Rufeo took a drink of water and sighed. "I cancelled the debut. It ruined my reputation in the guild. I didn't care. Mistress Melina found out for me that Tomal was admitted to the Ducca's Cohort. I tried to contact him several times through letters and never received a reply."
Carea wanted to reach out and embrace the lion, but nothing she could do would take away years of pain.
"I had considered never performing again in public." He patted Carea on the wrist. "And then I met you."
Carea opened her mouth to reply when a knock sounded on the door. "Mistress Melina is ready for you, Master Rufeo."
Rufeo thanked the servant and poured out the rest of his water as a libation to the spirits. He stood. "Make sure the lute is tuned."
When Rufeo was satisfied that all was ready, they descended the stairs. The lion again bore his staff, and every head turned toward them as they entered the great hall of the teahouse. Carea was not sure what she had expected, but the teahouse patrons were decorously dressed in bright colors. Strong, older males and females mingled with young people. Carea felt plainer than any in the room. The guests drank from fine porcelain glasses and had before them gilt trays bearing tidbits of meat. But eating and drinking ceased as Rufeo strode to the center of the carpet that was his stage.
Carea wondered why he had not begun and realized that he was waiting for her. She closed her eyes to the crowd, unsheathed the claws of her right paw, and stroked the strings of the lute with the ritual strum that began every troubadour performance.
"The next day, Estraal took her eldest daughter to the River. Narula stood on the other shore..."
Rufeo chanted the tale in a rich baritone. It was one of Carea's favorite parts of the Baaltor Cycle, that told of how Estraal went up and down the River, trying to find allies who would stand with her pride against the armies of Baaltor the Black. She found eleven prides that would join with her. And then she heard of the pride of Narula, the first Ducca, who had crossed the ocean and insisted on meeting with Estraal face to face.
Estraal and her daughter forded the River and Narula told her she would join the coalition, but only if Estraal could defeat her in single combat. Estraal agreed, but he shamanesses of both prides declared it unbecoming the position of a pride mother to engage in such combat. Thus Estraal's eldest daughter and the eldest daughter of Narula offered to battle in their mothers' stead.
The young lionesses fought for hours, neither able to best the other. As the sun began to sink below the horizon, both stopped fighting and pledged eternal sisterhood one to the other. The pride mothers could do nothing but follow their daughters' example.
"And so the Ducca joined the Twelve Prides against Baaltor's rage."
Carea kept her eyes closed as Rufeo sang, mouthing the words as she played to better inscribe them in her memory. Toward the end of the song, she heard the lion's voice quiver. A dart of guilt pricked her. If Rufeo had strained his voice, it was in telling her his tale. She willed some of her strength to the lion and softened her playing ever so slightly that his voice might seem stronger in comparison.
When Rufeo reached the concluding line, Carea trilled the lute strings again and finally dared look up. The eyes of every lion in the room was on Rufeo. For a brief moment they still stood lost in the story world conjured by the troubadour's song. Then they burst into applause. Coins showered the rug at Rufeo's feet. Carea wasn't sure what she was supposed to do when a cub ran out dressed as a servant of the teahouse and collected the coins. The troubadour bowed deeply and motioned for Carea to step forward.
Her ears flushed, but she stood next to Rufeo and bowed as well. The troubadour rested his paw on Carea's shoulder and she led him back up the stairs. Rufeo sank onto a cushion and she sat as well, surprised at how tired she was.
"You did well, cub. Not perfect, mind you, but well enough for a first performance.
There was a tap on the door. Carea opened it to admit the young cub who had collected the coins from the rug. He did not meet Carea's eyes as he dumped the coins into her paws. She had never held such wealth in her life. She brought them to Rufeo and set them out before him. Then lion counted out ten silver pieces and motioned the lad to him.
"These are for the mistress of the house. A humble thank you for letting this unworthy singer sully her hall." He picked up another coin. "And this is for you, for your service and your honesty.
The cub's eyes went wide and he secreted the silver piece somewhere on his person. Then he took the other ten coins and, bowing profusely, left the two alone again.
"How did you know the cub was honest?"
"I counted the coins as they hit the rug." Rufeo's lips twisted in a wry smile. "Did you not do the same?
Perhaps a third of the coins went to their lodging and food bills. The rest, against Carea's protests, he set aside for her guild fees.
"I am no longer young. A few coins will not mean much when you are my age either."
Mistress Melina was so pleased by their performance that she asked them to return the next night, and the night after that. Other teahouses in the city began to request Master Sylvan Rufeo and his apprentice. Carea's confidence as a lutist grew the more they performed, but she still resisted Rufeo's gentle nudges to sing herself.
She noticed something peculiar the more they performed. If she was tired and did not play her best, the audience's reaction was lackluster at best, and they took in but a pittance. But if she played in harmony with the mood of the song, striking the strings with the emotions evoked by the story, the hearts of the audience vibrated in tune. They wept at the death of Sharaav the Great and laughed at the antics of Kita the Fool. They cheered the Binding of Baaltor and wondered at the Quarrel of Irula and Estraal.
Carea gradually realized that this was more than just the listeners responding to the words of the story, or even the power of the melodies. Somehow, they picked up the emotions Carea herself put into the songs as she played. Nor was Rufeo immune to the effect. When the lion was weary, when his voice quavered, Carea had only to will strength into her playing, and tone improved, tiredness vanished. Patrons commented that Rufeo sounded better than he ever had. They began receiving more requests for performances than they could fulfill. Rufeo again asked Carea to consider singing. She could not give him an answer.
The evening of the Long Night, Mistress Melina again requested Rufeo and Carea to perform at her teahouse. They arrived to the applause of patrons already at the tables, even though their part of the entertainment was several hours away. As they readied themselves in the waiting room upstairs, Carea thought about what Rufeo's repeated requests. Perhaps... Perhaps if she sang the songs of the Baaltor Cycle, nothing would happen. Perhaps the ancient words would keep her curse from doing harm.
But she doubted it.
The teahouse blazed with light as they descended the stairs, the scents of burning tallow mingling with the smells of fresh-cut pine boughs. The seats were filled, some patrons sitting on their neighbor's lap, with several lions standing between the tables. Carea sounded the opening trill when she heard the beaded curtain rustle. It was bad form to enter a hall after the performance had begun, so she looked up, glowering disapproval as her fingers shifted into the tune.
A tall figure stood at the back of the room, wearing a dark hooded cloak against the cold. Carea instantly thought of her dream. The figure pulled back the hood, and Carea's fingers missed a note. It was the young Cohort soldier, the one who had helped her escape from the Ducca's palace.
Carea looked down at the floor immediately. Her mind raced. She prayed to the Ancestors that he hadn't seen her, even though the missed note had drawn everyone's attention. Or if he had seen her, that he didn't recognize her. Or at least that he would let Rufeo finish the performance before the soldier made a scene.
Rufeo was too skilled a performer to permit one missed note to throw him. Tonight's selection was "The Binding of Baaltor." He sang of the struggle of the shamanesses of the Northern coalition to keep the power of Baaltor in check while the Breastless Ones stripped him of his hide. The Cycle focused less on the gruesome custom and more on the battle of wills between the female magic users and the dark male sorcerer. Carea realized that Rufeo had even worked the missed note into the drama of the scene, and she held the lute silent a few more instances, playing into his strategy.
Carea felt the attention of the audience fully upon them, the tension in the hall growing as the struggle between Baaltor and the shamanesses went back and forth. Baaltor threw off the Breastless, howling in pain, and then... Irula's sacrifice... The sources of the Cycle never said what the sacrifice was. The songs only sang of the shamaness Irula weeping after the sacrifice was made. Rufeo's voice grew soft and tender, and Carea felt the tension in the audience give way to the pity. She knew that if she looked up, several would be crying. But she didn't dare look up.
The power of the shamanesses wrapped around Baaltor. It tried to kill him but could not. Irula rose from her knees and added her will to her sisters'. Since they could not kill Baaltor, they locked him away in the Underworld instead. They sealed him below to keep him from ever returning again.
Rufeo's voice fell silent and the trill of Carea's lute echoed in a quiet hall. Then the audience erupted in applause. Gold coins hit the stage, and small pouches too. Carea tried to keep her eyes from growing wide and was not sure she succeeded. She hazarded a glance around the ecstatic crowd. She did not see the young soldier anywhere. She was not sure whether that was a good or bad sign.
Later, in the waiting room, Rufeo and Carea celebrated the Long Night with a wine toast. She did not really like the taste of the beverage, and stopped after half a glass. Rufeo drank more.
"The Master of the Guild has corresponded with me, you know. He's heard good reports of you and wonders why you haven't taken your first exams yet."
Carea looked down into her glass, the remaining wine the color of blood. Or of a vat of dye. She thought of the village of her birth, unsure how she could be homesick for a place she had never really liked.
"Master, I don't know if--"
The lion cut her off with a pat on her wrist. "It can wait. I know what you are going to say. Let an old male still have his dreams for one more night." He rose with a sigh. "I don't know how you feel, but I have no wish to celebrate the Long Night with a crowd of strangers. We have the rest of that roast at home, and I think a small bit of beer."
Carea smiled and took Rufeo's arm. "I would like that, Master."
The lion knew a back way out of the teahouse, and they soon reached the streets. The city was quiet, most people inside celebrating the festival. It was cooler than Carea had expected, and Rufeo leaned more on her than he usually did. Perhaps he had simply had too much wine. She squeezed Rufeo's wrist. The lion smiled and patted her paw.
A noise sounded behind them, footfalls, or a stone striking the cobbles. Had the soldier followed them from the teahouse? Carea let go of Rufeo's arm and looked behind them. She saw nothing, but there was a strange scent on the wind. Her sense of unease grew. The wine she had drunk burned in her stomach.
From a side alley, leapt out at them with a shout. A dark-clad figure grappled with Rufeo. Steel flashed again and again. Rufeo crumpled to the ground and the attacker fled into the night.
Carea flung down the bag with the lute and knelt at the lion's side. "Master?" She touched his chest and snatched back her paw. It was covered with blood.
"The purse...your fees..."
The words gurgled out. Carea wiped at her eyes, not caring that she smeared blood on her face. "Don't speak. I'll...I'll get help."
As she turned, the lion grasped her wrist. Carea nodded and stroked his mane.
"Yes, Master. I'll stay with you.
A shadow approached from behind. Carea whirled around, snarling and extending her claws. A strong paw caught her wrist. Through her tears and rage, she saw the face of the young soldier.
The absurdity of the command hit Carea like a slap to the face. She swung her free paw at the lion. He caught his other wrist.
"I don't know what you--"
"Yes. You do. Sing. I will get help. But you must sing for Rufeo."
Carea sank to her knees again, all her strength gone. What could it hurt? She rested a paw on one of Rufeo's wounds. The troubadour tried to sit up, but didn't have the strength. Carea closed her eyes, to shut out her doubts, to shut out her past. She was no longer the girl who had dumped a dye vat on her sister's head. She was not even the female who had dropped pastries on the Duccetta. She was the apprentice to Master Sylvan Rufeo of Clan Hespera, and perhaps something more as well.