< Return to Balls Part 4
Now that I’m feeling better I can proudly return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Derrek woke with a groan. Pushing his mind through the haze of unconsciousness, he remembered a warning and immediately reached for his crotch. He sighed with relief as everything was accounted for.
A laugh caused him to roll painfully upon his side.
A lone candle sat in a twisted metal stand, casting soft light upon a figure sitting in a worn chair. A large cat was stretched across the lap with a single, languid hand brushing up and down its fur. The face, half cast in shadow, watched him closely with one eye.
“You have no fear of that from me.”
Derrek reached his hand to his forehead, pressing against the burning pain in his skull.
“You are quite fortunate you found me in time,” his benefactor continued. “The poison had done a number on your system.”
“But I am most curious how it is you found me.”
His watcher leaned curiously forward, the cat springing from her perch to gaze up at Derrek with expecting eyes.
“I think I’m having one of those days,” Derrek said. Suddenly, he sat erect, as the memories began to come back to him. “What time is it?”
“Well past noon. Why?”
“I still have to register!” Derrek cried, jumping to his feet. He felt weak, like he had been tossed down an endless staircase, but he he couldn’t let his exhaustion stop him now.
“Registered for what?”
“The Challenge,” Derrek said. “I can’t explain, Dian. I must go.”
“I don’t know who you angered, but it is not safe out there.”
Derrek looked about for his missing lute.
He found it leaning against the wall and quickly reclaimed it. He tested a few of the strings before turning the instrument over in his hands.
“That’s how I found you. One of your men wore a Colvian hat.”
Dian’s head shook with confusion.
“I do not understand. How did that tell you he was with me?”
“Is not your favourite dish Colvian roasted pheasant?”
“Well… yes, but…”
“And he worked for you,” Derrek said with a shrug. He wasn’t entirely sure what Dian was struggling with as it seemed so obvious to him. He searched about for an exit, heading quickly towards the thin shafts of light he assumed outlined a door in the gloom.
“Why did you come looking for me?” Dian asked, getting out of the chair. Dian moved quickly after Derrek, wedging a light frame draped in modest clothes of a simple northern peasant between Derrek and the door.
“Well, who else do I know that could remedy me?”
“You knew you were poisoned?”
“I couldn’t be hung over.”
Dian’s head shook.
“You are making no damnable sense. What is all this about?”
“The Challenge. And if I don’t get myself registered then Alec is going to win. I can’t explain more.”
“Because I don’t understand it yet.”
Dian just sighed with resignation.
“Very well, go get your registration. But know that I will have someone keep an eye on you. It is plain to me that trouble dogs your path.”
“It can’t be too bad,” Derrek said, pausing as he rested his hand upon the door handle. “If they wanted me dead, they would have killed me by now.”
“And who would that be?”
“Still working on that.”
He pushed his way out of the cellar and back into daylight. He could hear the shouting of the hawkers and the buyers echoing down the streets. With a clearer head, he quickly gathered his bearings and made straight for the College of Bards.
He had better recollections of his night. He remembered Mikael’s betrayal and Mairen’s threat. He wasn’t entirely sure how that had ended but no doubt it was them that had him drugged. But that didn’t explain why Alec Carver had ransacked his room, assuming it was Carver which the inn’s Matron referred to as the fat man.
Nor did it explain why all three of them were conspiring to keep him from the Challenge. But there was no doubt that was their ultimate aim. That assurance led speed to his feet as he made his way towards the College.
As Derrek hurried, he couldn’t help but feel a presence following him. It was an unmistakeable sensation, like the soft crawling of cold fingers down one’s neck. Derrek didn’t question these instinctual feelings. If there was one thing the College had taught him it was that a man must always be open to inspiration from his muse. Derrek’s had more a penchant for discerning danger than creative inspiration, but one couldn’t really choose the creative spirit that answered you.
Derrek paused before an armour stall, pretending to peruse the inventory. Specifically, he started examining the shields. He held one after the other overhead, turning it slowly in his hands. After a few seconds of inspection, he would drop one and turn to the next. The merchant made to help him, but Derrek ignored him, picking through shield after shield until he found the one with the greatest sheen.
He then held it aloft, turning it until he could pinpoint the presence stalking his tail.
To his surprise, he caught the reflection of a big, fat black cat.
“That’s who Dian sent to keep me safe?” Derrek wondered.
He returned the shield and continued on his march.
The College of Bards was a rather grandiose structure. It had a single grand tower rising majestically into the air surrounded by the main building and the adjoining bunk houses. Though mostly constructed of imported wood and quarried stone, it was quite clear the original design had been to evoke the grand view of a cathedral. Since few churches or temples had the opportunity to be built in Etreria, the College sought to beat the monks to having the most visually impressive home. Probably so they could claim the monks copied the bards.
The College was a remarkably busy institute. It seemed almost every young girl and boy dreamed of being a successful minstrel. More were drawn with the dreams of being great performers and of illustrious careers in the playhouses and upon the stage. The reality was far harsher. Very few troupes ever achieved great renown and it would be the fortunate graduate who found work remotely related to their studies.
But it was also a curious institute on its own. Derrek believed that you really couldn’t teach talent. Either a person was followed by a muse or they were not. There were no classes that could compensate for that creative force. And those that attempted to fake it produced the most derivative work.
For those blessed with a creative spirit, the College served a much more important function. It allowed the aspiring minstrel or storyteller to forge important bonds and networks with the most influential individuals. Most two bit copper establishments would hire anyone that could squawk a familiar canto or produce a dodgy haiku on the spot. But to see the inside of the grandest theatres took real reputation. The Seeker title bypassed all that and gave one entertainer a free ride to the big leagues.
To be barred from the institute was perhaps the greatest sabotage a rival entertainer could perform. Especially since non-members were unable to register for the Challenge.
There was a small booth erected at the gate. A tired looking secretary sat within, an enormous stack of registration papers by her side. She thumbed a large pair of gilded eyeglasses while she watched each passer by warily.
As Derrek approached, she slipped her glasses over her nose and regarded the man coolly. She gazed behind him then bolted upright, leaning out the front of her booth and waving her hands.
“Is that cat yours?” she called. Derrek looked back at the well fed feline.
“No, it’s not mine.”
“I would hope not. Unsanctioned use of magic is strictly forbidden on College grounds!”
She unlatched the door from inside her booth and stomped around, shooing the creature away.
The cat mere fell back on its haunches, its fur standing up on end. It opened its mouth, hissing loudly and swiping its paws as the woman drew near. As the woman stomped closer, her hands waving madly, the cat retreated hesitantly – obviously reluctant to leave Derrek’s shadow.
It seemed odd to Derrek that Dian would have the cat enchanted. It didn’t seem in character for Dian to purchase such frivolous expenditures, especially for someone running one of the roughest gangs in the shadows of Etreria.
It also struck Derrek as a rather poor time for the woman to leave her booth unattended. While distracted, Derrek walked up to the woman’s papers, looking over the sheets with interest. One pile was filled will all the accepted applicants and the other contained emptied forms.
With deft hands, Derrek snatched the quill, dipping it in the ink and selecting the easiest filled form to forge.
All he had to do was change the name of the applicant and cover the telling marks with flowery script.
He briefly considered the injustice that Dirrac Gilimari was about to face but was consoled with the fact that, had he been more clever, he would have done this to enter himself rather than rely on the handouts of his family or the College sponsorship. After all, what was a minstrel if he didn’t display some amount of ingenuity?
With sheet filled and filed, Derrek watched the woman chase the feline further away before turning towards the grand hall. He twisted the lute in his hands, played a few encouraging chords, then set about searching for the spot where the competitors were arranged to meet.
Continue to Balls Part 6 >
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