“Let me tell you a story.”
My signature line. Yes, I was being paid to tell stories. Yes, many of the guests at the party were there purely because they were promised that for that one night, the entertainment would be classic tales weaved with expert care by the Traceren Ridsekes. But none of that really mattered. It was all part of the atmosphere and illusion of the exotic to entreat the audience to hear my tale as if I were a stranger who had come to their fire in the night.
And I certainly wanted ot keep the entertained. Not just from a sense of professional pride, or because I felt I owed it to them because I had been paid. In normal circumstances, that was enough, but I was surrounded by the ‘nobility’ of Bri-sean.
Nobility was their word, not mine. There weren’t any bloodlines in the Rogue City, just blood spatters. I hesitate to use call them upper class either, because class varied from nation to nation, or in some cases, city to city.
In Harpsfell, where I live when not earning my coin, they would grudgingly be upper class, because Harpsfell will let you call yourself king if your purse if fat enough, or if you’re talented enough. But in any town or city in Rizen, where class was dependent on how many would stand with you in the town hall or the forum, these people were lower than urchins. They didn’t have friends, they had people they happened to neither fear not hate mutually.
The point being, if they thought I was disrespecting me, I might not make it out of the ball alive, witnesses be damned. The closest thing to justice was their say so anyway. So I spoke to them like a gathering of close friends, even though being in the same room with them made me feel as if I were covered in all the blood on their hands.
They didn’t look the part tonight. Dressed in exotically dyed leathers and furs, with feathered hats and more silver and gold than a goodly sized vault. Even the food and drink was dressed up for the occasion; wine and beer in gilded cups and ivory tankards, food on platters of teak worked with silver and platinum.
I like to believe that I put that crowd of criminals and blackguards to shame.
‘Larger than life’ is a cliché, but it fit. My parents hailed from Mindforme and outside the cities there, life meant hard labor on farms. They grow folks big there, and strong to boot. Young women in my family can hold their own in bar fights across the continent. I was taller than most of the men in the room, and a few of the elves and hailene.
Thought my frame practically demands plate mail, I went with a deep blue waistcoat, white ruffed shirt beneath, and a pair of lighter blue cotton trousers. I’ve been told it softens the over all image. No one’s complained, so I believe it.
So I’m not the first image on most people’s minds when the word ‘minstral’ is uttered. That word conjures to mind dapper young men, possibly with an elf in the family line with dark hair, fair skin, and delicate features. They do not conjure… well me.
That’s fine, because I am no minstrel. I’m a loreman. Most people don’t know the difference because they haven’t had the kind of schooling I’ve had. But the know the general thrust of things, which I like to explain in this way: To call a loreman a bard or minstrel is to call a person routinely responsible for minor extinctions a ‘hunter’. It’s just a simple matter of ability and scale, really.
I made sure everyone who cared to listen was, and drew lightly on the Word.
What I do, and what sets me apart from a bard, really is a kind of magic and that magic all has its foundation on the Word and the Word is part of the Song. Which is painfully non-descriptive, something I blame on these concepts being discovered by wizards, who believe all it took to denote important was to add Capitalization. Which itself is funny, because if you use the Word, you really can make people hear capital letters in spoken words.
To put it in more clear terms, the Word is the vibration that resonates with sentient minds. Anything that thinks in concepts instead of instincts can be affected by usages of the Word. And the only people who really understand how to use it, like me, are called loremen.
When I tell a story, I tell it using the most basic usage of the Word; the Ring of Truth, which makes anything I say feel true on a subconscious level. It only makes lies a tiny bit more believable, but it makes supportable truths ironclad. A side effect I myself discovered is that it makes stories and songs feel more personal. And I abused the seven interlocking levels of Inferno out of that.
It was a simple story, dating back to the Age of Tragedies (the parts of it from outside living memory) called Themea and Colhus. Everyone knows the basics: two young lovers meet, are separated by war and arranged marriage, and finally find each other once more when they’re in their waning years. But the telling is where stories have their worth.
Not to be a braggart, but there is a reason gold is heaped upon me for this. Even without the Word, my marks in ‘telling were some of the highest in my class at the Bardic College of Harpsfell. My Themea and Colthus was a tale of trust in the ones you care about, even in the darkest hours.
It was something I knew was a void in a lot of hearts in my audience. A glimpse of something no one in Bri-sean could afford to ever have was such a subconscious thrill that it could be addictive on its own. The addition of the Word magnified it beyond mere phraseology.
Here and there, they leaned toward me. eyes heavily lined with the most fashionable ochre money could buy glazing over, jaws occasionally going slack. A few, with known throat cutters and assassins among their number, were even showing water in their eyes.
While the room slowly melted to the tune of my voice, I took in my environment.
I wasn’t the only show of wealth on the part of my host and employer, High Consul Domiterey. He had similarly spared no expense in having his ballroom constructed. The floor was tiled with black marble from the dwarf held, frozen coasts of Genmide, the ceiling was high and vaulted, every inch covered in a gilded frescoes that were no doubt the work of artisans from Harpsfell, possibly the Bardic College itself. Every space along the wall that didn’t sport a door, window, or fireplace was draped with lush tapestries depicting idyllic rural scenes of Callen, Rizen and Mindeforme – in such a mindless juxtaposition that it was clear that whoever had placed them had never visited those nations.
The servants were just as caught up in the story as anyone else, but fear and experience had taught them to resist at least enough to keep their wits about them and continue circulating their platters of sliced meats, exotic fruits and spiced wine amid the rapt nobility.
As the story wound toward the denouement, I added a discrete gesture to my dramatic hand flourishes and on cue, a servant whose pocket one of my gold coins now called home crossed the floor behind me with a tray of Rizen’s drink of pride: Cylla wine.
The timing had taken us the entire afternoon and the promise that my one gold coin may magically become two, plus enough silver to buy his way out of Bri-sean with enough left over to live on the road for a month. But the results spoke for themselves. He was walking past just as I reached back, adjusting his tray so I appeared to pluck a glass from it without looking.
Like so many things that took a great deal of effort and practice, the sequence was small and seemed so simple to those watching. But their hindbrains told them that an amazing, possibly magical thing had just happened and without even realizing it, their impression of the famed loreman improved yet again.
“…and in that place, Themea and Colthus found their joy eternal, their love and trust, everlasting.” I finished in a reverent tone, putting on a serious and introspective expression as I sought the eye of one of the many guests in the room.
I found her standing near a tapestry depicting the famed color-shifting roses of Rizen’s southern coast. Alone.
She was a hailene and like all hailene, she sported a pair of grand, feathered wings, which emerged from her back and when fully extended, could nearly reach twelve feet wingtip to wingtip in adults. Her wings were dark gray, becoming black at the tips of her flight feathers. That alone was a mark against her by hailene standards of beauty, of which I had little personal stock in.
Her raven hair was worn up with a few strands left free to frame her face with its dark, almond shaped eyes and full lips. Her dress was dark green velvet that clung pleasingly clung to her breasts and hips while managing not to be revealing in the least. Even her arms were covered; both by sleeves and elbow length gloves.
I had spotted her when she had arrived, unannounced and, it wouldn’t surprise me, uninvited. Magic was all well and good, but loremen are students of people and their surroundings. Observation was second nature to us. And I observed that she didn’t belong, even if her bearing and general air told all the gathered Bri-sean nobility that she did. Most of that was purely hailene upbringing; all hailene were raised to innately feel that they should belong everywhere.
When I did catch her eye, I raise my glass and offered her my best genuine smile. To the room, I toasted. “To the eternal love of Themea and Colthus.” No Word this time, it was unnecessary to augment it with the crowd already so worked up.
Almost everyone parroted my salutation and waited obediently for me to drink before doing so themselves. My hailene was just a fraction of a second ahead of them, evidently acting on what she expected them to do. Interesting.
Behind me, the musicians began to play a light, casual tune to signal that the story was over. There had been three others interspersed throughout the night, but this was the final one and there was a bit of a crush as Bri-sean’s hoi polloi all attempted to be the first to wish me well, ask one last question about fashion or theater in Harpsfell, or attempt to retain me for another engagement.
I smiled and was amiable to all of them, while the whole time keeping a silent, running tab of the collective body count behind each complement wishing me a long life. It wouldn’t be long before they skinned themselves out of their silks and clothes-of-gold and once more wallowed in the running of Bri-sean and its thriving criminal element. I didn’t accept any new engagements. A week in Bri-sean required a year abroad to wash away the feeling of having gone wading in a midden.
It took an eternity of exchanging gossip, fending off job offers, and pretending that the most garishly expensive trash ever tied to a demi-human body was fashionable, I finally managed to steer my way into the vicinity of the hailene woman.
She seemed more intent on watching the so called nobility then the possibility of speaking with me.
Was she from the Bardic College? She was no lorelady, I was sure. I would know her it that was the case; there being only twenty-one ranked loremen at the moment. The loreman path it arduous and most who even attempt it washed out and became bards and chroniclers and consuls instead. But she could be a student of the College on a walkabout. The loreman path in particular requires seven journeys to the furthest reaches of both continents to learn from different cultures.
That wasn’t it. A bardic student likely wouldn’t be so off put by that figure hugging dress she wore and continued to self consciously adjust. Likewise, no bardic student I ever met could cross a ballroom filled with nobility – or the closest local equivalent – and resist the urge to speak with anyone that would respond. Knowing who wasn’t worth talking to came later, or for some, never.
So she wasn’t from the College. Nor was she from Bri-sean. There were a few other clues that presented themselves to me upon closer examination. As I said: interesting.
It took another hour, but I finally managed to sate everyone’s curiosity and follow her onto the ballroom’s balcony.
Bri-sean had once been a city-fortress built on a hill; an outpost of the long fallen Vishnari Empire. Over centuries, a town grew up around the fortress and it became a city built around a hill. But despite even the cataclysm that turned the neighboring fey kingdom of the Great Green Expanse into the monster haunted wastes called the Ashed Lands, Bri-sean still managed to grow and thrive thanks to it’s proximity to the Strait of Nivia and it’s lack of proximity to anything resembling rightful or just authority.
With no room to grow outward, Bri-sean grew inward. Basements were dug, houses were cut right into the sod, and hundreds of thieves’ runs were established until the hill itself was largely gone and Bri-sean became a city shaped like a hill and built on top of itself. Rather, like a vast ziggurat with ten steps; each the domain of a different ‘noble’ crimelord.
Domiterey was the man in charge of the third step from the top. His palatial home was built into the edge of the ‘step’ so that his balcony’s all faced the sunset. Like the ballroom, the balcony was a testament to his desire to flaunt his wealth, this time in polished limestone inlaid with gold. In this case, however, the gold served a second purpose; creating the matrix for a spell that allowed the balcony structure to jut out over the precipice without any conventional supports. It was a common technique in Harpsfell, but an exotic curiosity in Bri-sean. Crystal wrought mage lights provided dim, but expressive illumination.
I gestured and the well paid servant made another pass near me. I put my empty glass on his trace and replaced it with two full ones.Thus equipped, I came to stand beside the hailene woman as she watched the green moon, Azelia, rising to join her white sister, Gracellia in the night sky. The third moon, red Mayana, would not be making an appearance in our part of the world until the end of the Gathering season.
“Cylla wine?” I offered up the wine before she even registered my presence. She turned to see the cup in my hand and took it with a slight bow of her head. Her wings drew closer to her back, a sign of agitation in her race.
“Thank you, Mister Ridsekes.” She said politely. But she didn’t make any move to partake. I admit, I had looked her way more than once during the night and none of those times found her drinking anything or holding anything but a full glass.
“But of course.” I sipped my drink. “I couldn’t bear to see a lovely woman such as you go parched.” The hailene gave him a sidelong look at the flattery. She wasn’t the kind of woman to melt over complements. I had already surmised as much. I was probing.“All I’ll ask for in gratitude is your name.”
She gave me another long look and straightened her back. Another tic, typical of eastern born hailene; trying to make herself appear taller when she felt the situation was leaving her control. “Magdalene.” She said simply. “Magdalene Risewind.”
The name cemented what I already knew; she was at least from a clan of hailene that never gave up on the compound word clan names adopted by refugees of the fallen Hailene Empire. Had she been of a more socially integrated family, she would have had a portmanteau clan name, or a corruption; something like Riswind or Risner. Were she part of the new hailene court on the island of Illium, she would have been Nyvarra, which translated from the Imperial tongue into the common language as ‘Rises on the Wind.”