Chapter 1: Stare
This is it. This is the grand exhibition at the annual bardic festival in Twinreeds, the same festival Melody has been attending for as long as she can remember. Now, finally, it’s her turn on the stage. She’s seen Mother play here several times, in the years before Mother...left...and Melody was alone.
Melody bounces on the balls of her feet, trying to shake off a desperate case of nerves. She tries to reason with herself - I am an adult, I’ve never had stage fright before, I have known this song since I was about five and I wrote this arrangement myself so I know it down pat, for goodness’ sake stop worrying, Melody, calm down - but nothing seems to work.
She doesn’t even know half the people who come to the festival. She’s not that famous, despite her mother’s fame (or perhaps infamy); they’ll probably never see her or think about her performance again. No one has ever been booed off the stage in her experience. So why is she still so on edge?
The announcer, speaking into a megaphone, calls her name.
Through sheer force of will, Melody keeps her hands from shaking as she mounts the steps to the wooden stage built in the middle of the town square. There’s a stool left out for her. She sits on it, looks out at the sea of faces, tries to ignore the way her stomach flutters, and plays the first chord.
Despite all odds, the performance goes smoothly. She really likes this song, and she likes to think it shows. There is one strange thing, though: Melody notices one face in the crowd with an expression not quite like the rest. While the others are simply watching, this redheaded man is staring at her, intently, like she’s the most captivating thing he’s ever seen.
She stares back at him as she plays the final notes and lets them fade into the ether. It’s weirdly hard to tear herself away from the eye contact. She finds herself wondering, offhand, whether he liked it, whether he’d like to hear her again.
Oh, come now, Melody, she scolds herself as she walks off the stage to a flurry of applause. You’re being silly. He’s just some man. You’ve never seen him before.
It shouldn’t matter to you whether he likes you or not, even if he is a little...cute.
Chapter 2: Torchlight
“I don’t know, I liked those drummers from the Southern desert too.”
“You’re a sucker for rhythm, love, you always have been.”
Rhiannon laughs at her husband’s teasing comment. “That I am!”
Dorian eats his flame-roasted carrots, half-listening to his friends’ conversation and half-thinking about what Eli had asked them both to get it started. Merrick’s favorite performer is those twins from Indigo City who fiddled and sang, Rhiannon can’t decide between the Southern drumming troupe and some group all the way from the capital who made music with magic, Eli likes the sea-shanty singers as per usual, but who was Dorian’s favorite musician from the showcase?
His mind keeps returning to a soloist who sang to the tune of her own lute: a woman about his age, named Melody. Hers is far and away the prettiest voice at the festival, and she made the lute sing just as well as she did.
“Eh, brother? Whaddaya say? Who’s your favorite?”
Eli’s rough voice jolts Dorian out of his reverie. “Oh! Uh...I liked Melody best, I think.”
“Melody? Which one was that? I can’t remember names for the life of me, you know I can’t.”
“She played the lute and sang, by herself. She had red hair, a lot like yours and mine actually, except...I don’t know what it was about her. Her and her music. They were both beautiful.”
Dorian doesn’t realize the possible ramifications of what he’s just said until he notices that all three of his dinner companions are trying, with various degrees of success, to hide matching grins. “Y’know, Dori…” Eli starts, then trails off into a suggestive silence. He’s doing the worst at stifling his triumphant smirk.
Dorian feels his entire face blaze with heat, and knows that his blush is probably visible even through the gaudy half-darkness of the night, lit only with torches and a bonfire. He mumbles something about not getting the wrong idea, which just makes Merrick and Rhiannon laugh.
“Hey now, who’s that?” Eli points at a redheaded woman milling about among the banquet tables, looking a bit lost.
Dorian doesn’t reply, but his face goes even redder, answering the question for him.
“Should we…?” Rhiannon wonders aloud. Dorian, realizing what might be about to happen, yells “No, don’t - !” at his brother, but it’s too late. “Hey! Melody! Over here!” Eli calls, in his typical booming roar she couldn’t possibly miss.
Melody turns, then comes over to their table with a curious expression. Dorian can’t speak. In the torchlight like this, and up close, she’s even more beautiful than he remembered.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Melody says to Eli. “May I ask your names?”
“I’m Eli, this is Merrick and Rhiannon, and this here is my baby brother, Dorian. He seemed pretty interested to meet you!”
“Oh! Well. Uh. It’s nice to meet you, Dorian. I’m Melody, as I’m sure you’ve guessed.” She laughs. “May I sit down?”
“Sure, um, sit wherever you like?” Dorian seems rather tongue-tied.
Rhiannon looks between the both of them, and notices that Melody probably isn’t the type to stumble over her words a lot, like she did while addressing Dorian. She can’t tell through the flickering orange light, but she doesn’t think Melody’s cheeks were quite that pink at the exhibition, either.
She sits back with an inscrutable smile, listening to Melody and Dorian chat, and draws her own conclusions.
Chapter 3: Delay
Dorian only agrees to leave the party when he catches himself nodding off on Melody’s shoulder. Even though they’ve all partaken modestly where the ale is concerned, midnight came and went an hour or two ago. The last of the performers is packing up his lute. The bonfire is a pile of softly glowing coals. Quite a few people are asleep with their heads on the table.
Melody neatly hides the fact that she was about to fall asleep against Dorian as well, and broaches the subject of leaving. “We all really ought to get going. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a perfectly lovely time, but…”
Dorian nods, a touch sadly. “You’re right. We’re all exhausted. I should head to the tavern with this one-” he pokes Eli, startling him out of a snore- “before it closes and we can’t get into our room.”
“I’m rooming with my aunt, but she won’t be awake much longer. I should find her…”
Neither of them actually goes anywhere. Dorian considers resting his head on Melody’s shoulder again, but then his common sense kicks in and he discards this as a terrible idea.
“Say, Dorian, what are your plans for tomorrow?”
Dorian responds, maybe a little too quickly, “I’m leaving, but it’s in the afternoon. I promise.”
He has no idea why he added the last bit. To reassure her? To reassure himself? Is this just one of the things his mouth decides to say before his brain realizes how dorky it’ll make him sound?
Melody’s smiling. Dorian can’t tell if she’s relieved, or amused at him, or something else altogether. “How about we meet up around noon, somewhere in the center of town, the general store maybe?” she offers. “So we can...figure something out?”
“Sounds like a plan, you two,” Rhiannon says with a strange little grin, surprising everyone that she’s still awake. “I’m afraid we can’t make it, though. Safe travels.” Merrick yawns as Rhiannon pulls him up from the table and they walk off.
Dorian and Melody still have not gone anywhere. In the end, it takes them a further fifteen minutes to wake Eli, finish the last dregs of their ale, and say their goodbyes for the night.
The following day, under the watchful eye of the general store’s owner (who keeps smiling behind his hand for no apparent reason), Dorian suggests that he and Eli could take Melody home on their cart. It’s a bit before noon, both Dorian and Melody having arrived at the agreed meeting a good deal early. Melody wonders whether she ought to pay them for the service, but Dorian assures her that it’s fine, they were going that direction anyway.
Eli coughs into his hat. It sounds suspiciously like an incredulous snort.
Chapter 4: Eventide
The afternoon it takes them to reach Melody’s house goes by much faster than anyone expected. The day is warm, and the morning’s patch clouds are clearing out. Melody sits between the two brothers on the cart seat, her luggage in the back with their supplies and unsold wares from Dorian’s exploring and Eli’s mining work. At first they just chat, but when they stop briefly to drink some water and let the horse have a break, Melody fetches her lute as well.
Soon there’s an impromptu concert going on in the cart, with her playing and singing and Dorian singing along when it’s a song he knows the words to. Her music has grown on Eli; he thinks she’s great. Dorian now feels certain she’s the best he’s ever heard. It’s a wonderful way to pass the time. Before they know it, the sun has sunk halfway over the horizon, and Melody’s little cottage is visible on top of the next hill.
Dorian feels a distinct pang of sadness as he helps Melody down from the cart and offers to carry her pack into the house. She’s a bard; he’s an adventurer. They both move around so much. Is there any guarantee they’ll ever see each other again?
He startles out of his thoughts as he notices Melody bringing some of his things into the house as well. When he asks what she’s doing, she answers, “You’re staying the night, aren’t you?”
“Uh, we weren’t planning to, no…”
“Nonsense. There is no way you’ll get to Cessura by nightfall- hells, you might not even make it to the old graveyard. I won’t have you stumbling around in the dark with half the thieves in the province just been to the festival too, not if I can help it.”
“But Melody-!” Eli protests. “I- we shouldn’t impose on you like this, and look at us! Two unmarried men staying under an unmarried woman’s roof? How much more improper can you get?!”
“No, actually, that sounds great, if you’re willing, Melody,” Dorian breaks in, shooting a look at Eli that clearly says since when did you care about what’s proper and what isn’t?
“Come on in, then,” Melody says with a smile, moving to unhitch the horse and pasture it in the backyard for the night. “You can both sleep in my room; the bed’s rather too big. It’s meant for two.”
Once their belongings and horse are all taken care of and supper has been eaten, Melody sets Dorian and Eli up in the master bedroom, while she herself sleeps in the smaller room next door. Even with the bed, which is indeed double-size, it’s a bit of a tight fit - Eli is humongous, and sometimes punches in his sleep. But there’s something inexplicably comforting about this room, beyond just the quiet and the moonlight and his brother’s sturdy form beside him, something Dorian can’t quite put his finger on.
Maybe it’s the little reminders of Melody everywhere: her favorite climbing honeysuckle on its trellis out the window, her spare boots beside the door, her lute hanging in its brackets over the bed.
Dorian is just a little too tired to realize the full implications of that idea before he drops off to sleep.