Stefen finished his last song of the night with an innovative flourish, and the tavern clientele went wild. Not that I can really take that as a great compliment. I must be the first real Bard they’ve heard in two years. And, not that he had grandiose ideas of self-worth, but…I am the best Haven has to offer. It’s only the honest truth. Alara had accompanied him throughout most of the set, and they both stood up to take their applause—and their coins. He discreetly slipped her most of them, feeling his younger self cringe at the financially selfless action. But these days, I certainly don’t have to worry about money. Not with that inheritance he left me.
“That was wonderful!” Alara’s face was flushed, her eyes shining, and he realized with a jolt that this was her first concert for anyone outside of the Palace.
He smiled warmly at her. “They were a good crowd.” In fact, everyone had been wonderfully kind since their arrival, the blessing of small towns. Although they have their less than lovely sides as well—I’m sure it would be no blessing to grow up here as a shaych man. They may not even know what that word means this far north. This was the best tavern in town, and it merited its title: warm wood paneling, good, hearty food, and clean rooms were almost more than Stefen could have desired from such an isolated town.
The tavern keeper, who had introduced himself as Gregor earlier that evening, was shaking Alara’s hand warmly, and he was glad to see her attempt to make conversation, despite her usual difficulty with strangers. “I’m excited to see more of Easthaven,” she said, smiling shyly in response to something he must have said.
“We both are.” Stefen shrugged his lute case and clasped the other man’s large hand.
Inclining his head toward Stefen, Gregor replied. “We’re honored to have you, Bard Stefen. Such famous men never venture this far north—or if they do, they don’t stop at Easthaven.”
“We’ll have to spread the word, then, won’t we?” He shot Alara a conspiring glance and she nodded. “But for now, I believe it’s time for bed. It’s been a long day of traveling for both of us.”
“Of course.” Gregor gestured upstairs. “Your beds are ready. Sleep well!”
They climbed the stairs in silence with Alara shooting speculative looks his way every so often. “What is it, child?” he said finally, half-amused, half-irritated.
“Everyone always knows you.” It was almost accusatory.
“Oh, well, dearheart…” He sighed. “It’s because of the war, and because of my compositions, and because of Vanyel, really. Most Valdemarans have heard the song, and know I went north with him.” Smiling wryly, he continued. “Not that they all know the exact details of our relationship, of course.”
Surprising him, she smiled back. “Of course. I don’t imagine they accept much out of the ordinary this far out.” She yawned widely. “See you in the morning, Uncle Stef.”
“Yes,” he murmured, still disconcerted by her easy acceptance of the comment. It reminded him of—Vanyel, looking amused. “Of course you changed your mind about the new law.” Him, slightly offended. “What do you mean?” Vanyel: “You’re barely past adolescence, love, much as it pains me to admit it. Changing your mind is what you do.” He’d been able to laugh at himself at the time, and in retrospect, Vanyel was certainly correct. Of course he was. He always was, except when it came to his own emotions.
The tavern keeper’s key slid easily into the lock, and he found himself mimicking Alara’s yawns as he opened the door. He closed it firmly behind him, propped his lute case against it for good measure—some street habits die hard—and moved to place his songwriting journal on the small desk. A breeze fluttering through the curtains froze him, and he looked at the open window with heart-racing suspicion. Somebody could have heard the famous Bard Stefen was here—could think I have something worth stealing.
But what caught his eye as he scanned the room was a piece of ragged parchment pinned to the desk. Feet stuttering, he lifted it up to read the short message:
Come to the Forest, ashke.
The paper slid from his nerveless hands as he fell back against the wall for support. How could it be—it can’t be—it must be—but why? How? So long… so many years…if I had known. Fingers still shaking, he picked the note off the floor. His hand—but if he can write—if ghosts can send messages—his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t clear itself enough to come to a coherent conclusion besides one persistent thought—I have to go.
Moonlight slid dimly in through the window, only enough for him to gage that the hour was past midnight and that there was nowhere near enough light to make his way into Sorrows. I’ll have to come up with an excuse in the morning—a way to occupy Alara. Mind working with the speed of desperation, he recalled one of Hedren’s clear instructions: get her confident. Make her do it on her own. And with little misgivings, he arrived at his solution: She will have to do the interviews with the villagers for Treven tomorrow. Bards have to take stock of the political climate in each village; it’s part of our job as servants of the king, and time she learned it. I can be back for the evening performance—he pressed his forehead against the window and sighed. Here I am, already hoping for something—Gods know what—to happen. What are the chances?
Shaking his head to himself, he slipped out of his traveling clothes and into the downy warmth of the bed. No fool like an old fool was his last thought as he let himself drift into troubled sleep.