Deep within Cutter's library stacks, I pored once more over the lone copy of "Against the Night: Being an Account of the History of the Lightbringers". Surely, I thought, there must be some way ...
Suddenly, my ears twitched, my head coming up from the pages automatically. A noise ... but what? I felt my ears swivel nervously as I attempted to determine the source of whatever had disturbed my concentration.
" ... ahn ... ", came the sound, strongly enough that I could make out a portion of it. Closing the book gently, I left it upon the table and moved to the end of the shelves.
"Wan- ... oh, there you are", breathed Quiz as she spotted me peering around the end of the wall of books. At least, it sounded like Quiz ... unlike dear Raven, my eyes partake entirely too much of the wolf. Thus, I could smell Quiz, hear Quiz, and see something that looked vaguely, in an out-of-focus way, like that particular court messenger, so I took a chance ...
"Yes, Quiz?", I answered quietly, in accordance with Fox' rules for use of his repository.
"Lord Thomas wishes to speak with you immediately. "*Immediately*", she insisted as I half-gestured in the direction of my reading, "if not sooner".
I sighed, slightly irritated by this interruption of my research. "Very well", I answered with barely-disguised crossness. "I brought nothing with me, and I bear nothing away ... lead on, O mercurial messenger". With a smiling flash of white teeth, she turned, and I followed in the wake of her peculiarly musty snakescent. Of course, the route we took can be but hardly described, as all routes must be in the Keep. Still, I shan't complain overmuch ... my quarters are remote enough to allow a self-imposed exile when I must finish a poem or ode.
Arriving at the doors of the throne room, we were passed in by the guards ... though, as a bard, I fancy they tracked me with their eyes. With all respect to the legends of my profession, I cannot think what they felt I might steal ... their pikes, mayhap?
Within, Lord Thomas was seated, as usual, upon his throne (which, even when I saw more clearly, looked terribly uncomfortable), flanked by Thalberg. Quiz, having delivered me, bowed once and departed silently. Having nothing to say at the moment, I crossed my arms behind my back and waited.
"Do you think he will be fit for the part?", murmured Thalberg, a suspicious cast to his voice (my eyes are dim, but my ears are quite good, thank you).
"As I recall", returned the Duke, "the reason he is here is because he is all we have. Wanderer", he said, raising his voice to the level at which I was supposed to hear him, "a most significant duty has befallen you. With Posti ... dead", he continued, "and all of our customary dignitaries either incapacitated or occupied, the court requires a member to serve as a diplomat. Though both your reputation as a firebrand and your chosen occupation argue against it, the position has fallen to you for the simple reason that you are possessed of one of the most glib tongues in the Keep. Though you may lead us to war", he added with a grimace in his voice, "at least we shall all be entertained along the way. Are you prepared to accept this responsibility?"
I cocked my head, considering. "Though I would not be my first choice", I replied slowly, "I believe I may be entertaining and diplomatic for an even. If something more complicated is required ... ".
"No, no", cut in Thalberg, his great teeth flashing in the torchlight. "Nothing unusual or untoward. You shall simply have need to entertain the guests at table-"
"Without", added Lord Hassan, "revealing that you are a bard."
I cringed, instinctively, at the tone of censure in his voice. "I understand, my lord." And so I did. A bard at table is well and good ... but one does not introduce him around, let alone invite him to dine.
That night, in my best court attire, I approached the ballroom, naked of any instrument, music, or accompaniment (and feeling quite naked, and you take my meaning). With the aid of Thalberg, it had not taken long to determine my role for the evening ... for one night, I was to be one of the official copyists of the Duke's library. A considerable step up, that ...
As Thalberg drew me in through the ballroom doors, he took my arm (and with his teeth, I prayed he'd give it back). "Everyone is here", he murmured, "so be very careful. And be sure to pay special attention to the Countess deFanu", he added with a gesture in the direction of the dancers. "She's quite well connected."
"Thalberg", I murmured back, "you seem to forget that my eyes are best suited to motion ... all very well and good when faced with a sword or an arrow, but of no use at all in recognition. How shall I know her?"
He sighed. "She is in burgundy and white, and wears roses of attar. Now gon." And with that, he abandoned me to the scene, since a copyist, though very nice, does not rate an announcement.
It did not take me long to find the Countess, my nose gently picking out the foreign-made perfume she wore. "Countess DeFanu?"
"The same", she replied, her voice slightly haughty and ungentle. "And you are?"
Briefly strangling my urge to respond in verse, I said nothing more than, "I am called Charles, Lady, though not Matthias. I am official copyist and scribe to the Duke's library." I sketched as courtly a bow as I could, and vaguely saw her courtesy. "How do you find the evening?"
"Poorly", she replied, her voice tart. "I have seen more dancing among the courtiers than upon the round, and most of it centering upon me. I begin to feel like a maypole."
I chuckled, and my tongue slipped:
"Of that I have no doubt, my lady fair. For such --"
I almost bit my tongue, yet I stopped it. But no, "What?", saith she, and, "Continue", saith she. My cheeks burning beneath my fur, I begin again:
"Of that I have no boubt, my lady fair.
For such a spectacle but few do care.
And so we look for sport in all their prancing.
I call it art, for look, 'tis no man's dancing."
"A poet", she said with a smile in her voice. "Was that extempore, or rehearsed?"
I essayed a half-smile. "Both, my Lady. 'Twas written upon the moment, yet I did give it encore in my mind. 'Tis a fault, I owe."
"No, no", she laughed. "'Twas most well done, for a glorified scribe. Give me another."
I raced along the corridors of my thought, and dredged:
"Oh Lady, do not put me so to sport,
A poem's nothing an 'tis not defined.
So, pray you, Lady, tell me what grand sort
Of poetry you now may have in mind.
I trow I know no more than any know
Of what in poetry doth please you so."
"Well played", quoth she. "Have us another! Make one of my name."
Awaiting every second the hand of Lord Thomas upon my shoulder (and a knife at my neck), I obliged:
"'Oh', said the lady Countess deFanu,
'I cannot tell just what it is I do.
A staff I have that, though I find it sound,
Is most employed in standing all around.
My steward serves, my cook he makes the meals,
My guards keep watch to see that no-one steals.
And yet I weary so from day to night,
A-standing by to see they do it right.'"
A crowd had gathered, and a laugh arose. Yet I had no joy on't. It was at that moment that I felt a warm, moist hand upon my shoulder. Thalberg.
"If you will excuse Master Charles", he slid smoothly into the space, "I must deliver a message to him."
I made a show of shrugging, and made agreement that I should return as soon as could be. Then, at Thalberg's urging, I stepped behind the arras, where he joined me.
"Are you mad", he hissed angrily, "or merely a fool!? You were not to be a bard this even, remember?"
"I've little say in the matter", I protested weakly. "The once a poesy slipt forth, she pounced upon it, and will not leave it go."
"Find some amusement, then, to take her mind from't."
"'Tis well, were not her amusement my own self."
For a moment, he seethed. "Very well", he replied tersely. "but watch your words, Wand'rer, or you may yet wander elsewhere."
I bowed my head as he left me, then departed the quiet arras for the bustle of the ballroom.
"Charles!", the Countess called from across the room, "Come here!". I approached. "Shall we have another poesy, then?"
"In troth, Lady", I answered her, "I would rather not. Lord Hassan has sent word that I am not to be so distracting."
"Fie", she said, "a contemptible act. I had much rather we had continued with the rhyming. I imagine you could have made some intriguing trys at Lord Hassan ... "
"Has Your Ladyship seen the new play?", I babbled desperately in search of a non-poetic subject (and beginning to wish I were a non-poetic subject ... of the Duke). "It has most intriguing wordplay."
"Aye", I continued, nodding as though someone had pulled my string. "The finest comes just before the king's fool, disguised as a knight, is to face a sellsword in battle for the princess' hand in marriage."
"'Tis not our king, then", the Countess answered, "for he has no daughters".
"Aye", I said, "a pleasant fiction for the play. But the piece comes between the fool and the witch who wishes to help him by poisoning the sellsword's wine". Here, I began to alternate between fool and old woman, beginning with the fool:
"So the sanguinous solution's in the goblet with the goblin?/Nay, they broke the goblet with the goblin./ They broke ... ?/ And replaced it with a firkin./A firkin./ With a pig holding a gherkin./Wonderful. So that has the sanguinous solution?/No, no./Of course not./The sanguinous solution's in the stein with the vine. The firkin with the gherkin holds the beer that is clear./Stein, firkin, pig ... /So easy, I can say it!/Then you fight him!"
Then you fight him ...
Then you ...
I shivered, as my mind replayed once more the moment at which Christopher lost use of his legs.
Then you fight him ...
Seeing him fall ...
Then you fight him ...
I felt hands guide me to a bench, where they placed me as I stared in horrid fascination at my own memory. The sight, the sound, the pain ... oh, the pain ...
"Are you well?"
I looked up and saw the blur of the Countess.
"A ... a friend", I croaked out through a throat suddenly gone dry and stiff. "He was injured in a duel."
"Ah", said the Countess, and fell silent.
"I know it is foolish of me", I half-sighed, half-spoke, "but a part of me wants very much to do something ... and has no idea what."
"It is not foolish", replied the Lady, stroking my trembling hand. "It is kind."
"It is useless", I smirked sadly.
"Yet kind nonetheless."
I sighed. "I am sorry, Countess. I fear I have been rather a poor companion this eventide."
I saw the blur of her smile. "Never. If nothing else, it is a change from being smothered in attendants."
I smiled weakly.
"Come", she said, taking my hand in her own, "and dance with me."
And, though she could not make me forget my friend ...
It was made better ... for an evening.