The Athenaeum. Joliver Muses. Dessert.
In the City State of Nodderton, there is a secret library filled with dusty scrolls, lost manuscripts, memoirs of wizards and ghosts, long-forgotten books and essays, uncensored forbidden plays, and the rarest maps.
There are only two ways to find this library. The first is through rigorous investigation and study; one only requires an unyielding curiosity. Whereas the second way, the more magical way, is to stumble across it by chance, precisely when it is needed.
Joliver Barleywood, a learned bard and a halfling of the Aevalorn Parishes, discovered the library over twenty years ago. Researching its whereabouts was his initiation into Nodderton’s bardic college, and finding it extended him rights to study there and to return whenever he required it.
On this night in the library, Joliver sat in a reading chair with his bare feet perched comfortably on a cushioned ottoman before a cozy fire. He was accompanied by a long-stemmed smoking pipe, an ample herbal tea service, and a thick book written by a dead alchemist he’d always wanted to read.
Others idled in its expansive halls, but visitors to the library kept to themselves. After all, it contained things found nowhere else, and the time spent there was invaluable.
And when a young man barrelled through a nearby door, Joliver was sure he used the second way to find the library.
“Hello?” called the young man, racing into the study. He held a leather-bound journal up and over his head, and his voice was desperate and frantic. “Hello! Hello?”
Sadly closing his book, Joliver removed the stem of his pipe from his mouth and cried out, “Here! Hullo, I say!”
The young man spun toward Joliver and shouted, “Hello, sir, my need is urgent! Please, I seek a bard, a master of words!”
Joliver stood, appeased his weary back with a deep stretch, and replied, “Son, words master us; we are but slaves to express them.”
And upon encountering Joliver, the young man stopped, threw his journal onto a table, and exclaimed, “Perfect!”
Joliver approached the young man and introduced himself, adding, “The hour’s late. What brings you to the Athenaeum?”
Mannered in Nodderton tradition, the young man afforded Joliver a courteous bow. He was around six feet tall, with brown skin and eyes and black hair. He wore tan breeches, knee-high leather boots, a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, and a tattered soot-covered buccaneer jacket. “I’m Jak Lot, apprenticed to Den Cob. He pitied me and gave me leave to find this place.”
“Den Cob? The renowned blacksmith?” Joliver asked, arriving at the table to stand near Jak Lot. A halfling, Joliver’s head arrived at its surface and around Jak Lot’s waist.
“The same,” Jak Lot confirmed, looking down at Joliver, “but I’m not here for him. My purposes are my own, and I’ve brought coin to pay.”
Jak Lot tossed a hefty coin-ladened purse onto the table.
“Eight crowns, all of my savings,” Jak Lot admitted. Leaning over his book, he opened it and gestured to its pages. “Please, I need words.”
Joliver smirked, rolled back on his heels, rested his left thumb in his vest pocket, and offered encouragingly, “Okay, Jak Lot. Tell me your tale.”
Jak Lot turned from the table and anxiously paced the floor. “My love is the Lady Dee Quin. She is a seamstress, as penniless as I, but she’s decided to seek her fortune through marriage and sails for Onnosbach in the morning to greet a suitor.”
“Ah,” Joliver knowingly surmised and winked. “It’s a love story.”
Jak Lot agonized, “Mister Barleywood, she may depart for money and status, but she loves me! See what she’s written? Here, in our diary?”
Joliver glanced at Jak Lot’s book, but he didn’t need to read it to know what it said. It was a Diary of Correspondence, a common bauble: a magical journal where its twin instantly reproduced whatever was written on its pages; a device used by lovers to share intimacies.
“Please,” Jak Lot pleaded Joliver, his hands clasped. “I adore her, but I require words: a poem, a swaying argument, something. I must beg her to stay before she leaves on the ‘morrow!”
Considering, Joliver smoked his pipe and stared fondly at the young man, for he remembered when love stabbed like this. Giving in, Joliver nodded to an adjacent desk and said, “Alright. Jak, retrieve a quill, ink well, and spare parchment from the secretary.”
As Jak Lot dashed to recover the supplies, Joliver asked, “Is she worth it, Jak? The eight crowns, I mean? A steep price for a blacksmith’s apprentice.”
“That and more!” Jak Lot exclaimed, spreading the handful of items on the table.
“How much more?” Joliver asked, flourishing his hand. “Would you say fifty? Seventy-five?”
Jak Lot paused, saying, “Well, no-”
“Perhaps that’s where we should start?” Joliver mused. “‘Dearest Dee, thou art worth exactly seventy-five crowns to me…’”
“Not at all, Mister Barleywood!” Jak Lot exclaimed, irritated at the bard’s brashness.
“Then you will keep your money, and we shall feast on love,” Joliver smiled, walking around the table. “We should begin with an appetizer of banal embellishments. Jak, what do you feel when Lady Quin is with you?”
Standing near the table, Jak Lot winced and struggled with his words. Folding his arms, he shook his head and replied, “Um, happy, I guess?”
Joliver sighed and rounded the far end of the table. “Many things might make one feel happy. A morning walk; a playful hound; a tasty sausage from the market. Is being with her rather like a tasty sausage or a playful hound?”
“Neither!” Jak Lot growled. He stammered and wrestled with his words. “No, no, it’s … she’s like … my best friend.”
Joliver then asked, “Better, and what does a best friend mean to you?”
Jak ran his fingers through his hair and said, “Er, someone who's got my back? Someone I can say anything to. I trust her!”
Having walked the perimeter of the table and nearing Jak, Joliver said, “She is your confidant, a collaborator, a trusted companion…?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jak Lot said, nodding along enthusiastically.
Joliver gestured expectantly, urging him to pick up the quill or elaborate on his feelings, but Jak Lot wore a vacant expression, and Joliver’s face soured. “Oh, come now, boy. I’m not going to write this for you.”
Jak Lot flopped into the chair with frustrated resignation. He went to pick up the quill but stopped, saying, “I don’t know! I can’t … she’s … like … my moon, my stars, my sun-”
Standing beside him, Joliver groaned, wiped his face clean of the verbal muck, and said, “Ugh, hackneyed drivel. We’re writing of love, not astronomy. Stop trying to be a poet, Jak - that’s my labor; tell me how you feel. Take the quill and jot down our ideas.”
Jak Lot knitted his brow, picked up the quill, and pouted, “Feel? Psh! We’ve spent nine months courting. Dance halls, meals, long country walks, and even costly visits to the fair! I … I’m angry! I don’t even know why she’s leaving!”
“Careful,” Joliver cringed, leaning against the armrest of a nearby chair. “If Lady Quin’s a person, she doesn’t owe you a return no matter how much you’ve invested.”
Arrested, Jak Lot loosened his arms and hung his head, disarmed. “I … I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know you didn’t,” Joliver smiled reassuringly, “but you are young and must be careful with words; they are sharp and poisonous. But go on. Let’s skip scorn and revisit trust. You’ve confided in her; she knows all of your secrets?”
Resigned, Jak Lot leaned over his journal, skimmed its pages, and said, “Yeah, I feel she knows me better than anyone. And you’ll see I’ve never lied to her, ever; I couldn’t.”
Joliver mulled thoughtfully and, dramatically placing his hand on his heart, added, “She inspires you to be honest. And if honesty is the very fruit of virtue, rooted in the soil of trust, Lady Quin is-”
“-as a tree,” Jak Lot concluded, slapping his hands and pointing at Joliver. Dabbing the quill in the inkwell, Jak Lot scribbled words onto the parchment.
Smoking his pipe, Joliver looked to the horizon and riffed, “Lady Quinn, you are the roots that ground me; a tree that blossoms truth; a shelter from life’s rain of lies and deceit.”
“Yes! Yes!” Jak Lot said. Dipping his quill again, he frantically wrote the words across the parchment and scratched out his mistakes.
“Virtue, honesty, groundedness, roots,” Joliver continued, punching the air on each word and pacing behind Jak Lot’s chair. “Qualities, you say, you seek in a friend. So tell me a time when you felt love for Lady Quin.”
Again, Jak Lot’s tongue seized, and he leaned back into the chair and stared at the ceiling to recall a memory. “Once I arrived late to an appointment. She said it was nothing and her time to be alone. She even thanked me for being late. Now I don’t even worry about it, and I arrive at our appointments when I can. I love her for that.”
“Hmm, she bends,” Joliver thought aloud, standing on Jak Lot’s opposite side, curving his hands. “She forgives, always bending, never breaking. Tick-tick!” And Joliver raced away from the table down an impossibly tall aisle of books.
“Hurry!” Jak cried, examining the words compiled on his parchment. Dabbing his quill, he struck a sentence from the page and rewrote it. “She’ll bed before midnight. She must know my thoughts before she retires!”
Eventually, Joliver returned - a bit winded - with several books in his arms and one partially open. He placed them on the table and began skimming the open one with his index finger. “Ashwood. Lady Quin is an ash tree. She bends and forgives, and its wood and leaves are medicinal, remedying arthritis, gout, constipation, um, hold: scratch constipation.”
“Fever!” Jak said aloud.
“Ah!” Joliver exclaimed, looking up from the book. He removed the pipe from his mouth and pointed it at Jak Lot. “Lady Quin, you are as ashwood: you bend without breaking; you remedy my fever; you are a cure for my suffering-”
“Okay, yes!” Jak said, writing wildly to the edge of the paper. “I need more parchment!”
As Jak Lot jumped out of his chair and rushed to the secretary, Joliver closed the book about trees and called out, “So let’s get to the meat of it, Jak, the main course: Why are you right for her? And give me none of that fate malarkey.”
Jak returned, pushed away the parchment he’d used, and began with a blank scroll. Then he paused, asking, “Why? Dee seeks her fortune through marriage, and I’m right here! Obviously, she wants money, and I’m just an apprentice. That’s why she’s leaving me for this merchant!”
Joliver leaped into the nearby chair, rolled on his back, threw his legs over an armrest, and reclined against the other. “Jak, stop taking it personally; your anger muddies the water. You’ve got it wrong. It’s security, not money. She barters for the assurance of comfort, means, and status. Lady Quin sounds clever, a woman who knows what she wants and where to find it. Therefore, you’ll never dissuade her from seeking what’s in her best interests. Rather, you must persuade her. So, out with it: why are you good for her?”
Jak Lot tossed a frustrated hand at Joliver and said, “I’m strong, healthy; Three Hells, I’m apprenticed to the most celebrated blacksmith in Nodderton!”
Joliver pointed a finger into the air and said, “Aye, but have you ever spoken to Master Den Cob about his plans? For instance, when you might inherit his shop or expect a pay rise?”
“Well, no,” Jak Lot replied, his eyes tracing the floor. “I assume his business will forfeit to me in a few years-”
“So Jak,” Joliver interrupted, reclining over the chair. “You’ve the promise of fortune yet can offer no assurances, thus, you’re a risk for Lady Quin. What could you do to assume less and know more about your future?”
Jak Lot sat up, stood from his chair, and ran his hands through his hair. “Well, um, tomorrow, I … I could ask Den Cob-”
Joliver snapped his fingers a few times, pointed to the parchment, and mouthed, “Write this down!”
Lunging at the table, Jak Lot furiously wrote his plan on the spare parchment.
Watching Jak Lot pour his ideas onto the page, Joliver folded his arms, glanced at the ceiling, and asked rhetorically, “Now, Jak, this may sting, but perhaps Lady Quin’s better off without you?”
“What?” Jak Lot exclaimed, angrily slamming his wrist to the parchment. “I said we’re perfect together!”
“An opinion,” Joliver clarified, “which angers and blinds you and cages her. Is that your desire, to angrily imprison your love to keep her from finding a better opportunity?”
Jak Lot looked over all he’d written so far; three pages of ideas - important, powerful words - that he was ready to rewrite into his Diary of Correspondence. But he paused to consider Joliver’s question. “No, well, I … I don’t want to cage her, not at all. I never thought of it that way.”
Joliver thought aloud, “Love is partially a mirage; it’s in our nature to romanticize. Yet love is also tangible, practical, realistic, and compassionate. Showing up on time and not taking hers for granted; taking responsibility for your future as opposed to just letting it play out; thinking of someone else's needs ahead of your scorn. What you want to say tonight - what you need to say - can’t be trite flowery platitudes. You must convince her you’re paying attention, that you are worth a gamble, and, for her sake, you’re willing to let her go.”
Jak Lot set the quill down and leaned back into the chair. He regarded the halfling with wide, incredulous eyes, rethinking everything.
“Young man, midnight approaches,” Joliver smirked. He smoked his pipe and gestured to the table. “One of the books I found for you talks of a young man sent to battle. He fights and wins the war but loses his love, for she wants something different for her life. In accepting that truth, he leaves her be and discovers true love. I’ve spoiled it for you, but it’s a good read nonetheless.”
Leaning, Joliver reached over to the table and slid the book to Jak Lot. “Here you go, soldier.”
Jak Lot put a thoughtful finger to his chin and stared intensely at the stack of messy parchment and the open diary, and then his thoughts turned to Dee Quin: her playful smiles; her kindness in words and expression; her soft skin; her long stares, and he truly ached for her. And then he recalled her distant, longing glances; her interests in courtiers and high society; her need to wander; her desire to be found in conspicuous places and be seen.
“Dessert,” Joliver whispered, reminiscing about his loves in time past. He put his hands behind his head and spoke through his pipe. “Sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, always distinctive; never to detract from the meal, but to transform it with a memorable conclusion.”
Resolved, Jak Lot leaned forward, picked up the quill, dipped it, and hovered over the open diary. Reviewing the spare parchment, he organized his thoughts and applied ink to his journal’s pages. And the instant the ink soaked into the page, his script appeared, stroke by stroke, in Lady Quin’s journal.
Joliver watched as Jak Lot’s expression was firm, resolute, and decisive, biting his lip as he wrote. But then, gradually, his temper cooled, his eyes softened, and the force of his scrawl eased. Pained by both his memories and the recognition of a truth, the corners of his mouth twitched, tears welled, and with a final flourish, he whipped the quill away from the page, threw it to the table, and shut the journal.
They sat in silence for a time: Jak Lot wiped his eyes and wore a dour expression with both of his arms locked on his armrests, and Joliver inspected an errant thread issuing from a button on his vest.
Considering his circumstances, Jak Lot lifted the book Joliver had offered and thumbed through its pages. He grunted, looked to Joliver, and asked, “True love, eh?”
“The truest there is,” Joliver replied, curiously sliding the thread between his index and forefinger. “Selflessness.”
Holding the book Joliver offered, he asked, “May I?”
“Of course,” Joliver said, disregarding the thread. “I’ll come by Master Cob’s in a fortnight to collect it from you.”
Standing, Jak Lot nodded, sighed defeatedly, and thanked Joliver before taking his leave.
“Take your purse,” Joliver merrily reminded.
Snatching it from the table, Jak Lot held it in his hands and raised it to thank Joliver. “I’ll … look forward to seeing you again, bard.”
“And I you, blacksmith,” Joliver waved, and Jak Lot left the Athenaeum.
Alone once more, Joliver Barleywood stood from the chair and soothed the creases in his vest; he poked at the button to make sure it was solid. Refreshing his pipeweed, Joliver relit his pipe, capped the inkwell, and returned it and the quill to the secretary.
However, when he returned to the table to find Jak Lot’s diary and spare parchments, Joliver smirked.
He tidily folded the discarded papers and inserted them between the pages of the Diary of Correspondence. And taking Jak Lot’s diary in hand, Joliver took to the long, winding halls of the secret library to find a place for it to be shelved.