The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Part III – The Alliance
We’d been living in Konassas for over a week when I began to notice the increased activity. During the first few days of our stay, my thoughts were elsewhere as Cody, Luc, Jonathan, and I joined forces to explore the Amber Palace, along with some of the other buildings bordering the forum that we were allowed to enter.
But by the end of the week, as my exploring decreased and I became more familiar with our surroundings, I began to grow aware of an undercurrent of activity in and around the official buildings that lined the forum of the great city. At first I thought it was just my imagination, especially since I found myself living in a new and strange place and was unfamiliar with the local customs and routines, but the more I observed, the more I was convinced that I was seeing things that were a bit more out of the ordinary and unusual than Konassas usually experienced.
From time to time when I looked out the windows of our living quarters, I would note soldiers marching across the forum dressed in uniforms quite different from those of the soldiers of the local Xannameirian garrison. Occasionally there would be finely dressed men accompanying these troops along with other soldiers who, because of their style of dress, appeared to be higher ranking officers. There was also a higher lever of activity taking place in the Great Hall of the High Council, and every so often as I walked the corridors of the buildings we were allowed access to, I would come upon groups of men dressed in strange clothing and speaking with strong accents. While I couldn’t be sure, they appeared to be representatives from other countries or territories.
These encounters usually left me a little uneasy, since I always elicited long, silent stares from those I encountered as I quietly walked by. Then once out of hearing range, my passage would always occasion quietly whispered remarks, strange looks, and sometimes an odd gesture.
Nic continued to meet with General Zakaria and the members of his staff, while Charles and I would occasionally meet with small groups representing the various committees of the High Council of Konassas. Charles seemed to relish the responsibility, so when he wasn’t studying in his library, Nic and I were happy to allow him to represent Icarian interests before the High Council and the foreign dignitaries and envoys who now appeared before them on a regular basis.
While events swirled about us in the outside world, life in the Amber palace was serene and peaceful as we settled into the daily life and routine of the palace. The first few weeks had been slightly chaotic. Luc accidentally locked himself in his bath one afternoon, and his shouting and pounding summoned Master Sandro, who dashed up the hall to his rescue.
David chipped the leg of a large marble statue that stood watch at the entrance of the parade ground his room overlooked. He was returning from practice one afternoon with Miro, and the two started to jostle each other playfully. David suddenly took a swipe at his twin brother with his sword, intending to spank him with the flat of the blade. The quick-moving Miro easily ducked the blow, but David’s sword struck the statue, and a piece of its right leg cracked off and fell on the ground. I ended up reporting it to Edmond Cob, who stood silently listening to my explanation without comment, his face displaying about as much emotion as the unfortunate statue had.
Even the household servants seemed to become more comfortable and relaxed with us. While Edmond Cob was head of household for the Amber Palace, his duties and responsibilities were many and wide reaching, so our contact with the silent and sober man who oversaw the palace was rare. Master Sandro, who appeared to be second in command to Cob and was a most pleasant and friendly man, had the day-to-day task of seeing to our care and well being. And after a few weeks of observing us and understanding our needs and preferences he, along with the other servants, appeared to be getting along quite well with all of the Icarians in their charge.
Master Arnod, the palace chef, kept us well supplied with delicious food. Master Barzo chose what he felt were appropriate horses for each of us; a feat that I later learned was more difficult than I first imagined, since he had to make sure the animals he chose were not only strong, healthy and well-mannered, but also not easily frightened by creatures sporting large wings on their backs. And I was most pleased to discover from Barzo that my initial choice of horses, Arax, would continue to be my mount since the calm and gentle gray not only seemed to have no problem with my very large wings, but also, Master Barzo confided, seemed to have an affinity for me.
Two weeks after our arrival at the palace, Master Jaysune appeared with three other servants, dispensing newly tailored clothing for all of us. After our first day in the palace it was obvious our wardrobes were rather deficient, so Jaysune – along with two tailors – carefully took everyone’s measurements. They brought a large basket with hundreds of swatches of fabrics arranged by color, weave and weight with them, and Cody and I in particular seemed to have the most fun picking out our favorites. Nic, Lance, and the twins had their battle tunics and armor, but they too were measured for sets of new clothing. When the new clothing finally arrived, it was beautiful, and exquisitely crafted. Accompanying it were pairs of new sandals, sashes, tunic pins and cloaks.
Even the lesser servants appeared to grow more accustomed to our presence and more at ease around us with every passing day. I was most convinced of this one day when I overheard Cody joking playfully with two of the women who kept our apartments clean and orderly. They had made a comment about finding a few feathers in the bed he and Lance shared. When they asked if it hurt when one fell out, Cody laughed and made a humorous comment. The two women giggled along with him as he gave them one of his charming, and disarming, boyish smiles.
The only person I remained concerned about was Philippe. He would eat meals with the rest of us, but otherwise remained in seclusion in the apartment he and Miro shared. I knew he was sad and probably depressed, and I was not only frustrated that there was nothing I could do, but also feeling remorseful over my role in the pain and death of his best friend. And although Nic continued to remind me that I wasn’t to blame for every negative occurrence since we’d emerged from our coffins, I still got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I caught a glimpse of the sad and quiet boy.
As the initial days of our stay stretched into weeks and I finally finished exploring as much of the forum as I could, I implored Nic to allow me to visit other areas of the city. At first he was hesitant, but after I recruited David and Miro as my unofficial bodyguards, he seemed less reluctant to approve my request. The final affirmation came during a series of meetings with members of the High Council, during one of the recesses; I privately mentioned my request to Lord Ottavia. After explaining to him that I would like to see more of Konassas – even if it were under controlled conditions – he immediately took up the matter with the council. After a brief discussion wherein certain terms and conditions were laid down, the council approved the issuance of a proclamation signed by Lord Ottavia and addressed to the citizens of the city, regarding the Icarian presence in Konassas.
Although I’d not had any contact with the world outside the guarded confines of the forum since our arrival in the city, I knew from rumors circulating through the Amber Palace among the household servants that the populace of Konassas was very much aware of our presence in the city. Speculation and rumor were rampant, and most of the servants had been cornered at one time or another in the markets, pubs and shops of the city by people asking questions and offering their own thoughts regarding the strange boys with wings who now resided within the walls of the stately Amber Palace.
The proclamation, issued by the High Council and signed by Lord Ottavia, informed the citizenry of Konassas of our presence, along with the fact that we were under the direct protection of the High Council and the Xannameirian troops of the garrison. It informed them that we had not made any overt acts of violence against the Kingdom of Kalas, its leadership, or general population, and that negotiations were underway to establish full relations with us. It also warned anyone who might attempt to harm an Icarian that all the traditional laws regarding, assault, violence or murder were just as much in effect regarding Icarians as they were for humans.
And so, supported by a proclamation of the high council, the protection of the garrison and the ever-present swords of Miro and David, I awoke one bright, sunny morning prepared to journey into the surrounding city. It would be the first time any of us had ventured outside the confines of the forum since the day, when we’d entered the city through its towering gates and were quickly escorted to the Great Hall of the High Council.
The previous evening I’d informed Sandro of my intentions; after awakening and taking my morning bath, I was greeted in our bedroom by a smiling Master Jaysune, who presented me with new silk small clothes, a beautifully tailored tunic, fine handmade sandals and a blue riding cape. Although I could easily dress myself, Jaysune made a great production of assisting me. He made sure that the ties for my tunic that fit around my wings were tight enough to hold it up yet not so tight that they restricted their movement. He did the same with the cape, although as he put it on me I accidentally knocked him over when he brushed against my left wing and I reflexively jerked it back, hitting him squarely on the side of the head with the elbow. He was slightly dazed as I helped him up.
“You could kill someone with those, Your Grace,” he said.
I smiled and reminded him that the wing-strike of a swan could easily knock a man down, and seeing that my wings were larger and more powerful than any bird he would ever encounter, he was probably lucky I hadn’t knocked him senseless. Nodding in agreement he resumed his duties, fussing over me until I was groomed to his satisfaction.
Minutes after I finished dressing, Sandro rapped on the door to tell me that he’d informed Master Barzo of my intentions, and that Arax had been prepared along with two additional mounts for David and Miro. As soon as Sandro left, there was a another loud rap on the door and when I opened it, I took two steps back and blinked at the sight of David and Miro dressed in their finest armor, cloaks and weaponry. They each had extremely large grins splashed across their faces, and their eyes twinkled with mirth and mischief. The reflection from their polished armor was bright enough to make me squint whenever the rays of sunlight streaming in from the windows of the apartment reflected off their mirror-like breastplates.
Sensing my surprise, Miro smiled and executed one of his long- practiced theatrical bows. “It never hurts to put one’s best foot forward,” he said, his grin growing even larger.
“Yes,” David answered. “We want to make a good impression. After all, we are les Gemeaux. Remember Your Grace, we are death….
“…at the point of a sword,” Miro finished the sentence for his twin brother. Then they drew their short swords, waved them in a grand flourish, and once more bowed deeply and gracefully as scarlet capes with the golden lizard embroidered on them fluttered about their wings.
“You’re dressed rather nicely yourself, Your Grace,” David commented, rising from his florid bow.
I smiled at his remark, since I had to admit he was right. I was wearing a beautiful light blue tunic with dark blue trim, set with a golden key design. My sandals were of fine, dark leather that contrasted sharply with my light skin where the straps wound around my ankles and lower calves. The riding cloak matched the dark blue of the trim on my tunic and was bordered with delicate gold and silver embroidery. Held together by a golden clasp in the form of a seashell, it also had a hood with the same embroidered gold and silver trim.
During my brief stay in Konassas, I’d learned that higher-ranking nobility often wore small silver or golden diadems to indicate their position and as I had dressed, Jaysune presented me with one. Placed on my head, the small silver band fit me perfectly. The evening before, when I indicated my intention to explore the city, Sandro had suggested it as a reminder to the populace that I was someone of importance, although I was quick to point out to our head of household that my large, iridescent wings most certainly made that statement clearer than anything else I might wear. Nevertheless he’d strongly insisted, and when Nic walked in on our conversation, he voiced his agreement with Sandro.
“Wear it, Jamie,” was all he contributed to the lively conversation between Sandro and me. But I could tell that in his mind it would be one further mark of my social status and thus might serve as a reminder to those who saw it of my position.
“Yes,” Miro said as he laughed, watching me set the thin polished silver band on my head. “We want everyone to know you’re the little boy who throws the fireballs!”
I turned and frowned at him as I finished adjusting it on my head so that it sat squarely on my forehead without matting down my hair. Finally, we were ready. Walking out under the portico of the Amber palace, I saw two stable boys awaiting us. One held the reins of Arax, and the other the reins of the two large, black horses David and Miro would be riding. Outfitted in identical black-and-gold trimmed saddles and tack, they almost looked like twins themselves; I suspected that since Master Barzo knew the twin gladiators would be riding them, he had made every effort to make their two horses look as identical as possible.
In a flash we were mounted, much to the surprise of the stable boys who watched in awe as the twins leapt from the stairs of the Amber Palace, somersaulted through the air and landed gently on each horse’s back with such grace and delicacy that the horses didn’t even flinch. I, on the other hand, stroked my wings gently, glided to Arax, and lowered myself onto his back. I could ride quite well and didn’t feel the need to exhibit the showmanship the twins did when all I wished was simply to mount my horse.
Riding Arax through the streets with David ahead of me and Miro following, I was amazed at how large and busy Konassas was. Everywhere I ventured, I was surrounded by activity as people hurried about their daily business. The stores and shops entertained a steady stream of customers, the open air markets were full of merchants offering goods for sale – unlike Tardon’s small market square, the goods on offer were of high quality – and the traders were doing brisk business with the local populace.
The pubs were filled with people; some had terraces with benches and tables, where groups of mostly men and older boys congregated, drinking, smoking pipes and playing cards or dice. After a thirty minute tour of a large part of the city around the forum and garrison, the heat was making me thirsty. I asked Miro and David if they cared for a drink and when they nodded enthusiastically, I pointed ahead to a pub sitting on one of the street corners directly in front of us. It had a large terrace where quite a few men were sitting on benches, drinking and talking.
We approached the pub, dismounted, tied our horses, and made our way to an empty table and pair of benches. As we walked across the terrace, the loud and lively conversations came to a sudden halt and a wall of silence greeted us. Sitting at the table with our wings draped over the backs of the benches, we began to quietly talk amongst ourselves about the tour we had just taken, and ever so slowly the conversations from the other tables resumed, although not with the same level of gusto and enthusiasm they had earlier.
Seated opposite the twins, I turned when my eye caught a flurry of movement across the street at a second pub. Looking more closely at the activity I was observing, I smiled to myself and turned to say something to the boys. Just as I was about to speak, a young woman hurried up to our table carrying a dark green bottle and three glasses, though we hadn’t ordered anything. Setting it down, she indicated that it was a gift from the owner of the tavern – presented as a welcome to the newest inhabitants of the city. Miro flashed the girl a wide smile and David stood and gave her a formal bow.
“Don’t you two ever stop performing?” I said under my breath.
“A good performance is half the price of the show,” Miro said, flashing a gleaming smile in my direction. “The crowds don’t want just a good fight, they also want their champions to be graceful and elegant.”
“Well, you’re not in the arena now,” I said. “Let’s try to keep a low profile.”
Miro shrugged and began to pour wine into the three glasses. Lifting a glass, he offered a quick toast and we began to drink the wine, which I found to be mildly sweet and quite delicious. A few minutes passed and Miro poured more wine into our partially emptied glasses to top them off. But as he set the wine bottle back on the table, a sharp clinking sound could be heard coming from it. Frowning, he picked it up and shook it lightly. As he did, the clinking sound grew louder, and there was no doubt that there was something – possibly metal, from the sound it made hitting the glass – inside the bottle.
Lifting his glass to his lips and emptying it in a few quick gulps, Miro quickly refilled it. We had already consumed enough of the wine that by the time Miro refilled his glass, the bottle was empty, and when he set it upright on the table the hollow clinking sound left no mistake that there was something inside it.
Turning it upside down and shaking it only yielded more noise, since he could do nothing to coax the object from the bottle. Whatever it was, it appeared to be too large to fit through the neck. Not so easily defeated, Miro picked up the bottle by the base and before I could stop him, dashed the neck against the cobblestones of the terrace. I jumped at the sound of shattering glass as Miro neatly sheared the neck of the bottle off. Once more, the small crowd sitting around us on the terrace grew quiet as all eyes fell upon us. Miro simply smiled at every one and gave a slightly comical shrug. ‘What an actor,’ I thought to myself.
Holding the now-decapitated bottle above the table, he flipped it over. With one final ‘clink’ followed by a soft thud, a small metal object fell out and landed on the table. Miro picked it up, looked at it for a few seconds, and then held it up for David to examine. It looked like some kind of a pin, or clasp for a cloak. In fact, it looked remarkably like the lizard-shaped pins that clasped Miro and David’s red and gold cloaks in place over their armor. The only difference I could see was that instead of the shape of a lizard, the pin was fashioned to look like a scorpion.
“House Dommal,” David said.
“Duet Scorpion,” Miro replied.
“What are you two talking about?” I said.
“There are only two people who have a pin like this,” Miro said, giving me a steady and even gaze.
The mischievous gleam normally found in his eyes was gone, along with the perennial grin on his face. In their place was a cold, hard look that immediately made me think was probably one of the final things an enemy in the arena would gaze upon before the young gladiator killed him.
“Tanguy and Francesco.” David interrupted, his face mirroring the same cold look as Miro’s.
“This,” Miro said, holding the pin a few inches from my nose, “is a gladiator pin. Specifically, it’s the pin of House Dommal – the fighting house of Duet Scorpion.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“I’m sure,” Miro said. “Look at the metal.”
I watched as he twirled it in between his thumb and first finger. It was black, but as it caught the sunlight, it reflected a rainbow of color, and if it hadn’t been black I would have sworn the sparkles were coming from the clearest and purest of diamonds.
“It’s Bhorite,” Miro said. “The same as our lizards.” My eyes followed his finger as he pointed to the lizard pin clasping David’s cloak.
“It’s very rare and expensive,” Miro continued. “Hard to work with, and almost impossible to fashion into anything, let alone something this detailed and intricate. Only masters from the Royal House of Craftsmen can work with it, and only the most skilled of them could create such an object. Yes, Your Grace, I’m quite sure of what it is,” he said, once more leveling his cold unblinking eyes at me. Just then the publican of the tavern bustled up to our table, red of face, out of breath, and most apologetic.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, my lords,” he said, breathlessly bowing and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his dirty apron. “I was busy in the kitchen. The idiot I have for a cook burned his hand and I had to attend to it. I read the proclamation of the High Council. I didn’t mean to leave such special and distinguished guests as yourselves waiting for service.”
“It’s alright. We were already served by your girl,” I said, looking up at the red-faced man.
“My girl?” he said, and I could hear the puzzlement in his voice. “Why, it’s only me and the cook – some days my wife helps, but I have no girl.”
“But we were served by a young girl,” I countered. “She was well dressed, and offered us a bottle of wine. She said it was a gift from you with your compliments and best wishes.”
Frowning, the publican reached down and picked up the remains of the broken bottle. Turning it over in his hand, being carefully not to cut himself, he examined its shape and label and then he returned it to the table.
“This wine comes from Domain Carolus, the finest and most famous vineyard in the Kingdom of Vorhalla. It’s very expensive – too expensive for my customers. It’s not something I sell, and if I had a bottle I’d drink it myself. I certainly wouldn’t give it away.” Then suddenly pausing and turning even redder he added, “Begging your pardon, my lords.” as he realized what he’d just said.
“No matter. Just bring us another bottle of wine,” I said in an attempt to send the publican off so that we could regain our privacy.
“Then I must apologize in advance to you, my young lord, for it won’t be as fine as the first one,” he said.
“That’s quite alright,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll be happy with it.”
Scurrying off, the publican vanished into his tavern.
Turning to me, Miro, still twirling the cloak pin in his hand, frowned in thought.
“From the first, when we were awakened by Nic, I’ve been wondering what happened at Piropolas,” he said slowly. “Why were we the only gladiators – other than Nic – who survived?”
“Maybe they did survive, or at least some of them,” I said.
“Yes,” Miro said, turning to me – the look on his face suddenly made me shiver. “We were meant to get this,” he continued, still twirling the scorpion-shaped pin in his hand. “It was the woman – she made sure we were served the wine.”
“Well, the publican didn’t know anything about her,” David said. “And he said he doesn’t serve that variety of wine.”
“Exactly. Someone purposefully sent us a message,” Miro said, staring coldly into my eyes. “They made sure we were given that bottle and that we were the ones who opened it. Other than the two of us, only Nic would have recognized this for what it was.”
“Of course,” David said. “It’s a message. But what does it mean?”
“I intend to find out,” Miro said. Just then the publican re-emerged from his tavern with a new bottle of wine. Placing the bottle on the table and once more bowing and offering his apologies, the man rushed off to his other customers.
“I’ll talk to Nic about this,” Miro said, pouring more wine into our glasses, “but I have every intention of going to the place where that wine came from. What did the pub keep say it was called?”
“Domain Carolus, in the Kingdom of Vorhalla,” I replied.
“It could be a trap,” David said.
“Yes, it could be,” Miro said, “But I intend to find out. I owe that much to Tanguy and Francesco – after all, they were often our partners in the grand matches. I want to know if they, or any of the others, are still alive. The only thing I worry about is Philippe. It’s not a good time to leave him. If only he had Damian, I know he would be alright, but without his music and his friend, he’s so isolated.”
“Maybe I have a solution to that problem,” I said, suddenly smiling at Miro. “Stay here a moment – I’m going just across the street.”
Miro gave me a strange look but obeyed as I strode across the terrace. Crossing the street in the direction of the pub that sat opposite the one we were at, I approached the alley beside it. At the mouth of the alley, I turned back to look across the street at Miro and David, who were intently watching me.
“Are you always this unlucky, or do you have a penchant for getting yourself in trouble?” I softly said, not speaking directly to the person I was addressing, but appearing to make a comment in the direction of David and Miro. My remark was greeted with silence but I continued, “You can show yourself; I know you’re there. And don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
For a few more seconds the silence continued, then ever so slowly a head emerged from the dark passage to reveal the face of the young musician – the one we had rescued at The Headless Rooster. His face was slightly dirty and I noticed a little dried blood crusted around his nose.
“Another disagreement with yet another publican?” I said, giving him a soft, and I hoped disarming, smile.
“Something like that,” he said as his face and ears grew red.
“I’d like to invite you to have a drink with us,” I said. “My friends and I are on the terrace just across the street.”
“I would, but I don’t think I’d be welcome,” he said, going even redder.
“Have you been thrown out of every pub, tavern and inn in the city of Konassas?” I asked, unable to suppress the smile that was slowly growing on my face.
“Some days I think so,” he replied with a sigh.
“Well, just come over with me and join us, and nothing will happen to you. I promise.”
Pausing for a few seconds, I watched his eyes move to take in my dress. I could see him glancing at the diadem on my head – the sign of a high lord, Sandro had told us. Then I watched as his gaze flicked back further to rest on my large wings. Blushing to the roots of his hair as he realized I was aware of what he was staring at, he bent down, gathered up his harp case and slung it over his shoulder. Rising to his full height, he wrapped his cloak around himself and followed me as I led him across the street, back to the table on the terrace where I’d left the twins. When we got to the table I gestured for him to sit down.
“This is David,” I said, waving to the boy on my left, “And this is Miro,” I went on, pointing to the boy directly in front of me. The boys watched in bemusement as the young musician bowed deeply to them both.
“M’lords, my name is Barsetba; it’s my privilege to meet you both,” he said. I watched as his eyes glanced rapidly back and forth between the two boys. “Are you twins?”
“Yes, they’re twins,” I said dryly before either of them could answer and perform another of their dramatic bows.
The young musician, Barsetba, finally sat down on the same bench I’d been sitting on. Easing myself down beside him so as not to hit him with my wings, I glanced across the table at Miro and began to speak but was immediately interrupted, for no sooner had the boy and I gotten seated, than the publican once more appeared at our table.
“I told you boy, you’re not welcome here,” he said, his face once more turning red as he shouted at the musician. “I threw you out of here once; I thought that would have been enough.”
Barsetba visibly cowered under the man’s angry glare.
“The young gentleman is our guest, sirrah. Is this a problem for you?” David asked pointedly, leveling his icy cold blue eyes at the man. As if by magic, a dagger appeared in his hand and he laid it gently on the tabletop beside his glass.” Then tempering his actions with a broad smile, he looked the man in the eye and continued, “Would you be kind enough to fetch him a glass? We’ll be paying for anything he eats and drinks, of course.”
With a frown and a loud snort, the man spun on his heel and stalked away, only to return a few seconds later. He slammed a glass down in front of the boy with such force that I thought it would shatter. Then snorting once more and muttering under his breath, he retreated back inside his pub. The twins exchanged wolfish grins, but remained silent. Once we were all settled and David had poured the boy a glass of wine, I turned to Miro.
“Barsetba,” I said, looking directly at the young Icarian gladiator, “is your answer concerning Philippe.”
At first Miro said nothing; in fact, the puzzled look he gave me indicated that he hadn’t caught my meaning. But then David slapped the table and broke out in a grin.
“Yes, of course,” he shouted, and I cringed as once more the crowd around us became quiet and stared in our direction. “Miro,” David continued in a quieter voice, “he’s a musician. He’d be the perfect friend for Philippe.”
No sooner had David said the words then Miro broke out into a wide grin of his own. “Yes,” he said, his smile growing ever wider. “Yes, it would be perfect.”
With a worried – almost frightened – look on his face, Barsetba’s eyes continued to dart between Miro, David, and me.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” he stammered. “I’ve just been trying to survive here in the city. I don’t mean you any harm. I ask nothing of you.”
He spoke quickly, and I could sense the fear rising in his voice.
“We mean you no harm, Barsetba.” I smiled reassuringly at the boy. “In fact, we have a proposal to make to you.”
Barsetba’s fearful look lessened a bit, but I could still feel distress and worry flowing from him. Placing my hand lightly on his shoulder, I briefly explained our situation. Listening in what appeared to be utter amazement and disbelief, the young musician stared at me with wide, unblinking eyes.
“And so you’d like me to go back with you to the Amber Palace?” he said incredulously.
“Yes,” I said, smiling at him. “I’d like you to meet Philippe – the boy I’ve been telling you about.”
“And after I do?” he said, giving me a probing look.
“If Philippe is in agreement, you can stay and practice with him. Maybe even put on a small performance?”
“You’re saying I would live in the Amber Palace? With you?” Barsetba said, and I could hear the disbelief in his voice.
“Yes, you would stay with us in the Amber Palace. Unless, of course, you prefer living in dark alleys, being thrown out of taverns and pubs, and being punched and kicked by innkeepers and publicans. I’m not forcing you to come with us. It’s your choice, Barsetba.”
For one long minute Barsetba stared down into his wine glass. Then he slowly lifted his head. Once more his eyes fell on David, then Miro and finally on me.
“Ah… well… I guess I could go with you and meet this boy… ah…”
“Philippe,” I said. “His name is Philippe, and he’s Miro’s mate.”
At the words ‘Miro’s mate,’ the musician’s eyes grew wide and he glanced at Miro. The young gladiator, dressed in his finery, sat up straighter and smiled.
“Yes,” Miro said, “my mate. So treat him nicely, or I might have to….”
“Miro!” I hissed, unsuccessfully trying to avoid drawing unnecessary attention upon us. I scowled at Miro for a few seconds before I turned and gave Barsetba a weak, apologetic smile before continuing. “Ah, Miro has a strange sense of humor,” I said, once more sending the gladiator a blistering scowl. “He just wants Philippe to be happy, you see, but right now he’s very sad – some rather bad things happened that upset him, and too, he’s completely without any instruments.”
Suddenly the fear and worry I’d been getting from Barsetba completely disappeared. He turned and stared directly into my eyes.
“A musician without instruments!” he exclaimed, his voice sounding shocked and surprised, “Yes, no wonder he’s so sad. I couldn’t live without my instruments. Oh, I understand how he must feel. Our instruments are the true way we express our feelings. He must feel…” Barsetba paused, looked down at the table as if struggling for the words, then bought his eyes back to mine. “He must feel as if he’s lost his ability to communicate.”
At the conclusion of Barsetba’s comments, I broke out into a smile.
“Yes, I can see you understand,” I said, “and I think you’ll be perfect for Philippe. Just perfect”
“Wait,” Miro snapped.
Turning to young gladiator I frowned deeply. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sensing in that one word feelings of suspicion and skepticism.
“How do we know he’s any good?” Miro asked, and then with a sheepish grin in Barsetba’s direction, added, “Sorry, I don’t mean to insult you.”
David seemed to agree as I watched his eyes narrow and he slowly shook his head in agreement, realizing his brother had brought up a valid point.
Without speaking, Barsetba reached into his cloak and withdrew his small, golden flute. Placing it to his lips, he began to play a bright and lively tune. As he played I could see the men sitting around us looking in his direction. Then I watched as some of their feet began to tap or they drummed their fingers on the table, following the tempo of the music. A few even nodded their heads and smiled. At the conclusion of the piece some of the onlookers gave a round of light applause. Taking the flute from his lips and stuffing it back into the deep folds of his cloak, Barsetba stared at Miro.
“He’ll do,” Miro said, giving me a wink and a smile.
Quickly paying for our wine, we left the terrace of the pub, retrieved our horses and headed back to the Amber palace. Barsetba had begun to walk alongside us after we mounted, but Miro insisted he sit on his horse in front of him so he could tell the boy all about Philippe on the ride back. We rode through the streets of Konassas quickly, and as we rode, Miro spoke to Barsetba about Philippe, telling him what a wonderful boy his mate was, while extolling his talents as a great musician.
When we arrived back at the Amber palace one of the guards met us on the steps, while a swift-footed servant dashed to the stable to fetch some of Stable Master Barzo’s boys. As we ascended the steps of the palace and entered the great foyer, I was glad to see Edmond Cob passing before the great staircase. Calling out to him, I was able to intercept the head of household for the Amber Palace. I introduced him to Barsetba and explained the circumstances surrounding his presence.
I also informed Cobb that he would be staying at the palace as our guest, and would be spending time with Philippe. I indicated that he would need a comfortable and well-appointed room, and that he should be allowed the opportunity to refresh himself, while at the same time requesting that he receive a fresh set of clothes. As the conversation between Cob and myself went back and forth, Barsetba stood near by, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. I could see that he was valiantly trying to grasp the good fortune of this new reality he was suddenly confronting, while at the same time disbelieving that what was currently happening to him was real and not a dream.
If Cob had any reservations or objections, he showed none, but instead bowed to me and indicated that he would take care of everything. His only remarks regarded his concern that most of the larger rooms in the servant’s wing were either already occupied or currently not prepared for occupancy. He raised an eyebrow when I stated that Barsetba was not a servant but a friend, and that I wished him to be given a room on the same floor where we Icarians resided – preferably as close to Miro and Philippe’s room as possible. At the end of my speech, Cob’s face returned to its inscrutable mask; he bowed, and with the boy musician in tow, disappeared up the grand staircase.
Turning to the left, I passed under the grand staircase with Miro and David following close behind. Making my way down a series of hallways, I passed through a large arch and found myself in the palace kitchen. Amid boiling pots and steaming kettles I watched a number of men and women preparing a large assortment of dishes. Working my way around the worktables, where all manner of chopping, slicing, and mixing was occurring, I spotted Master Arnod, the head of the palace kitchen.
As soon as Arnod caught my eye, he set down his knife, wiped his hands on a large towel tied to his apron and quickly intercepted me near one of the large fireplaces where a great slab of meat turned on a spit powered by a medium-sized spit-dog, running endless circles in an enclosed wheel.
“My lords, welcome to the kitchen,” Arnod said, giving us a large smile. “It’s so rare anyone ever visits us. Allow me to give you a tour.” And before I could protest, the large man took me by the shoulder and began escorting me around the vast kitchen, stopping here and there, showing us some of the food they were preparing and offering us samples, his face beaming with pride all the while.
“Surely this isn’t all for us?” I asked.
“Oh no, my lord,” Arnod said. “Our kitchen supplies food for the High Council, the various meetings that occur throughout the day, occasional state dinners, and special meals for visiting dignitaries and ambassadors. We even prepare meals for the high ranking officers of the garrison.”
As we chatted, Arnod offered us a platter of roasted bird of some sort. Miro and David each took a leg– the skin had been roasted until it was dark brown, and crisp. The smell wafting from the plate was tantalizing, but I declined.
“I stopped by to make a request, Master Arnod,” I said, interrupting the sampling as he offered the boys tastes of stew from a large, steaming bowl.
Giving me a warm smile, the chef bowed. “We are always happy to accommodate your needs and requests, my lord. In fact, our joy is to create delicious food for all of you to enjoy. How can we serve you?”
I told him that we had just invited a guest to live with us in the Amber palace and since I was sure he was hungry, would it be possible to prepare a small tray of food for him to enjoy as he moved into his new quarters? At the end of my explanation Arnod’s smile increased.
“Of course my lord, nothing simpler. I will see to it immediately,” he replied crisply, then turning to two young men who were working at a nearby table, he called them over and rattled off a series of orders, interspersed with names of dishes I didn’t recognize. “Now quickly,” Arnod finished, calling after them as they scurried off.
Turning back to me, Arnod bowed slightly, “As you wish, my lord – your friend will have something to eat in just a few minutes.”
He beamed with pride as I not only thanked him for his assistance, but also all the wonderful meals he and the cooks of the kitchen had already prepared for us. Then I motioned for Miro and David to follow me, but just before they did, I saw each of them take another of the large joints like the ones they’d been gnawing. As if that weren’t enough, they each grabbed handfuls of some pastries offered to us by a young girl just before we exited the kitchen.
On our way back to the grand staircase in the palace foyer, the air was filled with sounds of eating and chewing as Miro and David devoured the food they were balancing in their hands. Once we were back at the foot of the grand staircase, I instructed Miro to prepare Philippe for his visitor and told David to bring Barsetba and his musical instruments to my apartment after the boy had bathed, changed and eaten.
Both boys agreed and bounded up the staircase. I followed leisurely behind. Entering my apartment, I went to the bedroom, exchanged my riding clothes for a soft, casual tunic, removed my sandals, and sat for a few minutes, using the quiet time to continue my research with the screen.
After about an hour there was a knock on the door. Without the benefit of a reply, the handle turned and the door swung open. Barsetba – his harp case slung over his shoulder and looking cautiously around the room – entered the grand salon, followed by David. But before they’d made it very far into the room, I was on my feet and quickly walking past them toward the door, telling them to follow me.
Outside Philippe and Miro’s apartment, I rapped on the door and walked in when I heard Miro’s muffled voice. The young gladiator had removed his armor, and stood behind his mate, his hands resting on Phillipe’s shoulders. Miro smiled at me hopefully, but Philippe kept his eyes on the floor. David ushered Barsetba into the room, then closed the door and stood by it. I took a seat opposite Miro and Philippe, and motioned for Barsetba to sit on a nearby stool. As he took his seat, he looked quite handsome. He was scrubbed clean and appeared quite refreshed after his bath; his hair was neatly trimmed, courtesy of Master Jaysune no doubt, and he was wearing a light yellow tunic tied with a darker yellow sash. Like Philippe and myself, his feet were bare.
“Philippe,” I began looking across to the thin blond haired boy. “I’d like to introduce you to Barsetba – like yourself, he’s a musician.”
Philippe lifted his head and looked at me then slowly he turned so that he was staring at Barsetba. I could see he was a little shy to meet the young musician, but I continued.
“I promised I would try to get you some instruments to play, Philippe. Well, I did, but I also brought Barsetba, who wanted to meet you. Maybe the two of you could practice and play together.”
As I spoke my eyes went from Philippe and Barsetba to Miro, who by now was sitting next to his mate and had wrapped his arm around Philippe’s waist. I could tell from the way he was intently listening to my introductions that he was hoping for favorable results from this encounter. It was obvious how much he loved the angelic musician who was his mate, and I could sense anticipation and worry over the outcome of this meeting.
“Barsetba,” I said once again turning to the young human musician. “Why don’t you show Philippe what you brought?”
Barsetba gripped the strap for the harp case that had been lying across his shoulder and lifted it over his head. He set the case on the floor and carefully released the double clasp that secured the case. Opening the lid, he removed a beautiful golden and silver harp. I watched as Philippe stared at it. Carefully picking it up, Barsetba placed it on his lap, and turned the tuning pegs, plucking the strings gently. Then, with it balanced between his knees, he placed both hands on the strings and played a soft and melodic scale. Philippe’s eyes visibly brightened at the sound of the harp. Barsetba ceased playing the chromatic chords and then handed the instrument to Philippe, who took it gently in his hands as only a musician would, indicating his knowledge of the value of such a great instrument. Staring at it for a few seconds he smiled at Barsetba, but then handed it back to him.
“I play a number of instruments, but the harp isn’t one of them,” he said softly, his eyes once more going to the floor.
Suddenly a sinking feeling overtook me, as I felt Philippe’s depression filling the room like a dark cloud. Miro must have seen the look on my face because he began to frown, and I could see concern flash in his eyes when the magical “cure” we had hoped for didn’t manifest itself.
Taking back the harp, Barsetba carefully set it on a chair beside him. Then he reached into one of the pockets of his tunic and withdrew a small flute. I recognized it as the one we made the publican of The Headless Rooster return to the boy after Juston Tark paid the pub owner for the food and drink Barsetba had consumed. The flute was silver, with golden trim. It was a small instrument, but appeared to be expertly crafted.
As the young musician turned it over in his hands, it caught the few rays of sunlight that entered the room from the large windows. It glinted and gleamed, and I watched in surprise as Philippe stood up and walked over to Barsetba.
“It’s a Marsotti,” Philippe said, rather breathlessly.
“What?” Barsetba said.
“This flute is a Marsotti; it was fashioned by the great instrument maker Andrao Marsotti. I only ever saw one in my entire life. Master Zell at the Academy had one, but he kept it under lock and key. No one was ever allowed to play it. But he showed it to me once.”
Barsetba handed the flute to Philippe, who took it reverently in his hands. Turning it over and over, he suddenly stopped and stared, his eyes popping wide open in amazement.
“This is the flute,” he said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
“What flute?” Miro said, sounding both curious and concerned.
“This is Master Zell’s flute,” Philippe said. Holding it out for Barsetba to look at, he pointed to a spot on the lower half of the back of the flute. “Look at the markings: JZ ER. It means Jocham Zell – Eagles Rock. It was given to him when he passed his fiftieth anniversary as a teacher at the academy. I only saw it once, when he took me to his apartment at the academy to give me some music to practice. I saw it sitting in a glass case. When I walked over to look at it, he took it out and held it up for me to look. He wouldn’t let me touch it, but he did show me these markings. Where did you get this?” Philippe suddenly shouted, looking suspiciously at Barsetba.
“It’s been in our family for ages,” Barsetba said. “I don’t know how we originally got it, but it was passed to my father from his father and to him from his father before him, for many generations.”
“A true Marsotti,” Philippe said, once more reverently examining the flute.
Then he suddenly put it to his lips and blew, sending a wild cascade of notes tumbling brightly through the air. Lowering it from his face, he continued to examine it, then brought it back to his lips and launched into a sprightly tune. Stopping half way through the song, he once more brought the gold and silver instrument down, examining it a third time, looking as if he couldn’t believe he actually was holding it in his hands. Finally he sat down on the bench next to Miro, returned the flute to his lips and began to play a beautiful tune. As he played, Barsetba picked up his harp and began to play along. Philippe raised his eyebrows in the direction of Barsetba as the boy accompanied him. Barsetba smiled as Philippe picked up the tempo, and his fingers danced along the strings of the beautiful golden harp.
After a few minutes of playing, the song came to an end. Barsetba laid the harp on his lap and Philippe took the flute from his lips.
“That was The Sparrow on the Wind,” Philippe said, “How do you know that?”
“I know it as The Maiden’s Lament,” Barsetba said, looking at Philippe, “but I guess they’re the same song.”
“Do you know The Wind in the Trees?” Philippe asked.
Barsetba shook his head, but as soon as Philippe played a few notes, the musician smiled. “The Sleeping Shepard,” Barsetba said and began to play along. Once more the room was awash with beautiful music. When both boys were finished, they smiled broadly at each other.
“You wouldn’t happen to know The Old King’s Dream?” Barsetba asked Philippe.
“No,” Philippe said frowning, but as soon as Barsetba began the tune, Philippe smiled. “Obar’s 1st Concerto!” he said with glee, and began to play along.
And so it went, both boys playing back and forth separately and together as the afternoon turned to evening, and the lengthening shadows on the parade ground outside Miro and Philippe’s apartment faded into dusk. Little by little, the others – Cody and Lance, Luc and Jonathan – found us, were captivated by the music and gathered around the two talented boys as they played their hearts out. Eventually, Nic joined us after a lengthy afternoon session with General Zakaria and some of his generals.
As the last song ended and we made our way to dinner, Philippe’s face was radiating a beautiful smile. He had one arm around Miro’s waist while his opposite hand clasped the gold and silver flute. I could see the relief on the gladiator’s face as he realized Philippe was genuinely happy.
Barsetba also seemed pleased. He thanked me profusely for allowing him to be our guest in the Amber Palace, and he kept remarking how much in awe he was of Philippe’s talent, telling everyone he looked forward to learning additional songs from him. Walking next to Nic, I took his hand in mine. Smiling down at me, he squeezed my hand. I returned his smile with one of my own, happy that at least one of my plans had succeeded.