[WIR: Magic’s Promise] 4-4: This series’s favorite awkward territory.
Last time, Vanyel had started getting about his first proper day back at home, including dealing with his mother.
His plan to distract her winsome court with epic bardic music appears to have been, at first blush, a bad plan.
He couldn’t help noticing Melenna sitting just behind a knot of three adolescents, her hands still, her eyes as dreamy as theirs. She was actually prettier now than she had been as a girl.
Ah. She was one of Vanyel’s suitors from earlier, right? And apparently still holding that torch. And that ‘actually’ is interesting. I think we can go ahead and call Vanyel officially Kinsey 6 at this point. Ironically, this seems to be an area where the Hawkbro’s enlightened vocabulary seems to be lagging behind our own current understanding; the Hawkbros have words for Gay or Straight, but not apparently for Gay (Or Straight) With A Handful of Exceptions.
Poor Melenna. She never gives up. Almost fourteen years, and she’s still yearning after me. Gods. What a mess she’s made out of her life. He wondered somewhere at the back of his mind what had become of the bastard child she’d had by Mekeal, when pique at his refusing her had led her to Meke’s bed. Was it a boy or girl? Was it one of the girls pressed closely around him now? Or had she lost it? Loose ends like that worried him. Loose ends had a habit of tripping you up when you least expected it, particularly when the loose ends were human.
Uh. OK. Well, Vanyel definitely dodged a bullet there.
Of course, when I put it like that, I remember that Melenna’s Bad Life Decisions only impacted her and her child, while Vanyel’s actual sweetheart ended up summoning spirits to continue a blood feud against a bunch of civvies, very nearly killing Vanyel in the process.
He got the answer to his question a lot sooner than he’d guessed he would.
“Oh, Van, that was lovely,” Treesa sighed, then dimpled again. “You know, we haven’t been entirely without Art and Music while you’ve been gone. I’ve managed to find myself another handsome little minstrel, haven’t I, ‘Lenna?”
Huh. OK, so say a year for the events of Magic’s Pawn, another few years of Actual Herald Training, and the Decade of Grimdark. So…
Oh, dear. Are we going to have another 15-year-old musical prodigy of Vanyel’s bloodline pop up and remind him what he was like back then?
Melenna glowed nearly the same faded-rose as her gown-one of Treesa’s, remade; Vanyel definitely recollected it. “He’s hardly as good as Vanyel was, milady,” she replied softly.
Jeebus, lady. That’s your son you’re disparaging there.
We also don’t seem to get the impression that Mel did actually ruin her life. She’s not destitute on the streets, as one in her position could easily be; she’s got fancy clothes, and the needs of her and her child are provided for.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Treesa retorted, with just a hint of maliciousness. “Medren, why don’t you come out and let Vanyel judge for himself?”
A tall boy of about twelve with an old, battered lute of his own rose slowly from where he’d been sitting, hidden by Melenna, and came hesitantly to the center of the group. There was no doubt who his father was – he had Meke’s lankiness, hair, and square chin, though he was smaller than Mekeal had been at that age, and his shoulders weren’t as broad. There was no doubt either who his mother was – Melenna’s wide hazel eyes stared at Vanyel from two faces.
You know, is matrilineal eye color a thing? My own high-school understanding is that the genes aren’t sex-linked and so there’s no more chance for kids to inherit their mother’s eyes in a mother-dominant father-recessive pairing than the other way around. I ask because it’s come up a few times in various fantasy tales, and I’m curious if it’s something more than just a dramatic trope of drama.
Also, Treesa, what are you playing at? Clearly you’re in favor of your son, but a bard-off between him and a kid isn’t going to end well.
The boy bobbed at Treesa. “I can’t come close to those fingerings, milord, milady,” he said, with an honesty that felt painful to Vanyel.
And the kid knows it, too. Huh. Pretty smart, for a 12-year-old who I’d expect to be all over the demonstration-of-prowess in front of all the pretty ladies.
Then again, it’s probably very likely that this kid specifically has heard that it’s a really bad idea to try to one-up Vanyel.
“Some of that’s the fact that I’ve had near twenty years of practice, Medren,” Vanyel replied, acutely aware that both Treesa and Melenna were eyeing him peculiarly. He was not entirely certain what was going on. “But there’s some of it that’s the instrument. This one has a very easy action – why don’t you borrow it?”
OK, so something is definitely odd here. Medren doesn’t look like he’s being set up as either a reflection of young Vanyel, or a foil. He’s definitely doing his own thing here. But what is that?
They exchanged instruments; the boy’s hands trembled as he took Vanyel’s finely crafted lute. He touched the strings lightly, and swallowed hard. “What -” his voice cracked, and he tried again. “What would you like to hear, milord?”
Vanyel thought quickly; it had to be something that wouldn’t be so easy as to be an insult, but certainly wouldn’t involve the intricate fingerings he’d used on “My Lady’s Eyes.”
“Do you know ‘Windrider Unchained’?” he asked, finally.
Come on, Vanyel! Listen to those runs! That is not a piece for a 12-year-old unless the 12-year-old is a prodigy. (This is another piece by Heather Alexander, by the way, definitely worth a listen.)
The boy nodded, made one false start, then got the instrumental introduction through, and began singing the verse.
Eugh. And now I’m having flashbacks to messing up intros in my own old career as a child performer. Where are we going from here?
And Vanyel nearly dropped the boy’s lute as the sheer power of Medren’s singing washed over him.
His voice wasn’t quite true on one or two notes; that didn’t matter, time, maturity, and practice would take care of those little faults. His fingerings were sometimes uncertain; that didn’t matter either. What mattered was that, while Medren sang, Vanyel lived the song.
Ah. That’s where we’re going with this. Huh. OK, so now I’m wondering about the logistics of this. Vanyel comes from a very large, very extended family, with no magical talents to speak of anywhere, and his own gifts very, very latent…and now this kid pops up. And now I’m wondering a lot more about Melenna’s own heritage.
The boy was Bardic Gifted, with a Gift of unusual power. And he was singing to a bowerful of empty-headed sweetly-scented marriage-bait, wasting a Gift that Vanyel, at fifteen, would willingly have sacrificed a leg to gain. Both legs. And counted the cost a small one.
Ah! We are going with the mirror thing.
And, uh, Vanyel, the ability to provoke strong emotions in the non-distaff side of that marriage bait secured Melenna a future. Getting Medren a respectable marriage and clearing up the messy matter of his parentage would benefit a lot of people, not the least of which is him.
I also am reminded again of how little I like the Bardic Gift as portrayed. As part of the worldbuilding, it’s just Empathy with a heavily-restricted medium; it doesn’t enable anything interesting that an actual Gifted mind-hacker couldn’t do without a lute. And setting it up as a magical talent gifted by On High instead of a magical skill refined through constant practice and experimentation does a disservice to actual musicians.
We need it for the thematics, though; telepaths like Talia are scary, but people are used to the idea of music affecting them, and can get their hands around stepping up that principle magically.
Anyway, back to the performance.
It was several moments after the boy finished before Vanyel could bring himself to speak – and he really only managed to do so because he could see the hope in Medren’s eyes slowly fading to disappointment.
In fact, the boy had handed him back his instrument and started to turn away before he got control of himself. “Medren – Medren!” he said insistently enough to make the boy turn back. “You are better than I was, even at fifteen. In a few years you are going to be better than I could ever hope to be if I practiced every hour of my life. You have the Bardic-Gift, lad, and that’s something no amount of training will give.”
He would have said more – he wanted to say more – but Treesa interrupted with a demand that he sing again, and by the time he untangled himself from the concentration the song required, the boy was gone.
Mmm. That’s the thing, isn’t it? ‘Better’ is such a nebulous term. Imagine a world where Medren never picked up the lute, and had learned only the bare minimum of music to let him use his Gift. Would he be better than Vanyel? What does it mean to be better?
And what the hell, Vanyel? Are you incapable of finding a sufficiently flirty way to say “In a moment, Mother, this is actually a big deal here.”
Although…Vanyel’s mother has been very on point before now; it could well be that this is her way of letting Medren make a quiet exit so Vanyel can hunt him down later and not make a scene in front of everyone.
The boy was on his mind all through dinner. He finally asked Roshya about him, and Roshya, delighted at having actually gotten a question out of him, burbled on until the last course was removed. And the more Vanyel heard, the more he worried.
The boy was being given – at Treesa’s insistence – the same education as the legitimate offspring. Which meant, in essence, that he was being educated for exactly nothing. Except – perhaps – one day becoming the squire of one of his legitimate cousins. Meanwhile his real talent was being neglected.
I wonder now if we’re supposed to be reading this as further fallout from Vanyel’s own bad break-up. It seems like having a soul-bond relationship as your first actual romance (and possibly having it self-destruct horribly) has made Vanyel not only hostile to the very idea of romance, but kind of unaware of it as a viable life strategy. A Bardic Gift like that could be trained to play for concert halls for the richest and the grandest…or it could, as it stands right now, sing a self-written humble love song at the right time to the right person.
Vanyel continues to fret about the problem (and not, e.g., go run down Medren and ship him off to Haven for music lessons) until, as often happens, the drama comes to him. Vanyel is sitting at his desk still pondering when Meddy knocks on his door.
The boy shuffled into the candlelight, shutting the door behind him. He had the neck of his lute clutched in both hands. “I – ” His voice cracked again. “Milord, you said I was good. I taught myself, milord. They – when they opened up the back of the library, they found where you used to hide things. Nobody wanted the music and instruments but me. I’d been watching minstrels, and I figured out how to play them. Then Lady Treesa heard me, she got me this lute…”
Lady Treesa: still the pointest ma to be in point. And Melenna is…huh. I bet she’s very uninterested in her progeny comparing himself to Vanyel at all.
So, Meddy’s self-taught, like Vanyel. More parallels! (Also, Vanyel Approves +5. And wow, Dragon Age references are old.)
“Medren,” he said at last, “to say that you astonish me would be an understatement. What can I do for you? If it’s in my power, it’s yours.”
Medren flushed, but looked directly into Vanyel’s eyes. “Milord Herald-”
“Medren,” Vanyel interrupted gently, “I am not ‘Milord Herald,’ not to you. You’re my nephew; call me by my given name.”
Medren colored even more. “I-V – Vanyel, if you could – if you would – teach me? Please? I’ll -” he coughed, and lowered his eyes, now turning a red so bright it was painful to look at. “I’ll do anything you like. Just teach me.”
Vanyel had no doubt whatsoever what the boy thought he was offering in return for music lessons. The painful – and very potently sexual – embarrassment was all too plain to his Empathy. Gods, the poor child – Medren wasn’t even a temptation. I may be shaych, but – not children. The thought’s revolting.
Wow. OK, that’s a thing. And…ah. That would be why On-Point Ma made very sure that Vanyel didn’t end up publicly gushing over Medren’s talent.
And now I’m wondering why Medren thought to lead with this offer specifically, and now I’m back to being mad and updating my “It has been X pages of Mercedes Lackey since sexual assault was a plot point.” counter.
“Medren,” he said very softly, “they warned you to stay away from me, didn’t they? And they told you why.”
The boy shrugged. “They said you were shaych. Made all kinds of noises. But hell, you’re a Herald, Heralds don’t hurt people.”
Huh. So the Hawkbro term has achieved public penetration? Hmm. Odd. I think I’m going to put this down to Merecedes Lackey needing a word for gay that wouldn’t alert the censors.
And…that’s some interesting calculus from the kid, there. I mean, either he figured that nothing past a particular point of untoward would happen, and that Vanyel would very definitely keep his end of the bargain…or he made the offer knowing that it would embarrass him all to hell, that Vanyel would read that, and that it would give him loads of sympathy.
I don’t think they’re setting little Meddy up as that cold-bloodly calculating. But it’s something to consider.
“I’m shaych, yes,” Vanyel replied steadily. “But you – you aren’t.”
“No,” the boy said. “But hell, like I said, I wasn’t worried. What you could teach me – that’s worth anything. And I haven’t got much else to repay you with.” He finally looked back up into Vanyel’s eyes. “Besides, there isn’t anything you could do to me that’d be worse than Jervis beating on me once a day. And they all seem to think that’s all right.”
Huh. That…actually sounds kind of calculating. It does sound like Neddy was thinking “OK, 80% chance he won’t actually be interested, and about that 20%…”
And…huh. That’s an interesting point of divergence, isn’t it? If Vanyel had been as willing as Neddy to have sex with someone he wasn’t actually attracted to in order to secure his future, he’d never have gone off on his original call to heroism in the first place.
Vanyel, of course, zeros in on the other parallel.
Vanyel started. “Jervis? What – what do you mean, Jervis beating on you? Sit, Medren, please.”
“What I said,” the boy replied, gingerly pulling a straight-backed chair to him and taking a seat. “I get treated just like the rest of them. Same lessons. Only there’s this little problem; I’m not true-born.” His tone became bitter. “With eight true-born heirs and more on the way, where does that leave me? Nowhere, that’s where. And there’s no use in currying favor with me, or being a little easy on me, ’cause I don’t have a thing to offer anybody. So when time comes for an example, who gets picked? Medren. When we want a live set of pells to prove a point, who gets beat on? Medren. And what the hell do I have to expect at the end of it, when I’m of age? Squire to one of the true-born boys if I’m lucky, the door if I’m not. Unless I can somehow get good enough to be a minstrel.”
Mmm. On one hand, Medren is describing a genuinely sucky situation. On the other…it is entirely through the generosity of Treesa that he’s there at all. Being low man on the totem pole of arms practice is painful and degrading. It’s also a hell of a lot less painful and degrading than subsidence farming, or begging.
As Meddy says, the door is there, and it’s likely that when he grows up, he’s going to be shown it. (Unlike his mother; apparently, Treesa’s apparently pretty sure that Medren would have at least the potential to make something of himself in the world, while Melenna getting kicked to the curb would be basically an immediate death sentence.)
In short, the life and lessons Meddy is complaining about are something that 99% of the setting will never get a shot at, because their mothers didn’t seduce a random highborn teenager. I get that Vanyel doesn’t think in those terms, so I’m not expecting the book to do so right now, but Meddy’s plight is not something I’m hugely invested in at the moment.
Vanyel’s insides hurt as badly as if Medren had punched him there. Gods – His thoughts roiled with incoherent emotions. Gods, he’s like I was – he’s just like I was – only he doesn’t have those thin little protections of rank and birth that I had. He doesn’t have a Lissa watching out for him. And he has the Gift, the precious Gift. My gods –
And…huh. The book is also going out of its way to say that Vanyel is not thinking rationally right now. This could lead to interesting places.
“ ‘Course, my mother figures there’s another way out,” Medren continued, cynically. “Lady Treesa, she figures you’ve turned down so many girls, she figures she’s got about one chance left to cure you. So she told my mother you were all hers, she could do whatever it took to get you. And if my mother could get you so far as to marry her, Lady Treesa swore she’d get Lord Withen to allow it. So my mother figures on getting into your breeches, then getting you to marry her – then to adopt me. She says she figures the last part is the easiest, ’cause she watched you watching me, and she knows how you feel about music and Bards and all. So she wanted me to help.”
Mmm. And now I’m confused. Either Lady Treesa was playing an extremely deep and multi-layered game with the music thing, or she missed a point somewhere.
Or, now that I think about it, it seems more likely that the previous scene could have used a re-edit. It feels like the motivations of Treesa and Melenna changed between the scenes; Melenna didn’t sound at all like she was showing off a proud potential-adopted-son-candidate.
Ordinarily, I like to find reasonable motivations within the characters as established (or at least, the characters as described), but this genuinely feels like these two scenes were written disconnected-ly.
So, what is Meddy’s actual angle here?
Poor Melenna. She just can’t seem to realize what she’s laying herself open for. “So why are you telling me this?” Vanyel found his own voice sounding incredibly calm considering the pain of past memories, and the ache for this unchildlike child.
“I don’t like traps,” Medren said defiantly. “I don’t like seeing them being laid, I don’t like seeing things in them, and I don’t much like being part of the bait. And besides all that, you’re – special. I don’t want anything out of you that you’ve been tricked into giving.”
Mmm. You know…there is one angle here which keeps the majority of the characterizations intact. And that is amusingly obvious. Our Bard-to-be is telling a story. He’s taking some half-formed intentions, some desires, and a side helping of “Well, if Vanyel does happen to want to wed you, we’ll worth with the situation…”, and spinning a tale of a trap, so he can be the one to nobly reveal it. He is a very unchildlike child, as Vanyel notes; if he’s been having an Empathy-gift as long as he’s been practicing music, then I imagine that he’s been exposed to a whole lot and has grown up real fast.
Through fair means or foul, however, Neddy’s got Vanyel in his corner, and so without further delay, Vanyel takes him off to see Pa.
Withen had a room he called his “study,” though it was bare of anything like a book; a small, stone-walled room, windowless, furnished with comfortable, worn-out old chairs Treesa wouldn’t allow in the rest of the keep. It was where he brought old cronies to sit beside the fire, drink, and trade tall tales; it was where he went after dinner to stare at the flames and nurse a last mug of ale. That’s where Vanyel had expected to find him; and when Vanyel ushered Medren into the stuffy little room, he could tell by his father’s stricken expression that Withen was assuming the absolute worst.
I’m…a little concerned with what that worst could be. And Vanyel didn’t even lead with “Good news! I’ve decided whom I’m going to wed!”
“Father,” he said, before Withen could even open his mouth, “do you know who this boy is?”
Candlelight flickered in his father’s eyes as Withen looked at him as if he’d gone insane, but he answered the question. “That’s – uh – Medren. Melenna’s boy.”
“Melenna and Mekeal’s, Father,” Vanyel said forcibly. “He’s Ashkevron blood, and by that blood, we owe him. Now just how are we paying him? What future does he have?” Withen started to answer, but Vanyel cut him off. “I’ll tell you, Father. None. There are how many wedlock-born heirs here? And how much property? Forst Reach is big, but it isn’t that big! Where does that leave the little tagalong bastard when there may not be enough places for the legitimate offspring? What’s he going to do? Eke out the rest of his life as somebody’s squire? What if he falls in love and wants to marry? What if he doesn’t want to be somebody’s squire all his life? You’ve given him the same education and the same wants as the rest of the boys, Father. The same expectations; the same needs. How do you plan on making him content to take a servant’s place after being raised like one of the heirs?”
And with it all let out like that, I feel like a “He can go out into the world with arms training and courtly manners and damn well make his own way.” is a really solid reply. Vanyel’s invocation of the ties of blood is on thin ground; when you turn it around and ask what, by his blood, Vanyel Ashkvron owes his family. If there’s a point here to be made, it should be made to Mikey.
“I – uh – ‘
“Now I’ll tell you something else,” Vanyel continued without giving him a chance to answer. “This young man is Bardic-Gifted. That Gift is as rare – and as valued in Valdemar – as the one that makes me a Herald. And we Ashkevrons are letting that rare and precious Gift rot here. Now what are we going to do about it?”
“The same thing we did for you, son. Ignore it because music’s stupid and a waste of time!”
Come on, Vanyel. You can’t just tell someone “This thing you don’t care about is precious and important.” and have it change minds. Saying that Valdemar equally values the Mage-Gift and the Bardic Gift just means that Valemarians have a direly misplaced set of priorities.
Withen just stared at him. Vanyel waited for him to assimilate what he’d been told. The fire crackled and popped beside him as Withen blinked with surprise. “Bardic-Gifted? Rare? I knew the boy played around with music, but – are you telling me the boy can make a future out of that?”
And here’s the frustrating part of this; there is zero indication that Vanyel couldn’t have lead with “Hey, Dad. Just so you know: Meddy here’s got some serious music talent going on, and he’s got some magic gribblies, so I’m sending him to Haven to try out at the Bardic Collegium. You’d probably want him out on his own getting valuable life experiences in a few years anyway, so this will save you some time!”
Vanyel might have to be stubborn and fight for everything in his own experience, but this isn’t his own experience. Meddy is experiencing semi-benign neglect here. He may not be being nurtured, but he has the free time and resources to self-teach himself music. He doesn’t need Avenging Angel Vanyel to wax wrothful here, just because there was no one to wax wrothful on Vanyel’s own behalf. And if he fails to shame Pa into the action he wants, leading with aggression ensures that Withen would oppose the plan out of stubbornness.
“I’ll tell you more than that, Father. Medren will be a first-class Bard if he gets the training, and gets it now. A Full Bard, Father. Royalty will pour treasure at his feet to get him to sing for them. He could earn a noble rank, higher than yours. But only if he gets what he needs now. And I mean right now.”
“What?” Withen’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement.
Vanyel could see that he was having a hard time connecting “music” with “earning a noble rank.”
“You mean – send him to Haven? To Bardic Collegium?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Father,” Vanyel said, watching Medren out of the corner of his eye. The boy was in serious danger of losing his jaw, or popping his eyes right out of their sockets. “And I think we should send him as soon as we can spare him an escort – when the harvest is over at the very latest. I will be happy to write a letter of sponsorship to Bard Chadran; if Forst Reach won’t cover it, I’m sure my stipend will stretch enough to take care of his expenses.”
And again, if the people of Valdemar are going to weigh Incipient Teenage Boy-Band Member Neddy over Withen, who’s running a big damn noble house on an important border, the people of Valdemar are dumb. I see what Vanyel’s going for here, in trying to discuss practicalities, but this is a bad way to do it.
On the other hand, it also continues to speak well of Withen; he isn’t even remotely jealous at the idea that one of his bastard grandchildren is likely to one-up him in nobility.
That last was a wicked blow, shrewdly designed to awake his father’s sense of duty and shame.
“Of course! Yes, the Crown should pay for it, since they’ll be the one benefiting! And that will be a huge savings I can pass on to the rest of the family. Do set that up with your stipend, will you, son?”
“That won’t be necessary, son,” Withen said hastily. “Great good gods, it’s the least we can do! If – if that’s what you want, Medren.”
“What I want?” the boy replied, tears coming to his eyes. “Milord – I – oh, Milord – it’s -” He threw himself, kneeling, at Withen’s feet.
“Never mind,” Withen said hastily, profoundly embarrassed. “I can see it is. Consider it a fact; we’ll send you off to Haven with the Harvest-Tax.” The boy made as if to grab Withen’s hand and kiss it. Withen waved him off. “No, now, go on with you, boy. Get up, get up! Don’t grovel like that, dammit, you’re Ashkevron! And don’t thank me, I’m just the old fool that was too blind to see what was going on under my nose. Save your thanks for Vanyel.”
And that appears to be the end of this plotline. I’m quite happy with that; this would have been a much better sequence without the intimations of child prostitution, and a stronger editing pass to make it clear that either there was a trap being set that Neddy alerted Vanyel about, or that Neddy actually was telling tall tales and manipulating Vanyel.
Vanyel steers Neddy towards the door before there are any more awkward kisses, and leaves him with the suggestion that he go tell his mother the news that Vanyel has made a nontraditional chess move and promoted one of her pawns to Rock Star instead of queen. Neddy cheerfully runs off to do so.
But, with him out of the room…
He turned back to face Withen, and there was no humor in his face or his heart now.
“Father-we have to talk.”