“Off to dinner, girls?” Janis said cheerily as she puttered about Clarke Tower’s sitting room, applying a feather duster to the furniture. “Remember, just let me know if you ever want to eat in. Not that the cafeteria food isn’t just wonderful, but we’ve a fully-stocked kitchen here, and sometimes a lady doesn’t feel up to facing the crowds. You know how it is.”
Shaeine and Juniper had just entered the room from the stairs; Teal sat on the couch, strumming a soft melody on her guitar. She looked up and grinned without pausing.
“Pertaining to that,” said Shaeine, “I have a favor to ask. Has anyone seen Trissiny or Zaruda?”
“Not since we got back,” replied Teal, still playing. “If they’re both up in their room…well, we maybe should go break up whatever’s going on, but I’m not so sure it’d be safe to.”
“Tut, tut, those girls just need a bit of time to get used to each other,” Janis scolded gently. “Mind your head, duckie, let me just get the back of the couch.”
“I see.” Shaeine folded her hands together, causing them to vanish in the wide cuffs of her sleeves. “I need to visit the scrolltower office in Last Rock and dispatch a message to Tar’naris. I would greatly appreciate a human escort, if such is available. The more open-minded of Imperial citizens, I find, react to my race with mere suspicion. I will be glad to pay for a dinner in town, as thanks.”
“Oh!” Juniper bit her lower lip. “Oh, that actually sounds like a lot of fun, but I’ve already made plans this evening. I promised Mrs. Oak I’d be back at the dining hall for dinner, and then I have a date.”
“Already?” Janis tittered. “But I shouldn’t be surprised, you’re such a lovely little thing. Just be careful, dear, a lady must mind her reputation.”
“I’ll come along,” said Teal, her melody easing to a stop. “Mind if I bring my guitar? I’ve been wanting to have a go at playing the local taverns anyway; my parents never let me do it back home.”
“I should be very grateful of the company,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “And I never object to music.”
“That’s what I like to hear!” Grinning, Teal gently laid the guitar in the case at her feet and snapped it shut, then slung it over her shoulder as she stood. “I’m good to go whenever you are.”
“I would not dream of making you wait. Shall we?”
Juniper watched, her head tilted inquisitively, till the girls had shut the door behind them, then turned back to Janis. “What about my reputation?”
“Hold up. Can we stop a minute?”
Teal sank to the ground, sitting on the lower step of the great marble staircase with the main street of Last Rock opening before her, and placed the guitar case across her knees. She leaned on it with both elbows, panting. Shaeine stood silently nearby, only the faint shine of her eyes visible from within her hood.
“In Tiraas I once got to visit Thomas Esdel’s factory. He’s got this thing, called an escalating staircase. Basically the steps just sort of flow upward like a backwards river; no walking required. I think it’s powered by an elemental turning a wheel.” She lifted her head and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. “I’m gonna suggest Tellwyrn put one of those in here.”
“It was my supposition that Professor Tellwyrn arranged this approach to her University specifically to discourage easy access,” Shaeine replied. “Such would befit someone of her reputation.”
“Ugh…I swear I’m not out of shape. There just aren’t any mountains to climb where I’m from.”
“In my home, level surfaces are scarce and not found on a single, convenient plane. We build where building is possible. Stairs are a fact of life to which I am, I think, more accustomed than most of our classmates.”
“I bet Clarke Tower is downright homey to you, then.”
“Its interior, yes, in some ways. I am only able to sleep by cultivating deep denial of what lies outside its walls.”
Teal chuckled, then heaved herself back to her feet with a grunt. “Well, that’s not just you. I mean, who builds a floating tower? Honestly.”
“Wizards who are jerks.”
“Or merely ostentatious.”
They attracted some long looks from the townsfolk as they passed into the town proper, but no overt hostility. The citizens of Last Rock were doubtless used to unusual types, living in the literal shadow of the University; several offered polite greetings in passing, which Teal returned cheerily and Shaeine with a formal bow.
“Teal, I wish to ask what may be a personal question, but I desire not to offend. I do not yet understand the limits of acceptable conversation in Imperial society.”
“Ask away,” she replied lightly. “I reserve the right not to answer, but I won’t be offended by curiosity.”
Shaeine’s nod was a barely perceptible shuffle of her cowl. “In the dining hall, I heard two upperclassmen express fascination that a Falconer is in attendance this year. Are you of the nobility?”
“I…ehhh. Not as such.” She made a wry face. “That is, a pedigreed aristocrat would be offended at the suggestion, but…partly because my family are richer than most of them.”
“I see. Please forgive my impertinence.”
“Shaeine, it’s fine. If you tread on my privacy I’ll tell you, but questions aren’t a bother. That’s how people get to know each other, after all.”
“I will keep it in mind.”
They walked in silence, occasionally nodding to locals. Last Rock was surprisingly busy, considering the hour; the sky was streaked with crimson shadows, the sun having long since vanished behind the mountain.
“Not very convenient of ’em to build the scrolltower office at the outer edge of town.”
“Inconvenient for University residents, perhaps, but not for the sake of commerce. It is, after all, adjacent to the Rail platform.”
“I can hardly imagine anyone coming here just to send a telescroll,” Teal grumbled. “Students and faculty probably give them more business than anybody stumbling off a caravan.”
“Perhaps they take satisfaction in making us walk.”
“I just bet they do. First Tellwyrn with her bloody staircase and then all these…fine people.” She glanced around warily; nobody appeared to be close enough to listen in. “You know, we should visit town more often. It’s rare I can walk among the proletariat and not be the center of suspicious attention.”
“Honored to be of service,” Shaeine said dryly. “Though, with respect, I would assume that your manner of dress did not signal an aversion to attention.”
Teal kicked a pebble out of her way. “It’s…maybe not so prudent. I suppose I’ll have to up and grow out of it one of these days. I just…gah. It got to where I felt like I’d explode if I couldn’t just be me and not what’s expected of me. You know?”
“I confess that I don’t. In Tar’naris, expectations are a fact of life, and the consequences for flouting them are not merely social.”
“…you must think I’m pretty shallow.”
“Not in the least. I think your concerns reflect the world in which you live, and are shaped by pressures wholly alien to me.” She turned her cowled head to look at Teal directly. “I am accustomed to the demands of a society with rigid gender roles; sometimes I think that integrating into a culture that lacked them would be easier than adapting to one whose roles are so utterly different.”
“There is no word for ‘patriarchy’ in my language. Explaining the concept would incite either derision or violence, depending on circumstance. I am…given to understand that Imperial society is not accepting of persons attracted to their own gender.”
“Not especially, no.” Teal sighed heavily.
“If the subject bothers you, of course I will not press.”
“No, no…really, if anything it’s nice to talk with someone who’s not just…tolerating me. I guess elves are okay with…with that?”
Shaeine cocked her head to one side. “Orientation is a human concept. Among elves, both surface and subterranean, refusing sexual contact with an entire gender is considered a sign of mental illness.”
“…wow. I guess I might not fit in so well in Tar’naris after all.”
“On the contrary. You might not be welcomed among a plains or forest tribe, but my people have a more lenient view of the mind. Any condition which does not inhibit an individual’s ability to contribute is considered a personality trait, not a problem. Drow do not waste resources.”
“So…really? By that standard, elves would consider almost all humans crazy.”
“Oh, we do.”
Teal’s laughter was loud and bright; Shaeine smiled at her in return.
The scrolltower was impossible not to find; it was the tallest thing short of the mountain in the region, and in any case the road led almost directly to it. Last Rock’s tower was an unpretentious pillar of metal scaffolding topped by the great crystal orb, which flickered dimly in the twilight as information passed through it. There was apparently little for Last Rock to transmit, and at present it served simply as a waypoint for messages flying across the Empire.
Teal pulled the door open and held it for Shaeine, bowing grandly; she received a nod and a smile in return.
Inside, the office more resembled stereotypical frontier sensibilities than did most of Last Rock. The interior walls were paneled with wood and decorated with maps and a few hunting trophies. Mounted heads of bear, elk, unicorn and some kind of enormous cat glared down at them, and a single preserved dragon wing was stretched across one entire wall. Benches were upholstered in patched red leather in a style that had been popular in Imperial offices twenty years ago, and the wall sconces pulsed and flickered, clearly the original prototype fairy lights rather than the steadier modern variety.
“Well, hey there! Y’all are just in time, I was about to close up. C’mon in, let’s see what we can do for you.” Behind the counter opposite the door grinned an old man with bristly white sideburns, and the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial officer pinned to his flannel shirt. Over his shoulder they could just see the pale blue glow of arcane magic at work.
“Good evening,” Shaeine replied, gliding toward him with Teal strolling along behind. “I apologize for the late hour. I must dispatch a message to the Narisian consulate at Fort Vaspian.” She produced a neatly folded sheaf of parchment from within her robe and placed it on the counter.
“Vaspian, that’s right over by the path to the Underworld…message to Tar’naris, then? Well, of course, just listen to me babble.” He laughed as he opened the paper. “’Course to Tar’naris, not likely you’d be writin’ to Svenheim. Sure thing, little lady, comin’ right up! Oh, this is a diplomatic code. That’s a priority, then. Not that there’s any waitin’. Lessee…”
He turned his back and stepped two feet to the machinery that formed the base of the scrolltower; Teal and Shaeine both stepped up against the counter, craning their necks to watch. Off to one side was an enormous scroll of paper, with a pen hovering over it attached to a metal arm. Atop this assembly sat the tiny globe of a fairy light, no doubt an indicator, currently dark. The operator went to a station next to it, where his body blocked their view, but shifting patterns of blue light limned him as he fed Shaeine’s message into the device.
“Folks came up from Tiraas ’bout four years ago to put this here girl in,” he said amiably as he worked. “Used to be, us scrollmasters were a trained an’ disciplined corps! Had to know our geography and the numeric code the towers use to transmit. Nowadays, it’s a scrying apparatus does it, reads the message an’ parses it out into code an’ all. She’s even smart enough to interpret your transmission code. Ain’t that a hell of a thing? They got enchantments smarter’n people now. Soon enough a monkey’ll be able to do this job.”
He turned back to face them with a smile; behind, the tray in which he’d placed the letter continued to gleam, casting a shifting pattern of light on the walls like the reflection of moonlight on water. “Now, it’ll take ‘er just a minute or two to percolate. I still got the old-style interface for when things get busy; these ol’ fingers are still nimble enough to get the job done faster’n any machine! Oh, ‘scuze my manners, I get used to knowin’ everybody in this town. Silas Crete, Imperial scrollmaster, fer whatever that’s still worth.”
They introduced themselves, Shaeine with a formal bow, to the grinning scrollmaster. “Pleasure to meet new faces. Y’all just started up at the school? Pretty sure I ain’t seen ya in town before.”
“We did,” Shaeine replied.
“Well, missy, it’s good to see you. Some folks are all het up about how fast things’re changin’, but I don’t hold with that kinda backward thinkin’. Ol’ Silas remembers when we used to have troops at the entrance to Tar’naris all the time. Big ol’ waste, y’ask me. Damn good thing to see people getting’ along. That’s progress I kin get behind!” He turned to glance at the reader, which was still working. “Hmf, damn thing takes forever, but they want me to use ‘er unless it’s too busy. Pencil jockeys in Tiraas, no idea how things work in a real office… Say, missy, if it ain’t an imposition, I wonder if you could settle an argument.”
Shaeine tilted her head curiously. “I will be glad to help if I can.”
“Me an’ my nephew—he was in the army, used to be stationed at Vaspian, ‘course this was after the treaty—me an’ my nephew Jonas have a disagreement ’bout drow customs. He keeps tryin’ to feed me this line about how drow women kill their men after they, y’know…get with the business of makin’ the next generation. That ain’t so, is it?”
For the first time since Teal had met her, Shaeine seemed taken aback. “That…would be a recipe for population collapse. No, that is not our custom. A matriarchial culture does not presuppose institutional hostility toward males.”
“Haw! Exactly what I told ‘im, miss, exactly what I told ‘im. That’s just beautiful, finally I get to shut the little punk up. You just made my week!”
“Happy to be of service,” Shaeine said carefully. Teal bit down on both her lips, concentrating on restraining her laughter.
“Oop, there she goes! Message sent, no problems, and you’re all set.” He retrieved the letter, refolded it and handed it back to Shaeine. “Anything else, little lady?”
“That is all I require at present, thank you. What do I owe you?”
He waved her off. “Don’t you worry about that, darlin’, it’s on ol’ Silas this time. Jes’ my way of sayin’, welcome to the Empire! I surely do hope you enjoy your stay.”
“You are extremely kind, sir,” she said, bowing again.
“Say,” Teal chimed in, “can you recommend a place in town where we can get some dinner?”
“Well, the Ale an’ Wenches does a lotta good business, it’s pretty popular with the students. You can see it right outside the door, other side of the Rail platform.”
“Mm, right, I heard about that one up at campus,” she said, nodding slowly. “How about…anyplace a little quieter, maybe?”
Silas grinned broadly at her. “Not much for carousin’? Well, that’s a good thing to hear, ma’am. Not sayin’ all the University kids are loud an’ destructive, a’course. It really don’t need to be said.” His laugh was a tenor bark like a seal’s. “Well, remember my nephew Jonas? He’s a little numbnut sometimes, but a good kid. Runs the town saloon, keeps it quieter than the A&W an’ they got pretty good food.”
“You can get there easy enough, ain’t nothin’ hard to find in this town. Up the main street toward the mountain, hang a left just past the barber shop, head down a few doors an’ it’ll be on your right. Can’t miss it, the sign says Saloon and hangs over the dang street, too low for a horse to walk under.”
“Thank you again,” Shaeine said with another bow.
The sun had set while they were in the scrolltower office. Back on the street, Shaeine left her hood down, and though most of the townsolk had cleared out indoors, those who remained frequently stopped and stared, now. With the Narisian treaty barely ten years old, drow weren’t a common sight anywhere in the Empire, and their reputation as enemies of anyone who dwelt in the sunlight was millennia old. Shaeine greeted anyone who gave her a look with a bow and one of her polite half-smiles, and nobody challenged them, but even so, Teal stayed close. Last Rock might be an open-minded place for a frontier town, but one never knew.
“I confess to a measure of excitement at this prospect,” said Shaeine, sounding no more excited than usual. “The ‘saloon’ is a fixture of our popular fiction about the Imperial frontier. I had hoped to visit one at least once during my stay on the surface.”
“Really, you guys have popular fiction about the Empire?”
“Have you never encountered popular fiction about drow?”
Teal winced. “I, uh…actually own a couple of novels. I figured they weren’t very accurate…”
“Those I have seen tended to be quite erotic.”
By this point, Teal’s face was burning. “I’ve…heard that.”
“Well, that is both an amusing irony and a basic fairness. Humans are often sexualized in my culture as well.”
“Our standards of beauty emphasize that which differentiates us from our paler surface cousins,” Shaeine went on serenely, “including muscularity and curvaceousness. Humans are more prone to both than even we. There are other cultural factors at play, especially the universal allure of the exotic. It’s a fascinating topic; I will perhaps write a paper on it during my tenure at the University.”
“I think I’d like to read that,” Teal sad wonderingly.
Everything was exactly where old Silas had said it would be. The Ale & Wenches cast a glow of golden light and a babble of happy voices across the square fronting the Rail platform, but they went nowhere near it. Finding the saloon was simple enough, following his directions. Just approaching it they could tell it suited Teal’s request for a quieter venue, though the cheerful sound of a slightly off-tune piano trickled out from the swinging wooden doors. This time, Shaeine went in first, pushing the doors wide, and stepped to one side once within to admit Teal.
It was a clean and well-lit space, its furnishings slightly shabby but clearly cared for. The décor reflected the same sensibilities as the scrolltower office had, with mounted animal heads on the wall and a full-sized stuffed bear rearing in one corner opposite the piano. The patrons filled the room with a cheerful but muted babble, which faded upon Shaeine’s entrance as they turned to stare at her.
The two students found a table near the wall, by the bear, and slid into seats; already the murmur of conversation began to pick back up. A slender figure dodged nimbly around tables and patrons, sliding to a stop beside them.
“Hi there, ladies. What’ll it be?”
Teal had to force herself not to stare; the waitress was an elf. Aside from the fact that elves seldom chose to live in human towns, they were nearly always too prideful to take on any kind of servant work. This woman, furthermore, had black hair, which was a striking rarity.
“Ah…” She glanced at Shaeine, who tilted her head slightly, indicating that Teal should proceed. “Just here for dinner. What’s good?”
“Good,” mused the elf, as though this were a foreign concept to her. “Now, do you mean good by the standards of the fancy-feasting Imperial rich kids up at the University? Because I’m afraid we don’t serve that here. Or what’s good for someone treating themselves to a night out on a cobbler’s wages? There’s a whole spectrum of good to explore.”
Teal found herself relaxing; the woman had a somewhat cheeky attitude, but she, herself, was right in her element when it came to banter. “Let me put this another way. What would you order?”
“Ahh, this one’s got a mind. Well done.” The elf smiled broadly at her, with a semblance of actual warmth. “That sounds to me like a steak dinner with the works. However, you being strangers, there’s an obligatory gold check before anything that pricey comes to the table.”
Shaeine reached into the folds of her robe, but Teal was faster, placing a small stack of Imperial doubloons on the table. “This being cattle country, I can’t imagine steak is too outlandish.”
“Not nearly as outlandish as that,” she replied, nodding to the coins. “Put those away, the losers around here can smell money. And to drink? I can’t say I’d recommend the wine, but the beer is better than decent.”
Teal glanced at Shaeine questioningly.
“Tea, please,” said the drow.
“Coming up.” The elf deftly pocketed a couple of coins before Teal retrieved the remainder of the stack. “I’m Principia; sing out if you need anything. Just don’t call me Sippy unless you want a surprise in the bottom of your glass.” With that and a wink, she darted toward the door at the back of the common room.
“That,” Shaeine mused, “was an altogether unfamiliar experience. Doubtless local standards differ, but I am very unaccustomed to hearing insults and threats from servants.”
“She was a little mouthy,” said Teal, “but yeah, things are a little more relaxed around here. I suspect there was an element of elvish pride there; I’m honestly astonished to find one waiting tables. Though on the other hand, a waitress isn’t exactly a servant as such.”
“Hm. Her duty is to serve, is it not?”
“Maybe I’m imposing my own perspective,” Teal admitted. “My family has servants; they’re actually professionals with training and take a lot of pride in being attached long-term to one employer. Our Butler would be pretty offended if I compared him to a saloon waitress.”
“I see. I am not alone in being out of my element, then.”
“You’re a little farther out, maybe.” Teal returned her companion’s smile. “But we can all stand to learn.”
“That is always true.”
Principia returned, carrying a tray with a full tea service; the china was coarse and unadorned, but not chipped. “Here we are,” she said lightly, sliding it onto their table. “The good part will be along presently. Say, are you two new this year?”
“Yup,” said Teal. “Second day.”
“Thought so. There’s only one other drow up there, to my knowledge, and she lacks…social graces. Nice to meet you both.” She grinned and slid away again, this time to check on another table.
“Would you excuse me for a minute?”
Shaeine nodded. “Of course.”
“Thanks. Be right back.” Teal slid from her seat and crossed over to the pianist, who was just finishing up a piece. He played with the exuberant imprecision of long practice and no particular talent; there was no applause when he finished, but saloon music wasn’t really intended to hold an audience’s attention. As the man turned sideways on his stool to grab a tankard of beer that had been resting (on a coaster) atop the piano, she noted a striking resemblance to Silas Crete, right down to the sideburns; this might be the same man twenty years younger, his bushy brown hair just beginning to go gray. This must be the nephew, Jonas.
“Evening,” she said pleasantly. “That’s nice work. You have live music in here all the time?”
“Well, not all the time, miss,” he replied with an easy smile. “These fingers can’t go every minute a’ the day, and I’ve got the bar to run, too. But I like to play now’n again, when I can.”
“A personal touch, I like it,” she said, matching his laid-back good humor. “I have a guitar with me tonight. Would you mind if I played a song or two after dinner?”
“Sure, long as you keep it clean an’ don’t expect me to pay for the entertainment.”
“Nah, it’s just for the fun of it.”
“Then consider yourself on the program, miss…?”
“Falconer. Teal Falconer. Thanks, I’ll wander over after we eat. I’ve heard good things about the steak here.”
He just smiled and nodded at her again, took a long pull of his drink and turned back to the keys.
She barely made it back to rejoin Shaeine before Principia reappeared, this time balancing another tray laden with steaming plates. Teal goggled at her as she slipped back into her chair.
“Wow. Doesn’t steak take time to cook?”
“Everything takes time, my young learner,” the elf intoned, sliding plates in front of each of them, then grinned. “Things take less time when the owner of the establishment is obsessed with having all the latest magical doodads from Calderaas in his kitchen.”
“It was my impression,” said Shaeine, “that cooking times cannot be artificially accelerated without adversely affecting the product.”
Principia glanced to the left, then the right, lifting her head and checking that Jonas was absorbed with the piano. Then she leaned in close to them, one side of her mouth curling up in a mischievous smirk. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure,” said Teal warily.
Principia’s smile widened to a grin. “Me too.” She straightened up and dusted off her hands. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”
“I begin to see,” said Shaeine, watching the waitress leave, “why surface elves customarily avoid serving work. They seem ill-suited to it.” She examined her silverware, then peered at Teal’s, which she had already picked up.
“Oh, um… Not what you’re used to?”
“I am accustomed to a single knife as an eating impliment.”
“Wow, that sounds…messy.”
“Potentially. I am struck by the irony that your society and not mine invented those portable items we had for lunch. On the other hand, we seldom have bread.”
“Sandwiches? Yeah, those are handy. Here, just hold it like this. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, it’s just me here and nobody else is watching.”
“But there is clearly a customary way to do it. There are no meaningless rituals, no matter how small; from such things is culture built.”
Dinner was pleasant. Teal scooted her chair closer to Shaeine’s to show the drow how to handle the silverware, and managed not to laugh at the intensity with which she approached this task. It was like watching a child learning a new subject for the first time. Their conversation was more casual, when they spoke, and chiefly about growing up in Tar’naris and Tiraan province, respectively. They really were from totally different worlds, so much so that it hardly seemed to either that sentient people could truly live as the other described. Long pauses were devoted simply to chewing, however. Shaeine had never had a steak before. She strongly approved.
“How’re we doing?” Principia asked, coming by their table as they were finishing up. Both girls were chewing at that moment, but Teal gave her a thumbs up, getting a grin in reply. “Tolja the steak was good here. Hey, I wonder if you could do me a favor?”
Teal swallowed. “Uh, maybe. What would that be?”
The elf dipped a hand into her apron pocket and pulled it out, closed; a gold chain dangled from her fist at both ends. “You’re freshman girls, so you’ll be living with that new paladin, right? Trinity?”
“Trissiny,” Teal corrected automatically. “Yeah, she’s in our building.”
“Trissiny, right. Totally knew that, I was just testing you.” She winked and unfolded her fingers; in her hand rested a gold necklace, Avei’s eagle symbol on a braided chain. “I do a little side business in trinkets and charms, and…well, I guess you could say I’m a big fan. Could you give this to her, please?”
“What kind of charms?” asked Shaeine.
“Oh, all kinds,” Principia replied glibly. “Minor enchantments, I’m not wizard. You can’t put much on a holy symbol, of course, beyond a simple brightening charm. Not that I would, anyway.”
“You’re an Avenist?” Teal said in surprise.
The elf frowned at her. “What, you aren’t? Avei is the protector of all womankind. No exceptions for pointy ears.”
“I know, I just…I’d never heard of elves being…” Teal swallowed and reached for the necklace. “Yeah, sure, I can give this to Trissiny. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture.”
“Prin,” called Jonas from across the room, “I’m not payin’ you to stand around jawin’ with the customers!”
“Whoops, the master calls,” the waitress said with a roll of her eyes, then flashed Teal a brilliant smile. “Thanks, doll. You’re a peach!” She whisked away to another table whose occupants were calling for beer.
“I mistrust that girl,” Shaeine said softly.
“Hm.” Teal looked down at the necklace in her hand for a moment before tucking it into her pocket. “She’s probably harmless; someone like Triss is bound to have admirers. Though I’m going to ask her how she feels about getting gifts for future reference. No point in making her uncomfortable.”
Teal caught Jonas’s eye; he grinned at her and nodded. Nodding back, she picked up her guitar case and rose. “Well, wish me luck!”
“You don’t need it,” replied her companion, “but good luck.”
The proprietor cleared the way for Teal to seat herself on the piano stool; he patted her shoulder once, smiling, then strode off toward the kitchen. Apparently the younger Mr. Crete was a man of fewer words than his uncle. She pulled out her guitar, gently plucking at the strings and adjusting the pegs. It had been in tune earlier, but been carried down a mountain since then.
“Hey, Ox, check this out,” called a reedy man at the table nearest her. “A college student with a guitar! Will wonders never cease.” He leaned one arm over the back of his chair, grinning at Teal. “How ’bout we make a bet, darlin’. If we ain’t already heard all three o’ the chords you know, your drinks’re on me tonight.”
“No bet,” she replied. Her fingers lightly fell on the strings, and the guitar sang. A soft waterfall of notes poured forth, growing in volume and speed and climbing back up the scale, swirling about each other in a playful dance that distracted from their utter precision. Teal brought the sequence to a close with a relatively simple arpeggio, then winked at the man, who was now gaping at her. “I’d hate to take your money.” Then she began to truly play, and sang.
It was a love song, but barely. She sang of a life that was peaceful and in order, suddenly upended by the arrival of a beautiful, beloved enemy; of the confusion of passion and frustration, of coming together and breaking apart until nobody knew where they stood. The song wove a bittersweet story of beauty and pain, the guitar added its coppery voice, and all throughout the saloon silence fell as every patron stopped drinking and stared fixedly at the bard, many with mouths open. Principia leaned against the far wall, watching with a wistful smile; Jonas and the portly cook both leaned out from the kitchen. Shaeine straightened till she was barely still seated, her gaze fixed on Teal with an intensity she had never shown in class.
No one could have said how long it went on; time stopped having any meaning. Three more people arrived while Teal sang, but they didn’t make it any farther inside than the door, immediately transfixed by the music. As long as the song lived, they were her prisoners. Teal never noticed, never looked up to see; her eyes were closed, her entire being wrapped around the guitar, coaxing the river of music from its strings.
And then it ended. The song came to a predictable close as good songs do, the notes of the accompaniment winding to a conclusion for a few seconds after the words stopped and ending on a tonic chord, but still the audience leaned back as one at the severance of the invisible chains binding them in place. A tiny exhalation echoed around the room, as dozens of people in unison let out the smallest breath, each too soft to have been heard in isolation.
For a moment, silence reigned. Then someone cleared his throat roughly and began, “That was—”
The swinging doors burst open to admit a stooped figure in a severe black gown, leaning on two canes, her wizened old face contorted with rage.
“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” somebody said in a resigned tone.
“You should every last one of you be ashamed!” the old woman screeched. “Carousing and drinking and listening to devil music! This used to be a good town, a town that feared the gods, and then SHE came. Now there’s poison in the streets, and honest human folks who can’t say they don’t know better have heads full of evil elvish ideas and would rather spend their nights in a saloon than a chapel!”
“Oh, brother,” said Principia, just loud enough to be clearly audible. Teal, taking advantage of the distraction, quickly bent to put away her guitar.
“And YOU!” Miz Cratchley shrieked, pointing a cane at Prin, who stuck out her tongue in reply. “Shameless slattern! Walking filth, corrupting the young of this town! You, and all the deviants and lunatics up there on the hill, pouring down their poison like sewage! What is that?!” Her voice rose to a thin scream of rage as she caught sight of Shaeine.
“Now, Mabel,” said Jonas, striding toward her with his arms open. “You seem tired. Maybe it’s time to head home and—”
“Don’t you dare to touch me, Jonas Crete, not when you’ve opened your doors to the demons of hell itself!” Several of the locals stood up in alarm; Mabel Cratchley had actually begun to foam at the mouth, her eyes rolling wildly as she ranted. “Monsters and wizards and the forces of evil walk among us! You’ll see what happens to a town that turns its back on the gods! YOU’LL SEE!” She flailed ferociously with both canes, swaying in place. “A great doom is coming, and woe to those who fail to repent! A GREAT DOOM!”
Then Shaeine was there, having slipped nimbly through the crowd. At her sudden approach, Miz Cratchley drew in a deep breath to unleash a bellow, her face twisting in incoherent rage. Before she could finish, Shaeine reached out and touched her lightly between the eyes with a fingertip.
Mabel Cratchley crumpled like a paper doll. Shaeine dived forward and caught her before she could hit the floor and eased her the rest of the way down, showing surprising strength for someone so diminutive. Gingerly letting the old woman’s head come to rest on the floorboards, she placed a slate-gray hand over Mabel’s forehead and closed her own eyes in concentration. Men rose to their feet on all sides and crowded around.
“I find no physical ailment,” the drow said, “beyond the stresses of age. However, I am not as familiar with human anatomy, and problems in the mind are difficult to diagnose at best. Is this normal behavior?”
“No,” rumbled a huge man in a faded old Imperial Army coat. “Miz Cratchley is a lady of strong opinions, but I never seen her get like that. Never.”
“Here now,” someone said near the back, “what’s the dark elf done to ‘er? We oughtta—”
“You shut the hell up, Wilson,” Mr. Crete snapped. “The elf just saved her from prob’ly busting her own heart, and we all know it. Ain’t nobody got time for your trouble-makin’. Tommy, run quick and fetch Dr. Akers. And Prin, you go get Father Laws and the Sheriff.”
“I’m an errand girl now?” Principia muttered, but did so while moving. In seconds she was out the door, right on the heels of the boy who had exited at Jonas’s first command.
“Is there…I mean, can we help at all?” Teal asked worriedly. She had worked her way around to the door and managed to squeeze in next to Shaeine.
“Best leave this to the professionals now,” Jonas replied, scratching his head. He nodded respectfully to Shaeine. “You stopped her from doin’ herself real harm there, miss, an’ I appreciate that. But I think now we need to give her some space till the doc gets here. That means y’all! Everybody move back, let the woman breathe.”
Grumbling, the crowd shuffled backward from the fallen old woman, only Mr. Crete staying close to watch over her.
“Maybe we should just…” Teal trailed off, but Shaeine nodded to her, and they slipped through the swinging doors.
The huge man in the army coat came out right behind them. In the dimness of the moonlit street, his enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows made his size even more intimidating. “Ladies,” he said, nodding respectfully to them, “If you don’t mind I’d feel better if you allowed me to walk you back to the stairs.”
“I believe we are capable of looking after ourselves,” Shaeine replied.
“Ain’t what concerns me, ma’am,” he said. “On average, one of you University kids is worth at least four drunk galoots in a scrap. But if it should happen that you need to ‘look after yerselves,’ there’ll be real trouble after that. The kind that don’t go away as long as anybody’s left alive to remember it. Nobody in this town’ll have a go at you if I come with.”
The girls exchanged a look. “Um, yeah,” Teal said at last. “We’d appreciate the company.”
He nodded and fell in alongside them, and they headed up the street.
“How likely is it that there will be ‘real’ trouble, do you think?” asked Shaeine.
“Not very likely at all,” he replied. “This here’s a good town, full of good people. Folks who’re more familiar with the outlandish than the average run o’ frontiersmen, besides. You did a good turn for Miz Cratchley when nobody’d have blamed you for just lettin’ her bust ‘er own heart, and that’s what most in that room will remember.” He snorted, rather like a bull, causing his huge mustache to flutter. “But, only takes one idjit to wreck the peace for everybody. I learnt that in the army: if a given outcome is bad enough, you plan for it, no matter how unlikely it is to happen.”
“That is a wise policy,” Shaeine said approvingly.
He nodded. “I’m Ox Whipporwill, by the way, an’ pleased to make your acquaintance. I hope this don’t put you off visitin’ the town.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Teal, having regained most of her equilibrium. “Like you said…it only takes one. And there’s a few like that in every town. Doesn’t pay to let them upset you.”
“Well said, miss, well said.” They had kept a brisk pace; Ox didn’t rush, but the easy reach of his enormous legs had them both making quick steps. In just a few minutes, they had reached the edge of town and the abrupt beginning of the steps up the mountain. He turned to face them and tugged the brim of his hat to Teal. “Ma’am, I surely did enjoy your singin’. I never heard nothin’ like it before, an’ I got to see the opera in Tiraas once. I do hope you’ll come an’ play for us again sometime.”
“I’d love to,” she said, unable to repress a grin of pleasure.
He tugged his hat again to Shaeine, receiving a bow in return. “Night, ladies. You have a safe trip home.”
They had ascended almost to the height of the scrolltower before Shaeine spoke. “Your song… It is the strangest thing, but I cannot recall any of the lyrics.”
Teal stumbled over a step, clutching her guitar case protectively against her body before regaining her balance. Then she sighed and continued trudging upward, not meeting her companion’s questioning gaze. “There weren’t any lyrics, Shaeine. I was humming.”
The dark elf’s eternally calm face grew considerably more intent, the closest Teal had seen to a frown on her. “I was certain the song told a story. Now that I recall, I am not sure why…”
“I…it’s…I didn’t mean to…ugh.” She threw back her head, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and said, “Her name’s Vadrieny. My…partner. She has a kind of voice magic, really the only magic she can use…sometimes, when I play, it sort of seeps out. I don’t do that on purpose; I think it’s cheating. A bard should be able to move an audience with the sheer power of the music itself, or nothing at all. But, we’re…we’re still working out how to exist together, and things like that sometimes happen. I can’t control it. The only way to control the effect would be for me to let her take over, completely, which…is probably not a good spectacle to show a saloon full of cowboys.”
Shaeine nodded. “I understand, then. Thank you.”
After a dozen more steps, Teal spoke again, very softly. “Thank you, too. For not digging.”
Shaeine turned her head and smiled, and this time there was no doubt at all of the genuine feeling behind it. “You will speak of it when you choose to. There is no hurry.”
They climbed the rest of the way in comfortable silence.