For a few moments, Maeve sat staring alternately at Eric’s tear-stained face, and then at Captain Venlesser. Next to her, Rudolpho held his breath as tightly as he held her hand under the edge of the table. Her face, though still pale, showed an unaccustomed expression – not fear or sadness (what grief to match Eric’s? Or even, Rudolpho acknowledged begrudgingly, but only to himself, Jacques?). Maybe resignation. Maybe determination.
“Ealasaid,” she said, and for a moment, the word caught the boy off guard. Why was she talking about Fionn’s story now? Only after Thomis and Jacques and Eric had gone? But when he glanced over at the highlander, who still had one thumb in Rue’s grasp, he could see that Fionn understood why Maeve dwelled on the Fhaolain woman who had betrayed husband and lover both. ”Why did she do it?” As she asked, Maeve kept her gaze on the space somewhere between Eric and the Captain.
“For the game of it,” Fionn answered simply. And that was when Rudolpho understood, from the way Maeve’s fingers squeezed his, and her mouth settled into a line that was neither smile nor frown. That was why Fionn’s own brother, Niall – Rue’s father – had seen fit to woo Maeve herself, though she was sworn to another man. Not enough for some Fhaolain (some, for he could not think of Fionn in this way) simply to break their own oaths … the true entertainment came in causing others to be as faithless.
“For the game of it, then,” Maeve repeated, and when she looked over at Rudolpho, her eyes glimmered, and suddenly she grinned. And rather than just a somewhat pretty girl with a too-thin face, she was suddenly beautiful. Just for a moment, for when she pulled her hand away to push back her chair, she once again looked simply … determined. “Captain Dunn,” she began in a firm but gentle voice, “if yeu weuld be kend eneugh to lift yeur fiddle…?” The girl waited a moment, to see if the grieving man could bear to play.
He stood quietly for a moment, almost as if he had not heard the request. Then he shook his head. ”I can’t,” he whispered, “Cousin Laurelyn?”
Laurelyn said not a word – she just held out her hands in supplication.
He held out his instrument and handed the fiddle and it’s bow to his cousin.
“Captain Venlesser, E’ve ne deubt ye -” Maeve stopped short, hearing the thickness of her accent, before beginning again, more slowly and carefully. ”I have no doubt ye had the girls at your beck before ye brought the curse upon your head. I had my own share of yeung men to court me. But neither of us hae danced in too long, I think. Mayhap this will be the last chance for either of us. If ye would?” Her gaze did not waver as she held out both hands to the Captain, waiting.
For a long time Captain Venlesser studied the girl – his grey-lit eyes seeming to see far beyond Maeve or the cabin. But then he stood and stepped over to where she waited.
Nor did her fingers tremble as the pale-eyed captain took her hands in his, and slipped one cold arm around her slender waist. ”Nay dirge, please,” she said, tilting her head to one side to look around him at Laurelyn. ”But something fest, to get our hearts thumping.” And after that, she leaned her head back to catch his glance, and waiting for the music.
Something fast, Thomis thought, and pushed his chair away from the table enough to watch the pair. _To know that we live._ And as Laurelyn set the bow to the strings, to strike the first notes, he could see in Maeve the change that Rudolpho had seen. For even as she hesitated, to catch the rhythm of the song, the line of her neck and the brightness of her eyes echoed the spirit that had drawn Donal MacRorie to want her as his wife. That had drawn Niall Fhaolain to want to break her.
And maybe she had been broken, in the long months when, outcast from her own clan and heavy with Niall’s child, she had found only makeshift shelter with the stern Fionn as her only companion (a kinder one than she thought, Thomis suspected). But now, as she whirled and twisted, and stopped short to stomp one foot before turning the other way, with her face flushed, Maeve Calhoun was vibrant with life and passion. Wholly unaware of how the smile spread across her face and into her eyes, and wholly unaware of how Fionn watched, transfixed.
Thomis’s eyes caught Laurelyn’s over the edge of the moving bow, knowing that her stare had passed over the highlander. Knowing that she had recognized, as well, that more than Rue had held Fionn by Maeve’s side.
Faster and faster they turned, damned captain and outcast daugher of the Calhoun clan, reversing and turning again, until with one quick pull of her arm, Laurelyn stopped. The two stopped at the same moment, and Maeve laughed aloud at the strangeness of it all before pulling away and dropping a deep curtsey. ”Whatever sneer ye care to give,” she said pre-emptively, “I am not too proud to say that ye are a fine dancing partner.” And after one more curtsey, she took her seat by Rudolpho, smiling to herself as if she did not care whether she had won her boon or not. For she had won herself back again, if nothing else.
On the other side of the table, Fionn’s eyes dropped to Rue, who stared back at him silently.
“Only a fool sneers at a last chance,” Venlesser said, as he offered Maeve a deep bow. There was no sarcasm in either his words or his action.
But there was a hint of a smile as he said, “And I thank you for a fine memory of what well could be my last dance.”
The passageway seemed longer and gloomier than it had the first time, but only because of the sadness she now carried with her. When she reached the lower room where everyone had gathered, she paused in the shadows of the passageway, still just out of sight of the folk inside. To take Fiend to them, she would have to let them see her this way, and reveal a secret of herself that she did not want to give up. But the alternative was to leave him here and become small again and then bring them out to the gruesome discovery, which seemed cold even to her.
With a small sigh, she stepped forward to the entryway, just far enough for everyone to see that she’d brought their small companion back to them herself, feeling self-conscious as the pale, lifeless light of room failed to dull the moonglow of her white gown or the starshine that glittered in her blond hair. Seeing eyes beginning to turn her way, she backed slightly into the shadows again, holding the wet, drowned puppy close to her, feeling shy and startled and not at all wanting the attention she was about to get.
The glitter of white had caught Laurelyn’s gaze and when she turned to look at the cabinway she froze – with Eric’s fiddle still cradled in her arms. Nor would she ever be able to say which held her – Tirlina’s unearthly innocence, or the drowned innocent in the sprite’s arms.
She knew well what Eric meant when he said that he had turned grief into music – and while a drowned puppy might not compare to a lost wife the scene before her seemed to represent all the innocents she had seen die.
From the strings of the fiddle came the Elven lullaby that Morrighu had taught her. A tune that had been both sad and sweet when the High Elves had composed it centuries ago, but which had gained a haunting resonance because it had been taught by a Bean Nighe.
And with each note pulled from the fiddle one of Laurelyn’s tears fell to greet it.
“And another offering is made,” the Captain said, gazing at the shy sprite, but he did not clarify if he meant the tune Laurelyn played or the lifeless pup.
He had enjoyed the entertainments; and Laurelyn’s music had been surpassingly powerful. With her skill, it was obvious why she had sided with Seldez during the time in Chatterton. The sight of Tirlina and the puppy left him unmoved. It had been a long time since the death of an innocent – or of many innocents – touched him. Within the CRS, those with a tender heart didn’t last long. And Enris had fit in well…very well indeed. He was a member of the CRS! Whether that led to life, or death, or eternity at sea meant nothing. His service to the CRS, and his efforts to uphold the glory of the Republic meant all! With a stern smile, he addressed the Captain.
“Captain Venlesser, I suspect you often see and hear the product of sorrow and of pain; may I now show you a different type of vision?”
With a gesture of his hand, the walls and roof seemed to dissolve, replaced by the deep blue black of a cloudless sky. Numberless stars gleamed, their sparkle brighter than diamonds – and a warm breeze touched with a hint of the fragrance of tropical flowers wafted through the group.
The symphony of sound was augmented by another symphony, one of light, as fireworks appeared to explode in the sky above, synchronized to the music and in time with it.
Enris spoke briefly, and made another curt gesture – around them, music grew. The magical concert began soft and low, with the unseen orchestra creating a gentle music that spoke of a simple, happy time and a languid, harmonious world. A flute trilled like the call of a bird at dawn, and the harp, clarinet, and violin added their voices; surrounding the group, fountains of sparkling fire in blue, gold, silver and green danced about.
Soon, hints of a stronger, more powerful music entered, and the fountains around them grew higher and stronger. Red now was added to the palette of colors, and the drums began to beat along with the sharp call of brass horns.
With no warning, the sound erupted, as drums and horns filled the area with their voices; above, great explosions of fire filled the sky with cascading rivers of brilliant flame – yet, as the music tore at the group, another theme began, with a strong, disciplined beat and a stern addition by the brass. The new theme grew as the old one diminished and disappeared – and above, the fireworks took on the character of joy and celebration as balls of fire shot through the heavens.
Within the theme, the Anthem began, intertwined within the music until the two were united as one – the fountains of flame had returned, larger and more powerful than before.
A new eruption of sound and light occurred, and it was even louder than before. The bass of drums, along with the staccato sound of smaller drums that reminded the listener of marching soldiers, and other deep voices went below the threshold of hearing and entered the bodies of the group through their bones – while the highs reached to the limits of hearing. Within the music were themes of war, of sacrifice, of victory at all costs. Above, the fireworks added the visual element that the music spoke of – until the Anthem overwhelmed the opposing music and continued its stately, implacable progress.
With a final flourish, one which promised unending joy and certain victory, the piece ended. Above, a great flash of light in colors emblematic of Seldez, the music ended.
The symphony was a history of Seldez … the beginning as a sleepy little country, the series of civil wars that had led to Adelu’s rule … the rebuilding of the country … the battles with the numerous Enemies of the State…and the promise of ultimate victory.
No matter what the verdict, Enris would never forget his pride in the symphony, for it sprang neither from his heart nor his mind, but rather from the deepest portions of his soul. His eyes bright with fierce pride, he looked to the Captain as the walls of the cabin reappeared about them and the fragrance about them dissolved.
“This hall has born witness to the vast expanse of experience, whether it be the throes of love, or the vast power of war….,” Venlesser said, though his gaze seemed to be on some far vista, “And though the tales are ageless – they are as fresh as a new wound to those who live them….”
Laurelyn cradled the fiddle next to her breast and studied the Captain, wondering if he meant all who had come to this ship, or if he refered to this night – this night when souls were being stripped bare.
“There are only two left to offer up their entertainments,” Venlesser suddenly said – his tone becoming matter-of-fact. His pale gaze traveled over Rudolpho and Keir.
Jacques looked at Enris. Or, more accurately, Jacques glared at Enris for a second or two.
The mage was showy, arrogant, and simply had about as much taste as Prince Leonard. The man who’d once demanded all the court to be dressed in bright pink and forest green stripes. The whole exhibition the mage had created was just that – an exhibition.
The jester wondered if he could help the Captain return Enris home. Quickly. Though perhaps not painlessly.
Then he turned and glared at the sprite who was still holding the corpse of Fiend, bedraggled and lifeless.
“You’d best toss that back overboard,” he offered with a shrug. Though, strangely, a part of him cringed at the tone. Damn fool animal, how’d he manage to drown himself anyway? And why wasn’t someone watching the beast earlier?
Just who was supposed to be watching Fiend he left unthought. Almost.
The childlike sprite gasped at Jacques cold suggestion, and backed further into the shadow, cradling Fiend closer to herself in her small, bare arms.
Maeve’s jaw dropped open and her face flushed, as if she were about to tell Jacques, once again, her opinion of his harshness. The jester’s tone, by itself, had been enough to make her forget the grandeur of Enris’ offering. But before she could speak, Fionn had turned in his seat to draw Aliea forward – seemingly unsurprised at the sprite’s increase in size – and lift the drowned puppy from her arms. In moments, the highlander had wrapped the small body in one of Rue’s spare blankets, as gently as he handled the babe herself. And afterwards, he carefully set the tiny bundle atop the table, as if it were a reminder to them all.
Of what, Maeve was not quite sure. Perhaps of what she might want to say to Jacques, after this was done. Only after … Her eyes drifted to Aliea, studying the sprite’s change in size, and she nudged Rudolpho (who had bitten his own tongue). ”Your turn,” she whispered.
After a short pause, Rudolpho nodded, and pushed his chair back from the table. “Captain, it looks like Aliea has grown up all of a sudden,” he started with a note of uncertainty, and then remembered to add a quick, flourishing bow. With a great show, he started patting his pockets and bag, pulling from his trousers a single apple, startlingly red in the greyness of the room, then an acorn and a pebble from his vest. “This about does it …” he murmured to himself, casting about for something more. ”Aha,” the boy said, and snatched one small silver knife and a water goblet from his place setting.
Rudolpo’s observation reminded Tirlina suddenly of her size, and she gave a startled glance around the table, then shrank back from Fionn. With a brilliant flare of light, the child-sized sprite disappeared, and in her place hovered the tiny form they were all used to. She turned and retreated up to the same wall sconce on which she’d perched before going to seek out Fiend, and settled on it again, sadly watching the motionless, damp bundle on the table.
“Anyway,” he continued, and turned back to look at Captain Venlesser as he started to juggle the five objects in his hands, “things that seem small sometimes might be bigger than they look.” From where he stood, he could watch Maeve’s expression as well, and even if the Captain showed no reaction, Maeve’s face told him that at least one person was paying attention. In the pale candlelight, the objects, one by one, seemed to expand, and then shrink, cycle after cycle. At one point, the pebble appeared to be a boulder, until it touched his hand and fell in upon itself again. And the knife, turning hilt upon blade, grew to a sword of such length that Maeve shrank back in her chair as it spun before her.
But in a moment more, her stare moved from the ever-changing things Rudolpho tossed in the air to the space behind him – where a long tail had begun to grow. Thick, and covered in golden fur that began to spread over him, as if displacing his clothes to someplace unknown. Over his back and his shoulders, while he continued to juggle, heedless, until it spread up his neck, around his chest. He did not miss a movement as he bones and muscles began to reshape, pitching him forward slightly to match the curve of the pelvis and spine. He did not stop juggling, or changing the size of the things he held, even when his arms started to shift, to match the clawed feet that had taken shape beneath him.
His hands never changed, though thick fur covered his fingers and his pupils elongated to a verticle slit in suddenly green eyes. Tufted ears twitched on his head, and still he juggled – a goblet large enough to serve a giant, a huge stone, a machete, an acorn seemingly about to burst from its shell, an enormous apple. All shrinking in the air before he touched them again. In a flash, he was all cat, as large as the table and snarling -
And then nothing but a boy again, sending the things he held – normal sized and unchanging – in one more spin, before catching them, one after another, to set again on the table before him. Apple, acorn, pebble, goblet, knife.
Unable to think of anything to say to finish it off, Rudolpho simply bowed again and took his seat by Maeve. _I did my best, Papa,_ he thought, one hand creeping under the table again to seek out Maeve’s. He could almost feel her hesitation as she clasped his fingers, tentatively searching for claws instead of fingernails.
The Captain gave a slightly bow of his head in the boy’s direction.
Venlesser took a sip of his wine; then his gaze traveled towards the Hortus – lingering for a moment on a small, blanket-wrapped, form. “Master Keir, what is your offering? was all the Captain asked.
As if coming out of a trance Laurelyn gave herself a little shake, and proceeded to offer the fiddle back towards her cousin.
She felt wordless – that all her words and emotions had been played out with that one simple tune. And all she could do, after Eric had taken the fiddle, was rest her gaze on Thomis.
The Hortus’s eyes snapped open at the Captain’s call, his concentration had been so focused as the dread of “performing” had built that he had nearly missed the offerings of the others. Nearly but not entirely, hearing almost all and glimpsing enough to be awed. It also made him that much more nervous as his turn approached. The last time he had looked was to see the limp form of Jacque’s dog – for that’s how he thought of him no matter how the protests of the jester denied it, and had found it yet harder to go back to finishing his preparations.
It is done, he thought as he rose from the table. “I am a performer neither by avocation nor vocation,” he apologized to the group. “I have no magics nor artistic abilities but am blessed with friends,” His gaze wandered about his assembled companions, once strangers but now dear friends – friends who’s travails pained him deeper than his own. “Those not already present await us above decks as a courtesy to one of the few talents I possess, may their efforts on my behalf be found worthy amongst entertainments so grand.” His bow no more than a nod, he turned and walked from the room knowingly violating the custom of gaining permission from the captain before leaving his table. Nothing Venlesser had done yet had endeared him or deserved respect to his way of thinking.
Arriving on deck ahead of the others he saw his calls had been answered. The rigging was bathed in the pulsing green glow of a million fireflies, their light reflected and refracted into a rainbow of colors by the metallic-winged butterflies that blanketed the sails and the clouds of crystal-winged midges hovering at the mast tops. The air was filled with the rhythmic electric chorus of cicadas lining the yardarms and the sweet smell of honey wafting from bee swarms along the gunwales. It may have been a trick of the cursed ship but he swore their drone sounded like “Fiend, friend, fiend.”