer to the wall and ran a hand over the stone.  It was impossibly smooth.  “This was shaped, not cut.  Wasn’t it?”

The cat-woman nodded.  “Those, too,” she said, pointing at a pair of low benches that had obviously been drawn by magical power from the gut-rock of the cliff.

“By whom?”

“No idea,” Bertanya shrugged.  “But the Duke’s lifemate was an especially gifted caster.  Or so it’s said,” she added, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

Myaszæron nodded.  “We were at scholae together, as children.  In Starmeadow.  She was amazing.”  She ran her hand over the wall, remembering her friend.

“Also,” the priestess added thoughtfully, “Kalestayne used to live here.  So I suppose it might’ve been him.”

“No way to know,” the princess murmured.  “Not that it matters.  It’s lovely.”  She gazed out over the crevasse at her feet, enjoying the play of the starlight on the water, and the twinkling lights of the mansions just across the gorge.

“We might know who did it, if we could figure out where this goes,” Bertanya said ruefully, tapping the stone wall between the ‘benches’.

Myaszæron smiled.  “Another secret door?”

“Mm-hmm,” the priestess nodded.  “Stone this time.  No idea how to open it, though.” 

She gestured at the stone seats.  “These shouldn’t dirty that gown too badly.”  She brushed a few dead leaves from the surface, then sat down on one of them.  “What did you want to talk about, my lady?”

To her surprise, Myaszæron lifted her skirt and knelt carefully in the dirt.  When she had settled herself, she held her hands up, palm to palm, fingertips touching.  Veni in expiare, antistitae,” she whispered.

Bertanya blinked in astonishment.  It was a ritual request, and required a ritual response.  She put her hands over the princess’ – they were trembling, and she held them tightly to still the tremors – and replied, “For what do you have to atone, daughter of the White Fire?”

Myaszæron took a deep breath.  “I am…considering…relinquishing my vows,” she said haltingly.

The priestess struggled to keep the shock off her face.  This was not Bertanya’s area of expertise; when her Call had come, it had been as a warrior – a runner of the plains, a hunter, a Champion of Istravenya.  She was accustomed to leading the Pride in war, howling the White Lady’s fury at the top of her lungs, revelling in the blind rage of battle and the slaughter of the foes of the woodlands.  She was not a temple priestess, accustomed to offering counsel to those doubting their faith.  Certainly not to anyone as devoutly pure as the princess.

To her immense relief, however, her recent devotions had granted her an unaccustomed measure of spiritual tranquility.  This helped her to overcome the surprised shock that the elf-woman’s astonishing confession had aroused.  “You have no quarrel with our divine mistress, I hope?” she asked, hesitant in her confusion.

“No!” Myaszæron cried.  “No, no!  It’s not that.  I simply…I can no longer…”  She broke down then, sobbing heavily.

Bertanya would not have been more flabbergasted if the princess had suddenly transformed into an ogre.  Myaszæron was widely reputed to be one of the most formidable servants of the White Fire in all the realm.  “You’re going to spoil your makeup,” the cat-woman said inanely, regretting the words the moment they came out of her mouth.

To her relief, the incongruity of the remark made the princess chuckle.  “That’s the problem, isn’t it?  I mean, why am I even wearing makeup?  Why am I prancing about in this…this ridiculous dress?”  She grasped a handful of the priceless material and gave it a half-hearted shake.  “Decked out like a debutante at her limenis?”

The priestess knew that she had to tread carefully.  Sometimes, a penitent could heal themselves, if they could be led towards the answer.  There could be no driving this one.  “Why shouldn’t you be dressed like that?” she asked.

“Well, who am I trying to impress?” Myaszæron laughed.  Tears streaked tracks down her cheeks.  She looked around helplessly, realized that she had no sleeves, and used a corner of her train to wipe her eyes.  “I mean, I’m sworn to the Paragon, am I not?  I’ve never known a man’s touch, and I long ago avowed my chastity to Valatanna.  Do you think she would care about all this…all this nonsense?”  Her hands fluttered, indicating her elaborate garb, cosmetics and coiffure.

“I see your point,” Bertanya acknowledged.  “I tend to primp a little myself when the calor strikes and I’m on the prowl for likely mates.  Not that I’ve had much luck in that area,” she added with a wry grin.

“Maybe you should be wearing this, instead of me,” Myaszæron chuckled weakly.

“Doubtful.  The gold is nice, but all that green would clash with my fur.” 

She paused.  The same sense of heightened awareness still suffused her jiwa, and she could feel that the time for playful banter was over.  Time to touch the heart of the matter.  “It’s Kaltas, isn’t it?”

“It’s that obvious?” the princess asked ruefully.

“Not normally,” the priestess shrugged.  “I just seem to be noticing things tonight.  So…the vows you are weighing are those binding you to the Paragon, Valatanna?”

Myaszæron nodded miserably.

“You think to abandon Her, in hopes of espousing the Duke?”

Another nod.

Bertanya drew a breath through her teeth.  “You stand to gain a great deal,” she said slowly.  “A duchy, to be sure, although I would imagine that that’s less important to a princess of the Blood Royal than it might be to any other woman.  You would also gain the love of a good man.  A great man, if all I’ve heard about Kaltas is true.” 

She paused again, giving the princess time to chew over her words.  Then she continued.  “Have you considered what you would have to give up?”

“I’ve thought about little else,” Myaszæron murmured.  “For one thing, the wash of the world would not longer pass me by.  I would resume aging normally.  That’s not serious, not at my age, but it’s something.”

Bertanya raised an eyebrow.  “How old are you, anyway?”

“Eighteen-score years,” the princess replied moodily.  “And one, come Heitsommer.  Why?”

The priestess shrugged.  “Oh, I’m just wondering why I’m counselling you.  From the lofty heights of the wisdom I’ve gleaned over thirty-four summers.”  She smiled.  “Well, if you were to start showing your years, instead of eternally looking like a girl of seven-score turns of the seasons, I suppose your countrywomen would stop hating you like poison.”

“Or they’d find another reason to hate me,” Myaszæron chuckled without smiling.  “I’d lose this, too,” she added, twirling one of her waist-length, forest-green tresses between her fingers.  “It would go back to black.  At least, I think it would.”  She sighed.  “It’s not mortal, of course.  Hells, it wouldn’t even be an inconvenience.  But it…it would be a mark of shame.  A sign of my fall.  That I no longer stood in the Paragon’s favour.”

The priestess nodded.  “What else?”

“I would lose the power to speak with the denizens of the woodland, and to influence their conduct.  Also, I would no longer be able to walk with the shadows.”

Bertanya’s eyes narrowed.  She had no idea what ‘walk with the shadows’ meant.  The Beloved were a secretive lot, and she had never so much as heard of that power.  “Could you not make up these deficits,” she asked carefully, “through arcane means?  Or perhaps through your skill as a hunter?”

Myaszæron nodded.  “Possibly.  But it would not be the same.  The loss of these gifts…it would be…”

“… a mark of the withdrawal of the Paragon’s favour,” Bertanya interrupted.  “I understand.  Anything else?”

The princess hesitated.  At last, she whispered, “I would never see Syelission again.”

“Your divine companion,” the priestess nodded.  She had seen the animal, a magnificent unicorn stallion, in the forest a few nights earlier.  Even Bertanya felt a wrench at the thought that, if Myaszæron forsook her vows, he would disappear from her life forever.

The elf-woman nodded.  Tears began running down her face once more.

Bertanya sighed.  “Would he not understand?”

“That’s the worst part,” Myaszæron choked.  “I know he would.”  She took a deep, shuddering breath.  “Our jiwas are one, Tanya.  I’ve felt the pounding of his heart when he runs.  I’ve scented what he scents, when the females of his kind have approached him in heat.  He ignored their pleas to remain true to me! How can I fail to extend the same…loyalty…to him?”

She drew in a deep, shuddering breath.  “And yet, I know his heart, as well as I know my own.  And he knows mine.  He has felt what I feel for Kaltas.  He even approves!  If I betrayed him, he would forgive me at once, even knowing that we must part forever!  That’s what makes this so hard!”

The priestess put a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder.  She said nothing.

The elf-woman’s tears came hard and fast.  “What should I do?” she wailed.

“That is for you to decide.  As always, where matters of faith are concerned,” Bertanya said soothingly, “it comes down to choice. 

“That is the Holy Mother’s gift to your kind, Mya, and her curse.  She – and the Dark Ender along with her – made every other creature, angel and demon, dragon and giant, hawk above and serpent below, to follow their plan; but for your kind, there is no plan.  That was Bræa’s gamble – the act of madness that doomed her.  The future is set for all of us, but not for you.  There is no fate but what you make for yourselves.”

“I’ve heard all of this before,” the princess whispered.

“Of course you have,” Bertanya laughed.  “It’s my job to remind you that you know it.”  She took her friend’s hand again, pulled her off her knees, and helped her to the rocky bench.  “Nothing is set in stone, Mya.  Not yet, anyway.  If you choose to follow your vows, you will do so in strength and purpose, knowing that the choice was yours. 

“And if, instead, you choose to follow your heart, and pursue your mate…” she squeezed the elf-woman’s hand “…why, then, provided that you do so for love’s sake, I congratulate you, and bless you.  So will Syelission.  And so will Valatanna.  And so,” she added firmly, “will our divine mistress.”

“You’re sure about that,” Myaszæron murmured.

“As sure as I am,” Bertanya chuckled, “that you’re going to be late.  For what, I expect, could be the most important dinner of your life.”

Myaszæron smiled tentatively.  She nodded.

Bertanya looked at the elf-woman’s eyes.  “You’ve already decided!” she said accusingly.

“Nearly,” the princess admitted.

“Excellent.  Well, let’s get you back upstairs, and get that makeup repaired.”  Bertanya looked up at the walls, and at the long trek back up the goat path.  “This’ll be quite a hike,” she added morosely.

“I’ve an easier way,” the princess said.  “Let me show you this while…while I can still do it.”  She put out her hands.

Perplexed, Bertanya took them.  She watched in puzzlement as Myaszæron closed her eyes and adopted an aspect of fierce concentration. 

The world seemed to waver slightly, the night taking on a strange, grey, glimmering light.  She noticed, startled, that all of the scents of the world were gone.  The sea salt, the earth beneath them, the life and death of the trees and plants all about them, the heavy scent of the elf-woman’s longing, the smoke from the chimneys far below…all vanished.  She smelled nothing.  Not even herself.

A moment later, Myaszæron opened her eyes.  That’s it,” she said.  Her voice sounded oddly hollow.  Let’s go.”

Go?” Bertanya asked, alarmed.  Go where?”

Grinning, Myaszæron tugged the cat-woman towards the stone wall between the benches.  Here,” she said.

And stepped into the stone.

Bertanya stared, aghast, at the hand protruding from the solid rock face, still clutching her own.  Wait…wait a min…” she gabbled.

Myaszæron yanked her into the wall.

The sensation was nothing sort of extraordinary.  Bertanya opened her mouth, gasping in terror as every particle of her body seemed to slip between the individual particles of the mountain gutrock.  Before her startled gaze, the world turned grey and glimmering.  She was seeing, she realized, the inside of the stone…and worse, the stone was inside her as well.  Inside her guts, her loins, her lungs, her mouth…

...her eyes!...

She screwed her eyelids tightly shut, drew a deep breath, and screamed.

Shhh!”  A finger pressed against her lips.  The priestess stopped screaming and cracked one eyelid.

Before her, coloured in all possible shades of grey and limned by a sparkling, silver-white aura, stood Myaszæron.  People can still hear us!” she said.  Her voice still sounded disembodied, hollow.

Hear us?  How?” Bertanya squeaked.  We’re inside a rock!”  She glanced around frantically.  How are you doing this?!”

It’s not earthwalking, if that’s what you’re wondering,” the princess replied, gripping her friend’s hand tightly.  This is intermundia.  The space between the worlds.  Aetherius, as the magi call it.  This is where the spirits walk.”

That’s…how mighty are you?” the priestess demanded, twitching nervously.  That spell is…is so far beyond my power, that…that…”

She paused, breathing deeply and visibly struggling to calm herself.  Can we get out of here? Please?” she pleaded, trembling.

Surely!” Myaszæron replied.  She stepped backwards, tugging the quivering cat-woman after her.

To Bertanya’s infinite relief, they emerged from the stone into a low tunnel with an arched roof.  To her surprise, it was lit by a single torch burning in an iron sconce.  Behind them lay the stone door that led to the garden ledge.  Beyond the torch, narrow stairs led upwards.

Better?” the princess asked.


Myaszæron’s cheek twitched.  You didn’t seem to enjoy that very much.”

My people are folk of the plains,” Bertanya replied, still trembling.  I get nervous in forests.  When it comes to small spaces, I feel the same way you feel about cliffs!

The princess looked contrite.  I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”

No harm done,” the priestess said weakly.  Could you please dismiss the spell now?”

The princess nodded.  “Done.”

Bertanya blinked, baffled.  “Then why can’t I smell smoke?” she asked, nodding at the torch.

Before the priestess could react or even yell, the princess inserted a finger into the fire flaring from the wood.  “Another spell,” she said matter-of-factly.  “One of the benefits of attending the College; you learn to recognize this sort of thing.”  She nodded at the stairs.  “Let’s go see where these come out.”

The priestess put her hands on the walls, reassuring herself that she wasn’t about to sink through them.  To her infinite relief, they felt hard, cold and damp.  “With any luck,” she replied, “it’ll be in the Duchess’ suite.  You’ll be able to repair your ensemble before joining the party.”

Myaszæron grinned sourly and made a peculiar gesture with one hand.  Before Bertanya’s eyes, the earth-stains, twigs and dead leaves disappeared from her gown, her hair corrected itself, and even her makeup returned to normal.

“Well,” the priestess remarked blandly, “that’s certainly handy.”

“Oh, aye,” Myaszæron snorted.  “If I end up spreading for the Duke, I’ll lose my divine authority, but at least I’ll be able to keep myself looking fetching for him!”  Gathering her skirts, she turned and stomped up the stairs.  Or at least, she tried to stomp; the soft-soled slippers lessened the ferocity of the gesture somewhat.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Bertanya snapped.

The princess turned and looked down at her friend, astonished.  “What was that?”

“Do you love him?” the priestess asked bluntly.

Myaszæron looked rebellious for a moment.  Then she sighed.  “Yes.”

“Then drop the self-contempt, and show some courage,” Bertanya growled. “Stop moping about like an addled schoolgirl and make a choice.  Angst gives me mange.”  She made a show of brushing at her fur.

The princess’ eyes widened in outrage.  Then she laughed, as much at herself as at anything else.  “I wish you were coming tonight,” she said.  “I could use your support.”

“You have it, Mya,” the cat-woman replied somberly.  “But I won’t be there.  My folk don’t celebrate the dead.  The departed have already gone to wind.  I’d like to howl for the four you honour tonight, but I have no right.  I didn’t know them.”

“I didn’t either, except for Rykki,” Myaszæron murmured.  “I counted her a friend.  I suppose I’ll do what I can to help Kaltas remember her, and honour her.  And then…” she sighed heavily.

“ ‘And then’, what?” Bertanya asked.

“And then,” the princess grimaced, “I’m going to do my level best to steal her lifemate’s heart away.  If I can.”  She turned and started up the stairs.

“Your friend is gone, Mya,” the priestess said gently, following after her friend.  “How is it a betrayal, if you love the man she loved, and would spend the rest of your days trying to make him happy again?  If Alrykkian’s jiwa still sees us from kesatuan, how could she fault you for bringing a measure of light and hope back into her beloved’s life? 

“And anyway,” she added firmly, “hearts cannot be stolen.  They can only be given.  In the end, the choice is not yours, but his.”

“I hope you’re right,” the elf-woman sighed as they climbed back up to the palace.  “I really, really do.”


Hinc mihi fletus abundat,
Hinc fletus inundat.
Est mihi pallor in ore,
Est, quia fallor amore![1]

            Alycidio cleared his throat ostentatiously, shooting a surreptitious glance around the battlement to see whether anyone was listening.  To his immense disappointment, even the sentries seemed to have disappeared.  A glance skyward suggested the reason; the lowering clouds were scurrying southwards again, and the air smelt like rain. 

Nervous lest an errant drop streak chalk and kohl of his stage makeup or sully the immaculate glory of his gold-frogged doublet of scarlet silk, he held out a palm.  Nothing yet.  Praise Myran, he thought. 

And Hara, and Larranel and Miros, he added automatically an instant later.  One couldn’t be too careful when invoking the Powers before a performance.  Only a fool risked spoiling the ship for a groat’s-worth of tar.

Heaving a great sigh, the Master Harper of Eldisle loosened the lamb’s-wool scarf that he had bound around his throat to protect it from the night breeze.  Inflating his lungs like a bellows and clasping his hands before his breast, he launched into another piece:

Si puer cum puellula
moraretur in cellula,

            The door of the watchtower nearby crashed open with tremendous force, banging into the nearest merlon.  Splinters flew.  Lallakentan, his face flaming, stormed through the portal.  “By the bloody balls of Bardan,” he thundered, “if you lot don’t shut…”

            The minstrel regarded the interloper with a bemused frown.

“Oh,” the arms-master said.  He glanced around, looking dreadfully embarrassed.  “Magister.  My apologies.  I thought that…er, that the guards were…were…”

“Singing wonderfully, and with legendary style and élan?” Alycidio drawled. 

Lallakentan nodded.  “Er, yes.”  Unconsciously, like a child about to receive a reprimand, he tugged at the lower hem of his court tunic with one hand, and straightened the light belt holding his pugio with the other.  He felt like an idiot, and felt like an idiot for feeling like an idiot.  He had a good four centuries on the man!

The Master Harper smiled without warmth.  “I congratulate you, centurio.  You must have a remarkably talented garrison if you could so easily mistake my inarticulate gruntings for the dulcet warbles of your covey of bloody-fisted pike-pushers.” 

He crossed his arms, the silver bells on his cuffs tinkling lightly.  “If they’re really that good, perhaps I should engage them cum chora for my upcoming tour of the Ekhani metropoli.  You as well.  I take it from your bellowing that your preferred voice is falsetto castratum?”

The arms-master had not managed to survive ten centuries in high elven society by arguing with minstrels – especially well-known and notoriously touchy ones.  “Sincerest apologies, magister.  I did not mean either to interrupt, or to offend.”  He executed a perfunctory bow.  “With your permission, I’ll withdraw.”

“Denied,” the singer said airily.

Lallakentan had already turned toward the door.  He spun slowly on his heel. “Pardon?”

“You may not withdraw.”  Alycidio strode over to the parapet and tapped the stone with an exquisitely-manicured fingernail.  “Keep me company, captain. Just for a while.”

The old warrior frowned.  Gods, he hated bards.  And he hated formal balls.  He was painfully aware that his finery was worn and ill-fitting.  He’d hoped to be able to arrive at the Dapis early enough to avoid the receiving line.  With any luck, he could be cross-eyed-drunk by the time the obligatory dancing began.

Lallakentan also knew, however, that the Master Harper was more than capable of transforming any social indiscretion or faux pas, no matter how minor, into a devastating ballad.  Alycidio was rumoured to be particularly cutting when exposing the airs and foibles of the nobility.  Kaltas would not thank him for giving the bard an excuse to pen a biting satire about Joyous Light to sing during the Master’s next tour of the capital.

He shook himself.  The bard was watching him oddly, expectantly.  With a mental sigh, Lallakentan strode over to the parapet and stood awkwardly before the singer.

The skald immediately extended a hand.  “Alycidio of Sinucernus.”

Lallakentan laughed abruptly.  “I know who you are, magister.  The whole city knows.  The whole realm knows!”

“How nice of you to say so,” the bard replied pleasantly enough.  “And you are Lallakentan of Lux Lætificus, arms-master to his Excellency Duke Kaltas Æquitatis.”  He grasped the old soldier’s knobby hand and gave it a firm shake.  Delectatio salus.”

Sentio idem,” Lallakentan replied automatically.  “Er…”

“How do I know you, when we’ve never before met?” Alycidio said.  “Is that what you were going to ask?”

The warrior nodded.  There didn’t seem to be any point in speaking; evidently the skald was a mind-reader.

“Your elegia,” the minstrel replied.  “At this morning’s service.  My folk were among the throng, and they memorized your words, and repeated them back to me.  May I say, well done.  Particularly your thinly-disguised assault on...certain houses.”  He slapped Lallakentan on the back.  “You’ve a sound grasp of rhetoric and the art of the declamatio.  For an untutored layman, that is.”

            The old soldier blinked.  “Thank you,” he said hesitantly.  “I think.”

            “You’re welcome,” the bard replied, all seriousness.  He nodded towards the east, where only the barest hints of colour burnished the horizon.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

            “It is.”  Lallakentan waited a long moment, then continued.  “Excuse me, magister, but…what can I do for you?”

            “You could answer me some questions,” the harper replied easily, “if you’ve a mind.  And a few moments to spare.”

He turned to face the warrior.  Lallakentan was struck by the penetrating intelligence behind the younger man’s emerald stare.  “Ask away,” the arms-master shrugged.

            “How is your good lord, the Duke?”

            Lallakentan frowned.  “He was well when I saw him an hour or so ago.  Why?”

            Alycidio snorted.  “I didn’t mean his health, I meant his spirit.  He had a difficult morning.  You all did.  What I meant was, how is his humour?  I need to know so I can decide what to sing tonight.  And more importantly, what not to sing.”

            The warrior frowned, nodding.  That made sense.  “He’s tired.  And he’s alone, or nearly.  His lifemate and younger daughter are dead, and his oldest friend along with them.  And he also lost his chaplain, and therefore the comfort of a fellow priest of the Protector.  How would you be?” he snorted.  “Apart from Jianni, the closest thing he’s got to a companion right now is a royal princess who’s supposed to be his jailer.  You want the truth?  He’s barely staving off despair.”

            To Lallakentan’s surprise, Alycidio nodded.  “Would you say that he’s managed to move past his grief, and on to remembrance?”

            “How should I know?” Lallakentan huffed, eyebrows crawling up his forehead. “And why does that matter?”

            “It matters a great deal,” the bard sighed.  “I know a hundred-score songs and more.  If I knew his mood, I could tailor my – our – delivery to remind him of joy he took, and can still take, in the departed, without reminding him of his pain.  Can you tell me, pray - is he fixed on his loss right now, or on the fickle vicissitudes of fate?”

            “What?” the warrior asked, perplexed.

            Alycidio rolled his eyes.  “How would he react to this?
Fortune plango vulnera
stillantibus ocellis
quod sua michi munera
subtrahit rebellis.
In Fortune solio
sederam elatus,
prosperitatis vario
flore coronatus;
quicquid enim florui
felix et beatus,
nunc a summo corrui
gloria privatus.[3]

            Lallakentan listened, mesmerized.  The fellow truly had a wondrous voice.  Then he realized that the singing had stopped, and he shook himself.  “Er…badly, I would think.”


            “Well,” the warrior replied, cudgelling his brain and trying to force it to function, “it’s not just the deaths or the funeral.  He’s still under proscription.  ‘She’, ‘throned’, ‘crowned’, ‘deprived of glory’…that song might make him think less of his wife and daughter, and more of the Queen’s judgement against his house, her interdiction of Eldisle.”

            “Excellent!”  To his astonishment, the bard slapped him on the back again.  “See?” Alycidio crowed.  “This is why I always ask first. 

“Well enough,” he continued, tapping a finger against his chin.  “He’s angry, then.  How about this?

Feror ego veluti
sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris
vaga fertur avis;
non me tenent vincula,
non me tenet clavis,
quero mihi similes
et adiungor pravis.[4]

            Lallakentan thought about that one.  “Better,” he said at length, “but still a little risky.  Remember, one of the charges against Ally was treason.  Those last few lines – ‘looking for people like me, and joining the wretches’ – that sounds as though his rage and despair might make him consider joining the Queen’s enemies.”

            “The Queen has enemies?” Alycidio said, all innocence.

            Lallakentan regarded the man stonily.  “If she did,” he said coldly, “the Duke would slay them before joining them.  His loyalty is beyond suspicion.”

            “Very well,” the bard sighed.  “Let’s try another tack.  Did he love his lifemate?”

            “More than you could possibly imagine,” Lallakentan replied firmly.

            “Good.  How about this, then?

Pulchra tibi facies
oculorum acies,
capillorum series,
o quam clara species!
Rosa rubicundior,
lilio candidior
omnibus formosior,
semper in te glorior![5]

            “Much better!” the warrior nodded.  “Yes, that’ll do.  Not just for the Duke, but for all of us.  We all loved Rykki.  But…”

            Alycidio’s eyebrows rose.  “But, what?”

            “Is it appropriate for the feralis?”

            “The feast of the dead,” the bard replied stiffly, “can be about rejoicing in those to whom we say farewell.  It needn’t be all hand-wringing and tears.”

            “Well then…” the warrior shrugged.  “It’s fine, I suppose.”

            “I thank you.”  The bard paused for a moment, looking thoughtful.  “Having acknowledged that she was widely admired, perhaps you can advise me on matters of a…more delicate nature.”

            Lallakentan shrugged.  “Say on.”

            “Under the circumstances,” Alycidio said carefully, “I’d thought to avoid specific mention of the Duke’s daughter.”

            “You mean the charges against her,” the old soldier replied.  “I know.  That’s probably…”

            The skald was shaking his head.  “Not that.  I meant the tales concerning her…ah…parentage.”

            Lallakentan’s fingers curled around the hilt of his pugio.  “What tales?” he asked, deadly calm.

            Alycidio eyed the weapon, the warrior’s stance, and his chill, implacable gaze.  “Evidently,” he said with a narrow smile, “my initial impulse was correct.  I shall avoid any such topic or tune.”  He raised his eyebrows inquiringly.  “Is there aught I could sing to honour her?  Perhaps this?

Ave formosissima,
gemma pretiosa,
ave decus virginum,
virgo gloriosa,
ave mundi luminar,
ave mundi rosa.[6]

            Lallakentan flushed.  “I don’t know,” he said, grimacing.  “It sounds all right.  But I’m not sure you want to remind that Duke that his youngest daughter died a maid.”

            “She did?” Alycidio asked, surprised.  “Because according to the way I heard it –”

            “Stop right there,” the old soldier snarled, “unless you want to try singing soprano out of a hole in your weasand.”

He didn’t notice that his dagger had come out, seemingly of its own accord.  The bard, however, did notice.  “Very well,” Alycidio said calmly.  “Is there anything you might suggest?”

            The warrior racked his brain.  “What about the Lugeo?” he said at last.

            The bard’s nose wrinkled.  “You are referring to Lugeo Fineleorum, I presume?  Is that really the sort of message the Duke would wish to convey?”

            “Why not?” Lallakentan said pugnaciously.  “It’s about a warrior who ignored the condemnation of the crown, and sacrificed everything – his life, and his lifemate’s – to defend the realm.”  He hawked and spat.  “Under the circumstances, I can’t think of anything more appropriate.”

            A cold smile spread across Alcydio’s lips.  “An excellent notion.  I could honour the Duke, and Alrykkian, their daughter, and his friend – even young Alorestes! – all while pointing up the folly and lethargy of their alleged betters.”  He grinned at Lallakentan.  “You have a mischievous spirit, my friend.”

            “I intended no mischief,” the warrior snapped.

“Of course not.”  The bard’s fingers tapped nervously on the stone.  “If I’m to sing the Lugeo,” he mused, “I’ll need a martial drummer who can maintain a beat.  Preferably two.  I only brought the tambours.”  He glanced over at the warrior.  “I don’t suppose…?”

“I’ll detail a couple of lads from the garrison band,” Lallakentan growled.  “They’re not skalds, but they’re quick enough, they’ll bring their own drums, and they can follow orders.  Anything else?”

Alycidio’s eyes twinkled.  “I could use another baritone.  How’s your voice?”

The old soldier frowned.  “Suited to the parade ground, perhaps.  But nowhere else.”

“Well, then, no, I suppose that is all,” Alycidio mused distantly.  “I thank you.  You may withdraw.

“Now…for the dancing…”  Clasping his hands behind his back, the Master Harper of Eldisle wandered off along the parapet, humming a series of light, harmonious tunes to himself.

Muttering angrily under his breath, Lallakentan stomped back down the tower stairs toward his quarters.  He had to change out of his boots and don the dreaded socci.  Tradition forbade any elf of the Third House – especially any warrior – from remaining seated while the Lugeo was danced.  And if he was standing, then some merchant’s spotty wife or tubby daughter was almost certainly going to drag him out onto the boards.

            Gods, how he hated formal balls.


[1] Hence my tears are abundant / Hence my tears are flowing. / My face is pale / Because of love’s disappointment.

[2] If a boy with a girl / tarries in a little room / happy is their –
[3] I bemoan the wounds of Fortune / with weeping eyes, / for the gifts she made me / she perversely takes away. / On Fortune’s throne / I used to sit raised up, / crowned with / the many-coloured flowers of prosperity; / though I may have flourished / happy and blessed, / now I fall from the peak / deprived of glory.
[4] I am carried along / like a ship without a steersman, / and in the paths of the air / like a light, hovering  / bird; / chains cannot hold me, / keys cannot imprison me, / I look for people like me / and join the wretches.
[5] Beautiful is your face, / the gleam of your eye, / your braided hair, / what a glorious creature! / redder than the rose, / whiter than the lily, / lovelier than all others, / I shall always glory in you!
[6] Hail, most beautiful one, / precious jewel, / Hail, pride among virgins, / glorious virgin, / Hail, light of the world, / Hail, rose of the world.