"Put yer play-purty away and git moving. I'm wantin' to make it in before sundown."
Donreal started and realized he had fallen asleep against a tree holding his mother's musicbox. Tucking it away, he struggled to get the cart harnessed to the loryth and properly adjusted before Corfo's feet followed his words.
When he was finished, Corfo double-checked the straps before declaring them ready to move.
"C'mon, then. Ye've got a good road ahead, so step lively, or night'll catch us out."
Donreal kept a hand on the loryth's bony collar-frill and concentrated on ignoring the tiny bell Corfo insisted on wearing, instead listening to the world around them. The road was rising gently, taking them out of the valley and into rolling hills. The day before, a guard for a merchant caravan told them the road led through several larger villages that prospered between Terkéz behind them and Surámlin still ahead.
Donreal knew Corfo was torn between making as much time as possible on the road and stopping in the villages to make as much money as possible. The first snows would be coming soon, making travel difficult and cold, but more money meant more drinking. Corfo was determined to make it to Surámlin and all that the big city had to offer; plenty of drink, enough work to keep them fed, and easy shelter.
The sun's warmth was beginning to fade from Donreal's face as they approached the village. He could smell woodfire ahead and thought of the inn the guard had mentioned. Solid walls and a good fire beat a pile of threadbare blankets under cold stars any night. Corfo stopped and Donreal could hear animals of some kind yelping farther ahead.
"Well, they've plenty of houses. Smoke means woodcutting. Ought to be some sharpening needed, at least. We'll make for that inn and see what work's to be had."
When they stopped again, Donreal could feel walls close by. From the spicy aromas of fresh bread and stew hanging thick in the evening air, he figured they were near the kitchen of the inn. He heard Corfo haggling over lodging prices with someone and silently congratulated himself. They finally came to an agreement and Corfo came back out, leading them to a barn, where they unhitched and parked the cart and stabled the loryth.
It seemed to Donreal that the inn was the focal point for the village men. As the sun set, the common-room filled quickly; coming in from tending their herds, men and older boys gathered
for their evening meal. Donreal listened to their greetings and boisterous conversations as they discussed an upcoming wedding, a new birth, rebuilding a burnt house, and worrying over sick oboka.
A dish was set on the table before him without comment, the server gone before he could speak. Carefully, his hands found a spoon, a chunk of bread, and a warm bowl. Eagerly, he set to work on it, discovering a thick stew. He ate quickly, listening to the conversations that continued between mouthfuls.
"I wish I could see them."
Donreal didn't realize he had spoken out loud until someone answered him. "They aren't really worth looking at."
The speaker was female, somewhere close to his own age, and smelled of spiced bread. He mentally chastised himself for the slip. She continued talking, giving him a chance to recover.
"Well, maybe someone new might like to look at them, but I've had to look at them my entire life. Nothing at all like the people around Surámlin. After two years, there was still so much
to see and do. Well, I'm not there any more. You're with the tinker, aren't you?"
Donreal nodded, thankful she hadn't asked if he were the tinker's son. That was an explanation he could do without giving for a while. "I'm Donreal. You've already figured out the rest of my usual introduction; 'I'm Donreal. I help the tinker.' So what do you do?" He already had a good idea what her answer would be. The room was filled with men and older boys. The village was probably too small to support a whorehouse, so that left "inn-keep's daughter" as the most likely answer.
"My father owns the inn. Oh, I'm sorry; my name's Saylinth. I have to get back to work. I'm a serving-girl during supper, you know. Maybe we can talk some more later."
Donreal listened to her move off into the crowded room. He marvelled at her self-confidence, although being able to speak easily to strangers would be a necessity here. He hoped the girl wouldn't be too busy. He needed someone he could talk to and get explanations from. For now, though, listening to gossip would have to do.
It wasn't long before she came back for his dishes.
"Saylinth, what's an oboka?"
She laughed. "You don't know?"
Donreal shook his head. "Never encountered one before; songbirds, lizards, cats of all kinds, and loryth, I'm familiar with." He thought briefly of the nights he had spent sleeping against a tough, pebbly hide and the countless miles he had walked with one hand on a bony collar-frill. "I'd guess it's some kind of animal, but that's about it."
Saylinth took one of his hands and closed it into a loose fist, holding it over the table. "Okay, this is its body. On a full-grown one, it might come up to the middle of your chest. It has two long, skinny legs underneath and two stunted wings on the sides." She took his other hand and bent the first two fingers slightly, moving them to curve upward from his other hand. "It's got a long neck and little head that sticks way out from its body."
Donreal dropped his "neck" hand and pulled his flute from his belt. Sticking it into his "body" hand, he asked, "More like this?"
She giggled. "Exactly. A big, dumb bird that can't fly."
"What do you use them for?"
"Did you like your stew?
"I don't . . . you mean that's what was in it?"
"Exactly. Um, do you play the flute? Well, I mean, I guess you do, since you have one, but I mean do you play with people? Some of the other men will be pulling out their instruments later tonight and I just thought ... maybe ..."
"I love to play, but I'm not sure I'll know any of the songs they do. I could learn, though, if they wouldn't mind teaching me."
She squeezed his arm quickly. "I'm sure they won't mind at all. Some of them are quite good, for never having really been taught, just from their parents."
Donreal thought about his own mother teaching him to play in their courtyard, surrounded by songbirds. "That's how I learned, so I promise not to hold it against them."
He listened as the sounds of eating gradually died away, leaving the murmur of voices. He heard Corfo laugh from far across the room, too loudly to be completely sober. He hoped the man wouldn't do or say anything to get them run out of the village before they had the chance to make some money.
The deep thumping of a skin-drum started somewhere nearby. Talk died quickly as other instruments were tuned. From their tones, Donreal guessed most were homemade, another skill passed down by parents.
The players broke into a lively tune, accompanied by the clapping, banging, and singing of the audience. Donreal hoped Saylinth and whoever might be helping her had managed to retrieve the crockery from the tables. If not, the men's exuberance would surely cost the inn-keep a small fortune in replacements.
He listened as the men played several songs, mentally picking out notes and rehearsing lyrics of the ones he knew. The music built to a crescendo and held for what seemed an impossibly long time before collapsing into silence. A single deep voice called out from the group, "Drink!"
Voices switched from lyrics back to conversation, almost as if they had never stopped.
The throb of the skin drum called everyone to silence again. Donreal supposed the musicians had quenched their thirsts and were ready to launch into another round of music.
"The lovely young Saylinth has informed me there be another musician among us, but who's keepin' silent."
He felt someone approach from his left. From the aroma, he decided it had to be Saylinth herself. She touched his elbow and bent to whisper in his ear. "Go on, Donreal. I'll lead you."
"Come on out here and play with us, lad."
Donreal got to his feet, clutching his flute in one hand, allowing Saylinth to guide him.
A new voice piped up from the direction of the musicians. "Lookee, not in from the road long eno' to eat and Say's got 'im in her clutches."
The room went up in gales of laughter and one of the musicians broke into the opening bars of a wedding march. Donreal felt his own face flush and guessed from the tightening of her grip that hers had, too.
Saylinth raised her voice to be heard over the din. "I'm leading him because you men are slobs and he's blind and can't see to steer his way through the mess ye've made of my floor!"
Donreal could hear the men in front of him shifting to make room for him, falling silent in embarrassment. As he sat, he turned his head in the direction of the one who had made the comment. "Should I feel special, or does she treat all her guests this way?"
That brought another round of laughter and a pat on the shoulder. "You just pick up where you can, right?" Donreal nodded his agreement. "A wood-pipe, eh? Haven't had anybody play one in ages. Ready?"
Donreal nodded and the men around him picked up their cue from the drummer, launching into a new round of music. They kept at it long enough someone added more wood to the fire. Gradually, their songs lost their wild edge until they ended with a song his mother had called "Sunset's Glow." She had often used it as a lullaby and it struck Donreal rather funny that a village full of grown men would all need a bedding-song. When they finished, one of the musicians tapped Donreal on the knee.
"Have ye got one that's your own? You're from different parts, so I was wonderin' if you'd play something we've not heard before."
Donreal thought about the man's request. Yes, there was one they had not heard, one his mother had written shortly before the sickness killed her, one they had been practicing together that few had ever heard. It was special to him, but he knew, somehow, that these people would understand. This was the time and place to let it be heard.
He put the flute to his lips and played. Alone, the notes of the flute poured through the air, filling the inn and bursting out into the village beyond. His audience sat in rapt silence, their emotions carried on the backs of the notes. Donreal poured his entire being into the song that he hadn't played in too many years. He held the final note and let it fade on its own into stillness. Finished, he tucked the flute into his belt and bowed his head, crying silently.
The drummer picked up his instrument and softly beat what could have been a military march. The villagers left, their conversations hushed. Someone laid a hand on Donreal's shoulder, drawing his attention outward.
"We met on the road today and I failed to introduce myself. I am Tarel. I fear I must confess that my initial opinion of your skills, though it was very high, has in fact fallen far short. Rarely have I experienced such a powerful performance. Thank you, sir."
Donreal heard the man move away with the others. Beside him, one of the musicians remained seated. "I don't usually agree wi' magicians, but that one's got it right. Will you be willing to play wi' us again tomorrow?"
"Not like I did just now."
"Wings above, no! We couldna handle it. I mean like we had been, playing wi' all of us."
Donreal thought about it for a few moments. "If I'm not imposing -"
"Far from it, lad. We've been without a wood-pipe since Red Loni got hit wi' wet-lung and walked on." He patted Donreal's knee and stood up. "In fact, iffen you didn't play, folks'd probably raise a stink. Ye'll be in demand tomorrow, alright. Like as not, we'll have the wimmenfolk and younguns crowding the windows. Good night, son - and to you, Saylinth."
Saylinth didn't speak for several seconds and when she did, it was in hushed tones. A temple voice, part of him thought. How appropriate.
"That was beautiful. I don't think I shall ever be able to forget it."
Donreal got to his feet. "Where's Corfo?"
"Sleeping by the fire. Well, passed out actually. You know, you don't look a thing like him."
He grimaced. "Good."
"In fact, you look more like one of us. He's too pale. Is he healthy?"
"Unfortunately. When did he go?"
"I'm not real sure, but it was quite a while ago. Too bad he missed your song."
Donreal shrugged. "He doesn't care much for my music. Never has. Let me guess, he paid just enough for a spot on the floor by the fire. I've got money for better than that, not that he knows." Saylinth took his coin and brought him a pile of bedding, helping him arrange it before bidding him a good night.
Stripping off his boots and tunic, he lay down on the pallet. As he drifted towards sleep, he thought about Saylinth's comment on his looks and wondered if his mother had grown up in a small village like this one. That might explain why he had been willing to play her last song. Maybe it was the bread; it had tasted just like hers.
That's it, he thought as sleep closed in. The bread. He fell asleep thinking of the smell of spiced bread.
"Donreal, there's someone who would like to hear you play."
Donreal smiled in the direction of Tarel's voice. "You mean there is someone in the village who hasn't heard me?" All morning, he had been sitting outside playing his flute, rather than running Corfo's grindstone, and it seemed every villager who wasn't in the fields tending oboka had found errands which took them past the inn. Saylinth's mother had said at breakfast the men-folk would have told their stories of the night before and she suggested he sit outside and play. Corfo had grumbled then about lost work until the inn-keep took him aside. Donreal didn't know what deal had been struck, but it at least shut Corfo up.
He chuckled. "Honiman says he doesn't have the time to spare to sit and listen to pretty music
when there's work to be done. Instead, he wanted to know if you would come play for him. It would pay, of course."
Donreal grimaced at that. He knew Corfo would take it and spend it all on drink. And Corfo would have to know where he was and know it was for money if Donreal were to do it.
"Hold out your hand."
When Donreal did, the man pressed a coin into his palm.
"That one is for you. This other one is for the tinker."
Donreal nodded slowly and tucked the coin away. Corfo beat him when he caught these extra coins, but that didn't happen often.
"Now, let's pay your companion for your services and be off to see Honiman."
Donreal followed Tarel through the village, listening avidly as the man described the villagers' houses and small garden plots, launching off on the names and uses of every plant he saw growing.
"As you have no doubt noticed, I have spent much time learning; so much that sometimes I think I have not spent enough time actually experiencing. That's why I am here, by the way.
Honiman has a library containing many books that can be found nowhere else. He was once considered a great wizard. Ah, here we are."
Tarel showed him inside and called out their arrival.
The voice that answered reminded Donreal of a professional singer he had once met. The tone was controlled and well-modulated as one might expect from years of voice lessons and disciplined use. Only a slight quaver betrayed the man's age.
"You've brought him, good. Here, Tarel, bring him in here and sit him down. Now, boy, just play anything you like. I'm paying you to play for the rest of the day. I'm old, you see, almost dead actually, will be soon. No family left here, have to hire someone to play my k'dhalla for me. Tradition, you know. Ought to observe tradition. Still, you're the best I've got. Well, you going to play or just warm my furniture?"
Donreal hastily put his flute to his lips and played. It was one of the earlier ones from last night, the lyrics quite explicit and suggestive. The old man wandered off, still talking.
"He does that. He'll start talking to himself, just rambling, saying whatever pops into his head. And he mumbles, too."
Donreal came to the end of the song and put his flute down. "What was he talking about, this kadalla thing?"
"Go ahead and play while I explain it, or he'll be back in here after us. The best I can say is it's a series of musical pieces to be played over a corpse. Old Honiman swears that if he dies without the k'dhalla being performed, his spirit might not move on, being stuck somewhere between this world and the next. That's about all I understand of it."
Donreal nodded in time with his melody. His mother had mentioned something like that once. Death, though, was not something mothers normally discussed with boys barely seven years old. Still, she had taught him some songs like Tarel had described, but they were designed to be played on an unaccompanied flute. Perhaps they would be enough to satisfy the old man.
He played for the rest of the day, stopping to eat lunch with the two men and taking an occasional break to stretch his fingers and face. Donreal eventually heard Honiman stop in the doorway, listening to him.
"You can quit playing. It's getting close to time for you to go on to supper. Do you know anything about the k'dhalla?"
"I don't know. Tarel explained it to me and I think my mother taught me some songs similar to it. They aren't as intricate as how he explained the k'dhalla, though. She died when I was seven, so there's a lot she didn't get to teach me."
Donreal heard Honiman sit down near-by. "Here I find myself trying to pour years of lessons into an abused skull. The k'dhalla is a ceremony traditionally performed by members of one's own family. It is a progression of musical pieces, unique to each family, intended to be the last thing a dying person hears as he enters the afterlife. A k'dhalla is typically very intricate, requiring several different instruments. Unfortunately, my family is too scattered and untrained to perform
it, so I must rely on the villagers. Now, though, you'll be needing to head for supper. You ought not have to listen to an old man's grumblings."
Donreal was rubbing the musicbox in his belt pouch, thinking about the funeral song he had never gotten to play. He started to get up and as he rose, his flute caught on the chair and slipped from his fingers, clattering to the floor. As he bent over to pick it up, the tiny music box tumbled out.
"Here, what is that?"
He rubbed his fingers over it, checking for damage. "It's all I have left of my mother. It used to play one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Something happened to it, though, and it doesn't work anymore."
"May I see it? Interesting. It looks very similar to one my neice had many years ago. Very fond of it, she was." His voice had a sadness to it that Donreal knew very well.
"Yes. She's dead now, and I'll be joining her soon enough. Before you leave, can you play the song from the musicbox? Perhaps it is one she would have liked."
Donreal thought about his secret practices, working to get the music just right, and the joy on his mother's face when he first played it for her.
"It's been a long time. Corfo doesn't let me play it."
"May I hear it?"
Donreal lifted the flute to his lips and paused. The song was a light, happy one, perhaps best suited to other times. But if Honiman were dying, he would be wanting to remember better days. Donreal took a deep breath and began.
Saylinth met him and Tarel at the door. Supper was still cooking in the pots and the men had yet to return from the hillsides, leaving the common-room empty. Tarel excused himself and Donreal heard the man move toward the kitchen. When she had guided him to a table, he asked her to sit down for a minute.
"Saylinth, what do you know about old Honiman?"
"Not much. He used to be some kind of important wizard before he came here. Now he's kind of the village priest and helps out occasionally with what little magic he has left. When Honiman dies, Kesasha will no longer have anyone to carry on the work he does."
"What does he do?"
"He's a little bit of a priest, performing weddings and birthings, and he uses what magics he still commands to keep life balanced and worth living here. He cures plant blights, heals the sick and wounded among people as well as animals, and offers advice."
"He asked me to play his k'dhalla for him. Said his time was up."
Saylinth was silent for a few moments. "He's been saying that for a long time."
"Tarel agrees. Says Honiman's flame is dimming." It was Donreal's turn to be silent. He thought about the surprised exclaimation of the old man after he finished the song from the music box, how he had said it was the very song his neice had loved.
"What is it?"
Donreal shook his head and gave a slight snort. "I thought when my mother died, I had lost all my family. I thought Corfo was the only person willing to take care of me."
"Honiman seems to think I might be his nephew. His neice lived in the same town we did and she died during the Plague-time, just like my mother. He didn't know she had a son, though.
"Do you remember her?"
He shrugged. "Some. She's been dead ten years."
"What was she like?"
"She taught me music. We would sit outside and watch cloudcats and birds in our courtyard, and I would get distracted, listening to their singing. Sometimes I would try to copy them on my flute. I remember her bread, it was just like the bread here. It seems like every few days she was baking something. We had plenty of guests, too. People from the Academy came by frequently to talk. Sometimes we would play for them, me on the flute and my mother on any of a number of instruments. She was beautiful, too. I used to pretend she was a princess forced into exile by a conquering army. I would dream of retaking our country and putting her back on the throne. After she died, I tried to tell myself that she was really only visiting her old country. Someday she would come back and take me away to live with her. Court wizards would fix my eyes and we would live together again, happy forever."
"How did you end up with Corfo?"
"She had married him, not long before she died. He took me with him when he left, said there were too many memories there for him, and since I didn't have any other family to look after me, he would."
"Do you remember your real father?"
Donreal put his head on his hands, trying to make sense out of the few scattered fragments of memory he had of his father. Finally, he shook his head.
"Not really. Mother said he died when I was very little. She never talked about him much."
"How did she die?"
"I don't remember what it was called. Some disease that killed a lot of people. I had it, too, but all it did to me was take my eyes. Corfo told me my entire family had died from it, although after today, I wonder how true that was."
Saylinth was quiet for some time before she spoke again.
"There might be a way for you to get your sight back."
"Oh, you know a powerful wizard who owes you a favor?"
"I'm not talking about a human. Our legends tell of great Dragon-spirits who shaped the world and everything on it and have watched over humans since the beginning of time. They protect us and in exchange, we worship them and make offerings to them. There are even stories of Dragon-spirits doing favors for individuals under their protection. There is supposed to be a certain place to go and rituals to perform that call his attention."
Donreal's laugh was tainted with bitterness. "And I've heard tales about many other strange and wonderful things. They're all just bedding stories for children."
"Well, fine! I was just trying to help you." Her chair scraped across the floor as she got up.
"Saylinth, wait." If she heard him over the noise in the room, she gave no indication. Donreal sank back into his own seat as Moraina, the eldest sister, set food down before him with a chuckle.
"Don't worry, lad. She'll be right in a bit. For now, you'd best eat. I 'spect you'll be gettin' a work-out of your playing later on."
Donreal nodded glumly and began picking at his food. It wasn't fair, he thought. He couldn't chase her down and apologize quietly and she knew it. He would not just shout it out where everyone would hear, and he suspected she knew that, too. He would just have to wait and take whatever opportunity came up. Surely she couldn't avoid him forever.
He knew what Saylinth had been talking about. When he was small, his mother had told him stories about the Dragon-Lords and how they had saved many humans from being killed by hiding them in the shells of their eggs and making them look unhatched. When Iayai, the Creator of Light, destroyed all life on the world and gave it to the Dragons along with the powers of god-hood, He had not seen the humans still hidden in the eggs. After the Dragon-Lords had remade the world to suit them, they brought the humans out to live in it and take care of it. They made few demands on the humans, only that they live in peace and remember those who had protected them.
He imagined he could still feel the bruises Corfo had given him when, as a boy, he had asked why they couldn't ask one of the Dragon-Lords to give him his sight back. Corfo had beaten him and told him to put that nonsense out of his head. It was all make-believe, Corfo had said. Of course, Corfo had also said Donreal had no family left.
He had just finished his meal when someone sat down at his table. "I figured I could come over to you easier." The musician began a steady pulse on his drum. Donreal quickly drained his mug and pulled out his flute. While the others were gathering around, he played a couple of bars from the song that Saylinth had so enjoyed the night before. He hoped she would hear it and understand it to be an attempt at an apology.
Those were all he had time for before the musicians were ready to play. Like last night, they started with music wild and fast. In no time, the men were singing along and dancing vigorously to the music. When the man called, "Drink!" Donreal found himself almost panting. He gulped eagerly at the mug that was put in his hand, holding it out for a refill.
"Drinks like a man, 'e does."
"Bet he holds it better than the tinker."
Donreal realized with a start the two men were talking about him. Corfo wouldn't last much longer, he was sure. Right now, the tinker was the least of his worries. He was in good company who appreciated that things he could do well. The drummer started up again and everyone rushed to finish their drinks.
As they played on, each song was slower and calmer than the one before. At the end of one, someone touched him on the arm. "Alright, lad. Ye've travelled a fair bit, and I'd reckon ye've picked up a goodly number of songs. We'd be obliged if ye'd share some more wi' us."
Donreal nodded and thought through songs he knew, trying to find ones the musicians weren't likely to be familiar with. As he played, several of the musicians began improvising along with him. At the end of one song, Donreal recognized a pattern someone added, one similar to something he had played for Honiman earlier. Without thinking, his fingers began playing the "The Dragon Lady's Love."
Within seconds, the flute was snatched from his hands as Corfo - reeking of ale and fear - shoved him against the wall and backhanded him.
"Never again, I said. Yer not to be playin' that song."
Donreal heard his flute hit the wooden floor and held his breath. When Corfo went back to his ale, he could retrieve it and they could try to recapture the mood the tinker had interrupted. He heard Corfo turn to go - and heard cloth stretch as a leg was lifted higher than normal.
A heavy boot slammed to the floor, slowing just slightly as a fragile dried reed got in its way.
Donreal sat in the kitchen, eating rolls and berry jam at the urging of Saylinth's mother as she made the bread for the day. She had assured him, before he had even asked, that Saylinth would be back soon, having been sent out on "official business."
As he ate, he thought about Saylinth's story, wondering if he could believe it. Saylinth certainly believed it. She had brought him a bundle of candles, windchimes, and chalk last night that she had been saving to use for herself. He had suspected it to be merely an attempt to cheer him up, but as the anger and the hunger to belong ate deeper into him, the chance to regain his sight and be free of his dependence on Corfo encouraged his belief in her story. It sounded so much like stories his mother used to tell.
His reverie was broken by Saylinth's entrance and accompanying bustle as various packages were put away. Her official business done, she sat down at the table with him. He could tell she was excited about something.
"Donreal, I found something I want you to see - I mean -"
"What is it, Saylinth?"
"It will cheer you up, you'll see."
"The only thing that could do that is a new flute."
"I know, now come on!"
Donreal heard her clap a hand over her mouth.
"So where have you found a flute?"
"That peddler that came in last night has one. It's gorgeous, Donreal! You'll love it."
He was beginning to be intrigued, in spite of his anger at Corfo. "All right, we'll go examine this flute. How much does he want?"
Her voice sounded to him like she had ducked her head to look at the floor. "I forgot to ask. It was so pretty, I hurried back to get you before someone bought it."
As they left the inn, Donreal pulled his tattered cloak tight and thought they would have to find a place to winter soon. The morning wind was noticeably cooler than it had been last week and snows would surely be a reality before long.
He touched his hidden pouch as Saylinth led him to the peddler's cart. It was probably a cheap toy for children, not something to really make music on, or - worse - far too expensive for what he had managed to keep hidden. Still, she was excited and wanted him to try it out.
"Here. Here it is."
She pressed it into his hands, and he ran his fingers lightly over its surface. Made from the bone of some animal, it lay warm against his skin, his fingers almost tingling from it. The surface was carved in a pattern of some kind, which had been filled in with metal. He raised it to his lips and blew gently. The note that emerged was clear and sharp.
"It sounds so ... rich. It's marvelous!"
"That it is, lass. Always knew it was a good 'un, but me hands aren't shaped for it. Been lookin' for it a good home. Instrument needs a musician to take care of it, not some wore-out old peddler."
Donreal's fingers played along its surface, picking out silent melodies while the peddler talked. It was carefully made, no doubt, and had a well-defined sound. "How much?"
The sum named by the peddler would use up most of what Donreal had saved, but it was far less than the flute was actually worth. If Corfo ever saw it, he would undoubtedly want to know where it had come from, so a story would have to be made up. Still, it was a good instrument and he needed one.
"Done." He handed over the money and rubbed the flute once more before concealing it in his cloak. Saylinth took him by the arm and led him back toward the inn.
"See, I told you. Isn't it beautiful? And it sounds almost magical, like it could create a whole new world."
"But not a word of this to Corfo. He'll only think of how much drink that money could have bought, even though he has no claim to it."
Tarel was waiting for them when they reached the inn. "I explained to Honiman what happened last night. He sends his regrets -"
Donreal pulled the man close and quietly explained what they had just done. "So, all that remains is to find a way for me to leave without Corfo knowing I have another flute."
"True. He will be thinking you can't do any playing."
"Wait. Doesn't Honiman have several instruments?"
Donreal grinned at the sound of Saylinth's voice. "Yes, I'm quite sure I heard him grumbling yesterday about how they gathered dust."
Tarel caught on to the spirit of things. "And one of them is a flute. He'll be wanting you to play on it, I'm sure. Let me speak with Corfo, and we'll be off."
"I told Tarel to deliver my regrets. Did he forget or have you come to collect them in person?"
"I've come to play for you, Uncle."
"On what? I understand that lout you persist in traveling with managed to turn your flute into toothpicks."
"The idea is to play on the one from your collection of instruments."
"But I don't have any such collection."
"Corfo doesn't know that." Donreal pulled the flute from its place inside his cloak and explained what they had done. Once he was seated and playing, Tarel brought out a pitcher of katanga-juice, goblets, and a plate of breadcakes. He played until lunch, when Tarel brought out more food.
"Tell me about your niece."
Honiman started talking around a mouthful of food. "Headstrong. Independent-minded." He swallowed. "Come to think of it, they said the same things about me when I was her age. She was very talented at music. That was the main reason her father sent her to the Academy in Paraman, to study music. Turns out she had great potential, too, as a magess. While she was at the Academy, she turned more than a few heads with her grasp of both subjects. That's where she met her first husband, too."
"What was he like?" That might have been my father, he thought to himself.
"I only met him once, so I can't say much about him. He was killed during a riot. Quite the political agitator, he was. Unfortunately, it got him in the end.
"But my niece, ah, one of the gentlest souls I've ever known. She would likely have followed fairly closely in my footsteps had she survived the plague. She had remarried just before the plague ravaged Paraman and he left town rather quickly and with a large sum of money after selling their house to one of her cousins."
Donreal shook his head slowly, thinking. So Corfo may have lied about more than just an uncle. He said the family was completely wiped out and that I was the only one left.
"Bah! All this dying business is depressing. Play something to cheer us up, lad."
Donreal hastily swallowed his last bite of food and fumbled his way through the first couple of songs, until his training took over and left his mind free to ponder what had been said without interrupting the music.
After a while, Tarel talked to him while he played, more about magic as he had yesterday, but also about Honiman. As Honiman's heir, Tarel told him, Donreal would inherit the old man's estate. Donreal wondered privately what good that would do him. He would have to somehow be quit of Corfo. If Corfo knew he was to inherit anything, Corfo would sell it and keep the money for himself. If he were free from Corfo, perhaps he could find a way to get back to Paraman. Tarel spoke again, almost as if he were capable of reading Donreal's mind.
"Magical aptitude runs strongly in your family. You should consider taking the admission exams for the Academy in Paraman."
"You really think he is my uncle?"
Tarel was silet for a few moments before answering. "I can see things that neither of you can. Yes, I think you are his nephew."
"Corfo would never give me up, I'm worth too much to him at the grinding-wheel. Besides that, I'm blind. How am I to go to your academy if I can't see the road to follow?"
Tarel said, "Sometimes the cripple is so only in his mind."
"Can magic give me my sight back?"
"Perhaps. Many things are possible through magic. Before you ask, the answer is no. I, myself, do not know how to give you your sight back. It is something I just never studied."
"Can magic get me away from Corfo?"
"Many things can get you away from him. You could get you away from him."
"How can I do that when I can't see?"
"If you were to think about it, many options would present themselves. Yes, you would need help. I would imagine after last night, anyone in the village would help you, not just Saylinth.
Friends are there to lean on and to help you, but you have to let them help. You can't do everything yourself, even when there is nothing wrong with you. Now, though, it's time to get you back to the inn."
When he got back to the inn for supper, he told Saylinth what he had been worrying about.
"You could run away."
"I can't see."
"Not right now, you can't. Remember what I told you about Kesasha's protector?"
He nodded slowly. "I'm willing to try."
"Tonight, then. The sooner, the better. I'll come for you after everyone's asleep."
After supper, the musicians began gathering around Donreal's table, getting ready to play. Donreal explained what had happened to the drummer. "So, if he sees it, he'll want to know where I got it. If he finds out I've been putting away money, well, he'll just think about how much drink that money could have bought him."
"Right, ye've borrowed mine, then. I'll square it wi' the others, so's no odd stories get out." Donreal gave a relieved sigh. At least one of his problems was solved.
Saylinth woke him as she had promised. Donreal gathered up the bundle they had prepared earlier and they left the inn through the kitchen door. Silently, they hurried through the streets of the village, Saylinth holding tightly to Donreal's hand.
She let him know when they had left the village. "We'll be going up a hill in a bit. The shrine is on top -- room for Lord Kesasha to land."
"He's named after the village?"
She laughed softly. "No, silly. The village is named for him. When the village was first settled, He appeared to the people, declaring them under His protection. In return, they named the village after Him."
"So now He just gives people whatever they ask for? What does He get out of it?"
Saylinth was quiet for a few moments before admitting she didn't know. After that, they walked the rest of the way in silence.
She helped him set up the things he had brought. After that, she left him alone, facing, she said, the shrine the original settlers had erected to their protector.
Donreal lowered himself to his knees and bowed toward the shrine. "Hear my petition, Lord Kesasha. Hear my plea and grant me your aid." At this point, Saylinth had said the petitioner was supposed to offer something of value. Sitting up, he slowly pulled out his new flute and raised it to his lips and began to play. He played everything he could think of, until there was only one song left, the one Corfo hated, the one from his mother's musicbox. When he had finished it, a deep rasping voice spoke from somewhere ahead of him.
"Did you know that song was written especially for my wife?"
Donreal bowed toward the speaker. "No, Lord, I did not."
"I am wondering, why are you here?"
Here was the chance he had longed for. Lord Kesasha could restore his sight with no more that a thought. Besides, it wasn't like he was asking to be made rich, just to see. Surely a healing could be considered a noble request.
Except that being able to see wouldn't help him play for Honiman's wake.
"Is it true, what they say in the village below? If the k'dhalla is not performed for one who dies, will his spirit be unable to enter the afterlife?"
He hoped the deep rumbling in front of him was merely laughter.
"Little one, what you call the afterlife is of concern only to those who are no longer living."
"It is of concern to me. Honiman is dying and believes if the k'dhalla is not performed properly, his soul will be lost between this world and the next."
There was no sound for some time, other than the soft hissing of breath from the Dragon-Lord.
"I see. So you want this answer in order to either show Honiman, uncle of your mother, that his fears are groundless, that his spirit will travel safely into its afterlife regardless of the performance of the k'dhalla, or to know that, alone, you are not equal to the task asked of you, condemning yourself to wonder if his journey was successful or if you allowed him to become lost."
Donreal wished the Dragon-Lord hadn't been quite so succinct and accurate.
"Your answer is this: even in a lie, there is a grain of truth."
Donreal considered that for a moment before replying.
"He has no family to perform his k'dhalla according to tradition but me, but I can't possibly perform it alone."
"So now you wish him to change his mind and allow others to play also?"
"No! I want to be able to play for him. I want his family to honor him properly."
"And what do you offer in return for this favor?"
Donreal bowed his head as tears streamed down his face. "I have nothing other than my music."
He wished he could see the dragon to have some clue as to what he was thinking. Instead, he sat there in silence, waiting for Kesasha to speak, wondering what would be said. Surely the dragon couldn't care much for the troubles of mortals. This had all been useless and he would have to perform for Honiman with only his own meager skills. Perhaps he would be satisfied.
"Honiman has served me well for many years. Would you be willing to give yourself up for the good of others?"
Donreal swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. "Lord, how can I serve You when I can't even see to guide myself?"
"Need you see to play the k'dhalla for your uncle? Or in the spring, as the crops are being planted and your voice is needed to recall the ancient words of blessing, would your eyes be of any use? Must you see me to speak to me?"
"No, my eyes have no place in any of that. But how am I to leave Corfo?"
A sound like near-by thunder rumbled forth from Kesasha. "He is malpanj. He has no part of the life here, and he shall be taken care of. No, youngling, I shall not kill him, though his heart convicts him. No, there are more subtle ways to deal with problems. Do you accept? Will you enter the place of your uncle here as his spirit is released?"
Donreal thought of the feeling of belonging he had felt the first night they had spent in the village, how it had reminded him of his life before the plague took his mother. Now he had the chance to make it permanent. It would cost him his whole life, spending it here in one place, rather than travelling as he had become accustomed to. Was it worth it?
"Yes. I will serve You in my uncle's place, in exchange for my being able to perform his k'dhalla."
"Very well. Tell Honiman My wings shall carry him home. He has served Me well and I shall grant your request. Hang your windchimes in the house when the time comes for you observe his k'dhalla. Nothing, and no one, else will be needed."
Donreal woke to someone shaking his foot. "Donreal, are you all right?"
He sat up and turned toward Saylinth. "I think so." He started gathering up the materials he had brought with him, especially careful of the windchimes.
"You know what I mean."
"My request was granted."
"So I guess me waiting on you was pretty pointless."
"I still can't see."
"But I thought you said -"
She thought about that long enough for him to finish his clean-up. "If you got your request and you still can't see, what did you ask for?"
Donreal thought for a moment about just what he had asked for. "I think whatever I asked for, I got a home instead."