You ply your skill for a bit of coin just as I do for another. In the end, we have two bits to rub together and nothing more. But as one, we make far more than our hatred would allow separately.
— Linslar Gabon-Forst, As Two Brothers Fight, A Tale of Choices Most Dire
Linsan sighed as she sat on a bench near one of the city fountains. When they arrived in Sicmla Rihemlan early in the morning, she had high hopes they would be able to find Tilbin or at least confirmation of their destination with Palisis. But hours of walking through the city, asking everyone she could find, there wasn't even a hint of the murderers.
She rocked her violin case back and forth between her knees as she leaned back. The sun painted across her face and she signed again. Despite the clear skies, it was a cool day and perfect for walking around town. But she was tired of chasing after Tabil. The feeling of being lost rose up and she groaned.
“Hey, you a student?”
Linsan lifted her head to see a young man about her age standing a few feet away. He had a pair of drums on a strap around his neck and a dozen sticks in his deep pockets. There were scars around his neck and his hair flopped over one eye, obscuring it. She gave a tired smile. “No, just passing by.”
“That a fiddle?”
His shoulders sagged. “Damn, I was hoping for someone to play with.”
Her curiosity piqued, she sat up. “Can't play with violins?”
He turned and waved dismissively. “You all sit like rocks on a bench, flipping your sheets as if you were someone famous. I'm sure you're great, I would just rather have someone moving.”
Linsan smiled to herself. Maybe a little playing would help her. “Is that a challenge?”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. His eye looked at her. “You think you can move?”
Heartbeat quickening, she stood up. “Do you think you could keep up?”
“Half and half?” She was startled by the question before she realized he was talking about money from busking.
Even with Brook paying for almost everything, Linsan enjoyed being able to prove some of her way. She nodded.
“Got a permit?”
Her face fell.
He grinned. “Don't worry, I have a plus one. Name's Ravel, but you can call me Rav.”
She picked up her case and walked over to him. “I'm Lin. And why do you have a plus one if you aren't playing with anyone?”
Ravel waved his hand. “Oh, I like to challenge players. The problem is none of them are any good. Well, Valil over there is decent.” He pointed to a trumpet player on the opposite side of the square, an older woman with about half a dozen people listening to her play an upbeat tune.
He gestured to a spot at the corner. It had a number of signs but Linsan spotted a musical note on one of them, a busking spot. She had never seen a formal one before but her father had told her about many of the customs around them.
It took her a moment to set down her case. She pressed the button and rotated it. The case popped open and her Sterlig shone in the sunlight.
Ravel whistled as he dropped a bucket in front of them. “That's a quick release case. You a combat player?”
His question stopped her for a moment. “Kind of. Not very good though.”
“Got sonic powers?”
“How is the city resonance for you?”
It was a difficult question to ask. When she was younger, she knew that every place had a magical resonance, a frequency of power that meshed with those who lived there. Foreign cities had different energies and she could feel the differences of power as a faint tickling in the back of her head where she couldn't scratch it.
Thinking about it made it worse. She squirmed for a moment before pulling out her bow and inspecting the repairs. It looked ready to play but she hadn't tested it. “It's okay, I never felt it before.”
Linsan gingerly tested the tension on her strings and then stood up. Fitting the violin under her chin, she played a single hesitant note. It came out screeching and she winced at the name.
Ravel exhaled hard, his hair fluttered up to reveal that his other eye was milky. “Not a good combat player, huh? You always take this long to get ready?”
She shot a glare at him. “This is the first time I've played since I've repaired the bow. I'm….”
“Play.” His hands danced over his drums. Fingertips caressed the edge for a moment and then he tapped a beat. “Come on. Give me something new. Anything.”
“Anything?” She said, her heart fluttering.
Ravel tapped his fingers along the heads of his drums. With every strike, colors blossomed from the impact in bursts of blue and yellow. The beat was a simple one, three fast and then a loud one but it was also the opening rhythm for a tune she knew.
Tensing, Linsan played the first four notes. She didn't use powers but the tones rang out with the clarity from before. The bow felt right in her hand, just a few grains off center from before. She almost sobbed in relief.
He scoffed. “That's it?”
His hands ran through a riff, eight notes a few bars into the song. With each strike, flashes of colors burst out in clouds around him. It was a complex song for a drummer, with winding beats and changing patterns.
Linsan followed suite, playing her eight notes as she adjusted to the differences.
Ravel responded, skipping his feet as he twirled around.
With a smile, Linsan played her bit and kicked her foot up as she spun around.
“There we go!” He played another few bars, skipping a few. He spun around and kicked off into another spin.
Feeling playful, she played her bit and matched his moves, adding a hop to her spin. “Do you know the whole song, or just the good parts?”
He responded while playing in bursts of colors. “Well, trying to figure out what you can do. So far, you aren't anything fancy.”
Linsan launched herself into her part before the colors faded around him. She focused herself into her song, letting the power spiral out of her and plucking at the clouds of color.
The burst around him shot straight up in a flower of brilliance. She finished with a low sweep. “Just warming up.” She was grinning.
“Then, play!” He plucked a pair of sticks from his pockets and then burst into a flurry of beats of the song. The sticks didn't diminish his power and he was quickly surrounded by clouds of colors.
The duet part ending, she joined into his song. He played fast, but she could keep up as they circled around each other, spinning and kicking. Her powers launched his colors into the sky until they formed a multi-colored canopy above their heads.
Their challenge became one of dance but the music didn't stop. He mimicked her move and added one. She did the same, her body loosening up as she let herself be draw into the bliss of music and movement.
She was dimly aware of a crowd gathering but her mind remained focus on keeping up with Ravel's song. There were differences, either wrong strikes on his part or regional changes. She kept her part up, playing and correcting to keep them in harmony until the song finally wore down.
A cheer rose up and the patter of coins landed into the bucket.
Ravel grinned. “Okay, you aren't half bad.”
She panted softly. “I could say the same.”
“Want to go big?”
“Equal shares if I call in others?”
Linsan just wanted to play. She nodded.
Ravel's smile grew wider. Then he turned toward Valil. “Oi! Grandma Toot! Get your ass over here! Equal share!”
From the other side, a fiddle player called out. “What about me?”
“Come on, we need it!” He glanced at her after he yelled.
She nodded. Noticing that the edges of the crown were starting to drift, she started up a jaunty tune to delay as the two other players hurried over. A third, another drummer, showed up.
They introduced themselves as they approached.
“Bok,” said the drummer simply.
“Strin.” The fiddler player looked at her violin and then down to his scratched and beaten instrument. It had seen better days and she felt uncomfortable seeing the obvious repairs that were made with string and wire.
She gave him her best smile.
“Know Queenie?” asked Ravel. He beat a sample series on his drum. Linsan frowned until the Strin and Valil joined in; it was obviously a song they all knew. It took her only a few notes to realize it was The Queen's Triumph, a song about the neighboring country's Silver Queen.
With a grin, Linsan played her part firmly. Her bow swung as she danced over the complex introduction and then slowed into the first quiet part of the song.
They all stared at her.
She slowed, wondering if she had started the wrong song.
Then Ravel shrugged and grinned. “Apparently there were some notes we didn't know about. Well, boys and girls, I say Lin leads. Good?”
With a round of agreements, they launched themselves into the next song. Linsan lead the way, twirling and dancing with Ravel as the others joined in.
It was quickly clear that Ravel was a performing drummer and the others couldn't keep up, but there were smiles and Linsan slowed and let the songs focus on each one in an attempt to encourage them.
Coins clicked into the bucket, a few of them bouncing off their bodies when they danced too close to it.
Linsan laughed as she spun and kicked and wove around the others. Her bow never stopped moving as the tones rose up and sent the brilliance of clouds high above them.
Other illusions added to their song: little silver flowers growing up from the cracks underneath her feet, flashes of lightning in the cloud above her, and the smell of citrus that trailed behind her in clouds.
Along with it came prickles and itches of magic in close proximity. It wasn't painful, but she couldn't help but notice them as she sailed around.
The song ended and another started. Then another.
In the middle of one, she noticed Ravel dump the bucket into her case to empty it and then set it out again. He winked at her.
There were only two more songs before Linsan felt a beat shaking the ground.
Miska stood to the side, clapping along with the beat. Heat shimmered above her as she grinned. Reflexively, Linsan used her measured clapping as a metronome to keep the song moving steadily.
When it finished and they all gave a bow to the applause, she had to hold up her hand. “No more. My friend is here.” She gestured to Miska who approached.
Ravel glanced at her and then did a double take. He stepped away from Miska. “But she's…” His jaw clamped and he looked down. “Leaving?”
“I need to be somewhere.”
“Well,” his smile returned. “You were a worthy challenge, Lin. Feel free to come back any time. I'm sure you won't keep up next time.” He rapped along his drum and bursts of blue surrounded him.
Valil panted. “Shares?” She looked nervous.
Linsan looked at her and saw repaired clothes and thin shoes. The other players, including Ravel, looked the same. These were buskers who struggled to make ends meet. She was a woman with a rich friend. She had more money hidden in the case than any of the musicians probably saw in a year. With a sigh, she scooped out the coins from her case as her mind spun furiously.
Ravel knelt down and poured all the coins into a pile between the five players. “Strin, want to sort? Five even piles.”
Linsan made a decision. “Four.”
He looked at her sharply.
“I don't need any shares. I was just in for the challenge.”
“You played better than most of them.”
She gave him a hard look. “You all need it more than me.”
Strin knelt down next to them. He tapped four fingers against his palm three times.
There was a tickling of power and then the coins rolled away from each other, forming four loose piles in front of the players. Two coins spun in the center until Ravel pushed one to Valil, one to the other drummer, and then added a coin from his pile to Strin's. “Fair is fair, you all were great.”
Valil and the drummer snatched up their share and hurried away.
Ravel stood up. “What's your play?” he asked Linsan.
She blushed. “You need it. I have plenty right now.”
“No, I don't like charity.”
“It isn't charity, Rav. Money isn't what I'm looking for.”
“What is it then?” he said in a tense tone.
“What?” she asked. Then she shook her head. “Don't worry about it.”
“Tell me. I won't let you give away your share.”
“Tell me or I'm dumping all my money in your case.”
Linsan rolled her eyes. “Fine. I'm looking for someone driving a big black car, a Black Thunder. I don't know if it came through here or not, but I'm hoping.”
Ravel's attitude softened. “Damn, I thought I could help. I haven't seen any. Have you, Strin?”
“No, they don't allow cars this far into the city. Someone you know?”
“A man I'm hunting. He…” she didn't know how to explain either the murder or priceless violin with a street musician. “… set a fire using magic with his guitar and—”
Strin gasped. “Three guys with fire powers!?”
“I saw someone like that! On the south side! I wanted to check out the guitar but he must have thought I was trying to steal it. He chorded the strings and hit me with a burst of fire. And then one of his friends chased me off.”
Strin rubbed his arm. “I just wanted to hear it. All I have is my Fetpahin here,” he said as he hefted his fiddle.
In that moment, if Linsan had her shares, she would have dumped them on Strin. Instead she hugged him tightly. “Thank you! That's exactly what I need.”
Strin smiled hesitantly and hugged her back, his fiddle bumping against her back.
She separated quickly with a blush. “S-Sorry, I need to go.”
Ravel leaned forward. “We're good?”
“Yes!” she said as she quickly packed her instrument. Then she made another choice. Shoving her hand into the tight gap, she pulled out a small stack of bills that her parents had hidden in the lining before she sealed her case and straightened. Without inspecting the money, she roughly split the five cukdin bills into two piles and handed each one to Ravel and Strin.
Both of their eyes grew wide as they stared at the brightly colored money, the stiff card-like material sticking out from their fingers.
“I can't thank you enough!” she called before Miska and her ran off.