A Wilderness of Glass – Grace Draven

THE VESTIBULE just outside the busy kitchens hummed with conversation and the thump of wet boots. One by one, the musicians shed their footwear for the clean shoes they’d carried with them during the slow wagon ride up the castle hill. Brida Gazi laced her shoes with shaking fingers, still cold from the winds blowing off the Gray to scour the bluff on which Castle Banat perched. She blew on her hands to warm them before tucking them under her arms for additional heat. “I can hardly tie my shoes,” she complained to the woman seated next to her. “I won’t be much good on the flute if I can’t move my fingers.” Haniss nodded, eyeing the fire they glimpsed in the kitchen with a longing gaze, flames dancing merrily in the giant hearth. “Maybe they’ll let us stand by the cooking hearth for a few moments to warm up and dry off a little.” She caressed the mandolin in her lap as if it were a favorite cat. “It isn’t just us who’ll need warming before we play. I don’t even want to hear what these strings sound like right now.” The trip had been a miserable one with the salty mists spraying off the Gray to descend upon them in a light drizzle. She had huddled in her thin cloak, clutching her flute with one hand and holding her place on the low-sided dray wagon with the other. Autumn had brought the annual rains, and this evening had been much like the ones before it for the past fortnight—wet and chilly. It could have been worse.

Thunder boomed in the distance, heard even in the depths of the keep, behind thick stone walls. At their arrival in the bailey, the wagon driver had given their troupe a brief frown and a warning as he glanced at the horizon where lightning bolts split the heavy clouds. “Be prepared for a drenching on the way home,” Odon Imre said. “And a long ride as well. I’ll not be pushing Voreg here to go fast on muddy roads. I’d rather get you home late than dead.” A scullery maid appeared at the threshold between vestibule and kitchen, a spoon in one hand. She offered the musicians a quick smile. “Cook says you can gather by the fire to warm yourselves. Just don’t get in the way or have a chat-up with the rest of us.

” She leapt back to keep from being trampled as the five of them bolted for the kitchen and the promise of heat the hearth offered. Brida was the last to leave, and she paused before the wide-eyed maid. “I saw your mama today, Aliz. She wanted me to tell you not to forget that pot of pepper you promised when you come home in a few days.” She chuckled at the maid’s frustrated eyeroll. “I wish I’d never said anything about it. You’re the fourth person who’s delivered that message to me. If I were my da, I’d start to feel jealous over the attention she’s paying to a container of spice!” The various scents of food stewing in pots, roasting on spits, and frying in pans made Brida’s mouth water. She’d eaten at home a few hours earlier, but the meal had been nothing as tempting as the smells wafting through the great kitchen at the moment. The castle’s cook, a tall, whip-thin man with a stare sharper than the knife he currently wielded, stalked toward them.

Maids and undercooks scurried out of his path. He gestured with the blade and addressed them in a startlingly dulcet voice. “Once you get the cold out of your hands, you can have something to eat over there.” He pointed the knife to a long table set against the far wall. “Lord Frantisek says a wellfed musician plays better, and he expects you to give your best tonight.” Exclamations of delight greeted his announcement, along with assurances that each musician would offer up their best performance for the pleasure of his lordship’s guests. Haniss leaned down to whisper in Brida’s ear. “His lordship is much different from his wife, I think. If it were up to Ziga’s sister, we’d be playing in the bailey in the downpour.” “If it were up to Lady Frantisek, we wouldn’t be here at all.

” Brida had met the lady of the castle very briefly years earlier, before her marriage to Andras Frantisek. A brittle, high-born girl, very aware of her station in life, she had grown into a beauty who captured the attention of the powerful Frantisek family as a possible bride for the heir before their fall from grace. Sometimes Brida found it hard to believe the pragmatic Zigana Imre was her ladyship’s bastard sister. The two women were nothing alike in character. After time in front of the hearth and a quick supper, the castle steward appeared to escort them to a chamber similar to the first vestibule, except that it was much warmer and contained a staircase that led to a balcony overlooking the great hall. Another doorway opening to the hall itself gave Brida a glimpse of the guests gathering for Lord Frantisek’s party to celebrate his wife’s naming day. These were not the elite aristocracy who populated King Sangur’s court in Pricid. None of those nobles would deign to travel so far—or even so near—to attend a celebration hosted by the Frantisek Exile. Tonight’s guests were the more lowly gentry from the towns and villages within the lord’s demesne, eager to brush shoulders and have conversation with the last remaining members of a once-powerful family. Regardless of their lower ranking, Brida was in awe of the gathering.

Many who couldn’t claim elevated bloodlines possessed fat purses, and their adornment tonight— silks and fine linens, sparkling jewels, and rare perfumes that scented the air—proved lower-born didn’t equate to poverty-stricken. She would have been content to stare at the pageantry all evening if she wasn’t here to perform a task. She turned her attention to the steward when he cleared his throat. “You may tune your instruments in here. Lord Frantisek has said he will speak with you all. Once he’s finished, you’ll climb to the balcony and begin your performance.” He left them to disappear amid the growing crowd of guests filling the great hall. “Best get to it then,” Janen said as he unpacked his fiddle from its case and prepared to rosin his bow. “Once his lordship arrives, we won’t have any more time to tune.” As the oldest and most skilled musician in Ancilar, Janen had accepted Lord Frantisek’s invitation on the group’s behalf and immediately selected the other four musicians who would join him in a quintet to perform at the castle.

He’d approached Brida last. “Are you interested?” he’d asked once she listened to the details such as payment and what was expected. His offer had surprised her. She wasn’t the only flautist in the village, nor was she the best, and she told Janen so. He’d shrugged. “Onastis is a better flute player, but there’s something about your flute, and the way you play it, Brida, that makes one either weep or laugh, depending on the music. This is what I want played at his lordship’s celebration.” She’d agreed, nervous about performing for a crowd of strangers in an unfamiliar environment but grateful for the money she would earn from the event. Every little bit would help her brother and his wife. There were a lot of children to feed.

She unwrapped her flute from its protective covering of cloth that kept it dry. Made from a bone her father had found on the beach and brought back with him, he’d spent hours of drilling out the chamber and finger holes, carving the designs and sanding the bone smooth before presenting it to Brida. It had been his gift to her on her wedding day, the last one he gave her before his death, and she treasured it above all her other possessions. Klen Gazi had no idea what creature the bone had belonged to, only that he thought it might be something which once lived in the Gray instead of drowned in it. Whatever it was, the flute produced ethereal notes that bewitched people when Brida played it. She didn’t fool herself that it was her playing affecting people so much. The flute possessed a magic of its own. She felt it in her fingers and on her lips every time she played. Despite its sorcery, it was still a flute, and a cold one never sounded good. Brida joined the other troubadours in tuning their instruments, the sounds they produced a discordant cacophony that both drew people to investigate or flinch and flee to the other side of the hall, away from the noise.

As the flute warmed beneath her tuning, the shrieking true notes lowered, and the sharp harmonics softened. It was as if the flute were a living creature, settling with her breath and touch. She played a set of scales and then a short sea shanty before settling on a quartet of notes that had haunted her since she first learned of her husband’s death a few years earlier and stood on the shore, contemplating the vast and merciless expanse of the Gray at night. A sound had rolled off the water then, rising above the surf’s low thunder, a tuneless song built on the trough of loss and the crest of hope. It arrowed straight through her soul. She had wept then, for Talmai who had drowned in the Gray’s depths, the doomed ship and the men who died alongside him, his eternal companions. Somewhere within the solemn waves, something wept with her. No other flute she’d ever played could reproduce those four notes exactly. Only this one, strengthening Brida’s belief in its mysterious power. She played the notes several times in a row, noting from the corner of her eye the way the other players slowed and finally halted their own tuning to listen.

Magic, she thought. There was magic here. She stopped when Janen raised a hand to signal enough. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, another more strident voice interrupted him. “Where did you learn to play that?” Brida pivoted to face the newcomer. A man, clothed in the finery of monarchs, his hands bedecked in gold rings, strode into the room. Brida’s eyes widened as she backed away to keep him from treading on her feet. He reached for her flute. Only her quick reflexes stopped him from snatching it out of her hands. Janen and the harpist Arpath closed ranks in front of her, creating a living wall to block the stranger.

“Where did you get that flute?” He almost snarled the words, face bloodless with shock, mouth thinned with rage. “Where did you learn those notes?” Behind Janen’s and Arpath’s shoulders, Brida gaped, clutching her flute even tighter. Stunned by the unwarranted attack, she struggled to give a coherent reply. Another, deeper voice joined the fray. “Ospodine, I didn’t invite you here to assault the musicians.” Andras Frantisek, new lord and tenant of Castle Banat, stood behind the man he called Ospodine, his own sun-kissed features set in grim lines. “What are you doing here?” His tone warned he wouldn’t suffer any blather. Ospodine half turned to answer, still glaring at Brida. “I want to know where she learned to play the song and where she got the flute.” His words were accusatory, and in them, she heard the unspoken charge of “thief.

” Her indignation overrode her initial surprise. She pushed her way past Janen and Arpath, careful to keep the flute out of reach. Ignoring her accuser, she sought out his lordship’s gaze. “My lord, the flute was given to me by my father on my wedding day nearly a decade ago. He fashioned it himself from a bone he found on the beach.” Uncaring that she, a village woman of no standing and little import, challenged one of his lordship’s guests, she glared at the scowling Ospodine and said “The flute is mine and has always been mine.” It was no business of his when and where she’d heard the four-note tune. Lord Frantisek watched her for a moment, silent, before he raised an eyebrow at Ospodine. “I believe you have your answer, friend. No reason to linger now.

Allow me to escort you back to the other guests.” Again the implied warning that if Ospodine didn’t leave of his own accord, things wouldn’t go well for him. The other man’s features, made memorable by his strangely pale eyes, stiffened into lines of contempt before smoothing out to an expressionless mask. He nodded to Brida and bowed to Lord Frantisek. “My apologies for the disturbance, my lord. The flute and its music seemed familiar and startled me. I beg your forgiveness.” At Frantisek’s head tilt of acknowledgement, Ospodine melted back into the swirling crowd of guests, a dark figure that made Brida think of smoke and water entwined. Janen bowed, and Brida and the others followed suit. “Thank you for the honor of your invitation, my lord,” he said.

His lordship’s mouth quirked at the corners, his gaze taking in the instruments in their hands, settling for just a moment longer on Brida’s flute before moving on. “The gratitude is mine, especially with the promise of foul weather later. You’re welcome to stay overnight if the road is too dangerous to travel home. You’ll have to sleep in the kitchens or possibly the stables as we’re packed to the rafters with guests, but it’ll be dry and safe from lightning.” Brida hoped the weather would hold. This was her first time at Castle Banat, and while she was awed by the structure and its rich trappings, she didn’t fancy spending a night under the same roof as the hostile Ospodine. After a few more pleasantries exchanged between them, his lordship left them to tend to his hosting duties. The steward returned to lead them upstairs to the balcony where stools had been placed in preparation for their arrival. Brida claimed one placed where she could look over the balcony without standing up. The view from above turned the great hall into a sea of flickering lamplight, glittering jewels, and colorful skirts as guests mingled, conversed, and laughed.

Janen moved his seat to face the other four. “Let’s start with something slow and soft. Background as they talk and eat. We’ll play something livelier if and when they choose to dance.” He struck up the first chord to the first song, and Brida and her companions joined in. They played through the evening, until the candles melted low, the oil lamps burned dry, and the guests emptied the casks of wine manned by a pair of servants who refilled cups as fast as people drained them. During the brief respites between sets, Brida dabbed at her perspiring brow and wet her lips from the cup of water a servant had brought her while she played. She was tired and on edge, the weight of one man’s relentless scrutiny heavy on her skin as she played. What about those notes had elicited such aggression from a complete stranger? Ospodine had glared at her as if he’d just discovered the thief who’d stolen all the silver from his house. Brida bristled inwardly, even as her fingers danced down the length of the flute and her breath teased music from the hollow bone.

By the time the steward called a halt to their playing, their quintet was exhausted. Janen stood to follow the steward down the stairs. “Pack up,” he instructed the group. “I’ll be back with our pay.” Rejuvenated by the prospect of returning home and falling into her own bed, Brida put away her flute, tying it under her skirts as a precaution. Better it not be seen should she be unlucky enough to cross paths with Ospodine a second time this night. Janen returned to distribute the payment they’d received, and Brida kissed the small purse of money she held before tucking it into her bodice. Despite her encounter with one of Lord Frantisek’s unpleasant guests and the prospect of a wet ride home, she was glad she came. She’d made enough to repair the leak in her roof and help her brother’s family with their ever-depleted larder, at least until the seaweed harvest started in earnest, and they could sell what they gathered to the farmers of adjacent towns. A quick peek outside assured them that while the moonlit squall line in the distance still threatened, the troupe had a little longer before the line made landfall.

At Odon Imre’s impatient gesturing, the five settled into the dray for the trip back down the bluff. Imre’s mare, Voreg stamped her hoof, splattering mud, as if to echo Odon’s silent encouragement that they hurry it along. Soon they rolled out of the bailey and through the barbican, leaving behind the dark castle.

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