"Oh. You're...so tall. I didn't think an Apprentice would be so big!"
I can't say that I didn't think of a smart retort as I stared down at the most diminutive grown woman I'd ever met. I definitely came up with one immediately, and three or four equally scandalous brethren during the time would take a dragon to go between, but I kept my tongue locked behind my teeth. My master at the Harper Hall, Robinton, often joked that behind my quiet facade was the mind of a madman. And, well...he's Robinton, which meant he wasn't often wrong in his assessment of people.
I suppose I had some pretty wild thoughts at times.
The woman gave me another good look-over, as I tried to hunch down a little and seem smaller, then shook her head, long gray hair flowing. "No matter, Sebell, no matter. Sitting, we're all the same height..."
I held my tongue on that one too, and tried not to let my eyes dance too much with my amusement as she led me through the mid-sized hold by my harper-blue elbow. One of the things I'd learned quickly when I hit my growth was that it was sometimes an interesting challenge to vanish into the stonework when you were an unusually tall Apprentice. Supposedly a smaller, younger Apprentice was easier to keep in line if he misbehaved, or maybe I had the look of my woodsie kin, and they expected me to whip an axe out of my harp case at the least provocation. It was teaching me a lot about the body language of seeming harmless.
The Holder woman showed me to the personal quarters of the Hold, where I was to spend the day performing softly as the Holder made deals with the farmers under him and the representatives of various other Crafts. It was a bright airy room, windows thrown wide, and I was pleasantly impressed with my working conditions...until she then showed me to a corner blocked off by a tall folding panel. In the corner was a stubby, short stool, of the sort pre-Apprenticeship children of six or seven turns would use, and the husks of a few dead insects that had flown in one of the wide, open windows and had gotten caught in this corner and died. I stared at these "accommodations" in dismay, and wondered if I had time to at least find a broom. Or a bigger stool.
"Here you go. As arranged with the Harper Hall, you'll be playing here for seven hours, or until the Holder is done with his business. He wants soft, gentle, soothing songs. Nothing about dragonriders, nothing about disease or strife, just soothing, beautiful tunes that will put the people he's meeting with at ease. And keep out of sight. Some of his land is rough and not everyone he'll be meeting today likes Harpers."
"Should I stop playing when certain people arrive?" I asked, for I was more familiar than I wished with those sort of folk, and the woman seemed to be missing the very obvious conclusion that if you could hear music being played, the player had to be somewhere.
"Oh, no, no, no. Stopping would be a distraction too. They might notice you. Don't worry; if one of them pulls a knife, the panel will protect you. It has before," and she ran a finger over some scarring in the wood at chest-height that I hadn't noticed.
I stared at the marks. Had Robinton known? I kept my expression pleasant and cleared my throat, thinking furiously. "Will your Hold Harper be joining me?" I asked. Maybe he could give me a better handle on this...situation.
"He...has moved to a position elsewhere. The Masterharper will be sending his permanent replacement next week. But even an Apprentice should be able to handle soft, soothing songs by himself?"
"Of course," I said automatically, thinking of the summer rotations coming up, where old Journeymen would be given new routes, and old Apprentices...such as myself...might very well be promoted. A single bad word could push things back a turn for me, if they were at all considering letting me walk the tables. "Do you want me to start now, or is there—"
"Start now," she said, with a nod of her head. "So I can hear you play."
Again stifling my tongue, I set my belongings down, then eased open my harp case to bring out my instrument. Then, because it was literally impossible to play the lap harp standing, I eased down onto the tiny stool and stretched my long legs out in front of me.
They stuck out beyond the panel.
Seeing the woman was about to aim a kick at them, I scooted the stool further back into the corner, scraping over the dead bugs, and with a bit of twisting, I was able hide myself entirely in the corner, legs, feet and all. Then, at her motion, I began to pluck at the strings.
I got through approximately three bars until she waved at me to stop. "Good, good. Just like that."
Suddenly there was the a commotion from the other side of the room, and she jumped, peeking out past the panel. It only took her a second, and then she was making motions at me again. "Play! Until he leaves."
Then she vanished back around the panel.
I blinked once. A few moments later I heard her chattering at her Holder brightly, telling him of the day's plan and how soothed and RELAXED the Craft Masters he was going to see today would be.
Right. Soothed and relaxed. While I was stuck in a stuffy, lightless corner on a stool ten sizes too small for me, without access to drink or food or even a feather duster to remove the dirt. Yes. I could pull soothing and relaxing out of all of this, couldn't I?
Looking around at my corner in dismay, I began to play.
About five uninterrupted hours in, I decided that it was actually wiser ultimately that I hadn't been provided with anything to wet my throat with. Because even though I was fairly certain I was plucking out a real song, some sappy sentimental thing I hadn't even known my brain had packed away, every set of notes seemed to say the same thing:
I have to pee. I have to PEE. I HAVE to PEE. I have to—have to—have to PEE.
And I was certain I'd seen a rubant louse wriggle its way between the cracking motored cracks in the wall. Which made the refrain sound to me like this:
A louse. A LOUSE. My dear lady-holder, there's a LOUSE in your HOUSE.
Not that anyone called Holds "houses" anymore, that was a term ancient even to the oldtimers, but in the context of the rhyme, it made sense.
I played on, in my dark corner, but was glad I had the panel hiding me from view, for I knew my broad shoulders were jiggering up and down with silent laughter, and my eyes had a mad glint in them.
Master Robinton took the scrap of hide.
His eyes slid over to mine, holding a question, but the corner of his well-shaped mouth quirked up almost imperceptibly.
"Do you think it's salvageable?" I asked, leaning forward to look at it with him, even though the tune had been burned into my brain.
Robinton rubbed a forefinger over his bottom lip, thinking. "For what purpose?" he asked, eventually.
I hesitated, then continued. "I know that my composition skills aren't exactly lauded by Master Domick—and I worked hard on the tune I submitted to him...but—"
"But?" A dark brow arched.
"I worked even longer on this one, probably six hours without breaks, because I was stuck in that corner the whole time—"
My Master cleared his throat, cutting me off. "While you were in there, did you hear of anything that might relate to where Petiron's lost apprentice may be?"
An expression of confusion crossed my face. "We're in South Boll, sir. Half-Circle's in—"
"Nerat," Robinton said. "Yes." He settled back in the chair he was sitting in, and folded his hands across his stomach. "Sebell...you have about as much chance finding our little songmaker here as you do finding a song in that tune." And he unclasped his hands long enough to wiggle a finger at my hide before refolding them.
I plastered a hopeful expression on my face, although my heart sank. "Well, then it's possible then," I said, sticking a tongue in my cheek. "If that apprentice took a ship from Nerat to South Boll, then a runner inland, they'd be here."
"—except with that song, you'd need to first Impress a dragon, then go between all the way to the Red Star before you find your tune. And the tune would be half-dead and thread-eaten."
"Pfft," I said. "Are you saying we should look for Petiron's lost Apprentice on one of the moons? Tuning?"
"Possibly?" Robinton allowed. "I certainly haven't found the lad yet!"
"Tuning," I repeated. "On the moons..."
"If you turn in a song about a louse in a house tuning on the moons, I won't be responsible for what Master Domick does to you!"
"I might do it just to see him turn colors," I said, feeling a wide grin cross my face.
Robinton gave me a dire look and rose. But his eyes were twinkling back.
# FIN #