Dandelion had a headache in the morning, but he’d been expecting it on account of the wine. His bones and muscles ached, and he’d been expecting that too. What he hadn’t been expecting was waking to an empty bed, the sheets beside him cold, as if his partner had slipped out hours earlier like a thief flitting through the shadows just before dawn.
So that was what that felt like…
Sitting up in the bed, the sheets pooling around his naked lap, he sat that way until the fuzziness began to recede and the sounds from the street below grew louder as the morning progressed. He realized, only after he’d gotten out of bed and found semi-clean clothes to put on, that he’d been waiting for her to come back, wanting her to rejoin him in the bed, and when she didn’t the strange and terrifying things that haunted him while he’d lain awake long after she’d fallen asleep began to tighten inside him like stretched cat-gut. The more he thought about it, the tighter it stretched, making him feel things he did not enjoy in the least bit.
Where had she gone so early in the morning? Had she kissed him before she left, whispered goodbye. Was she coming back?
Gods, he really was insecure, just like she was always saying.
It was one of the reasons he hadn’t let himself get attached to people in the past. It was better to be the one doing the leaving, by stealth if necessary to a clean getaway, than the one being left.
And he was worried she might be leaving him, even though she kept insisting she wasn’t. He was an old man, and she was so young. Half his age at five and twenty, she hadn’t even come to the prime of her life yet. She’d reach it just about the time he became dumb and forgetful with age and needed someone to feed him mushy soups because his teeth had all started to fall out and he could no longer chew real food. She wouldn’t want to care for him then, would she? And he wouldn’t blame her, but it was disconcerting nonetheless.
She’d been acting so strange and distant, not like his Nyan at all, who was open and forthright and had no fear saying exactly what she thought, even when she knew he wouldn’t want to hear it.
The knob on the door jiggled as she pushed the key into the lock and then opened it just as he was lacing up his shirt. The sound filled him with a strange sense of relief and plucked a smile from his lips as he saw she’d brought him breakfast.
“I thought you’d gone and left me,” he confessed with an uneasy laugh. “Slipped out like a thief in the night who’d stolen my heart and run away with it.”
It was a curse, how brutally honest they often were with each other. It drew all of their insecurities into the light, made them weapons for arguments, which they didn’t have many of, but when they did they were fueled with such ammunition it was a wonder they ever spoke to each other again after all was said and done.
“Sometimes you think too much,” she pointed out, handing over the basket of fresh baked goods. “And that’s not always a good thing. You let that brain of yours concoct some really foolish nonsense, Dandelion.”
“Maybe, but can you blame me? You’ve been acting so odd lately, Buttercup. You’re distant. I feel like I can barely reach you. I wake up and you’re gone, the sheets cold like it’s been hours since you left me…”
“I didn’t leave you. I’m right here,” she told him. “And I’m not going anywhere without you, not unless you want me to.”
“Well, I don’t. Why would I want you to? Now who’s being a fool?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
“So where did you go so early, my little fool?”
She swallowed, thought her words over carefully, then said, “I went to the apothecary and then I looked for work.”
“I have a performance the day after tomorrow, just a small affair in the afternoon, some elderly ladies and their afternoon tea, and there’s a baron who’s shown interest in the two of us teaching his children through the winter, but none of that’s important now. What’s important is this.”
She held out a sealed roll of parchment as if expecting him to take it, but when he didn’t she went on to explain why it was so important.
“The innkeeper’s wife accosted me just now when I returned from my errands. She had a lot of questions, asking if it was truly the world famous troubadour, Dandelion, sleeping in the upstairs room, and when I told her that it was indeed, I thought she was going to ask me if I could convince you to perform, but instead she asked if his true name was Viscount Julian Pankratz de Lettenhove.”
The tautness in his gut, which had alleviated somewhat upon her return, tightened again as if some force outside his body yanked on it.
“I didn’t know what to say, but the look I gave her must have given me away, so she thrust this into my hand and told me an old man brought it here three months ago and paid her handsomely to make sure it reached this Viscount Julian of Lettenhove, who might be using the name Dandelion, if he happened this way in his travels. And she said, ‘The world-famous troubadour, Dandelion?’ To which I assume the old man said, ‘Yes,’ and nothing more.”
She shook the parchment lightly, as if urging him to take it, but he actually took a step back from it, as if it might bite him.
“What did the man look like?”
“Old? I have no idea. I didn’t ask her.”
“You should have.”
“You never told me you were of noble birth.”
Swallowing, he stared down at the scroll in her hands, not sure he wanted to know what was inside it. It could be anything. An outstanding warrant. A threat on his life. Some shadow creeping out of a distant past he’d spent much of the last thirty years trying to forget about… It was more than likely the shadow, the past he’d left behind him, where it belonged, and in that case he wanted nothing to do with it.
“I’m not, not really. Maybe a little, but it doesn’t really matter. Just throw it away, Nyan. If it’s something out of my past, I don’t really care. I haven’t been the person that letter’s addressed to in more than thirty years, and I’m not going to become him just because some piece of paper attempted to rummage him like some drowner from the swamps.”
“So you aren’t even going to read it?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” he shrugged, trying to play it off. “It’s probably an extortionist, threatening to expose my true identity if I don’t give him x amount of orens to keep his crooked teeth together. Not that anyone actually cares who Dandelion was before he became a world-famous minstrel anyway, but who knows what prompts people do such stupid things. Money, I guess. The love of juicy gossip around tea tables like the one you’ll be performing for day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t think that’s what it is. Who would do something like that? And why would they bother, really, Dandelion?”
“Well what would you know about such things? People blackmail people all the time, especially people who’ve made a name for themselves. Because they think we have money, Nyan. They don’t know the half of it, not really.” There was a bite in his tone that furrowed her brow and made him feel instantly guilty for being so short with her. In an attempt to smooth things over, he changed his approach, reaching out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “Look, Buttercup, it’s probably nothing. Just throw it in fire and forget about it. We’ll sit down to eat together and you can tell me about your performance and this baron with his rotten children. Will it pay well?”
“Julian,” she stressed the syllables of his name, and then started to draw back her hand. “If you’re just going to throw it away then maybe I should read it for you. Maybe I’ll learn more things about you I didn’t know. Like you have a castle somewhere further north, an estranged wife and a brood of children you never speak of.” That stung just a little. “Besides, it could be important…”
“Nyannah, please. It’s not important, now throw it away.”
“What if it’s a job offer?”
That was an absurd suggestion, and he was getting testy enough that he almost told her how stupid that sounded. Instead he posed, “What if it’s a death threat? Surely there are people in this world who would derive great pleasure from my ending.”
“Do people actually commit those to parchment before they send them to their targets? You never talk about your family. Perhaps it’s something to do with them…”
I never talk about them because they’re not worth talking about, he thought. “You’re not going to be happy until I read it, are you?”
Narrowing his eyes as he scowled, he snatched the roll from her hand and growled, “Keeping you happy will most likely be the death of me one day, just so we’re clear on that.”
“Don’t be cruel. It’s too early in the morning to be cruel. Now open it and tell me what it says, my lord?”
“Don’t ever call me that,” he warned, staring down at the seal. His fears were instantly confirmed. His father’s seal, and though he hadn’t meant to break it so forcefully, the wax crumbled in his hand and dribbled onto the floor like falling pebbles. Without looking up at her again, he unrolled the scroll of parchment and scanned hastily scrawled words:
Your father is dying. In fits of delirium, he begs for his son. Please come as soon as you receive this. I don’t know how much time he has left, but you should make amends with him before it’s too late, and return to your rightful place.
He actually laughed. A cold scoff that sounded foreign even to him.
“What is it?” she asked.
A hundred times over the years he’d thought about his father dying. He knew one day it would come, in fact, he’d imagined the man was already dead years ago and just accepted it. Good riddance to bad rubbish, and all that. He’d felt nothing whatsoever about it, but there, with sudden evidence of its inevitability, of the possibility that he might already be gone looming over a letter that had been left for him three months earlier, he felt… strange.
Empty, indifferent, guilty because he felt glad, as if a great weight had been lifted from his chest that he hadn’t ever realized was there.
His father had been a cruel and angry bastard, unworthy of the devotion of a son who wanted nothing more than to please him. The man made no bones telling his only son he hated him, calling him a murderer for killing the woman he’d loved the day he was born.
“Julian?” Nyannah reached for him, her fingers tightening on his forearm as she drew him back into the moment. “What is it?”
He tugged his arm away, angry with her for making him read it. “It’s a letter from my Uncle Hammond,” he said in a distant voice. “My father is dying… was dying. Probably already dead, actually.”
“Oh,” she said. “Then we should go. How far is Lettenhove? Where is it located? To be honest, I’ve never even heard of it…”
“No,” he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But…” she stammered, “it’s your father. I didn’t even know your father was still alive. You’ve never spoken of him.”
“And with good reason,” he said. “Well, we can’t go, not really. For one, we’ve barely got enough money to feed ourselves, and second, which is perhaps the most important thing of all, I don’t want to, so that’s that.”
“Julian, if your father is dying…”
“He stopped being my father long before I left home and never looked back.” Crumpling the parchment in his hands, he turned and tossed it into the low-burning fire in the hearth at his back, loosened the stiffness in his shoulders and turned back around to face her. Abruptly changing the subject, he asked, “This baron who wants to employ us, how old are his bratty children? How much did he offer to pay us?”
Stunned by how quickly he’d thrown the conversation aside, she widened her eyes, her mouth opening and closing over unspoken words before she finally shook her head and said, “They are seven and nine, both of them girls. He wishes for them to learn music, so I told him perhaps we could work with them together, you and I both. It’s going to be difficult teaching them music with that whole superstition of not playing instruments after Saovine, but I get the impression this position is meant to carry on well after Imbolc, that perhaps it’s a more permanent thing.”
“We’ll teach them theory.” He shrugged. “And we can resign whenever we like. It’s our gods given right as troubadours to go where we please when we please. How much will he pay us?”
“Five hundred orens each month, from November through the end of February, and board in the private cottage on his estate through the winter. He was going to offer us only three-fifty, but when I pointed out how fortunate he would be to have a world-famous bard, such as yourself, teaching his children, he agreed the extra money would be well-earned.”
“That’s my girl. Staying in his cottage will spare us from paying rent on a room. More money to travel with when the spring comes. That is a rare gem, you found, love. You should introduce me to him right away,” he smiled, “later this afternoon.”
“Julian, how can you just…”
“Nyan, please,” he tempered his tone as best he could, remaining calm and collected as he explained, “I don’t wish to talk about that letter or my father again, and even more than that, I don’t wish to argue with you, which is bound to happen if you continue to press the issue. Now, what have you brought me for breakfast.” He began rooting through the basket, the rolls still warm near the bottom. “You were quite a busy little bee this morning. Did you say you went to the apothecary as well? Whatever for? You’re not coming down with anything, are you? It wouldn’t do to get sick now.”
“I was looking for a specific potion.”
“For the pain in your back?” he asked, tearing off a warm, doughy bite with his teeth.
She hesitated, seemed to debate with herself for a few moments and then she nodded, “Yes, for the pain in my back.”
“It’s still not feeling any better? I should have rubbed it for you last night instead of potentially making it worse. I will rub it tonight, I promise. No chasing or protests to protect your sacred virginity. You don’t need a potion for it. I’ll take care of you. Huh, you know there are raisins in these buns? How odd… I detest raisins, Nyan. I’ve told you that about a hundred times.”
Turning her gaze toward the fire, where the parchment burned into a crumpled bit of ash, she sighed and said, “And I love raisins, but you already knew that about me. I’ve told you before. In fact, I’m pretty sure you know everything there is to know about me. Aren’t you the lucky one?”
Dandelion didn’t want to argue with her, so he said nothing. In fact, he pretended she hadn’t said anything at all and changed the subject again, knowing he would only be able to get away with that for so long before she wanted to argue with him and he had no choice but to oblige.