EVERY STEP FELT AS light as a feather as I stepped out of the Fishery, into bright early-afternoon sunshine.
As anyone who has ever achieved a great success can attest, there is nothing quite like the aftermath of achievement. The world, even the unsavory portions, takes on a pristine gleam, like freshly fallen snow.
I knew my schema, 'The Oasis', was good, and that Kilvin would accept it. It wouldn't have been worth wasting the Master Artificer's time if it hadn't been, but expecting an outcome and experiencing it are entirely different entities. My deepest doubts and concerns regarding Master Kilvin's reaction had fortunately been found wanting.
Cresting upon a wave of success, there was only one place where one could properly celebrate my triumph: The Eolian.
And for that, I needed my accomplices.
Wilem was working the front desk at the Archives, and wouldn't be off his shift for another hour. With the promise of all the scutten he could drink, he merrily agreed to meet me outside of Mains once his relief arrived.
I expected Simmon to be within the Archives as well, but the sign-in book said otherwise. One half of my entourage secured for the night's debauchery, I bid farewell to Wilem before exiting through the twin wooden doors.
The third floor of Mews was filled with the quiet of early afternoon. All the doorways along the main hallway were closed, Sim's included. At this time of day, Simmon could normally be found within the Archives, but as the Archive ledger had said, today was an exception. My three knocks upon his dorm door echoed down the hallway, the sound quickly fading away. From within the room I heard the distinct rustle of someone moving upon a straw mattress.
Dead silence reigned over the third floor of Mews. Closed doors ran down the entire length of the west wing's hallway. When I knocked upon Sim's door, the three sharp, polite raps echoed for a moment, before fading away. From within the room I heard the rustling of a person shifting upon a straw mattress.
"Hello," came floating Simmon's voice, muffled slightly by the thick door. His greeting was slow and drawn out, as if spoken while yawning. Was Sim still sleeping? If so, it was early afternoon, and the day held too much promise to spend sleeping.
"Time to wake up!" I urged, grasping the handle and turning. The door opened half an inch, before the latch on the other side caught, holding the door in place.
"Open up," I urged, leaning into the latched door. "I have good news."
"That's…that's great," said Sim with a long, drawn out yawn. "But…I'm a little busy right now. Can you come back later?"
I felt a wicked smile stretch across my face at Sim's pantomimed yawn. My friend was many things, but an accomplished liar was not one of them.
"I'm through for the day, so I'll just wait out here for you to wake up," I explained, bottling up the laughter bubbling within.
"No, Kvothe, you won't!" exclaimed Sim, clearly aghast at the thought. "I…I have studying to do for Advanced Sympathy!"
I eased up on the door for a moment, before pushing against, causing the cheap latch to rattle dangerously.
"Let me help you then!" I urged with boundless enthusiasm. "With me around, you'll be done in no time!"
"Alchemy! I meant alchemy!" Sim yelled, amending his story.
"Oh, well, I don't know anything about alchemy," I admitted, my words dripping with defeat. Pressure upon the door was relinquished as I took a step back. "Anyway, you shall accompany me to the Eolian, where I shall keep your cups full and listen as I regale both yourself and Wilem with tales of my genius."
"So we won't be there long?"
"Oh, and you're more than welcome to accompany us, Fela," I said, ignoring Sim's quip. The young woman in question let out an embarrassed laugh, which was nearly drowned out by Sim's frustrated groan. "Just drop by Wilem's dorm whenever you're…finished."
"Leave!" yelled Simmon, the loud yell echoing through the silent hallway. A few doors banged open at his exclamation, their occupants poking their heads out, wearing looks of either amusement or annoyance.
I let out a low chuckle, before I bid farewell to the two young lovers, leaving them to their dalliance.
An hour later found Simmon, myself and Wilem on the road to Imre. Fela, due to being scheduled for work at the Archives, was not with us, but had assured Sim she would make it to the Eolian once her shift was over.
"How did you know she was there?" asked the young Caeldish man, dark eyebrows furrowed, frown lines around his mouth creased.
It must be said that the humor of the situation was lost upon Wilem. Ceald was the most sexually conservative culture within the Four Corners. My jest would have seemed more like an insult to him, akin to breaking down the door and hanging over them. Not just sex, but intimacy of any sort was an intensely private affair for the Cealdish.
"I don't know our mutual friend to sleep past noon, even after a night of heavy indulgence."
Wilem grunted, seeing my logic, but not wanting to voice any approval for my actions, turned to Sim. "And what does Fela think of this?"
"She found it more amusing that I did," grumbled Sim, though his words had no bite to them.
"If I really wanted to torture them, I would have unlatched the door and propped it open," I added nonchalantly. At my words, Wilem's gaze widened with shock. "Of course, that would have been crossing the line," I clarified.
"A very unfamiliar place for you," observed Sim.
"The line?" asked Wilem.
"The boundaries of what is socially acceptable."
Wilem was silent for a moment, as if mulling my words over in his mind.
"For three years I have studied here, but still the ways of the Commonwealth are strange to me. When a man and a woman are together…they are not to be disturbed. It is a great insult to do so."
"I knew Fela would have found it more amusing than uncomfortable," I assured my friend. "If I thought it would offend her, I would have never had disturbed them."
"And what about me?" demanded Sim, at which I gave a carefree shrug.
"Didn't spare it much thought," I said, causing Wilem's frown to soften out. Up ahead, the pristine grass and rock-trimmed gardens fell back, giving way to the great stone bridge. As we approached we heard the dull roar of the waters of the Omethi, rising up out of the canyon.
"Spit for luck," I urged, as Master Elodin had once said to me.
"Speaking of strange customs of the Commonwealth," said Simmon, a look of mock distaste upon his face. The mask broke as he leaned over the lip of the stone barrier, a boyish grin upon his face as he followed suit. After letting fly with his contribution to the Omethi, he turned back towards me. "If this night ends in disaster, I am never doing that again."
I shook my head in mock disapproval. "Please be reasonable, Sim. Good company, all the drinks you could possibly want, all free of charge…what could possibly go wrong?"
Sim let out a snicker as Wilem followed our example, letting fly with a projectile of impressive size. Ten yards away, a young man looking down at the raging current looked towards us. Above a carefully trimmed beard his mouth was thinned to a line. With his high cheekbones and bright, vibrant blue eyes, the familiarity of his disdain left no room for doubt.
"Sovoy!" I yelled, raising my right hand in greeting. For a brief, unguarded moment, the manicured distaste slipped away, replaced by not just disbelief, but genuine joy, as if he was actually pleased to see familiar faces.
"Kvothe?" he mouthed, standing in place, his aloof expression back in place. As quickly as it had arrived, the glimpse into Sovoy's true thoughts on the matter vanished.
"Not to mention Wilem and Simmon," I added, moving towards the Modegan noble, hand outstretched. "Good to see you back."
I did not have to feign my pleasantries. Sovoy may have been one of the more vain, entitled students to ever attend the University, but there was more to him than the privileged noble most people saw.
After a moment of hesitation he regained his senses, meeting my hand with a light-fingered grip. He pumped once, before letting go. "I…I didn't recognize you."
"Must be my new apparel," I said with a grin, taking the fabric of my new shirt between two of my fingers. They were no Modegan silks, but the weave was smooth and the thread count high; a marked improvement the tired wardrobe I made work during my first term at the University.
"It's not just that," clarified the young noble, shaking his head. "It's as if…"
He trailed off, as if unable to articulate his description without using his native tongue.
"That our Kvothe has become slightly unhinged?" guessed Sim, offering out his hand. With far more grace than had been displayed earlier, Sovoy took it, exchanging greetings with both Sim and Wilem. Once the proper pleasantries had been observed, Sovoy turned back to me, his eyes quizzical.
"What happened to you while I saw away? I had heard several accounts of your untimely demise, but…I have a feeling the truth may be stranger than the stories."
At his question, a sly grin formed upon my face.
"You may be correct. Perhaps you'll join the three of us at the Eolian, and be the judge of that yourself."
"Well, there goes the afternoon," grumbled Sim.
"An afternoon with free drinks," Wilem added, causing his friend's expression to brighten.
"Indeed it is. Lead on, then, Kvothe! I've kegs to empty!"
The post at the Eolian's entrance, normally occupied by Deoch, was vacant. Early afternoons often found the establishment empty, no patrons to speak of, and this day way no exception.
Deoch, his face partially hidden by a wide-brimmed hat, was seated at a small table near the door. His companions were a slender, dark green bottle and a clear wine glass with stray crimson drops clinging to it. At our entrance, the large, muscular man grinned, taking off his hat and setting it upon the table.
"It is only good fortune which brings people to such an establishment at this early hour. Who is the blessed soul?" he asked, inquisitive gaze moving from face to face.
"Well, that is a matter of debate," said Simmon, speaking up before I could.
"Oh?" prodded Deoch, focusing his attention upon the sandy-haired young man.
"One could say that it is Kvothe who has received the blessing of god. How else would such a thick-headed individual impress an otherwise intelligent instructor?"
"Did you meant 'hard-headed'?" Wilem offered. "Or stubborn?"
Sim waved his hand, as if the point were irrelevant.
"Regardless, in light of his bewildering development, young Kvothe has offered to mark the occasion by keeping us floating in drinks all night. So, one could say that we all enjoy blessings today."
"Indeed, it could be said," agreed Deoch.
"Of course, that invitation would also extend to you, if you haven't already dug too deeply into your own," I added, motioning to the empty glass upon his table, at which the doorman drew in a deep sigh.
"Alas, I am deeply entrenched," he admitted, rising to his feet. "Perhaps later. If I take you up on that now, there could be trouble."
"Approaching the tipping point?"
Deoch let out a light chuckle.
"More like straddling the line," he clarified, picking up the wine bottle and shaking it. A trace amount of liquid sloshed around the bottom of the bottle. In all probability, only his prodigious size had saved Deoch from blacking out at the table. "But please, don't let that fact stop you four from imbibing. I do believe some fresh air will do me some good."
"I did not intend it to," declared Wilem, before turning to me. "When you are finished fishwiving, I will have scutten."
His intentions voiced, Wilem gravitated towards a table on the far side of the room. Sovoy followed, after informing me he'd take a blackberry brand.
"That does sound good," admitted Deoch, before shaking his head in resignation. "Alas, responsibility stills my hand. I do believe fresh air would be the best option right now."
"Don't forget about my offer," I reminded him. He let out a hearty chuckle, slapping me on the back.
"Only a fool would forget such generosity. Farewell for now," he said, before shambling towards the door. His gait was not a drunken lurch, but his steps were slow and deliberate.
"That man can drink," stated Sim with admiration, looking at the nearly empty wine bottle.
"Indeed he can," I agreed. "So, how will you begin tonight's bloodletting?"
"Cinnamon mead," Sim answered at once, a wide, boyish grin upon his face.
"Lousy shim," I muttered with good humor, drawing a laugh from my friend. Drink orders received, I turned towards the bar to fill the requests. There was no one behind the long, winding length of mahogany, but at my approach, an innocuous rectangle of paneled wood swung outward. With its seamless nature, I was forcibly reminded of both the four-plate door at the heart of the Archives, and the Lackless box.
Stanchion emerged from the cunningly crafted hidden door. His round, bearded face broke into a grin upon seeing me.
"Good day to you, Kvothe. Would it be safe to assume that fortune has smiled upon you today?"
"It would," I confirmed, my still focused upon Stanchion's dramatic entrance. "That is one cleverly constructed door."
The wall was bereft of breaks, the door fitting seamlessly into the paneling. With its lack of gaps, I was reminded of the 'four-plate' door deep within the Archives.
"As much as I detest it, there are times when I must attend to the business aspect of running the Eolian, which I prefer to conduct in privacy."
"Which, of course, if not quarantined, could spread and infect this establishment's distinct creative atmosphere."
Stanchion let out a chuckle as he put his palms upon the polished mahogany bar, bracing himself.
"My motivations have been lain bare, I'm afraid. So, what can I get for you and your cohorts?"
I gave my friends' requests, along with my own for cider, which prompted Stanchion's bushy eyebrows to rise.
"I take it you're keeping your facilities clear for a performance tonight?"
I nodded in assent as he began take down bottles and pour them into mugs.
"My work at the University has absorbed most of my free time as of late, but today I was liberated from the heaviest of my burdens. I am going to set the stage aflame tonight, but after that, I fear your stores of liquor will be dealt a grievous blow."
"If you intend to fund the entirety of this night's exploits, you may be correct," observed Stanchion, setting down the last of the drinks; a clay mug filled with cider. I paid him for the drinks and thanked him, before bringing them over to the table occupied by my partners in crime, setting them down.
"To Kvothe's unexpected successes," toasted Sim, raising his mug of cinnamon mead.
"To free drinks!" added Wilem, raising a glass of his beloved scutten. Sovoy settled for raising a glass in my direction and favoring me with the slightest of nods. He took a deep drink of his brand, before setting down his glass, his glance inquisitive.
"So, Kvothe…you've become quite well known during my absence from the University. Even in Modeg they speak of your deeds as if you were the second coming of Taborlin."
"Is that so?" I asked politely before taking a small sip of my cider. The drink was cold upon my tongue, the apples used to make it freshly picked. It was like inhaling the fertile breath of autumn.
"It is. With all I've heard, it is difficult to separate fact from myth. One hardly knows what to think."
"Oh, I doubt that," Sim piped in with a cheeky grin. "The day you hold no opinion on a subject is the day I take King Roderic's place."
Sovoy bore the barb with grace. "Perhaps you misconstrue my words, and grasp towards a false assumption; I certainly know what I think."
"And what would that be?" I asked.
"The fae are not real," stated Sovoy, his words allowing no room for argument. "So I very much doubt you laid with Felurian, but…you are the same person who, during their first week at the University, bore three lashes with stoic indifference and was admitted into the Arcanum, all while barely outside the cusp of puberty."
Sim nearly snorted mead through his nose at the observation, and even Wilem cracked a smile.
"I assure you, I was well past that point when I arrived here," I clarified. The Modegan noble waved his hand, as if the matter were unimportant.
"Regardless, my point remains the same; if anything of a miraculous nature was to happen to anyone…my money would be on you."
I leaned back, not bothering to hide the satisfied smirk which found its way onto my face. To hear that tales of my exploits had made their way across the furthest reaches of the Four Corners…to deny the satisfaction it brought would be a lie.
"So," continued Sovoy, picking his glass back up, "I would be interested in hearing the truth behind the stories."
As much as I enjoyed relaying my adventures, I shook my head, holding onto my tales a moment longer. Through my time with Felurian, I had learned there is nothing as powerful or gripping as a story held hostage.
"While you may have heard of me, I have heard nothing from you," I explained. "One term you were here, the next you were gone. No goodbyes, no farewells…just gone."
At my request, Sovoy seemed to draw inward into himself, his expression souring.
"Look, I'm sorry, but…it's not a very interesting story."
"We thought you had left the University for good and without hearing directly from you, we assumed the worst," spoke up Simmon, his voice soft. "A dying family member, no money for tuition, a particularly vexing token from one of the brothels…"
Sovoy bowed his head, just enough to cover a small smile.
"I assure, it's nothing nearly as exciting as that."
"Well, that settles it then, doesn't it?" I challenged, crossing my arms over my chest. "My tale, I am not ashamed to say, is rather magnificent in scope. So, therefore, etiquette dictates that you should go first."
"Fine, fine," he agreed, before letting out a weak chuckle. "Tell me again; why did I agree to hold court over this circus?"
"For free drinks," reminded Wilem, lifting his glass off the table and showcasing it like a prize.
"Ah, there is that," Sovoy conceded. He took a deep drink of his blackberry brand, before setting it back down on the table. "Well, I've always said that the Masters squeeze the nobility twice as hard as anyone."
"Young Kvothe here would beg to differ," contested Sim.
"Not right now, though," I clarified, dismissing Sim's comment with a wave of my hand. "c
lLater, once you've said your piece."
Sovoy frowned for a moment, as if I was speaking from a place of ignorance. After a moment, he shrugged, and continued. "Eighty-three strehlaum."
"That is most certainly a lot," observed Sim.
"Yes, it is," spat Sovoy. His jaw was tightened, as if the mere memory was enough to set his teeth grinding. "After answering all their questions, including Hemme's verbal atrocity…it was more than I could take. Without hesitation I made haste for Imre and joined up with the first caravan headed home."
He stopped briefly to take another long pull at his glass of blackberry brand before continuing.
"For all my complaints about this city, I do not truly hate the Commonwealth, but when contrasted with my home…there is truly no comparison. Modeg knows nothing of your harsh winters or oppressive religious institutions, nor of spitting over bridges." He finished with a grin.
Wilem nodded, as if his words struck a chord of resonance. My Cealdish friend never complained about the Commonwealth, or its customs, but he was not immune to occasional bouts of homesickness.
"Well then, consider our earlier display as a heartfelt welcome back to the Commonwealth." Simmon said with an impudent smile.
"Thanks for that," Sovoy deadpanned, before continuing his story. "So, I returned home for a long time, soaking up as much as Modeg as I could before returning to his barbaric realm."
"Did you ever consider staying home?" I asked.
"Not with any real seriousness." Sovoy sighed. "Along with the joy of being home, it allowed me the opportunity to save up my allowance, to preserve my finances for when I'm robbed again by the Masters."
"I hope you saved a great deal," added Wilem, drawing a concerned glance from the Modegan noble.
"Why is that?"
"Hemme has taken over as Chancellor," Simmon explained, a sour expression upon his face. "Last term, young Kvothe here received a tuition of fifty talents."
"Fifty talents! Hylta tiem!" he swore. "Hemme…he hates me!"
"I'd be willing to bet he hates me more," I began, hoping to ease the sting. "I'm sure he won't be as hard on you. Besides, Admissions isn't for another few spans. You have plenty of time to study."
Despite my best efforts, Sovoy was not consoled. Not that I blamed him; if there was any Master likely to carry a grudge, no matter how marginal the slight, it would be Hemme.
In one quick movement, Sovoy tipped back his glass, draining the rest of his blackberry brand in a single long swallow. He coughed deeply, before setting the empty glass back on the table.
"Well, that settles it. I did have a prior engagement in the early evening, but it's going to have to wait."
"Don't want any obstacles preventing you from getting blackly drunk?" ventured Sim.
"Exactly," Sovoy confirmed, rising to his feet, empty glass in hand.
"I, for one, am glad to see that nothing particularly vexing drove you from here." I declared. "Even if your story wasn't tremendously exciting…it's really the best we could have hoped for. It's good to have you back." I raised my mug in salute.
"Thanks for the warm reception." He said, raising his own glass. "I never did claim my story would be captivating, but I did intend to hold up my end of the bargain."
"As have I, if the empty glass in your hand is any indication."
Sovoy tipped the glass in my direction, before walking over to the bar, his gait steady and confident. He gave his order to Stanchion, before falling into deep conversation with the proprietor of the Eolian. Despite the news of Hemme's appointment to the Chancellor's seat, which I would like liken to opening an aged bottle of wine only to find it filled with urea, the Modegan noble was in good spirits. It did my heart good to see him in such a fine state.
I would never claim myself to be a good friend of his, but during my first few terms at the University, he was a close companion, and on several occasions kept my studies afloat. If not for the bets he gathered during my duels in Advanced Sympathy, I may not have been able to come up with tuition my first few terms.
"His fortunes have turned around," observed Wilem, taking another sip of scutten.
"Perhaps he'll be able to re-hire his manservant then," Simmon replied. "I wonder how he got back in family's good graces."
"He never left them," Wilem answered. "His gets an allowance each term. If his tuition is high, then…"
He trailed off with a shrug, not needing to illustrate the point further. Simmon, however, pressed on.
"I don't know. Would his family still be extending him an allowance if he wasn't at the University? Maybe he had to accept a marriage proposal that came with a hefty dowry? That's who he had to meet later today!"
Wilem let out a chuckle. "I do not think so. If Sovoy was to be married to someone, I am certain he left her back in Modeg."
"That's it then!" declared Simmon between peals of laughter. "He came back here to get away from her. No wonder he seems happy!"
Sovoy shook his head as he arrived back at the table with a glass topped off with blackberry brand.
"I leave you three alone for several minutes, and all vestiges of composure vanish. So, Kvothe," he said, focusing his gaze upon me. "I believe you promised me a story. My glass is full, and my attention is yours."
With a smile I lifted my mug up and overturned, though only a few stray drops spilled onto the table. "Mine, however, is empty, and storytelling is thirsty work."
"As is listening," declared Wilem, pushing his own empty glass across the table, in Sovoy's direction. "It is time for more scutten."
"Do I look like a serving wench?" demanded Sovoy, defiance bright in his eyes.
"No, Yyu're dressed too richly to be a serving wench," Sim observed. "I think they'd call you something else."
Sovoy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Fine. Since I am apparently the only one here tonight with functioning legs, what poor quality swill are you drowning yourself with?"
"Cider. I plan on playing tonight." I explained, giving an affectionate pat to the lute case beneath my chair.
"Girl," Wilem stated, matter-of-factly.
"Wait, you're perfectly capable of playing while inebriated," protested Sim. "What's different about today?"
I let out a chuckle. "Perhaps I explained myself poorly. Naturally I am more than capable of playing after a few drinks; I am more concerned about my choice of song."
Sim clapped his hands together. "Sovoy, ignore this foolish child! He'll take metheglin, and be happy about it."
"No, he won't," I corrected, before leveling an accusatory finger in Sim's direction. "You are not goading me into playing 'Jackass, Jackass' tonight."
"I will not rest until our dear friend's personal ballad graces the patrons of the Eolian."
"Then I would venture that you have some sleepless nights ahead of you," I said with a grin. As much as I enjoyed the song, not to mention tweaking Ambrose, it was more trouble than it was worth at the moment. With Hemme as Chancellor, I couldn't take the risk when a singe complaint could lead to my expulsion.
Cursed as I am with hindsight, I should have just pressed onward with the song, enjoying the laughter it would have brought.
In two spans, not only would my time at the University draw to a decisive close, but I would be one of the most notorious criminals in the Four Corners.
The story that I launched into, if not exactly accurate to my own, was at least an abridged version of the exploits during my three-term sojourn. Being my closest friends, Simmon and Wil received the full, unedited version, but Sovoy…
Think of the deepest, more intimate experience you've ever had in your life. How it colors your every word, affects every decision you've ever made. How comfortable would you be with sharing that personal catharsis?
I was friendly with the Modegan noble, that cannot be denied, but he did leave the University for nearly two years. Looking at myself, I know that the person who left Imre on a boat bound for Severen never returned. What I experienced changed me in a fundamental sense.
I suspected the same held true for Sovoy, regardless of his story. Not that I doubted his words; only that there was more to his two years away from the University than he cared to admit. How had that time away changed him? I didn't blame him for holding details back…but in the same breath, he would have to be content with the information I was willing to part with.
If Sovoy picked up on the sparse nature of my tale, he gave no indication. He was held in rapt attention, no more so than relating my time in Admere. Only the Stormwal Mountains separated Modeg and Admere, but the Adem were still a mystery. Aside from mercenaries, few residents of Admere ventured from their lands, preferring the solitude of their corner of the world.
Unsurprisingly, despite his interest in Felurian, it was her part of the story which drew the most amount of skepticism. I didn't make much of an effort to persuade him either way, content to let him form his own conclusions.
Once my story was over, we drifted over to playing Corners, Sim and myself against Wilem and Sovoy. Sheer luck found my side up a few hands, compensating for Sim's hopelessly optimistic bets, but our matches were swiftly becoming battles of attrition. All three of my companions had enthusiastically taken to my offer of free drinks, and were starting to show the effects.
After pulling out a victory, despite Sovoy's mishandling of a hand, the Modegan noble's attention drifted to the door. The advent of the evening had slowly filled the Eolian, a steady stream of murmurs filling its spaces. The two newest entrants, two young women in silk dresses and artfully curled hair, drew his attention.
"I do have to admit," he said in the quiet tones of conspiracy, "that this evening has brought its fair share of young, nubile ladies. Shall we invite them over for a drink?"
One of the girls caught onto Sovoy's inspection. She nudged her friend, a blonde in green silks matched to fetching, bright eyes, whispering into her ear. They shared a few private giggles, before moving towards the stairs leading up the second level.
"I believe they were spoken for." I surmised, drawing a dismissive wave from Sovoy.
"The night is young, Kvothe. After a few drinks and songs, the Commonwealth code of morality becomes a bit more flexible."
The good humor drained from Simmon's alcohol-flushed face, thinning his mouth to a line. "So it's customary to make passes at men's wives in front of them in Modeg? Is that how it's done?"
"Have I offended you in some arcane fashion?" asked Sovoy. "If so, please let me know, because when I left the University, your consistent failures with the fairer sex were legendary."
"I have done very well as of late, rest assured. Do you remember Fela?"
"Only the blind could forget her. You two? I thought…"
He trailed off, throwing a glance in my direction. This did nothing to improve the frown upon Simmon's face, which looked in danger of becoming permanent, though Sovoy held no blame for the thought.
If this were a romantic play, my rescue of Fela from the bone-tar explosion would have been the climax of the first act. Like a sacred dance, we would have begun our slow circles around one another as our love blossomed.
Life, however, is seldom that simple.
"While Fela was grateful for my actions at the Fishery, we are just friends," I clarified.
"In that case, congratulations are in order," stated Sovoy, raising his mug into the air. "Fela is a fine woman, and well deserving of someone so obviously dedicated to her."
The toast mollified Simmon, smoothing out the frown lines on his face.
"Kvothe already has a ladylove to moon over." Wilem observed, before draining the last of his scutten. His fifth of the night.
"And you are drunk," I countered, hoping to close out the subject. As much as I cared for Denna, thoughts of her were always accompanied by sadness. It felt like every one of our encounters was a balancing act, and each word a sudden gust of wind. "I do not moon."
"Don't be fooled by young Kvothe's entreats," urged Sim in a conspirator's tone. "He has perfected the craft of mooning, turning it into an art form. Despite knowing a great deal of the University's female population in the biblical sense, he still holds high the torch for his one true love."
Sovoy let out a chuckle. "Could it be that one of the undignified rhiama has realized that there is a difference between love and sex?"
"One of the Adem mercaneries said the same thing," I said with a laugh, "Though she would have used the term 'barbarian'."
"Why do things in this world not make sense?" scoffed Wilem, amidst the laughter of my other friends. "It was always said that the Adem never have sex, instead pouring all energy into fighting."
"The Adem are hesitant to fornicate with those outside their culture," I explained.
"Because we are dirty barbarians?" asked Sim with a lopsided grin.
"There is no sexual disease in Admere."
"Bullshit!" he exclaimed, slapping his hand down upon the table. "How is that even possible?"
"I assume it's due to the isolation of their culture. Not to mention the fact that there's no prostitution in Admere."
"And they refer to us as savages," said Sovoy with a derisive sniff, raising eyebrows around the table. "What?" he asked, in the face of our incredulous stares.
The dam broke, and the three of us broke into loud peals of laughter. We received our fair share of wary glances from the surrounding tables. Wilem's chuckles tapered off, embarrassed by the pairs of eyes focused upon him. Though well on his way, he had not yet drank enough scutten to lose his self-consciousness.
From birth I have lived upon the stage, making the eye of the public no more bothersome than a gentle breeze. As for Sim…well, there was something to be said for liquid courage.
As the laughter tapered off, so did the attention focused upon our table. We resumed our increasingly sloppy hands of Corners, getting off a few more rounds. Towards the end it became stealing, as being the only one in complete control of my facilities put me at a distinctly unfair advantage.
Sim, unfamiliar with such success, did not hesitate to gloat over his winnings, hovering over his small pile of jots.
"Care to try again, gentlemen? While the fates have been cruel, the night is young, and…"
He trailed off, the boyish, carefree grin curdling like milk left in the sun. His gaze was fixed at a point over my left shoulder.
"What is it?" I asked, resisting the urge to turn and look.
"Our favorite member of the Arcanum, along with his entourage of merry men."
I let out a deep sigh. Our rivalry hadn't seen a flare-up since my return from Vintas, but I wasn't foolish enough to believe that Ambrose had laid our feud to rest. Truth be told, if anything were to happen, my money would have been on tonight, with vast quantities of alcohol thrown into the equation.
"He is going to the mezzanine," observed Wilem after a few moments. An entirely welcome, if expected, turn of events.
"What better place to lord his rightful position above us peasants?" said Sim with uncharacteristic sourness.
"As long as it keeps him away from us."
"It would appear that no matter what changes befall us, some things never change," Sovoy said, his attention turned towards me. "When I left the University, you were at one another's throat. The situation hardly seems to have improved."
"It has only escalated since then," I admitted with a shrug.
Sovoy blew out a frustrated breath of air. "You need to leave this alone, Kvothe. What do you know about the Jakis family?"
"That any parents who produced a son as foul as Ambrose leave something to be desired, and Baron Jakis is thirteenth in line to succeed King Roderic. Oh, and Ambrose's younger sister was caught within a brothel. Buying. Did I leave anything out?"
"I heard she was selling," Sovoy admitted with a faint smile, before his expression grew serious. "Regardless, your other information is out of date; Baron Jakis is now seventh in line. Prince Regent Alaitis was killed in a duel. Baron Iblis and his two oldest sons were killed by raiders on the Great Stone Road. The youngest son hung himself a month later in despair."
"An awfully convenient run of tragedy for Baron Jakis."
Sovoy gave a grim nod. "You are not the first one to mention that. Disasters at sea are a common enough occurrence, but for a royal family accompanied by a host of guards on one of the most heavily-traveled roads in the Four Corners? That speaks of coordination above and beyond simple banditry."
Although my first impulse was to dismiss his words, Sovoy's words struck a familiar note. Ambrose had bought out a hotel just so I couldn't take a position there. He had poisoned every noble in a hundred mile radius of Imre against me, making it impossible to find a patron. I couldn't prove it, but was certain he had even hired two assassins to kill me. Were these the actions of a lone noble with a pathological cruel streak? Or were they Ambrose learning the ropes of the family business?
"They are ruthless," continued Sovoy. "You really need to be careful. The further they move up the line of succession, the greater their influence grows. If you should ever travel back in Vintas, you would have more enemies than you could ever know."
"For all we know, he could have pointed the pirates towards the ship you took bound for Severen," Wilem mumbled, the thick burr in his accent beginning to deepen.
"Ambrose is many things, but omniscient is not one of them," I refuted. "Few people knew of my destination."
"Perhaps a friend of the Jakis family worked on the docks?"
"Or at least someone looking to curry favor with them," Sim added. I started to argue the point, before lapsing into silence. Each time I had underestimated the influence and wealth of Ambrose, I've been made a fool of. Devi had even mentioned that the Jakis barony was referred to as the 'Pirate Isles'. Could the Jakis' have been behind not just my own disaster in the Centhe Sea, but the loss of the Surthen family?
With that sobering thought in mind, the river of chatter and laughter faded to a trickle as the lights dimmed. A young woman of dark Ceald complexion took the stage. Bright eyes the color of black coffee scanned the crowd a single time, before she brought a flute to her lips. Crimson light reflected off its polished body as sweet, mournful tones lit the air, as if the flutist was playing the flames.
I leaned back against the chair as she played, soaking it in. Her choice of song was not the most taxing, but the notes were played flawlessly. The songs she played were short, no longer than five minutes, but between each clear, angelic verses of Siaru lit into the air. Turning to my right, I saw that Wilem, normally the very picture of stoicism, was moved by the piece. His corneas held a pinkish tinge, while the barest hint of moisture glistened at the corners of his eyes.
In this strange, foreign place, I imagine that the flutist's words were like a feast after a month of thin gruel.
As the final notes of her last song faded away, I saw Wilem's chest hitch a moment, before he brought his hands together in a thunderous show of applause. He was far from the only one, as her response from the Eolian's crowd was more than enthusiastic. As he clapped, I leaned over towards him.
"For goodness sake, Wil; go buy her a drink!"
"You…you think I should?" he asked, sounding uncertain.
"Yes, and soon," I urged. "If you wait much longer, the scutten is going to catch up with you and do your talking. Do you want that?"
"No, I don't," he answered, rising to his feet. "Wish me luck."
The three of us did as instructed, wishing him well. Despite having drunk the most of any of my companions, his gait was steady as he made his way over to the flutist. At Wil's first words, her eyes seemed to light up, delighted at hearing familiar words. In no time they had found their way over to their own table, each with a glass of scutten in front of them.
"It appears out Cealdish friend has moved onto greener pastures," noted Sim with wistfulness.
"Can you blame him?" I said with a shrug, earning a shake of his head from Simmon, sending his sandy hair aflutter.
"Absolutely not. To Wil's success!" he cheered, raising a half-full mug of his favored cinnamon mead. Sovoy and myself seconded the motion as the lights dimmed again. A fiddler with his silver talent piped took the stage. He was followed by Count Therpe, who took his place to raucous applause.
I found myself laughing along the Eolian's patrons as the Count plucked at his lyre, his cracked and wavering voice pounding out verses about a local councilman of dubious repute. His song concluded to thunderous praise, with even the reserved nobles stomping their feet and banging upon the mezzanine tables. Stanchion went on stage to congratulate him on his latest barb of the Imre gentry, taking him down to the bar for the standard tankard of metheglin.
In the break between the next performance, I made my way over to the bar. It didn't take long to make my way through the sea of well-wishers, to where the Count had wasted no time in draining his tankard. He perked up at my appearance, waving me over.
"I'd hate to get between a man and his metheglin, but wanted to congratulate you before the heavy drinking commences."
"Nonesense!" exclaimed Therpe. He drained the rest of the tankard with a single, deep swallow, before setting it down and shaking my hand with vigor. "Drinks will always here, but talented musicians come and go. To squander a chance to converse with one is a terrible waste of an opportunity."
"In that case, let's grab a table, and another tankard for yourself."
"I won't hear of it," he argued.
"You should. I'm running a fine scam over at the University, and it'd be a shame to keep the fruits of my villianry to myself."
The Count let out a hearty bray of laughter. "In that case, I'll take another metheglin."
I got his drink from the bar, along with a cider for myself. A tankard and a mug in hand, I made my way over to the table Count Therpe had procured. At the aroma of the warm cider, he let out a grin.
"Keeping your senses clear for a performance tonight, I hope?"
I responded with an affirmative nod. "Until then, cider it will be."
"Ah, completely understandable. After that, I take it you'd be open to generousity?"
"I believe so."
"That is good to hear, then. Any idea which song shall graces these hallowed halls?"
I thought about the answer for a moment. As much as I consider music to be a source of enjoyment, most of my trips to the Eolian, sad to say, were often with financial interests in mind. Fear of defaulting on Devi's loan brought me here in the first place. Pursuit of a patron and appealing to the sensibilities of other musicians to provide souten had brought me back, the singular goal of survival at the University always at the forefront of mind.
This was one of the first times in memory where I had brought my lute to the Eolian with the express intent to play only for myself.
"That would ruin the surprise," I answered after a brief pause. Therpe was not put out by my answer in the slightest, opting to take another deep drink from the tankard.
"In a week, I am entertaining a contingent of foreign nobles at my home. If available, I would be honored to have you serenade us."
I felt my grin widen at his words. Therpe had left it unspoken, but there was a strong probability the guest list may have names outside the radius of Ambrose's influence.
"The honor would be entirely mine. I wouldn't be putting out any of your musicians though, would I?"
The Count waved a hand in the air, dismissing the notion. "For the next month they'll be scattered to the Four Corners, leaving me bereft of musical talent. With guests to entertain, this puts me in quite the predictament."
"In that case, I would be delighted."
"Good to hear," the Count said, favoring me with a hearty slap on the back. He then leaned towards me, in a secretive manner. "I also have new information about a subject we spoke of before."
Denna's patron. It had to be.
"I look forward to hearing it," I answered, in my mind replaying the promise I had made Denna. I had asked for Count Therpe's help with finding Master Ash long before I swore on my name, so I was still within the bounds of my oath, however barely.
I glanced back over to the table where Sim and Sovoy were seated, to see that they had been joined by the two lovely ladies that had caught my eye earlier. Sovoy caught me looking, and waved me over.
"It would appear I'm being summoned," I told the Count, motioning toward the table.
The Imre noble let out a chuckle. "Woe be the man who would stand in the way of young dalliance. Best of luck to you, Kvothe, and should our paths not cross in the interim, I shall see you in two spans."
I made my farewells with the Count, before heading back over to my table.
The blonde was seated next to Sovoy. Her friend, a chestnut-haired young woman wearing a strapless pink dress, showing our pale, creamy shoulders with a light dusting of freckles, sat in the spot vacated by Wilem.
"Ladies, this is our other friend, Kvothe. A finer musician will not walk through the doors of the Eolian tonight."
"And what of other nights?" asked the brunette with a mischievous grin, stretching out her hand expectantly. I accepted her offering, before taking a half-step backwards and bowing, placing a light kiss the soft flesh of the back of her hand.
"On other nights, the discrepancy is even more pronounced. I am at your service, my lady."
"My lady?" she said with a light chuckle. "Not only a musician, but a gentleman as well. If you are truly in my service, I would have you call me Merys."
"Then Merys you shall be," I agreed, taking a seat next to the young woman. A silver necklace set with amethyst hung around her neck, trailing down to the generous curve of her chest. It caught the gentle glow of the sympathy lamps, making her skin glow.
"And this here is Joslyn," introduced Sovoy, motioning towards the girl seated beside him. Abandoning any resemblance to pretense, Joslyn stuck her hand across the table. I met it with my own, pumping it once before letting go.
"Pleased to meet you, my lady."
Joslyn let out a chuckle. "Please, call me Joslyn. No self-respecting lady would find herself at a den of sin and vice such as this. My goodness, perish the thought!"
"So, Kvothe…what musician does the finest musician at the Eolian favor?"
"That would be the lute," I answered, drawing the case up from beneath my seat.
"And what song will you be gracing us with tonight?"
A look of dismay found its way onto my face. "Would you ruin the surprise so easily? Is not half of the joy in discovery?"
Undeterred by my act, Merys leaned closer. She let out a small, devilish smile as she placed her right hand on my chest. "I cannot deny that discovery brings its own joys," she admitted, trailing her fingers down a few inches, before drawing her hand back and taking a drink from my mug of cider. Surprised by its contents, she sent me a questioning gaze.
"One needs a clear head to perform."
"To perform a song that won't get you kicked out of here," Sim added, drawing a few chuckles from the two girls.
"A very important distinction," I agreed. "After my performance, however, my choice of drink is liable to change. Perhaps then I could buy you two ladies a drink?"
"Perhaps you could," parroted Merys with a wicked smile, the type that speaks to men on a primal level. "What do you think, Joslyn?"
"I don't know," she replied, casting her eyes and head downward as she fought off a grin.
"It would please my greatly if you answered in the positive," Sovoy urged. Joslyn lifted her head up, an agreement on her lips, before she froze, the playfulness fading from her gaze. I followed her gaze across the Eolian, to where a familiar Vintish noble stood seething, like a child who has found someone else playing with his toys.
"Merys, we should be going," urged Joslyn. Her friend let out a deep sigh.
"I suppose so," Merys agreed, beginning to rise to her feet. I followed her up.
"Ambrose is the very picture of villianry. If you need help…"
The brunette let out a casual chuckle. "No worries, Kvothe. He may have invited me here, but I am not beholden to him." As she rose to her feet, she leaned forward slightly, putting her lips close to my ear. "Find me later."
As her whisper faded away, she curtsied, before taking her leave of the table, with Joslyn trailing behind her. As Merys approached, Ambrose settled his angry gaze upon me. For a few seconds he glared, unblinking, before stiffly taking Merys' extended arm and leading her up the mezzanine. Joslyn fell in line with one of the members of Ambrose's entourage; a tall, thin youth with a pinched face and a ridiculously looking monocle.
"Did you just manage to nearly steal Ambrose's date?" Sim asked with awe, once the two girls had disappeared from sight.
I let out a laugh in response. "Nearly? Please, the night is young."
For a moment, Sovoy opened his mouth, as if to reprimand me, before opting for a shrug and taking another pull from his glass of blackberry brand. "It does seem a shame that men of such poor quality are inflicted upon such lovely ladies. Why, wouldn't it be an act of chivalry to steal them away from such vile cunts?"
"Too right you are," I agreed, before bending down and withdrawing my lute case from beneath the chair. "And now it is time to burn."
"Not Sir Savien, I hope?" ventured Sim.
"The furthest thing from it," I assured.
The crowd grew quiet as I took the stage, scattered whispers the only sound. Setting the case down, I unlatched it and withdrew my lute. There was no fear, no apprehension about my upcoming performance. I'm a stone at the bottom of a still lake.
I fingered a few notes, sampling their sounds. They were almost there, but I turn two of the pegs a fraction of a hair, tightening them to perfection.
The lights are upon me, as are a sea of faces. The young, the old. The gentry, the commoner. Male, female. To each of them I flash a welcoming smile, drawing them in. I am their guide to a world hiding inside our own, just barely out of reach. Of wonders mistaken for myth.
I began to lightly pluck at the strings, making the opening notes of 'In Twilight Versed'. The murmurs of recognition are few and far between. Doubtless some have heard it on their travels, but to Imre it was new.
My voice joined the narrative, speaking Felurian's song. The sounds of the fae pulled the audience even deeper into my story, and they ran beside me as I chased Felurian through the woods. They watched as I danced with her, as we made our own sweet music. As I held her song hostage, and promised that one day I would return to finish it.
Cheers, clapping and the stomping of feet followed me from the stage, to where Stanchion stood before the stage. With his round face and gleeful eyes, the owner of the Eolian gave off a distinctly boyish veneer as he shook my hand with vigor.
"Was that perhaps an original composition?" he asked, sliding a tankard of metheglin towards me. I nodded as I took a deep drink of the wonderfully exotic brew. "And what have you titled it?"
"In Twilight Versed," I answered with a grimace. Stanchion's grin faded a bit at my words, drawing a chuckle from me.
"I admit it's a dreadful title." Even saying it aloud brought a bitter taste to my mouth, but I had been unable to form anything more befitting.
"It is, but then again, everything requires a name. Especially a song that's bound to spread across the Four Corners like wildfire."
I nodded, having observed the same thing myself. After playing it, I had seen many people humming to themselves hours later, unable to get it out of their head. It wasn't the best, or most technically accomplished of my compositions…but it was among the catchiest.
"Is any of it true?"
I smiled slyly. "Being a connoisseur of music yourself, wouldn't you agree that all songs contain some element of truth?"
"Indeed they do," agreed Stanchion. "Perhaps one day you'll allow me to buy you a drink and tell me about the circumstances which inspired the song."
"I hope you do one day," I replied, which was enough to satisfy Stanchion. Pleased, he excused himself to prepare for the next performance. As I savored the contents of my tankard, a steady stream of well-wishers made their way to the bar, each wanting to either buy me a drink, hear more about the song, or in some cases, both. My answers were polite, but elusive. Though I provided little insight, my manner prevented anyone from walking away feeling as if they had been slighted.
Draining my first tankard, I took the second, paid for with a grateful patron's coin, back to my table. As I held the drink high, out of the range of an errant elbow or wave of the hand, I saw her climbing the stairs to the balcony with straight-backed, regal grace. She wore a blue dress which proudly displayed her bare, creamy shoulders. Her dark tresses were held in place, the six braids formed together to form a single word.
Lovely. How well it fit Denna.
I hesitated for a moment, before following her up the stairs. If I had known she was in the building, I would have reconsidered my choice of song. Had she taken its performance as an insult?
After the barest of hesitations, I followed her up the stairs, a dozen risers behind. Gaining the top, she turned on her heel. Denna's dark eyes were severe, her face a mask. I suppressed my initial urge to freeze and closed the distance between us. The unease vanished from Denna's expression, replaced by a knowing smile.
"Do you make a habit of following young women?"
"Only those who are worthy of pursuit," I answered, dropping smoothly to one knee and placing a chaste kiss atop her offered hand. "My lady, I am at your service."
"And have been for some time, if your first introduction was any indication."
"Always, my lady," I said, rising to my feet, but inclining my head in deference. "I do, however, hope that you require the services of my company tonight."
"If the chatter from up here is to be believed, I would be one of many seeking your services. Is that what you would take me for, Kvothe? One of many?"
It appeared that news of Ambrose's date seeking me out had spread throughout the Eolian. Only a scant number of exchanges, and already Denna was lobbing verbal barbs in my direction. Not the scene my foolishly optimistic self had envisioned unfolding.
"Such an open-ended question," I observed. "Should I flatter you endlessly, perform a soliloquy extolling the virtues of your beauty above all other mortal women? Perform an ode to your razor-sharp wit? Hold a mirror up to the world, show its reflection to you and outline how nothing quite compares to you?"
"So I take it mortal women pale in comparison to others?"
Her cold, cutting question removed all doubt that she had heard the song. She was asking about Felurian, all while not asking, a game I had no intention of playing. I had nothing to say on the subject to Denna. Yes, I still thought of her often, cared about her deeply…but I would have been an even larger fool to deny the existence of the wide gulf between us, a bridge that we couldn't cross. Ever since that blackened song…as much as I wanted to stay anger at her, it was hard to dump the responsibility onto her doorstep. As far as she knew, Lanre was a hero. Furthermore, how could she have possibly known that I had first-hand experience with the Chandrian?
"To the vast majority, yes," I answered, meeting her challenge. "Though there are others that outshine even the myths of old."
"Do they now?" she asked, her frosty exterior thawing slightly. Inwardly I smiled at her reaction, thinking that perhaps it wasn't too late to start bridging the gap.
Hearing the approach of heavy, deliberate footsteps, I turned to see my least favorite member of the Arcnaum saunter over as if he owned half the world, and was settling papers for the rest.
"Are you lost?" Ambrose asked in condescending tones, like I was a child who had wandered off. "This is the balcony, reserved for Eolain patrons that can afford to come here. I believe charity cases are contained to the floor."
The Vintic noble had clearly been drinking, as suggested by the slight pauses between his words. Even on a normal day, Ambrose had trouble keeping up with me in our wars of words. Tonight I doubted he'd pose any challenge.
"I am a charity case," I agreed, before pointing to the silver talent pipes pinned to my lapel. "In fact, unlike you, I don't even have to pay to perform here. But…it's awfully kind of you to keep supporting the Eolian with a silver talent every time you want to play. Generous, even."
Around us people had looked up from their drinks and conversation, watching our exchange. At my statement, they broke into open chuckles, causing Ambrose's eyes to narrow. I imagine it must have been galling for him to be laughed at by whom he considered 'his' people. Even Denna let out a wide smile, drawing the ire of his glare.
"Ambrose, perhaps you should leave this one alone," she gently suggested, placing a hand on his shoulder. He gazed at the pale hand upon his shoulder, the blue stone in her ring gleaming in the lamplight, before his gaze turned back to me. His expression flared up, and with a snarl he brushed her hand away.
"When I want a whore to touch me, I'll visit a brothel," he sneered. I started forward at once, but Denna's hand was already in motion. A sharp crack echoed through the balcony as her open hand slammed into the side of Ambrose's face. Unprepared for the blow, he stumbled backwards.
Being a vindictive soul, I subtly stuck out my foot. Already off-balance, he fell backwards, his shoulders colliding with a table loaded with drinks, bringing it down with him. As he hit the floor, the glasses, mugs and tankards spilled their contents directly onto Ambrose's expensive clothes and cloak. The sweet aromas of blackberry brand, cinnamon mead, metheglin, scutten and strawberry wine infused the air.
Alcohol soaking through his clothes, Ambrose scrambled up to a sitting position, to hear the first ripples of cruel laughter echo through the balcony. His face turned bright red as the laughter increased in volume. Three of his friends rushed forward, helping him off the ground. His eyes burned with intense hatred, but he stayed silent as they led him away from the downed table.
As whispers flicked back and forth across the balcony, Denna turned to me, trying to hide a smile.
"Why did you do that?" she hissed.
"Do what?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "He insulted you in a fashion unbecoming of a gentleman, so you slapped him. Happens all the time. Being drunk, he lost his balance and fell over. End of story."
Denna shook her head, before heading back towards the stairs. I caught up to her at the bottom.
"You certainly have a knack for mayhem," she said as she turned, blowing out a breath of frustrated of air.
"Can you honestly tell me you didn't enjoy seeing that arrogant twit get taken down a notch?"
"Perhaps a little," she conceded with a small smile. "But I'll not stay here to celebrate."
"Then stay and celebrate my recent academic achievement."
She tapped her foot against the floor for a moment, as if actually considering it. After a moment of deliberation, she shook her head.
"It would be better if I left now, as staying could give off the wrong impression."
I perceived the unsaid meaning behind her words. If she stayed to celebrate, the Imre gentry would not soon forget Denna's action, but if I stayed at the Eolian, it would be me they remembered as celebrating Ambrose's folly.
"Perhaps another day, then," I conceded.
"Perhaps," she replied, her red lips stretched into a genuine smile; a work of art I had seen precious little of since returning from my journey. She stretched her hands out, and I met the back of it with my lips. We exchanged farewells, and the familiar tension seemed to be mercifully hidden.
I watched her leave, before making my way back to my table. Now that I had played, it was time to start drinking in earnest.
It did not take long to lose track of my alcohol intake. Well-wishers, fellow musicians and those who just wanted to congratulate me on my humiliation of embarrassing Ambrose in such spectacular fashion kept a steady flow of drinks headed towards my table. At first I sampled each drinks, but after the first few I ceased my inspections, instead opting to throw them back without discretion.
"Kvothe, you have to slow down," urged Fela, placing a hand upon my arm. She had arrived not longer after Denna's departure, and even longer after all traces of sobriety had left Sim.
I let out an inebriated chuckle. "Perhaps you're right, but wouldn't it be terribly impolite to turn aside the generosity of this fine establishment's patrons?"
"To generosity!" cheered Sim in a drunken slur. He banged his glass against the tabletop, spilling some of the blackberry brand onto his hand. Fela let out an aggravated sigh, before reaching over and plucking the glass from his fingers. Sim didn't seem to notice, as he brought his hand, which cupped nothing more substantial than air, to his lips. When no drink was forthcoming, his slightly unfocused gaze fixed upon his empty hand, as if he knew that something was wrong, but couldn't quite place what it was.
"Having a problem, Sim?" I asked with a laugh.
"Uh…no," he said. "I just seem to have misplaced my drink."
"Did you now?" Fela asked innocently.
"Good thing there's an endless supply tonight," he pointed out with more confidence, before raising a hand to flag a server. With infinite patience, Fela clasped his hand and brought it back down to the table. "What?"
"Perhaps you've had enough for tonight."
"But Kvothe promised…" Sim trailed off, unable to finish the thought.
"Sim, do you remember the time you threw up all over that horse?" I asked, leaning forward.
"I…I vaguely remember something of the sort," he admitted after a short pause.
I nodded, before lifting up my hand and holding my thumb and index finger an inch apart.
"You are this close to that point. One more drink might send you tumbling over the edge."
"Hmmm. Perhaps I should slow down," Sim conceded, draping his other hand across the table. At once, his eyelids began to droop. His head, becoming similarly heavy, gently floated down to the table, resting atop his biceps. Eyes closed, Sim's chest began to rise and fall in a rhythmic pattern.
"Looks like our little Sim is all tuckered out," I observed.
"A state which I blame squarely upon you," said Fela.
"He's seen far poorer states."
"Not since I've known him."
With the hand not on my tankard, I reached across the table, putting a hand on Fela's arm. "That is not a coincidence. It's because of you."
"It's my fault you've provided him the means to get blackly drunk?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No, that's not what I mean," I clarified with a shake of my head. Since beginning his relationship with Fela, the steady pattern of rejection and failed relationships came to an end, along with the crushing dejection that swiftly followed. "When he's with you, he doesn't have a reason to drink to excess, tonight's celebratory night excluded."
At my words, Fela turned towards her significant other. Love shone in her eyes as she held him in her gaze. Any man on the receiving end of such a glance should count themselves blessed. Despite his state of drunken stupor, I knew that Sim did truly appreciate what Fela and himself shared.
A familiar pressure beginning to mount in my bladder, I excused myself from the table. My world swam for a moment as I rose, but I rode out the storm for a few moments, and equilibrium returned. I threaded my way thought the crowds of the Eolian, searching for Wilem and Sovoy. I hadn't seen the former for a while, leading me to believe that his introduction to the flutist had gone smashingly, but I had no clue where Sovoy was.
As one who has traveled to nearly every part of the Four Corners, there are benefits and drawbacks to city living. Among the most underrated aspect of modern technology was the luxury of bathrooms with running water. Especially when drunk, where the threat of falling into the lime-lined hole within a poorly-maintained outhouse was a distinct possibility.
The Eolian, being a fine establishment at the heart of civilization, held no such threat.
I ducked into the bathroom. The roar of drunken revelry and gleeful laughter faded as I shut the door. It was lit by the light of yellow sympathy lamps, casting a delicate pale glow over the tile floor and polished wood. There were two porcelain basins for washing hands to my immediate left, while further into the bathroom were three wooden stalls. Two were occupied, so I entered the third, the furthest from the door and raised the urine-splashed toilet seat, thankful I had no need to sit.
As I stood, doing the necessary, I heard the bathroom door open, letting in a momentary burst of the lobby's festive atmosphere. Finishing, I pulled the cord hanging next to the seat. The contents of the bowl were sucked down the pipe, before being filled with fresh water from the wall-mounted stone tank.
I took a deep, calming breath before leaving the stall behind. Though I had been hitting the alcohol with reckless abandon, my thoughts were still coherent, despite the fuzziness at the edges of my consciousness.
From the front of the bathroom I heard a deep, hacking cough, loud enough to echo in the enclosed space. It was a poor act, all throat, speaking nothing of sickness. A troupe comprised of stonemasons could have held a rendition of Three Pennies for Wishing and been more convincing.
I gave no outward sign that anything was amiss, heading towards the exit with my head held high. There was someone at one of the wash basins, with his back to me, but I paid him little heed. Washing my hands would have to wait.
Ten feet from the door, it opened. A member of Ambrose's entourage sauntered through, fresh, crisp silks whispering as he moved.
"If it isn't the ravel bastard," he spat in a refined, elitist tone, one pale eye narrowed in dislike, the other hidden by a monocle which shone in the pale yellow light. As he spoke, I heard the two stall doors fly open behind me, while seeing the barest hints of movement to my right. I backpedaled before stepping to the left, feeling the brush of wind on my cheek as I avoided a punch. Several steps later, and the basin pressed up against my back, leaving no more room to retreat.
I was on the receiving end of four pairs of hostile eyes. Each and every one of them, with the expensive cut of their clothes, spoke of privilege and nobility.
"Four against one? Not very sporting," I pointed out, trying to stall for more time.
"Nor is stealing other men's dates," the one with the monocle answered, a petulant smirk upon his face. Of the four, he seemed the only with a personal vendetta, a vexing development that caused me to curse inwardly. If it was just him and myself, I might have been able to incite the one with the monacle into a dumb charge, but the other three didn't seem to have much of a personal stake in this affair, and would be far more difficult to goad.
"They came to us. I guess you didn't make for good company," I answered, considering trying to let out a scream of warning, before discarding the notion. With how loud the floor of the Eolian was, and how quickly the sound cut out when the door was closed, it'd be a waste of valuable breath.
The confident grin upon monocle man's face soured. "Get him!"
One of the nobles who emerged from the stalls, who wore a powder-blue vest over his crisp white shirt, reacted first, rushing forward with his fist raised. I twisted my upper body, avoiding the punch. Before my assailant could react, I slid around to his side, and grabbed the back of his head, using his forward momentum to drive him face-first into the mirror. Letting go, I started to turn, before I was tackled from behind, forcing my stomach painfully into the wash basin. I threw out my left arm, using it to cushion my face against the spider-webbed mirror. Pain lit across my arm as the shards cut into my flesh, but better it than my eyes. Strong arms wrapped me up from behind in a reverse bear-hug, forcing my arms to the side.
"I've got him!" a voice at my ear cried triumphantly, the yell driving a spike of pain through my head. Gritting my teeth, I braced my feet against the wall and pushed off as hard as I could. My captor stumbled backwards, before tripping. The back of his head collided with the ceramic floor with a crack, causing the arms wrapped around me to loosen, as another of Ambrose's boot-lickers hovered above me, an apprehensive look upon his face.
I kicked out with my heel, trying to break his instep, but missed, hitting the inside of his leg. He stumbled back a few paces, and I used the opportunity to roll to the right, under the small gap between the first stall and the floor. Inside the stall, I scrambled to my feet, throwing the door's latch moments before a heavy weight struck the other side, causing it to shudder violently.
Thinking furiously, my eyes swept the stall. I had knocked down two of my assailants, but there was no guarantee that they'd stay down. On the ground, a broken piece of mirror gleamed as it caught the lamplight. At once I knelt down, scooping up the crystal shard, before dragging the flat against one my arm's lacerations, smearing blood onto it.
Rage lit my mind as I muttered a quick binding. They had waited until I had drunk a healthy amount, and had planned to beat a defenseless person black and blue. Unluckily for them, they had underestimated my constitution, and would pay the price.
A second away from crushing the glass beneath my foot, the rational part of my mind objected. Even if it was in self-defense, malfeasance of any sort was a certain way for the University to expel me, especially with my poor track record. Had this been Ambrose's plan all along?
Another blow struck the door, accompanied by the sound of splintering wood. I turned and thrust the hand holding the shard of mirror into the bowl, splitting my mind into two pieces. As I did, the door flew inward, just barely missing my crouched form. I looked over my shoulder as the noble started forward, fists raised.
A surprised scream lit into the air as the cool water surrounding my submerged hand turned warm as the shard of glass shed its heat. My oncoming assailant's head darted to the side as his companion's startled cry, giving me all the time I needed. I twisted my body and launched a kick into his midsection, connecting squarely with my heel. He folded at the midsection with a wheeze, and I brought my knee up to his exposed face, breaking his nose with a wet crunch. Eyes unfocused, he flopped backwards onto his back, small rivulets of blood seeping from his smashed nose.
I stepped past him, to where monocle man was down on one knee, clutching his eye with both hands. He looked up at my approach, his uncovered pale eye regarding me with equal parts fear and hatred.
"You ruined-" was all he got out before my kick connected with the side of his head, driving him into the ground. All things considered, he was lucky. Instead of having an eye full of shattered glass, he only had cold burn around his eye socket. His cry of surprise was not only more of shock than pain, but he'd have difficulty pinning a charge of malfeasance against me with not visible wounds.
I glanced to my right, to see two remaining combatants. One still lay on his back, eyes closed, a small puddle of blood pooling around his head. The other, his face bearing several bleeding lacerations, looked at me with wide-eyes fear, holding his hands out in a placating manner.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Please, just let me go!"
"I could kill you with a thought," I said in my best Taborlin the Great voice, "But it'd be a waste of effort." He trembled as I pointed towards his fallen cohort. "You will fetch a doctor for your friend, and then be on your way, never to return to this place. Am I understood?"
The young man in question nodded with such enthusiasm that he probably displaced several vertebrae. Without further words I turned heel and calmly exited the bathroom, back into the roar of the late-night festivities. I tucked my arm against my body, hiding the bloody punctures.
After all, I had a myth to uphold.
Well, my update schedule is but a ghost. This chapter took a long time to complete, and I haven't even started on the next one. Might be a month before it surfaces, a lot of huge events in my life are on the horizon, and will leave me with little free time.
Thanks to The DarIm and rand32085 for their help on the chapter. Any remaining mistakes are my fault. Also thanks to Gambit for his suggestions.
Praise, criticisms, or corrections? Feel free to drop me a review. If it's a signed one, I'll even reply.
Thanks for reading.