(For those of you who want to start the story from the beginning, you can find part 1 here.)
The air in the yard was cool, though it was a few hours yet until sunset. She could taste salt on the breeze, blown in from the harbor. She wiped at her eyes with the back of her paws, telling herself that the tears were due to the wind.
"Stupid girl. You always make a hopeless mess of everything."
The words still hurt, even when she spoke them to herself. She never remembered a time when her clan mother and older sisters hadn't spoken them to her. The rest of the village had not been slow to take up the chorus. Her only consolation had been out in the fields, among the flocks. The sheep didn't care she had broken the crockery or couldn't always control which way her limbs wanted to move. She could say anything she wanted to the sheep, and they would just blink at her.
She felt so free around the sheep that they were the first to hear her songs. Wordless tunes at first, or songs consisting completely of nonsense words. To her surprise, the sheep drew closer to her when she sang, almost as if the dumb beasts were listening to her. The more she sang to them, the easier she found it to guide the flock where she wanted them to go.
That should have been her first hint but she had been too young to realize the significance of what was happening. The rest of the village began to comment on the fine texture of her clan's wool and the way it held the dyes. Looking back on matters, the comments started the first shearing after she began singing to the flocks. Soon neighboring villages and even buyers from the city began to request her clan's mutton as well as their woolen goods.
Not that her clan mother attributed anything to Carea. Carea herself had only had the vaguest of suspicions that she had had anything to do with the rise in her clan's fortunes. Certainly with the increased profits, her clan mother and sisters were much easier to live with. Carea would have even called herself happy.
And then she had ruined everything with a single song. Just as she had ruined everything now.
Lost in her memories, Carea had paid no attention where she had walked. She was outside of the Citadel now and on the streets of the city. She didn't recognize the neighborhood. Sunset was not far away, and the few people she saw on the street paid no attention to her as they hurried either home or to their evening entertainment.
The buildings put most of the street in shade, but she could see how rough the cobbles were and the spiky weeds forcing their way between them. It was cool in the shade. Carea repressed a shiver. She knew the Ducca's city to be safe, regularly patrolled by detachments of the Cohort as well as forces sponsored by the four quadrants.
But she couldn’t get out of her head stories told in the villages of all the dangers that filled Astra, especially for the young, unaccompanied female. Rogue males that forced themselves on females, even out of the mating season. Unscrupulous shamanesses that needed an unmated female for their witchcraft. Pressgangs that would abduct her and sell her to the Breastless Ones or the Sea Folk, or even to one of the savage prides of the northern continent beyond the ocean.
Carea walked close to the buildings, but not so close that someone could reach from a darkened doorway and grab her. Light escaped from very few windows as the street twisted around. Carea's nostrils flared and her ears twitched as she strained to hear the sounds or smell the scents of anyone trying to sneak up on her.
A sound did reach her ears, but not the furtive sounds of a thief or kidnapper. She took a step down the street, her ears moving to locate the sound. She traveled past several buildings before she realized she was listening to a song.
The song led her on, sometimes growing so soft Carea could hardly hear it. But the music always came back stronger. Sometimes she lost the song among the buildings and had to make her way along narrow alleys and even crawlways to find it again. The tune was slow and haunting, calling forth images of vast open spaces and desolate battlefields after the war had passed. Straining to hear, Carea could at last distinguish some of the words:
"Then Baaltor the Black, his rage like burning flame,
Shrugs off his bonds;
"The Prides must quell his wrath another way
Else all is lost."
The narrow street Carea was now on rounded a corner and ended in a small square. Tall houses blocked most of the moonlight, leaving the singer in shadow until Carea was almost upon him. The words ended but an old lion plucked at a short-necked lute. Carea stopped a respectful distance away as the lion brought the song to its end. The final chords reverberated in Carea's blood, touched something in her heart. The silence in the courtyard seemed almost as meaningful as the song. The lion rose to his feet with the help of a gnarled staff. As his face came into a patch of moonlight, Carea realized that a milky film clouded both of his eyes.
"Did you enjoy the song, girl?"
The voice was soft, but crisp, each word precise and clean. Had the blind lion heard her approach?
"I... I've never heard anything like it..."
The lion gave a hollow laugh. Carea could smell the bitterness. "The old arts, how soon they are forgotten. That was just a small part of the Baaltor Cycle, called 'The Binding of Baaltor.' I sometimes sing it to myself when I am not...otherwise employed."
"Based on a folk song of the Northern prides?" Carea did not know why she asked the question, or why her heart raced as she did so.
The lion's ears quirked in curiosity, but he nodded. "The tune, yes, comes from the North, though adapted to the modes we use here in Astra. The words are Southern, though." Carea felt his attention on her, as if he were sizing her up with some sense she did not understand. "Are you a musician?"
Carea opened her mouth to tell the lion no, but he held out the lut to her. She took it and cradled it in her arms as she had seen him do. A sensation ran up her arm as the pads of her fingers touched the strings. They had come from a living being, and it was as if she felt a pulse of that life vibrating up her arm. She closed her eyes and plucked at the strings.
The tune the lion had played came out of the lute. Slow, hesitant at first. As if Carea was a cub just learning to walk. But the sound grew stronger, more confident. The song came to the refrain and shifted. Changed to another tune entirely. Carea pictured vast, open grasslands in her mind, valiant struggles and long, romantic nights. She could almost smell the grass and the prides who dwelt there.
"Where did you learn that song?"
Carea's fingers faltered, the strings screeching in dischord. She gave the lion an apologetic look and offered back his instrument. "It...it just came to me..."
The lion took his instrument back, not needing his eyes to tell where the instrument was. He strummed out the same tune Carea had played, adding a melancholy harmony over it with the other strings. "This is an old song, even older than the tales of Baaltor. It sings of the days when the lions first became people. And it just came to you.
Carea shrugged and then earblushed when she realized that he could not see the gesture. "Perhaps I had heard the song when I was a cub."
The lion snorted. "You have a gift, girl. Don't deny it. Who is your master?"
Carea thought of Mistress Lavare and her kitchen. "I've only just arrived in the city and I'm not apprenticed to anyone." Both statements were true, if being in Astra for two months counted as just arriving and leaving the Ducca's household under suspicion counted as being unapprenticed.
The lion appraised her again with his sightless gaze. Then he offered her a deep, formal bow. "I am Sylvan Rufeo of Clan Hespera. I offer you an apprenticeship in the Guild of Troubadours." He offered a paw to Carea.
She accepted, grasping Rufeo's wrist as they shook paws. "I am called Carea."
If Rufeo thought it strange that Carea did not give her clan or home village, he said nothing. Instead he gripped Carea's forearm and leaned in toward her.
"Do you sing?"
Carea looked at the ground. "No."
Rufeo patted her arm. "Don't worry. It will come."
Carea followed the lion's directions and walked with him to his lodgings, his paw on her arm the whole way. In this simple room, the young lioness learned the art of the troubadour. Despite the natural talent Carea showed for the lute, Rufeo drilled her in scales and scales, first in the five standard modes, then in the Northern modes. As she grew more proficient with the lute, the lion sang with her, the sonorous chants of the Baaltor Cycle.
Carea had never heard a voice as expressive as Rufeo's. Depending on the nature of the tale he recounted, the lion could sing a high tenor or a bass so low she felt the rumble in her bones. The first time he sang of the Carge of Ulaani's Pride, Carea's fingers stopped moving. Rufeo finished the verse and shook his head.
"No, no. That will never do. No matter what happens, you must always keep playing. It is bad form to stop, as well as bad for business."
"I understand." Carea wiped the tears she had shed with the back of her paw, and they played through the entire song, starting again from the beginning.
The days and weeks blurred together. Carea gradually lost her fear that the Ducca's cohort would track her down. Part of her also feared inappropriate behavior on Rufeo's part. It did not happen. He sometimes left their small quarters and spent hours on his own in the city. She did not want to insult him by offering her assistance. She gathered that he had been living on his own for a long time. Besides, the lion always knew if she did not practice while he was gone.
Every night he returned with a simple supper of rice and a spicy fish soup. In spite of his blindness, Rufeo never spilled a drop as he served out the meal. One night, after they had finished eating, the lion took a bundle out of his pack and offered it to Carea.
"You are ready. Your first performance is tomorrow evening." A hint of a smile played at the corners of Rufeo's mouth.
Carea frowned and pulled at the cord that bound the package. She shook it out to reveal a starched linen robe. Unbleached, with no guild or household color on it.
"The traditional robe of the troubadour's apprentice. Try it on."
She pulled the robe on over her simple shift. It seemed far too large for her, starched until it was blocky. The shoulders stood out several paw-widths above her natural shoulders. The sleeves stopped just below the elbows, presumably to keep her paws free to play. She tied the garment around her waist with the wide linen belt also in the package.
She felt like a cub trapped in a pile of scratchy bedding.
The smile on Rufeo's face deepened. "The shape is traditional. It is meant to emphasize your anonymity. You are not important. The song, the song is everything. The songs make us who we are."
Carea considered for a moment and then nodded. She like that. The thought of disappearing into a tale from the past. She hesitated for a moment and then pulled Rufeo into an embrace.
"Thank you. For everything."
The lion chuckled and patted Carea on the back before releasing her. "Wait until tomorrow has gone well. Thank me then."
Carea did not sleep well that night. Her fingers kept working scales and chords. When she did manage to doze off, she dreamed still of performing. But instead of her stiff apprentice robe, she wore naught but a loincloth. Rufeo was not there. Those standing around laughed at her clumsy playing or worse, ignored her completely. All except a cloaked and hooded figure in the fur corner of the square.
Carea looked up to see the cloaked figure throw back its hood to reveal the Duccetta. Her eyes glowed reed. Her smile dripped blood. The crowd parted as she strode forward, claws unsheathed. Carea dropped the lute. It shattered at her feet. She could not move. The Duccetta's paws were at her throat...
She awoke with a start in Rufeo's room, her blankets twisted around her. It was not a sign. It was not a portent. It was just her nerves about performing for the first time in public. She ran those thoughts in her mind over and over again until the cock crowed.
Rufeo fasted every morning before a major performance, and Carea followed his custom. She was not sure she could eat anything anyway. The lion sent her with an earthenware pitcher for water. It did not matter where she got the water from, so long as it was flowing water, not cistern water. Thankfully, the nearest public fountain was sourced by an underground spring. When she returned with the pitcher, Rufeo knelt facing the east, clad only in his loincloth.
Carea filled the washbasin in front of the lion and tried not to think of her dream. Rufeo slid his paws through the water three times, wetting his arms up the elbows. Then he used his wet forearms to wash his face, three slow circles with his right arm, three with his left. He then crossed his arms over his chest and made a profound bow to the east until his forehead touched the floor. Finally he rose, scooped up three pawfuls of water and poured them onto the ground.
"For the spirits of those who have gone before us, in our guild and in our clans."
Carea nodded and helped him into his linen robe. She brushed Rufeo's mane, against his protests, until every fur was in place. Then, with occasional instructions from the lion, she repeated the cleansing ritual for herself. She was not sure whether the ancestors of her clan would approve of a dyer's daughter becoming a musician, so her libations of water were given only to the ancestors of the Troubadour Guild.
The apprentice robe felt no different than it had the evening before. Rufeo straightened a few of the lines on her garment, though Carea was not sure what sense he used to do so. He harrumphed his satisfaction. She grabbed the kidskin bag that held the lute, while he grabbed a tall staff from near the door, and they left their lodgins.
The circular head of Rufeo's staff bore several brass disks, which jingled together with each step the lion took. Heads turned toward them as they walked, Carea slightly ahead, Rufeo with his left paw on her right shoulder. She kept a stately pace, ignoring the stares and whispers. Certainly she was unrecognizable in her robe as the scullery maid who had escaped the palace months ago.
Carea had expected they would stop in one of the market squares. She had seen many street performers during her first days in the city, though none that she would now consider a troubadour. However, she and Rufeo walked past several squares. He guided her with a gentle pressure on the shoulder, indicating turns by fluttering the flingers. She did not dare ask him where they were going, even in a whisper. She knew that Rufeo was lost in the past. Lost in his songs.
At last their path led them to a nondescript building deep within the merchants' quarter. A small placard bore the character for tea. Carea frowned. They were performing in a teahouse? Her aunts always warned her against such places, where strange males might force a young female to do unspeakable things. Or a young male might do unspeakable things to her, for a price. They had been very vague on the details in either scenario. Carea was about to break Rufeo's reverie by asking what they were doing here when a lioness burst through the front door.
"Sylvan Rufeo, you old scoundrel! Let's get a look at you."
Rufeo smiled but was not quite done with his formality. He bowed to the lioness. "The peace of the Ancestors be upon the mistress of this house and all who enter within her walls."
The lioness chuckled and kissed the air above Rufeo's right and left cheeks. She wore an elaborate veil that chimed as she moved. It hung from her ears, left her eyes unobstructed, but covered her nose and muzzle. Carea realized that what she at first took to be bangles were in fact coins sewn into the lacework of the veil.
The formal greeting completed, Rufeo gripped the arm of the lioness. "Melina, may I present Carea, my apprentice.
Melina laughed again. "You always told me you were too old for another apprentice, Rufeo." Then she fixed her gaze on Carea. Her eyes grew wide, and then a calculating light entered them that Carea was not at all sure she liked.
She bowed even more deeply than had Rufeo. "I am honored to meet you, Mistress Melina."
"Oh no, the honor is all mine." She smiled and adjusted the fit of her blouse over her breasts. "I just hope you know what you've gotten yourself into, shackling yourself to old Rufeo here."
Carea hid a frown. There were stories here she knew nothing about. But she would not shame Rufeo by asking about them here. Another strange look passed over Melina's face. Then she smiled and took Rufeo by the arm.
"Let me take you to where you will be performing and go over the schedule of the evening's entertainment. The guests will be arriving soon."
She led Rufeo into the teahouse, and Carea followed. They entered into an elegant waiting room with carved stools and a low basin where they could wash their feet. Beyond a beaded curtain was a great hall. Half the room held low tables surrounded by cushions. The The other half was empty save for a richly woven carpet and two lit braziers on stands. Stairs led up on either side of the carpet, and along the right wall a fire burned in a recessed hearth.
Melina led Rufeo around the perimeter of the room, between each table and all along the carpet. He had her note several times where the braziers stood. Carea watched him shift his head so he could fix their heat into his sense memory. At last he nodded.
"It is well, Melina. You have outdone yourself as a hostess."
Flattery, perhaps, but Carea thought she saw a true gratitude in the female's eyes as well. "I could do nothing less for the triumphant return of Master Sylvan Rufeo of Clan Hespera."
Melina ushered them to a room just off the left stairs. A light meal of bread and cold fowl had been provided, but Rufeo touched nothing. Carea was not sure she could hold down even water.
"Quit pacing, cub. If you wear a groove in Melina's floorboards, she will be certain to charge you for them. And things with Melina always cost dear."
Carea forced herself to kneel on a cushion, her paws on her thighs. Her claws pricked at the pads of her paws. "Master..."
Rufeo cocked his head and his ears twitched for her to continue.
"What did she mean, your 'triumphant return'?"
Rufeo let out a sigh. In that sigh, Carea realized she had no idea how many summers the male had seen. Fifty? Sixty? More?
It seemed at first that the lion would not answer. When he did speak, Carea had to quirk her ears forward to hear him.