Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright November 2nd, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“Are you ready?”
Ellyn took a long breath. Her heart was beating so hard she could feel it in her fingertips. She wrung her hands. She’d only been part of the chora for seven months, and they already wanted her to perform?
“I don’t understand. Why do they want me?”
“It’s by special request. Some noble wants you.”
“But I’ve never performed! How did he even hear about me?”
“The minstrel said that he heard you on the balcony. You know you’re not supposed to practice in public.”
Ellyn’s heart skipped a beat.
“The minstrel knows?”
Her friend nodded. Her name was Myra. She was studying the harpsichord. She was also human, an oddity in an elven chora. The war was still fresh in the national memory. Gelande and Sylarea had fought bitterly, and there was still plenty of bad blood.
Ellyn played the guitar. She and Myra had joined the chora at the same time. They practiced together almost every day.
“Am I in trouble?”
“He’s really angry. I heard one of the journeymen say they were going to release you.”
“Release me!? That can’t be! I just got here.”
“You know how competitive the houses are. They spy on each other constantly.”
Ellyn started to cry.
“I didn’t think anyone would hear. I wasn’t even practicing a house piece.”
Myra hugged her around the shoulders.
“I guess it doesn’t matter.”
This couldn’t be happening. Her father had worked so hard to buy her place. How could face him if she was sent home in disgrace?
How could she go home at all?
“What am I going to do?”
Myra knelt down beside her.
“It’s going to be alright. That nobleman has already come all the way here, and he’s asked for you.”
“You obviously made an impression. Maybe he’ll hire you.”
Ellyn looked at her guitar. It wasn’t anything special. Her journeyman teachers called it a “knock-around guitar.” The tone wasn’t as pure as the music made by the finer pieces the house masters employed.
She looked up at Myra.
“Will you sing with me?”
She shook her head. Her brown locks tumbled across her forehead and shimmered in the light of the dim lamps behind the stage. She was the first human Ellyn had ever met. The masters said her voice was too strong and deep to use in the choir. They preferred higher, softer pitches. They said they were more “quintessentially elven.” It was sad. Ellyn always found Myra’s voice to be comforting and beautiful. It reminded her of home.
“I wish I could.”
Ellyn frowned. Her friend stood up and embraced her around the shoulders.
“Don’t worry. You’re going to do great, and I’ll be right here watching.”
“What if the noble doesn’t like me?”
“Don’t worry, Ellyn.”
She gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“You’re impossible not to like.”
Asterious shook her.
She snapped out of her dream. It was a rude awakening. Once more she found herself on Kalkonu, robbed.
Asterious put a hand on her forehead.
“Are you alright?”
They were sitting backstage, if it could be called a stage. It was a biggish closet adjacent to a low wooden dais in the Jaspers’ dining room. She was about to audition. Her place in the house depended on it.
She shook Asterious off.
“I’m fine. I was just…thinking about someplace else. That’s all.”
“I suppose so.”
Asterious’s place was already secure. They’d tested him against their heaviest muscle. He’d made them look like fools. The brothers had been impressed.
Rias, Alto, Kiel, Wess, and Lon.
She’d memorized their names so she could greet them when she took the stage. Rias was the oldest, and tall. Alto was blonde. Kiel was missing his right eye. Wess had long hair, and Lon was the youngest.
Or was it Kiel that had the long hair?
“Which one has the long hair?”
Asterious put a hand to his forehead, thinking.
He straightened up.
“You’re going to be fine. These guys haven’t heard music like yours in their whole lives. Just play like you did back at the Notch. You’ll be fine.”
“What if they don’t like it?”
Ellyn looked up at him.
“Are you ever not confident?”
“Well if you’re looking for criticism, you could smile more.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You could be less annoying.”
He grinned and thumped her shoulder lightly with his fist.
“You know, for someone with your kind of attitude, you don’t trust yourself very much.”
“How do you deal with it?”
He went to the door.
“Want to know the secret?”
She smiled weakly.
“It’d be nice.”
He put his hand on the knob and turned it; then he paused.
“You really want to know?”
He opened the door. The light of the room crept in, framing his narrow silhouette. He looked at the floor.
“I do it the same way.”
She didn’t know what to say. He turned to her and smiled.
“Now, get off your butt.”
“I beg your pardon.”
He held out a hand.
“The show must go on, right?”
She grabbed her guitar and stood up.
“No one says that anymore.”
“I’m old fashioned.”
“Or maybe just old.”
“You have no idea.”
Azarelle sat in her chair. Lon sat beside her, frowning. He hadn’t said a word all night. She glanced at him sideways. His eyes were fixed ahead.
She put a hand on his.
“Is something wrong?”
He barely moved.
There was. It was obvious, and she couldn’t escape the sinking feeling that it was her. He’d been like this ever since their “date.” She’d thought it had gone well, at least on the surface.
Something must have happened.
Rias was watching her. She’d caught a few glances. He was sitting at the other end of the row. The other brothers were seated as well, between them, along with another man, half-elven and younger. They hadn’t been introduced.
She suppressed a yawn. It had been a busy day. The Jaspers had spent it sifting through the last of the people in the house, culling the herd before the long night. They’d let go as few as possible, although it wasn’t out of compassion. They wanted to preserve their base of power, and every person they let go would eventually become their enemy. Most of the cuts were servants and craftsmen who wouldn’t cause a fuss. They’d kept almost all of the guards.
After that they launched the lottery. It was Rias’s idea. It didn’t cost money to enter. You just had to be willing to fight. Word of the invasion had begun to spread. They needed an army, but they couldn’t afford to feed it for long. They planned to draft the whole city into their reserves, mustering them at the last possible moment. Most would die. Those that survived the conflict would have their names entered into a lottery to gain entry into the house. The more enemies you killed, the more entries you earned.
It was brilliant. If the syndicate fell, no one would get anything. Every soldier on the battlefield would have a vested interest. They would fight as hard as they could, and it wouldn’t cost the Jaspers a dime until it was all over.
Still, she’d literally seen the writing on the wall. A ramshackle militia of criminals and thieves didn’t stand a chance against the grave armies of Tormar, walking dead soldiers that required neither sustenance nor rest. It was almost a foregone conclusion that she would take Valis’s deal, whatever his plan entailed.
Whatever feelings she had for Lon, she had to survive and complete her work, and if there was one lesson her time at the university had taught her, it was that you could never have everything you wanted.
This was the last interview of the day, a musician. They wanted her for morale. It wasn’t a bad idea. Azarelle had been asked to attend. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe Lon was trying to keep up appearances.
Or maybe he hadn’t given up.
She frowned. It tore her apart to wound him so.
The door by the stage opened. A man came out, followed by an elven woman with a guitar.
Azarelle’s eyes went wide. She leaned forward.
Could it be?
She looked around. Where was the third?
The Jaspers new associate? No. Too young.
Where was the old man?
She growled in her head. This was why she hated augury. Nothing ever came through as clearly as you needed.
She turned back to the stage. The resemblance was unmistakeable. The woman. She’d seen her before, at the end of the premonition.
Right before the gods arrived.
Lon turned to look at her.
“Is something wrong? Do you know them?”
Azarelle shook her head. She sat back and answered.
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