Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, but I managed not to meet her eye, gazing past her and starting on Galli’s Lament as if someone behind her had asked for it. The notes flowed easily – they ought to, by now – the sweet soft yearning of it matching my mood. I could let my mind drift, trusting my hands to remember the tune truly even as my thoughts turned to Marra’s choice. I remembered singing it when I was just fourteen, my voice unbroken, and all the sweet promise it seemed to hold then. What else should I ever need, but my voice and my pipe and my true love at my side?
Well what did I know, but music? And in the old songs there is no one but has a true love, and no power beneath the blue sky that can keep true lovers apart.
Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars before the last notes of Galli’s Lament had yet died, and that was reason enough to let my eye sweep past her, and let another choose. Marra’s a nice girl, and I knew she was due some indulgence, but she lost my sympathy a little with her impatience. Besides, there was a lad who wanted one of the hill dances so that he could show off to his lass, and I was lost in reminiscence enough to have more sympathy with that, even if the jaunty tune matched my mood no better than romance. At his age I’d given up believing in The Wheel and the Stars, but I’d grown to respect its usefulness in persuading a lass into a receptive frame of mind. It had even worked on Sanda once, and she’s almost as cynical as I am – you get that way growing up in a tavern.
And here I was in Sanda’s tavern again, after far too long away, and no Sanda. That wasn’t doing anything to warm me towards Marra’s plight, either.
Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars in the breathless pause between dances, and I couldn’t deny the room was ready for a change of pace, but I shrugged helplessly and told her that I needed a soprano, and plunged into The Maidens of Kirrinrise instead – all the room knew that, and it hardly mattered if my playing was a little ragged for a verse or two. And it was ragged. I wished I hadn’t mentioned the soprano. I’d teased Sanda too often about that, Sanda with her beautiful low laughter and her easy, cynical smile, who I’d told time and again that I needed a soprano to weave her voice around my flute. And I’d had sopranos, damn them. Sweet voices singing sweet love songs whilst I played mechanically beside them, the music so familiar that I was free to listen and reflect, thinking ruefully of my own shifting life and of the things that I could never claim, and learning to hate the false promise of the song I’d not yet learnt to avoid.
But here at last was Sanda, and my hands found their skill again. I hadn’t seen her slip in, caught her even now only in glimpses, mourned a little that I had not seen her expression when she found me there, but played on, heartened.
Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, but the mood of the room was against it. They wanted dances again, and who was I to deny them, so long as it suited my need? I wasn’t sure I could play The Wheel and the Stars, anyway, it had been so long. Eventually you learn to play to your own choice, even as you seem to follow the will of the room, and if I might sometimes have to stoop to romance I’ve rarely had to stoop to that. And there was no stooping to romance here. The tavern was too busy, the pace too fast – so fast that it took me a dozen dances to realise that it was not the business of the tavern that kept Sanda from my side.
She was avoiding me. Once I realised I couldn’t miss it, but there was nothing I could do but stew on my awareness of it as the dances passed. She wasn’t that busy. She could have loitered a moment at my side, yet somehow it was always one of her servers that filled my cup. I knew I’d been a long time on the road but she knew the reason, and it had never come between us before.
Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars, and I might have said something I’d have regretted in the ugliness of my mood, but there was Sanda at my side at last. She offered the jug grudgingly, with no kiss to sweeten the cup, and for the first time in the evening I had a good reason to avoid Marra’s request. I’m not totally stupid. I might not have had any idea what I’d done to rile Sanda, but I knew enough to call a break and hustle her aside.
We’d hardly stepped into the passage before her temper flared.
“What the hell did Marra ever do to hurt you?”
“Hurt me? You know I’m fond enough of the lass.”
“Yet you won’t play for her? Won’t even meet her eye? Hadn’t you heard that she needs her friends tonight?”
Not heard? A minstrel, and gossip my life’s blood? Not heard?
“Of course I’ve heard.”
“Then why not play for her?”
“Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars.”
“And? You’ve played it for me, in the past.”
And I could remember every glance I’d stolen as she listened, and the faint blush she’d tried to mask behind amusement when she’d realized I played for her.
“I was twenty-five,” I protested, as if that explained everything, but we’re both a long way past twenty-five, and she only had to quirk one eyebrow at me to demand a better reason, “and I was showing off.”
My voice softened on the admission, and she answered with laughter in her voice.
“I’d be hurt to learn that you wooed me so cynically, but that I’ve known it these last dozen years.”
“My methods were cynical, perhaps, but my intent was earnest enough.”
“I think I’ve had long enough to work that out, Coren. But if you’d play it to charm me, why not to soothe Marra?”
“I hadn’t learnt to hate it, then. It seemed harmless enough, if not to my taste.”
“And it doesn’t now?”
“It’s a lie. As if you can earn your happy ever after, as if you’re guaranteed what you deserve. As if love is enough, no compromise, no hunger, no nights of loss or seasons of repentance. We both know better than that. And what did they give up, anyway? Either of them? With their manor and their hounds and their silken gowns. That’s supposed to be a loss?”
The brush of her lips on my cheek surprised me. She said fondly
“You know too much, that’s your problem. There’s no silken gowns in the song. No hounds, either. But that’s not the point, and you know it. No one believes the lie all their waking hours. Not even me, when I was twenty-five – though perhaps I had my moments, when I looked in one pair of blue eyes. Certainly not Marra, certainly not today, not after Kit … But no one needs to believe the lie. So we can’t be sure of earning what we think we deserve? So what? The chance is enough. Less than that. Just the thought that we’re not alone in hoping for it, that’s a reassurance in the lonely night. Marra was in pieces yesterday, and tomorrow she’ll be herself. But tonight she wants beautiful lies. Is that so much to ask?”
It wasn’t, when she put it that way, but she didn’t trust the reason behind my hesitation.
“Anything I can do to persuade you?”
I could hardly be expected to resist, if she was going to say it in that tone …
“You can find me a soprano.”
I slid all the innuendo I could manage between the words, but twenty-five was a long time ago. Long enough to armour her against my mischief, so that she could match my stare and ask blandly
“Blonde or brunette?”
“Your choice. She’ll only be singing for Marra, after all.”
“Oh? Sure of someone else to warm your bed, are you?”
“I’ve hopes. The lass I’ve got my eye on … there’s a song I know she’s fallen for before.”
Marra asked for The Wheel and the Stars as we slipped back into the room, and there was a soprano sent to my side to sing it, but I hardly heard the familiar words as the notes slipped painlessly beneath my fingers. My eyes were on another lass, and her smile was just for me.
So my writing group‘s winter competition theme this year was Bad Romance. I expected Dram to have something amusing on that theme – I know there’s a good many ballads in the standard repertoire that he has issues with – but since we’re out of touch at the moment it was Coren whose story found me instead. I think some of you already know Galli’s Lament as the first song in the Lady Waiting’s cycle, and The Maidens of Kirrinrise as something suitable for taverns that Dram refuses to translate for me. The Wheel and the Stars is a song that I’m surprised any minstrel can entirely dodge – it’s pretty sappy, I admit, but it also records an important precedent in Khyran affairs in the way in which it speaks of castellany and marriage, and the efforts that Serren made to ensure that manors would never again be held lightly by absentee magnates.