Authors: Tanya Huff
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
THE QUARTERED SEA
THE fishing boat rose to the surface of the bay like an abandoned vessel of the old gods. Such was the angle that the masthead, draped in pennants of torn and dripping sail, had barely emerged before the bow broke through, water sheeting over the gunnels back into the sea. A moment later the stern followed, cradled on the crest of an unnatural wave. Long ropes of weed trailed off the rudder as though the depths had attempted to hold their prize.
Ignoring waves and wind, the boat cut across the chop toward a nearly identical vessel carrying four oilskin-wrapped people. Three of the four watched the approach, openmouthed. The fourth, a young man standing alone in the bow, watched the water and Sang.
A few moments later, the salvaged boat drew parallel with the other and stopped, both boats keeping their position as though held by unseen hands.
"That's her, that's my
." Leaning over the gunnels for a closer look, one of the identical trio pushed her hood back off salt-and-pepper hair and squinted into the spray. "Well, I'll be hooked and fried, they even brung up both pairs of oars." Half-turned toward the bow, she lifted her voice over the combined noise of wind and sea and Song, "Hey bard! We're close enough to use the gaff. Should I hook her in and make her fast?"
Still Singing, Benedikt shook his head and shuffled around on his damp triangle of decking to face the shore.
Shoulders hunched against the chill, he changed his Song, and both boats began to move toward the gravel beach at the head of the bay where the tiny figures of the villagers paced up and down.
When the keels scraped bottom, he changed the Song again.
Two roughly human translucent figures rose up out of the shallows on either side of the bow and brushed against the ends of Benedikt's outstretched fingers like liquid cats. Closing his eyes, he allowed the four notes of the gratitude to linger a moment or two after the kigh dissolved back into the sea.
"Right, then!" The owner of the
took command of the silence with an authoritative bellow. "Let's have some help here before the tide turns!"
His part in the salvage completed, the bard stayed where he was until it became obvious that there was nothing left to do but disembark. Clambering awkwardly over the side, he winced as the frigid water seeped into borrowed boots. The uneven footing threw him off balance. He staggered forward, then back, then forward again.
A sudden grip on his elbow kept him from falling.
The figure beside him, indistinguishable from all the others in the ubiquitous oilskins, was considerably shorter than his own six feet. Under his hood, he felt his ears burn. Bards were not supposed to need rescue. Especially not from rescuers so much smaller than themselves.
The hand remained around his elbow until dry land was reached, then it released him and rose to push back the masking hood. Fortunately, he recognized the face. Bards were not supposed to fumble for names either.
The woman who'd offered her boat for the trip out into the bay smiled up at him. "Benedikt."
Wobbly on the slippery piles of beach gravel, he had no idea of what he was supposed to say next.
As though she sensed his unease, Lucija's smile dimmed a little. "That was an impressive bit of Singing out there; what with Tesia swamping right over the cleft and all. I never knew bards could control the kigh so deep."
He could feel the tension start to leave his shoulders. It
been an impressive bit of Singing, and he was pleased that she'd noticed. "It was nothing."
"Nothing?" Drawn around by the sound of her name, Tesia stomped over and smacked the bard enthusiastically on the arm. "You've given me back the fish, boy. That's an unenclosed sight more than
. Now you head over to my place around dark, and I'll cook you a meal that'll make a start at payin' you back."
"You don't have to…"
"I know that. I want to." She grinned around him at the younger woman. "I can see what you're thinkin', Lucija. You may as well come, too."
The entire village ended up at Tesia's cottage. From where Benedikt sat, there seemed to be a man, woman, or child in every available space—occasionally, two deep. Lucija had a seat close by, and the heat in her pale eyes made him wish his place of honor wasn't quite so close to the fire.
When they called for a song, he dried his palms on his thighs and lifted his quintara like a shield. He wasn't good in large crowds; there were just too many people to please.
"It's all right, these things happen." Up on one elbow, Lucija stroked the soft triangle of golden hair in the center of Benedikt's chest. "Don't worry about it."
It took an effort, but he kept his voice light. "Easy for you to say."
"Maybe you just need a little encouragement."
As her hand moved lower, Benedikt closed his eyes. When Lucija had finally come right out and invited him to her bed, he hadn't been able to think of a believable way to say no. He'd
to be with her, but he'd been afraid that exactly what had happened would happen.
It wasn't his fault really, it was the pressure. After his performance in the afternoon, he'd known that she'd expect an equivalent performance in the dark. He'd been magnificent out on the bay. The need to be that magnificent again—and the fear that he wouldn't be—had made him so tense…
It would've been easier to raise another fishing boat.
"Maybe you're just too tired."
There was sympathy in her voice, not blame, but he couldn't have her telling others that Singing the kigh had exhausted him. Grasping at straws, he began a silent Song, calling up the one thing that had never failed him. Sleek, fluid, the image of the water kigh was not entirely human-seeming.
Not that it mattered.
"Ah, there we are."
"A lot of us fatten a pig and pretty much everyone keeps some chickens," Lucija explained, forking the strips of bacon onto Benedikt's plate beside the two fried eggs. "There's a limit to how much seafood a body can eat."
"It does lose its appeal after a while," Benedikt agreed with a laugh. "When I first went to the Bardic Hall, I didn't eat fish for almost a year."
"You're from a fisher family, then?"
He nodded around a mouthful of breakfast. "My three older brothers fish out of Three Island Cove," he told her when he'd swallowed, adding proudly, "They all go out to the deep water."
"Yeah, they are. Absolutely fearless. But not reckless," he hastened to explain. "Just really good at what they do. And my father's the factor at Three Island
. There hasn't been a surplus in the last twenty years that he hasn't convinced the Due of Sibiu to pay handsomely for." One dark-gold brow lifted. "Whether she started out wanting the fish or not."
"Your father'd be bored stiff here, then. We're so close to Elbasan that all of our surplus is contracted in advance, and all we have to do is hand it over to the regular traders." Grinning and shaking her head, she sopped up egg yolk with a bit of toasted bread. "But you're a bard. You already know that."
"You've heard the rumors that we know everything, then?"
Her laughter added a special savor to the food and he almost stopped worrying about the impression he was making. He'd only been Walking on his own for a year and, sometimes, being a
bard of Shkoder
was as much a burden as a blessing.
"So, where do you go from here?"
"Fort Kazpar for the Queen's visit."
"So she's actually going through with it this quarter?"
"I don't know." Sighing contentedly, Benedikt pushed his empty plate away and picked up the heavy clay mug of tea. "I won't know until I arrive."
Lucija mirrored his movement. "Seems a shame you have to go all that way if nothing's happening. Can't you send a kigh ahead to the fort?"
The silence stretched and lengthened until the distant screams of scavenging gulls moved into the cottage to fill the void.
"I Sing only water." Hands flat on the table, chin lifted, he dared her to comment.
"Ah." Looking somewhat taken aback, Lucija took a long swallow of tea before saying, "We had a Headwoman back when I was real young who could Sing water, but she decided to stay fishing rather than become a bard. Not that I'm suggesting you should've gone fishing," she added hurriedly when she caught sight of Benedikt's expression.
He felt the muscles tighten across his shoulders, the tension moving right down both arms and curling his fingers into fists. "If I'd gone fishing," he reminded her, "Tesia's boat would still be at the bottom of the bay."
"Hey, calm down." Hands making soothing motions in the air, Lucija gave him as much distance as the chair would allow. "We were all impressed by the way you Sang the kigh yesterday. Obviously, you made the right decision becoming a bard."
Shoving his own chair back with a shriek of protest, wood on wood, Benedikt stood. He'd hoped this time would be different, but it always came to the same thing in the end. "My thanks for breakfast and for last night, but I don't need your pity."
Arms folded, Lucija stood by her cottage and watched Benedikt grow ever smaller as he climbed to the top of the cliff, resolved that if he turned and waved, she wouldn't wave back. When Tesia came up behind her, smelling of warm pitch, she grunted a greeting but kept her gaze locked on the path.
"So, he's leavin' is he?" Without waiting for an answer, the older woman spat and added, "I never met a bard so uncomfortable at bein' the center of attention."
Lucija snorted. "I never met a bard I so desperately wanted to smack."
"Can't you send a kigh ahead to the fort?"
It always came to that. No matter how well he Sang or how long he spent playing song after song after song, in the end, they always found him wanting.
I Sing only water."
His parents had been thrilled when Karlene had Walked into the village and discovered his talent. It explained why skills his brothers performed as easily as breathing came so hard to him. His father had bragged about the discovery up and down the road to Sibiu and even the due had sent her congratulations. His mother had made him a new suit of clothes, his alone instead of outgrown bits and pieces. To have a bard in the family was a thing to be proud of. So what that he only Sang water—he was untrained. "
," they'd told him as they proudly sent him off to the Bardic Hall in Elbasan, "
you'll surely improve
They hadn't understood. He'd been taught Command, and Charm, and tricks of memory that allowed him to recall months of travel down to the tiniest detail. He could Witness in cases of judgment and be an integral part of any service in any Center anywhere the honoring of the Circle had spread.
But he would only, ever, Sing water. Nothing he could do, nothing he could be taught could change that.
He couldn't tell if his family was embarrassed for him or by him. Visits home were a trial; everyone smiling too broadly, making excuses to the neighbors, telling him too heartily that it didn't matter.
And it wasn't just his family. Even the other bards told him it didn't matter. "
There're half a dozen bards Walking through Shkoder who Sing only air
," they told him. "
And don't forget Jazep. Jazep Sang only earth
." Jazep had been a fledgling with Annice, the Princess-Bard. Jazep had been the best teacher the Bardic Hall had ever seen. Jazep had died saving the kingdom. Benedikt was sick to death of hearing about Jazep and, when asked to play "In the Arms of the Earth," Jazep's song, he'd begun to deny ever having learned it.