“Can you stop doing that, please?”
“Hmmm?” Zemira followed Willa’s gaze to her fingers, lightly scraping against the table. “Oh. Sorry.”
“You’ve been fidgeting all evening, what’s the matter?”
“I miss my lute.”
“It’s on your back.”
“I miss playing my lute.”
Willa took a deep swig from the tankard in front of her. Wiping the froth from her chin, she said, “You shouldn’t charge so much. The king’s putting up the taxes again next week.”
Zemira slumped in her seat. “Damn war. I’ll never get hired again.”
Willa bit her lip. “What about…” She trailed off.
Zemira looked up. “What about what?”
Willa looked over Zemira’s shoulder at Kase, the landlord, cleaning a glass behind the bar.
“You could play here. You’d have a pretty big audience.”
Zemira regarded the tavern: every table was surrounded, every seat occupied with a drinking patron.
“If they can afford to drink, they can afford to toss you a coin.”
Zemira bit her lip. She twisted her neck to look over at Kase, now serving two older men with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders.
“I still can’t write anything, though.”
“You don’t need Aria to write.”
Zemira turned to Willa. “No one wants to listen to a song they can’t sing along to.”
“So you won’t have any new material. Who’s to say anyone will be sober enough to tell?”
Zemira gasped. “I don’t want to play for the sake of it, Willa. I want the music to be appreciated.”
Willa glanced down at Zemira’s waist: at the unusually light coin purse hanging from her belt. “You sure you can afford pride right now, Zemira?”
Zemira looked into her tankard: the ale swirled inside, a dark whirlpool distorting her reflection.
She downed the lot. “Fine,” she grumbled, and made to stand.
“Next round on you?” Willa asked with a grin, holding out her empty tankard to Zemira.
Zemira looked at the proffered tankard then at Willa. Neither of them moved for a moment, then Zemira scowled and took the tankard from Willa.
“Thank you!” Willa called after her in a sickly-sweet voice as she took both the tankards up to the bar.
Kase had finished with the elderly gentlemen when Zemira reached the bar: they were now swaying on their bar stools, still holding each other by the shoulders, and slurring their way through one of the town’s folk songs.
Zemira put the tankards on the bar top. “Another round, please, Kase.”
Kase obliged without a word, refilling the tankards from kegs sitting just behind the bar, out of view.
While Kase worked, Zemira unhooked her coin purse and pulled open its drawstring. Sitting sadly in the bottom of the fabric bag were two coins, occasionally bumping into one another with an unsatisfying single metallic clink. Zemira emptied them out onto the bar and scrunched her coin purse into a ball which she shoved in her pocket.
Kase put the refilled tankards on the bar and swiped the coins, shoving them in the pocket of his breeches.
“Cheers,” Zemira nodded, grabbing the tankards. She made to go back to Willa, when one of the two elderly gentlemen called out to her.
His smile lopsided, his eyes glazed, he was half hanging off his friend as he turned to face her. “Hey, y-you’ve got a… thing,” he mumbled, pointing a limp finger over Zemira’s shoulder.
The man clicked his fingers and gave Zemira an exaggerated nod. “That’s the one! You know Where the Water Meets the Sea?”
Zemira narrowed her eyes. “Yeah.”
The gentleman nudged his friend who swivelled around on his own bar stool. Then the two men began singing again, at the top of their lungs, heads thrown back and eyes closed. Their efforts were clumsy and they stumbled over some of the words but they knew every single one.
Zemira watched, bemused, holding her and Willa’s ales as the gentlemen made their way through both verses of Where the Water Meets the Sea then finished, cackling to each other and reaching for their drinks again.
Zemira turned to Kase. “You in need of a musician here? Someone to entertain the patrons?”
Kase looked up from the glass he was cleaning. “Music?” He looked around the tavern for a good few seconds. “Alright. You keep your own gatherings and I give you three free drinks a night. Sound good?”
Zemira nodded. “Cheers.”
Kase had already turned his attention back to the dirty tankard.
Zemira took her and Willa’s drinks back to the table. “I got a gig,” she said, and Willa smiled.
Zemira set up shop in the tavern the next evening. The place was packed once again: the two elderly gentlemen from the night before were at the bar again, more sober than they had been the night before but they were working on it.
Zemira took a bar stool and placed it near the middle of the tavern, somewhere her voice would reach as far as possible. Willa sat at the table nearest to Zemira’s stool.
Then, with her lute resting on her knee and a cap on the floor in front of her and Willa giving her an encouraging smile, Zemira began to play.
Her music was drowned out at first, the tavern and its patrons noisy as they were wont to be. But, like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond, quiet flowed in all directions from Zemira’s bar stool. Soon, she was the only thing making any noise at all.
Her first song passed and no one moved: they stayed in their seats, turned to Zemira, listening but not moving any closer.
When she struck the final chord on her lute, Willa tossed a coin into Zemira’s hat, and then others began to follow suit.
Zemira played for hours that first night, took Kase up on his three free drinks, then took her not inconsiderable earnings home.
As they left, Willa clapped Zemira on the back. “See? People need hope these days, and the best ways to find it in this town are in drink and in music.”
Zemira began playing at the tavern regularly. She wasn’t earning a lot, but it was enough to get by. A month into her tenure, Zemira’s hat was receiving offerings before she had even begun playing.
Where the Water Meets the Sea was a particular favourite, with the elderly gentlemen at the bar slinging their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying on their bar stools and singing along.
She was still on the first line when an armoured man walked up behind Willa and put a hand on her shoulder. Without even looking behind her, Willa shrugged his hand off. Zemira ignored the display and carried on playing.
The man tried again, and was rebuffed again.
Then, just as Zemira got to the end of the first verse, the man pulled a knife from his belt and slit Willa’s throat.
Zemira’s fingers caught on the strings of her lute, letting out a discordant scratching sound as Willa clutched at her bleeding throat and fell to the floor at her feet.
A scream went up from somewhere else in the bar as other armoured men made themselves known.
Steel flashed in the candlelight as people bustled for the door and more blood was spilled: the elderly gentlemen lost their heads to a sword; Kase’s chest was filled with crossbow bolts; and all the while, Zemira sat on her bar stool, the next word of the song still lying at the bottom of her throat.
The whole affair lasted but a few minutes. The screaming and the whimpering fell to silence and the only people standing in the tavern were the ten men who had silenced everyone.
The man who killed Willa wiped his knife clean on his sleeve and put it away, then marched towards Zemira. He reached her in seconds and a beefy hand wrapped around her throat, lifting her off the stool; her lute clattered to the ground.
Zemira scrabbled at the hand holding her up, choking as her windpipe was constricted. Her feet flailed uselessly some six inches above the ground as the man glared directly into her face.
“You can write, is that correct?”
Zemira didn’t answer right away, and the man tightened his grip. Zemira let out a choked sound and wrapped her hands around the man’s wrist; she nodded vigorously.
The man dropped her; she fell onto the bar stool and then onto the floor, tipping the stool over onto her legs. She pushed herself up and spluttered onto the floor, one hand reaching up to her throat as she struggled to take in air.
“You’ll write a letter to our commanding officer. Tell them of our success.” The man’s voice was quiet as he turned and walked away.
One of the other men marched up to Zemira and grabbed her by the shoulder, hauling her to her feet. Still coughing, she stumbled alongside him as he took her out of the tavern, stepping over bodies and in pools of blood as they went.
Outside in the town proper, the view was much the same: bodies, blood, more men in similar armour.
And a woman with her hands bound in front of her, her blonde hair falling around her face as she looked down at the ground.
The man holding Zemira took her over to the woman; when he let go of her shoulder, she stumbled a little and had to quickly regain her balance. The woman looked up at the sound of the commotion, and Zemira saw her face.
Aria’s eyes were sunken, her mouth turned down in a frown and her skin almost grey. A little light returned to her darkened eyes when she saw Zemira.
“They spared you,” she breathed.
“They captured my brigade. The war’s not going so well.”
The man who killed Willa appeared beside them, towering over them both with his muscly chest puffed out. “Going well for us.” He looked down at Zemira. “And that’s what you’re going to write for us.”
He nodded over Zemira’s head and Zemira followed his gaze: a military tent had been set up in the town square, the bodies having been moved and piled up against the side of the church: one of the nearby buildings.
Zemira didn’t have much time to take in the sight when the man clapped one hand on her shoulder and one on Aria’s and began marching them towards the tent.
Inside was a table and a chair, and atop the table was a piece of parchment, a quill, and an inkpot.
The man shoved Zemira down into the chair.
“You’re gonna write exactly what I tell you,” he grunted, pulling his knife from his belt and holding it up against Aria’s throat. Aria raised her head but didn’t attempt to resist; her hands, still bound, hung just in front of her.
Zemira gulped, turned in her seat, and reached for the quill.
The man told her what to write: a tale of victory, of the death of the enemy, of an entire town wiped out.
“-with the help of a traitor, we were able to determine the right time to strike-”
Zemira’s hand shook violently, tipping the inkwell off the table; a puddle of ink spread out on the ground.
The man slapped her around the back of her head; she gasped in pain and reached her hand around to the spot that had been struck, turning away from the parchment.
The man’s eyes were flared and he still had his knife held against Aria’s throat. “Stupid girl!” he cried, but Zemira was looking at Aria.
Aria, whose eyes were glistening; Aria, whose jaw was clenched; Aria, whose hands were bound with a piece of rope that wasn’t actually tied in place.
Aria sniffed. “They said they’d spare you.”
The stinging on the back of Zemira’s head intensified, filling her entire head with white noise. Her vision blurred, unable to focus on anything but Aria’s sad eyes.
Then there was a hand on the back of Zemira’s head, turning her head back to the parchment.
“Keep writing,” the man growled, and then resumed his dictation.
Zemira’s hand was shaking now, and her handwriting looked more like carefully arranged spiders’ legs than actual words.
She signed it with the man’s name: Torryn.
Then Torryn lifted his hand off the back of Zemira’s head, and there was a choking sound to Zemira’s right.
Zemira looked to see Aria clutching her throat, blood spilling from between her fingers. She fell to her knees and then to her side, and her blood mixed with the ink Zemira had spilled.
Torryn stepped over Aria’s body, made for the exit of the tent.
Zemira’s eyes were stinging as she looked down at Aria, her eyes duller than they ever had been – as dull as they ever would be.
“What about me?” Zemira croaked, and Torryn stopped just in the doorway of the tent.
He looked around at her.
“I said I’d spare you.”
And then he left.
It was dark by the time Zemira moved from the chair in the tent. She walked around Aria, careful not to tread in any blood or ink.
Outside, the enemy forces had gathered around a campfire. They were drinking and singing songs.
Zemira walked passed them all, not listening to them or even affording them a second glance.
She went inside the tavern.
The bodies had been cleared away. The air was still rich with the stink of blood. Zemira’s bar stool was still sitting where she had set herself up; her hat was gone, but her lute was still there.
Zemira headed for the stool, ignoring the dried blood on the floor just in front of it.
She picked up her bar stool, and she picked up her loot, and then she took them out of the tavern.
The men were still sitting around their campfire, still singing a song Zemira didn’t know.
Zemira placed her bar stool down on the ground not too far away from the victorious soldiers.
She put her lute on her knee.
She started playing Where the Water Meets the Sea.
And then, she began to sing.