KEEP A SINISTER SMILE AND AHOLD OF MY HEART: in which we enter the city of bards and audition

As our travels brought us closer to Reach’s Fallow, the roads became more congested with travelers, carts, and portable stages en route to a fortified city. Dirigibles floated in the sky above it, painted with the caricature of a dude with a dopey smile, winking halfway.

Judging from Zeno’s cringe, this was someone he knew.

Below the face was the curling script proclaiming “the deadly battle of the bards!”

I frowned. Deadly? I’d expected stiff competition, sure, but that had felt like, behind-the-scenes fighting. Not out in the open and advertised like this.

“Hey Kel,” said Iago, “think that balloon is ego-sized?”

“Either that or it’s really close to us,” the bard replied dryly.

Heedless of our own safety, we approached. The walls were sprawling and marked with turrets at regular intervals, running from the edge of the cliff to the great western sea at the city’s back.

Conversations petered in and out, naming parts of the city that travelers were interested in visiting. The Red Market, the city’s largest center of commerce; the Fossil, an industrial district built on a mastodon corpse; other small communities like the Cooperative and the Seltsari. I didn’t really know what those last two were, but they sounded important.

The people who made up Reach’s Fallow were a varied lot, and the city continued to build on itself. Rich people made additions on homes they already had, and towers, mansions, and castles rose over the walls in spears and spires. In the very center of this spiral of wealth and excess was the lord’s manor. Its walls were over a hundred feet high, housing a large arena I’d heard whispered about by passing travelers as the “Coliseum of Reach”, surrounded by parks and rich greenery.

Meanwhile, on the road, we passed huts and lean-tos, people living in the dirt. Roadside vendors hawked goods to people traveling toward the city, offering doghots, sliced sausages with a bun inserted in the middle. Zeno pointed out reputable piepot vendors as we traveled. Some even had commemorative keychains for sale, sporting Battle of the Bards VI on them.

“No, no, no,” Zeno said, blowing past. “Buy the chainkeys, they’re more authentic.”

The closer we drew to the city, the higher the energy and thicker the crowds got. There was a backed-up line as we got to the entrance of the city, carts and heavy transportation vehicles waiting to get into Reach’s Fallow.

“Let’s get in line.” Felegum’s eyes gleamed.

Zeno groaned. “You seem thrilled.”

Half an hour went by and we waved off many people selling things. Well, most of us. Iago, excited at the prospect of people coming to us with offerings, bought something of everything as long as it cost a gold or less. When he purchased a sandglass that was supposed to be calibrated to the time limit of the first act of the event (three minutes and forty-three seconds), Felegum was intrigued and also bought one.

To no one’s surprise, the sandglasses were not calibrated, either to each other or even three minutes and forty-three seconds. Carefully, while we waited in line, Felegum poured san between the two glasses so that they would at least be calibrated to each other.

Bookies advertised their services ahead of time. Iago bet that the colors of the shirts of the team worn by the third place finishers in the first round would be orange. Commemorative mugs were sold outside the stadium (“Don’t buy those either, darling– they’ll all be knockoffs until you get inside the arena.”) as well as cornpop, a street meat known as ourg, and babke, a meat with sticks poking out of it. Last was this thing called a Reach’s egg, which seemed to be like a spa egg.

Getting both curious and hungry, I purchased a Reach’s egg and a babke and munched on them until we finally reached the head of the line.

Iago presented his cup. “We’re here for the Battle of the Bads!”

Zeno sighed. The guard, meanwhile, looked amused. “We’ve got ourselves a sucker.”

Then they wanted our papers. Somehow, Zeno was able to breeze past this with an explanation about the “power of song” and an elegant gesture to our skeleton dance troupe. I had no idea how that worked, but it somehow did and we got told to go to the “big house” to fill out our entry form, sign the necessary waivers, and complete our audition.

The Reach’s Fallow officer gave us some light crap about paying a one hundred gold deposit (we didn’t actually have to), noted that they were having quite the job trying to keep riffraff out of the city during the event, and asked if we had any fruit or vegetables to declare.

“I do!” said Felegum, who had grown used to being our sorcerer-of-all-vegetables. He ran through our usual list of leafy greens, onions, moose meat, and potatoes. I had had no idea that he had been carrying seventeen pounds of potatoes all this time. What the hell? How had he even gotten that many potatoes?

The officer, though, was not about this, especially not the moose meat. “That’s gotta go.”

“What?” Felegum laughed as though this was another joke.

“The onions are fine,” the officer said, “but that meat– is it salted?”

“It’s been in interdimensional stasis!” the sorcerer said, exasperated. “What more do I need to explain?”

The officer crossed their arms.

Felegum crossed his arms back. “I feel like interdimensional storage has not been properly considered.”

A dumpster of rotten fruit and vegetables near the checkpoint overflowed with discarded produce and illegal foodstuffs. As someone who had been through a terrible food storage, to see so much wasted made my stomach turn.

“Believe it or not,” said the guard defensively, “we take it out every day.”

That did not make it better.

“Well, I’m going to file an appeal.” Felegum huffed, on receiving directions to do so from the officer. “I don’t think that rule is well thought out.”

He took the map, found his destination, and proceeded toward.

And once again, I was in an unfamiliar city, at the mercy of its directional whims. Then Zeno herded us all to the audition spot. I’d kind of wanted to get some errands done (buying my own incense, finally, things like that), but he’d insisted that I absolutely not leave the others for some reason before we secured our berth in the tournament.

Whatever. I followed the others to the sign-up area, where, now devoid of Felegum, we were presented with the perplexing question of who would fill out the form. Zeno, perhaps again deciding that no one could be trusted with this besides himself, stepped up.

One of the things the form asked for was our occupations, and I’d been curious what he’d invent. He was a creative, after all. Stories were his bread and butter, usually with a side of smoke, droning, and necromantic transgression.

How would he explain the skills of someone like me, who walked Csipherus’ criminal underworld, served the god of the dawn, and also had developed some pretty sick skills in the kitchen? I was a mystery, an enigma, a challenge.

I looked down at the paper.

According to Zeno, I was “unemployed.”

I objected strenuously. Obviously “crime lord” or “steward of legendary knife” was not something we could put down, but like, come on. “Religious” was a noun. I’d learned that recently.

Also it did not make me happy to share a profession with Iago. It wasn’t even a cool profession.

Helli was a tinkerer, Felegum got listed as a thinker, Tem was a paladin (of course), and Zeno listed himself as a bagpiper.

I did not think things could possibly get worse, but then the form also wanted a fun fact.

Zeno put down that he’d slept with a mermaid. Felegum was “is punctual.” I thought that there was no way that lizard trainer could be misinterpreted, but Zeno added so many extra quotation marks to it that it looked extremely suspect. Tem’s was that she once defeated six teen thieves (I wondered if I knew them), Iago was a traveler (of course), and Helli “has more legs than she should.”


There was also a liability waiver at the bottom of the stack of forms, and I caught a glimpse of the words “harm may come to you” before Zeno quickly signed and handed them off to the attendant with a flourish.

Our group name was, as usual, SDC.

The organizers said it lacked a little panache, but maybe we’d roll out a new meaning of it with each act. Song and Dance Crew, Slaad Defeating Company, Saviors of Desert Csipherus– we had options.

Even with this, we were still not allowed to audition without the whole team, which left us half and hour to find Felegum, get in line, and then wait until it was our turn. Luckily, we did not have to wait long– Felegum had taken a piece of the cube and managed to find us again, complaining about the city’s broken appeals process.

“They won’t even let me file anything without an invitation,” he said, clearly experiencing agony, “and there isn’t good documentation on how to acquire one.”

As we waited, we planned out our act. Tem had mentioned that she knew a haka from her paladin brethren, so since it was readily available and hopefully easy to learn, we went with that.

Some of the logistics seemed hard to nail down last minute, though.

“Technically,” Tem said, eyeing us over, “everyone should have a breath weapon.”

Felegum could make fire, Iago had a flaming pot, I could do illusions of fire, and Zeno said that he could make smoke and that that would have to be enough. Tem took some time to think how this might work while the line sluggishly moved forward and the sun touched the horizon. Food cart vendors walked up and down the auditions line, and we got hungrier and hungrier.

I ended up ordering a chicken and waffle for some exorbitant prices (it was an experience) from a seller also hawking Fallow fries over a brazier of infinite flame (I wondered briefly if Helli would make a second attempt on absconding with one of these), as Zeno held out for a gyro and further sellers advertised “doppin’ dits” which seemed like the local version of kippin’ kots.

Tem beheld these wonders over a fat coin purse. “You know,” she said conspiratorially, “I won’t be offended if you took gold from the dragon’s hoard.”

“I should hope not,” I said, “considering that you very unsubtly stole a massive tablet.”

Another two hours went by in line, then another four. It was well and truly night now, and despite the well-lit line and the slow progress forward, it seemed unlikely we’d get to audition before dawn.

At long last, we reached the front of the line. Zeno turned to us and gave us all inspiration, and we went in.

The stage was surprisingly well-lit, given that it had been night for quite some time. Large burning fires surrounded it with optical lenses, perhaps the same devices that the halfling bards back in that tavern had mentioned were used in projecting the show across the region.

Tem hopped nervously from foot to foot. “I have to go the the little drake’s room.”

“Not now,” Zeno hissed. “Hold it.”

Tem emitted a sound of distress.

“Now Song and Dance Crew,” a voice said from the wings, “you must pass our trials to succeed in the Battle of the Bards.”

Before we could even audition to make it into the competition, we needed to pass six of eight trials. The trials varied across a range of disciplines. There was an archery test, a wooden training sword and armor, a giant bowl of cups, an array of instruments and a sign labeled “arpeggios”, an obstacle course, a tone test, a music stand, and a final test called “pizazz”.

No more than three people could attempt each trial, and we needed two of them to succeed for it to count as a win.

Iago was first up and he chose the obstacle course. As you might imagine, this involved him only loosely following the flow of course and largely avoiding the obstacles by leaping over them. “Do we have to use these?” he asked, airborne. On receiving confirmation that no, he did not, he replied “okay, thank you!” and finished the course.

One light went on above that trial.

I was beginning to see why this had taken so long. This was indeed an involved process.

Felegum attempted the challenge of the cups. The goal here was to make a stack as tall as you possibly could, and being a devotee of order and well-founded constructions, the mage seemed perfect for the task. The cups were made of wood and there seemed to be about a hundred of them. He cast a spell of creation to make an additional hundred or so out of pitch, and tried stacking wood-pitch cups over each other. Unfortunately, he was not able to get a stable enough foundation down and did not pass the challenge.

His pitch cups stuck around, though, so we could always use them in a later attempt.

Personally, I have always loved obstacle courses. Csipherus is, in fact, the best obstacle course in the world, so you might say I was well trained to handle that challenge. With my win, we had one trial completed of our six.

Tem– her need for the bathroom temporarily shelved– took on the swords challenge. On finding that she’d need to use a wooden training sword for the challenge and not her usual greatsword, she handed Bahamut’s Righteous Fury to me.

“Oh!” I accepted it, then promptly fell under its weight. People who fought with these things were clearly unhinged.

Anyway, Tem’s job in the challenge was to fight against the suit of armor, which had become animated. After landing a few blows on it, she was able to pass with flying colors. I was thankful when she relieved me of her sword.

Zeno completed the tones exercise with ease, as expected. Then he had a drink, as expected.

Iago tried his hand at the swords test next, choosing for his weapon a very little stick. I hadn’t noticed as much when Tem had attempted the challenge, but there were all sizes and varieties of wooden weapons available. Iago, to my knowledge, didn’t use anything as a weapon beyond his pot, and true to form he basically nailed the armor and took it to the ground without even using the stick. It remained in his back pocket for the entire fight. With that, our second trial was passed.

Felegum called upon his mastery of order on the tones as well. With a little help from Dronie (who had surprisingly good resonance) the third trial was in the bag.

I got a little ambitious at this point. I’ll admit it. I tried the harp on sight-reading. Reading music has always reminded me of reading arcane notation, and I was drawn to it. It was not a resounding success. I didn’t deserve people being mean to me about it, considering we had literally one musical professional to go around.

Though it was out of her normal wheelhouse, Tem took on the archery challenge and did pretty well. She was one arrow short of completing it, but at the last moment she threw the bow as if it were a javelin, hit the target, and passed.

It’d make sense that this challenge would reward creativity. I hadn’t expected this to include improvised uses of conventional weapons, but I was not upset with Tem’s win.

Zeno’s next choice was to try the pizazz challenge. We were all kind of curious about what this one would entail, because it was just a little envelope on a stand by three people. When he opened it, it said “wow the judges”.

This was a Zeno task if there ever was one. His robes transformed into a fitted purple tuxedo with a purple bow tie and he began to sing. The judges were wowed, and he walked off to have another drink.

Iago took genuine delight in throwing darts at the archery target, earning us our fourth trial victory. We just had two things left to win.

Felegum tried his hand at pizazz. He’d certainly wowed the zombies of Csipherus with his incredible dance, so I was looking forward to seeing his moves. He opened by creating a sphere of water (always a strong move), except this time he made it around himself, dancing within it. Then he swam up, got some air, and released to water to cast sunbeam, like an egg cracking open to reveal a star.

This was very conceptual and awesome. Unfortunately the angle of his spell was not perfect and it seemed to blind the judges. That pizazz challenge was not a success.

I took on the cups challenge, deciding to model my construction after the Sunspire back home. Ojutai had mostly reconstructed it (again, weird astronomical viewing area on the top aside, it was pretty faithful to the original). I was able to reach level 29, earning me a success.

Tem also felt like she had what it took to succeed at pizazz, and she did. She took off her armor and then stepped into it on stage, allowing the judges to see her god-gifted suit of armor at work. As a finishing touch, she breathed out a fireball through her helmet, which the (new, non-blinded) judges loved. With that win secured, we had one final challenge to go.

Zeno killed it on sight-reading, choosing a dulcimer as his instrument of choice. He played a folk song from the southeast that sounded almost as haunting as if he’d used his bagpipes.

Iago’s luck on arpeggios was nonexistent, and Felegum’s sight-reading on the French horn was not the best.

Somehow, it was me again. I didn’t like any of my options. “Can I just, not do this round?” I asked.

Zeno watched me, evaluating. There are moments with him where I’m not sure if I’m talking to my friend or to a very efficient player who sees me as one more sacrificial piece in his winning strategy. This was one of those moments.

“Do you trust me?” he asked, eyes still alight with that strange fire. “Because I can make you win.”

I mean, I did want us to win. It would be super embarrassing to keep losing challenges because I hated everyone making fun of me, but I was pretty sure someone could also do the cups challenge. This wasn’t an all or nothing stake.

But did I trust Zeno?

“Yeah,” I said.

Friendship was like that. I’d learned that with the Calendar and I’d had to learn it with Ojutai. I’d never know everything going on in someone else’s head. But if we were friends I could trust that they had my goals if not my best interests (since those two tended to run orthogonal for me) at heart.

That had been the thing with Awk.

And I wasn’t here because I needed a holiday from Csipherus. I was here because my friends needed my help.

“Good,” Zeno said, and then magically took control of my body.

I tried to fight it. I really did. I was walking but I wasn’t walking. I was picking up an instrument but it wasn’t me plucking the strings. I was there, feeling the wooden sides of the harp in my hands again, as I had before, but this time my fingers moved with a carelessness that I’d never had the luxury to cultivate. The arpeggio was perfect. There was no chance it wouldn’t have been.

Once our sixth pass had been recorded, Zeno released his control. As soon as I could, I balled my hands into fists and went invisible.

Because you know what? Some days I am so goddamn sick of being the punchline of every joke.

There are some times when I am not a very good person.

I just hate letting them see it.

So I just watched, creepily, invisibly kicking my heels as Tem passed the cups challenge without a problem. I don’t know why we felt the need to aggressively pass the seventh test, but maybe it was for the sake of completeness. Whatever. I didn’t really care.

Having a chance to breathe without the risk of being fucking mocked for it, I had to admit that I admired the ruthlessness. The Calendar hadn’t exactly been the kindest to me either when I’d first joined, and they’d been similar people. Desperate, willing to do whatever it took.

I could deal with that kind of person. I was that kind of person. Sometimes, I just forgot. Sometimes, I just got used to be someone else, a softer version of myself.

Today, I remembered.

With our trials complete, we were able to move toward the audition (finally) of Tem’s haka. I was still invisible, but given that this was now an exercise in showmanship, I’d be remiss if I let an opportunity to dazzle our audience pass by. If we were going to be ruthless about it, then I couldn’t let something like feelings get in the way.

We went through Tem’s haka:

“We are the paladins of Bahamut!
Our fire burns through darkest night.”

Tem and the others unleashed a fireball. Tem herself actually breathed fire, Iago somehow breathed fire through his alcohol (this felt unsafe), Felegum made everyone else’s fire brighter, and Zeno produced some smoke. I got into position behind them.

“Where Tiamat lurks–“

Here I dropped my invisibility and conjured a silent image of a great, many-headed dragon in the air above us. It arched its heads back, menacing the judges.

“–we shall conquer!”

A second dragon, this one shining brilliant platinum, sprang into illusory existence above. It battled the Tiamat illusion wrestling with her, darkness versus light. In a burst of bright flame (timed perfectly, I might add, to another fireball from Tem and the crew), Bahamut scourged Tiamat from existence, flying victorious over our group.

“Servants of Tiamat fear our roar!”

Then everybody roared. I personally didn’t get out the best roar because I was trying to a) remember the dance Tem had taught us, b) control an illusion of Tem’s god, and c) not get hit by various fire sources from my friends. There was a lot going on.

The judges clapped modestly. “Your coordination needs some work,” one said in maybe the understatement of the century, “but you’re in.”

We were in.

“Thank god,” Felegum said, slumping over. “This whole thing is so lawless.”

“We like to think of ourselves as lawful chaos,” the judge said brightly. “Now leave! We have a long line to get through.”

We left. Because we were now official performers in the Battle of the Bards, we were afforded free lodging at a pretty decent hotel, and food and drink were on the house. We’d been given a folder with some fluff and little information, with the promise of more to be revealed when the competition kicked off.

Some of us slept, some of us partied with the rabble-rousers downstairs, and others made plans. Tomorrow, after all, was a new day.

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