Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Moon Shin
The boy sat on the table, fiddling with the lute absently. The notes sounded dull in the inn, which was a muffled box filled with drunken chatter, hysteric laughter, and repulsive splatter, as men abruptly bent forward in their seats.
The boy winced at the sour stench of fresh vomit, as he glanced at his father, who casually chatted with a customer as he filled his mug. The boy went back to picking at his lute, letting the notes fade away but remembering each fondly.
His eyes wandered to the girl clad in gray drabs, who glided amongst the tables with ghostly grace. It was Charlotte, the young cook, slightly short of the robust glory of womanhood. Her presence was always faint, hard to notice, but when eyes found her, they seldom left on their own will.
She did not have the perky curves or the wickedly lustrous smile of a prestigious whore, and neither did she harness the pretentious glint of jewels. Her beauty was her own, unsold in brothels, more precious than diamonds. She was the difference between silver and gray. The boy’s eyes followed her until she vanished into the kitchen, lingering there for a breath before turning back to the lute.
He flicked his finger, summoning another dull note in the air.
“Mocra, come here,” his father called.
The boy looked up from his lute, letting out a sigh as he left his seat and took a step towards his father.
“I want you to meet my old friend, Jenson Urales, he is one of the composers that will be judging at The Great Pier,” his father said, as he nodded at the man next to him. “He came all the way from Eristen to perform and attend.”
The Great Pier was the greatest collaboration of musicians all across the western coast, where artists competed for recognition before a vast crowd as large as the sea itself. Hence the name Great Pier, as artists fought and fished for the attention of the crowds. Mocra had always wanted the chance to play there one day, in front of an audience comparable to the sea.
It was his dream.
Mr. Urales smiled, as Mocra raised a greeting hand.
“I saw you playing with the lute. Do you know how to play, Mocra?” Mr. Urales asked.
“A little,” the boy answered. “I still have a lot more to learn.”
Mr. Urales nodded in agreement. “Everyone does, the sooner we learn to accept that, the greater we can become. How old are you?”
“Twelve winters, eleven summers,” Mocra answered. “I started playing the lute on my fifth autumn.”
Mr. Urales took a moment to take a swig from his mug. “Who taught you to play?”
It was his father that answered for him. “No one, really, the lute belonged to my wife before she passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Urales said, lifting his mug in toast. “I never had the honor to meet her, but may she enjoy all the pleasures the afterlife keeps from the living.”
Mocra watched his father give a brisk nod, as he busied himself with polishing a bottle of whiskey.
Mr. Urales turned back to the boy, setting the empty mug down for a refill. “Why don’t you play a tune, Mocra? All twelve goddesses and the six gods know that an inn needs music.”
Mocra stared back at where his lute sat perched on the corner of the counter. “Aye, that would put that old piece of wood to some good use,” his father agreed, looking up from the
bottle he was polishing. “Unless all you know is how to pick at the strings.” His father raised a taunting eyebrow.
“Where should I play?” Mocra asked, looking around the inn. In the midst of the drunks, there was scarce space for a man to sit and have a drink, much less play an instrument.
“At the world, my boy,” Mr. Urales said in drunken sentiment, spreading his arms wide. “If you play before the forest, become its whisper and sigh as you sing with the wind. If you play before a weeping damsel, become her tears and sorrow as you fill her heart. The world is filled with music, waiting for its call for a dance. Take her hand, Mocra! Spin me a tale of music.”
Mocra picked up his lute, feeling the similar weight of it. He sat on the stool and picked a few strings in succession, gently tightening and loosening a few of the strings. When he was satisfied, he simply played like he always did.
The world faded into nothing but a far away whisper, the things that the eyes saw no longer mattered. In fact, he preferred to be in the darkness, as he became one with the music. The notes slid graciously into his ears, as his fingers danced along the strings.
There was no particular tune that he was trying to play. He was simply moving his fingers, letting the music decide what to make of it.
His nose stung gently, as his eyes welled with tears. He wasn’t sad. He was just taken death.
That’s what he felt every time he emerged himself in the lute, which was now a part of his mind and body. A part of his very soul.
Mocra didn’t even realize that it was over, until he opened his eyes and was met with dull silence. He looked up at his father, who stared at him speechlessly. Mr. Urales, who was frozen half way from taking a sip from his mug, slowly set it down on the counter.
Even the drunks were silent as they stared at one another in dull amazement. “Play another!” someone yelled.
The yell was met by a cheer, which seemed to shake the whole inn. Mocra’s lips twitched into a helpless smile, as he wiped the tears that threatened to leak. He briskly snorted to repel the interloping snot, and let his fingers dance.
It was a merry little tune that was something like the drunks’ anthem. Everyone followed along noisily as they knocked mug against mug in jolly spirits, dancing and singing along in their seats. A serving wench took turns dancing with the men, smiling and giggling as she niftily evaded their wandering, clumsy hands.
By the end of the night, he had no idea how many songs he played or how long. He felt a dull sting on the calloused tips of his fingers, which he dismissed casually. His fingers would only become stronger.
It was well past midnight, and Mocra could feel dawn’s break approaching. Most of the customers have retreated to their rooms, but a few still lied dormant on the ground, stirring or snoring as if to remind the conscious that they were still alive.
The boy was a nocturnal creature cursed with a consciousness skeptical of sleep. His thoughts had a tendency to wander, as if to determined escape the comfort of rest. His father, who was blessed with tenacious slumber, never understood him, but was willing to make use of it and let the boy work during the night.
And so he did. Mocra ran errands, helped the drunk to their rooms, mopped the puke off the wooden floor, and carried mugs back to the kitchen. It seemed like he would be playing the lute from now on too, by the talk his father and Mr. Urales were having.
“I tell you, you would be the man to see talent and not hear it, Owen,” Mr. Urales was saying, his tongue slick with ale. He was evidently drunk, but the boy could see the awareness in his eyes, sharp as a knife beneath a cloak. “Let me take him. I’ll show him the world he dreamt and more. He has a bigger future than running errands and mopping vomit.”
Mocra’s heart was dancing, as he wiped the tables with a watery rag, careful not to step on anything but the wooden floor. The world beyond the inn… he thought. How he longed for that moment.
His father seemed less sure, as he calmly assorted his coins into rows and piles only the gods and he understood. “And what future is that?” he asked, sparing a curious glance from his coins.
“What future?” Mr. Urales repeated, looking at his empty mug disapprovingly. “Did you listen to the boy play? If the Great Pier wasn’t booked full with participants, I would have pulled all the strings in the world to let the boy perform! But the pier can wait till next year. Until then, I could take him to Eristen to meet my clients and sponsors. I’ll teach him to perform in feasts and concerts, teach him the courtesies and etiquette of a lord’s court. A young minstrel in a suit. They would love him. And do you know how much the lords and ladies pay for the things they love? Good luck counting coins when you’re buried in them.”
“The roads are bad, Jenson,” the boy’s father said. “The lords and ladies may be content to feast in the security of their castles, but I would rather not have my son brave unnecessary dangers. He is only of twelve winters. Perhaps in three summers when the boy is a man…”
“Bah,” Mr. Urales interrupted with a snort. “And what will he do here until then, besides age with the drunks in their folly?”
Mocra acted as if he wasn’t interested in their talk, but listened keenly to their conversation. It was a strange feeling. He was thrilled that Mr. Urales saw so much potential in him, a little less welcome but thankful for his father’s concerns as well. But he was disturbed by the way they spoke about his future as if it was theirs, without any question to his thoughts. Mocra took a few empty mugs and left the adults to contemplate his life.
In the kitchen, a maiden in gray placidly washed the wooden bowls and mugs in deft efficiency, stacking them neatly on the side.
“That’s the last of it,” Mocra said, as he set the mugs next to her on the counter.
Charlotte glanced at the mugs and nodded. Her face was ashen from fatigue, her slim figure seeming too fragile to defy even gravity. She was a cook for the inn that worked the night shift. She was nocturnal like an owl, pale as a ghost from the abstinence of the sun.
She wore a dirty rag of what might have been a dress in its youth. But her face brought out the seamlessness of her skin, radiant and delicate as snow. Mocra stared at her openly, as she finished washing the last of the mugs and proceeded to pick up the mop.
“Is there anything I can help with?” he asked.
Charlotte smiled, as she gently shook her head. “There is no need, thank you,” she said, soft as dust.
“I know there is no need, I just wanted to let you know that I’m willing,” Mocra said. “To clean, I mean.”
She nodded, the smile still on her face, as she bent back to her work. “Just cleaning? How disappointing.”
“Well, what else could I do for you?”
“I heard that you played the lute nicely today,” Charlotte said, as she continued mopping, slightly out of breath. “Yes, it would be lovely if you could play me a song.”
He smiled. “I’ll be right back,” he told her.
It took only a few seconds for Mocra to retrieve his lute. Mr. Urales was resting his head peacefully on the counter, his hand vengefully holding on the empty mug. The boy’s father stared suspiciously from behind the bar, but said nothing as he returned to counting his coins.
When Mocra reached the kitchen, he gently took Charlotte’s hand from the mop and led her outside into the cool, autumn night with wisps of silver clouds and a smirking crescent moon.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, glancing curiously at the lute. “I thought you were going to play a song.”
“I am,” Mocra replied.
“At the world.”
Mocra only smiled, as Charlotte regarded him searchingly. They crossed the grassy plains with endless dark hills lit by shadows, to a serene lake that swayed softly like a veil of sparkling, dark velvet bathed in moonlight.
She stood, one hand perched on her breasts, as she breathlessly stared out to the lake. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
Mocra sat on the soft grass carpet, admiring the things that were beautiful to him. “I may leave town to travel with Father’s friend,” he said, meeting her eyes. “If I do, I fear I will miss the beauty before my eyes.”
“True beauty never dies,” Charlotte said with a smile. “And neither does beauty hide, once she is found. Save your worries for the dark, little Mocra. Think of all things beautiful left unfound.”
The boy turned his eyes to the lake, watching the reflection of the crescent moon as the ripples played with its light. Little Mocra, he thought in gloomy amusement. He was young, but what was he too young for? Was he too young to think for himself? Was he too young to decide his own future? Was he too young to love? Must everyone just see him as a child?
“You are three winter older, and I know yours were colder,” Mocra said, thinking of the scars on her body and soul. The crimes hidden behind her gray dress and smile, the secrets she hid and the truth he saw. “Call me a child, but in the face of love, are you any older?”
Mocra smiled as he picked up his lute.
“In the darkness she glows, remembered only as the sun’s shadow,” he sang, as he tickled the strings of his lute. “Her name is sorrow, let her cry till tomorrow. For tonight is a secret, dark as the light. Let us free her binds and listen to her plight. Tonight is the night, let sorrow cry. And when tomorrow comes, listen to her lie.”
Charlotte was silent, as the last note of the song died out in the brisk breeze. They stared at one another for a moment, and then turned back to the lake, retreating into their own private thoughts.
“What is the song called?” she asked after awhile.
“Sorrow’s Lie,” Mocra replied.
“What does it mean?”
He shrugged, closing his eyes and swaying his fingers across the strings. “Many things.”
Charlotte slightly tilted her head sideways. “Who wrote it?”
“You, me, and the world. At this very moment.”
Charlotte winced in puzzlement, as music continued to flow from the tips of his fingers. “What do you mean, Mocra? I don’t understand.”
“I always wanted to play on the pier, before an audience far as my eyes can see, but I realize that it’s not about how many people you play for, but for whom… and why.” Mocra recalled what Mr. Urales wanted to make of him, a young minstrel in a suit. The idea sounded repulsive to him now.
Music was more than wearing a suit and flicking strings.
Charlotte still seemed hopelessly confused. “So why Sorrow’s Lie?” she asked, as if that was the missing piece of the puzzle.
“It reminds me of your smile,” he said, looking up at the waning crescent moon, wondering if it was a smirk or a frown.
“Perhaps it does,” she agreed with a small laugh that left a bitter smile. She sighed as she stood up. “Well, we should head back. It’s getting late and I still have matters to attend.”
Mocra nodded and stood up, watching her walk on in her fading gray rag of a dress. In a low voice, he sang the last verse of the song.
“And I would crawl a dozen mile, just to hear sorrow’s laugh and see her smile.”