They hadn’t seen each other months. When their eyes met, the merchant beamed with joy, while the minstrel feigned a pleasantry. She was dressed in the emerald gown of a dead queen, the green to clash with her red-honey hair. He wore black on his upper body, and the same stack of filthy rags wrapped around his left leg. He had been waiting for a moment to see her ever since his owner mentioned that Jolly Jethrow would bring her to the party as entertainment.
During a break between the musician’s performances, he had left the office, and entered the party by pretending to bring some list to his owner. He slipped away and found her eating with a few of her peers, smiling and humming to each other as they chewed. When she saw him approaching, he stood up and met him halfway, almost out of earshot from her friends. He praised her songs, and beauty, and she asked him how his leg was healing. He said it was better, and explained that he keeps the bandages on because that’s what’s people know him for. He dropped his voice, and began to explain how he wanted to get them away from here. She interrupted him with a scoff. “I have no desire to leave. This place may look rough but I’ve made it my home. I have everything I need, and you do too. We are a few of the luckiest workers here.”
“We are not workers. We are slaves!” He rasped. “You may eat better food, and do nothing but lounge around and play, but we-”
She broke in again, “I live a good life. I am cherished, and I have adoration from everyone. People come from all over the world and share their songs with me.”
He rebutted “People are brought, beaten and branded.”
“Some have been brought, Others come on their own. I have not been beaten and branded. Have you?” Her voice was accusing, and her eyes added a piercing point to the question.
He shook his head, “Some day you’ll see the darker side of this place.”
She waved to a distant pair of guards, who began their approach.
He rasped in speedy fashion, “We can do it. I have a way. I can save you.”
The guards asked what she needed, and she told them that she wanted a quick walk before her next set. The three left the merchant standing alone, out-of-place.
Over the next three months, the minstrel thought little of the encounter. She was kept busy, earning acclaim among the mountain. She was a sight to be seen, and as her fame grew more of the common men began to know her face. It was not uncommon for men to heedlessly abandon their daily plans and follow her about, whether it be around the market, or through the twisted tunnels. The attention wasn’t nothing new, but the quality of men she got attention from put her in ill ease. One of the lower bandits, who had been with her on the airship, was sick with drink, and had the audacity to sneak close and grab her by the arm. Whatever his intention might have been will stay a mystery, as his throat was promptly slit when her escorts, hearing her gasp, took notice. The image of the bandit’s clenched teeth, and the pain stamped on his brow, was burned into her mind, and she took away two lessons from that moment.
Life is worth less up, in these clouds, and that attention can be as hazardous as it had been fortuitous. When Jethrow had inquired what had stiffened her during the day, she told him about the bandit. They fought for the first time, and she saw in him the rage that other men feared. When the morning had come, her escort was tripled, and the only time when she was allowed to freely travel and shop was relegated to a few afternoon minutes. It was the first day where she felt like a slave again.
The owners were throwing another banquet in honor of some owner’s son marrying another owner’s daughter. The minstrel was brought to the party with her harp. It was a mundane night for her, she saw the music sheets in front of her, and little else. She sadly had no personal time to enjoy the party, due to her playing being featured in most of the pieces. When the toasts were being said, and the room quieted for the speakers, she left her place with the orchestra, and excused herself. The woman’s room was empty, and city guard outside nodded in compliance when she requested a few moments of privacy. She was denied that by a bulky shadow, who descended from the pocked ceiling in a jerking motion like a fat, stuttering spider.
His clumsiness shattered any shock or fear of being intruded on, and when she recognized the figure as the merchant, she promptly swat at him, causing him to reel and hiss in defence.
He pleaded for her ears in a terrified rasp, only wanting a quick and quiet audience. Again he pressed her to follow in his escape, and again she rolled her eyes at the idea. He actions were desperate, but he didn’t look any worse for wear. His clothes were sharp and clean, his face was tended with no signs of violence, and his limp had improved. He had even fattened out around his neck and cheeks. As he rambled on, her attention drifted away to a family she had once claimed, and remembered the memorizing bounce of her uncle’s jowls as he chucked on over a funny song. The snapping fingers of the merchant brought her back to the moment, and his irritation was nearly boiling out, causing his face to glow like liquid rock. When she told him that she wasn’t listening, he fumed to himself, and let out a muffled screech into the bend of his arm.
The minstrel wetted her hands with the water that cascaded down one of the walls, and rubbed her calloused finger tips till they shifted in hue with every press. She then ignored the merchant and left him in disbelief. Outside, she told the guard that there was a man inside, and to her surprise the guard smirked, looked inside and mumbled something about not calling it a ‘man’. She began to return to seat amidst the orchestra, when screams erupted from the stage.
She smelt it before she know where it was coming from. It was a grotesque combination of burnt hair and smouldering fabrics. As she stood still scanning to see the source of the fire, men and women of all kinds whisked past her, heading for the exit. Fire began to fall, at first little wisps of flame and ash, like the snowflakes of home, then whole candelabras that were once hoisted above shattered around her feet. Tapestries adorning the walls thumped into piles, sending pulses of cloudy air around, obscuring the room, and sending burning waves down deep in her chest. The noise of the panic was her only indication of the exit, and with one hand covering her mouth, and her other shielding her eyes, she followed the sound to clearer air. When she had stepped out of the tunnels and into the open, she was rushed by a member of her escort. The terrified guard forcefully wrapped her face in his shirt, and began to slap around her head. She pushed away from him, removing his clothes covering her face. She threw down the guard’s shirt, and enraged, scowled at him. The terror in his eyes grew as she marched toward him with the intent to strike him back, but a cool sensation on the top of her head froze her in place. She looked down to where she threw the shirt, and moaned with physical and emotional pain when she saw how much of her hair had fallen with it.
The administrator’s guards had put out the fire by the next evening. They emptied out the chamber and put every blackened item out on a terrace, where servants went about trying to restore whatever they could. When an object was recognized, the owner would submit a request and the administrator would transfer the item back, once it was clear who owned what. Many of the prominent owners spent the day out by the terrace, enjoying each other’s company, and assuring that someone else didn’t try to claim whatever might be theirs.
Jethrow had her head tended to, with cool creams on her burns, and honey tea to sooth the rasp that had grown in her smoky throat. He seemed concerned, but more so, he seemed hurt, his eyes looked with pity, not lust. It was only when she returned to his quarters, and saw her reflection in one of his black mirrors, that she understood his look. Her beauty had burned away. Her voice had faded too. She didn’t cry then. It was only when she was told that the harp was never found, that she let her tears run.