Outside the Inn, Doremi pondered what to visit first. The Guild offices were closest, and though she wasn’t certain how much interest she had in how business was conducted, she decided to pay a visit there. A stairway conveniently led up to the bridge thirty feet above her that extended from the Inn’s main tower to the Guild, and she climbed up.

The bridge afforded an excellent view, and she could easily see the distant harbor below shimmering in the morning sun. Dozens of ships bobbed serenely in the water like ants upon a golden carpet, and on a whim she paused and reached into her purse to remove a remarkable invention she’d picked up in Torrencia. It consisted of three oaken sticks which, when fitted together, were a little less than two feet long. The stick had a series of notches running along it, and at its back Doremi set in a polished round crystal. Making a guess, she placed a second larger crystal in one of the notches about a foot in front of the first, and lifted the device to her right eye. The vision was blurry, and it took two more tries before the image was in focus enough to see clearly. The marvelous invention, called a hawkeye by its Wighead inventor, magnified her vision, permitting her to see distant things as if they were closer, and with it the harbor was much clearer.

Dawn was only two hours passed, but Freeport had long since come to life. Through the hawkeye, Doremi could see that the harbor operated in an organized, efficient manner. The southern quarter of the bay, a great semi-circle, was reserved for the cargo traffic of the Guild. Vessels entered the harbor to the southeast and lowered sail as they fell in line behind other ships that had arrived before them. Tow galleys would then draw the ships to the cargo docks where Doremi could see an army of dockworkers offloading cargoes onto carts and horse-drawn wagons. These, in turn, made a constant train, traveling back and forth to the great warehouses of Freeport that were arranged in row-after-row outside of, but near the city itself. The cargoes were stored in these warehouses, and apparently at some point down the line they were taken back to the harbor and loaded onto other ships, for Doremi spotted a different train of wagons laden with goods making its way from the warehouses to another set of docks where a second series of ships awaited. Goods were winched down into their holds, and when their lading was complete, tow galleys moved the ships into the harbor where they set sail for whatever port they were bound for.

Not even the most creative mind could make a warehouse look attractive, and that was seemingly taken for granted as the Guild docks and warehouses were neatly and practically arranged, yet were clearly removed from the city proper, which ringed the harbor from the southern beaches of the bay on up the northeast shore.

It was amusing, however, that the general plan of the city itself betrayed the logical, analytical mind behind its layout. Unlike just about every city in Islay Doremi had seen, straight streets abounded in Freeport. Blocks were laid out in practical square patterns.

Not imaginative, but very efficient and sensible.

From what she could tell, there weren’t a great many large buildings in Freeport. Very few structures exceeded three stories in height, for most were two-story buildings of wood and stone, which was typical of Torrencian-style city shops, where wares were sold on the ground floor and the family lived above. Even from the bridge, she could see that the shops and homes below definitely had a Torrencian style to them. Yet, here and there could still be observed the unmistakable Krellan style architecture with white stone buildings fronted by noble Doric columns, and covered with peaked roofs of red clay tiles.

The Bard was anxious to see the city, and horse-drawn surreys conveniently shuttled the pedestrians back and forth all day long from the Inn to the docks. But there were none available right now, so she disassembled the hawkeye and returned the pieces to her purse. The Guild offices now beckoned, and she crossed the bridge to the great entryway of the Guild.

Here, carved above the two open doors permitting entrance, was a motto that read:

Trade Bringeth Peace

Peace Increaseth Trade

Above it were the three great crests of Islay: the majestic Krellan eagle wreathed in a garland of gold next to the crown and crossed swords of the House of Torrence. Above them, symbolically representing that it was the force that joined these two ancient enemies of the West and East, was the TenTolliver crest, a simple emblem resembling two Es, facing opposite directions, joined by a square.

Beyond the doorway lay a great common hall filled with hundreds of men, along with a few women, and the deafening prattle that many people caused in a confined area. It was the most cosmopolitan scene she’d ever witnessed. Citizens from almost every nation of Islay filled the hall. Most were Torrencian, but also present were numerous Arwinians--clearly identifiable by their dark skin and turbaned heads. There were Krellans attired in their ancient, yet graceful togas. There were Avalonians, Sarvians, and even a handful of Dwarves. These Guild members congregated along the walls and the floor of the great hall in knots, and Doremi realized that all these groups were participating in auctions for various sorts of goods. One was going on near her, and the auction started with a Guild officer looking at a ticket describing what he would be auctioning. He then barked out in a loud voice:

“Auctioning one hundred Type Three--Type Three,” the man repeated, “--lots of red Krellan posca vinegar wine, of good quality. The bidding shall start at one thousand gold marks.”

The auction went on for a couple of minutes and someone finally ended up taking the wine for 3,800 gold marks--or 3,800 ounces of gold, Doremi surmised. The charge for the wine was duly noted on the ticket by the auctioneer and then the purchaser, followed by the owner of the cargo, a toga-dressed Krellan, was presented the ticket to take to a row of money-changers whose tables were set up next to the entry.

Here, the Bard watched the purchaser hand the ticket to a money-changer clerk who received payment for the goods. Curiously, she observed, the man who purchased the wine delivered only several gold coins to the clerk, who, after examining them closely and checking a ledger, stamped a seal on the lot ticket and handed the ticket back it to him. The clerk then wrote upon another ticket and handed it to the Krellan, and that apparently concluded the transaction. The man who bought the wine--a Torrencian in his thirties, by the look of his concertina-like ruffled collar and short pants with silk stockings--nodded and placed the ticket in his purse, which he returned to an inner pocket of his fur overcoat.

Overcome with curiosity, Doremi approached the man as he was about to leave.

“Good morning, Sir,” she greeted him with a nod.

The man looked up and down at her and nodded back. “Good morrow, Lady,” he answered, apparently curious as to why she had addressed him.

“My name is Doremi Bender,” she continued. “I’m new to Freeport, and I was wondering if I could impose upon you to help me understand how the Guild, here, works. I don’t know much about business, but it looks interesting, and I’d like to understand it.”

“Percival Blackthorpe of Queenstown,” he introduced himself with a bow. “Thou’rt not a merchant then, Lady?”

“No, I’m a Bard.”

“Ah. Well, I must away to the docks to load me cargo, but me can spare thee a moment.”

The Torrencian beckoned, and led Doremi back outside where he pointed down to the bay.

“To understand how things be bought and sold at the Guild, it all starts yonder in the bay. Far below, at the hinder part of the bay, the cargo ships sail in--thou canst see a line of them hence. They’re oared to the docks where a Guild Estimator boards and examines the cargo, noting its quality and determining the number of lots that will go up for sale.”

“What, precisely, are ‘lots’?” Doremi asked. “I noticed you bought a hundred lots of wine just now.”

“Aye. Lots are measures of cargo. There are different lots for different sorts and amounts of cargo. Type One lots would be one thousand pounds’ weight of anything from cotton to cabbage. Type Two lots would be one hundred pounds’ weight of goods. Type Three lots are for wines and represent casks of fifty gallons’ weight.”

“Oh, I see. So you just bought....”

Doremi did some math in her head. “Five thousand gallons of wine in one hundred, fifty-gallon casks. Right?”

“Aye--a hundred Type Three lots. And there are other lots for different measurements. Now if thou wilt follow me back inside....”

The merchant began walking back into the Guild with Doremi at his side.

“I guess you merchants know the differences between lots, then?” she shouted above the din of the place as they re-entered.

“Aye--else a man hath no business on the floor of the Guild!” he shouted back, indicating for her to ascend a stairway with him to the mezzanine of the Guild, where the Guild offices were.

Doremi leaned upon a cast iron railing and looked out over the length and breadth of the Guildhall after they reached the mezzanine.

“So what happens after your cargo leaves the ship?” she asked.

“The Estimator fills out a docket listing thy cargo. Then thou cometh up here to the Guild. Thou wilt notice,” he said, sweeping his hand from right to left, “that there are dozens of auctions going on all day long here down below. There are sections where certain types of goods are auctioned, and thou presenteth thy docket to an auctioneer in the right section of the Guild for that sort of cargo, who’ll auction thy cargo for thee. Once someone wins the auction and pays for his goods, thou’rt paid by the Guild--after they deduct the Guild tax of ten percent. I already sold me load of cotton yesterday, and now I’ll be sailing home with a cargo of wine because all the grain was snapped up by the wealthier merchants. What I do next, is take me stamped docket to the Warehouse Overseers. They go fetch me cargo and take it to me ship, and we sail for home with it and sell it in Queenstown or Torrence.”

Doremi turned to the Torrencian. “I was wondering something--how did you pay for the wine? I thought I saw you pull out just a few coins for it.”

“Aye. Me paid in tokens for it. Me gold be in the bank, which be below us,” he said, pointing to a wide marble stairway on the main floor that led down to a lower level, “and they mint up tokens representing how much we have banked here. Makes it easier than hauling the gold around. Me can fetch me gold whenever me wants to, but trade tokens are easier to hide and keep safe than four thousand ounces of gold. They also are easier to escape with if thy ship sinketh. Easier to lose to a Cutpurse too, but nothing's perfect, eh? Thou must just keep a wary eye on thy purse.”

Doremi’s ears were starting to ring from the noise below and she cupped her hands over them. “Is it always this crowded and this noisy here?” she called out to the man.

“Always this noisy, but not always this crowded,” the man shouted back, leaning toward her. “Today the Council meets, and everyone is waiting to see if they’re altering the price of anything. It won’t affect me much; if they alter anything it will be grain. Grain and flour are simply out of the league of we smaller merchants. ‘Twas all snapped up yesterday by the great merchant Houses in anticipation of today’s Council meeting.”

“Council?” Doremi asked.

“The Council of Price-Fixing and Monopolies,” Percival answered. “That’s the Council headed by Lady Raven and the chief Guild Lords of Islay. Twice a year they meet and fix the prices for Commodities. If thou wouldst observe the center of the room--” the Torrencian pointed to a large tote board hanging from the roof upon which there were many numbers “--thou wilt see the official prices for basic commodities on that sign. The Guild regulates how much members can sell their commodities for in different areas. Me Type Three lots of wine, for instance, can’t be sold for more than sixty gold crowns per lot in Torrencia. That means me can’t charge more than six thousand ounces of gold, total, for them. Of course, me can squeeze another ten percent out of them if me has to, but me isn’t supposed to.”

“Why is that?” Doremi asked.

“The Guild controls the prices for purposes of stability. They don’t want prices fluctuating. Officially, commodities must be sold right at the regulated price, but unofficially, we can dicker up or down ten percent, and the Guild looks the other way. But may the gods help thee if thou go beyond ten percent!”

“What happens then?”

“If they find out, thou’rt out of the Guild. That, or--”

The Torrencian drew his finger across his throat.

Below, the din of the auctions began to fade, and a cheer now began to rise. Doremi craned her head to see what was happening, and she beheld a group of well dressed men entering the Guild, the most imposing of which was some sort of Krellan officer, handsome with his close-cropped black beard, and resplendent in a set of bronze armor engraved with a scorpion upon the breastplate. Upon his head he wore an ornate open helmet whose black plume matched the color of his flowing cloak.

Percival pointed down to the group. “That be the Council,” he shouted, leaning over to Doremi. “The Krellan there? That be Drusis--the Praefect of Draconium.”

“Is that like a Lord Mayor?” she asked, leaning over to shout the question in his ear.

“No, no--much more than that. He’s as close to an Emperor as the Krellans will ever have again. He enforces the edicts of the Senate on the eastern half of Krella. The Praefect of Atlantium controls the western half of the country down to the Hendorum peninsula, but Drusis heads the Praetorian Guard in Draconium itself, so he’s a bit more important. See the man next to him with the ruff and the hat? That be Lord Belmont. He runs the Guild in Torrencia. ‘Twas his father who started the Guild with Raven years ago. His son is now the most powerful man in Torrencia, next to the King, which is noteworthy because he’s Gentry, but not Nobility.”

Behind the Council an honor guard of Torrencian Knights entered, and louder and louder rose the cheer, until its volume nearly shook the cavernous hall. Now Doremi saw Raven herself had entered the Guild followed by Morgaine, and a chorus of Guildsmen began shouting her name over and over again. With her hood pulled around her head and her hands clasped behind her back as she walked, Raven seemed very small among the squad of armored Knights, all of whom were head and shoulders taller than she was, but her power and popularity was unquestionable. She nodded to the group shouting her name and the roar and whistles grew even louder in response.

Doremi now had to shout at the top of her lungs to be heard.

“You all must really love her! I’ve never seen a King or Queen who was this popular!”

“We owe it all to her,” Percival shouted back. “She’s made us all rich. Before her, we merchants had to struggle. Imagine how little profit there was, selling cotton and linen in Torrencia before the Guild. Now, since the Guild, it’s easy to make money--the Krellans pay well for our cotton, and we make even more by selling their wine back home! Their grain is all that’s keeping Torrence from starvation, what with the famine, and Raven made all that possible She is the Guild, Lady! She is the Guild!”

Except for the honor guard, the group had entered the Council Hall at the back of the chamber, and as Raven and Morgaine joined them, two Knights shut the doors and the cheers faded away, replaced with the normal din of the Guild as things returned to normal.

“Well, Lady, me must take me leave,” Percival said, bowing and kissing Doremi’s hand. “’Twas a pleasure making thy acquaintance.”

Doremi curtsied in return. “It’s a pleasure to have met you too, Sir. I’m heading for the town myself; would you like to take the surrey with me?” she asked.

Percival smiled and swept his hand toward the stairs down.

“Gentlemen, it is good to see you all again,” Raven spoke as she settled into her traditional seat at the head of a large dark table in the Council’s meeting chambers beneath a gigantic engraved map of Islay that took up an entire wall of the room. “As I mentioned, I’m working on some things, and my time must unfortunately be limited to discussing the topics of chief importance. However, Morgaine will, of course, represent me as always. Now--on to first things. Our chief decision deals with whether or not to extend our crop blight in Torrencia for a third year. Morgaine, as chief of our money-lending program, what’s your overview of the effectiveness of our credits and loans?”

Morgaine, sitting across from the Krellan officer, opened a small book before her. “Not as good as we hoped,” came her answer. “Although we are reaping--pardon the pun--unprecedented profits with grain, the Nobles are managing overall to pay off their credits and loans by increasing the taxes on their peasants. Now in my view they’ve reached the practical ceiling on taxation. As it is, many of their peasants are near starvation because of the grain prices on top of the taxation. They can’t raise taxes any more without risking uprisings among the peasants and Highlanders. If we extend it one more year, they’ll have no choice but to cede lands to us in payment. That’s our ultimate goal, and my vote is to extend the blight by one year.”

Raven looked down to a tall Torrencian sitting midway down the table, next to an Arwinian. “Lord Belmont--your view?”

Lord William Belmont--the chief Guildmaster of the Torrencian branch of the Guild--straightened his feathered hat and scratched at his perfectly trimmed beard, which came to a sharp point at the bottom of his chin.

“I concur with Morgaine,” he answered. “While I’m concerned about potential uprisings amongst some of the peasants and Highlanders, I think the country can sustain another year of blight. Certainly, as Morgaine indicates, we’ll be deep into the pockets of many a Noble. At the same time, some are finding the continuing blight suspicious, and are wondering if perhaps there may be Sorcery involved. There could be a risk in trying to milk too much from this cow.”

Raven nodded. “Legate Drusis,” she said, looking over to the Krellan officer at his traditional seat to her right, “what is the view in Draconium toward an extension of the blight?”

“The Senate will support an extension,” the hook-nosed Krellan assured the group. “There is, however, strong opposition from the Metals faction in Metallium and the Hendorum peninsula. With the Torrencians spending all their money on food, the markets for metals have been weak for over one year. There is conscious displeasure growing over Grains’ sustained profits. Wine, fortunately, hasn’t been affected. Apparently--” he looked down to Lord Belmont with a grin “--when it comes to eating or drinking, the Torrencians have their priorities straight.”

That brought a round of hearty laughter from the table.

“In any event, Wine will support Grains and continue the blight. Cattle, Marble and Fish are neutral, and will not oppose.”

Raven thought for a few moments. “Please extend my personal thanks to Senators Demetrios and Antoninus, along with the other Senators in their faction, for their extraordinary patience during this move of the Guild. We understand the strain this has put on their profits, and to help defray the inconvenience to them, inform them that Morgaine will institute a two-year plan to create a metals shortage in...Avalon...Arwin...and Andor, if possible. Any problems with that, Morgaine?”

Morgaine shook her head and wrote a note in her book. “Consider it done.”

“In the meantime, over the course of the next twelve months the Guild will freeze copper, tin and iron at their current market prices, and in addition will subsidize a tariff of thirty percent above that from Grains’ profits. Within a year, the market should be acceptably strong in metals, and by the second year I should expect to see...” Raven did some calculating in her head “...a boost in the price of tin and copper from between twelve to eighteen percent; and a boost in iron from between twenty to twenty-five percent. Will that be acceptable to Metals?”

“Completely,” Drusis replied.

Raven nodded. “Grains will not be pleased at the subsidies, but we want to keep everyone happy, and Grains have profited abundantly over the past two seasons. And even at that, I think Grains will make at least two percent more over this time last year. Kindly explain my rationale to Senator Bacchus and his faction; I’m sure they’ll concur with the decision.”

“Regarding Bacchus,” Drusis said, “I must sadly report that the Senator is in ill health. I believe he will not last much longer, and as he has no children, his nephew, Aristobulus, will be inheriting his title and lands.”

A look of concern spread across Raven’s face, and she said, “Tell me about this nephew.”

Drusis shrugged. “He’s competent, but nothing more. Certainly he lacks the brilliance and influence of Bacchus. Bacchus’ leadership will be sorely missed in the Senate.”

“This could work to our advantage,” the Arwinian spoke up. “Without strong leadership, the Senate will continue to be agreeable to the decisions of this Council.”

“I agree. Drusis, please convey to Bacchus my regrets at his failing health. Were it not for him, none of this would be here,” Raven said, sweeping her hand in a large arc. “Inform him we shall have sacrifices made for him at the temples of Neptune and Artemis, and pray for his recovery.”

“On a related issue,” Drusis continued, “I believe the next great spokesman in the Senate will come from Wine. Senator Thallus--after the untimely death of his father last year--has shown himself to be an excellent young Senator. Although one of the smaller Senators of the Vin Glebalis region, he’s young, smart, charismatic, and popular with Patricians and Equestrians alike. I foresee him taking a leading role in the Senate in a few years.”

Raven nodded. “Let’s get on his good side early then. Morgaine, give his wines preferential treatment; auction them first when possible. Don’t do so much that we displeasure our other friends, but do enough that Thallus comes to realize that the Guild’s friendship is a thing to be courted, and that we are the ones in true control.”

Morgaine nodded as she dipped her pen in an inkwell to make another note.

“Now. In so far as our money-lending activities in Torrencia go, Morgaine--and Belmont, you’ll have to return and implement this amongst our guilds--we are going to alter the terms of our credits and moneys loaned. Any moneys still due us under the old standard terms of twenty percent usury will be reduced to ten percent usury as a matter of goodwill. Any future credits and moneys loaned will be loaned at a rate of seven percent usury. Make sure the Torrencians are made aware that our generosity is out of a sincere desire to help the people there, and to stabilize the markets during this tragic time of crop blight.”

Morgaine chuckled, and kept writing.

“In other words, I want them indebted to us as much as possible,” Raven continued. “By next year, we may own five percent of Torrencia’s best lands if things go well for us. Meantime, ease up just a bit on the blight in a few of the areas where there’s the strongest suspicions. Move our Witches to some of the wine-producing regions--what there are of them. Let’s hit them with some drought, and turn their grapes into raisins. Maybe we can give Wine a little bonus this year.”

Drusis laughed. “I’m sure they won’t mind that.”

“Very well. This concludes the major issue, and I will leave you to Morgaine. I can’t say whether my affairs will afford me the privilege of overseeing our next meeting; if not, Morgaine will see to it. Do not question anything she says! Until our next meeting, Gentlemen, thank you for your continued excellent work.”

Raven arose, as did those around the table, and Morgaine moved to take Raven's place at the head of the table. Raven, meanwhile, leaned over to the Legate.

“Your help has again been outstanding as I’ve come to expect,” she whispered. “I’ve delivered my gratitude to your galley.”

Unlike many other times, Drusis nodded but did not smile.

“Vesta grant I live to enjoy it,” he whispered back to her.

The great island upon which Freeport was built wasn’t tropical, but a forested land of majestic redwoods, crystal waterfalls, granite bluffs, grassy hills, and sapphire blue lakes. Much of the island was ringed by rugged gray cliffs of granite that were empty of vegetation from the waves that ceaselessly washed over them. Observing their craggy grandeur, one could not fail to see the high water line, for just beyond it began the moss, and then the grass, then fern and bush, and finally past these the many different sorts of trees that were natural to the island that, in its long ago past, had been known as Gish.

These treasures lay beyond the slopes of Vulcan’s Forge, and very few folk ventured inward to partake of the island’s natural charm, for those who visited Freeport had things on their mind other than the beauties of nature. Yet even here, in the populated region of the island, nature’s essence was evident and exploited.

As the surrey rumbled down the sandy road leading to town, the air was filled with the gentle scent of pine, lavender and ivy that rose from the wayside as a silent but aromatic sentry to hail the visitor.

It took only a few minutes to reach the outskirts of town, and quickly the buggy wheels began clacking on the cobblestone streets as the surrey rumbled past citizens beginning their daily duties and the store fronts that were opening for business.

Here and there, city merchants began displaying a vast cornucopia of fish, vegetables, fruits, berries, meats and eggs, while others featured craftables made from wood or metal, or perhaps the sundries needed for a sea voyage.

Doremi, preferring to explore on foot, left her new friend on the outskirts of town, promising to visit if she ever passed through Queenstown, and began to enjoy the splendors of Freeport by walking through the city.

As she trod along, feeling the sturdiness of the cobbled stones beneath her feet, the Bard was thoroughly enamored by the charm of the city. It even smelled good! What a relief that there were no open people dumping chamber pots into the open vats of urine for tanners, and not even horse droppings. (The city apparently employed people to clean up after horses.)

What impressed her most, though, was how colorful Freeport was. There was color everywhere! Unlike Torrencia and Avalon, buildings and houses weren’t drab shades of gray, perhaps bolstered by the natural colors of whatever materials had been used in their construction, but everywhere she looked, Doremi saw houses and buildings painted in bright colors that accented every detail of their shingled roofs, fish scale sides, clapboard shutters, hanging eaves, brick walls, sculpted chimneys of amber colored limestone, roofs crested with wrought iron lattice work, web-shaped flutings, fan-bracketed columns, or wooden stairways.

Nearly every house even had glass windows! And not just square windows, but oval windows, vaulted windows, shuttered windows, stained-glass windows--windows of every possible shape and style.

A sense of grace permeated everything from the smallest house to the largest buildings. Whether it was beige, peach, rose, blue, red, yellow or green, color flowed from every pore of Freeport. It was as if there were no poor here, for even the smallest dwelling place looked--fancy, for lack of a better word, and each vied with its neighbor for some sort of unique feature that set it apart from the other charming homes and cottages near it. Even the devotion of the citizens to keeping up their homes was amazing: A block hardly existed where she didn’t observe someone repainting, grazing calves or cows to manicure the carpet of grass surrounding their lots, or trimming a hedge.

It took a while, but finally she realized that the houses were actually neater and cleaner than those who lived in them were. Not that the Freeporters were dirty people; in fact, they were noticeably cleaner than the typical Torrencian, many of whom had an aversion to baths.

The Freeporters’ cleanliness was probably, Doremi thought, because of the Krellan influence, since the Krellans, as a people, made bathing a near social event, something Doremi suspected was probably immoral, although she wasn’t really sure.

So then, the citizens of Freeport were clean people, but their simple dress was in contrast to their ornate and flamboyant homes. They looked much the same as any Islayan, being attired simple leather, woolen, or flaxen clothing.

Probably one of their idiosyncrasies, she concluded.

Eventually she came upon an old woman bent over, trimming a hedge behind a wrought iron fence. Her charming little cottage of pink clapboard walls with a white-shingled roof had a path of field stones leading from the street to a small porch where there was a chair the Bard presumed the woman relaxed in when not working in her garden.

“Good morning!” she called out from the street. “You have a lovely house.”


The grizzled old woman looked up, her face, wrinkled like curdled milk, peeping out from beneath her blue shawl.

“Your house--it’s cute,” Doremi answered, raising her voice in case the old woman was hard of hearing. “You really take good care of your garden, I see.”

“Hang this garden!” the old woman exclaimed. “I never planted these hedges, the flowers make me sneeze, and I don’t want them! Haven’t I better to do than trim these hedges anyway?”

“Then why do you have them?” Doremi asked, puzzled.

“‘Cause they’ll put me out, won’t they?!” came the answer. “I was happy in the sod house I had when the pirates were here. But then they tore down our houses and built us these, and they forced us to take care of them. If we don’t, they come do it for us, and if we don’t pay for it, they put us out. So what choice have I got? I can’t afford to pay someone to trim these hedges I don’t want--I have to keep them and this house looking neat, or out in the rain I’ll be! Not that Miss High ‘N Mighty up there at the Inn has to trim her own hedges!”

Angrily, the old woman turned back to her work.

Puzzled by the woman’s comments, Doremi continued on her way down the sloping road toward the sea.

Noon found her sitting on a rock near the surf, eating a baked apple on a stick that she’d purchased for a copper piece. There was a shoal out in the distance upon which lay the remnants of a ship’s skeleton lodged against a gigantic granite rock. For quite a while she relaxed, with her slippers off, and stared out to sea, enjoying the view and the tranquil calm of the waves lapping against the shore, and the grandeur of the gray monolith rising out of the sea. In time, she was joined by an old bearded tinker who had come down to the shore with his heavy canvas bag of tradesman’s tools. A few feet away, he set up a small folding table and then nodded to her.

“Hail, Lady,” he spoke, as he sat down upon his own rock.

“Hello,” she said back with a smile. “My name is Doremi.”

The man nodded once more. “Pleasure to meet you, Lady. I am Aloysius,” he spoke while removing some carving tools from his sack. Then he set a large whale’s tooth upon his table, which had been half-carved into the shape of a mermaid.

“A fine view, eh?” he continued. “I come work here for the view and the quiet--and the company: The sea, and the little green crabs that the surf washes up.”

Doremi chuckled. “It is a good view.”

The Bard then shifted position to watch the man begin working his craft.

“You’re a sculptor,” she observed.

“Well, I don’t work with stone; I’m an engraver, really--or I used to be,” the old man answered. “A whale carcass washed up here a few winters ago and I was lucky to find me a buncha teeth to carve. I gets about fifty marks for ‘em when I’m done with ‘em. Takes a while, though.”

“Have you lived here in Freeport long?”

“All me life,” the man replied as he scratched out the pattern of a new row of scales on his work of art.

“Oh--so you were here when the pirates ruled Freeport!”

“Aye--I was. I even remember Raven when she was small. I knew her papa. Sometimes I would engrave armor or blades he made. I remember well Raven and that sister of hers running around the shop way back then.”

He gestured over to a spit of land with what Doremi could see was a small stone building at its end.

“Yonder is the shop. You can’t see ‘em, but they always have a guard of Knights standing watch over it.”

Doremi followed his gaze. “Oh, really? How interesting. Raven’s a fascinating person, isn’t she?”

“Aye,” Aloysius answered. “Lots better than Lightfoot ‘n the rest, too. Most’d run you through if you looked cross-eyed at ‘em. She was nicer--I don’t think I ever saw her kill anyone who didn’t somehow do something to her that made ‘em deserving. She even gave lots of us nice houses for free after the Guild started drawin’ people to Freeport, she did. ‘Course she can be strict as any of the Lords were when she gets it in her mind she wants something done, but she’s been right good to us common Freeporters.”

Doremi looked back at the old man. “It's been nice meeting you,” she told him as she arose and stepped back into her slippers. “I'm going to be running the Music institute here; come visit me sometime. Perhaps you can engrave some of the instruments for us when we get the School up and running.”

Aloysius nodded back with a smile and Doremi began walking down the beach, eventually deciding to visit the shop that the old man had indicated.

It took a few minutes, but she reached the top of the promontory where a well-worn path led from the cobbled streets up to the shop. The peninsula here was actually quite wide in places, and Doremi noted that plots, overgrown with grass, were marked off by stone markers in ten-foot square sections. These sections ran nearly all the way up to the shop where, as Aloysius had said, a pair of armored Knights stood as silent sentries. The shop itself was simple, yet had a degree of elegance to it, being a two-story structure of finished stone with a slate roof mounted atop stout old beams of oak. A weathered sign swung in the breeze from a rusty old chain above the doorway announcing that three separate businesses could once be found within. It read:

House of Shadows Magic Shoppe

- Dipper, prop.

Appropriately, a black cat was painted to the right side of this name while a skull candle was painted to the left, presumably to aid those unable to read in realizing a potion and component shop lay within.

Beneath, the next line read:

Aradawn’s Ranger Shoppe

- Aradawn TenTolliver, prop.

Painted to the right was what was left of a faded image of a caped woman with blonde hair, holding a bow.

Last of all, was Raven’s portion of the sign, which simply read:

Raven Armoury

- Raven, prop.

To the right of this simple advertisement was painted a sword and shield.

“Good morrow, Lady. May we help thee?”

The voice came from one of the Knights standing on the porch, who had fixed his gaze on the visitor.

Doremi smiled back, and nodded at the pair. “Hello,” she said pleasantly. “I’ve just been hired by Raven to run a Music school, and I wanted to come look at her old shop.”

“This is it then, Lady,” spoke the other guard. “Thou mayest look to thy heart’s content.”

“Thank you,” she answered with a smile.

The Bard stepped up onto the porch of the building and tried to peer in, but the glass was dusty on the other side and she could barely make out dim shapes in the shadows beyond.

Not satisfied with that, she made her way to the side of the building where an old fence, some of whose slats had fallen away with time, extended down to the edge of the cliffs. There was a window on the side of the building, and it was low enough to the ground that when she discovered it was unbarred, she forced it up and, using the rough-hewn stones of the shop’s base to climb up, wriggled her way inside.

The interior of the darkened shop felt lonely. No one had visited for a long time, and everything was covered by a thick layer of dust permeated with the musty smell that accompanied a dwelling no one inhabits anymore.

Most of the shop was taken up by the accouterments of the armourer’s trade: An anvil set upon a tree stump stood next to a forge where, long ago, a red hot coal fire would have been used to heat iron ingots from a stack nearby that would have been pounded into useful implements and then plunged into a quenching tub.

A large bellows, its leather now rotting away, lay next to the forge for adding heat to the fire and the iron within. Hammers, tongs, chisels, drills, rivets and a jumble of other small tools ringed this area, neatly lying on tables or upon shelves within quick reach of the smith.

Near the workbench and the anvil a few jumbled pieces of armour lay strewn about. Once shiny silver in color, they were now dark brown from years of oxidation as they lay abandoned. Most interesting was a black helmet resting upon a table that caught Doremi’s attention. It was a bit unusual and not like most other helmets she’d seen before, being flared out in the sides and back while its front was fashioned into a scowling face.

On the north side of the room was Dipper’s Magic Shoppe, which was rather humble, comprising only a few shelves behind a counter upon which rested beakers and glass containers of what Doremi recognized were common spell components. Today such a shop would somewhat laughable for its sparse simplicity, but twenty seasons ago it probably was unique in the world, for only in the last few years had people begun opening shops catering to the wizard’s trade.

Years ago, a wizard needing spell reagents headed out into the wild to get his own, or else had his servants scour the land for them. Today there were shops and merchants that did that for him, freeing the wizard for more important tasks. There was, for instance, a shop she knew of in Avalon City that was renowned for stocking virtually every known spell reagent, and scrolls of most spells, along with almost every known potion and elixir--except, of course, for an elixir of youth.

Yes, things had definitely changed in Islay over the past couple of decades.

Beyond the first room lay a second work area with more tools where Doremi observed fletching equipment required for the bowyers trade, along with some animal traps and the rotted remains of leather armour. A rack of spears, swords and blades lay against one wall, and amongst them she discovered one of the unusual scimitars she’d seen on Morgaine.

the Bard slid the rusted sword from its sharkskin sheath, and for the life of her couldn’t see how anyone could wield such a weapon: It had no weight behind it; the handle had no regular guard, nor was it designed for a good grip; its thin, springy blade was sharp on only the bottom edge and didn’t even have a point for thrusting, but instead had a beveled tip even Doremi knew wouldn’t punch through armour very well, no matter how light.

It had to be some ceremonial blade; certainly no one would ever use it in actual combat.

From here, a stairway led up presumably to living quarters on the second floor, and a back door opened to a yard stretching to the end of the peninsula which overlooked the sea. A wooden wall, its whitewash long faded, ringed its way around the back of the building--its purpose, Doremi somehow knew, to keep Raven and her sister from tumbling down the cliff when they were children. There used to be plants here, she realized, looking at several overgrown planter boxes. Now all that was left that wasn’t somehow overgrown and unkempt was an old maple tree that stood at the back of the yard against the fence. She almost wanted to go lie down under it and take a rest, but enough was enough, and so Doremi wiped the dust from her hands and turned away.

She left the building as she had entered: through the window. Then she brushed away the dust from her dress. The tour done, she made her way back toward town after waving to the two guards.

She was walking back to the city and hadn’t traveled long before she came upon it on a street corner and halted in her tracks. The shop before her looked more like a small manor house than a business, and was even more flamboyant in style than most of the dwellings she’d seen thus far. Painted shades of black and rustic brown, tall windows in iron frames looked out upon two thoroughfares to permit all the light possible to enter the building. A large ornate sign was attached to a wrought iron fence that ringed the front of the shop, inviting passersby to enter and sample the treats within. It read:

The Bookworm Bookshoppe

We buy books of any sort!

D. Wighead, Esq.-Prop. & Lord Mayor

Hmm--a bookshop, she thought. What’s a bookshop? A place where scribes make books?

A path of granite rocks led through a patch of lawn to a porch, and Doremi quickly climbed several wooden stairs to reach out and turn the handle of the door leading in. A silver bell set above the door rang, and the Bard stepped inside to be thoroughly shocked as she quickly realized this shop didn’t make books--it actually sold them! Everywhere one looked, row after row of long oaken bookcases held scrolls, parchments and bound books. Big books. Little books. Books bound in leather. Books bound in the skins of unique animals. Books of every sort.

The shop was lit by decorative chandeliers holding scented oil lamps, in addition to the light streaming through its many windows. Scattered about, next to small reading tables, were high-back chairs standing stiff upon the plush throw rugs set upon the oaken floor beneath them.

From someplace at the back of the shop came the sound of shuffling feet, and from behind a bookcase emerged the most unusual little fellow. He wasn’t three feet tall, but his rotund little body was stuffed into a black frock coat, white ruffled shirt with a scarlet vest, and a set of knee breeches. Long silken stockings ran from his knees into his tiny shoes with silver buckles.

The unusual little man made a graceful bow, extending his left leg back behind him as he leaned forward, and brought his right arm up to his left shoulder in a sort of salute. His typically oversized head, Doremi observed, was covered by a curly white wig of wool sporting a long, braided pigtail.

A smile spread across her face, for yes, this clearly was a Wighead.

Doremi had a special fondness for these queer, diminutive folk from the Baronies of Torrencia. No one was entirely certain whether they were humans or some sort of faerie folk with human blood in them, but they had been in Torrencia for as long as anyone could remember, keeping to themselves in quaint little villages and towns in the lowlands, and being renowned as skillful inventors of useful items like the hawkeye.

“Desmore Wighead at your service, Lady,” he spoke, returning to an upright stance. “May I help thee?”

Doremi curtsied. “Good day, sir,” she answered. “This is my first visit to your shop. I’ve never heard of a ‘bookstore’ before! This is a Library that actually sells books?!”

“Well...not a Library, no,” Desmore answered. “Books are my passion, and I have long collected and even written some. I came here to Freeport years ago because I had heard that they had invented an inexpensive papyrus from mulberry trees, and I wished to bring some back to the Baronies. For quite a while, I was a merchant, shipping goods to the Baronies, but when I saw what a fair town this was I eventually decided to stay, and moved my collection here. In time, Raven made me Mayor of the town and head of our local Village Green Preservation Society, and I was also granted a monopoly to sell books—thus, sell books I do. And I buy them! Have thee any for to sell?”

“I’m sorry, no. I don’t own any books other than a song book. But I might like to buy some. Have you any books dealing with music? And how much do they cost?”

Desmore beckoned for her to follow, and he led her to a small nook stuffed with scrolls and sheet music. “Indeed, I do have a section dealing with Music,” he told her. “Thou mayest look to thy heart’s content. My prices vary, but most are around fifty gold marks. The sheet music is much less.”

Excited, Doremi could hardly wait. “Is there any way,” she asked, as she squeezed into the nook, which was really more accommodating for a Wighead to operate comfortably in than a human, “that you have a copy of the Diatesseron?”

Desmore pondered the question for a moment, then the background of the book came to his memory. “The Diatesseron...was that not a poem by Dellenthar, from the First Age? Then thee must be a Bard,” the Wighead surmised.

Doremi nodded. “Yes--I’m a Bard from Avalon. It wasn’t a poem, though--it was, that’s it--a treatise on using music to affect the four elements.”

The tiny man shook his head. “I’ve never seen one, I am sorry to say, Lady.”

Doremi shrugged. “Neither have I,” she said sadly. “No one has; not even the Schools in Hocwrath. It’s been lost since the First Age, but every Bard would love to find one. I thought I would ask, and hope.”

Doremi’s eyes fell upon an attractive-looking book on a shelf next to the Music nook. It was a large volume with a hand-tooled cover of hard leather overlaid with cloth. She pulled it off the shelf and thumbed through it to discover the manuscript was an Avalonian translation of an Elven fairy tale, highly illuminated with beautiful calligraphy and wonderful hand-colored illustrations. The binding had unfortunately come loose, and a few pages seemed to have fallen out. Even so, the book was still very nice.

“This is a pretty book,” she observed.

“Thee may have it,” the Wighead spoke.

“For free?!”

Desmore nodded. “There are pages missing, so it has no value to me.”

Doremi looked down at it. “But only a few leaves are gone--it’s almost all there and even with them gone, it’s still a nice book. You don’t want to dismiss the whole book over three or four pages, do you? Are you sure you don’t want something for it?”

“Nay, Lady,” answered the little man. “The few pages that are missing mean more to me than the whole of the book that remains. You see, the lost pages are the most important, because without them the book can never be what the author meant it to be, nor can it ever tell its full story. It can never be complete until the lost pages are found and restored to it. Thus, thee may have it, and perchance thee might someday find and restore the pages, and make it whole again.”

Doremi, delighted, thought for a moment. “You know,” she said, “people can be like lost pages, can’t they?”

“Some can,” the Wighead agreed.

The Bard's ears picked up an odd ticking sound and she looked past Desmore to see a tall, intricately carved mahogany wood box against a wall that had a long golden pendulum swinging back and forth on the other side of a glass door. She gestured toward it.

“What is that thing there?” she asked.

Desmore glanced back. “Oh, that. Such a marvelous contrivance,” he answered. “It’s called a clock.”

“What does it do?” Doremi wondered.

“It tells what time it is,” came the answer.

Doremi was amazed. “You mean it talks?!”

“Oh, dear me, no. But you see it has a round dial at its top, and an arrow pointing upward?”


“Well, you will notice the dial is numbered from one to twenty. The pendulum is moved by a spring and connected to gears that turn the dial very slowly whilst the arrow remains still. It takes twenty hours for the dial to make its compass all the way around to the beginning again. As it turns, a person may see what hour it is by looking at the number that the arrow is pointing to. The sun rises at the first hour. Right now, we are approaching the ninth hour of the day. The sun will set around the eleventh hour. That is how the contrivance tells what time it is--one merely looks at the dial and the arrow.”

“Can’t a person just go outside and tell the hour by looking at the sun?”

“Well, yes--but not at night or if the heavens are thick with clouds. With a clock, if one awaken at night and wonder how long it will be ‘til dawn. One need only look at the clock to know.”

“Hmm. That might well be nice to know. I’ll bet a vampire would love to own a clock!” she joked.

The Wighead pondered the statement. “My goodness, thou art entirely right!” he finally spoke. “We don’t have any vampires in Freeport, however. At least, none that I know of. I don’t think the fellow who invented this had considered that.”

“It’s a Wighead invention, then?”

“Yes. It came from a craftsman in Tradeville.”

“I passed through Tradeville once!” Doremi said. “In fact, I bought a seeing device called a hawkeye there. Have you ever seen one?”

Desmore shook his head and Doremi was pleased to assemble and show off the hawkeye to her new friend.

In the stillness of nightfall, when the gray shadows of night began rolling over the city like a blanket, she finally left the shop with a stack of sheet music in hand. The city lamplighters were busy firing up the iron lamps that sprouted like trees along the city streets, and now the stars began peeping down upon the world, while the soft twilight air enjoyed its final aroma of fragrance, and the carpets of flowers and vines covering the land went to sleep for the night as the great Inn settled down for the evening wrapped in a blanket of evening mist and star-twinkled darkness.

Having no fear of being accosted by any ruffians, Doremi chose to enjoy strolling back instead of taking a surrey.

The Inn was all-aglow with lights twinkling from its many stories, a beacon on the hill above Freeport. Near the entry, a huge square slab of marble had been erected as a teleportal point for visitors, and as Doremi passed near it the surface began to pulsate and glow. A moment later, a young woman rode through on a horse followed by two armored warriors and what Doremi took to be a Cutpurse from his leather jerkin and hooded cloak. Typical treasure hunters, she noted, making their way to Freeport from whatever expedition they’d been on.

The four, apparently being familiar with the Inn, cantered off to the stables, while Doremi continued on inside. The ground floor of the Inn was packed with patrons, and the hustle and bustle of the Guild had now moved inside.

Stiletta, the Desk Clerk, had apparently been waiting for her near the entryway, and instantly she pulled Doremi aside as she entered. “Raven’s been waiting for you to have dinner with her!” she exclaimed. “She usually eats while the sun is still up. Where have you been?!”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I was down at Desmore’s bookshop,” she answered.

Stiletta waved a servant over, then pulled the sheet music from Doremi’s hands. “Raven’s out back, listening to a Performance,” she told her. “This servant will take you to her. I’ll take these to your room.”

“Well--can I go to my room and change first?”

“Do you have to?”

“I’d like to.”

Stiletta looked uncertain. “Uh...okay,” she finally said. “I’ll come with you.”

Doremi stared back, puzzled at Stiletta’s manner. “I can find my way to my own room. I’ll go and then I’ll come back here, and you can take me to Raven then.”

That said, the Bard reached out and took back her sheet music.

“Well--hurry, please,” Stiletta insisted. “Take a boat--don’t walk. In fact--it’s closer to the garden for you walk from your room rather than come back to the entry here. Just follow the signs. This servant will be waiting at the entry to the garden for you.”

Doremi looked over to the young servant girl Stiletta had just gestured to. “I’ll meet you soon as I can,” she said. And with that, she walked off to the south toward the Elven wing, shaking her head.

A large garden nestled between the two wings of the Inn, boasting everything from arbors of unique flowers, to fountains and a hedge maze that would magically rearrange itself every day. Within all this splendor of Nature, a section had been set aside for outdoor concerts on a small stage.

As night would fall and the sun would vanish behind the western horizon, a spider’s web of hanging lanterns would be lit to bathe the garden in a soft yellow glow. Then a variety of performers during a given week might be featured.

Phillips, the Inn’s chief Bard, would traditionally begin the event by serenading the group of anywhere between one to three hundred patrons, who would be seated at small tables to enjoy the evening air as a small army of servers hustled back and forth carrying trays of food and drinks. Later, Stuart and Clyde, another popular set of troubadours, might take over for the evening if there was no visiting Bard to perform.

Doremi, now in a more comfortable skirt and blouse, with the addition of a cloak for warmth, was directed to a table where Raven relaxed, listening to the music.

As she came near, the Bard’s attention was drawn to two hooded young women standing a few feet behind the Mistress of Freeport near a white lattice arbor of vines. The pair, she observed, kept their eyes not on Phillips, but on the crowd itself. Two wolves lay passively at their feet--creatures, she suspected, that were trained to either protect their mistresses or attack enemies.

Some sort of guards, she presumed of the duo.

“We thought you had vanished,” Raven noted as Doremi sat down.

“I’m sorry,” Doremi apologized. “I met Desmore, and we had a wonderful time down at his book store most of the afternoon.”

The Mistress of Freeport seemed pleased. “Ah, Desmore, good! I’m lucky to have him. He’s a well-respected man about town, and a valuable asset to Freeport. I’m glad you two hit it off. Well...perhaps we’ll enjoy the show for a little while, and then have some dinner. I assume you’ve not eaten?”

If she had eaten, Doremi was pretty certain Raven would have felt insulted. Fortunately she hadn’t, and so informed her.

Raven nodded and turned back to the Performance.

Phillips ended his concert with a song called Islay, a touching ballad that spoke of the memories of home: Of shepherds and flocks, of the smell of the peat, of the gulls at play in the air, and many other scenes from everyday Islayan life. He left to the applause of the crowd to be followed by a pair of Torrencian puppeteers who set up to put on a play.

Raven looked over to Doremi. “What do you think of Phillips?” she asked. “He’s from the Selathien Institute in Avalon City, you know.”

Raven seemed proud of that, and no wonder--it wasn’t the easiest thing to entice a Bard into settling down to a permanent job.

“He’s okay,” she answered.

Raven kept her eyes on her. “Are you better than he is?” she inquired.

Doremi shrugged. “Raven, I don’t like thinking in terms like that,” she responded. “He’s good, and I’m sure each of us can do some things better than the other one can. But I don’t like comparing myself to other people, lest I start thinking either too much of myself or too little of someone else.”

The Mistress of Freeport seemed puzzled by the answer, and settled back to watch the puppeteers.

The play, a humorous story of a farmer trying to convince the people he met that his mule could talk, was a hit with the crowd. But Raven, Doremi noticed, sat for nearly half an hour with her arms folded, unmoving except for occasionally crossing or uncrossing her legs. The expression on her face didn’t change, nor did she show any sign she was enjoying the show. At a point when the mule hilariously imitated its stuttering master’s speech, the entire audience, including Doremi, roared with laughter. It was one of the funniest things she’d ever seen, and she nearly fell out of the chair. Raven, however, merely chuckled twice, then returned to concentrating on the show.

Doremi paused. That’s all the emotion she can manage, she realized. How do I know that? I must be getting really intuitive in my old age or something.

The play momentarily forgotten, the Bard found herself staring at her hostess and for some reason focusing on Raven’s neck, since her head was the only part of her body not clothed.

For the first time, the Bard noticed that if you looked past the beauty of her face and skin, her neck was uncommonly--muscular, for lack of a better word. It conveyed anything but a sense of femininity; rather, it suggested that this woman was very strong, despite not looking particularly bulky or muscular. And though nothing outwardly suggested Raven had any great prowess with swords, Doremi suspected she had the ability not only to fight, but to fight extremely well.

Eventually, her hostess realized she was being stared at, and slowly her head swung round to meet the Bard’s gaze as her eyes narrowed.

“I’m sorry,” Doremi apologized. “I was just admiring your, um--teeth. You have really nice teeth! Not like Torrencian women, for example.”

“Oh,” Raven responded, relaxing. “Thank you. Most Krellans have nice teeth; they make a sort of paste from mint leaves that they rub on them, which keeps them healthy. It’s the next best thing to being an Elf and getting four sets over the course of your life.”

They returned to watching the show, which concluded a few minutes later, and the puppeteers left the stage to enthusiastic applause from just about everyone but Raven who merely gave a polite clap, and then rose from her wicker chair.

“Why don’t we go have dinner?” she suggested.

Raven made an almost imperceptible nod to her guards, who noted it and departed to go their own way to whatever duties that might beckon them, now that the Performance was over.

Doremi and Raven, meanwhile, walked back to the Inn, making small talk about the puppet play, and Doremi related a story or two about Performances she’d given in her time as a wandering minstrel. Although Raven had seemed unimpressed with the show, if not outright disappointed, she nonetheless made several comments about technical aspects of the Performance, all of which, Doremi noted, were very apropos.

The Bard still wasn’t certain yet what she thought of her. But somehow, as she walked perhaps a half step behind her, she knew she was in the presence of someone--different. Different from anyone she had ever known. The very air about her felt charged with magic; the twinkling stars overhead seemed wrapped about her as a mantle, the moon cast an enchanted glow upon the alabaster skin of her face, the flowers and vines of the garden seemed almost to stand in reverence to her as they passed.

Raven’s voice, as she spoke, was almost Bardlike, naturally changing tones and pitch, intuitively emphasizing the points she was making in a manner that molded the listener’s opinion to her own, just as Doremi might have accomplished using her own skills. Her walk was confident, and even her gate and the very movements of her limbs and head as she spoke, or her eyes as they blinked at precisely the right moment, had an etheric quality somehow flowing together in perfect unison creating a bewitching vision of grace, beauty and wisdom that made Doremi think Raven could almost convince her the moon really was made of porridge if she wanted to.

Control, the thought came to her as they walked. You’re the one who’s in control, aren’t you? And you don’t tolerate opposition, do you?

“--Don’t you think?” Doremi heard Raven ask.

That brought her out of it.

“I’m sorry, Raven, what was that again?”

“I said ‘the music of your own country has a grace to it that the music of Torrencia lacks, don’t you think?’”

“In some ways, yes--it’s softer...slower,” the Bard answered. “Torrencian music is very rustic and earthy. Perhaps it’s the Elven influence that makes some of the music of Avalon slower and prettier, apart from our own jigs. Personally, I like songs that are bright and cheerful yet have an undercurrent of melancholy to them. The trick is getting the right mix to convey both the mood and the message to the listener without one dominating the other.”

Raven quickly looked over to her with an expression that told Doremi she absolutely understood what she meant. They had entered the Inn by now, and as they passed the entrance gallery Stiletta, faithfully at her post behind the grand registration desk, beckoned for her mistress.

Raven put her arm on Doremi’s shoulder, and directed her toward the doors to the waiting room.

“I’ll meet you in there,” she said softly. “Give me a moment.”

Doremi nodded and slipped inside the doors as Raven went to see what Stiletta needed. The waiting room was now lit by a silver and crystal chandelier brightly illuminating the huge portrait above the fireplace. Hands clasped behind her back, Doremi was drawn to move toward the painting to once again admire it.

It was wondrous to believe that Dreamspinner could paint something so magnificent that so captured the power and majesty both of the sea and the subject. The subtlety of the flesh tones, the sweep of Raven’s hair in the wind, the foam of the whitecaps behind the ship…all of it was so delicately beautiful--magic, in a way, just as Raven herself seemed to be. Yet even so--even as she admired the workmanship of the painting--she became aware that there was something else. Something that was not quite right. Something she sensed could be frightening.

But how could that be, she wondered?

The sound of the doors closing caused her to turn. Raven had completed whatever business she had with Stiletta, and had joined Doremi in the room, pushing the doors closed with her back to them.

“All done,” she said with a smile, and gestured toward the Music room.

Doremi pointed back to the painting, and smiled.

“I absolutely love your portrait. It’s so beautiful.”

Raven’s response came as a surprise. The smile vanished, and her eyebrows narrowed as she glanced up to the painting, and her face almost formed an expression of--anger--it seemed to the Bard.

But just as quickly, the smile snapped back.

“Thank you,” she replied.

Raven said nothing more, but crossed the floor to the doors leading into the Music room with Doremi following. Twin doors to the south of that room opened into a spacious dining hall of formed white plaster trimmed in gold leaf whose most imposing feature was a massive mahogany table nearly twenty feet long that rested upon a long red carpet running the length of the room. A clock, Doremi noticed with interest, was set against a wall, showing it was nearing the 13th hour.

Two places were set, and Raven gestured for the Bard to have a seat at the other end of the table.

A moment later, a young girl, around ten, came through the doors pushing a cart upon which were several trays of food and some pitchers.

“Hi, Raven!” she said as she entered.

Raven smiled back at her. “Hello, Stormie. How has your day been?” she asked.

“Good!” she exclaimed with enthusiasm. “We learned how to tell good plants from bad ones!”

Raven, still smiling, rubbed the child’s head as the girl placed a tray of food before her and removed its top to reveal a large mushroom smothered in a thick red sauce of some sort.

“Just remember,” Raven told her, “if the top of a mushroom can be peeled off in strips, it’s probably okay to eat. If it sort of comes apart in pieces, though, it’s always bad.”

“Yup--I know!” she responded. The little girl then poured some water in a crystal goblet for her mistress.

Still rubbing the girl’s hair, Raven looked over to Doremi. “Doremi--fish, fowl, or beef?” she inquired.

“Uh--fowl, please,” the Bard answered.

Stormie rushed the cart down the length of the table, and Doremi realized the child apparently delighted in pushing the cart. She selected a silver tray of food for Doremi that proved to be an assortment of vegetables surrounding a plump game hen, likewise smothered in the same red sauce as Raven’s mushroom.

“Thank you, Stormie,” Doremi said, smiling.

Stormie smiled back. “Do you want water, milk or wine?” she asked.

“Water’s fine, thank you.”

The child poured Doremi a goblet of water, and then began wheeling the cart back to the other end of the room.

“You can leave the cart, honey,” Raven told her. “Morgaine may join us. Run along to bed now.”

“Okay,” the child said. “Bye, Raven! Bye, lady!

 Stormie hurried out of the room, and turned round to close the doors behind her.

Doremi grinned. “What a cute little girl,” she observed.

Raven nodded. “She’s one of the kids from my orphanage. I found her outside of Draconium, where her father had left her by the side of the road to die of exposure.”

Doremi’s jaw dropped in shock. “That’s the most evil, despicable thing I ever heard of in my life!” she exclaimed.

Raven shrugged and began slicing off a piece of her mushroom. “I agree. But it doesn’t happen much anymore there. It’s one of the few things I think I would disagree with my father on. He’d have said that a father has the right to do whatever he wants to with his children, including something like that. Personally, if someone’s father tried doing that in Freeport, I’d feed him to the sharks an inch at a time.”

“Good for you!”

“Most all the kids in the orphanage wind up working for me one way or another,” Raven continued. “Stormie’s smart, and I’m going to have her apprenticed to one of my Witches some day. She’ll make a good wizard.”

It was about this time that Doremi noticed Raven had neglected to remove her gloves, something she thought rather odd.

“Raven,” she asked,” are you going to eat with your gloves on?”

Raven froze a moment, laid down her knife and fork, cocked her head, smiled, and with a blink answered softly, “Are you telling me how to eat at my own table?”

Although the question had been posed with the same disarming smile and soft manner Raven often used, Doremi perceived the irritation, if not outright fury, behind it.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “That was rude of me; I just thought it rather queer to eat dinner with one’s gloves on.”

Raven seemed to relax, and looked down to her food. “Well...that’s okay,” she answered. “I suppose I’d wonder about that too. Sometimes the only way we learn is by making mistakes. But then hopefully we learn not to make them again. So what do you think of my city?”

Doremi sat back and searched for the words, and her face couldn’t hide the excitement.

“Raven, I love it! Freeport is the most wonderful town I’ve ever seen! I didn’t get to see half of it, but I’m going to love living here.”

Raven smiled. “You’ll be a great addition to us, Doremi. Part of what makes Freeport great is its people--and you’re one of them now. My vision can only do so much--I can’t make Freeport what I want it to be without people of talent like yourself.”

Doremi took a bite of her chicken.

“Umm,” she muttered in pleasant surprise. “This red sauce is delicious. What is it?”

“A fruit that grows in Krella--it’s a specialty here at the Inn; it’s the ‘secret ingredient’ we use it in almost all our food.”

“A fruit? It tastes like a vegetable.”

Raven nodded. “The Druids say it’s technically a fruit, though. For the life of me, I don’t know what logic they use to arrive at that conclusion; the thing grows on a vine like a vegetable, so I suspect I’m right, and they’re wrong about what it is.”

“I collect recipes, you know. What’s this called? I’d like to experiment with it.”

Raven paused for a moment, and Doremi perceived she was debating on whether to answer.

“It’s, uh--made from....”

Raven seemed to mutter the last word, and Doremi couldn’t make it out.

“Made from what again?” she asked.

“Tomatoes,” Raven, gritting her teeth, reluctantly said more clearly.

Doremi’s face turned ashen and her eyes popped open.

“Doremi,” Raven quickly spoke, shaking her finger, “there is nothing wrong with tomatoes!”

“Tomatoes are poison!” she exclaimed, wiping her mouth with a napkin.

“They are not poison! That’s an old--husbands tale.”

“They are too poison--everyone knows that!”

“It’s a myth, Doremi,” Raven insisted. “Do I look dead to you? I can’t even get the Krellans to believe it, but tomatoes are safe to eat. Now enjoy your dinner--it won’t hurt you!”

Apprehensively, Doremi picked at her food, waiting to see if she would start feeling queasy. But she felt fine, and after a while did enjoy the dish.

“I, uh, see why you keep the ingredient a secret,” she said. “Maybe it’s cooking them that makes them safe to eat.”

Raven shook her head in frustration. “That must be it.”

The Mistress of Freeport began to lift a forkful of mushrooms to her mouth when some of the sauce dripped off and fell upon the front of her vest. She sighed in frustration, replaced the utensil on her plate, and reached for a napkin to wipe off the sauce.

“That’s the problem with bust lines,” she spoke, “--food drops on them.”

Doremi smiled and shrugged. “I’ve never really had that problem.”

“Count yourself lucky,” Raven answered, laying down the napkin and reaching again for the fork.

“Trade you.”

“I would if I could, Doremi.”

From the Music room they now heard the sound of someone whistling as they approached the doors, and they swung open as Morgaine entered.

“Hey,” she said in greeting.

Morgaine stepped over to the tray of food, searched through the dishes until she found a plate with a nice thick slab of beef, then she placed it and a setting of eating utensils to Raven’s side. She poured a quick glass of wine and then swung her leg over a chair to Raven’s left as she settled down to enjoy dinner.

“Any interesting news to mention since I spoke to you earlier?”

Morgaine shook her head. “Same stuff, different day, Raven.”

“Doremi’s decided she likes our fair city,” Raven continued.

“Great,” answered Morgaine unenthusiastically. She then proceeded to hold down the meat on her plate with a fork and slice off a hefty chunk with her knife--which she then used to spear and stuff it into her mouth, washing it down with some wine.

Raven glowered at her, but Morgaine intentionally looked aside, trying to avoid making eye contact.

“You eat like you just got off the boat from Scandia!” Raven finally exclaimed. “Even Teach had better table manners, Morgaine! For goodness’ sake!”

She moved to spear another piece, but it was simply too much for Raven, who pulled the knife from her hand, slamming it down on the table.

“Use the fork!”

Morgaine shook her head, and complied. “Fine,” she grunted.

The Mistress of Freeport began to settle back, but then Morgaine spooned some peas onto her knife, and shoved them into her mouth.

Raven sighed, and buried her head in her hands.

“Why do you always try to tell me how to eat, anyway?” Morgaine asked in response. “Let me enjoy my food.”

“I tell you because it could behoove you to--"

“I don’t know what that word means!”

“You’ll be in situations where it could be to your advantage to set a good example. For instance, you might want someone like the King of Torrencia to do something for you, and if you eat like a barbarian you’ll lose his respect. You need people in power from whom you wish favors to respect you if they won’t fear you.”

Morgaine promptly related just what the King of Torrencia could do with his respect.

“That’s not the point,” Raven continued, pointing a gloved finger at her. “The point is you have to be accommodating to some people, and at least eating like a civilized person is a good habit to get into.”

“And this is from the person who refused to wear a gown in front of the King of Torrencia, right?” Morgaine retaliated.

Raven shook her head. “I knew you’d throw that back at me--I knew it!” she muttered.

Morgaine looked down to Doremi. “She hates it when I’m right,” she said with a satisfied grin.

Raven closed her eyes and gestured to her. “Enjoy your dinner,” she muttered.

Morgaine smiled back. “Thank you, Raven--I shall.”

It took only a couple more minutes for Morgaine to wolf down the rest of her food and leave with a “See ya,” and she was gone that quickly, the door closing behind her.

Doremi could tell Raven was frustrated over the whole thing, but she couldn’t help chuckling quietly to herself. Raven immediately took note, and slowly she turned her head to glare at the Bard.

“You found something humorous in all that?”

This time, there wasn’t even the pretext of a smile.

“Well...humorous in the sense of cute,” Doremi admitted.

“Right up there with a toddler throwing a tantrum, Doremi.”

“You two are just like a mother and daughter,” the Bard continued. “And it’s cute that on one hand she irritates you with her own personality, while at the same time she imitates and admires you.”

“You must be mad--Morgaine doesn’t imitate me. Although she would do well if she did.”

Doremi was amazed at Raven’s statement.

“You mean you can’t see it?” she asked. “Can’t you tell? She dresses just like you in your portrait. She even wears the same headscarf. I’ve listened to her talk about you--she admires you. She really does.”

Raven lowered her head. “She just likes looking--and acting--like a pirate. She’d have been perfectly happy to have grown up in the days of the pirates. She wears my old scarf because she’d like to think she’s a Pirate Lord. Here she is, helping control the entire commerce of the continent of Islay, but she thinks it would be better to go out and be a pirate.”

“Naw, Raven--she admires you and wants to be like you. You just don’t see it, but that’s unfortunately something that happens a lot between mothers and daughters.”

Raven looked back up at her. “No daughter should rightly treat their mother as she treats me. My father would have killed me if I tried getting away with what she does, then he would have killed himself for the shame of having raised such a mouthy child.”

Naturally, Doremi didn’t believe that.

“Are you saying you and your own mama never had conflicts?” asked the Bard.

Somewhat nervously, Raven looked back down to her dinner. “I never had a mother so far as I know,” she answered quietly. “But the father that I did have I treated with absolute respect.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Raven,” Doremi spoke. “I told you my mama died when I was born, so like you, I missed out on all the things a mother and daughter can do together.”

Raven cocked her head. “Who said I missed not having a mother?” she demanded. “My father was all I needed, and unlike Morgaine, I did everything he told me to do, and earned every bit of love he had for me.”

Doremi stiffened. “But love isn’t something you earn, Raven; it’s something you give!”

“Give? Doremi--in life, you either earn what you have, or you take what you have. No one gives anything away. Not really. They always expect something in return, be it little, or be it much. So you make the best deal you can. Learn that, and you’ll be the better for it.”

Doremi looked down to her plate. “My father thought like that.”

“There you go. He must have been a wise man.”

Doremi was silent for a moment. “He was a not-nice man,” she answered quietly.

“Well, I’m sorry for you then. My father was the best man who ever lived. I never needed a sister, mother or anything else so long as I had him.”

“But didn’t you ever wish you had a mama to sing you to sleep at night? I did.”

Raven’s face tightened. “Why would I want someone to sing to me while I was trying to sleep?”

“Kids like that, Raven.”

“I--don’t know that I would have. If I’m trying to sleep, I want it quiet.”

“Still, Raven, I’m sorry you never had the chance to have that in your life. I think you would have liked to have a mama sing you to sleep.”

“We’ll never know, will we? Anyway, I suppose one doesn’t miss what one never had.”

Raven picked up her utensils again. “Let’s finish dinner,” she said.

And that was the last comment she made during the meal.

Thirty minutes later found the pair engaged in a game of chess at a small table across from the clock. It took all of fifteen minutes for Doremi to checkmate Raven, who congratulated her with a comment of, “That was a good game.“

“Thanks,” Doremi had replied. “I’m really not that great of a player.”

Raven let out a breath. “Well, it’s bed time for me.”

Doremi finished arranging the pieces back in line for the next time the board was used, and arose from her own chair. “Me, too. Thank you for a wonderful dinner, Raven.”

Raven nodded. “Oh,” she continued as she escorted Doremi toward the doors to the Music room, “I took the liberty of having Stiletta move your things into my own apartments here. It’s closer to the entrance to the Inn, and also you’ll have the Music room available to you whenever you like. You'll find the apartments through the doors at the other end of the Music room.”

“Oh,” Doremi said. “Okay. I hate to put you out of your room....”

Raven shook her head. “You aren’t. I don’t usually stay here at the Inn; I stay at Sand Castle Island, where my villa is.”

“Oh, what a pretty name.”

“You’ll see it soon enough,” she spoke--in a manner suggesting Doremi didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Doremi’s smile began to fade somewhat. “Um, is there a way to see it that doesn’t involve taking a boat to it? I get seasick.”

Raven seemed surprised at the remark, and she said, “I’ll have someone portal you there.”

“Great--well, good night then.” Doremi answered.

Her hostess bid her good night and remained in the doorway as Doremi continued on across the room. Satisfied she would find her way, Raven then turned and slowly made her way to the dining room to take a last sip of water from her goblet.

The Mistress of Freeport wasn’t entirely certain what she thought of the Bard, but this much she knew: Doremi had a good heart, and at least she could trust her.

Trust was a rare commodity in Raven’s world. True, Doremi would be out the door in a moment if she knew the full scope of her plans, but Raven would make it a point to draw the Bard into the web of her world before that knowledge would place their growing relationship at risk. Perhaps it would be better to isolate her from Freeport until the Operation was over.

Yes, that would be best: Give her enough of a taste of Freeport to whet her appetite, then keep her safe from learning anything questionable until it was all over.

Raven nodded to herself and placed the goblet down on the table. She would move Doremi to the villa in the next day or two.

Return,” she spoke.

Instantly, a golden aura appeared at the crown of her head and spread down the length of her body, and then she vanished.