The fastest way to make an impression is do something so incredibly rude the audience has to struggle whether to be offended or amused.
— Ragon Victor
Linsan wasn’t expecting Brook to slam on the brakes. Her shoulder slammed against the dash and a burst of pain sent stars exploding across her vision. The momentum yanked her off her seat and she slumped to the floor of the car before her knees hit hard against the metal. She managed to throw her arms up to catch herself before her face stuck the dash, but the impact against her forearms stung as much as her shoulder.
Underneath her, the car shuddered and shook as it screeched to a halt in front of a large public house. Bright lights speared into the windows of the car.
“You could have warned me,” muttered Linsan as she pried herself off the floor.
She glared at Brook who sat elegantly in her seat. Her entire body shook with the car but she was moving with the vibrations instead of bouncing around like Linsan. Only a few coils of her dark hair seemed out of place.
The car came to a halt. Wisps of dust and steam rose up from the engine, as if it was panting.
Linsan shuddered as her stomach tried to settle into place.
Brook sighed and set her drink back in her cup holder. “Come on,” she said curtly before kicking open the door with her heeled boot and gracefully stepped out. The door creaked as it swung back. When it latched shut, the entire cabin shook again.
Confused, Linsan stared at Brook through the windows as Brook headed to the rear of the car. She unlatched the boot and lifted the lid. Instead of pulling anything out, she turned with a flutter of her dress and headed straight toward the front entrance where a burly man held open the door.
Linsan cleared her throat. “W-What do I do now?”
No one answered.
A prickle of annoyance and frustration rose up. Linsan reached back and grabbed her own travel pack. She felt dirty and disgusting. Fumbling with the door, she figured out how to open it and got out of the vehicle.
Every muscle in her backside protested. Three hours in a seat had left her aching. She groaned and rubbed it, limping slightly as she stepped away from the vehicle before circling back toward the rear.
They had stopped in front of a public house. Like many of the ones she had seen on her trip, it was a wide building with a deck along the front. Chairs and tables had been arranged underneath globes of light hanging from the rafters. Almost all of the tables were occupied by customers with waitresses weaving around to serve and take orders.
To Linsan’s relief, the customers weren’t dressed up as fancily as Brook. Their outfits were closer to what Linsan wore every day, though hers was dirty after days of traveling. Almost immediately, she desperately wanted a clean bath and a cleaner set of clothes.
Scratching her now itchy chin, she peered into the back of the car. There were two large, matching suitcases in the back along with a smaller case. They all had the same pattern on them, a blue flower with three petals.
She looked at the front door and then back to the boot. Was Brook expecting her to bring them in for her? Was she going to be Brook’s servant for the rest of the trip?
Linsan clamped her jaw tight as she stared at the suitcase. As much as Brook’s attitude was annoying, they had covered half a week’s travel on Maril’s wagon in a single day. What was an overwhelming task was suddenly possible. Subservience may be worth the price of hunting down the murderers. Not to mention, Brook had showed up just as Maril was talking about the Divine Couple providing.
She shook her head. “Maybe there is something to prayer,” she muttered before pulling out one of the suitcases. It was heavier than she expected. With a grunt, she let it thump against her side before she adjusted her own bags. She staggered to the door where the muscular guy held the door open.
He made no effort to help her as she passed him.
Brook stood at the bar, looking completely out of place. Her blue dress was completely out of place among the more drab customers. It almost shone in light from the globes glowing near the ceiling.
She turned as the door closed behind Linsan. Her gaze flickered down and the corner of lips curled into a smile. “The staff gets those. You should know that.” She waved the pair of gloves in her hand in Linsan’s direction.
Any charity or thankfulness Linsan had faded almost immediately. She dropped the suitcase on the ground. After only a brief hesitation, she abandoned it and headed straight for the bar.
The bartender, a middle-aged woman with light brown hair, looked up to her and then glanced at Brook. She smiled smugly as she returned to wiping a glass off with a rag. There was something in her expression that made Linsan uncomfortable, as if a stranger was reading something more into their relationship.
Brook smirked and turned back to talk to the bartender. “Might as well get her a room too.”
The bartender looked up. There was brief moment of confusion as she looked at Brook and Linsan. Then she shrugged. “Of course, Dame. Top floor?”
Brook shook her head. “First floor is good enough for her.”
Linsan didn’t need to be told the room was utilitarian. She fought the urge to glare at Brook. Instead, she took a deep breath and hefted her violin case further up on her shoulder.
“As you will, Dame.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a box. Shuffling through the keys, she handed Linsan one with a black handle on the end of it. “Room 019.”
Linsan thanked her. By the time she had gathered the key, Brook was already gone and there was employee carrying both of her suitcases up the stairs. Linsan rolled her eyes and turned back. “What a damned cow,” she muttered under her breath.
“Trouble?” asked the bartender.
“No, I’m just a little out of place apparently.” Linsan looked around. She didn’t have many experiences with public houses, but the main room was clean and brightly lit. She guessed there were twenty tables, most of them already filled with various groups drinking and eating and having fun. In the corner, she saw three musicians setting up. One of the players had a bright blue fiddle and damp hair. Her skin crawled with the need to get clean but she wanted to hear how he played.
Curious, she turned back. “Is there a chance I can join in?” she asked while gesturing to her violin case.
“Do you play professionally?”
Linsan blushed. “I paid for a room by playing a week ago.”
The bartender laughed. “That would be a ‘no,’ then. Good thing. It’s amateurs only tonight. You play for tips, house takes half.”
Linsan’s skin crawled. “I could use some cleaning up.”
The bartender gestured to the key. “First floor has a shared bathing area at the end of the hall. Your key will open it up. There is soap and shampoo, but you want to bring your own.”
A half hour later, Linsan returned to the main hall wearing her cleanest blouse and a flowing skirt. Both were good for moving around since she frequently found herself dancing whenever she played.
The room was more crowded and she noticed a lot more people drinking lagers and ales. The waitresses were busy moving among the tables. Two bouncers watched from opposite side of the hall but there didn’t seem to be much trouble yet.
A wave of nervousness slammed into her. She clutched her case tightly as she stood near the opening to the room hallway. Her excitement for playing faltered as she imagined sixty or seventy people staring at her as she played. What if she made a mistake? What if she wasn’t as good as the others?
The bartender noticed her and gestured for her to approach.
Linsan inched forward, her brow prickling with sweat.
The older lady set down a large glass jar on the bar and held out a grease marker. “What’s your name?”
After writing her name on the side of the jar, the bartender handed it to Linsan. “Just put this up there with the rest. Good luck.”
Linsan’s hands shook as she took it.
The bartender winked. “You’re going to do great. Once you start playing, you won’t notice a single thing.”
The words were encouraging. Linsan nodded and thanked her again before carrying it to the front of the room.
The fiddle player made a spot for her. When she set down her case, he pointed to it. “Fiddle?” His voice was warm with a faint accent.
He whistled and shook his hand. “Fancy. Don’t usually see those on the circuit.”
His gaze dropped down to look at her and then he came up smiling. He had a goatee that was black as pitch and thick eyebrows to match. “I’m sure you’re great. My name is Ragon. Ragon Victor.”
“Um, Linsan Sterlig.”
One of the other musician’s head snapped up. “Sterlig?” she said in a raspy voice. “That’s an obscure name.”
The female player came over. She had a flute on her hand. “Where are you from?”
Ragon held up his hand. “Be nice, Wendil.”
“I’m just curious where she be from.”
Linsan cleared her throat. “Penesol.”
Wendil’s eyes narrowed. “Who’s your mother?”
Ragon took a step back. “The queen of the stage?”
Linsan blushed and then some of the tension went out. She knew her mother. “She hasn’t been called that in a long time. Not since she got the award for Strangers in the Gale.” Then she remembered that she had her mother’s pin from the celebration. With a smile, she held up her hand and opened up her case.
When Linsan picked up the violin, Wendil gasped. “That’s a Sterlig! I haven’t seen one of those in years!” She gulped. “C-Can I hold it? I promise, I’ll be gentle.”
Nodding, Linsan handed the violin over. She kept an eye on Wendil as she dug into the case to get the aware and held it up. “This was mother’s too. She gave to me.”
Ragon took it and inspected it. He said “Damn” and then handed it back. “Well, then I guess we got some competition tonight, don’t we?”
Linsan’s cheeks burned even more. “I’m still new to this.”
Wendil handed the Sterlig over. “I wish I could play this,” she sighed. “When I was younger, I heard three of these being played at the same time Stone Over Moon Waters and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Your mother was there.”
”The Immortal Cranes Atop of the Mountain. I was three when the entire family spent the summer traveling with mommy… mother. My daddy brought some of his best instruments for the charity auction. It was the only time I’ve ever seen the grand cathedral with all those blue tiles on the ceiling.” Linsan smiled at the vague memories. It was back during the happier times of her life.
Wendil sighed. “I missed those days.”
She wiped her eyes before she spoke to Linsan again, “I look forward to hearing this old thing played again. I doubt I’ll hear a Sterlig many more times after what had happened… twenty years ago?”
Linsan sighed herself. The familiar loss of the fire and everything that had followed. “I hope not. I’m actually heading over to Moon Waters now. There might be another Sterlig for sale.” She almost mentioned it was stolen but didn’t.
Ragon set down a lager in front of her. “This is on me. Another Sterlig? That’s going to shake things up among the rich patrons. It’s probably worth millions now.” He sighed. “I envy the musician commissioned to play it.”
“Going to buy it?”
She shook her head. “I can’t afford that. I… just want to meet the sellers. To talk to them.”
The other musicians stared at her, she guess waiting for her to explain. She worked her mouth to explain what she was doing.
Then someone in the audience called out. “Play something, damn it!”
There was a round of laughter.
Ragon looked at Linsan and gestured toward the front. “What’s your act? Just playing?”
Linsan glanced at the crowd and felt a different type of embarrassment rising to choke her. “And dancing?” she said with uncertainty.
“Go for it. Here, let me moving this table back.”
Linsan and Wendil helped to clear her a space.
“Play something cheerful, that always gets people in the mood,” Wendil told Linsan.
“Play something raunchy.” Ragon chuckled. “Everyone like a good rude start.”
“Says the man who knows thirty songs about asses.”
Linsan got an idea. She knew the perfect song. Her mother hated it but it was the first song she learned how to play and she knew a thousand variations. “You know My Ass for a Glass of Milk?”
Wendil groaned as Ragon smirked.
“My favorite. Mine if I join you?”
“I would like that. I’m kind of scared right now.”
“Nothing like playing an ass to help the jitters.”
Thankful, Linsan picked up her violin and came out in front of the tables. She was exposed, vulnerable. Hundreds of eyes were staring at her.
Ragon came up. His bright fiddle rocked in his hands. “Good evening everyone. We have a newcomer here, so let’s give a lovely greeting to Linsan Sterlig!”
Linsan didn’t think her cheeks could burn any brighter.
“And I’m Ragon, your local boy who you’ve heard a thousand times. Don’t worry, Carl, I’ve already fixed the hitch.”
Someone in the audience snickered.
Ragon stepped back and gestured to Linsan.
Heart pounding, Linsan found herself in the middle. Her hand trembled as she lifted her bow to the violin. It almost hummed with her nervousness but when she touched the strings of her violin, all the nervousness slipped away and there wasn’t even a hum.
The room quieted.
Taking a deep breath, she swept her foot out. Her skirt fluttered around her.
She played the first bar of the song.
Immediately, someone laughed.
Encouraged, she looked around the room and shifted to a new position to play the second.
Ragon came up and played the third bar. He winked at her.
Someone started to clap.
She spun around and looked at him as she played the next few. The sweetness of the Sterlig couldn’t be mistaken. It was almost as if someone was singing a choir next to her, a chorus of the opening lines of the rudest song she knew.
He responded in kind. His instrument was rougher than hers, the sound more of a twang and a buzz but it sounded just as good.
The back and forth between them accelerated. She danced with her parts, twisting her body back and forth. On the sharper bits, she bumped her hips.
The room was silence.
Ragon and her ceased to play back and forth and joined together into the song. No words were needed but she could hear a few people in the audience singing along anyways.
Their melody filled the room, growing raunchier. She included the song in her dance, sticking out her ass in the right place and spinning in the others. Her body moved in harmony with the song as all the nervousness faded away. Only joy and playfulness remained.
When the song ended, they stood there looking at each other and panting.
Ragon grinned. “That was beautiful.”
The room burst into applause. It was the first time she had ever heard it beating off the walls and rattling the windows. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she looked past the crowds to see that the people from the deck and upstairs were packed around the entrance.
Brook stood in the middle of the crowd. With a fresh dress on, one with white and yellow trim, she was still completely out of place. The light seemed to be drawn toward her, setting her up as if she stood under a stoplight.
Their gazes met.
Brook smiled and started to join in the applause. Then, she stopped with her hands inches away from each other. Looking down, the joy drained from her face.
Linsan’s heart fell.
Brook shook her head and turned away. Linsan thought she saw a tear before the other girl shoved her way through the crowd and out of sight.
Ragon clapped her back and stepped away.
A moment later, Wendil stepped up. “Lin?”
Linsan sniffed and turned. “Yes?”
Wendil’s eyes were shimmering. “Would you do the honor of playing with me?” She held up her flute. “Maybe Dance of the Butterfly Court?”
With one last look in hopes that Brook had remained, Linsan was disappointed to see that her companion had left. She shook her head before focusing on Wendil. “I would be honored to play with you.”