Before I could think of anything to say, a voice came from the line behind us. “It’s not a fake, Kett.” A tall woman carrying a fiddle case nodded at me. “He earned his pipes while you were away. He’s the real thing.”
“Thanks Marie,” I said as the doorman gestured us inside.
The four of us found a table near the back wall with a good view of the stage. I scanned the nearby faces and staved off a familiar flicker of disappointment when Denna was nowhere to be seen.
“What was that business at the door?” Manet asked as he looked around, taking in the stage, the high, vaulted ceiling. “Were people paying to get in here?”
I looked at him. “You’ve been a student for thirty years, but never been to the Eolian?”
“Well, you know.” He made a vague gesture. “I’ve been busy. I don’t get over to this side of the river very often.”
Sim laughed, sitting down. “Let me put this in terms you’ll understand, Manet. If music had a University, this would be it, and Kvothe would be a full-fledged arcanist.”
“Bad analogy,” Wil said. “This is a musical court, and Kvothe is one of the gentry. We ride his coattails in. It is the reason we have tolerated his troublesome company for so long.”
“A whole jot just to get in?” Manet asked.
Manet gave a noncommittal grunt as he looked around, eyeing the well-dressed nobles milling on the balcony above. “Well then,” he said. “I guess I learned something today.”
The Eolian was just beginning to fill up, so we passed the time playing corners. It was just a friendly game, a drab a hand, double for a counterfeit, but coin-poor as I was, any stakes were high. Luckily, Manet played with the precision of a gear-clock: no mislaid tricks, no wild bids, no hunches.
Simmon bought the first round of drinks, and Manet bought the second. By the time the Eolian’s lights dimmed, Manet and I were ten hands ahead, largely due to Simmon’s tendency to enthusiastically overbid. I pocketed the single copper jot with grim satisfaction.
One talent and four
An older man made his way up onto the stage. After a brief introduction by Stanchion he played a heart-achingly lovely version of “Taetn’s Late Day” on mandolin. His fingers were light and quick and sure on his strings. But his voice . . .
Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use. His was like a sweet honey wine. He finished his song to hearty applause, and after a moment the lights came back up and the room swelled with conversation.
“There’s breaks between the performers,” I explained to Manet. “So folk can talk and walk around and get their drinks. Tehlu and all his angels won’t be able to keep you safe if you talk during someone’s performance.”
Manet huffed. “Don’t worry about me embarrassing you. I’m not a complete barbarian.”
“Just giving fair warning,” I said. “You let me know what’s dangerous in the Artificery. I let you know what’s dangerous here.”
“His lute was different,” Wilem said. “It sounded different than yours. Smaller too.”
I fought off the urge to smile and decided not to make an issue of it. “That sort of lute is called a mandolin,” I said.
“You’re going to play, aren’t you?” Simmon asked, squirming in his seat like an eager puppy. “You should play that song you wrote about Ambrose.” He hummed a bit, then sang:
A mule can learn magic, a mule has some class,
Cause unlike young Rosey, he’s just half an ass.
Manet chuckled into his mug. Wilem cracked a rare smile.
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m done with Ambrose. We’re quits as far as I’m concerned.”
“Of course,” Wil said, deadpan.
“I’m serious,” I said. “There’s no profit in it. This back and forth does nothing but irritate the masters.”
is rather a mild word,” Manet said dryly. “Not exactly the one I would have chosen, myself.”
“You owe him,” Sim said, his eyes glittering with anger. “Besides, they aren’t going to charge you with Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Arcanum just for singing a song.”
“No,” Manet said. “They’ll just raise his tuition.”
“What?” Simmon said. “They can’t do that. Tuition is based on your admissions interview.”
Manet’s snort echoed hollowly into his mug as he took another drink. “The interview is just a piece of the game. If you can afford it, they squeeze you a little. Same thing if you cause them trouble.” He eyed me seriously. “You’re going to be getting it from both ends this time. How many times were you brought up on the horns last term?”
“Twice.” I admitted. “But the second time wasn’t really my fault.”
“Of course,” Manet gave me a frank look. “And that’s why they tied you up and whipped you bloody, is it? Because it wasn’t your fault?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, feeling the pull of the half-healed scars along my back. “Most of it wasn’t my fault,” I amended.
Manet shrugged it aside. “Fault isn’t the issue. A tree doesn’t make a thunderstorm, but any fool knows where lightning’s going to strike.”
Wilem nodded seriously. “Back home we say: the tallest nail gets hammered down first.” He frowned. “It sounds better in Siaru.”
Sim looked troubled. “But the admission interview still determines the lion’s share of your tuition, doesn’t it?” From his tone, I guessed Sim hadn’t even considered the possibility of personal grudges or politics entering into the equation.
“For the most part,” Manet admitted. “But the masters pick their own questions, and they each get their say.” He began to tick things off on his fingers. “Hemme doesn’t care for you, and he can carry twice his weight in grudges. You got on Lorren’s bad side early and managed to stay there. You’re a troublemaker. You missed nearly a span of classes toward the end of last term. No warning beforehand or any explanation afterward.” He gave me a significant look.
I looked down at the table, pointedly aware that several of the classes I’d missed had been part of my apprenticeship under Manet in the Artificery.
After a moment, Manet shrugged and continued. “On top of it all, they’ll be testing you as a Re’lar this time around. Tuitions get higher in the upper ranks. There’s a reason I’ve stayed an E’lir this long.” He gave me a hard stare. “My best guess? You’ll be lucky to get out for less than ten talents.”
“Ten talents.” Sim sucked a breath through his teeth and shook his head sympathetically. “Good thing you’re so flush.”
“Not as flush as that,” I said.
“How can you not be?” Sim asked. “The masters fined Ambrose almost twenty talents after he broke your lute. What did you do with all the money?”
I looked down and nudged my lute case gently with my foot.
“You spent it on a new lute?” Simmon asked, horrified. “Twenty talents? Do you know what you could buy for that amount of money?”
“A lute?” Wilem asked.
“I didn’t even know you
spend that much on an instrument,” Simmon said.
“You can spend a lot more than that,” Manet said. “They’re like horses.”
This made the conversation stumble a bit. Wil and Sim turned to look at him, confused.
I laughed. “That’s a good comparison, actually.”
Manet nodded sagely. “There’s a wide spread with horses, you see. You can buy a broken old plow horse for less than a talent. Or you can buy a high-stepping Vaulder for forty.”
“Not likely,”Wil grunted. “Not for a true Vaulder.”
Manet smiled. “That’s it exactly. However much you’ve ever known someone to spend on a horse, you could easily spend that buying yourself a fine harp or fiddle.”
Simmon looked stunned by this. “But my father once spent two hundred fifty hard on a Kaepcaen tall,” he said.
I leaned to one side and pointed. “The blond man there, his mandolin is worth twice that.”
“But,” Simmon said. “But horses have bloodlines. You can breed a horse and sell it.”
“That mandolin has a bloodline,” I said. “It was made by Antressor himself. It’s been around for a hundred and fifty years.”
I watched as Sim absorbed the information, looking around at all the instruments in the room. “Still,” Sim said. “Twenty talents.” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you wait until after admissions? You could have spent whatever you had left over on the lute.”
“I needed it to play at Anker’s,” I explained. “I get free room and board as their house musician. If I don’t play, I can’t stay.”
It was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Anker would have cut me some slack if I’d explained my situation. But if I’d waited, I would have had to spend almost two span without a lute. It would be like missing a tooth or a limb. It would be like spending two span with my mouth sewn shut. It was unthinkable.
“And I didn’t spend
of it on the lute,” I said. “I had a few other expenses crop up too.” Specifically, I’d paid off the gaelet I’d borrowed money from. That had taken six talents, but being free of my debt to Devi was like having a great weight lifted off my chest.
But now I could feel that same weight settling back onto me. If Manet’s guess was even half-accurate, I was worse off than I’d thought.
Fortunately, the lights dimmed and the room grew quiet, saving me from having to explain myself any further. We looked up as Stanchion brought Marie up onto the stage. He chatted with the nearby audience while she tuned her fiddle and the room began to settle down.
I liked Marie. She was taller than most men, proud as a cat, and spoke at least four languages. Many of Imre’s musicians did their best to mimic the latest fashion, hoping to blend in with the nobility, but Marie wore road clothes. Pants you could do a day’s work in, boots you could use to walk twenty miles.
I don’t mean to imply she wore homespun, mind you. She just had no love for fashion or frippery. Her clothes were obviously tailored for her, close fitting and flattering. Tonight she wore burgundy and brown, the colors of her patron, the Lady Jhale.
The four of us eyed the stage. “I will admit,” Wilem said quietly, “that I have given Marie a fair amount of consideration.”
Manet gave a low chuckle. “That is a woman and a half,” he said. “Which means she’s five times more woman than any of you know what to do with.” At a different time, such a statement might have goaded the three of us into swaggering protest. But Manet stated it without a hint of taunt in his voice, so we let it pass. Especially as it was probably true.
“Not for me,” Simmon said. “She always looks like she’s getting ready to wrestle someone. Or go off and break a wild horse.”
“She does.” Manet chuckled again. “If we were living in a better age they’d build a temple around a woman like that.”
We fell silent as Marie finished tuning her fiddle and eased into a sweet roundel, slow and gentle as a soft spring breeze.
Though I didn’t have time to tell him, Simmon was more than half right. Once, in the Flint and Thistle, I had seen Marie punch a man in the throat for referring to her as “that mouthy fiddler bitch.” She kicked him when he was on the ground, too. But only once, and nowhere that hurt him in a permanent way.
Marie continued her roundel, the slow, sweet pace of it gradually building until it was trotting along briskly. The sort of tune you would only think of dancing to if you were exceptionally light on your feet, or exceptionally drunk.
She let it build until it was beyond anything a man could dream of dancing to. It was nothing like a trot now. It sprinted, fast as a pair of children racing. I marveled at how clean and clear her fingering was despite the frantic pace.
Faster. Quick as a deer with a wild dog behind it. I started to get nervous, knowing it was just a matter of time before she slid or slipped or dropped a note. But somehow she kept going, each note perfect, sharp and strong and sweet. Her flickering fingers arched high against the strings. The wrist of her bow hand hung loose and lazy despite the terrible speed.