Chapter 1: Magic Places, Magic Hearts
Cor Caldwell had been spotting the student getting out of the car in front of her here and there for several years now, but never in any of her classes, and always just walking across campus or sitting somewhere or, as now, being dropped off, usually by some unknown driver in a retrofitted Obsidian Motors Oracle, one of the more popular and enduring lines of family sedans from Obsidian. Her dad drove one, although he was still a little too firmly rooted in the past to pay for the anti-gravity drive retrofit like the one in front of her.
She didn't even know his name, and none of the friends she'd casually asked knew either, but she had definitely placed him in her 'interesting' category. He was tall and slender, though the one time she had seen him in a tank top and shorts throwing a football with a couple of other guys he seemed to have all the proper muscles.
"Stop that!" she muttered to herself, embarrassed at having flashed on that visual.
"Excuse me?" Her mystery man asked, turning her way.
"Oh! I"m sorry, I was just muttering to myself," She said, then flashed her patented, prize-winning smile. "But since we're talking ... Hello, I'm Cor!" She held out her hand.
His hands were firm and dry, but he held her hand gently, not shaking it. He flashed an award-winning smile of his own.
"Hello yourself, I'm Andy."
Before Cor had a chance to say anything else, the driver of the car that had just dropped Andy off cleared his throat. As Cor looked down, she saw him raise an eyebrow at Andy, who obviously understood its meaning.
"Sorry Nicco. I'm just planning on hanging out on campus until the Kirsch Auditorium presentation at five, so I'll find lunch and dinner on my own afterward, and it'll be late when I call."
"Okay kid! But you have my number if something comes up. You know the drill."
"Of course Nicco, now get lost will ya, I have a pretty girl to impress here, and you're cutting into my time."
Cor was all set to pretend massive indignation when her mystery man turned back, flashing that smile again,
"Sorry about that, but when you're talking to Nicco, you have to do it with a certain attitude. Especially when there are pretty girls around. His entire family is a bit old-world in its outlook. I hope it didn't bother you."
"Well, since you managed to slip in that I'm pretty again, I should be coy and cute and act pleased, right?" She answered, tilting her head to one side.
"I guess that might have sounded like a lame pick up line, huh? Lets start over. Hi! I'm Andy. Since we're both standing here on the sidewalk in front of the Forbe's, could I offer you a cup of coffee, or perhaps tea?"
"Oh, that's a much better line! Yes, I'd love a cup of tea."
The process of getting a seat and getting tea was accompanied by inconsequential comments and light chatter.
"Cor. That's an interesting name. Is it short for something?" Andy asked. When they had finally found themselves a place to sit.
"Corycia," Cor answered, blushing. "Its..."
"One of the Naiads of Greek Mythology," Andy said with a laugh. "My Great Uncle's sailboat was the Nereid, and my Dad and Granddad's back in California is the Naiad. I shouldn't be surprised to find myself sitting with someone with a link to one of our running family fascinations."
"Fortunately, growing up everyone just called me C.C., For Corycia Caldwell. But I decided to grow out of that when I was twelve, and started calling myself Cor."
"When I was ten, my sister started calling me 'coppertop' because my first two initials are A.A. for Andrew Alan, so she made the whole AA battery connection. Fortunately she didn't get a lot of support from our friends and family and she dropped it pretty quickly. She was only being annoying for effect anyway – pretty soon after that we both decided to drop all the big brother/little sister rivalry and feuding stuff anyway."
"So you're from California? Are you one of those born-and-raised California surfer dudes?" Cor asked.
"I was born in North Carolina actually, at my Great Grandfather's house, but we live in Angel's Camp, California, in the old gold rush area, not on the coast. We haven't spent much time there. My parents travel a lot." Andy answered. "Where are you from?"
"I'm from Crown Point, New York. That's where I was born, and where I've lived my whole life until I left to come here for college," Cor said. "Angel's Camp seems to ring a bell in my head for some reason, why is that?"
"It's where Mark Twain wrote 'The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County', so maybe that's it?" Andy suggested.
"Could be. Don't think so though ... It'll come to me eventually."
Andy laughed and shook his head.
"Why do I have the impression you aren't the type to let details slip by you?"
"Its what got me here on scholarship, and what usually keeps me home on the weekends, I"m annoyingly thorough and meticulous. My professors tell me its my greatest strength, and my friends tell me its my greatest weakness."
"Because it discourages relationships?" Andy asked.
"Yeah. Always has," Cor sighed. She suddenly gave Andy a very nice smile. "I've got to run. I've got a class. Thank you for the tea, and the conversation."
As Cor stood up, Andy reached out and touched her arm, returning her smile.
"Hey, Miss Meticulous, it was absolutely my pleasure, and thank you back," The touch turned into holding hands as Andy slid the touch down the arm. "Are you doing anything Saturday?"
"Are you asking me on a date?" Cor asked.
"Well, yeah. If it doesn't ruin your reputation with your friends, of course."
"I have a morning lab on Saturday, but I"ll be done with that by 10:30. MY afternoon and evening are free. What did you have in mind?"
"A friend is performing at a recital, and I'd love to be able to show up with a beautiful and smart girl on my arm. I too have a reputation to overcome amongst certain segments."
"Hmm. Well we can't let the segments win, now can we? Okay. Shall I meet you somewhere?"
"I'll pick you up in front of Stratton, at 3?"
"Okay! Wow! I've got to run, or I"ll be late for class," Cor surprised herself by brushing Andy's cheek with a quick kiss on her way past him. "See you Saturday."
Andy sat for a while sipping the remainder of his tea, and thinking back three years to the term Jeni Anderson had used. 'squiggly.' There was no doubt about it, Cor Caldwell made him feel squiggly.
<Maia, are you busy?> Andy sent out the thought.
<Not to busy for you Andy, what's up?> Her thought came back.
<I need to make sure there's an extra seat available Saturday. I'm bringing a date.>
<Oooh! Exciting! I'll make sure there's an extra spot for you!>
<Thanks, Mai. Mum's the word though, okay? This is a first date, so I don't want any advanced hype getting built up over this.>
<Of course, Andy! You know we are all on your side on this one, even Ren!>
<Thanks again then. See you Saturday!>
As he usually did when he wanted to think, Andy went running. He kept a gym bag with his running gear in a locker at Steinbrenner Stadium. A nice five mile run, keeping his pace to realistic levels, had him feeling a lot more settled.
The next four hours were spent meeting with various small groups of students, including the largest group of sixteen during the lunch hour at the Lobdell Food Court.
There were 27 students currently working on the new PhD in Gravitics track that had been instituted recently, and Andy was quietly shepherding most of them along with tutoring, brainstorming and companionship. The guys here who were able to absorb the concept of Gravitics whole and come out the other end with a working concept were usually the ones who were very tied up in their own worlds of math and physics. In other words, the die-hard science nerds.
Halfway through the lunch session, he spotted Cor, and gave her a wave. She waved back, and started slowly making her way towards him through the crowd. Andy quickly cautioned his table mates, especially Arne, who was the most vocal and outgoing of the bunch.
"Listen guys. The girl headed this way to say hi does NOT know who I am, she just knows me as Andy. We've got a date Saturday, and she'll get the horrible truth then, so please don't ruin it for me, okay?"
The phrase 'horrible truth' drew some laughs, but these guys all saw Andy as the shining example of their group, so there was no chance they'd be spilling the beans.
Andy introduced Cor to the 'Gravy Geeks', as they called themselves, and introduced her to them.
"Cor is one of the Nanites." Andy said, "She's studying nanofluids."
"Nanites?" Cor asked.
"Yeah, we have names for all the various tracks. You nanotech guys are the Nanites, the Aero and Astronautical engineers are the Space Cases, us Gravitics guys are the Gravy Geeks ... you get the idea." Arne answered.
Cor did, and she smiled in appreciation, waved goodbye with a "See you Saturday!" over her shoulder.
Arbor was my facet. Once I'd turned sixteen I had official parental permission to do new facet hops whenever I wanted. I didn't do them very often, but I had found six so far. I'd turned in data on five of them.
Arbor was my own though. There was something about it that clicked for me. Perhaps it was the people, who were a happy, hard working and optimistic bunch for the most part. Perhaps it was when I discovered that the name the Arborians used for this facet translated to Arbor, exactly what I'd used as my own designator.
The people of Arbor love the grape, they love horses and they love music. Bards were their rock stars, a fine horse was their Porsche and a good wine was their daily bread. I had spent a couple days here and a couple days there over the past three years burying myself in what it meant to be an Arborian. It was slow and careful work.
A small but real percentage of the Arborians were gifted in one way or another. Not in the way we considered the awakened or the soul divers as gifted, but in the way that Spinner, my old Dream World friend would call 'Magic', definitely with the capital M.
These people tapped a little of the gifts, a little of the Dream Stuff and even a little of the Light, and did it in interesting ways. Teleportation, Transformation, Shape-shifting, Mind Reading, a weirdly inconsistent cornucopia of gifts in the strangest mixtures and proportions that made those who were gifted odd and unique and oh so very interesting to me.
None of their abilities could be considered 'pure', when looked at from the advantage of my perspective. Their access to the gifts were spotty and partial most of the time, their access to the Light was incredibly indirect and totally outside of their conscious control. Their use of the Dream Stuff was accidental at best, and required rigorous rituals, bordering on the ridiculous to perform the same feat consistently.
But from an uninformed perspective, it was pure Magic, the stuff of every fantasy writer's dream. I was going to build a home there, and soon, certainly within the year. I had a couple months of classes left, and barring a blown dissertation or other unlikely event, I would have my degree in public policy to go along with my degree in Physics. I had no plans to use either degree for anything more than establishing my credibility within certain circles of Earth's political and scientific communities, but they were the things that got me Mom and Dad's buy-in to my plans to NOT be tied down to the McKesson Group or Obsidian Industries corporate suit-and-tie demands on anything more than a part time basis.
Slider and I were riding along the Northern Trade Road, towards the Red Flag Inn. The inn was the place on Arbor where I was best known, as I had been establishing myself there during my sporadic trips to the facet. It was in the Northeastern corner of the kingdom of Midhal. The food was always good, there was always a good selection of local wines, and even an occasional bottle of something from someplace exotic.
I had a nice fat Springhorn, dressed and bled out strapped over the back of my saddle. A gift of fresh game was something I always tried to bring with me. The innkeeper, Trough Farelly, always appreciated it, and I never asked for anything in return, paying full price for my room and meals while I was there. I did usually get generous portions when eating the game I'd brought in though.
As Slider and I approached the front of the inn at a slow trot, I saw Speck, the stable boy come running out. As with most of the working class young of Arbor, he was quick to recognize a repeat visitor who tipped well.
"Good morning Speck!" I said, as I let Slider come to a stop. I slid out of the saddle and onto the ground beside him. Spec was short and thin, but not undernourished. He was well fed, he was just a wiry boy, eleven or twelve years old. His father was Brick Hellerin, the Red Flag's blacksmith.
"Welcome back to the Red Flag, Weaver!" Speck answered. Weaver was the name I'd been given, based on the softness of the cloth my riding cloak and other clothing was made of.
I untied the knots holding the Springhorn to Slider's back, and hoisted it over my shoulder. I headed for the back of the inn and the butchery. I turned my head to look back over my shoulder at Speck and Slider.
"Slider, you be good for Speck now." Slider offered a snort in acknowledgment. "Speck, your tip is in your pocket."
The butchery in the back of the Red Flag was a thick-walled building, built half in and half out of the hill rising behind the inn. Its entry was a small room with a thick curtain made of three layers of heavy, thick-haired hides from the black plains oxen at each end. I dropped the Springhorn onto the counter that ran the length of one wall, and passed through the interior hide curtains, hollering for Block Harnish, the butcher.
"Harnish! Fresh meat at your door, where are you?" It didn't look like the old Brude was in the butchery, so I sent my senses towards the inn itself, were I found her helping Knifehand Burga the cook wrestle a large Green Buck haunch onto the spit of the main cooking fire. I quickly pulled my senses back. It's not always a wise idea to leave yourself extended on Arbor. I went back out to the entry, grabbed the Springhorn, and left it hanging on a hook just inside the inner curtain, then headed for the kitchen door.
I met the butcher coming out the back door as I was going in.
"Weaver! She rumbled in her rough voice. "Did you just get in? What have you brought me?"
I endured the rough thumping of her massive hands on my back, and once the world stopped shaking, answered.
"Hello yourself Block! I brought a nice fat Spring Horn, Prime and well fattened by a season of feeding on sweet summer grasses." I patted her on the back in return, with considerably less force. "I hung it on a hook just inside the inner door."
"Thank you Weaver, you always do the extra little things that make an old woman happy. We won't be having your Spring Horn tonight though."
"A nice thick slice of Green Buck, with some of Burga's Red Leaf gravy and a big chunk of fresh Chona bread will be good enough for me."
"Weaver! You and your tricks. How did you know we were having Green Buck?"
"Block I'm always telling you I"m the worlds most powerful wizard, and you never believe me!"
Burga must've heard the commotion through the kitchen door, because just then he popped his head through the open door.
"What's the ruckus out here?" He said with a roar. "Oh, Weaver! Its you is it, and with fresh meat for us I assume?"
Before I could answer, he grabbed the collar of my riding cloak and yanked me through the door, yelling as he did. "Lets get you inside, and let the old She-Ox get back to her work, and to whatever choice bit of game you've brought me."
Once inside the kitchen, I got rushed through to the common house, which is what the public part of the inn was called. This was where the guests and visitors came for their meals or to sit and drink.
Because the Red Flag was almost exactly halfway between Pipertown and Old Reddech, which was once the seat of the local government, before the neighboring Lord Esterhal's father decided to rearrange the local political landscape almost a hundred years back, the common room was also a frequent meeting place for merchants, soldiers, diplomats, priests, prostitutes and thieves. It was a good place to sit and soak up that 'Arborian flavor' I was interested in.
Burga handed me off to Sunrise Swoda, Trough's oldest daughter, who was currently heavy with child, her third. Her husband Spider Swoda was the bartender and 'guardian of the grape' at the Red Flag.
The Arborians really did take their wine very seriously, and those who served it were considered cultural torch bearers in a way.
"Sit here, in your corner Weaver, and I'll have Rose bring you a nice glass of the Kirellian MonkHeart, okay?"
I nodded and smiled, knowing that Sunrise was still trying to get me interested in her little sister Rose, who was probably ten years my elder, attractive in a bosomy sort of way, and utterly and inescapably shallow, mean-spirited and vain. Fortunately, she was also relatively bright, and although Sunrise had not realized it, Rose herself was fully aware of my lack of interest.
The wine came, and I thanked Rose with my usual smile, which always threw her off. She didn't expect kindness and civility from the men who she saw as rejected suitors.
The common room was sparsely filled at this time of day. The midday meal would shortly draw a crowd, but the biggest crowds would be here for the evening meal. I was here today in particular because I expected Lord Esterhal's Wizard and his party to be stopping here this evening, and I wanted to arrange a meeting. If I was going to try building in the area, it was the King and his Wizard I would have to deal with eventually.
Trough spotted me eventually, or Sunshine let him know I had returned, and he stopped by for a brief visit.
"Weaver, welcome back. How long will you be with us this time?"
"Just overnight, Trough. I'm hoping to see someone here tonight, just long enough to make arrangements for another meeting at a later date."
"I hear you brought us a nice plump Spring Horn for tomorrow's dinner. Where did you find it?"
"Nice try, Trough!" I said with a laugh. "You know I'm not going to give you any hints about what part of the area I've been scouting."
"An innkeeper must always try Weaver. We are supposed to be founts of local information after all."
"Is Thistle playing tonight?" I asked. The musician was the original reason I came to the Red Flag, having heard of him from travelers on the road.
"Yes, although he will have to play my old Cuesta, rather than his own. He broke a string plate last night, and won't be able to get it fixed until we can send for old Sienna the woodsmith."
"If he's willing, ask him to bring it by. I have certain ... skills when it comes to repairing things."
"You always seem to surprise those you know with your ... skills." Trough amplified the hesitation I had used with the word. "When you tell Block you are the world's most powerful wizard, I sometimes am tempted to believe you."
I flashed Trough my best smile, and tossed out another laugh.
"Ahh, if I could only get Block to come that close to believing, I would consider my mission accomplished."
"It would be interesting to see, Weaver, I grant you." Trough said, as he walked back the way he'd come.
I understood that Trough knew that I was more than I seemed, and by mutual unspoken agreement, we enjoyed skating around the topic, making a kind of game out of the facts, both those known and those suspected.
The Red Flag was a way station, and not a destination in and of itself, so most people stopping there arrived late and left early. That made the midday meal much different than the morning or evening meals. More of the diners were locals, or long term residents.
Thistle Kerwen was somewhere in between. The Cuesta player was world-class talent, but he was a drunk. In a culture so defined by their love of wine, the weakness was considered a defining flaw in anyone. Only the pure Magic of Thistle's musical gift kept him from being shunned utterly, as most with his problem were.
He would battle his demons, get himself together and solidly back on his feet, and make a triumphant return to the nearest city, where he was always received with enthusiasm and acclaim. During the upside of the arc, he made money hand over fist, and attracted admirers in droves. Ultimately he would lapse again into drunkenness, and wind up back at the Red Flag, living off his accumulated riches and feeding his muse by playing for small rowdy crowds of travelers and occasional curiosity seekers who had heard of him in Pipertown or elsewhere, and wanted to see if what they heard was true.
I held the Cuesta in my hands, and even as I did, Thistle kept a hand on it, unable, even with the trust he was showing in me, to leave the instrument entirely in my hands.
His Cuesta was a thing of beauty, and an artifact of his original rise to acclaim. It was one of a few crafted by an ancient master named Woodsong Oriema. The broken string plate sat resting loosely in place, still fastened on one side, but split, and dangling at the other. Gently I touched the plate, moving it slightly into its normal position, and held it there.
"Stay calm, and do not move now Thistle." I cautioned quietly.
I closed my eyes and reached out with my senses, tapping into the Light signature of the Cuesta. I found a worn spot here, and a weak joint there, and the obvious damage of the broken string plate. I let the Light signature remember itself, and with a rush of Light energy, brought it back to that remembered state. I opened my eyes and took my hand away from the plate. Thistle must have closed his eyes when he saw me close mine.
"I think that will do, don't you?" I asked Thistle. He opened his eyes, and they swept across the Cuesta like it was a long lost lover returned.
His fingers quickly confirming what his eyes told him, Thistle cried out, and the tears began to flow.
"Thank you Weaver, thank you! I owe you everything I have!"
"Nonsense," I answered. "All you owe me is a true Thistle Kerwen performance tonight."
Thistle's back straightened, and his watery eyes sparked with fire as he smiled. "Tonight the strings will speak with fire, and the voice of the wood will call the Gods down from the sky!"
The Magic of his talent fed off the energy of the re-awakened instrument in his hands, and I knew that what he said was very possibly going to be close to true.
When Rose came by with a fresh glass of wine, I asked her to send Trough back my way as soon as possible. He came out within seconds of Rose's disappearance into the back of the bar.
"What causes you to call for me so urgently Weaver, did you find a bug in your glass?"
"Of course not Trough, you know better than to expect something like that from me." I paused for a moment, smiling. "You know I consider the bugs in the wine to be a generous extra from a gracious host."
That got the laugh I'd been hoping for.
"Trough, I've fixed Thistle's Cuesta, and I think it has fired up his Magic. He has told me that he will call the Gods out of the sky tonight with the voice of the Cuesta. With him fully in his Magic, we both know it is likely he can do something almost that remarkable. If you have patrons or friends you owe favors to, you might want to send out runners to them telling them they should be here for tonight's performance."
The midday meal was corn bread and Black Ox Sausage. I had mine with a steaming mug of the Red Flag's mulled spiced apple wine, a local product which I appreciated greatly. After the meal I made a trip out to the stables to check on Slider, but he was doing fine. Speck and another boy named Chimer were practicing with quarterstaves in one of the cattle pens near the stable, under the supervision of The King's Agent, Ash Vanoc.
As the King's Agent, Ash was a bit of a stuffed shirt, but if you got him away from his duties, he was just another seasoned warrior with the ever-present warrior's salty sense of humor.
His busy season was during the cattle driving season and harvest time, and it was well past the one, and too early for the other, so this little bit of tutoring was probably a welcome diversion. Come to think of it, Chimer's mother was an attractive widow named Blush Trower. Perhaps this was more of an exercise than it seemed?
As I slid myself onto the railing next to him, I reached into my pocket and pulled out an apple that hadn't been there a moment ago, offering it to Ash.
"Missing lunch for a little arms instruction?" I asked casually.
"The boys have been asking, and to be honest, I'm courting young Chimer's mother." Ash answered, taking the apple. "She's making us a late lunch, and perhaps I'll take her to the inn for dinner tonight."
"A worthwhile project. Blush is a fine woman, and a good cook I hear!"
"Speck! Keep the tip up there! You're leaving an opening in your defenses!" Ash hollered suddenly. "Chimer! You should be seeing that opportunity and taking advantage of it! Keep you eyes open there!"
"If you don't mind my asking Ash, how seriously are you courting Blush?"
"Very seriously, Weaver. Very, very seriously." He answered, flashing a huge grin. "She is a fine woman. Chimer is a fine boy and I would not at all mind being able to call him my own. The Red Flag Inn is a fine duty station, and I would love to be able to claim local roots to make this a permanent installation. But mostly, its Blush, she lights my flame, if you know what I mean."
"Yes I do, Ash. As of late, yes I do." I said with a sigh. "Listen, I think that Thistle is primed for the performance of a lifetime tonight, so why don't you let me arrange a table for you tonight. You'll have to eat late, but tonight's performance will be one for the storytellers I think. A great way to make someone feel special."
"If you recommend it Weaver, I can't think of a reason to say no."
I set it up with Trough. When he heard I was playing a bit of the matchmaker, and who for, he was giddy himself with the idea of it. Ash and Blush were both well liked by everyone at the Red Flag. I even asked Trough to give them my corner table, a bit more of a private and secluded spot. I slid a couple silvers into Sunshine's hand as I left to get cleaned up in my room, telling her to give the couple as much extra attention as she thought the coins were worth. Her blinding smile told me I'd guessed right. She now had my coins as an excuse to give them all the attention she wanted.
In my room, I set some 'wards', which to an Arborian was a perfectly understandable bit of Magic, and jumped back to my apartment in Cambridge for a shower and to check my messages. I had a message from Maia, asking me if I was planning on bringing my date to the post-recital dinner with everyone else.
'Oh Crap!' I thought to myself. I hadn't gotten Cor's number either.
Sometimes the gifts are useful for purely personal reasons, and within a minute I knew that Cor was living in Baker House, room 233. I slipped into a T shirt and a pair of jeans and jumped myself into the crowd in front of Baker House.
My parents and the rest of the Legion used to really worry about just appearing out of thin air, but once you know how to manipulate the Light the right way, you arrive unnoticed, and even the security cameras don't know you're there. I was headed up the stairs into the building when I spotted Cor coming out of the doors in front of me.
"Cor!" I called, waving at her. She spotted me and waved back.
"Hi Andy, what are you doing here?"
"Well, I didn't get your number in case something came up when we talked the other day, and something came up."
"Oh! As in you have to cancel?" She said with a pout. A very cute pout.
"No. Nothing so drastic. Are you going to introduce me to your friends?"
"Of course! I"m sorry. Andy, this is Traci Stevens and Audra Brooks. Traci, Audra, this is Andy, last name as yet unknown."
I laughed at that. "A pleasure to meet you both. Sorry about the last name thing, but I'm working hard to be mysterious. I promise you'll know it Saturday. Which of course is what brings me looking for you today. I forgot that the recital includes an invitation to dinner afterwards, and since I hadn't mentioned it, I wanted to actually ask if you wanted to go, rather than just assuming. Would you like to have dinner with me after the recital?"
"Of course, I'd love to!" She said. "By the way, I've been assuming that a recital meant dressy-elegant, can you confirm that?"
After a brief silence, " ... Andy?"
"Oh, sorry. I was kinda caught up in the moment, visualizing you looking dressy-elegant. The answer is absolutely yes, yes, yes! I'll be in a suit and tie, do you have a color in mind? I can match my tie, or try at least."
"I think I"ll be sticking with basic black, thanks for the offer." She answered with a giggle.
I got her number, gave her mine, said goodbye to her and her friends, and with a wave, took off at a jog down the sidewalk towards the Charles river. Once I was out of sight I did my thing with the Light, and jumped back to my apartment.
I had time, once I was back on Arbor, for a nice nap before dinner, so I took one, though I cheated a little and made the otherwise acceptable-by-Arborian-standards mattress temporarily soft and comfortable.
When I went down for dinner, I discovered that Trough, perhaps with some input from Thistle had put me right at the foot of the stage, full in the bright lights of the Common Rooms two Glow Stones, quartz crystals some wizard in the past had worked some Magic on, and which now gave off a clean bright white light.
The evening meal itself was transformed, as Trough had obviously anticipated a full house. The Green Buck I'd seen on the spit earlier had been joined by the Spring Horn I'd brought in, and the Roasted Buck and Fried Spring Horn had been combined and baked into an individual bread loaf, served in a hot pan and seasoned with savory spices and drizzled with Red Leaf gravy. I devoured mine with relish, and saw those nearby doing the same. Burga had risen to the challenge, and prepared a meal that whispered a promise of the music to come.
With the light of the Glow Stones making the rest of the room dark and impenetrable, I had to boost my senses to see Blush and Ash, sitting at my table. Blush was dressed in something velvety looking, and Ash was in his dress uniform. The two of them were sitting very close together, and I didn't see Blush look anywhere but at Ash the entire time I was watching. Much farther back in the room, I spotted my reason for this trip, Firetree, King Esterhal's Wizard, and a party of five others, three of whom appeared to be warrior types. The observation period ended when Thistle made his way to the stage at last. A single chair had been placed front and center on the low stage, and Thistle, cradling his Cuesta, sat in it.
Thistle played for a while, a series of standard Arborian tunes, a couple of which had the audience singing along. He played almost an hour without stopping, until suddenly he stopped, rising from his chair.
"Now I play for Weaver." Was all he said.
He sat, unconsciously stroking the instrument for a moment before raising his head to look at the crowd with fire in his eyes. A brief flash of a smile and a glance in my direction.
The first pass of his fingers across the strings and the wooden surfaces of the Cuesta were cool, and haunting. The second pass turned into a string of fiery notes that sent shivers up my spine. The combination of the sound of the wooden surfaces being brushed, touched and stroked as the strings were plucked and held seemed to echo directly in my thoughts. Several minutes later he moved, with a flourish of notes that prompted several people near me to gasp audibly, into a new burning, urgent passage that became the voice of the wood. The music sang with Magic, and danced like a sprite across our senses, a bright fire and sparkling wisp of the world's breath.
Thistle stood suddenly, kicking the chair he had been sitting in backwards onto the stage behind him, and he played now with his face inches from the string plate, and his fingers a blur. In front of me the fire and the wisp began to solidify, and take on shape and substance. The music was reaching a crescendo now, and I sensed somehow it was waiting for my response, so I reached out with my hand, and in it the Music and the Magic solidified completely, and in my hand I held a staff, a hard wooden staff eight feet long with a large, tear-shaped knot at one end, and smooth, but sharply defined planes that followed the grain of the wood up and down the surface.
I pulled the staff to me, and it came, freely, and as I did Thistle's music peaked and ran again to a new height of brilliant fire, until none of the audience, myself included, could focus on anything but the music, and the form of Thistle, now on his knees on the stage, huddled over the Cuesta, throwing his fingers against the strings, raising bright bursts of sound, making the strings cry and sound happy at the same time, bursting into a swirl of sound that, with a final hollow drumming across the wooden belly of the Cuesta, ceased.
We sat collectively stunned at what we had just experienced for a long, quiet minute, and then we burst into sound ourselves, as we cheered and screamed, and yelled with joy and pleasure. Without even realizing it, we were collectively on our feet, and cheering.
When the internal buzz of emotion and response began to die down in my head, I glanced up at Thistle. He knelt, looking at the crowd, triumph written on his face. I looked at the staff in my hand, and back at Thistle, who now was smiling at me directly, and gave me a small nod along with the smile. I gave a nod and smile back.
Ash and Blush came by to thank me, once things began to die down. Judging by how tightly Blush was clinging to Ash, he would really be thanking me tomorrow. As they began to leave, I felt the Wizard to my right, and turned to see him, with one of the warrior-types on each side of him. Seeing them, Ash stopped, and pushing Blush behind him, came to stand by my side. In his dress uniform there was no mistaking his position.
"You would stand against the King's Wizard in defense of this man?"
"I would not expect a fine man like Weaver to need defending, but I recognize the cut of the cloth of your companions, and they are not the King's Wizard." Ash said in response.
"Thank you for your support Ash, but I'm sure that someone of the Wizard Firetree's standing is required by Lord Esterhal to travel with men like these. Take the lovely Blush home now, while the glow of this fine evening is still fresh in both of your minds, okay?"
Ash gave the two men alongside the Wizard a hard look, but finally broke it off and gave a smile and a laugh.
"Of course Weaver, Firetree. Forgive me, but an old Warrior's instincts sometimes live on from battles fought in years past." A clap on the shoulder, and a "Thanks again, Weaver." and the two of them were gone.
"Quite a bit of loyalty you got there from a King's Agent," Firetree commented once they were gone.
"Well, perhaps it was because the warrior Ash has been courting the lovely widow Blush for some time now, and tonight's dinner and performance, which I arranged for them, including giving them the privacy of my usual table, appears to have probably sealed their decision," I laughed and waved a hand at the departing couple in the distance. "Where I come from, that always earns a man at least a token of gratitude."
"Where I come from, Wizards do not receive their staff of office from the Spirits during a public performance like this one."
"Oh, definitely not where I come from either. That was an incredible surprise, and I am honored that someone with the kind of Magic Thistle has could choose me for such a gift."
"Musicians, in my experience, no matter how gifted, do not work such Magic unless the Spirits have chosen them as their vessel, and made them the instrument of their own work. Why do you think they chose you for this gift?"
"I cannot pretend to speak for the Spirits, their intentions and goals are a mystery to me, as I believe they are to all men," I said, looking Firetree hard in the eyes now. "All I know is that I fixed Thistle's broken Cuesta, and for that the man was grateful. Can I offer you a seat, and a glass of wine? My usual table appears to be free."
"You do not mind if my escorts accompany us?"
"Of course not." I said. "I too understand that sometimes one must take the well-meaning intentions of others into account."
As we were moving towards my table, the ever-efficient Sunshine saw the course of things, and met us at the table with fresh glasses of the Korellian Monkheart I had enjoyed earlier in the day.
"You seem to be a regular here Weaver, and I've been here fairly often myself in the past few cycles, and I've not heard of you. How is that?"
"Well, I've been a regular in the recent past, and I do stay here exclusively when I'm in the area. Also, I tend to be generous with the staff and the owner, so I am remembered and liked. But this time last cycle, nobody here had ever laid eyes on me."
"What brings you here so frequently of late, and what brought you here tonight in particular?" He asked. I understood the questions for the interrogation that they were.
"Well, tonight I was actually here in the hopes of meeting you." I answered. The two warriors immediately sat up straighter in their chairs. "I was hoping to meet you, because I am considering moving to the area and building a residence somewhere in the area, and I knew that I would have to clear that with you, and with King Esterhal."
"Because you knew we would not like a new, powerful young Wizard moving into the area unannounced." Firetree finished for me.
"Of course. Simple courtesy and common sense. I appreciate your understanding."
"Well, Lord Esterhal cannot meet with you tonight, and I may be the King's Wizard, but I cannot speak for him, you understand?"
"Of course. I only hoped to arrange a meeting for some time in the future, I had no expectations that it would happen tonight."
I saw the Wizard's eyes go dull briefly, as he either was in mental conversation with someone somewhere, or perhaps he was just busy consulting some internal mental calendar.
"Next Five day. Between morning and midday meals, we'll expect you at the King's Keep in Esterton."
"Excellent! Now, let me ask you, what did you think of the meal tonight..."