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Chapter 1: Rescue

King Freyzun, Throne of Allsongs, demi-dragon he, ran through pelting rain, even the booming of the terrible thunder unable to drown out his anguished roaring: “Tristabé-airta! Tristabé-airta! Jay, give me Tristabé-airta!”

The world around King Freyzun eeked along in slow motion—the monstrous mermaid flapping away to the ocean with her struggling captive, Princess Burta; eleven year old Prince Jay soaring toward the hunting lodge, Hermia Helmet perched atop his head a bit too small for him but nonetheless enabling him to fly, the Princess Royal dangling from Jay’s arms; Queen Emertis Laksha falling to her knees in her wild, tempestuous grief; the archers, poised for shooting, leaping from Freyzun’s path; the rain, sharp blades of water, slowly slicing all around him.

In his dragon form, Freyzun’s eyes were slitted, allowing him to see well in the dark. His great, clawed paws tore the night air in his frenzied running. The bat membranes that extended from his torso to his powerfully muscled arms allowed him vast leaping steps as he ran for his child, his only child, his sweetest token from his dear, dead wife. In his immense speed he reached the hunting lodge before the soaring, Hermia-Helmeted Jay did and at the same time The Poet, he with his magic did. Flying to his King, Jay set the still Tristabé-airta into her kingly daddy’s arms.

The Poet said, “Your Grace, let me breathe the life back into her lungs. If you do it, the strength of your dragon lungs will be too much for hers and will tear her lungs apart.”

The demi-dragon set the lass on a sofa.

Freyzun, Throne-voiced, the awful rumble that set hearts to dread, asked, “Is her body crushed? Did the cannibal mermaid crush her? The monster wrapped her with all its strength.”

The Poet said nothing for he was breathing into the mouth of the Princess Royal. Breath my dear niece, breath! The Throne could hear his thoughts.

With a great sobbing, strong gasp, Tristabé-airta, sucked air into her lungs, forcing herself to return to life.

Are her bones crushed? Are her organs crushed? Is she crushed? Is she crushed? worried the anguished Throne.

No, Daddy, I don’t think I am crushed. I cast a protection spell as quick as I may when the dread mermaid Chizukiba grabbed me. Give me a moment before I speak. My lungs hurt so, thought Tristabé-airta, knowing her kingly father could hear her thoughts.

Freyzun said, “Woadwyn, she thinks she is not crushed. You check her; press your hands on her gently. If I do it with my dragon paws I might hurt her further.”

The Lord High Poet, Ollave Woadwyn, brother to King Freyzun by Freyzun’s dead wife’s love, gently patted the Royal Lass’s arms, her sides, her stomach, her legs.

“Is she sound of limb and body?”

“She is, thank all the gods.”

Tristabé-airta sat up, startling her uncle and kingly father. “Burta is not thinking in words. She is thinking in battle movements! What has happened to her? Does the cannibal mermaid have her?”

“You can hear her thoughts from here?” at once spoke astonished king and ollave.

King Freyzun, using his Throne Talent, sifted through the many voices of his realm to search out that one, the abducted Princess Burta, daughter to his royal cousin and liegeman, Prince Gawain.

“You have it true, my royal daughter, Burta is thinking in the way of fighting. Close your mind to it. Burta can not win against the monster. Only a Ranking, an heir, or a Throne could.”

But Tristabé-airta had closed out him to focus on Burta and the mermaid. Tristabé-airta, True Princess Royal, telepathic to a remarkable degree, reported what she could understand from Burta’s thoughts:

“They are in a cave in the sea cliff’s face. It’s weirdly illuminated. The lehts shine differently than lehts made by poets. The High Lord Master Archer lies on the floor decapitated… Burta is… Oh! She’s falling on her back! She’s decided to keep punching anyway. She’s surprised she is unharmed… She is puzzled the mermaid’s speed is slowing. Burta has rolled fast away from the stinger. The mermaid transforms part of its manta-ray form into a long arm. Burta knows she can’t stop fighting or she will be killed. The mermaid is swaying, unsteady. Something is wrong with it. Burta throws a rock at the stinger. The mermaid is whirling to sting Burta but is unsteady, imprecise, so Burta can jump away from the stinger and get in punches... The mermaid has so many teeth. Burta sees them all… The mermaid falls down and doesn’t move. Burta throws another rock at the mermaid, but the mermaid does not move... Burta wonders what to do... She remembers her training is to think clearly what she does in case, Daddy, you are listening to her thoughts… She feels around the High Lord Master Archer’s chest. She finds a pouch. It is empty. Her idea is the High Lord Master Archer put the poison tablet in his mouth but did not swallow or chew it. (Swords always carry poison in a pouch around their necks? she wondered as she spoke.) When the monster ate his head, it ate the poison tablet. Burta thinks the mermaid is unconscious from the poison… Burta is creeping past the dread mermaid. She grabs a big leht… She is running through the cave back to the opening the way the mermaid brought her… Burta is running…”

The king and ollave watched Tristabé-airta as she reported Burta’s thoughts so completely. Tristabé-airta kept repeating “She’s running,” for the cave’s tunnel stretched a good mile.

Tristabé-airta reported: “It’s raining hard against the cliff’s face. Burta can not see much though she has the big leht. The face of the cliff is sheer. She is too high up to jump into the sea safely. She is too far down to climb the sheer face safely. She is caught with no escape up or down and does not know when the mermaid will come to.”

The Throne said, “Poet, with your magic, cut stairs into the cliff for Burta to climb.”

“Your Grace, she is in Bendemer. Kotupun would benefit from the stairs.”

The Throne said, “I will not leave the brave sword lass alone waiting for a monster to eat her. I will have her saved!”

The Poet said, “It is not a magic I can do in one moment.”

“Do it,” commanded the Throne of Allsongs.

“It will take me days. I could do it in a few minutes if I could make use of the Talents of all the poet souls in Allsongs.”

The Royal Lass said, “Use all my Talent, Uncle. No matter how it exhausts me. Use all my Talent.”

“I would have to use every poet soul’s. It would exhaust us all perhaps near to death. Allsongs would have no magical defense for weeks after.”

Freyzun, Throne he, said, “We swords will protect Allsongs when you poets are exhausted. You must create the stairs for Princess Burta to escape the dread mermaid. I can not leave a child to so terrifying a death.”

The ollave said, “Hold up your blade then, My King, so that I may instruct the poets.”

Confident in the ollave’s ability, King Freyzun drew his blade and held it up.

The High Lord Poet sang into his king’s sword. It vibrated with his voice, and every blade, kettle, anything of metal in Allsongs held his voice. He sang of the Burta’s need and the king’s order. He sang that the danger of the spell. He sang that all poets who knew the spell were to sing with him, all others must sing as they could or simply open their Talent to him. He sang strange sounds, a spell that commanded all the poets of Allsongs Talent to his Will.

Tristabé-airta, lying on the couch, singing as she could, listening to Burta’s thoughts, felt her energy sweep out of her, and sweep out of her, and sweep out of her, till it felt like the vast night itself were sucking out all of her energy until she was unconscious with the exhaustion of it.

Burta, for her part, watched for the next three days rock ripped from the cliff face as stairs were torn into the sheer cliff wall. She stepped out into the pelting rain—the rain had not abated at all since the mermaid’s attack—and climbed the long, long, long, rain slick staircase up to the top of the sea cliff. Oh gods, the mermaid has come to. She is after me! King Kotupun himself is here to make sure the rain is hard. His archers are all here!

Hearing Burta’s thoughts, King Freyzun turned Throne in his anguish, beating his chest. There was not one poet awake, not one who could be awakened to speed Burta with magic away from the monster, King Kotupun, and his archers.

Circle, god of Fellowship, Friendship, Chains, Locks and Keys, unseen by King Freyzun, shook Tristabé-airta, calling her to duty, “Royal Lass, waky, waky! Break the lock sleep has on your senses and wake! Your great, good friend Burta needs you! Waky, waky!”

Tristabé-airta fought her slumber and woke—such a struggle. “What do you want of me, God?”

“Make your friend Burta invisible for six hours, then you can go right back to sleep. I promise.”

Obedient to the gods as ever, Tristabé-airta sang in faint voice, voice she could barely muster, a weirdly creepy tune.

Burta turned invisible, and Tristabé-airta fell back into a paralytic sleep.

The mermaid can not see me! She can not see me! Nor can King Kotupun! I must be invisible! The Poet or Tristabé-airta must have made me invisible! The king of Allsongs heard her thoughts clearly despite the distance and the boundary of Bendemer.

Burta ran ten miles back to Allsongs, ten miles back to her princely father’s hunting lodge. The dread mermaid pursued her, following the occasional sounds Burta’s steps made when she had to splash through deep puddles. The archers, still at the ready, saw the dread mermaid approaching, crossing the border into Allsongs, and they fired volley after volley at the monster, until the dread mermaid came upon the Throne of Allsongs, his True Blade drawn, fully ready to battle and kill her. Chizibuki fled Allsongs that thunderous night.

The Lord High Poet Woadwyn, ollave he, had sung for three days and nights. The poet souls throughout the realm of Allsongs fell into deep, exhausted sleep when their Talent was spent by his charm’s draw, some after only an hour of his singing, some like his wife the poetess Cordelia after two days, only Tristabé-airta managing to stay awake to help him into late of the third day of his singing. He did it, though, highest of the high poets he, when all other poets were spent with the magical effort. He ripped a staircase into nearly impenetrable rock up from the cave mouth to the cliff’s top to give sixteen year old Princess Burta means of escape.

**

All the poet souls of Allsongs were fast asleep, not just the poets and their poet pupils, all the poet souls, except for Laksha—king souled as well as poet souled she. Even those who had not pursued a life of poetry slept. Gawain and Laksha and their swords stood guard over all the poet souls at their mountain lodge. King Freyzun ordered swords to guard the poets at the castle. He set swords out on patrol with servants to find any sleeping poet souls. There would be folk who would not know they were poet souled, nor would their families know. They would be sound asleep, perhaps for days and must be properly tended. Bowls of water and juice and towels had to be kept at hand by every slumbering poet soul to have their mouths moistened to stave off dehydration, and mashed foods would have to be smeared on their lips for them to lick. The sleeping ones would also have to be turned to prevent their getting bed sores. They had to be kept warm and clean.

Jay kept hovering over the Royal Lass, making a pest of himself as the servants tried to tend her, so as young as he was King Freyzun sent him out on a patrol with some archers who found the idea of an entire realm full of sleeping poet souls very comical. For the archers this was a wonderful holiday. All they had to do was travel about the countryside and knock on doors to ask if there were any sleeping poet souls. They were admitted to every dwelling that housed a poet soul, fed and allowed to see the sleeping one. If the sleeper were a pretty lass they checked her very carefully, noting her hands flopped down when they lifted her hands to rub them warm. The pretty lasses all seemed to be breathing fine. Soft kisses established this. Chubby matrons, old folk, strong youth, merely received a snickering appraisal.

“Yep, your Mama/Gramp/big brother’s asleep,” is all the archer lads would say.

Jay did not find the archers’ amusement amusing. He, with the full threat of his eleven years, scolded his fellow patrollers for their lack of respect of the poet souls, but this only earned him hooting laughter. The third afternoon they were out, Jay suddenly kicked his horse into a run across a wild bit of land of bushes and long grass to a cluster of trees. Four youths of seventeen and eighteen were grunting and kicking and gutturally laughing at something on the ground. The archers watched as Jay, berserkly angry, launched himself from his horse onto one of the youths in vicious attack. The archers rode after him to save him from the mean farm lads. Arriving, they discovered that while one farm lad would knock Jay to the ground, the others kicked and beat a sound asleep, skinny, wee lass of only twelve or thirteen years. No matter how hard he was hit by the farm lad, Jay would climb back to his feet and attack again, trying his best to protect the sleeping poet lass. The farm lads were no match for King Freyzun’s well trained armsmen. As soon as the farm lads were quiet—having been beaten unconscious—the archers gently saw to the young lass.

“They’ve broke her ribs and her legs,” murmured one, unbelieving that anyone could be so cruel to a sleeping child.

“She must have been lying out here all this time. Her clothes are all damp from the dew. She’s starved near to death,” whispered another.

Jay burst into sobs between his worry for Tristabé-airta and now this.

The archers set the lass’s broken leg. Their servant squeezed juice into her mouth from a cloth and smeared her lips with a bean paste for her to lick.

The lass licked all the paste and writhed in her sleep, whimpering.

“She wants more juice and paste. It’s a good thing, Jay. She’ll mend. Don’t you worry.”

The archers lifted up the young lass and settled her on a horse and in the steady, gentle arms of their servant.

“There’s a big farm house to the north, see? Let’s take her there.”

“No. That’s apt to be the home of those louts who beat her.”

“What then? She needs a warm, soft bed, and special tending.”

“That town we passed awhile back. Let’s take her there.”

“Agreed,” chorused all the archers.

“Come now, Prince Jay. Stop those tears. You were right we were not properly serious about our duty. We’ve learned our lesson. You rescued the poor, wee lass. See her? She’s sleeping comfortably in Garth’s strong, sure arms.”

Jay choked out, “She must have had a lot of Talent to be still asleep. It’s been two days.”

Thank the gods Jay found her. She would have died in a few hours from thirst, each archer and each servant thought, feeling very guilty. Those lads were part of that cult, that Truth of the Heart cult that hates poets. That’s what they said as they tried to fight us, said that the poor orphaned lass of a poet soul was a bane that had to be stamped out. We’ve done our duty to the gods this day, thanks to young Jay.

The god Filid, Law Giver he, said, That you have lads, though the archers, not being poet souled could not hear the lord of gods.

Though each of the patrols had similar stories to report—sometimes worse stories—most folk were unaware of these horrors and found it very comical all the poet souls were plum asleep for hours! Some for days!

Chapter 2: Lehts

Fire

Shivering child

Such frightening Talent

Play safe in my forge

Child

Come near

Are you hungry?

I will teach you

Fire

Be tutored,

Prodigy of flames,

Protégé of Poet Trump

Child

Of Fire

Of Brightness himself

The sun god smiles

On you.

—an interlocking cinquain about the orphan Shalewyn, Fire Child he

 

 

In Bendemer, Poet Trump wished he had consulted his runes to find out from the gods why King Kotupun was letting him take nineteen year old Bard Shalewyn on another poet's journey. Some septic scheme was in the king's mind because the rain had picked up. The rain was not cold, which suggested the Fire Child would benefit from this poet's journey, but the harshness of the rain reflected the harshness in the cursed king's heart. Shalewyn had it all planned how he would show up in his yellow at his blacksmith foster father’s shop but I have to get Shalewyn out of Bendemer for a time, away from the influence of the cursed king, thought Trump. Trump kept waking for three nights from awful dreams of the dread mermaid Chizukiba eating a man’s head and a horrible choice between leaping to his death into the sea or falling from climbing a sheer cliff because of something in a cave that would devour him. It’s odd how much Shalewyn is sleeping so much these last two days. Something’s making me sleepy, too, but I won’t sleep. I won’t. I have to get Shalewyn away from here.

King Kotupun was clearly making a show of Trump's importance as poet. Three carriages: one very fine; one of good grade for the bard, the Fire Child, to ride when the high poet wanted privacy; one simple and sturdy for the poet's serving men; a wagon for their trunks and supplies; and a pot of gems and gold coins were provided the departing high poet and his retinue of one highly Talented Fire Child bard and motley servants. Shalewyn was all sunny smiles in his new, embroidered yellow tunic, trousers, and scarf. He even had on a yellow mortarboard. His boots were beige with yellow laces. Poet Trump had heard in his singing bowl King Kotupun asking the lad how much yellow Shalewyn would like in his bard's dress. Shalewyn had answered, "All of it yellow!" Trump determined that he would have Shalewyn undertake intensive study with the artists at the Palace Azule. To earn more colors the Fire Child must develop better taste. If the Lady High Sorceress Artist Percepta were there, he would send Shalewyn with her to visit Allsongs, a place Trump never ventured.

*

"It's getting dark," said Shalewyn, looking out the carriage window. "The horses are slowing."

"True," said Poet Trump flippantly.

"Aren't you going to make the crystals glow so the coachman can see the road and we can see each other?"

The high poet did not answer. His eyes were closed.

"Are you asleep?"

Poet Trump ignored him.

"How can you sleep? We need light. What if griffons come? The town is far behind us."

The carriage stopped.

"Poet Trump, the coachman can not see the road! If you want me to make the crystals glow, please tell me how."

"You are a Fire Child and a bard. You can figure it out."

Shalewyn pondered that. He looked at the crystals in the coach. No, if I make those glow, I'll be reprimanded for always thinking of myself first. I have to see to the coachman first. Better yet, I'll see to the low servants first!

Shalewyn opened the door of the coach and hopped out into the dark, dark night.

"Careful, Honored Bard, there's pot holes. You should get back inside the carriage where you're safe with the high poet," came the coachman's voice.

"I'm going to try to make some lehts. Does anyone have some crystals?"

"Honored Bard, Sir, there's a box of them here on the wagon," came another voice, along with some banging and muffled cursing.

"High Poet said to have them near to hand. Didn't youse put them under youse seat like I told youse?" demanded the coachman unsympathetically to his fellow servant.

"It slid someplace."

Shalewyn crouched down and felt around. He crept away from the carriage and at last found a branch and ignited it. With the burning branch to light his way, he walked past the second carriage to the wagon behind it. He saw the servant on his knees groping under the wagon's driver's seat. Shalewyn held the branch up, giving light to the servant.

"Thank you kindly Honored Bard."

As the servant peered under the seat, Shalewyn noticed the wagon had crystals mounted along its sides. Shalewyn thought for a moment. The lehts usually need only go on when it is dark but there might be times it would be unsafe to have lehts glowing. He imagined the crystals of the wagon glowing more and more the darker the night became. The image of the crystals as houses to friendly little creatures of light—they looked like remarkably like salamanders—came to his mind. The little salamander like creatures had big eyes and three fingers on each of their paws.

The salamanders said, "We are hungry! We want fire! When we eat fire we are pretty!"

Shalewyn, entranced, said, "Will you wink out or wink on whenever asked if I give you enough fire to last you your whole life?"

"Yes!" popped and cracked their voices.

They were pretty, all lit up and glowing. There were some trapped in a box; that is, their crystal houses were trapped in a box.

"The box is under a tarp to the left. Open it, would you please, Goodfellow? The little salamanders are afraid in the box. They want their houses out of there," said Shalewyn deep in his poet's trance. He did not notice the branch he held was burning down to his hand.

The servant pulled out the box, opened it, and quickly snatched the burning branch out of Shalewyn's hand, threw it on the ground, and jumped down to stomp out the fire. Shalewyn did not notice. His attention was fixed on his magical senses. Salamanders were calling him from all sorts of places: the doors of the carriages, the steps on the wagons and carriages, posts mounted on the wagons and carriages; the reins of the horses; a gem on Poet Trump's hat; crystals in his own bard's scarf. In his mind he answered the salamanders' calls, igniting them with as much fire as was healthy for each little creature.

"Look at what the Fire Child's done! Wese got lehts!"

"Shalewyn, stop now," called Poet Trump, "otherwise every rock in this area that has some crystal or micca will want to be illuminated too."

Shalewyn said dreamily, "And the gold, silver, and lapis lazuli too."

Poet Trump realized Shalewyn was too deeply entranced. More drastic measures were needed to wake up the lad. The Fire Child felt something large and soft suddenly bop him squarely in the face. He was so surprised he came right out of his trance. Poet Trump had thrown a pillow at him. Shalewyn picked up the pillow. It was decorated with tiny, round mirrors and every single one was glowing merrily.

"Poet Trump," said Shalewyn proudly, "Little creatures that glow live in the crystals and look just like salamanders! I helped the salamanders become illuminated like they wanted, and they will glow or stop glowing whenever asked. All the servants have lehts on their wagons. There were enough crystals in the box for each servant and coachman to have his own leht."

"You've done very, very well, lad. Now return to your seat in my carriage so that we may resume our journey."

Shalewyn hopped back into the carriage. He was very excited by what he had just accomplished, looking out the door at the lehts and grinning at Poet Trump's hat, but he had dark circles under his eyes from the effort of fine control he had just exerted. Poet Trump, aware of the excitable ways of lads, did not want the entire carriage turned into a leht, nor the lad sickened by the ferocious effort.

"Shalewyn, I suggest you go to sleep," said Poet Trump in a certain tone that only poets who had attained five colors, mother-souled mothers, (and Tristabé-airta) could attain. Shalewyn was sound asleep by the time Poet Trump said the word "sleep."

*

Shalewyn, wedged between the wall and another bard, listened raptly to the concert. The seating was arranged by rank by poets’ colors and by natal rank. This meant Shalewyn sat with all the lads of simple folk at the very end of the very last bench. Shalewyn, being against the wall, was in the worst seat, furthest from the music. In progressively more comfortable chairs were the nobles and royals of one to three colors, and set close to the musicians on easy chairs were the high poets, those of four colors. Poet Trump, the only five color poet at Azule, sat beside The Artist by her special request. Her request had miffed the king and Queen Consort who only wanted to sit with someone of the king's rank, which Poet Trump was not, he needing one more color to attain the rank of ollave, the poets’ equivalent to the rank of king. So the monarch and his wife sat apart with their two Princes Royal. The princes lounged at the feet of their parents on lavender pillows set on a thick, pink rug that bore a floral pattern.

The walls of the room were embossed gold. Yard square plates of gold an inch thick rose to the high arched ceiling which was painted with frescoes. Lavender and pink gauzy bunting had been draped high along the walls to honor The Artist and Poet Trump. Gauzy curtains of colors signifying rank—yellow, sky blue, royal red, and leafy green—were drawn between the ranks of poets to break the distortions in sound the gold walls would otherwise cause. Of course the curtain also served to keep the low poets contained away from the high poets. Shalewyn could tell from the way Poet Trump was sitting—too casually—that Trump was very angry. Shalewyn wondered why his mentor was angry when he was sitting next to The Artist herself.

A new strand in the music of the small orchestra washed over Shalewyn, catching him up in its beauty. When the music finally drew to its finish, Shalewyn stood with everyone else to applaud. I can not believe that a full thirty minutes has passed! Now I know what it is ‘to be lost in the music’! Shalewyn clapped enthusiastically; loving the best music he had ever heard though it was not the best of music.

As it was near sunset, dinner was a buffet served on the gold room's huge terrace. Everyone thronged the terrace, but no one spoke to Shalewyn. Everyone would take one look at his beige tunic and trousers and walk off, no matter his scarf was yellow. Shalewyn wandered about, feeling lonely, but admiring the terrace's spectacular view of the palace grounds, the town beyond, and the cottages and farms beyond the town. Shalewyn took his place in the buffet line. He tried to make a little conversation with the servants as they dished out his food for him, but they glowered at him and only spoke to him to offer him different dishes.

"Don't speak to the servants. You'll get them in trouble," warned a bard next to him in line who had a touch of red in his clothing.

"Thank you for the warning. Rank divisions here seem to be very formal."

"'Formal,' a delicate way to put it. The house poet here, who has four colors is going to be teaching poetry and spells. The Artist, though, will be teaching art and art magic. The Artist's really nice and willing to teach every poet pupil herself. She does not farm out simplefolk and noble bards to two colors. She has her own wing in the palace where all of us in her retinue stay. Come by later, we hold our own entertainment every night."

"Thank you. If my mentor does not need me this evening I will come by."

The royal bard was then called by some nobles. He muttered to Shalewyn, "I can't stand that lot, but if I don't mingle with them they'll feel slighted and cause problems."

As Shalewyn carried his plate of dinner around seeking a seat or even something just to use as a table, the sun lowered over the mountains. All along the terrace rails, interwoven in the palace trees, and even in the ivy growing up the walls of the palace, lehts winked on. He had never seen such wealth and was enchanted by all the tiny lehts illuminating the palace. He set his plate of food and wine glass on the terrace rail and ate standing, admiring the beauty of the palace adorned with its lehts. He had never tasted anything so delicious as this dinner, and he had thought King Kotupun kept a fine table. Frequently servants came by to offer him more wine, bread, and various delicacies. Nobody bothered him either. He was free to enjoy his meal and just watch all the fascinating folk who thronged past him in their fabulous clothes. No wonder all poets came to the Palace Azule on their poet's journeys. Shalewyn looked out at the town and farm cottages. He could only see shadows in the dark. Except for a building or two in the town, only the palace had lehts.

Finished with his meal, Shalewyn looked about to see where he should take his empty plate and glass. A noble lass, carrying a plate of dessert, dropped her napkin, so Shalewyn rose and picked it up for her.

"Your napkin, My Lady," he said with the bow Poet Trump had drilled him on till he could execute it perfectly. He held out the napkin to her.

The noble lass looked at the napkin and then at Shalewyn. She did not take the napkin. "Hold this please, bard," she said, handing him her plate.

Shalewyn took it, puzzled. Then she slapped him hard across the face.

Shalewyn too amazed at first to be offended could only say what he had been taught for years, "'Poets are not struck.'"

"She did not strike you, bard," came an officious voice beside him. It was a nobleman swathed head to toe in sky blue, "She defended her honor."

The noble lass took her plate from Shalewyn and made "the delicate step" away from him.

Poet Trump saw the insult just inflicted on his protegé. The lad did not ignite anyone or anything, he was proud to note. I will take care of this, thought Trump, angered on many levels by what had just been done to the Fire Child.

Shalewyn looked around, feeling utterly humiliated and enraged. Everyone was acting as though nothing had happened. He caught sight of Poet Trump, but his mentor was mingling with royals and high poets and did not seem to see Shalewyn. Not knowing what to do, he went to where he left his plate and wine glass. They were gone. A servant with a tray of filled tea cups passed by him, offering him a cup.

"Thank you," said Shalewyn automatically.

"Sir Bard, there is dessert at the buffet table, if you please."

Shalewyn contented himself with his tea. Many lasses passed by him, giving him small, flirtatious smiles, but he ignored them, suspicious. Brooding, Shalewyn watched the wealthy throng grow tipsy, laugh softly, steal little touches from their superiors in rank with beseeching looks. There were many little romances brewing here, and this realization amused him. He knew of two loving couples, his foster parents and King Kotupun and his Queen Consort Hira, but Shalewyn had never seen young lovers. He had been reared apart from those his age, so he had no idea how they or anyone newly in love behaved. He saw a noble lad turn and address a bardess; she rewarded him with a huge and adorably sweet smile. A pretty enough royal lass stood quietly listening to an artist of four colors around whom several nobles and royals were gathered. When the artist stopped speaking and looked about at his listeners, the royal lass shyly asked something. The artist answered matter-of-factly and gave his attention to someone else who spoke. The royal lass could not quite hide her misery at the polite but firm rebuff. Another artist, one of two colors, a fetching, curvy thing with a twinkling laugh stood at the center of lads all of whom out ranked her, but all of whom smiled at her hungrily and eyed her figure when she did not notice. Almost every word she spoke elicited laughter from the lads.

Shalewyn thought of King Kotupun asking him to woo and marry the Princess Royal of Allsongs.

"She's said to be quiet the pretty thing," wheedled the king. "You will like her because she is poet-souled like you are. You marry her and bring her here to live her life in Bendemer and you'll ensure a peace between our troubled lands. Her dowry will be great and I will give you a dowry as great as hers. Your own manor. lad. You'll have your own manor and a pretty poetess princess to bed."

Shalewyn had been so embarrassed by the 'to bed' bit, he had inadvertently ignited the rug. The king winked at him, shoved the furniture off the rug in a trice, and rolled up the burning rug, effectively snuffing out the fire. The king opened the grand window and heaved the massive rug out of it, doing all of this calmly before the servants could even rush into the room. Marry the Princess Royal of Allsongs. None of these nobles could insult him if he were married to a Princess Royal.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Cynthia Joyce Clay was judged a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. Besides living sf, Cynthia has experience with the thriller genre: she was invited to Russia to deliver her paper, “The Application of Vector Theory to Literature & Drama” at the conference "Languages of Science, Languages of Art," was chased by the KGB and escaped thanks to her erratic ways. Her sf novel Zollocco was an Eppie finalist.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I was inspired by the Bardic Tradition of the British Isles, where poets were believed to do magic and were an exalted class who had to pass tests to earn degrees of color. The highest level poets were called ollaves and in Wales were considered equal in rank to kings.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
My books and books by my family are listed at cynthiajocyeclay.me. I'm also a theater director, and you can find videos of the plays I've worked on at storycrafterstudio.org/films. My blog is also listed at storycrafterstudio.com.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
What is fun about writing fantasy is finding interesting history and imagining what it would be like to live that way. With The Saga of the Dragon Born, I was imagining what it would be like if the beliefs of the Celts of the British Isles were true. Then I added some flush toilets and Trombe walls

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