The inside of the tavern was low, dark, and smelled faintly of apples and hard liquor. There was an unexpectedly pleasant aroma of roasting duck coming from the kitchen. There was a fire burning in the hearth, but it was mostly coals and produced barely enough warmth to keep the flagstone floor from frosting over. It wasn’t at all the sort of place I expected a bard of Pin Wei’s fame and standing to frequent. I’d been sitting by the coals for an hour drinking mulled apple cider when a young man came and sat in the chair next to mine. I gave him a glare that was intended to send him on his way, but he ignored me, ordering a drink I didn’t catch the name of.
“Excuse me,” I said in my most obnoxious tone. “That seat is reserved.”
“Oh? Who are you expecting?”
He responded in flawless High-Lugenese and I gave him my full attention, examining his face in the dim light. I soon see my mistake. The lack of facial hair that I had at first thought was due to youth, was actually due to my guest being a woman. Her eyes have the cast and dark colour of a Lugenese woman. Her long hair, worked into a multitude of barbaric braids and bound in a tail at the back, is as black as pitch. “Master Pin Wei?”
She nods then turns to accept the drink the waitress has just brought. It was in a large clay tankard and sent pleasant, flowery scents into the air along with its steam. It doesn’t smell alcoholic. She took a sip and smiled before turning to me.
“My apologies. I… I didn’t recognise you.”
She snorted. “I’d be surprised if you had.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you dressed like a man?”
A smile slipped across her face. “Do you know, it’s because I thought I would be safer amongst the barbarians if I hid my gender?”
“And have you been?”
Her smile broadened. “No.”
The brevity of her answer surprised me. “Then why do you still wear such…” I struggled to find an appropriate adjective that would not also be insulting. Master Pin Wei came to my rescue.
“Outrageously outlandish clothing?”
I nodded acceptance.
“Because they’re comfortable.”
I blinked at her as she took another sip of her drink.
“Besides, a bard cannot compose great music without some knowledge of the subjects about which she intends to sing.”
I admit that I almost fainted to hear her so casually claim as true such a controversial topic. I must have stuttered something that expressed my shock.
“Surely I am living proof of this?” she said with another smile. “After all, I composed many songs, whole operettas, none of which inspired anything more than casual interest before I left on my tour.”
“And your Song of a Slave was performed to rapturous acclaim in the Imperial Opera House before the entire imperial family who, some claim, were actually seen to weep at various points throughout its performance.”
“So I had heard.”
The arrogance I had expected of her was entirely lacking. “How do you feel about that?”
She pursed her lips and studied the coals for several moments. “I’m not sure I feel anything about it, but if I have to pick something, I suppose I’d go with humbled.”
“Because the story isn’t mine. All I did was translate it and set it to music.”
“Then whose song is it?”
“It’s Reaper Hawk’s.”
“But… Do you mean to say that it is all true?”
“Is what all true?”
“The entire song?”
Pin Wei snorted. “I have no doubt that everything in the song is true, but I doubt that everything is in the song.”
“But… but… do you mean to say that you met the real Reaper Hawk?”
“And that he didn’t kill you?”
“I’m sitting here aren’t I?”
“Well, yes, but…”
She gave me a wicked smile. “If you wait a little longer, you’ll get to meet him yourself.”
I must confess that I acted like a fearful peasant at that point, almost leaping from my chair and staring wildly about the room expecting at any moment to have a wild-eyed blood-spattered demon break through one of the walls and start massacring everyone.
“You’ll be perfectly safe… as long as you don’t insult him, or threaten him, or harm any of his companions, or turn out to be a demon. Or,” and here she looked pointedly at the drink still clutched in my hand, “turn out to be an obnoxious drunk.”
“Ah…” I said, feeling rather foolish and staring at the drink.
“Now ask your questions.”
I put my drink beside me and began to feel about my person for the paper I had written out my notes on. I hadn’t expected to need them, but, being so rattled, was grateful that I hadn’t fallen out of the habit of having them. Eventually I found them.
“You were born in Lugensia?”
“And attended the Imperial College of Arts?”
“Where you attained a masters in music and languages.”
She nodded. “When are you going to ask a question you don’t already know the answer to?”
“Why did you leave Lugensia?”
“I craved adventure, experience. I had spent my entire life up to that point in academia. I was crafting perfect songs that were failing to move anyone, even myself. I heard bard-master Yu speak about the necessity for the bard to experience life in order to give life to their music and decided that same night to take a tour of the Outlands in order to gain some of that life-giving experience.”
“And now you travel around the wilds with a band of barbarian mercenaries entertaining them while they rape and pillage?” The glare she shot me drove some of the alcohol from my blood and made me sit a little straighter in my chair.
“Reaper’s people do not do things like that. In fact, they hunt down those that do.”
“And slaughter them all.”
“And eunuch them before giving them over to the people they abused.”
“Who kill them?”
“Who put them to work repairing what they damaged.”
My doubt must have shown on my face.
“I have seen this with my own eyes, but don’t take my word for it. Ask Hilda.”
“The tavern keeper.”
“That’s a woman?” I glanced towards the hulking person who stood behind the bar serving the drinks to the maids.
“Are we done?”
I looked back to Pin Wei. “My apologies. I only have a few more questions.” I looked at my notes, though, in truth, they were all but useless given what she had told me so far. “How long have you been on the road together with Reaper Hawk?”
“Something over a year now.”
“And what do you think of him? Now that you’ve had a chance to get to know him? Is he the real Reaper Hawk?”
“Yes. He is the real Reaper Hawk.” She put down her tankard. “He’s one of the most frustrating individuals I’ve ever met. Frustrating in that he is very hard to read. Unlike some.” The look she shot me said who she was lumping together in that ‘some’. “He is honourable, brave, kind, wise, funny, and, sometimes, entirely terrifying.”
“What is the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in with him?”
She smiled. “I was once in a room with a demoness who was intent on consuming all our souls.”
“And you find that amusing?”
“I do now, yes. I didn’t know the danger we were in until she manifested and Hawk killed her.”
Pin Wei chuckled. “Indeed. There are a lot of things we in the East take for granted that, apparently, aren’t exactly true.”
“Like the existence of demons.”
She nodded. “Demons and honourable barbarians.”
From that, I understood that her time in the wilds had affected her mind and I determined to draw the interview to a close as rapidly as possible. “So, what are you working on now?”
“A new operetta.”
“Starring Reaper Hawk again?”
She nodded. “He is a fount of inspiration.”
“What is this one about?”
“The time Hawk fought an immortal in order to avenge a friend.”
I gave her a smile. “It sounds fascinating.” I stood. “Well, I should be leaving if I’m to reach the next town before dark.”
“You won’t stay to meet Hawk?”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t want to risk offending him,” I said. I was already of half the opinion that the man was a figment of her overtaxed imagination, but if he wasn’t, I really didn’t want to be anywhere near such a person. I made for the door and pushed past an old man who was just coming in.
“Have a care, lad,” he said. “There be some what might take offence at such rough treatment.”
I gave him a smile and a nod, and, noting the well-worn blades at his waist, muttered an apology. He continued into the room and greeted Pin Wei with a question and a broad smile. She nodded towards me, and the old man glanced back. I’m sure it was a trick of the light, but I could have sworn I saw his eyes glow redly in the dim light before I made my retreat.