Slipping quietly into the crowded Port of Call Tavern, she glanced around looking for any empty tables… preferably in a corner. In all the times she’d visited Suzail, she’d never found one completely empty, but she kept hoping anyway. As she continued to watch for a vacancy, she made her way over to Vice, the Inn Keeper, asking if he had any rooms available. She gladly paid him for it and a meal when he said he had one just room left. Just as she was thinking she’d have to settle for sharing a table with a group of strangers – as usual – the unusual happened: one of the smaller tables was vacated by 4 Dwarves who had finished their meal. Before anyone else noticed the vacancy, she quickly made her way over, casually dropping her bedroll and travel pack onto one of the empty chairs. Seating herself next to them, she then carefully laid a long, slim case on the tabletop. After asking Jessy for a tankard of ale and a bowl of the stew being served, she turned her attention back to her pack. Opening it, she carefully extracted a cloth bag that held her prized possession: a battered and worn looking lute. Checking it over carefully, she looked for any signs of possible damage from the journey.
Tightening the strings slightly, she ran her fingers lightly over the front surface, feeling for any splintering or cracking. Sighing with relief on finding none there, she turned the instrument over and examined the back with equal care. Other than the all-to-familiar scratch along the right side, it too was undamaged. Slowly letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, she thought to herself that things could have been so different. It had been a nasty fall, after all, and she had landed directly on top of the pack. Fortunately, neither she nor the lute had sustained any permanent damage; her ribs – and her pride – were somewhat bruised, but not broken. Sending up a silent prayer of gratitude, she lightly traced the protective runes etched into the neck of the lute, her fingertips tingling from the power emanating from them. Funny how the tingling only occurred when she ran her fingers over the runes; it never seemed to happen when she held the instrument normally, or even when she played it…
Looking for what must have been the thousandth time at the scratch that ran along the right side of the lute’s back, she wondered anew how it could have happened. The runes that had protected the instrument from the impact of her fall must surely have been capable of preventing something as trivial as a scratch. The runes had been etched into the lute generations ago, possibly even when the lute was new, while the scratch had the appearance of being somewhat more recent. “Somewhat” being a rather subjective determination, since even her Grandparents couldn’t remember a time when both the runes and the scratch had not been present.
Smiling at Jessy as she brought over her meal, she slid a few copper coins in her direction, and began eating. As she ate, she wondered for about the hundredth time why it was people always seemed to think that all Bards travelled all the time. She’d met plenty of Bards in her own travels who had stopped in a town or village they liked so much, they decided to make it home, and they’d still continued to play their music, sing their songs, and tell their tales. The only reasons she continued to travel were, everyone seemed to “expect” it, and her home back in Trinity had been destroyed during the Planar Collapse. She supposed Suzail was nice enough, but she missed the familiar surroundings of her West Gate neighborhood. To think, her home had been just across the courtyard from the now-famous Cata! As she ate, her mind continued to play back memories of home, and she wondered if Trinity would ever be rebuilt. When her meal was finished, she gently pushed the empty bowl toward the edge of the table, and picked up the lute once more.
Strumming lightly, she played softly so the sound wouldn’t disturb those around her; she was only interested in verifying that the sound was still as mellow and true as it had always been. It might not have looked it to a casual observer, but this lute was more valuable to her than anything the Court Musicians played for King Irvel of Suzail. Even the shiny new flute – her birthday gift from her parents, just before she’d left on this journey – couldn’t hold a candle to the tired-looking lute. When her mother had handed it to her on her 100th birthday several years before, her eyes had nearly popped from her head. She remembered all the stories she’d heard growing up, about how this same lute had been passed from mother to daughter over the span of many generations, but she had never dreamed that it would be she, rather than her older sister, who actually received it.
As she continued to softly strum, she found herself playing favorite songs from home; she became so lost in her music, she never noticed when Jessy hunched down on the floor nearby, totally entranced by the melody. Nor did she notice when some of the other patrons, taking notice of the idle Bar Maid, began to quiet themselves to hear the tunes she played. When she finished the song she’d been playing, she was completely startled to hear the applause from the nearby tables.
“Give us another, lass.”
“Aye, one like that last.”
“Nay, a more spirited tune… a warrior’s tale!”
A few more voices were heard calling out requests, but all abruptly stopped when they saw Vice stalking toward his wayward server. Leaning down to where Jessy was sitting, sparks flying from his remaining eye, he hissed quietly at her,
“I can always hire another Bar Maid if the job is too much for you to handle, Jessy.” He raised one hand threateningly, as if about to strike her, but she scrambled up quickly and rushed back to her duties.
The other patrons returned to their meals and conversations, occasionally glancing over toward her table, watching Vice warily. After watching Jessy for a few moments Vice turned toward her, the recent anger replaced by a mix of concern, surprise and cautious hope etched on his face.
“Mind if I join you a moment?” he asked quietly.
Smiling hesitantly, she gestured toward the empty seat across from her, and gently laid her lute on the table while he got settled.
“Is there a problem with my playing?” she asked him nervously.
Giving a snorting chuckle, he replied “No, only in distracting my employees from their duties. I wanted to ask a favor of you, if I might, though.”
Her smile changed to a look of confusion, as she carefully responded, “Well, if it’s something I’m able to do, I’d be happy to help.”
A look of relief passed over his face.
“Aye, I’m sure of that, after what I just heard. You see, I’ve been waiting for a group of musicians I hired some time back to arrive, but they’re several weeks overdue. I had announced shortly after hiring them that they would be here, and now, folks are getting restless. They’ve already heard everything the local Bards play, and are beginning to question if the promised musicians even exist.”
“I think I’m beginning to see where this is going.” She relaxed and grinned as she continued, “You’d like me to entertain the crowd, yes?”
Smiling now, he nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind? I’ll gladly trade you the price of your room and breakfast in the morning for your help.”
Returning his smile, she nodded and held out her hand, “It’s a deal. I won’t guarantee how long I’ll last, as it’s been a long journey for me, but I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I ask, lass. You have my thanks.” Reaching across the table, he clasped her hand in a firm grip, then handed her the coins she had paid for her room and meal with. He started to get up then turned back to her, confusion clearly showing in his face, “In all the times you’ve been here, why didn’t you ever mention you could play? And, that you could play so well?”
Chuckling softly, she winked and said “You never asked… and, I was afraid you’d put me to work entertaining your guests.” She slid part of the coins back across the table toward him “You gave me too much back. You said the room and breakfast, so this is for the meal I just ate.”
Waving one hand dismissively and smiling, he said “Consider it a bonus. Feel free to use the stage, so everyone will be able to hear you.”
“Where should I put my gear? It’s rather crowded in here tonight.” She glanced around the room as she slipped the coins into her pack.
“I’ll take it up to your room for you.”
“Thanks! Give me a minute to put everything together for you.” She reached for the flute case and tucked it carefully into the pack, quickly tying her bedroll into place on the top of the pack. “Oh! Which room are you putting me in?”
“Room 2, up the stairs, the door on the left.” he answered.
Smiling her appreciation, she picked up the lute and quietly strummed a few bars of her favorite song, an Elven ballad she’d heard her mother play countless times since she was an infant. It just didn’t seem a proper performance if she didn’t start out playing it as her warm-up before facing an audience. After she finished the opening bars, she nodded with satisfaction and headed for the stage, strumming her lute more firmly as she walked. By the time she reached center stage, she had regained the attention of the still growing crowd. She finished with a flourish, and the crowd applauded with appreciation. Looking around the stage, she walked over to the tall stool sitting in a back corner, bringing it to the center and settling onto it while the applause continued. A few moments later, she strummed a loud chord to get the attention of her audience.
“I thank you all for your kindness. While I hadn’t actually planned any performance for the night, I’ll see if I can’t find a little something for everyone, aye?” Scattered chuckles and a smattering of applause answered her question.
Strumming another quick chord to check that the instrument was indeed in tune, she made a minor adjustment to one string then launched into a rousing ballad. There was no lack of music to choose from, as she’d grown up hearing a variety of Sembian songs; she even knew a few tunes from more distant regions, plus all of the Elven music her mother and grandmother had played all her life. From what Vice had told her earlier, this crowd wanted to hear something they weren’t already familiar to the point of boredom with. Keeping that in mind, she chose an exotic-sounding but lively tune from Waterdeep as her next selection and by the time she finished, the entire Port of Call erupted in cheers. Smiling wide, and bowing her head in acknowledgement, she began playing song after song as the audience called out requests. As weariness from her journey began to catch up to her, she played one final tune… a soft, gentle melody designed to soothe the crowd, and subtly urge them to allow her to stop and get the rest she needed. Smiling and bowing stiffly due to her now aching ribs, she thanked her audience one last time and headed for her room.
Aging may be mandatory, but growing old is optional!