Willoughby finishes his story, and jumps off the platform called the fiddlesticks to rapturous applause. Quite how he got so popular in such a short time nobody really knows, except he brought some new angles on old stories, and new stories to liven things up, and he’s brilliant at telling them, so his fame spread. His background is somewhat mysterious too, and a bit of mystery never hurt an itinerant story-teller, travelling from castle to castle all over the Realms, which is what a Narrator is.
He finishes chatting to well-wishers, and rubbing noses with his female fans, and comes over to join me at the table, where I have a bottle of Dimerie white wine in an ice bucket, waiting for him (and me).
“Well, that went well, I think,” he says, looking at the bottle.
I put out glasses of wine for both of us. “So my readers understand who you are, tell me how you came to be a Narrator.”
“Well, I sort of got kicked out of my castle for reasons I’m not going into, even for you, and had to find a way of making a living. I was on the road, just exploring, and fell in with some people going to Castle White Horse for their festival, and there I met my first Narrator, and thought ‘I can do that’, so I did.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, it took me a year to get accepted. It was hard work, learning how to pace myself, use voices, that sort of thing. I had to work on my repertoire of stories, too. Like that one I did tonight.”
“I haven’t heard that one before, is it new?”
“Sort of. I adapted in from one I found in a book of fairy stories from the other side of the continent, a place they call Hungry.”
I don’t correct his pronunciation. Places over the water often get their names changed in the speech of the Realms. Strange that a book from there should have found its way here, though. I remember that it is one of the questions on my list, asking him where he gets his ideas from, so I ask him about some of the others.
“It varies. There are what I call traditional stories, some of which are not traditional everywhere, so I can tell my own versions without someone coming up afterwards and telling me I got it wrong. Then there are the ones that sound traditional, like the Thirteenth Snowflake, which was just an idea I had when watching the snow, I thought it was a nice title for a story. Sometimes titles leap out of me, in dreams or from something I see, especially when I’m travelling about. Then there are stories I find in books that deal with fantasy people, that have been sort of lost to our world, buried in the depths of castle libraries, and I borrow the plot and some of the characters and rewrite them to suit our world. Those are usually very popular. They do me well for Narrathons.”
“Where you have to do a lot of stories.”
“Exactly. Ready for another?”
I didn’t see him take a single drink while he was talking, but somehow he’s already finished his glass. I top it up and he grins at me.
“Thirsty work, narrating!”
I nod, and ask him how long he’s staying here.
“Just the one night. It was good to see you on the road, as it were, and not at a Narrathon or Competition. We wouldn’t have had any time, really, there. I generally have to take masterclasses these days.”
“I have heard,” I say, leaning forward so as not to be overheard, “that you do a lot more than masterclasses when you’re visiting castles.”
“Me? Never. I mind my own business. All the time.”
“So certain kings and princes who may or may not be on the Kings’ Council in senior positions have never asked you to report back on the state of the general public at certain very secretive castles?”
“I’m sure nobody would ever do such a thing.” He grins. “After all, how could someone like me, who moves from place to place for a living, ever find out anything that went on in a secretive place like Vexstein?”
“Have you found out what happened to Castle White Horse yet?”
His face wrinkles in a combination of disgust and grief. “He’s a monster. I’ve been working on a parable, trying to tell people to look out for people like him. It’s hard, though.”
“I bet the general people get the message.”
“Oh, yes, they’re way ahead of me, usually. Gossip is powerful, but they could endanger themselves if they show they understand. It helps to open up the idea that these things are not acceptable, though; that other people know of their plight and want to change things. The trouble is not being so blatant about it that I get thrown in a dungeon, or worse.”
“Avoid libelling the rich and powerful, eh?”
He grins, and starts tucking into a plate of food that the waiter has put in front of him while we chat. “I’ll tell you one thing, though,” he muffles through a mouthful of green salad. I wait while he swallows. “Prince Kevin has disappeared.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“No sign of him at Castle Deeping, or anywhere else down south. And Colman doesn’t seem too well, but I guess Fred has already told you about his aversion to strawberry juice power.”
“What are you implying?”
“I reckon Kevin started asking awkward questions, and Colman’s either bumped him off or exiled him somewhere. And now Colman’s decided he’d be better off away from the Realms. I bet if Kevin survives and escapes, he’ll be up in arms, especially as Deeping is falling apart.”
He turns back to his meal and I think of what he’s saying. There are huge undercurrents in the Realms, dangerous things going on, people manipulating others, and people losing their livelihoods in the process. I look at my list of questions and wonder whether it really matters whether I ask him about the most embarrassing thing he’s done, or what he’d like to change, and even if he wasn’t him, who would he rather be. But then I ask him anyway, since he sneaks my list from me and reads it himself.
“The most embarrassing thing was probably my first Narrathon, since I was rubbish, and the other most embarrassing thing is so long ago it’s irrelevant. What I’d most like to change is something that happened about seven years ago, and I need George’s help for that, because I reckon he’s the only person that can help me change it, and if I wasn’t me, I’d rather be my uncle.”
I raise one eyebrow at him in question, and he looks back at me steadily with his big, black eyes. “You know who that is,” he says. “The question is, are you allowed to tell your readers?”
I smile and we part company. Yes, I can tell my readers, but not while I’m in the Realms.
His uncle is Lord Mariusz of Hattan. On the other side of the Great Western Sea.
© J M Pett 2016