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Stage fright consumed me and I peered through the curtain, fist clenching my lute. Nervous sweat trickled down my hair as Bobo, regular as clockwork, fell on his arse. I barely noticed that something had been said to me until it was repeated with greater force. Blinking stupidly, I looked around.
"Now ," the young squire growled. He stood before me, unduly muscular, with angular features emphasizing his dark skin, and decorated with the kind of goatee young men have because they can't grow hair anywhere else on their face yet. "His Grace does not wish to wait. He requires your presence immediately ."
"There must be some mistake," I mumbled. "I have to perform in a few moments."
He and his fellow squire exchanged a glance that said "musicians" in a wholly disparaging way. I opened my mouth to explain, but they grabbed me and pulled me aside. The subject was not open to debate.
"Look, you have the wrong guy," I stammered while being dragged away. "I have to go! I am scheduled to perform as soon as Bobo and Spanks finish their act ..."
Emerging from the backstage area, we meandered through the crowd of drinking, stinking patrons who were busy drowning their sorrows with similar wretches, pinching waiters and waitresses, and laughing at the antics on the stage.
"Oh Bobo, you're sooooooo stupid!"
Consequently, no one paid much attention as we made our way past tables packed tighter than a Galanthian slave ship. My escorts stayed close to my side, but were polite enough to make it seem as if they simply happened to be going in the same direction as I was.
Boris, the owner of theFive Lions, looked up and raised his bushy eyebrows as I passed. His moustache twisted in frustration and his mug slammed onto the bar. I shifted my eyes to the two guards with me and Boris backed away, watching me suspiciously.
Bobo and Spanks' routine continued on unabated. I knew that in a few moments, Bobo would be hit by the slapstick -- two long, thin boards held together at one end and open at the far end, which make a loud crack when applied to an appropriate posterior but which didn't really hurt at all. Slowing my pace, I glanced over my shoulder.
The squires, surprised, spun around to stare at the stage as I ducked under a table. Frantically crawling past jutted knees and slopping through spilled beer, I squirmed my way towards the rear, my lute strapped to my back scraping against the undersides of the tables. The shouts of the squires followed soon behind as I scrambled to a half crouch and tried to sprint between two long tables filled with smelly sailors.
"Stop that bard!" Smallbeard yelled and a hand reached down to grab at my shirt. I dove under a neighboring table, slamming into the legs. It collapsed immediately, drenching me in a variety of intoxicating liquors as the table's occupants sprang upright or fell backwards in their seats.
The clamor from the crowd drowned out Bobo and Spanks as everyone shouted at once, "What's going on?"
"Maybe it's an escaped convict!"
"Is there a reward?"
The word 'reward' was all anyone heard, and the patrons spun around trying to locate the object of the reward, grabbing anyone who looked like a possible escaped convict and turning aside all available furniture to discover the whereabouts of the prize.
Quickly pulling myself up, I leapt onto the nearest table and started traversing the room, crossing stepping-stones over a river of spilled beer. "A reward! A great reward!" I shouted over the din, waving my arms enthusiastically. "There he goes now, out the door!"
There came a scramble of arms and legs as bodies lunged towards the front in order to catch the villain. I navigated towards the rear the best I could, knowing the back door waited for me.
Crossing the last table brought me to a quick halt as Smallbeard loomed ahead. Leaning across, he held out his sword and raised an eyebrow threateningly.
I paused for an instant, considered, and then took a careful step backwards. The now unbalanced table fell under my weight as the other end rose up to catch Squire Smallbeard under the chin with a satisfying thud . I jumped aside, not looking to see how he was, and dashed for the backstage area.
I had only run a few feet before mysterious words bellowed behind me and I fell to my face. Strange how my first thought was relief that I had not broken my lute.
I couldn't move a muscle, not even my eyes, and so had no idea what was happening. Wildly trying to conceive of an escape plan, I was interrupted by suddenly being flipped over. I found myself staring into the eyes of the other squire.
"You've been a very naughty boy, Terin Ostler," she said.
• • •
By the time the spell had worn off and I could move again, the tavern had calmed down. The squires had assured everyone that everything was fine, I was not an escaped criminal, and that no reward had been offered. They tossed a few coins to Boris, who did not look satisfied, and with each one taking an arm, led me out of the Five Lions Inn. Their demeanor made it clear that I would not be let go, and the sword gripped tightly in Smallbeard's other hand issued a discouraging warning.
Tripping slightly while my eyes adjusted, I stepped into the dark night and brisk air of Ashbury City. The noise level dropped tremendously and the cool breeze was like a splash in the face. No, wait, it was a splash in the face from some drunken barbarian falling backwards at the sight of the squires and accidentally tossing his mug into the air. He made a loud oof sound as he fell, and then fixed me with bloodshot eyes. His dark scraggly beard accentuated a face that seemed older than the muscled body to which it was attached. Ragged muddy clothes barely fit his oversized frame. His eyes widened as he looked up.
"Bishortu!" he gasped fearfully.
The squires glanced at each other and then one gave a tug as if to say, "Let's go." I went, but looked back and saw the barbarian staring. Even at quite a distance away, he remained still. He seemed to be afraid of me -- not the squires, but me . Eventually he faded into the night, still standing, still staring. I swallowed uneasily.
"What does the Duke want with me?" I asked once I shook my discomfort at the barbarian's distracting gaze. "I haven't done anything. Does he want to hire me to perform? I didn't know he had even heard of me. I didn't know anyone had ever heard of me."
"You are Terin Ostler," replied the other squire calmly, as if stating a fact so obvious that further discussion was not needed. She seemed about my age and her voice was quite sweet. I idly wondered if she could sing. A biata, judging by the feathers. I had only encountered biata a few times in my travels and always thought of them as a rather mysterious race of people -- apparently descended from gryphons, feathers grow in their hair and on their eyebrows, which can sometimes make them look, well, kind of foolish. Still, with a lifespan, history, and culture almost as old as the elves, they probably were used to us short-lived humans thinking them strange.
"Ah. Well. Yes, I am," I stammered. "As you said. So you have heard of me?"
"Not until a quarter hour ago," replied Smallbeard. "His Grace told Darlissa and me to go to the Five Lions and find a short lad with a long nose and a lute. We asked Boris what your name was."
Both seemed more at ease now that I was not struggling to get away. I did not even consider the idea of escape. This was getting interesting. Besides, they had very large, sharp weapons.
My mother had always complained that I was too curious for my own good. "Curiosity killed the cat," she would say, an expression I always hated. What? It's bad to be curious? We should just be stupid and never wonder? On the other hand, that part about being killed was pretty persuasive. On my list of things to do, "being killed" placed way down at the bottom.
This thought unnerved me and brought me back to reality like a slap. I could not think of any beneficial or positive thing that could come of being brought against your will to see the Duke, and once more began to ponder various escape plans.
"The Duke specifically asked for me?"
"You or someone who looks like you and carries a specific musical instrument," replied Darlissa. Giving me a glance, she added quietly, "Although he also said you were supposed to be handsome." She snorted, shook her head sadly, and smiled.
Nothing more was said as they escorted me down the dirty cobblestone streets. The quiet spring night made the process unnerving, but the people out and about didn't pay us any attention as they trod along in their various tasks. The fog sliding off the river shrouded the city in gray and made me feel like a participant in a dream.
As the capital city for the entire duchy, Ashbury had much to offer. You could find unusual merchants on every block, great restaurants, and many forms of entertainment. When in Ashbury, you were in the front row (as the saying went), because everything happened there. Of course, "everything" included its fair share of crime, and groups like The Fist had supposedly easily taken control of Dockside and the black market. Ashbury was a city of contrasts -- front rows and watching your back. Not a bad idea for a song.
Copyright © 2007 Michael A. Ventrella.