“The Lady Ira shall tell her story first,” Lady Ira said aloud, resting dust-stained hands primly on her lap. Each Pilgrim but Corax crowded in under the Gazebo and listened to Ira intently.
“Naturally,” she added with tone of bitter wry, “The tale of Lady Ira was duller before she met you lot. Still, listen and judge for yourself: pray, do not be offended at the Lady Ira’s use of uncouth pronouns…”
Honestly, I’ve never enjoyed playing the harp.
I appreciate the small miracles my music can conjure: healed wounds, loud blasts, and soothed hearts are boons we all have appreciated.
But I’ve never felt love for music itself: the thrill of coaxing notes from strings, sewing them into bolts of rippling melody, or the joy of creating new songs with a finger flick.
Still, scions of the House of Ira, the House of the Harp, must learn the harp in order to rule the masses. I applied myself to the study of harping dutifully, forcing myself to listen to the droning explanations of tutors, reading tablet on musical structure well into the night, spicing my boredom with fanciful daydreams of adventure.
You see, my true love then was for stories, and I love stories to this day.
When I was young and my parents still lived, many merchants and prestigious pilgrims guested in these halls.
The merchants would negotiate trade deals and beg my mother to relax tariffs. After these talks, we’d sit down to eat and I could speak.
“You’ve traveled all over the kingdom, right?” I would ask the merchants.
“Quite right, young girl!” They’d reply, toying with their ruby necklaces. “Rock and dirt, sand and roots: there’s not a surface in this land we haven’t walked!”
“I don’t get to go outside the house,” I’d say, moistening my eyes to soften their hearts. “Could you tell me what those other lands are like?”
Pity roused, the merchants would tell me marvelous tales of distant. Tales of strange beasts that could fly, swim and vanish into rock. Tales of plains with rippling grass and wild grain, their horizons as wide as the sea. Tales of deep groaning forests, demonlings flitting from branch to shadowed branch. Tales of snow-stained mountains with peaks that touched the sun.
My father was a curious man with a thirst for knowledge and a love of philosophy. Whenever revered sages journeyed to Baruck on Pilgrimage, he’d invite them to our house and question them deeply on matters of lore and life, right and wrong. After these talks, we’d sit down to eat and I could speak.
“I’ve heard that Pilgrims do good deeds in every village they pass through,” I’d say. “Is that true?”
“It is true, child,” the Pilgrims would reply. “Chopping wood and cooking meals, mending clothes and birthing babes, soothing grudges and bashing demonlings–there’s not a single house we haven’t aided on the road we’ve walked!”
“I know unfortunate souls exist,” I’d say, starring with gloom at my shoes. “But I’ve never even met or helped one. Could you tell me what it’s like to be righteous?”
Egos fed, the Pilgrims would tell me legends of the world’s creation. How the Hidden Gods journeyed through the void, fighting demons. How they created our world, ignited our sun and shaped our ancestors with clay and mana. How they created the caste system to bring us order, dividing us into Singers, Scribes, Priests, Traders, Hunters, Planters, Gnashers, Vowbreakers, Limbmasters and Thugs. How the Hidden Gods appointed champions to protect the people and unite them with speech and sword, a tradition that grew to become the Pilgrimage.
I wheedled tale after tale from these feasting merchants and pilgrims, ordering more food from the kitchen so that the meals would go on. My parents would swat me for emptying our larders, but I judged the pain well worth it.
Then my parents died, and I was given their seat on the Concert of Elders. I had to grow up fast, learning the arts of statecraft, lyrics and the guile to keep old grey-hairs from stripping away my family’s fortune. I had little time for stories.
I year ago, I forged an alliance with the House of the Pipes. For the first time in years, my House’s fortunes were secure. I felt a new yearning in my heart. An urge to escape from the shackles of politics, to journey far out from the dusty streets of Baruck and see those strange new lands for myself. I wanted a story of my own, an exciting tale I could tell my children one day.
A Noble of the Houses of Baruck cannot so easily escape her civic duties, of course. But each person, no matter what caste or rank they’re in, has the right to go on Pilgrimage to Baruck, to kneel at the steps of the Infinite Temple and pay homage to the Hidden Gods.
I packed my valuables, tied a green kerchief around my throat, and traveled far away, as far and fast as I could manage, to the kingdom’s edge.
And then I turned back and started my journey for real. By traveling to Baruck like all other pilgrims do, I hoped to see it with fresh eyes for the first time, help the unfortunate and collect marvelous tales along the way.
I got more tales than we ever bargained for.