Stavo stood staring in the mirror and decided there was nothing he could do to pass any better than he had before. Plus, Luus had already knocked once. The knocking grew louder and more persistent, and he wondered how long he’d stood there daydreaming. He smiled. He thought it almost looked genuine. He opened the door and his sister swirled inside. She had gotten their mother’s beauty, he his father’s brawn, if not his violent temper. The sun just above the horizon still, they should get started if they didn’t want to walk the whole way in darkness. One of the moons, about a third smaller than earth’s would rise around midnight.
“Why don’t you bring your harp along?” She said.
“I haven’t played in an age and an age. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”
“I don’t believe that’s possible. You’re a natural.” Luus pointed to the black, velvet bag which contained the two small cylinders, in pride of place on the mantle, then held up her own. So small to carry the repulsion field and the electronics an ether harp needed.
Stavo went to the mantle and took the bag down, praying there would be no call for him to play. They stepped out into a quickening wind. Though still mild, Stavo had to grab the door when a sudden gust tried to snatch it from him. He knew they should have left sooner. This early-evening wind, as regular as death, would be all but over by the time they reached the Winking Barman. Unfortunately, that didn’t help them now. Stavo turned up his collar and put his arm around Luusile. She huddle closer to Stavo, who deflected some of the wind. He looked up, trying to decide if tonight they might be in for more than the wind. In the distance, he saw the Pharis in his chair, being carried by two brawny members of his race. Some speculated about them, but never to their faces. Vaguely humanoid, still they troubled you, even if you could not say why. They never said anything, yet everyone felt that they shouldn’t ask them about it. They became a blind spot for most people, there but not there. It probably helped that the Pharis was generous with his money and his help.
Collars up and heads down, Stavo and Luus pushed into the wind. They saw little except the ground below their feet. Neither was aware of Fargo North, where he sat upon the top stone of Pharis’ wall. They heard him.
Loud and belligerent, he said, “Too proud to say hello to your new neighbor?” Turning their backs to the wind, they looked up and saw him.
Wind-blown and red faced, North drank from the bottle in his hand before offering it to each in turn. They nodded hello, nothing more. How he longed to wipe the smug look off their faces. So he laughed at them and took another long pull from his bottle, draining it. They quickened their paces toward the Winking Barman, both feeling jangled.
They tavern filled quickly, several people arriving at the same time they did. They ordered their drinks and found a table and began to relax. Luus would play a set to start the evening, and then open the mic to others. After that, you never knew what you would see or hear, but it was different. Such diversion seemed important after the grueling work it took to settle. He knew he would play, though he didn’t feel ready. But this was Luus; there was very little he wouldn’t do for his sister. He sipped his brew as she smiled and disappeared briefly into a back room. When she entered and stepped up on the small, raised portion of the floor which served as a stage, the crowd applauded. She smiled, sat down on the stool provided, leveled her knee with a foot on a rung and snapped open the ether harp. It balanced there on her knee, though no one could quite say how. It looked odd, the top cylinder floating above the lower with nothing in between.
She ran her fingers through the seemingly empty space and a lilting melody, an ethereal sound filled the room. Those closest leaned forward, their ales in hand, and gave her their rapt attention. They only occasionally sipped their drinks, but with them, the barman’s reward would come afterward. Those seated further away, still talked and laughed and ordered more drinks and one or two of the snacks the tavern offered at night. Luus followed her opening piece with a ballad of love and betrayal. Then she slipped into a medley of reels that had everyone laughing and tapping their toes. Someone started a rhythmic clapping and others joined in. Her set felt like it ended almost before it had begun. The crowd laughed and joked and ordered more.
Luus joined him as the first brave soul stepped up to the mic. Lanky and raw boned, he sang a ballad which they all understood. He sang to a melancholy melody of love and loss, those absent from us and places we will never see again, though they own our heart. His tenor rang, sad and sweet as they come, and left hardly a dry eye in the house when he had finished. Stavo stared into his nearly-empty glass. The minstrel was followed quickly by a stand-up comic. Fortunately, he was so terrible, that everyone was pulled from darker thoughts by his abrupt deliver and his strange ability to swallow his punchlines. They heckled him until her hurried from the room. Luus started to stand, but a short man all in black beat her to the front. A magician, he was surprisingly good and people wondered what he was doing here.
At the end of his act, Luus stood again, took Stavo by the hand and pulled him toward the stage. They ran through several songs that they used to play together, with only occasional miscues or stumbles. Stavo got more comfortable as the evening wore on, but didn’t play as well as he could, as well as he thought he should. Finally, Luus smiled her thanks, got him a round of applause, and let him return to their table. Luus continued into another solo set, sweet, yet somehow rapid and raucous at the same time, that many decided it had been worth coming out in the cold wind. When she finished her last ballad, everyone stood and clapped and whistled. She’d become their own, the star of the night, and this had brought out her best which was rewarded by the crowd. Then she played one last tune. Unfamiliar, yet it reached inside them as an ether harp will do in the hands of a master. They thought of other places and times. They laughed or, perhaps, tears ran down their faces. She took them to destinations they needed to go, but didn’t want to be. Their applause was quieter this time, but know less genuine.
She returned to their table and sipped at her drink, while Stavo watched her, or some other distant place she didn’t know. She excused herself to go freshen up, but she thought he hardly noticed. She made her way across the crowded floor. Then, suddenly, wild and drunk, Fargo North barged into the tavern. He grabbed Luus by the arm and spun her to face him.