Welcome to this online fiction site! Here you can read the short stories inspired by the game "Baldur's Gate II - The Shadows of Amn." This is unofficial site and it is not associated by any means with Interplay, Bioware or TSR Inc. No material from this site can be reproduced for any commercial use and any noncommercial use must be authorized by Laufey.
To Bard or not to Bard
The plate contained a huge mound of vegetables, disgustingly
orange in hue. By this time they had been diligently pushed several laps around
the rim of the plate, flattened and spread out to look smaller, divided into
lesser heaps and gathered together again. None of these brave efforts made
them look any more edible. Young Edwin Odesseiron, aged six-and-a-half, stared
at the sad remains of his dinner with badly concealed revulsion.
"But Motherrr!", he tried again. "I really don't want any more!"
Elvira Odesseiron gave her young son her trademark gimlet stare. Her lips were pinched, her fists tightly clenched and her black hair almost seemed to be giving off sparks. Obviously this was a battle of iron wills she was determined not to lose.
"You will not leave this table", she said, her voice level, "until you have finished your ground carrots."
"But it's been three hours!", Edwin pouted. "I want to go play!"
"I don't care what you want", Elvira snapped, "and neither do I care whether it takes us three more days! They're perfectly good carrots, and you will eat them and be happy to do so."
At this Edwin gave his mother an incredulous stare. The concept of actually being happy about the ingestion of carrots was such an alien one that it made him doubt her sanity. "But I hate carrots", he patiently explained, just in case his parent had somehow failed to grasp this basic concept the first twenty-three times. "You know that. They're icky. They're dry and hard to chew, they taste like soggy paper, and they grow in my mouth 'til they make this huge, carroty lump. Nobody in their right mind could ever be happy about them."
"I'll have you know there are starving children in Rasheman who would love to eat those carrots!", Elvira chastised. "And don't you dare tell me that they can have them. I know you were about to. Anyway, one doesn't say that one hates a particular food. It's not polite. Dislike, but not hate."
Edwin looked at his carrots again. Semantic questions aside, they didn't seem the slightest bit more appetising whether hordes of starving Rashemani children wanted them or not. "I still hate carrots", he muttered to himself. He then started shaping the offending vegetables into a replica of
"Edwin!” Elvira admonished. "No playing with your food!"
"But that's all it's good for!” Edwin protested, giving his mother an innocent look through his tousled black fringe.
Elvira was just about to reply when there was a tap at the door. Gracing her errant offspring with another withering glare, she pulled it open and started a whispered conversation with the nervous servant girl waiting outside. Edwin could catch no more than a word here and there, just enough to tell him that his Mother was disturbed by whatever the news was. This was his chance to escape his carrot dilemma however, and he wasn't about to waste it. As quickly as he could he stuffed his cheeks full of ground carrot bits, until he resembled an overly large, two-legged hamster, and the plate was virtuously empty. He then slipped out the door, pointing at the empty plate and hiding his bulging cheeks behind his free hand. His Mother was too engrossed with her conversation to spot the subterfuge; she merely gave him a brief nod.
Freedom! Edwin hurried along the corridors of the
"I am certain there is an excellent explanation for the stomach-turning display I was just forced to witness", it said. "And I would feel most privileged to hear it told. Please feel free to do so at your leisure."
"Eeep!” Edwin said. Then he almost gagged as the remaining carrot bits slid quietly down his unsuspecting throat.
"A bit short for an explanation", said Vadrak Dekaras, the Odesseiron House tutor and assassin, as he pounded the back of his coughing student. "Rather eloquent, though. I take it dinner did not meet with your full approval? However, I must say I feel the slightest bit alarmed by your urge to avenge yourself on this helpless, harmless and indubitably priceless urn." There was no hint of any expression other than stern disapproval on the teacher's face, and his customary black garments reinforced the sinister appearance. His dark eyes did glint with veiled amusement however.
"Well…” Edwin tried, his mind working furiously to create a plausible excuse. "I…Er…"
"Do remind me to schedule some Elocution lessons later this month", Dekaras remarked. "Now, had I seen anything - untoward - going on I would naturally have been obliged to punish you. You may count yourself extremely fortunate that I did not, being far too absorbed by weightier matters."
"Teacher Dekaras? Why…"
"You may as well accompany me", Dekaras said, ignoring his pupil's shock at this strange disregard of discipline. "I have been urgently summoned by your Mother to attend her in the Great Parlour. I'm afraid this means the worst possible news, worse even than the magical giant hornets nest recently discovered in the gardens. Your Father has found a new Amusement." He beckoned for Edwin to follow him, and then glided off along the hallway, black cloak billowing out behind him. As he walked away he gave Edwin a conspiratorial look across one shoulder. "In my case the problem was porridge", he whispered. "After a particularly harrowing experience I swore never to force any child to ingest food that had displayed no wish to remain inside his digestive system. Porridge tastes even worse the second time you are obliged to force it down."
As Edwin hurried along beside his teacher he pondered the ominous words concerning his Father. Galen Odesseiron was a man of many interests, none of which tended to last longer than a fortnight. During that time he would be extremely devoted to whatever had currently caught his fancy; devoted to the point of fanaticism. This had caused several domestic crises. Edwin himself well remembered the snake collection and the climbing lessons, not to mention the dreaded violin. He found it highly unlikely that any new mania could be worse than that. He was of course completely and utterly wrong.
The Great Parlour was a long and comfortable room, with a cosy fireplace at one end and soft velvet armchairs here and there. High bookshelves containing row upon row of antique spell-books dotted the walls, along with display cases containing the rare artifacts that Elvira Odesseiron enjoyed collecting. The lady herself was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, pale with barely checked rage. Now and then she would let forth a volley of small glowing balls of energy and blast one of the leaf-thin china plates standing on the mantelpiece to smithereens. The air around her was almost charged enough to give off lightning bolts. Her head jerked up as she saw the assassin enter the room with her son in tow.
"There you are!” she snarled. "What kept you?"
Dekaras seemed unperturbed. "I thought it prudent to collect young Master Edwin on my way here", he said. "He should know what to prepare for. What exactly seems to be the nature of the problem?"
"That imbecile!” Elvira said between clenched teeth. "I knew he was thick, but this…!" Another plate burst into dust with a loud * Poof *. "And now he's gone and found himself somebody even thicker, if possible. You'll see. Galen wants you all to meet his 'guest'." * Poof * "You'll have to get rid of him. I can't stand that…that…that actor for more than two minutes, let alone two weeks!" * Poof * * Poof *
"Actor, Mistress?", Dekaras asked.
"Yes. If you can call him that. You…" Elvira blanched even more at the approaching sound of her husband's braying laughter. "Oh, no!", she hissed. "They're here already!"
Galen Odesseiron swept into the room, obviously determined to make a grand entrance. As usual his expensive red robes looked like they had been randomly tossed onto his gangly frame and then slept in for a week. There was also that intense gleam to his eyes that his family knew only too well. The man who accompanied him, and whose shoulders he were currently firmly embracing, was an even odder sight, if possible.
The stranger was a skinny old man, so stooped he seemed about to snap in two like a bent twig at any given moment. Rheumy eyes peered out from behind spectacles so thick that they could probably have been used for crystal gazing, and a fringe of fluffy white hair floated around the top of his otherwise bald head like a cloud around a lonely mountain. For such a frail-looking fellow his tan was surprisingly deep; his wrinkled face might as well have been made from old leather. He was wearing a rich green velvet suit with a lace collar wide enough to almost reach his waist, knee-length boots and a green velvet cap with a red plume at a rakish angle. A lacy white handkerchief peeped out of the left breast pocket of his scarlet waistcoat and on his left hand a large green stone twinkled merrily.
"My dear Madam Odesseiron!", the ancient man exclaimed. His voice was deep and rich, but with an annoying little throaty trill at the end of each sentence. "We meet again, sweet Lady of the Manor, to bringeth some succour to this weary world of strife and clamour!" He bent over Elvira's hand as if to kiss it, seemingly not the least bothered by the fact that she snatched it away like a rotting zombie had just touched her.
The stranger turned his attention to Edwin. He started out with a hearty pat on the head and as if that wasn't bad enough he then progressed to pinch the boy's cheek. "Hark!", the man said, sounding delighted. "Who couldst this cute and darling cherub be, an innocent lambkin or a merry lark? Methinks it is the heir to be, forsooth! Ah, for the carefree days of youth!" Edwin decided right then and there that this lunatic ranked at the very top of his hate list, along with the almost-eaten carrots. He was almost afraid to watch as the madman swirled around with a flourish of his cap to greet Dekaras.
"An apparition of the grimmest hue!", the man said. "Surely, 'tis the Reaper come to get his due! What'er Life has granted, Death will claim it back. A sombre spectre of the deepest black!"
"How very droll", Dekaras said, with an almost-smile that never reached his eyes. "I am afraid you have the advantage of all of us, sir…"
Galen looked extremely pleased with himself. "This, dear friends, is none other than the Bard!", he beamed.
"A bard", Elvira said, with about the same inflection as if she had said 'a puddle of vomit'.
"No, no, no, wife of my heart! Not a bard. The Bard.
"Marry, good nuncle", he said. "Thy trust is freely given, that I see, the flower's gift of nectar to this thespian bee!"
"Is he for real?", Edwin whispered to his tutor.
"So it would seem", Dekaras said. Then he continued in a louder voice. "It would surely be an honour to any household to be visited by the Bard", he said. "Truly, I look forward to this opportunity to discuss the plays with you, sir. Which one would be your favourite, I wonder? 'Gimlet, Dwarf of Granithome'? 'A Solstice Tale'? 'Mad King?' 'Bloodbath - the Mad King's Revenge'? The rest of the five sequels sort of blend together in my mind, I must admit. How about 'Sorcerer's Bane'?"
"Aaagh!", the actor squealed. "The curse! Never, ever refer to it by it's name, I plead. For'er let it be 'the Turmish Play', lest we all be stricken dead."
"I see your rhymes get worse when you get upset", Elvira said with a satisfied smirk. "What is this play of which you speak?"
"A superstitious rumour surrounds that particular play", Dekaras explained. "Saying its true name out loud is said to be extremely unlucky. Strange that even you sir, its creator, should believe in that nonsense. Particularly since I am quite certain I heard another rumour, stating that you spread the tale of the curse around yourself to sell more tickets."
"Nay, 'tis not so, I fear, good knave", the bard vehemently protested and gave the assassin an accusing look. "For e'en cunning sorcerer or knight so brave, fear to truly name the Turmish Play, lest slings or arrows of outrageous Fortune find their bums without delay."
Edwin fought against a sudden and violent urge to giggle at this comment. The slightly raised eyebrows of his tutor told him that it would be a very bad idea to do so.
"Well, well", Dekaras said. "I shall certainly have to remember that." Though there was no obvious weapon in sight something about his voice hinted at poisoned daggers. Even Galen seemed to notice and
"Will you look at the time?” Galen gushed. "I'll see about having good master
"You have to deal with him", Elvira Odesseiron said as soon as the two men had left the room. "Permanently. If I have to listen to his stupid voice for two weeks I'll go quite insane."
"Master Odesseiron's voice isn't that bad", Dekaras said, stroking his chin as he gazed thoughtfully at the door through which the bard and the wizard had just left. "Mildly annoying, I'll grant you, but not enough to warrant such an action."
"Not him! That stupid bard. I want him out of this house by tomorrow morning, preferably carried out in a very small box." A buzzing at the window made her turn her head and she gave the ten unusually large hornets trying to force their way inside a vicious glare. "And get rid of those disgusting insects while you're at it."
Dekaras sighed. "The Bard's plays contain several famous murder scenes designed to bring in the teenage-audience", he mused. "The strangling scene in 'Botelli, the Dark Elf'. The beheading in 'Britches the First, King of the Half-Orcs'. The ritual stabbing in 'the Emperor'. Not to mention what I consider the Bard's masterpiece, 'Gimlet, Dwarf of Granithome', where almost all the cast gets wiped out in various creative ways before curtain call."
"I'm sure I could have been equally creative. Pity. However, I fear the terms of my contract limit me on this occasion. And as for the hornets, I am an assassin, not a gardener."
"Are you deliberately refusing to do your duty?", Elvira bristled, drawing herself up to her full height.
"By no means", the assassin calmly replied. "May I however remind you that you made an agreement with your husband when I first came to be employed by you both. Part of the contract clearly states that neither of you are to employ me against the other, not even should your marriage be in a state of dissolution. And the next paragraphs prohibit my taking lethal action against close friends, relatives or personal guests of either one of you, unless you both make a joint decision. The Bard is a personal guest of Master Odesseiron, and thus protected against premature termination."
"Oh, drat", Elvira sighed. "I'd forgotten all about that. I don't suppose you'd care to bend the rules? Just a little?"
"No, Mistress. I am a professional. I honour my agreements. Nothing prevents my keeping a close eye on our rhyming guest, however. There is something about him that worries me."
"There is a lot about him that worries me", Elvira said darkly. "His continued existence for a start. But do whatever you feel necessary. You know I have faith in your judgement. In the meantime I'm going to bed with a headache. One that I think is going to last for about two weeks or so."
The following week was an extended torment. Edwin tried his best to avoid Stratford, but that was easier said than done. His Father kept insisting that Edwin be exposed to some high class culture and would bring up the Bard's new play time and again, saying that seeing it pre-premiere would be an extraordinary privilege. True to her word, Edwin's Mother hadn't left her room once, having all her meals sent up. This was partly to evade the rhyming flirtations of the Bard, and partly due to the magical hornets that seemed to be growing larger daily. Yesterday Edwin had seen five of them catching and killing a sparrow. Edwin didn't even have the customary refuge of his classroom. Dekaras had been absent since the Bard's arrival, away on some mysterious errand doing who knew what, and lessons had been cancelled. While a rare thing, this had occasionally happened before, and usually Edwin wouldn't have minded. By now he was really starting to feel abandoned.
Playing was out of the question, for all of Edwin's spare time was spent trying to evade the Bard and the tension was starting to get to him. Worst of all, there was no one around that he felt he could talk to and actually receive an intelligent answer from. Edwin knew that he was a bright child, he'd always been ahead and was used to it. It was just the way things were supposed to be, like the colour of his eyes or the shape of his nose. And most of the time it was rather nice. But it also meant that at other times he felt like his mind was running, running too fast to stop, when it would have been far more pleasant and comfortable to have it amble casually along. For instance he was well aware of the fact that his parents maintained more of an uneasy truce than a happy relationship. He also knew more than he cared to about his Father's shortcomings on the intellectual plane, something that troubled him more than he cared to think about.
It would have been nice to be able to look up to his Father. Edwin had a feeling that was the way things were supposed to be. But he couldn't do it. Oh, he still loved both his parents, but that wasn't at all the same thing. Sometimes Edwin wondered what it would have been like to have a different Father. Somebody he could admire, look up to, idolise even, somebody who would look after him, not the other way around. Somebody, well somebody like his tutor actually…
Try as he might, Edwin couldn't remember a single occasion when he'd ever been able to outthink Dekaras, and he didn't think likely that it would happen in the near future either. That was a strangely comforting thought. There was also the fact that even though the teacher demanded hard work, diligence and respect, and constantly challenged his pupil, he had always treated Edwin with a certain amount of respect in return. Ill-tempered and sarcastic as he could be, he never talked down to him either. That meant a lot.
Edwin sighed. He was currently hiding behind the red velvet curtain next to one of the windows in the Great Parlour, trying to avoid his Father and his Father's guest. Yes, somebody to talk to other than the two of them would have been extremely nice. Worse, he was starting to run out of good hiding-places. The Bard was getting more annoying day by day, constantly prattling on about his stupid play, and insisting on referring to Edwin as 'that cute child.'
"Stupid, stupid Bard", Edwin muttered under his breath. "I'm not cute. I'm a Red Wizard. Well, almost."
"The shadows are deeper over there by the couch", Dekaras' voice said directly above Edwin's head. As usual the man had seemingly materialised out of thin air, like a ghost. "You may want to consider a strategic relocation, either that or a good Cloak of Invisibility. Your feet are showing."
Edwin neatly banged his head against the windowsill as he involuntarily leapt to his feet.
"And that", Dekaras said, "will blow your cover every time. Common beginner's error." He proceeded to check Edwin's head, and when satisfied that it was still in more or less one piece gave him an amused look.
"Where have you been?", Edwin plaintively asked and rubbed his aching head.
"Working", the assassin said, sounding rather pleased with himself. He had seated himself in a comfortable armchair and looked immensely relaxed, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
"Did you kill the Bard?", Edwin asked eagerly. "Or are you gonna do it now? Can I come watch? Can I? Pleeeease?"
"Of course not", Dekaras said. "I said I wouldn't kill the man as long as he is your Father's guest, remember? Really, you must start paying attention to these things."
"Then what have you been doing?"
"That sounds rather dull", Edwin said doubtfully.
"Not when the subject is a fascinating one."
"The Bard", Dekaras said, his black eyes glittering with satisfaction. "By now I believe I can safely claim to know the man better than he knows himself." He smiled as if at some private joke. "And now, do be good enough to fill me in. What events have transpired here in my absence?"
Edwin summarised the past week's events. "…and now Father says he's going to sponsor the Bard's new play", he concluded. "It's really expensive, and I don't think Mother would agree, but she still refuses to come out of her room, so it's hard to tell for sure."
"Yes", Dekaras said. "She always was stubborn, your Mother. What else?"
"Well, Father keeps telling me to watch that stupid play, but I think it probably stinks, so I won't. That's why I was hiding. I hate that Bard." Edwin sighed. "Teacher Dekaras?", he asked plaintively. "Do you think I'm cute?" The frozen look on the assassin's saturnine face made him pause a moment before he hurriedly continued. "'Cause I don't want to be cute", Edwin explained. "That's for babies. I want to be fearsome and int…interm…intimid…scary, just like you."
"Believe me", Dekaras said, as soon as he found his voice again. "For a six-and-a-half-year-old you are remarkably scary already."
"Oh", Edwin said. "That's good, I guess. Anyway, I won't watch that play no matter how much Father tries to force me to."
"Is that so?", the assassin asked, quirking an eyebrow. "What if I asked you to do it?" He gave his student a penetrating look across his steepled fingers.
Edwin was flabbergasted. "But…but why would you do that?", he asked.
"Because so far every single one of the Bard's plays has been a masterpiece", Dekaras said cryptically. "I should very much like to hear your opinions on this one."
Edwin kept waiting for some further explanation, but it seemed none was forthcoming. "All right", he eventually said. "I'll do it."
Dekaras gave the boy an appreciative look. "Very good", he said. "Very good indeed. Now, pay close attention to whatever you chance to notice. I will not tell you specifically what to watch for, since I do not want your opinions influenced. In fact I want you to forget about what you are supposed to see, and only see what is actually there. You may consider this an introductory lesson into the fine art of observation and deduction, if you like. Valuable skills to cultivate. And now, we are off to the theatre."
True to his word the assassin proceeded to deliver his young charge to what had only a week before been the ballroom of the Odesseiron Mansion. The hundreds of candles still burned brightly in the floating magical chandelier, setting off rainbow coloured sparks from the shimmering crystals. But from the ceiling the magnificent paintings of powerful Red Wizards seemed to stare with great distaste at what had taken place at the end of the room. The stage had been there before, and had frequently been used for orchestras or other performing artists at the Odesseirons great parties. It had a black velvet curtain, and even a small trapdoor to lower props or players. The props currently displayed on stage were new however, and seemed to be large models of various fruits and vegetables, apples, bananas, turnips, and to Edwin's great dismay even a huge carrot. There was also what seemed to be a large wash basket filled with dirty socks. Apparently the play to be performed was a very deep and artistic one.
Avon Stratford nimbly pranced around on stage, now and then calling out lines or bowing to an imaginary audience.
"Getting into character?", Dekaras asked as he approached the stage.
The Bard spun around, a movement strangely graceful for a man of his ancient appearance. Peering at the newcomers through his thick spectacles he nervously twisted the green-stone ring on his left hand around and around.
"Good Reaper", he said, his voice drifting upwards with that annoying little trill, "is not the world itself a stage? Methinks we're all but players speaking lines in hopes that they will last an Age."
"Perhaps", Dekaras said. "Of course some of us are far better players than others, wouldn't you agree, sir?"
The Bard kept twisting his ring around, his wrinkled old face screwed up with distaste. "Verily", he said. "No greater insult can there be than should a fool abuse his master's hospitality to me."
Edwin winced at that, certain that he was about to see the actor die a bloody death and rather looking forward to it.
"Oh, but you are wrong", Dekaras stated, his face in no way betraying his emotions. "The gravest insult possible is that of the dilettante abusing an ancient profession. I absolutely detest amateurs. Surely you, sir, a master in your chosen field, can appreciate that."
Edwin had no idea whatsoever what his teacher was getting at, and judging from Stratford's puzzled face and peering eyes he understood no more.
"Yes", Dekaras said, moving forward so that he was leaning ominously over the bent form of the old actor. "The Bard truly is a master, anybody knows that. Did I mention that one of my favourite scenes is from 'Gimlet, Dwarf of Granithome'? The murder scene where Gimlet's evil uncle murders his father, the true king, by pouring ground Catsbane into his ear as he sleeps. Very fiendish. And then the suspense as the king's ghost reveals the truth to young Gimlet, allowing him to take his revenge. The fame of that play has spread far and wide. Even as far as Surthay, I do believe. Sir."
The effect of those words on the Bard was surprising to say the least. His mouth opened wide, but no sound emerged, and he started trembling. His smooth brown hands were shaking violently.
"Hello everybody!", a cheerful voice intoned from behind the curtain. "So glad to see you're getting on so well!" Galen Odesseiron stepped out on stage, dressed in a white sheet and with some laurel leaves stuck behind his ears. "Not bad, is it?", he asked proudly and twirled around to display more hairy white leg than was strictly necessary. "Our dear Bard has been giving me some acting lessons while you were gone, Dekaras. We were doing 'the Emperor' and he said I was doing very well as the lead."
"I do not doubt it, Master", Dekaras said. "Now, if I remember correctly the Emperor gets assassinated by a group of disgruntled employees within three minutes of getting on stage for the first time. Repeatedly stabbed to death I believe, and then beheaded. He then spends the rest of the play as a corpse lying in a gilded casket. Except for his empty skull which is used as a drinking cup by his successor, incidentally the ringleader amongst the killers."
"Oh, yes. Master Stratford thinks I'm a natural at playing dead and beheaded."
"Yes Master. In fact, I cannot imagine a greater natural talent anywhere. You seem almost born for the part."
"Very kind of you to say so", Galen beamed and slapped the assassin's back. "So, what were you chaps discussing anyway? Any new additions to the play? Don't be shy, Stratford, you know I'll pay up."
"A patron noble as heroes of old", the actor declared, "wise in choosing where to spend his gold."
"Quite", Dekaras said. "That would be an ideal patron indeed. As for you sir, you look as if you've spent some gold yourself in the past. I am of course referring to that beautiful ring you wear. Emerald, isn't it?"
"A boon", the Bard nodded, "from grateful friends who never would my talents waste. Unlike you sir, they were men of courtesy and taste." The jibe slid easily off the actor's lips, but his eyes darted nervously here and there behind his glittering spectacles. He reached for his handkerchief to wipe his suddenly moist brow, and then seemed to change his mind.
"Nevertheless", Dekaras said, "I would like to take a closer look at it. Just to verify its authenticity, you understand. Authenticity is something of a pet peeve of mine."
"As all men know, it never left my finger once in seven years", the actor protested, "what reason to accost me thus with your unfounded witless fears?"
"Oh, just let him", Galen unexpectedly interrupted. "He really is good at that sort of thing, you know. Then we can all watch the play together."
Still watching Dekaras suspiciously the Bard slid the ring off his finger and held it out. Dekaras deftly plucked it from his hand and examined it.
"And now, have your suspicions been allayed, good knave?", the Bard sneered. "Or shall we further be delayed 'til old age drives us to our grave?"
"By no means, sir", Dekaras said with a courteous sweep of his black cloak. "I am quite satisfied." His fingers seemed ghostly white against the even tan of the other man's hands as he handed the ring back. "And now, Master Galen, I wish to have a word with you in private. Perhaps our thespian friend might entertain young Master Edwin in the meantime with his latest masterpiece."
"But I want to watch too!", Galen protested.
"Later, Master. This is a matter of some urgency. I believe I have found a solution to the hornet infestation. As we suspected they are magical creatures, summoned by an enemy wizard, and as such must be dealt with carefully. Simply destroying the nest is out of the question." Dekaras turned to Edwin and gave him a meaningful glance. "Remember", he said. "Watch carefully, and treat Master Stratford with all the respect he deserves." He then herded his employer out of the room.
Edwin hadn't had high hopes about the play. He had expected stilted dialogue, incomprehensible monologue and confused characters. What he had not been prepared for was the sight of Faerun's greatest actor and play-writer trying to be ingratiating while performing puppet theatre. Stratford had started out by explaining that he was thinking about changing his modus operandi, and that he wanted to explore new ways of performing. That in itself wouldn't have been so bad, if the puppets had actually been puppets, rather than a pair of old socks with buttons for eyes.
"Hey there, hi there all you good little children!", the actor muttered out of the corner of his mouth and waved the grey sock in Edwin's general direction. "I'm Little Sock, and I want to be your friend!"
"Um, sir?", Edwin asked. "What good little children were those? There's only me here."
"Ah, but this is just rehearsal, good urchin!", the sock said in an oily voice that made Edwin shudder with revulsion. "Now, let's get on with it. Death! All things live, and all things must die, and the sooner all good little children learn about it the better."
Stratford then waved the hand wearing the red sock, the one with a pink bow on its heel. "HI!", the sock squeaked. "I'm Littlest Sock, and I want to learn all about death too! Is that the same as the Wash Basket in the sky?"
As the Bard continued with his play Edwin felt even more disturbed. It wasn't simply that the play was boring, it was so bad that it went straight through hideous and out on the other side of disgusting. And why wasn't the man rhyming? Didn't he think children could understand rhyming? By now the Bard was waving a large potato around and raving about it being the Big Potato Emperor, Wealthy Oppressor of Mankind and Socks everywhere. Edwin decided he had had enough. This was worse even than ground carrots and he certainly didn't want to be permanently traumatised by the experience.
"Oh, sir?", he asked innocently. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Of course!", the Bard said with a slightly deranged smile and made a funny little leap. "Anything for good little children!"
Edwin decided there and then that he never ever wanted to be a good little child. "Well, sir", he said, thoughtfully running his hand though his hair. "Since I've heard how all your plays are such great fun, I was just wondering how come this one's so utterly boring? I mean, it's bad enough that it's sad and without a plot, but couldn't you at least keep your voice a little lower so I could take a nap? 'Cause you're really starting to make me sleepy. But if not, then I guess I'll just sit here and pick my nose or something. I bet my boogers could help me write a better play than this one. Hey, I bet they'd act better too, and be more good-looking."
The potato dropped from the Bard's nerveless fingers and rolled across the floor to come to a stop next to Edwin's foot. The boy picked it up and nonchalantly juggled it from one hand to the other. "Oh, sorry about that, sir", he said. "I didn't mean to make you drop your brain."
The Bard let out an enraged bellow and took a flying leap off the stage in a move far too agile for a man his age. "GIVE THAT BACK RIGHT NOW, FILTHY LITTLE BRAT!", he screamed.
Edwin decided it was time to make a hasty exit, stage left. He threw the potato as hard as he could and was gratified to see it hit the actor right on the nose and knock his spectacles off. But still the man kept coming, and now the boy was starting to get really worried. He ran around the stage and then scampered onto it, trying to lose himself amidst the giant vegetables to keep from being spotted, but Stratford kept coming after him, much faster than he should have been able to, and apparently not hampered at all by the loss of his visionary aid.
It came to Edwin that maybe provoking the Bard hadn't been such a good idea after all, amusing though it had been at the time. For such an ancient-looking fellow he sure could run, and he was rapidly gaining on his smaller adversary. Edwin leapt across a prop in the shape of an enormous banana, intending to get off the stage as soon as possible and make his escape into the depths of the Mansion. Alas, in looking behind him to check on the progress of his pursuer his brain momentarily forgot to pay attention to where his legs were supposed to be going and they conspired to entangle and land him flat on his stomach with an undignified 'Oof!'
Gasping for air, Edwin got as far as a sitting position. The Bard was still coming for him, his blue eyes no longer twinkling merrily but gleaming with unadulterated rage. And there was something really strange about his wizened face as well. The actor had been sweating heavily, and greasepaint and powder trailed new lines across his cheeks, erasing the old ones. It created the disturbing impression that his entire face was dissolving. Suddenly Edwin realised what he was seeing. "Why…why you're not an old man at all!", he exclaimed. "Just who are you?"
"Oh, merely an ambitious and talented young actor, about to get disgustingly rich and famous on your father's kind patronage", the approaching actor hissed. "Too bad you guessed my dark little secret." He produced a wicked looking dagger and pointed it at the boy. "Is this a dagger that I see before me, its hilt across my hand?", he mockingly intoned. "Why yes, it is, and soon you'll die, slain by the greatest actor in the land." He chuckled and resumed his normal voice. "How very unfortunate that you mistook it for a prop and fell while running with it. But don't worry. I'll comfort your bereft parents."
"Where's the real Bard?", Edwin asked. He knew he should keep talking, to try to stall the crazed man before him. Unfortunately, at this point his mouth assumed direct command without consulting with its superior officer, the brain. "And what's your real name?", Edwin said. "Coco the Crazy Clown? Poppo the Psycho Popinjay? Mr Really Big Potato?"
"It's Jeremy Montague", the false Bard said haughtily. "Actor and playwright of superior skill. And the real Bard is dead. I killed him myself. The fool stopped in Surthay on his way here, you see. He told anybody who cared to listen about coming here to seek the patronage of the wealthy wizards of Pyaradros. Well, that patronage ought to be mine. It should benefit modern theatre, not the antics of that silly old fossil with his antiquated ideas about a play needing a 'plot' or 'heroes' or 'villains'. Not to mention speculative action sequences and lowbrow humour to bring in the commoners! What's the use of performing plays that ordinary people like?" He smiled unpleasantly. "So I stole a leaf from his own book and poured ground Catsbane into his ear to poison him as he slept, exactly like in 'Gimlet, Dwarf of Granithome'. It worked like a charm. And so here I am, the Bard's reputation opening doors wherever I go, about to make my dreams come true. Once I rid myself of a certain young and altogether too clever pest, that is."
"Oh, very impressive", drawled Dekaras' cold voice from behind the closed curtain. "I knew you would be too vain to resist gifting us with a pompous villain's monologue and you certainly didn't disappoint." The assassin stepped out on stage, pointing a small crossbow directly at the actor. Galen Odesseiron was close behind him, still wearing his white sheet, but his face was almost black with rage and his fingers twitched as if they were about to close around somebody's throat.
Montague stared from one man to the other, his face white and his eyes bulging. "But…", he managed. "You…how…?" Then his eyes looked in the direction of the trapdoor.
"Quite", the assassin smirked. "Remember the small room behind the trapdoor? It happens to connect to the hall outside through a secret tunnel." He sighed with mock contrition. "I hope you will forgive me my fondness for making an entrance. Sir."
The actor's eyes were glittering with fanatic fervour by now and the smeared makeup twisted his face into the semblance of a grinning skull. "If time it is this World of Shadows to depart", he cried, "then I shall be the one to pierce this broken heart." Then he stabbed himself in the chest. As soon as he noticed that no blood was forthcoming and that he was still alive he stabbed himself again. And again. And again… Eventually Montague collapsed on the floor with a wide and crazy grin on his face, giggling dementedly. Dekaras removed the dagger from his unresisting fingers.
"But how…?", Edwin asked, finally managing to get to his feet.
"Stage prop", Dekaras laconically said, demonstrating by sliding the blade into the hilt. "I took the liberty of exchanging it for his real one as soon as I got back this morning." He then seemed to notice the glassy-eyed looks both Odesseirons were giving him. "What?", he said. "I couldn't very well let a dangerous killer walk around the house armed, now could I?" Dekaras hauled Montague to his feet, his long nose almost touching the actor's powdered one. Black eyes stared contemptuously into vacant blue. "And such an incompetent killer too", Dekaras sneered. "Gods, how I loathe these accursed amateurs, giving the profession a bad name with their bumbling."
"It was really quite elementary", Dekaras said an hour later, once the false Bard had been safely tied up and put under lock and guard. "The clues were right there in front of us from the very beginning."
Three pairs of eyes spoke mute disbelief at this outrageous statement. Galen Odesseiron, once more dressed in proper and decent wizard robes, was sitting on a couch in the Great Parlour. Nobody had so far mentioned the fact that he still had a laurel leaf behind his ear. Elvira had been persuaded to emerge from the safety of her chambers once she had been assured that there was no longer any danger of running into the Bard and being subjected to hand-kissing or flowery compliments. Resplendent in her most flattering blood red robes, her glistening hair artfully piled on top of her head, she reclined lazily in a chair, fanning herself. As for Edwin, he was lying on the carpet, playing with the fake dagger and having a tremendous time pretending to stab himself.
"As I said, elementary", the assassin repeated, pacing back and forth in a lecturing manner as he spoke, his black cloak flaring out behind him. "My suspicions were first aroused by the impostor's violent reaction to the true name of the so called 'Turmish Play'. Avon Stratford, the real Avon Stratford, wrote 'Sorcerer's Bane'. He invented the curse himself as a means to intrigue the audience. It is a fairly well known secret in theatre circles; only the naive and gullible still believe in the curse. Still, that could have been explained. But he was altogether too sprightly for a man his apparent age, and then there was the matter of his hands."
"His hands?", Edwin asked.
"Yes. Montague used makeup to make himself resemble the much older Stratford, but he neglected to disguise his hands. They were the smooth and unwrinkled hands of a young man. And it is no wonder he didn't dare wipe his face when I confronted him earlier today, he was no doubt afraid to smear the greasepaint. He also wore heavy spectacles, and yet when he was introduced to us on the day of his arrival he pushed them onto his forehead and left them there for several minutes, apparently without noticing and without showing any signs of being visually impaired."
"Oh, very good!", Galen said. "Now, why didn't I spot that one?"
"No idea, Master.", Dekaras said, his voice neutral. "To continue, I knew that the Bard was not who he seemed to be, but I preferred to gather some more evidence before confronting him. So I spent a week ferreting out as much information as I possibly could about the real Bard, his appearance as well as his personal habits. From my associates in Surthay I also learned that a man matching Stratford's description had been found poisoned and raving in an inn some time ago. Not dead though."
At this the assassin gave a crooked smile. "Catsbane isn't nearly as poisonous as most people think", he said, "and you certainly can't kill anyone by pouring it into their ear. It will make them ill and feverish, but that's it. Then I found out that immediately subsequent to the poisoning, a failed young actor called Jeremy Montague had disappeared from the very same inn. Now I knew who I was dealing with, and all that remained was to trip him into making a mistake." Dekaras bowed slightly to Galen. "I believed that a practical demonstration of the actor's treachery would convince you faster and easier than a lengthy and overly complicated theoretical explanation, Master", he said. "Please forgive my small deception."
"Not at all, old chum, not at all!", the wizard said, his eyes rapt with fascination. "I'm lousy at keeping secrets anyway."
"If you say so, Master. Some gentle prodding did indeed make the impostor nervous and certain that I was up to something, especially when I demanded to see his ring. That ring was also the final link in my chain of evidence."
"Oh, I get it!", Edwin exclaimed. "Montague said he hadn't taken it off in seven years, but it slid off his finger as easy as anything!"
"Very good", Dekaras said with an approving nod. "Yes, that was part of it. Then there was the fact of Montague's heavily tanned hands. There should have been a white mark where the ring had protected the skin from the sun, but there was none. That proved that the ring, the precious ring that everybody recognised as Avon Stratford's, had only recently come into this man's possession."
Dekaras pointed at the fake dagger. "Having relieved Montague of his weapon I felt I could safely provoke him into revealing his true identity", he said. "With the aid of young Master Edwin, of course."
Edwin grinned proudly at that.
"I did assume that the boy's natural talent for provocation would ignite once he was subjected to Montague's horrible excuse for a play", the assassin said, "particularly since I hinted that I would not be displeased if he was less than polite. What I didn't count upon was the frightening speed with which he managed to goad a grown man, even an unstable one, into a homicidal rage."
Edwin's grin faltered a little.
"Had I realised just how creatively insolent you could make yourself I would have intervened earlier", Dekaras told the boy with a small frown. "At least you would have been spared a bad fright."
"I wasn't scared!", Edwin vehemently protested. His teacher just looked at him. "Well, maybe just a little bit. It sure was fun whacking that stupid actor on the nose though. Guess I showed him I'm not all that cute, didn't I?"
"Just please take care to exercise that poisonous tongue of yours with some more caution in the future, boy", Dekaras said. "Else you may find yourself in very deep trouble one day."
"Hmmmpf", Edwin sulked. "It was a very dull play. I say it was self-defense. He was about to bore me to death."
"Happily enough, the plan worked", the tutor said as he gave the boy a sharp look. "Your Father and I were just in time to hear the fool commit the great mistake common to theatrical villains, that of revealing his intentions in a boastful monologue. The rest you already know."
"That…that is really marvellous", Elvira Odesseiron said in a husky voice, fanning herself more rapidly. "Where is the impostor now?"
"Trussed up in the basement, awaiting the joint decision of you and Master Galen as to his future, assuming he has one. Master?"
Galen scratched his head and absentmindedly removed the laurel leaf from behind his ear. He gave it a puzzled look before speaking. "Montague needs to be punished", he said. "All the same, I hate the thought of killing a guest. Doesn't seem like very good manners. Do you have an alternative suggestion, perhaps?"
"As a matter of fact I do, Master. Montague is quite insane by now, and should pose no great threat. A little cruel and unusual punishment in the spirit of the Bard should suffice to further intimidate him."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I thought about nailing him into an empty barrel and dumping it in the river. If he's lucky enough he could actually make it out alive before it sinks, and then think what stories he will have to tell."
"That doesn't sound very cruel", Elvira said disappointedly.
"I also thought we might seize upon the opportunity to get rid of that hornet nest at the same time. Since Montague is so eager for an audience, I suggest we give him one, though I suspect the hornets won't like the experience more than he will. They shouldn't be able to find their way back, though."
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then a brief and heartfelt applause as the family envisioned this lovely prospect. Dekaras' expression never changed, but there was a satisfied gleam to his eyes. "I will see to it immediately then, Master", he said. "Mistress."
"Wait!", Elvira explained, her bosom heaving precariously. "After this astonishing feat you certainly have deserved a great reward. Name it and you shall have it."
"In that case", the assassin said, "I should like my customary Solstice bonus doubled, as well as time off to visit the theatre once the real Avon Stratford gets well enough to travel here and perform his art as planned. I believe I have developed a taste for the stage. And of course young Master Edwin should also receive something for performing so bravely as my assistant today."
"Certainly!", Elvira said. "Edwin, honey? What would you like to have? Just tell Mother and you'll get it."
Edwin thought long and hard about this. Then he spoke. "To never ever have to eat carrots again", he said. "Or at least not have to swallow."
The actor Jeremy Montague survived his ordeal, even though he never quite regained his faculties and was always prone to nervous tittering laughter and strange twitches. After travelling as far away from Thay as he could, he went on to found his own theatre, The Haunted House, where he created famous tales of blood-curdling horror such as 'The Mansion The Gods Cursed', 'Devil-Spawn, Child Of Evil', 'Hornets Of Horror' and 'The Voice Behind The Curtain.' Tragically and ironically enough, he died suddenly from nervous shock as an actor friend decided to play a prank and leapt out at him from the trapdoor of the theatre, wearing a black cloak and brandishing a fake knife. It is said that when the autumn nights grow longer, his final scream can still be heard to echo across those tiles that make up the world, though in the world of theatre, who knows what the truth may be.
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Last modified on , 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Laufey. All rights reserved.