The biggest advantage of being a master bard at the Conservatory was that at the end of the day you didn’t have to worry about singing for your supper. There’d been plenty of bards and minstrels at the fair who would go hungry tonight because the weather had turned unexpectedly foul unexpectedly early. The lucky ones would have saved up enough to weather this storm, literally if he could be forgiven to make such a bad wordplay even in the sanctity of his own mind.

The second biggest advantage supposedly was supposed to be the fact that one didn’t have to walk through terrible weather like this. Of course most not in his exalted position would probably argue that the acclaim was a bigger, perhaps even the biggest, advantage, but after years acclaim could wear, not exactly thin but … hollow. It was after all near impossible to tell how much of the acclaim was for the performance, and how much of it for the office of the performer. The court offered an unparalleled opportunity to compose the most intricate of music, but … rarely sat the court down to listen and appreciate that work.

Which was a nicer way to say that he had given up the comforts of his position, for a year or more, because he was bored. And very much regretting the decision to leave the Conservatory at this moment. The wind was driving and snow and sleet before it, and it found its way past his cloak and through the tiniest gap his fashionable clothing offered. His feet were cold and wet and fast on their way to freezing In all it was remarkably hard at this moment to remember why travelling and seeing new sights had seemed such a good idea in the early days of summer.

At least here inside the deep streets of Glivenr with their dark gray and black stone façades they were sheltered from the worst of the wind. This meant that the snow piled up that much faster, but his guide through the city knew the shortcuts and could get him at the inn ahead of the crowd through the alleys that were even narrower, almost tunnels really, that were sheltered from both wind and most of the snow falling.

“Master Bard,” the innkeeper greeted him at the door. Not outside, but Syts could not begrudge him that. The inn and in particular its main entrance, was by no stretch of imagination sheltered from the weather. Weather that had over the candle-mark grown even more terrible than the bard could imagine. It had not turned into a killing blizzard or anything like that. There was a cold and wet wind blowing, hard enough that one had to hold on to ones cloak tightly, but by no means as hard as the legendary winter storms of the north, where the wind could shred clothes like a worn out flag left in tatters at its pole. It wasn’t even that cold, though the temperature had fallen deep below freezing.

There was simply something — wrong — about the weather and the way it had come down from the mountain. The bard had could not tell what it was that was so unsettling about an early winter storm that was by observation no worse than any other winter storm this city was known to endure several times each season. Yet, he had been trained to observe — years at the court had honed that skill to a level some felt terrifyingly close to being able to read minds — and he had noticed almost immediately when the mood at the fair grounds had turned from desperately festive to concerned with the storm barrelling down from the mountain to finally being unsettled.

He had asked, discretely, if the storm was going to be that bad, and had been looked at in confusion. The storm, he had been assured with a laugh, might cut the evening’s entertainment short and might make tomorrow’s fair slow to start and inconvenient to get to, but the festival would go on. Worse winter storms had plagued the festival in the past, and had not managed to stop it either. Yet, the tone in which he was assured was off, as was the laughter. Something strange was going on, and it was either the townsfolk trying to calm the fears of a stranger to keep him from fleeing, or something truly strange was going on. Syts had more or less decided that either were good enough reasons to cut his stay short by a few days.

Glivenr was by any way one chose to look at it, a unique town and it was build high on the side of biggest of the Sundering Mountains, though nobody had ever made the attempt, or survived it, to compare its height to the Three Sisters further north in the range. But it was almost impossible to like this town. With its black walls, its narrow streets and the omnipresent walls every other corner, three stories high and more, the only word that could describe it in any kind sense was gloomy. Few people visiting the town would be so kind and used far stronger language. His own vague plans to compose a song about the towns of the Kingdom, would have to be held in abeyance until at the very least he could come up with a better name than ‘The Black City’ and music that did not so closely resemble a dirge only suited to a funeral.

He shuddered as a new gust drove what felt like a bucket full of snow underneath his cloak and down his back.

“There will be many travellers coming this way,” he interrupted the innkeeper as soon as it was polite to do so. “I only got here a little earlier thanks to the guide you so gracefully provided me with master Innkeeper. I have little doubt that more will want to stay in the warmth of your excellent establishment than return home and stoke the hearth fire.”

“Of course, of course,” the innkeeper said. “Please come inside Master Bard. It is too cold to stand outside in the dark and snow.”

Yes it is, Syts thought to himself. And you kept me out in it with your manners.

Out loud he said, “I would not mind to use the hot water baths your inn boasts.”

The innkeeper finally stepped aside to let inside Syts and his guide, as well as several other guests arriving shortly after them who had been waiting with ill-disguised impatience. He wasn’t quick enough that the bard couldn’t see the look of unease, quickly wiped away by the professional mask.

“I will have a bath and hot water delivered to your rooms,” he said reluctantly.

Syts raised an eyebrow and waited for the man to explain himself.

With a sigh the innkeeper gave in to the inevitable. “The private baths have all been reserved by visiting nobles and their entourages,” he said in an apologetic tone of voice, all but begging to be forgiven.

“Was there not a common bath too?” Syts asked.

“There is, Master, but it is not suited for somebody of your stature.”

“Should that not be my decision?”

The innkeeper actually winced, “the common bath is currently in use.”

Syts let it show that he did not feel this was much of an issue to be concerned with, certainly not to the level of discomfort that the innkeeper was clearly showing.

Another deep sigh. “There is a party in it that is … unusual.” In a whisper he added, “some of them might even be out-kingdom.”

That perked the bard’s interest. With the exception of a few traders very few foreigners ever came to the Kingdom, most preferring to do their trading at border crossings instead. Still, there were some outlanders specifically here at the Glivenr fair.

“Gem traders?” he queried.

Still at a whisper the innkeeper answered, “That is the story but I don’t think it is true. And … the women aren’t exactly … decent.”

Syts grinned easily, “that goes with them being foreigners, does it not?”

“I will have a bath and hot water delivered to you room Master Bard,” the innkeeper said stubbornly. Clearly the man refused to allow they guests he had placed on a pedestal to sully themselves with suspicious outlanders.

It was the bard’s turn to sigh. He was cold and wet and couldn’t really feel his toes , though his fingers had started to tingle painfully now he was out of the snowstorm. He mostly wanted to get out of his wet clothes and into something warm and comfortable.

“Very well master innkeeper, I will retreat to my room and wait for your servants,” he admitted defeat.

“One more moment, Master Bard, if you would spare it?”

Syts sighed inwardly as he nodded.

“My regular performer has unexpectedly fallen ill, and I was hoping that … I could impose on you?” Seeing the bard’s expression he quickly added, “just for this one evening of course and only if you have no other plans for the night?”

You could have let me have my bath, the bard thought, if you want to ask me for a favour.

Then again, it might be interesting to perform for a less discerning audience for a change. And more likely than not his regular performer was told that he would be ill tonight.

“I will think of it while waiting for my bath,” Syts replied after drawing out the hesitation just long enough to make the innkeeper nervous. It would serve him well to worry for a while that he might not have any entertainment tonight.

* * *

By the time he had his bath and dressed in warm and comfortable clothes again, Syts was much more inclined to acquiesce to the innkeeper’s request. The inn quite likely employed a bard rather than allowing one to effectively busk in the main room as was common in most inns and taverns, so not performing for a day probably, hopefully, did not see him without supper. The innkeeper hadn’t endeared himself to him by lying so blatantly about the reason for asking him.

Syts also had to admit that he was enough of a showman still to want to get back on that simpler stage. Even at the court he rarely got to play any more, instead being the composer of the intricate music, and after being given the opportunity he realised that he missed it.

The inn’s main room had grown full in the relatively brief time he’d taken to get dry. It wasn’t yet crowded, but it was clearly fast on the way to become so. He had to push his way through the room. There were a few free seats scattered throughout the room, but those were filling up as he made his way to the little stage. And more people were trickling in at a fast enough pace that the front door rarely was closed for more than a few moments. People coming in were thickly covered in snow even worse than he had been.

After tuning his guitar, his chosen instrument for the evening for its deeper sound capable of cutting through the chatter of a crowd the way a harp could not, he idly strummed some tune fragments, waiting for inspiration to strike. It had after all been a while since last he’d to please a fickle crowd and he figured his repertoire was a bit behind the times. Before he could decide on how to start he had the first pleasant surprise of the day. Of all the students he had trained Keri was easily one of his most favourite. She’d come to the Conservatory late as a troubled young woman. She’s also been in deep trouble, though that part was kept under wraps even from most of the masters who hadn’t been involved with dealing with it. A lot of things had happened after and he’d grown fond of Keri as she never let any of the disappointments to knock her down. For all intents and purposes he had adopted her as his niece, and she frequently called him uncle.

“Keri,” he greeted with unfeigned delight.

She greeted him back with undisguised happiness, but Syts noticed that she was troubled by something. She hid it well but he knew her, whom he thought of as his adoptive daughter, as well as he knew his actual daughters. The tightness around the eyes, the tension of the muscles that shaped the expression making her expressions ever so slightly wooden. And of course there were he shadows under her eyes that spoke of her going days with insufficient sleep.

There was a story going on, and the little signs she gave made him certain that it was a troubling one. When asked about her unexpected presence in Glivenr she all but confirmed, to him at least, that she was in trouble. The girl was stubborn as always though and didn’t want to talk about it. She said ‘yet’, but he knew her well, and unless he cornered her she would find a way to not let her friends help her. Still, he had a solution to two problems here by inviting her to play with him. She couldn’t walk away and he had an minstrel with recent experience to brush up his performance.

And it always was a delight to play with Keri. The girl once had the talent of a master bard, and the skill of one too. She wouldn’t exactly challenge him, but he knew he couldn’t slack off with her, and he suspected being challenged would be good for the girl as well. She’d been keeping away from Kingstown and the Conservatory for as long as she could. He suspected she’d lost some of her sharpness, and being reminded of her true skill would be good for her. Also, while he hadn’t set out from his comfortable apartment to find Keri, he was glad he had. That she avoided Kingstown, or the Conservatory, troubled him, and now he had her he intended to find out why she was running away from the one home he thought she had.

Before much longer he had her on the stage with him. Syts let her do most of the singing, as her voice was better than his, and her little harp didn’t have the range or volume his instruments did. He was delighted to notice though that his baritone at its lower registers still complemented her delicate alto.

The audience noticed also, for despite the overcrowded conditions of the inn it was far more quiet than could be expected. By rights nobody should have been able to make himself heard at anything less than a shout, but most were content to listen rather than engage in a shouting match with the rest of that night’s patrons.

Syts kept the songs suitable for a mining town, normally nearly everybody in the inn would have been a trader from all over the Kingdom, but tonight’s weather had driven some of the town’s more well off citizens inside as well. It amused him to hear the miners’ chorus sung by a female voice, though he didn’t think many of the audience caught the irony of it, and he suspected that the few who did were not amused. Which made it all the more amusing to him.

There was a political reason for picking these songs also. He wasn’t the only one of the bards who had been unhappy with the growing influence of the most conservative faiths, though he had kept his opinion close to himself. Reports with priest almost openly defying the King’s edicts at the edges of the Kingdom, and other much darker rumours had him concerned enough to not wanting to be known as opposing the churches. It seemed to him that Glivenr, that always had a deserved reputation for being odd and standoffish, was a good place for verifying those rumours. So he had arranged his tour in such a way that there would be plenty of time he could spend in Glivenr without going straight there. And he had a plausible reason to stay longer if he felt the need for it, and to leave early on the remote chance that he found something threatening in this black town.

He hadn’t discovered anything alarming in the three days he had spent at the fair, but at the same time there was something off about the whole situation that he couldn’t quite put his fingers on. None of the other bards he had been able to exchange a few words with had noticed anything out of the ordinary, or admitted to it anyway.

And now Keri had come in, and she was in some kind of trouble. It could be coincidence but Syts was not inclined to believe that. He wasn’t as cynical as believing that ‘twice is happenstance, thrice is a conspiracy’, but the number of unusual and inexplicable if vague, events around the Kingdom had far surpassed the number three.

During the first intermezzo, where he played his guitar and she accompanied him on her small travel harp while resting her voice he looked at her again, taking in all the signs of exhaustion that one night of rest could not erase, and whispered to her “we need to talk.”

She looked back at him, her troubled expression uncomfortable to watch, and replied equally in a whisper, “I don’t want to be a bother.”

The troubled expression bothered him, but he managed to dredge up a convincingly acted smile. “You’re practically my daughter love, so allow me to act as a good father should and worry about you.”

Predictably Keri blanched at the dig. After a long hesitation where she missed several notes, she whispered in a rush, as if to get it all out before she could convince herself against saying it, “my nightmares have returned.”

It was Syts’ turn to blanch.

Keri nodded slightly to let him know she had seen his reaction and agreed with all the things that could not safely be said.

“That makes it even more important that we talk. Afterwards. Maybe on the road back to Kingstown,” Syts finally said.

Keri shifted uneasily in her seat. “About that,” she whispered with an equal measure of apprehension and embarrassment in her voice. “I seem to have acquired some company.”

A lover? he thought, before dismissing the notion. Keri did not have the air about her of being happy. The apprehension and embarrassment might be understandable if she thought, could think, that he wouldn’t approve, but there still would have been a lot of happiness

Running away from a relation? was the second thought, equally quickly dismissed. Keri didn’t flee from relationships. Not even one gone sour. Even if she couldn’t resolve the situation and had to fear for her safety, all she had to do was walk to the first town or road guard she saw and ask for protection. Villages didn’t take kindly to the risk of getting cut off from the only form of entertainment that might visit for years to come. Any village where a bard had come to harm would see precious few entertainers for a long time, and plenty of inquisitors and soldiers. Besides many guards understood that bards, even lowly minstrels, sometimes reported directly to the King, because they travelled everywhere and saw everything and could accurately report on the state of the land. And even army barracks could get boring at the long winter nights, and a bard staying over could do a lot to stave off boredom and the inevitable irritations and brawls that caused.

Perhaps a woman, was the final thought he settled upon. Keri had never given any indication of leaning that way, but perhaps during the years on the road she had discovered something about herself that her prim and proper upbringing had buried deeply. It seemed strange to Syts if this was the reason for her apprehension, but stranger things had happened in his experience. And there was some justification for the apprehension. Not with him of course and surely she knew that, but Keri loving another woman — that would cause some trouble both in the Conservatory and beyond. All the way to the northern border in fact, where the Kingdom could ill afford more disturbances than it already experienced.

He shrugged philosophically, and almost imperceptibly. “Nothing could make me think less of you my dear,” he whispered. “Now, if you agree that you have lazed, and missed notes, enough. What do you say about taking the next set of songs from the Lay of King Jiurrytt?”

Keri grinned, recognising the challenge he put before her, a challenge she was clearly willing to meet.

Syts hadn’t planned to play anything like that tonight, because even with only two instruments and two voices, it would be more than a simple challenge to do the complicated but ancient songs justice. Alone it was impossible to perform. But having Keri here who knew the songs and chording very well as it was her graduation project, gave him the opportunity to gauge how the people of Glivenr reacted to the tale of the founding of the Kingdom they were part of. The first set of songs had all been about stoking their sense of pride as hardy mountain and mining folk. The second set would remind them of the rest of the world.

Keri opened with lightly plucking the theme of ‘This Bountiful Land’, the traditional opening to the Lay. Alerting him to what she planned to sing first, and which key and orchestration. It wasn’t for Syts’ secondary purpose the best way to start, but he could hardly blame her for wanting to ease into the challenging songs when he hadn’t told her about his plans to tease a reaction out of the citizens.

Before too much longer they had the attention of many of the patrons of the inn, Keri’s high voice — she was pitching it higher than her natural singing voice to better suit the music — cut through the background noise in a way their music hadn’t earlier that evening. And the songs she picked were undeniably popular with any audience. Had been crowd pleasers as well in the long gone days that he travelled the Kingdom to sing for his supper.

And after that he had to play his fingers off to keep up with the music they ware creating. He got to look at the audience, though not remotely as much as he would have preferred. There didn’t appear to be any overt or poorly hidden resentment for the Kingdom though, not beyond the usual that you could expect from being required to pay tax to a King they would never see. Everybody who was part of the King’s Ears knew to pay attention to silence far more than to simple complaints.

As Keri launched into the ever popular romantic song about the love of the first King and his commoner Queen attention from the audience Syts could feel the attention of more of the audience began to shift from their conversations to the performance. They did not play the entire Lay, that was simply impossible. Twenty-seven songs, all of them technically challenging but several of them rather boring as well, took up the better part of six candle marks to perform one after another. But after five songs and an hour of hard work, Syts was gratified with the loud applause and cheering, and Keri glowed with the praise she received. They also both were more than ready to get a rest for weary fingers and tired voice.

Miraculously the regular bard performing at this tavern recovered from his illness when Syts told the innkeeper that he wanted to spend what remained of the evening at his leisure. And he solved the problem of Keri trying to slink away by simply inviting himself along with her.

The woman tried, but failed, to think of an excuse to leave him behind and resigned to introduce her to the group that she, as she had called it, acquired.

On seeing them Syts was taken aback. All prurient thoughts of her involvement with these people evaporated at that first sight. There was no romantic relation as he has imagined. Instead he saw a woman, easily as tall as, or taller than, the tallest man in the Kingdom, with long yellow golden hair and mottled brown and green clothes that hugged her body rather scandalously. Another woman, this one short and so pale of both complexion and hair that he had no doubt that the ignorant would think her a ghost. She was dressed in modest clothes suitable to a goodwife from Glivenr, but she wore it as if she was not quite familiar with it. Across them from the table was a short man with a gold tone to his skin and pitch black hair, cut short but for what seemed a braid down his back. He was oddly dressed and had an otherworldly quality about him that the bard could not quite place. Both man and style of clothes reminded him of something he had once seen, but it had been so long in his youngest memories that the details escaped him.

And the final person seated at the table had the body of a native of the Kingdom, albeit that he was tall and broad in the shoulders and hard with muscle that even his somewhat loose clothes could not entirely conceal. More importantly, the face was not itself familiar, not entirely anyway, but it resembled the faces of several families that Syts was well acquainted with, at a highly respectful distance.

A sharp look at Keri revealed that she did not know who this man might be, and though he choose to present himself as a common mercenary, there were only a handful of names that could rightfully be his, and most of them were as far from common, or mercenary, as could be. Under the circumstances, Syts was willing to wager a great deal of money that he knew exactly who this mercenary really was, and he knew he was walking on eggshells around him.

Three foreigners and him, Syts thought to himself.

“Keri, dear, what have you gotten yourself involved in?” he asked her in an urgent whisper.

“I don’t know,” she admitted in a whispered replay. “Or better, I don’t understand.”

There was real fear in that whispered voice, though she did her best to hide it. Given her training she should have been able to act more convincingly, meaning that either she meant for him to pick up on her fear, or she was so shocked that she could not entirely conceal it.”

“I think it is time for you to introduce me. And … maybe we should find ourselves a place without prying eyes and curious ears.”

“We have the summer rooms,” Keri began but Syts shook his head.

“Bring them to my room in a quarter candle-mark or so.” he overruled her. “It is bigger and sturdier and most importantly, it has a good fireplace.”

With those words he made a show of seating her at her table and then took himself out of the crowded room. That ought to put any curiosity to rest, where a parade of outlanders following him would have had the opposite effect. And he had pitched his whisper loud enough that at least one person at that table would have picked it up. Syts was certain that even if Keri wanted to avoid him, that other person would want to meet him to find out how much he knew or suspected.

Intercepting one of the serving girls, he told her “Send up a pitcher of whine and … a flagon of mead. It’s so cold out tonight that I don’t know which I’ll need to keep warm. Oh, and something to eat. Soup, bread and some cold cuts of meat and cheese are good enough, no need to burden the cook with more this late in the evening.”

His exit, and his air of arrogance, sufficiently established the old bard made his escape and hurried to his room. The inn was well built out of stone and plaster, but the owner clearly did not see any point in heating the corridors and narrow stairways. His breath was frosting and he stuffed his hands deep in his pockets to keep them warm. He didn’t want to linger any longer than he had to in order to reach his room, and anybody attempting to spy on him would find him- or herself with frostbite before too long.

The coals in her room’s hearth were banked, but the bard raked them up, and added new coal to the fire, not waiting for a servant to do so. Despite what it felt like it wasn’t quite freezing inside the inn, but not quite was still uncomfortably close to it. This was why people wanted to get out of Glivenr before the mountain winter fully set in and made travel all but impossible by dumping a couple of meters of snow on the slopes, which sadly included the roads. Months of indoor temperatures like this, or worse, and nothing to do but wait and watch one’s purse getting thinner every sixday. Syts didn’t have to worry about the state of his purse much, and he strongly expected to leave Glivenr in the morning post haste.

That depended though if Keri and her odd assortion of companions could give him anything he could report to the Circle.

Twice there was a knock on his door. The first time it was a kitchen help delivering the food and drink he’d ordered. The second time it was Keri hustling in her companions.

“Welcome,” he said. None of the four looked happy to be here, and one look at Keri’s expression made him up that number to all five of them. She wasn’t exactly happy to be here either.

Hiding a deep sigh he said, “three foreigners. There are many in this Kingdom who would treat you with suspicion and hostility. I’m not one of them. And neither is our King. With his authority I welcome you to this land.”

He didn’t actually have the authority of one of the King’s agents, not any more, but that didn’t matter right now. It was the gesture that counted, not the formality of it.

Interesting was that none of the foreigners reacted. They didn’t know the Kingdom apparently. Or they were superb actors. Either worked for him, at least tonight.

Keri on the other hand looked surprised before she schooled her expression, but then she knew he hadn’t the authority he pretended to have. The tall man, whom he had to be very careful not to address as your majesty, looked not so much surprised as well as speculative.

“To cut a tedious conversation short, and because I’m not as young as I once was, I’m here chasing rumours of trouble. And I believe you five are here because trouble chased you.”

He gestured at the flagons resting near the hearth, “there’s wine and there’s mead. I wouldn’t recommend the water in this town. It tastes awful. And that’s the clean water.”

Keri leaned over and whispered something in the tall woman’s ear. She reacted as if stung and withdrew the hand that had been reaching towards the mead.

Looking at each of them in turn the old bard said, “This is what brought me here. It is little enough, I’m afraid, mostly rumours of inexplicable events and the fear and disquiet that causes.”

He proceeded to retell some of the rumours that had brought the bards out of Kingstown and to the edges of the Kingdom. As he had warned it was little, and most of it almost too fantastical to believe.

Then it was Keri’s turn.

“This will sound impossible uncle,” she said apologetically. “But please believe me. There has been …” she hesitated a long time before forcing the word out. “magic…”

Syts didn’t laugh, as she had clearly expected. It hurt a little that she had so little trust in his faith in her, but he had to admit that had anybody but his adopted niece come with a tale of magic he would have been unable to believe him.

“Why not begin at the beginning my dear?” He said gently. “Did I not teach you that is the proper place to start any song or story.”