Vanth watched Barlo flirting with the strange newcomer in the hooded cloak and silently seethed. Barlo had a less than respectable reputation but to do this in front of her, when he knew she would be there to see him perform, was unacceptable. She was a high ranking member of the city guard, a Salt Sword. She demanded more bloody respect.
“I should throw him in the Pit for the night,” Vanth thought to herself. “I would like to see how his ardour holds when he’s ten feet below sea level listening to the screams of the damned.”
She moved from the shadows of the wall she had been leaning against and strode through the milling crowd towards them. “Good evening, Barlo.”
Barlo tried to remain nonchalant as he smiled at her in greeting but Vanth was pleased to note a slight tremor in his lower lip.
“My dear Vanth,” he said, summoning all his acting ability to sound as enthusiastic as possible. “I was just wondering where you were hiding.”
“I’m sure you were.” Vanth looked at the woman beneath the hood for the first time and was surprised to see how uncomfortable she seemed. “Is Barlo making such a poor impression on you?” she asked her.
The girl’s eyes narrowed slightly as she lifted her face to Vanth. “He was just telling me there are a hundred women in the crowd who are yearning to escort him.”
Vanth stifled a laugh. She decided right then and there that she liked this woman. “I’m glad to see you didn’t believe him. The ability to spot a lie is a sign of integrity.”
Now it was Barlo’s turn to look uncomfortable. He attempted to change the subject. “I see you have an instrument,” he said, looking at the panflute clasped tightly in the newcomer’s hands. “I assume you will be playing tonight? I am a terrible host for I haven’t yet asked your name.”
“Gwin,” Gwin replied.
The gaunt young man with the dirty nails who had been taking down the players’ names climbed onto the stage to a fresh round of applause. He waited for quiet before unrolling his tatty parchment. “The first bard to perform this evening is Malcus Nead,” he announced. The man jumped back down to the ground at the side of the stage and Barlo winced.
“Gabe has all the showmanship of a turnip,” he complained. “I told the organisers I should present the entire show but they insisted I need only open it.”
“That’s because they knew you’d talk too much,” Vanth said.
Forcing a smile, Barlo ignored Vanth and instead turned back to Gwin. “So, Gwin. You’re from Jonick, aren’t you? That’s a long journey to undertake alone. I assume you’re alone, I don’t see anybody with you.” He made a show of glancing at the people standing behind them to prove his theory. “I met a man from Jonick once,” he continued. “His hair was a brighter shade of blue. Your hair is the colour of a delicate bird’s egg.” He raised his hand as if to stroke it and Gwin flinched away, obviously beginning to grow angry.
“For Thet’s sake, leave her alone,” Vanth said.
On the stage, Malcus Nead had perched himself on a stool and was beginning to strum an expensive-looking lyre fashioned from gleaming dark wood. His deft fingers moved easily across the strings and his eyes closed in concentration. He performed a melancholy sailor’s song, traditionally played on a more modest lute for seamen who were far from home and missing their loved ones.
“A sea shanty,” Barlo whispered to Vanth. “How original.”
“It’s hardly a shanty,” Vanth replied. She thought the music was beautiful, if a little too sad.
The trio watched the rest of Malcus’s performance in silence and clapped politely with the rest of the crowd once he had finished. Vanth glanced at Barlo but he was staring straight ahead at the stage, refusing to meet her gaze. Perhaps she had been too harsh with him. She put a hand on his shoulder and he shrugged it off.
Gabe reappeared to shake out his roll of parchment once more. “Our second bard is Gwin,” he said, half-shouting to be heard above the din.
Vanth watched a look of fright pass across Gwin’s features. “There’s no need to worry,” she told her. “It’s the Midnight Bard, the audience will be kind.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be called upon so soon,” Gwin said. She took a deep breath and walked up to the stage, taking Gabe’s hand so he could hoist her up.
“You are in a foul mood tonight,” Barlo said once Gwin was out of earshot.
“My mood was only fouled by your blasted flirtations,” Vanth replied. She reached an arm around his waist and pulled him closer. “I came here to see you,” she whispered into his neck. “How do you think it feels to find your attention caught by someone else?”
“You’re a very jealous woman, Vanth.”
“I’m not jealous, I just refuse to be forgotten. I don’t care what sordid behaviour you indulge in when I’m not around to see it, but you knew I was coming tonight.”
“A thousand apologies,” Barlo said. He sighed, turning to her. “Of course I knew you were coming. I was only telling my fellow Players this morning…”
Barlo’s voice faded away and Vanth ceased to hear him as Gwin began to play. The first breathy note from the panflute hit her like a club in the stomach and she stared wide-eyed at the girl on the stage. She still looked nervous, her hands clasped tightly around the small instrument, but each note stirred something inside Vanth. The tune started simply enough, lilting and playful. It shouldn’t have affected her the way it did and yet Vanth felt compelled to listen intently. The music built, becoming faster, keeping time with the foot Gwin began beating on the wooden boards of the stage. Then just as it soared, the song became soft once more. Again and again, the music dipped and rose until Vanth felt dizzy with it, until the torches in the square and the shapes of people pressed on either side of her began to dim and blur. With a start, Vanth realised it was not her vision that was failing. The shadows in the large open courtyard really were beginning to gather closer together, being drawn towards the stage by the dancing melodies of Gwin’s panflute. As darkness swam in a rippling pool at Gwin’s feet, the music peaked again and her hood fell back, revealing a mane of hair that shone like stars in the night, so bright it stung the back of Vanth’s eyes.
“What’s happening?” Vanth said to Barlo, holding tighter to his waist.
“What’s happening, indeed?” he said. “The Midnight Bard decreases in quality year on year. Gwin seems a sweet girl but surely that quiet little ditty has no place on the stage of the Bard’s Quarter?”
Vanth looked at Barlo, amazed to see him wrinkling his face in distaste. He certainly wasn’t seeing the shining vision that she was. Either she was finally losing her mind, or there was some magickal mischief at play.
As she continued to watch, Gwin suddenly locked eyes with her and Vanth had to stop herself from crying out. Her eyes were huge frosted orbs, blue and glassy with a light that matched her hair. The music began to reach a crescendo and Gwin rocked with it, her foot still beating out an insistent tattoo on the stage. The shadows boiling beneath her began to rise, swirling and coalescing until they formed the shape of a tremendous black bird. The bird shook out its vast, inky wings and flew high above the stage, rising as the music built until Gwin finally blew her last trembling note. The shadow bird turned and wheeled in the air, plummeting downward to swoop over the heads of the audience, so low that Vanth ducked. She spun around to follow its flight and watched as it reared up before the light of the torches behind her to shatter into a thousand smoky pieces that scuttled away to their respective dark corners.
Vanth turned back to Gwin on the stage, her heart beating so hard she could feel it in her throat. Gwin was still staring at her, her panflute held in small, white hands that were now lowered once more.
“It’s all a set-up, of course,” Barlo said, his speech starting to slur. “Of course Malcus won, his uncle sits on the Midnight Bard committee. His family are friends with Caiden Cain.” He turned to Gwin. “Cain is our kindly benefactor. Or the fool with too much gold who stumps up the coin for this farce of a competition.”
“You wouldn’t have been allowed to win, anyway,” Vanth said. “Wouldn’t it have been a conflict of interest? Seeing as you’re involved with the committee too? You told me they were just letting you perform as a courtesy.”
“You think letting Malcus sodding Nead win wasn’t a conflict of interest?” They were sitting at a table outside The Bard’s Rest, a large tavern that glowered over Midnight Square like a cathedral. Even though they were drinking out in the open air and surrounded by the chatter of people still thronging before the stage opposite, Barlo’s raised voice was beginning to attract annoyed glances from the tables beside them.
He drained his glass of beer and thumped it down on the table. “I need a piss.”
“He seems very high spirited,” Gwin said once Barlo had stumbled away to relieve himself.
“He’s definitely full of spirits,” Vanth replied. The fire that had dazzled from Gwin’s hair and eyes was long gone, although the memory of it still made the Salt Sword shiver. Vanth strongly disliked being made to feel uneasy.
“Now that we’re alone,” she said, “perhaps you can tell me what in Thetia’s name was happening on that stage when you played?”
“I know you saw me,” Gwin said. “I would dearly love to talk to you about it, but perhaps this is not the time or the place?” She glanced at the people crowding around them from beneath her lashes, at the tavern customers sitting at tables not too far away.
“Sod them,” Vanth hissed. “They all know better than to listen in on my conversations. Tell me what happened on that stage.”
Gwin looked down at the drink she had been toying with for the last hour and shook her head. “Not here,” she insisted.
Vanth grunted in annoyance and kicked back from the table. “I could make you talk,” she said. “I could accuse you of practising moon magick and have you strung up before Lord Dewer himself.”
Gwin started in alarm. “No, please don’t do that,” she said. “I swear on Aikana I will tell you everything. I will tell you why I travelled so far to come here. Just not now, not in such a public place.”
Vanth looked at Gwin’s scared, pale face, her eyes glistening in the torchlight, and felt herself relenting. “This business is far from concluded,” she said. “If you don’t meet with me away from here to explain yourself, I will come looking for you.”
“Please, believe me, my need to talk to you is just as great,” Gwin said. “Can you see me tomorrow? Everything will seem plainer in the light of day.”
Vanth doubted the light of day would make anything about Gwin’s performance plain, but she had to know what it was she had seen. “I know a suitable meeting place,” she said. “It’s a tavern called The Leafling’s Half. You’ll find it perched atop the great wall overlooking the harbour. It’s usually quiet and we won’t be overheard.”
“Yes, that sounds acceptable,” Gwin said. The pinched look had drained from her face.
“I’ll be there at midday,” Vanth said. She forced a small smile. “In any case, it would be a pain keeping you incarcerated until Dewer’s return.”
“Lord Dewer is away from the city?” Gwin asked. She seemed surprised.
“That’s why there are so many changelings here tonight,” Vanth said. “They usually hide themselves away, especially during events such as this. They are markedly more relaxed when our High Lord is not in residence.”
There certainly was an abundance of changelings in and around the tavern. A trio of sylvan maids were standing together on a bench, reckless beneath the violet moon in low slung skirts adorned with gold chains that displayed the dazzling blue of their skin. Each had what looked like a sapphire glinting in their belly buttons. They danced beside wizened goblin men and bearded hags who clutched at passers-by with their clawed hands, offering to read fortunes for a trinket.
“The changelings don’t seem afraid of you,” Gwin observed. “You’re a Salt Sword, shouldn’t that make them wary?”
“They know me here,” Vanth replied. “I’m not one to make trouble with them for no good reason. Their lives are hard enough as it is.”
“You have sympathy for them.”
“I simply have no qualms with anyone who abides by the laws of Armoria. Break them – human, changeling, satyr, I don’t care – and you’ll feel the heel of my boot in the small of your back.”
Barlo suddenly reappeared. Strands of hair had worked themselves loose from his ponytail and were hanging over his face. He reeled through the crowd and sat down heavily, smiling at his companions. “I have returned, beautiful ladies,” he announced. When both Vanth and Gwin failed to respond he let his eyes wander to the people standing around them, pressed close to the flickering lights of the tavern. “It appears I have new fans,” he said, gesturing over Vanth’s shoulder. “I do believe those changeling girls are admiring me.”
Vance twisted round in her seat. There was indeed a group of changelings huddled beneath a torch, their gazes trained on their table. As Vanth caught their attention they looked away and her decade of Salt Sword training made dark suspicions tingle beneath her skin. One of the changelings, a girl dressed in a velvet cloak with a deep pointed hood, continued to stare while her friends turned away, her brazen expression almost defiant. There was a large port-wine birthmark stretching across one side of her face, curving into a graceful arch above her right eyebrow.
Vanth looked at Gwin. “They’re not staring at Barlo,” she said. “They’re staring at you.”
“I am fully aware,” Gwin replied.