The afternoon sky was clouding over, though the rain remained gentle.
How could I? After all I've promised her, Johm lamented. He dressed himself, torn corduroy trousers, pulled up to the knee. And a light tunic, graying with age. He combed his hair with wet fingers, and followed his friend out the door. Should we turn back now? No, no... I will not live as a fugitive. I am not my father.
The eunuch locked their room, without a word, and they went downstairs. Handing the innkeeper the key for safe keeping, they went outside.
She will see it in my eyes and hear it in my voice. If I am ever to hear and see her again. To smell the sweat of her, to hold her close.
There were children played in the streets of the Slough Inlet, watched by the elderly. However, the adults and youth were not to be seen. The laughter and sport of frolicking in the empty streets brought a smile to the bards' faces.
I cannot forgive myself.
The young ones veered away, avoiding the vagrant travelers. Respectful caution. It reminded the bard of home.
Johm had seen the man in Baron Armâtre's house. He had not known that his subsequent performances had been watched, though. The man had sat near the back of the tavern, listening with calm judgement. He had drank nothing. He had eaten nothing. He simply watched.
The moon had been full, that night two weeks ago.
The bag of golden crownlets, pressed with the face of the heirless queen, had fallen onto his family's kitchen table quite unexpectedly.
"Young bard, you have two cycles of the moon to make your way to Crownlake," the man had told him. "This will be twice your monthly pay."
Johm had been startled, but the money had caught his interest, "For what do you mean to hire me for?"
"You will play in the court of Crownlake," the official had said. "And if you deny this request, which comes straight from the castle, your head will be mine."
"I can't just leave Haeville!" he complained, "I have a lover, here!"
"Men with your talent have not the time for farmland harpies. I will not hesitate to cleave your neck, if I must. Make haste with horse and paddle, or die."
The threat had hung in silence. From the other end of their humble cottage, Johm's parents had been trembling. His mother had been crying, and his father consoling her.
The man, his face grim, had then taken a golden coin from the bag. On one side, a merfox jumping along the side of a wave. On the other, as he turned, it, was a solemn-faced woman with a crown.
"Two hundred gold crowns to start, every six months. That makes an annual salary in seven digits of copper."
"Not every Haeville farmboy," Johm had seethed, "Lacks the numeracy of nobility."
The man had smiled, then, his face dark beneath his hood. "Your plumless bassoonist is already at the stables, haggling for two horses."
Johm's face fell from grimace to indifference.
"Perhaps he should only buy one," he mused. "And then I can show you just how fast a saber can slice from the sheath at my hip to the opposite shoulder, across your neck."
Damn the capital, damn, damn, damn Crownlake!
A child ran after a kicked ball, and squirmed to a stop as it spotted the bards, walking down the streets of the Slough.
Damn the Duke's guest...
They moved with cold silence, towards the temple. The sunlight hurt their eyes, and the laughter of children in the gentle rain seemed like shrieks. Or perhaps there were, indeed, veritable shrieks in the distance.
Damn the saffron sexmonger!
The gray stones of the building made it look dreary, behind an obelisk they dared not focus to read. They passed the pillar, and opened the wooden door.
A young acolyte, tall and intimidating, blocker their way. He gave one quick sniff of them both, and then his face contorted in disgust.
Johm blinked, and turned to his friend. They were both confused, never having been greeted this way upon entering a Temple of the Querystal.
"Go bathe in the waters of the slough," he said.
"Quit yelling," the eunuch whined.
"I'm not yelling. You two are hung-over, after that performance. We all heard it. Wonderful talent you two have, but..."
"But what!? We're in pain, man!" Johm was yelling now, and his companion was now covering his ears.
"You smell rank and ruttish. Of sweat, grog and crotch. I will not let you defile the temple thus. Return when you are clean, and you may pray."
He glanced sidelong at a polearm, and they backed away, out the door, as it slammed in their face.
"Arrrgh!" Johm yelled, as his friend continued to clutch at his ears. Down the road, they had a clear view of the wet beach, and the rare droplets of water that fell upon the calm water. Reeds rose into marshland on either side. "Bathing in the slough..."
The eunuch removed his slender hands from his ears, and sighed. They began to approach the sandy slope, walking down the street at the far east edge of the Slough Inlet.
Damn the saffron wench!
An old man, on a porch near the shore, plucked away at a guitar. And he sang, off-key, of broken promises and lovers lost.