“Nyannah Vel Andolay,” Master Genivere’s voice caught up to her in the corridor, making her want to duck her shoulders down and slip into some quick side-hall unnoticed, but it was too late for that. She’d already been spotted and the woman was racing through the crowded bodies filing through the hallway in an attempt to catch up to her. “Miss Vel Andolay,” she called again, to ensure there were no mistakes.
She’d been seen, and a discussion would be had between them.
“Yes, Master Genivere,” she slowed to allow her professor to catch up.
She’d been expecting the confrontation. Ever since she’d slipped her furiously penned final paper underneath the woman’s locked office door just before the dinner bells tolled through the campus. The paper she now held in her trembling hand as she approached.
“Nyannah, you’ve been a difficult young woman to make contact with these last few days, so imagine my surprised when I returned from dinner early this evening and found this bit of parchment waiting for me under the door.”
“You weren’t in your office, but I wanted to make certain you got it before the deadline.”
“Deadline?” she balked. “And you’re quite certain this is your final word on the matter of inspiration?”
“Quite certain,” she nodded, “yes.”
“Well, I’ve read it through,” she quirked a smooth tawny brow and stiffly nodded, “not thoroughly, nor with red pen in hand, but I’m intrigued to say the least, by how well you’ve pulled your scattered thoughts on the subject together. I can only assume you’ve taken a page and perhaps a bit of inspiration from Master Dandelion’s book. A page, I must confess, I’m not entirely certain I approve of despite the cohesive conclusions you’ve drawn on your own in this paper.”
“His lectures were… an eye-opening experience,” she summarized, though she knew it was far more than his lectures that had opened her eyes. Their conversations, in no small part, the night before and that very morning, had brought her to several conclusions regarding her life and her future. She only hoped she had a chance to share those revelations with him after his final lecture. “One I hope will last through the number of my days.”
“And your studies with Master Billings?” she asked. “Have you forgotten about their importance during Master Dandelion’s visit to the academy? He approached me this morning, after your second missed class this week to express his concerns about what he believes to be a most disturbing case of senioritis. After all, it is so unlike you to miss a class or lecture…”
“I’ve not forgotten, no,” she said, the two of them moving slowly together toward the lecture hall. “I simply haven’t had time. I turned my work into Master Billings, and I’ve no worries that I will score the highest marks on his final…”
“I understand the tendency for a student in your position, only days away from finals and graduation and nervously approaching the end of her time here, and the Belleteyn fires always make the students forget the importance of their tasks. Nyannah, this is not the time to lose your head or your focus, and most certainly not because it’s been turned away from your studies by a certain guest here at our school who will more than likely forget your name and your face when he is only seconds beyond the gates of Oxenfurt and on his way again.”
She wasn’t sure why that insulted her, but it did. She, personally, made no assumptions about her strange, but fascinating relationship with the bard who’d spend an innocent night sleeping off drink in her bed, but she couldn’t begin to imagine who’d seen him leaving her room that morning or the rumors they were spreading on account of it. The simple fact was that she liked him, yes. She could not deny the attraction she felt to a man who was certainly old enough to be her father, but she hadn’t let any of that go to her head, and even if she had, whose business was it but her own?
“You have been a model student here at Oxenfurt these last four years, Miss Vel Andolay, your father, despite how much he would have disliked your chosen path, would have boasted of your marks and your efforts, but…”
“I’m sorry, Master Genivere, but your concerns are unfounded. My focus and my head are precisely where they need to be, and right now both of them need to be in the lecture hall. Master Dandelion’s going to be singing tonight, and I don’t insult him by arriving late.”
The old woman, her lips pinched into a flabbergasted scowl, was struck speechless by her response, left on the other side of the lecture hall door after it closed behind Nyannah. She didn’t know how long her advisor stood there in the hallway, but she did find herself hoping it was long enough to hear Dandelion fill the hall with music and beauty so profound that for a very short time the world itself did not feel like such a dreadful place at all.
His words and his clear voice filled her with hope and wonder, and she found herself wishing he felt it too.
There were fewer people in the hall, more than half the students put off by the previous night’s display, but those in attendance were the better for it. And when he finished his song, set his lute beside the stool and began speaking on the necessity of opening one’s eyes and truly taking a glimpse at the world around them to find inspiration, Nyannah felt that tingling warmth she’d experienced after hearing him play in the tavern.
She felt uplifted by the words, awestruck by the music and she knew more than ever what she’d suspected all along.
Inspiration was not found in books, but in the cold, cruel world that wanted nothing more than to fuck her and fuck her hard. Inspiration was her power against that world, the soft, placating fingertips used to soothe its rage and unravel its anger, replacing it with love and beauty and light.
The lecture ran several minutes past the hour, but none in attendance dared complain, and afterward he lingered on the dais like a true professional, promising to answer any and all questions before sending them on their way.
One by one they stopped to thank him, to shake his hand, but Nyannah remained in her seat until the last one had gone and the world famous poet dropped onto the stool with an exhausted sigh.
“Another series of lectures at my beloved Oxenfurt comes to an end.”
“I’m glad I made it here on time,” she rose from her chair and walked casually toward the front of the lecture hall. “That song was beautiful,” she told him, “in fact, it inspired me.”
“Inspiration is always cause for celebration. We should revel in its wonders together!” he announced. “Now that the hype of my celebrity has died down a little I should be able to walk into the tavern without being mobbed. What do you say?” he asked. “Will you join me for a drink? We’ll lift our glasses to the muse and put this near-disastrous visit to Oxenfurt to bed in style?”
“How many glasses are we talking?” she crossed her arms. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to drag you up the stairs to my dorm room without notice again.”
His amusement echoed through the empty hall. “The beauty of being housed in the room above the tavern,” he declared, “is that I can sleep wherever I pass out and the doorman will carry me up and deposit me in my bed, so long as I tip him handsomely come morning.”
“I don’t know,” she hesitated. “I’m not much for that kind of drinking, and who will shuffle me back to my dorm to deposit me in my bed if I do happen to get carried away? Not you,” she pointed out. “You’ll be passed out in your room above the tavern.”
“You’re welcome to pass out there with me,” he raised his brow, his blue eyes twinkling with boyish mischief.
“As appealing as that offer is, I’ve no desire to pass out anywhere.”
“So you do find thoughts of me in your bed appealing?” he tested, but before she could reply, he went on, laughing as he said, “We don’t really have to pass out. That was just a joke. I was being silly. Come on, let’s have a couple of drinks, talk more about how much we inspire one other and see where the night takes us.”
“All right,” she gave in.
He held out his arm and she looped hers through it, the two of them falling into step side by side.
Once outside in the drizzle-soaked night their rhythm matched perfectly as they turned into the alley together and headed through campus. Beyond the gates, they made their way toward the tavern. It wasn’t busy, which Dandelion said was probably due to the rain, though she couldn’t think of any student she’d ever known from Oxenfurt who’d declined a night of drunken revelry on account of the rain, and most certainly not on the eve of the Belleteyn fires.
“It must be finals,” she decided, dropping into a chair at the table he led them toward near the dimly lit back of the tavern. “Everyone always gets so bent out of shape when it comes time to test at the end of each year.”
He waved for the barmaid to bring them a pitcher of ale and two mugs, then lowered himself into the chair across from her. He folded his hands together atop the table, leaned inward and in a whisper he asked, “And what about you? Are you bent out of shape about your end of year finals? About graduating and charging out into the world to find your way?”
“No,” she shrugged. “I’ve no worries about finals at all. After the holiday, I’ll take them and be on my way from this place. Though I’ve no idea where I might go from here and for the first time that doesn’t really frighten me at all.”
“Not back home?” he asked. “Back to your mother in Tretogor?”
“Perhaps eventually, but not just now. Just now I think I want to travel,” she told him. “I think it’s time I see the world and find my inspiration.”
“Inspiration,” he mused, stroking his fingers through the tuft of his beard and leaning back to allow the barmaid to place the pitcher on the table between them. He poured them each a drink, slid her mug across the table and lifted his to toast her. “Let’s drink to inspiration.”
“To inspiration,” she agreed, the metal clanking together, the ale sloshing down the sides of their mugs and splashing across their hands. They drank deep, both of them quenching their thirst and then some, before lowering half-empty mugs to the table. “And what about you?” she asked. “Where do you go from here now that your lectures are done?”
“I’ll stay through Belleteyn,” he decided, “maybe a few days into May, but after that, who cares?”
They drank to that too, and though she hadn’t emptied her mug, he refilled them both and steered the conversation back to her plans after finishing school. “There’s got to be somewhere you’d like to go,” he insisted. “Someplace exciting you’ve always wanted to see.”
“Vizima,” she declared. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Vizima?” he made a funny face, which soon disappeared behind his cup as he drank again. “Can’t you think of someplace more exotic? I’ve been to Vizima. I have friends there,” he smacked his lips as he drew the mug away, “and it’s great, but…”
“But nothing, it’s a great city. There are so many great cities to see. To great cities,” and they drank again, clashing their mugs to the great cities of the Northern Kingdoms, which he began counting off to her in laughing splendor.
“You’ve been just about everywhere in the Northern Kingdoms, haven’t you?”
“Indeed, I have. And a few places beyond.”
“You’re quite lucky.”
“Sometimes I was lucky,” he agreed, “other times I was in the right place at the right time, or the wrong time, depending on how you look at it. More than once I was all but doomed and lucky I made it out alive. I was fortunate to have such steadfast and loyal traveling companions who didn’t want to see me dead. It’s all in who you travel with, you know. Hey, there’s an idea,” he said in delighted revelation. “I could take you. To Vizima, I mean. It just so happens, you see, that I am in need of a travel companion and a destination, and it seems you would fit the bill perfectly.”
“I bet you ask all the girls to come with you to Vizima?”
“Usually I’m running toward Vizima to get away from a girl,” he snorted into his cup, “but seriously, Nyan, consider it. If you want to go to Vizima, I could take you there. After you finish your finals, of course. I could introduce you to some people, some friends of mine…”
“Dandelion, we hardly know one another.”
“What better way to become acquainted than by traveling the world together?” he proffered. “The wide open road, adventure at every turn… Besides, you’ve already seen me at my very worst, how bad could it really be after that?” Folding his arms atop the table again, his drink cupped between his hands, he leaned forward so only the two of them could hear what he had to say. “Let’s teach the world to be a better lover together, the two of us. Just you and me.”
She knew what he was asking, but she didn’t know how to respond. After a while he realized she wasn’t going to give him an answer right then and there, so he said, “Well, at least say you will think about it, sleep on it, even. We’ll have a few more drinks together, maybe sing a song or two, and then we’ll go our separate ways at the end of the night if we are both able to walk that far. You don’t have to give your answer tonight. You can tell me tomorrow,” he declared. “In the evening. We’ll meet up at the Belleteyn fires if you want to come away with me.”
She hadn’t been planning to go to the Belleteyn fires, not at first. Belleteyn was a night of strange commitments, a night for lovers and marriages, beginnings and endings. A night when people threw caution to the wind like farmers throwing seeds into the earth in hopes that they would grow.
The symbolism of his suggestion wasn’t lost on her. If she met him there, it would be as though she were saying she wanted to begin a life together, become his companion, but a man like Dandelion did not endeavor into lasting commitments.
Not according to any of the stories she’d ever heard about him, anyway.
She’d fall in love with him if she went, get her heart broken out there in the world… of that she was more than sure. And after Belleteyn, after falling into one another’s arms and breathing promises and making plans, they’d let the road thereafter carry them away until he grew tired of her… He would move on and leave her in some distant land so far from home she’d never find her way to someplace safe while he chased after someone younger, prettier, more gullible…
It was both exhilarating and terrifying so far as thoughts went.
“I’m really not sure that’s a good…”
“You’re afraid,” he deemed. “And you should be. The world out there is a terrifying place, as we’ve dutifully surmised together these last few days, but wouldn’t you feel safer with someone who’s already been out there? Someone who knows where to go, what to expect?”
“I don’t think it’s the world that terrifies me, Dandelion, and I’ve no doubt you know where to go, or what to expect,” she confessed. “If anything, I think it is you that scares me. If I let you, you just might break my heart, and I’m sure mine wouldn’t be the first you’d done it to.”
“Of me?” he laughed, waving her off with a dismissive hand. “You’re afraid of me? Now we’re finally getting to the truth, aren’t we? And the truth is this: I’m an old man. Isn’t that what you said last night?” he reminded her. “A, harmless, tired old man. A lonely old man, Nyan, who just wants someone to come on an adventure with him.” For a few minutes he said nothing, only set his cup down and stared at his two hands, and then he finally said, “Any heart entrusted to these old hands,” he held them up to show her, “would be more than safe until the day I leave this wretched world, of that much I can assure you.”
It was impulsive. Crazy at the very least, but how much inspiration would such an experience provide?
“Tomorrow you will tell me,” he filled both their cups again. “Tomorrow we will decide if we were made to travel the world together.” They drank to tomorrow, to the Belleteyn fires, to finding inspiration and showing the world how to be a better lover.
But they did not become lovers. Not that night.
They drank. Clashing cups and laughing, telling stories and sharing secrets in slurred voices. Soon the night before her began to waver as the ale went to her head, and though it seemed he drank far more than she did, at the end of it all it was Dandelion who put his arm around her, insisted she call it a night and nearly carried her up the stairs to his room above the tavern. He helped her out of her coat, tugged off her boots after she dropped back into the chair with a thud, and then he put her to bed.
He laid down beside her after pulling off his own coat, opened his arms and drew her close to his chest when she went to him.
She could smell the liquor on his breath when he whispered in her ear, “You’re not going to vomit on me, are you?”
Nyannah snorted a laugh into his shoulder, her hand falling in to rest upon his stomach. She clenched the button of his shirt in her hand and said, “No, I’m not. I really just want someone to share the darkness with me, to show me where to find the light.”
Dandelion kissed the top of her head, his arm tightening across her back as he promised, “I’ll light the whole damn night for you if you ask me to.”
Nyannah woke alone the next morning. Dandelion was not staring out the window at a mostly dry but grey dawn, nor did he sit in the chair at the small desk in the corner of the room, though there was a piece of parchment positioned there, a quill rested atop it and a pot of ink set off to the side, as if he’d been there and left his thoughts behind before sneaking off into that grey and foggy dawn. She could see his perfect, sweeping penmanship from where she sat, and though she couldn’t make out the words there was a twinge of dread inside her as she lifted her weary, throbbing head from the pillow and stared at that slip of paper.
A goodbye note?
Had he slipped off while she slept to make an easy getaway? Escaping promises before he even had a chance to make them?
She felt like she might be sick, and not just from the alcohol or dehydration it brought on. She was still afraid, mostly of the things she was feeling. She thought she’d known what to expect from herself, having dabbled in her fair share of romances since she’d come to Oxenfurt, but to feel so swept away after only a number of days she could count on the fingers of her left hand seemed absurd. She was not love with Dandelion; she knew that love came on in slow, terrifying waves of the most intense and satisfying kind, that it was something two people discovered together, often without even realizing it. If she traveled with him, she would know what it felt like to fall in love with him given time, and as terrifying as that thought was, especially given his history, she wanted that chance.
It frightened her that chance would be taken away before it was ever given, just as she’d expressed to him the night before. He’d said her heart would be safe in his hands, but how could she believe him?
Was that what life would be like if she traveled with Dandelion? If she became his companion and lover? Filled with dread and suspicion? Always wondering if he slipped away while she slept to avoid having to say goodbye?
He said he knew not how to break a heart anymore, but wasn’t that exactly how a poet would win the heart he intended to break in the first place?
Clearing her throat, she listened to the quiet tavern. It was never that quiet in the dormitory, bodies always hustling through the halls, stomping the steps at all hours of the night and morning. She wasn’t used to such silence, and it felt all the more foreboding.
Gathering the blankets around her, she warded off the morning chill and avoided reading that paper for far longer than she needed to.
She was so convinced it was goodbye that by the time she actually stood up and walked over to snatch it up off the desk she felt unreasonably angry and bitter. Her fears were unfounded, and she felt like an idiot as her eyes danced across the thoughtful letters of the most beautiful poem anyone had ever written for her.
Tonight we’ll set the world aflame,
forget our families and our names.
Forget all things but you and I,
our quest for inspiration nigh:
To share the darkness with the light,
to never spend another night
alone, afraid or dreading dawn
because the fates have aptly drawn
we two into this perfect place.
I cannot wait to see your face,
for even if the clouds spill rain
naught dampers the fires of Belleteyn.
Come and find me there, Nyan.
Below he signed the letter J, and though there was no explanation for that letter, or his departure, no allusion to his whereabouts, the relief that flooded through her as she clutched that parchment to her chest was so complete she felt as though she drew breath into her body for the very first time.
Nyannah closed her eyes, drew her lower lip between her teeth and felt the most delightful laughter swell inside her.
It was a silly thing, how giddy she felt, and giving in to his request to travel with him would change her life in the most unexpected ways. She couldn’t imagine what each day would bring, the lack of stability and certainty that would rise with the sun each morning and follow them through every day.
And what if he broke her heart? She hadn’t even given it to him yet, and already she could feel it tightening inside her chest as if a hand had wrapped around it and begun to squeeze. That feeling filled her, made her fingers itch to dart quill across page and put it all into words that would shed light upon a darker world.
If he could make her feel that way after just a few days, how could he make her feel if they spent weeks together? Months? Years traveling the world, side by side, bringing light into all those dark places that made men forget how to feel.
She could tell herself she had a choice, but in the end she knew it wasn’t true.
Love, much like the world, didn’t offer much in the way of choices, at least not choices without regrets.
And the only thing she knew for certain, as she stretched her arms into her jacket and prepared to depart from the tavern, was not finding Dandelion at the Belleteyn fires would fill her with regret, and she wanted no such thing in her life at all.