“Waves with the tide ebb and flow, their sound both welcomed and feared.”
-The Lady Tarot Ranseur
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen,” Ramsay confided to Yasmine and Taja, as the forward carriage of the Symphony of Daydreams neared the gates of Notre Nouveaux. The capital city rose in front of them, it’s sprawling walls and peaked castles lurching from above.
“It’s full of danger,” Allerban mumbled to himself from inside the carriage, but loud enough for all to hear. His tone lacked any of his usual verve or humor. “People there are heartless and have learned to listen only to their own desires and interests. They care nothing for art, or for beauty, only for wealth and greatness.”
“I recall you are from Notre Nouveau, isn’t that correct, Allerban?” Ramsay asked his drummer friend.
“Aye,” Allerban scowled, “and I’m not too excited to be back to a city where I begged for food.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Yasmine looked to Allerban with a stern glance, putting her arm around Taja who was listening intently.
“It’s known for horse racing.” Ramsay smiled and reached to touch Taja on the cheek. “We can visit the beautiful horses and watch the color and pageantry of the races, if you like?”
Taja smiled back and looked into his eyes with wonderment.
“It’s known for the races I’ll give ya, but the Notre Nouveaux I know is known for its profusion of wealthy merchant families and rampant poverty,” Allerban complained.
“Enough,” Yasmine snapped. “Lady Ranseur’s the reason we’re here. Without her patronage, we would have never been able to secure a place for us to perform in the upcoming celebration. The town honors Reyeslyn, the Goddess of Commerce but once a year. It will enrich all of our coffers.”
“My wife is correct. We are part of an impressive festival lineup of dancers, orators, and philosophers,” Ramsay noted. However, Allerban’s trepidation did make him a little uneasy, despite himself.
The next two days came and went, and Ramsay spent his time visiting the festival vendors with Taja and Yasmine, wandering a little around the city’s more well-known landmarks, and spending time in a homey little tavern he’d seen when he’d first arrived and quickly grew to like.
“So Ralis, Dol,” Ramsay introduced his family to his old friends, “this is my wife, Yasmine, and our daughter, Taja.”
The two men smiled and bowed respectfully. Ramsay knew Ralis and Dol to be of middling wealthy but unpretentious, one of them a dye merchant and the other an accountant for one of the major trading houses in the city. They both had supported his troupe in the past, but finally had a chance to meet them in their hometown.
“The pleasure is all ours,” Ralis stood and waved for the family to join them at their table. “Please, sit and break bread with us.”
“I see you are performing tomorrow,” Dol put in. “Seems your new benefactor has sway with the Thane.”
“And your daughter’s talents,” Ralis added. “We’ve all been waiting to see her perform.”
Taja smiled and glanced at the men. “Thank you. I hope not to disappoint.”
A shadow fell across the table and Ramsay turned to find another man approaching them.
“Ah, Ramsay, Yasmine, let me introduce you to a longtime friend and another potential supporter.” Dol motioned for the man to sit. “This is Grandor Lumpkin, a horse breeder and racer from Ashray Cove. You won’t find a better horse-master this side of the sea.”
His mind raced at the mention of Ashray Cove, the home of Parson Dalton Ascot, and therefore the home of Taja. The good parson absconded with Taja for her own safety and into his and Yasmine’s arms. But this man, a well-heeled guildsman, was likely at least aware of her rumored appearance in the fisherman’s net. Yet Taja had grown considerably in the last months, Ramsay thought, and perhaps Grandor wouldn’t recognize her if he knew her from the cove.
“It is an honor to meet you,” Grandor shook Ramsay’s extended hand and waved politely at Yasmine and Taja.
“The honor is ours,” Yasmine smiled, saving Ramsay from his thoughts, as the cat had stolen his tongue.
“And who might this be,” Grandor turned to Taja with a warm smile.
“Her stage name is Silverwave,” Ramsay managed, as his mind registered that Grandor may have heard the parson call her by her given name. He pulled Taja closer to him.
“A pretty name for a pretty girl,” Grandor flattered her.
Taja didn’t respond and leaned into Ramsay’s side.
“So, are you here for the races?” Yasmine asked.
“Aye,” Grandor sat and pulled some of food and drink toward him. “I’m especially looking forward to this tourney. Got some fine animals who I know are going to make a splash on the track, and I even have a few potential buyers lined up from last year. They were that impressed with the bloodline.”
Ramsay shot Yasmine a sideways glance and put his arm around Taja, who remained silent in the crook of his arm.
“And I must say, at the advice of our good friends Ralis and Dol, I’ve been enjoying the performances, too, down in the town square. Nothing like that back in Ashray Cove.” Grandor went on, chewing his food as he spoke. “I mean, we’ve musicians there, to be sure, orators too. I s’pose it’s more the spectacle of the thing. And I don’t think any of ours have been as fine. I hear there’s an amazing one come to perform tomorrow—the kind of thing that you only see once, people have been saying, a real talent. A singer, I think it was.”
“Ramsay’s troupe is performing then,” commented Ralis with a grin. “Think it could be one of yours, Ramsay? Though you’d have told us if you had a world-class talent in your own band, surely?”
Ramsay swallowed hard and rubbed his beaded chin to hide his nerves. He knew there was every possibility that if Taja sang in front of Grandor she might be recognized. Whether anyone would believe him if he said she was a siren was another matter, but he was clearly known, liked, and respected here, as much as he could be in any place. And there was no way now for them to escape performing, even if they could have afforded to do so under any circumstances.
“We’re all world-class talents,” he replied, managing to keep his tone light. “True greatness is often destined to go unrecognized.”
His companions all laughed and moved on to another topic. Ramsay’s mind, however, remained fixed on the problem before him.
“Gentleman, I am sorry, but we must be going,” Ramsay rose. “There’s plenty of rehearsing to come before tomorrow night. I hope to see you all there.”
“Should we cancel?” Yasmine whispered to Ramsay while Taja practiced away from them in their tent. “If this man can identify her, it may be better for us to leave. I am nervous Ramsay. What are we to do?”
“We cannot cancel.” Ramsay shook his head and rubbed his chin in thought. “We owe this opportunity to the whole troupe. To Lady Ranseur. We cannot afford to miss an opportunity this big.”
“We have no alternative,” Ramsay complained, his voice subtle. “We simply have to risk it and be quick to get back on the road again the following day. Grandor didn’t recognize her up close at the inn. She’s much changed in the past several months. Her hair, her height… even her speaking the language.”
They told Taja nothing.
Later that day, the Symphony of Daydreams moved their show to the theater near the town square and set up for the performance. Things moved forward smoothly, with most of the symphony having no idea of the danger to their little duckling.
When it at last came time for Taja to perform, Yasmine had to exercise serious self-control to keep from trying to stall her backstage longer than a minute or so.
Taja, initially sunny-faced and cheerful and then concerned, reassured her. “I’ll be fine, mamma,” she insisted. “I’m not nervous at all. I promise everything will be well as soon as I can sing.”
Against her better judgment, Yasmine could only share a half-smile. She allowed herself to be convinced and went out into the audience to listen.
Taja walked out on stage to a good, but rowdy and impatient crowd. People were eager to hear more music, but they had grown bored and started talking amongst themselves. A few vendors were milling around the square selling festival souvenirs, and their cries had grown rather loud.
However, true to her word, Taja showed no trepidation. Without waiting for stillness and silence, she opened her mouth and began to sing in the purest and most beautiful tone Yasmine had ever heard.
It was as if a spell had been cast. Everyone paused and turned to listen to her, tears springing to people’s eyes. Her song sounded like the sea, like holding hands with your dearest loved ones in front of the water, like the sunset over the waves. It was impossibly beautiful—yet Yasmine began to feel, as tears rolled down her cheeks, that they might just perform and escape Notre Nouveaux undiscovered. Taja was an artist of the kind only heard once in a lifetime, and yet didn’t other such artists exist? – She was too good, too precious, to be an object of suspicion. Just as she had said, everything would be fine.
The enchantment of the performance ended with a cry from the audience.
“Black magic!” snarled a man’s voice, and Yasmine spun to scan the crowd for the culprit who dared interrupt the song. She saw the man, Grandor Lumpkin, standing and pointing to Taja while swiping at his eyes. He stepped into an aisle and began to jog toward the stage.
Yasmine looked for Ramsay; when she found him in the crowd and saw his face, she knew dire consequences were to follow.
“She’s a siren!” Grandor went on as he approached the stage, a mix of terror and rage in his eyes. ” A sea-witch escaped from Ashray Cove! Don’t let her be-spell you!”
The crowd’s uneasy stirring at his words began to escalate as the effect of Taja’s performance wore away. The unpleasant susurrus rumbled at first, then grew into hysteria as Yasmine watched.
“Witch!” someone called.
In the corner near to the exit, one person shoving another turned into a fistfight, and she knew it would likely grow into a brawl and then into a riot if it wasn’t stopped.
Ramsay headed toward Grandor, a determined look on his face, probably thinking that he could calm him down; he’d always been good with mediating. As he walked, he fell into the path of a wiry, wild-eyed little man that had followed Grandor to the fore. The two collided briefly, and when the other man drew away Yasmine could see that he held a knife, and that it was bloody. Ramsay turned, his face pale and empty, and fell to the floor.
For a second, she paused in disbelief. Without knowing, she found herself fighting through crowd, who had begun to scatter at the sight of the assault. She dropped to her knees when she reached Ramsay and began to press her fingers to his wound to stem the bleeding.
“Taja,” he muttered, pointing back to the stage.
Yasmine looked back just in time to hear an earsplitting shriek that resonated over the square like a keening of a banshee.
The entire crowd became still in an instant, even halting the sway of the panicking masses, and Yasmine noticed the noise of the crowd had vanished from her ears. She fought against her own stillness, but couldn’t move a muscle. Her mind raced, begging her limbs to move, but it was as if she was stuck in a single second of time.
The girl was there, frozen in the middle of the stage, her eyes set on Ramsay.
There before Taja in half-stride, Grandor stood like a statue, his face full of fury, but he too was held fast in place by the same effect.
Yasmine could do nothing, and a wave of helplessness gripped at her soul. Then she spotted Tarot Ranseur appear on the stage. The lady took Taja’s hand, and as if free from the effects of the spell that had stilled the throngs of people in place, rushed the sobbing girl away and out of Yasmine’s sight.
By the time she could move again, her husband was dead, and Taja was long gone.