“Course of Study”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 2nd, 2018
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.
The music faded. Ellyn growled in frustration.
“It isn’t working.”
Azarelle kept her eyes on her work and answered absently.
“Your timing’s off.”
“It is not.”
Ellyn sat for a moment, cradling her guitar. It was the same old, beat-up instrument she’d picked up back at the Notch. She’d been forced to leave the one the Blind-Deaf Ladies had given her behind.
Actually, she’d been forced to do a lot more than that.
Her hand drifted to her face. She was marked, a fugitive, even more hotly pursued than her friends. The dominaa would never forgive her for what she’d done. Even if she did manage to get the tattoos removed, her name would be poison forever.
She took up the guitar and tried the piece again. The fingering was strange. It didn’t have a melody as such, but it wasn’t entirely without a pattern either. It wasn’t music, or at least it wasn’t like any music she’d ever heard or studied.
As for the spell, it was the only one Azarelle could remember from her old school days. It was supposed to aid in sleep and healing. Ellyn had been working on it for days.
Her fingers danced over the strings in a stochastic waltz. With each note, the sound seemed to grow and rebound. It was as though the tones were ricocheting off each other as they emerged from the strings and as they did, the air in the cramped cabin began to change. It smelled cleaner and felt softer. It warmed. Ellyn felt her muscles relax.
Azarelle began to nod off.
Then, as before, it all just fizzled away.
Azarelle perked up, shaking her head.
“Will you shut up about the timing. I’ve been playing guitar for years. I think I know how to read sheet music.”
“It isn’t music.”
Ellyn held up the page.
“Well it sure looks like it.”
Azarelle leaned up, put her palms behind the small of her back and pushed, popping her joints.
“That’s just the way they get it on the paper. You can’t think of it like a song. It’s a spell. It has to be played exactly. No embellishment.”
Ellyn reviewed the notes.
“I just don’t get it. How can magic played on instruments not be musical? It seems so…counterintuitive.”
“I don’t make the rules.”
Ellyn grumbled and readied her fingers for another attempt.
Azarelle leaned up.
“Actually, can you do me a favour? Practice outside for a little while? You keep almost putting me to sleep.”
Ellyn’s face fell flat.
“It’s freezing outside.”
Azarelle leaned back over and resumed her work.
“Not if you play the spell right.”
Nathanius stared out into the dark. Only the animals knew where they were going now.
The cloud cover had blotted out the stars. Their little wagon was the last of the refugee throng. After two weeks all the others had dropped away, falling back into the snowbound distance to freeze, starve, and perish. Now and then he saw a light behind them, but the tiny points were never visible for long.
It was a shame.
He comforted himself that his plan had worked, at least in part. They had focused on their survival; now they were going to survive. They’d played the system, taken advantage of the powerful, and in the end…fled. As a reward, among those who had escaped the city, they alone would survive the long journey to Hane. It was a mean existence but it worked.
Confirmation bias, perhaps. They could just as easily have died, but thanks to their collective cunning—not to mention Asterious’s impressive foraging skills—the five of them were all going to make it.
Nathanius shivered. The cloaks did little to stave off the cold. Asterious would be taking over in the next few hours. He would finally get a chance to warm up and rest. But for now, he stared, eyes probing the black for any sign of their destination, hoping to catch a glimmer of light ahead.
The rear door opened. Nathanius turned as Ellyn emerged and climbed up onto the roof.
He faced forwards again.
“What are you doing up so late?”
She crawled forward over the cargo heaped on the roof.
“How can you tell it’s late?”
Nathanius chuckled. Fair point.
“Well, the others are asleep.”
Ellyn shook her head.
“Az is still awake, working.”
Nathanius gathered his cloak tighter around himself.
“I’m beginning to think she never sleeps. I wonder what it is she’s always working on.”
Ellyn sat down beside him.
“Who knows? Probably some spell.”
Nathanius thought it over.
“I wonder if Polly knows.”
Ellyn shrugged and got out her guitar.
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“You’re doing that out here?”
Ellyn nodded and began rubbing the strings down with a damp cloth. The smell coming off it was oily and sweet.
Nathanius wrinkled his nose.
“What is that?”
Ellyn kept working.
“Some kind of mixture. Azarelle made it. She called it a reagent. It’s supposed to make the magic work.”
“Instrumental magic. Azarelle taught me the basics. This is some kind of resting spell. It was the only one she could remember. I haven’t got it right yet, but apparently it was putting her to sleep so she sent me out here.”
Nathanius gave a wry grin.
“You? Not playing it right?”
“Shut up. It’s not like regular music.”
“You can’t play it like regular music. At least that’s what Azarelle told me. No personal touch. No feeling.”
“That sounds weird.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You think she’s right?”
Ellyn slumped in her seat.
“I guess so. She’s the professor.”
Nathanius fell silent. He didn’t have an answer to that, and it wasn’t really his business.
Ellyn started playing. In the darkness as she did, the strings of the guitar began to glow softly. The notes danced in the air, striking each other like wind chimes. The music wrapped around them, vibrating in harmony. The frigid air warmed. Nathanius felt his muscles relax. The cold discomfort that had invaded his joints began to ease.
He took a long breath.
“It feels great.”
Ellyn scrunched up her mouth.
“Wait for it.”
She got a few measures in before the glow inexplicably faded. The chill of the air returned.
“Like I said. I haven’t got it right just yet.”
Nathanius smiled and thumped his hand against her knee.
“Well, you keep right on practicing. It’s freezing out here. I’ll take my relief in bursts.”
And so she did. Nathanius sat beside her, urging the animals on across the empty field. The journey wouldn’t have been so bad if they could see. The scenery passed by as a darkened shadow: nothing for, nothing against, just…nothing. It gave him too much time to think. He found himself slipping into foul moods. Pensive moods. The kind that made you question your choices.
The air warmed again and he felt better, if only for a few minutes before the music lapsed a second time. Ellyn cursed. A few minutes later she struck up the piece a third time. Nathanius found himself wondering how many times she had gone through this process as a child and student, practicing a new composition over and over, again and again, until the notes came as easily as twiddling her thumbs.
Play. Mistake. Repeat.
Then he was low again.
He frowned, staring at the backs of the animals. How many times had he been down this road? He didn’t care to count, but one thing was certain:
He always seemed to end up running.
He turned his head and spoke over his shoulder.
The door in the main room opened and Fest walked in. He was a Halfling. He had long, straight, black hair that he wore in a tail, and a scar that traced the length of his face from his forehead to his chin. He claimed he won it in the war, but it was more likely that he earned it in a bar fight. As a friend, he wasn’t bad; as a contact, he was better. Fest was an influential member of the Water Road, a smuggling ring that operated all over the Sea of Capran. They took their name from the highway that ran along the coast of Gelande, their home territory. Lately they’d been making inroads in Sylarea.
Which was where he came in.
He was small time. There was no denying that. Llay wasn’t much more than a rest-stop on the shore. No real action. But it was nine days and a whole sea away from Myle, his father, his mother, and everyone else who ever knew him, and that made it a good place to start.
He’d been in Llay for thirteen months. It was quaint: nice little shore market, plenty of shops, and a café around the corner from his flat that served a pretty good cup of coffee. It was almost enough to make him forget everything he’d left behind. The only drawback was the smell coming off the shore markets: fish, smoke, spices, and too much sugar-cured fruit. The combination was oppressive.
At least the people were friendly enough, for Sylareans anyway. Even as a half-elf, he hadn’t been expecting such a warm welcome. The war was only twenty years old. This town must not have been affected. He supposed it made sense. Most of the fighting had taken place on the opposite coast. A fish town like Llay probably hadn’t seen more than a wave of refugees.
The two of them met down at the docks. Nathanius made his living there as a trader. Buy low. Sell high. That sort of thing. He’d found his niche as a sort of agent for local shop owners. Fest had arrived a ship full of salt he wanted to unload quickly. The ship itself was scarred from battle and the price was far too low to be legitimate. Nathanius made him for a pirate on the spot.
He didn’t have a problem with pirates. He and his father had done business with plenty. He bought the salt immediately and made it clear that should Fest find himself with similar goods in the future, he would be happy to take them off his hands. It was a good match. They did business for months before Nathanius let him in on the idea that—eventually—gave rise to the present evening’s business.
He finished combing his hair and stepped out into the room. It was a studio apartment. His bed was right across from the door. There was a little table in the corner by the stove.
Fest leaned up against it and gave him a disapproving look.
“You spend too much time on your looks.”
“I guess if I looked like you, I wouldn’t bother either.”
“That’s right. Got to think about what’s important. You arrange our little meeting?”
“Tonight. You bring the money?”
Fest slapped his hand against a bulging pouch fastened to his hip.
“Worth every penny. And for me?”
“After the meeting, if it goes as well as you’ve promised.”
Nathanius grabbed his things. It was a fair condition. After all, if it didn’t go as promised, they would both be spending the next few years in jail.
He went to the window. It was night. The meeting was with the captain of the local watch. There wasn’t much of a legal presence in Llay, but the town had grown enough since the war to warrant small militia. Nathanius had developed a working relationship with them.
It had taken a few weeks and more than a few drinks to manoeuvre the captain into a meeting. If it went as he hoped, the Water Road would begin using Llay as a gateway to Sylarea. He and the watch stood to earn a sizable percentage.
Fest stood up from the table.
It was dark when they stepped out into the street. The meeting place was a few miles outside of town on a secluded bit of beach. Fest would take the two of them by boat.
The moon was barely a sliver in the sky. Clouds blotted out the stars. A bad night for sailing.
A perfect evening for a deal.
Nathanius smiled in spite of himself. Maybe his luck was finally turning around.
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