"It's too quiet."
Sebell looked up from his harp, quirking an eyebrow at Menolly as she stood in the doorway of the Masterharper's office. "That's not something I hear often," he admitted. A faint smile curved his lips. He scooted over on the bench. "Go on?"
His betrothed accepted the tacit invitation, entering the room. She sat facing him. "I--I miss Robinton..." Menolly faltered, at a seeming loss for words. "But it isn't just that. It's as if everyone is waiting for something. Like a pause between songs. Oh, they're working, but..."
"Change is rarely painless, love." Sebell took her hand, turning it over. He traced the faded line of an old scar with a fingertip. " I think a lot of our people here at the Hall are still coming to terms with him being so ill. He's been the heart of this place, of the Harpercraft, for decades. "
"He told me that he doesn't want to move back north."
"No," Sebell agreed. "He and I discussed that, too. Every new Masterharper has to govern in his, or her, own way. Robinton feels it'd be better if he wasn't about, and no budging him on this. "
Menolly's eyes widened. "Her?"
"And why not? I'd say you've been a brilliant example to the more...settled members of our exalted craft, that a woman's more than capable to be a Master."
She blushed furiously. Sebell leaned in and kissed her, cutting off the self-deprecating comment he could see her about to make. She returned his attention fervently, winding her arms around his neck.
"You don't fight fair," she accused, fighting a grin, when he ended the kiss. "We-elll...maybe you're right. " Her expression softened. "Maybe even a daughter of ours, someday. Who knows?"
"Who indeed. At the moment, this Masterharper needs to prepare to meet with Fort's Searchrider," he said with regret, glancing out at the rising sun. "N'ton requested leave to Search among our young ones for Ludeth's clutch."
"Oh, of course." Menolly released him. She looked thoughtful. "I.." She started to say something, broke off, "I have some new songs half-written. They might help, if we made a program out of them for the Gather. It's not far off."
Sebell wondered at her hesitation, but decided not to press her.
"As have I. Any music to dance by, or hopeful songs, would be good," he mused aloud, then shook himself. He stood. "I'll see you at midday?"
She winked, and dashed out.
Kimi arrowed through the door, landing on his shoulder. She chirped at him. He caught a flurry of mental images, the prominent one being a green dragon and her rider landing in the Hall courtyard. He strode outside to meet the Fortian searchrider.
"Welcome, G'tel, Sekath." He inclined his head, offering the pair a warm smile.
"Hullo, Masterharper." G'tel was a tall, rangy man of about thirty turns, with short black hair and far-seeing brown eyes. He'd been to the Harper Hall on other errands.
Hello, Harper, a feminine voice murmured. Sebell was surprised, but quickly recovered.
"Can I offer either of you anything? We've fresh klah, and some of Silvina's bread. Or a roast, if Sekath's hungry." He led the rider into the hall. Sekath took a curled-up position in a patch of hot, mossy ground.
G'tel chuckled ruefully. "Normally I'd fly through a Thread storm for Silvina's baking, but we've less time than I'd like today. And Sekath fed yesterday. I'm to visit Fort and Ruatha as well as the Hall. Sekath says there's a feel about some of the folk here that's good. She'd have to see them one or two at a time, face to face, to be certain."
Sebell nodded. "And only boys between twelve and twenty turns?"
He considered the apprentices currently at the Hall. There were only one or two younger than fourteen turns. While he didn't know all of them well, he did know their faces and could put names to them. Young enough to Impress...but not so young that they'll think they're invunerable, or hold romantic notions about what fighting Thread must be like. He said as much to G'tel. The rider smiled wryly, and held up a hand scarred by burns. "If they do, they'll learn better, well before any of them rides with a fighting wing."
They reached the doors to a classroom where the apprentices were practicing the Teaching Songs. At Sebell's direction, they trooped outside to pay their respects to Sekath.
Some of the apprentices hung back, nervously. A small, but determined boy of about twelve turns was the first to approach, and bow awkwardly to the watching dragon. Sekath's eyes whirled an amused blue.
Several other apprentices, shamed into it, followed suit. G'tel took the first lad aside to speak to him quietly.
Sebell joined them.
Mikomi, the boy's name was. He had a reputation for being a bit hotheaded. He and Sebell had had more than one conversation about not solving problems with his fists,when he first came to the Harper Hall. However, he didn't hold grudges, and his teachers had reported that he had never been dishonest even when caught out. "If I don't Impress, what then?"
"You can stay on as a Candidate until your twentieth turn," the searchrider told him. "Or if you don't want to stand again, you can return to the Harper Hall."
Mikomi looked to Sebell, but the Masterharper shook his head. "I can't decide this for you. It has to be your choice. But I can tell you that I'll not think any less of you, whatever your decision. You have a home here for as long as you wish to stay. "
Mikomi scrutinized G'tel. Sebell remained silent, knowing that the boy was also noticing the jagged lines of scar tissue along the man's bare arms; evidence that even the cleverest dragonrider wasn't safe when Thread fell.
"Yes. I'll come, sir." He held out a hand, and G'tel took it.
Sebell's heart twisted, but he forced a calm expression.
The Search pair departed with Mikomi half a candlemark later. Sebell watched them go, then returned to his office, determined to concentrate on work instead of being maudlin or pessimistic.
First, however, he took his harp, playing Menolly's Fire Lizard song, letting music chase away everything else for awhile.
A candlemark or two passed, quietly.
A knock at his door roused him. He was evaluating the new apprentices' progress records . He blinked; rubbed at his forehead. "Come in," he called.
Silvina opened the door. "Lord Groghe is here, Masterharper. He requests to speak to you immediately."
Sebell sat bolt upright, frowning. He crossed the room quickly. Groghe stood just behind Silvina. The older man looked irritable, but not furious.
"Come," Sebell urged, leading Fort's Lord Holder to a chair. "What's happened?"
"Blasted Charter...I've a pair of holders that make old Sucho and Tortole look like sweet little old ladies--" Groghe broke off. "Ah. Your pardon, Harper. I forgot for a moment I wasn't speaking with Robinton, no offense. "
"None taken. Sit, be comfortable."
Groghe's holders had a dispute over a case of alleged theft. It was complicated by the fact that the original owner of the stolen items had died several turns ago; it was his spouse that was trying to reclaim "her" property. While Sebell could sympathize, the woman and other members of her family, lacking proof, had resorted to violence in their pursuit of justice.
"If you ask me to arbitrate, I will, but I would not judge the theft and the assault in one ruling. They are separate cases. Both are crimes. The argument that violence or bodily harm is an option in resolving minor disputes, is not a precedent I'd mean to set. " Sebell folded his hands, thinking. " 'A wall has two sides,' " he murmured.
Groghe chuckled. So did Sebell.
"Tomorrow's next Fall. I can meet with them after that day, however. "
"Good enough. Ehh. I hear you and Journeywoman Menolly are to be espoused soon?"
"Yes. We had planned it for Midwinter. We both hope Robinton will be well enough by then to be present, at least. "
Groghe snorted. "You think he'll let anything stop him? But here, Menolly's blood kin won't be in attendance, will they?"
"No." Sebell's voice was still quiet, but held a hard edge. "By her choice--and by mine. Her brother Alemi is welcome here, but not the rest."
Groghe blinked, looking faintly surprised at the coldness in the normally easygoing harper's words. When Sebell offered no further explanation, he merely nodded. There was grudging respect in his eyes as he went on.
"Then I'd be honored did you let Fort host a celebration for you twain, whenever it'll be. Consider it a wedding gift, " he waved dismissively when Sebell tried to thank him. "Or an excuse for music, dancing, and laughter. This far into a Pass, we could all use more of it."
"Well...I suppose you're right about that. "
" 'Course I'm right." Groghe scoffed, a twinkle in his eye, as he got to his feet.
Menolly joined Sebell for the midday meal. She was quieter than usual; distracted by a new song she was composing, he assumed.
After seven turns, Sebell knew better than to try to demand her full attention while she was focused on music. Her occasional soft humming was actually a pleasant contrast to the sound of drums.
"Some wine?" He poured a glass for her. Menolly hesitated, then demurred. "It makes me sleepy. And I wanted to ask your opinion on something. You're a better teacher than I am."
"I've been at this for over twenty turns," he pointed out. "Experience does gain you an advantage." He set aside his food. "What is it?"
"Uhh. Do...Do you think it's better for the children born at the Harper Hall to be taught by their parents? The way Silvina says Robinton's parents taught him? He and Petiron...had a hard time of it. Disagreements. "
She wouldn't look him in the eyes.
Sebell went very still. "Menolly...?"
"I didn't--Ahh. Yes. Seems we'll be meeting our first baby sooner than we'd planned."
His jaw dropped. Words completely deserted him.
He couldn't seem to stop smiling like an idiot.
The relief in Menolly's face made him attempt to regather his wits before he died of old age.
"You're not upset? I'd understand, truly, if you were, a bit. I've been taking the herbs every month, but ..." she spread her hands.
Sebell swept her into his arms.
"Thank you," he whispered fervently.
They just sat, holding each other, in a joyful silence. Sebell touched her stomach lightly. She was beginning to show a little, he realized now.
"Have you seen Oldive?"
"I'm pregnant, Sebell, I'm not sick. "
"In other words, 'no, I haven't.' Yet," he added firmly.
"I'd hoped we'd be able to marry before anyone else knew. I mean, I know people at the Hall don't care, but..." she tugged uneasily at her dark hair, fidgeting.
"But you do," he replied. "So we'll hold the ceremony sooner. Tomorrow, even, if you'd like."
It might be flouting propriety or others' expectations, but for a good enough cause, no Harper worth his knots would balk at that. Nor would Menolly's husband, he resolved in that moment. Not now or ever.
"No. I want the rest of our family to be here. Piemur, Robinton, Alemi, Mirrim--don't make that face, Sebell," Menolly warned without looking at him.
He threw his head back and roared with laughter.