Saturday, May 18, 2019

Master of Strings Ch86: Lesson of Love

The sun finally begins to set now as the guards around the area begin to light torches to keep the courtyard well lit. Zilo wiped the sweat from his brow as he walked back to his friends. They all looked just as relieved as he did after the queen sided with his demonstration of courtly etiquette. The prince hung his head and returned to Luther and the two of them began a very terse discussion. Maldrek returned to his employees and faced Aria.

"Aria, I need you to do something for me."

"What's that?" The woman asked.

Maldrek hung his head and mumbled a bit. Aria snapped his face back toward her and said, "Don't you pull that on me, speak straight."

"I need you to permit Zilo to do everything he can to win the next competition."

Aria's eyebrows furrowed and her eyes squinted as she stared at the tiefling. She plainly asked in a slightly annoyed tone, "Why?"

Maldrek breathed heavy, "It's better if you don't know, trust me. Grant him permission, and leave. I ask this of you for your sake."

Aria stood firm, arms crossed, and looking at the wizard. Zilo smiled placing his arms behind his head and turning toward his friend with a newly invigorated upbeat spirit and said, "You gone and done it now buddy, she will not budge. Better to just tell her."

Maldrek shook his head and finally resolved to tell her, "The last challenge was of court etiquette, the next one is... the etiquette of courting." Maldrek gave a very weak smile and a slight shrug as the group looked at him.

Jin immediately broke into a laugh while Leo looked at Zilo's reaction. Zilo's laid back demeanor had shattered. His stance remained, but he looked to be shaking, not daring to turn his gaze toward Aria.

"How far?" The woman asked.

"Beg pardon?" Responded Maldrek

"How far does Zilo need to get with the woman?"

Maldrek was shocked that Aria hadn't gone for the throat. He stumbled a bit and began thinking. He finally responded,

"Cannot say, the prince's side will be deciding that."

Aria turns to Zilo and breaths deep before exhaling a breath she had been holding since Maldrek told her the words. She held fast and spoke,

"This all because the prince knows we are together, he wants to trip you up, don't let him."

Zilo turns back to her nodding. Her face is emotionless as she holds a poker face as best she can. She continues her words, "That being said... I don't want you to do something you don't want to do."

Zilo notes that her eyes refuse to meet his and so he reaches and pulls her chin to make their eyes connect, and he says, "I never told you, most Fetchling partners are arranged like human nobility. It is a grave offence to violate these relationships."

Aira's eye water a bit behind her stoic expression as Zilo finishes, "That may be one of the only beliefs I still think my people do correctly." Aria leaps forward a buries her face in Zilo's shoulder. He pats her on the back for a moment or two before she pulls back and wipes the tears from her face and speaks,

"Knock'em dead."

"You got it."

Zilo turns just in time to see the prince standing before him. Zilo's smile melts away as the prince looks to the couple. The prince bows and speaks, "Before this next dual begins I would like to extend my apologies. I thought of this challenge the night I issued the challenge and despite my protests Luther ensured me it was my best chance due to" the prince glances at Aria for a moment before finishing, "circumstances."

Zilo turns away from Aria and speaks back, "It's still a low blow, no matter your intentions."

The prince glances downward and to the side, his hands still firm in place behind his back and he mutters, "I will not disgrace myself further, Sir Realms. This conversation was out of politeness for you and your woman." The prince turns on a dime and walks over to the gate of the court yard as he speaks, "Come we'd best get in position."

As the two of them stand at the gate, Luther begins to speak to the crowd,

"The next challenge will likely be the most unconventional of sorts. Both competitors will leave the courtyard now as the day turns to night with the intention of finding a woman. They will have 3 hours to bring this woman back with them to this area using only their wit and charm. Competitors may not use their position or their material possessions to persuade the woman."

Zilo begins to drop his gear other than his sword and the prince does the same. The prince also pull some more common clothing over his regal undershirt to disguise his nobility, much as he had on the night 2 weeks ago.

"The woman will then be scrutinized on her attractiveness and intelligence by both seconds and a third party who will not be privy as to which woman was brought by which competitor. Once judged the woman with the most impressive traits will earn victory for their duelist"

Many of the women in the crowd mumble and rumble in a slightly disapproving fashion. The men all either mimic the sentiment, look to the women confused, or cheer excited for the next competition. Zilo and the prince, now only outfitted with a blade for self defense and common clothing look to Luther and Maldrek.

"Begin!"

Unlike with the race Zilo and the prince casually stroll out of the courtyard, not wishing to gain a ragged appearance. Zilo begins his way out to a tavern or two, he notes a rather attractive looking woman serving drinks and calls her over with a motion. her long black hair and green eyes look the bard over as she rests her hands on her plump but curving hips.

"What can I do for ye messir?"

"I was hoping for a bit of time with your lovely eyes, they look vibrant as a new spring time glade ready to embrace the coming season."

"I meant tah drink." Said the woman in a stern tone. Zilo reach down for a coin purse only to recall that he left it behind for the competition. He smiles and speaks, "funny that, It seems I misplaced my coin purse, how else might I be able to pay a sweet beauty such as thou?"

"HEY BORIS! We got a funny talker wif no coin! Clear this table for me!" Shouted the woman as she walked back toward the bar. In her place came a large half orc with as many muscles as he had inches on his protruding belly. Zilo spent very little time at the tavern with only a short trip to the cobblestone outside the door.

He brushed himself off but as he looked to the dust on his shirt he had a new idea. He found a nearby alley and spread the dust across the rest of his cloths. He then waited until he saw a rather beautiful half-elf with short unnaturally grey colored hair and brown eyes. the bard unsheathed his blade and held his breath saying, "Okay, be very careful here now Zilo. You only need a flesh wound."

He grit his teeth and sliced at the underside of his forearm to make it look as if he halted the blade with his arm. He cut a little too deep and needed to use Cure Light Wounds to control the bleeding a bit before throwing the blade and it's sheath round the alley's edge and shouting, "AH!!!! THIEF!"

The half-elf looked to the alley and the wounded Zilo down and clutching his arm. She knelt down and spoke, "Sir are you O- Oh dear that looks bad."

"A man just stole my coin purse and took off, miss do you think you can help me up!?" Asked Zilo wiping his non-blood covered uninjured arm. The woman helped him to his feet and he met her gaze. Zilo feigned speechlessness for a moment as the woman met his gaze for but a moment before looking around for the false assailant.

"My word, it may just have been worth the attack if I was able to find a beauty such as you." The woman momentarily smiled before looking back to the wound and said, "Huh!? you're bleeding, but it looks better than I believed, come with me."

"As you wish my lady." The woman began to lead Zilo somewhere as he continued to play act a man who just cutely met the love of his life. The woman was much more concerned with not getting any of the fetchling's blood on her clothes. For a moment Zilo looked up with a smile as he saw the castle and spoke,

"Castle Deneval. What luck." As he said this the woman pushed him forward and he turned back to look to her. She spoke, "My husband is in the town guard, go look for Sargent Reynolds, he will help you."

"Husband?" Asked Zilo wind removed from his sails.

"Yes, I must be getting back to our children actually. I pray Morta heals your wounds and that Justitia exact justice for ye."

Zilo huffed as the woman lifted her dress and began running back the way they had come. He looked back to the courtyard and muttered, "So close." As he looked he saw the prince walking back toward the court and on his arm was an exotic looking woman from the far east in an eastern garb and medium length black hair. She looked exquisite.

Zilo stomped the ground and looked to the now blackened sky. Time was running low. As he began to walk back into town he heard a familiar woman's voice behind him speak in a light inviting tone,

"My you look worse for wear Mr Master of Strings."

Zilo turned to the voice and his eyes went ablaze as a victorious smile slid across his lips.

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Master of Strings Ch85: Etiquette Lessons

The prince looked to be yelling at Luther at this point in the competition. the score was 4 to nothing with only 3 challenges left.  Zilo smiled and looked to Maldrek and said,

"Going as planned bud?"

"Absolutely, but don't count those chickens yet. So far the prince has only been doing the challenges to entertain the crowd. There is one more left that would entertain, unarmed combat, but I think he's learned his lesson and if he has to tries that he's run out of options."

"Then we've won! Dis deserves a drink!" shouts Jin as he takes a drink.

Leo crosses his arms and says, "No you idiot, Maldrek said there are no more entertaining challenges, not no more."

"Maldrek motions to Leo and says, "It's as he says, there are two challenges that the prince excels at that Zilo will have to adapt to. I did more than just do my research in the library, a bit of time was dedicated to learning about our prince."

Aria tilts her head and asked, "What should we expect?"

"Depends on who the prince calls for, the next two require two third parties to take part, it will depend on which one he calls for."

The prince hangs his head and shoos away Luther and the tutor gives a curt bow and motions for a guard to speak to Maldrek as Luther himself retreats into the main keep. The guard approaches Maldrek and tells him,

"First will be a matter of courtly etiquette. Do you wish fo-"

"I recall the rules of this challenge, don't worry I'll take over for Luther." Says Maldrek as he motions the guard away. The tiefling returns to his position and addresses the crowd.

"Next challenge will be a matter of courtly etiquette. Both duelists will be judged on how they conduct themselves in addressing a member of nobility. They will be judged not just on their  manners and conduct, but on the impressions taken by a member of the court who ranks higher than them. The contest will begin the moment that the member of court arrives and will end when that member decides on a victor."

Aria furrows her brows and speaks, "Higher? There are only two people who rank higher than a prince. Are we really calling on them for a little spat like this?"

Zilo turns to his human companion and asks, "Who's them?"

"You don't even know!?"

"Should I?"

Luther scurries back into the court. Maldrek casts Message, saying "Hey get in line, she's coming." Zilo quickly dash over to line up with the prince facing the door that Luther keeps his back to. Zilo quickly straightens his shirt and fixes his hat in a more secured position with a twist.

Luther shouts to the crowd now viewing from the far sidelines of the courtyard.

"Now presenting, the Constable of the standing army of the Kingdom of Deneval. Mistress of the Fields of the South. Breaker of Wills, and Slayer of Vanguards. The Queen Consort Sheila Deneval." Luther throws open the door behind him without looking and hustles to the side, and two guards to both sides of the door hold the doors in place.

Out walks a fiercely composed woman wearing a regal straight purple and gold trim dress that extended down to just above her knees. under the dress were leggings that matched the coloration with knee high boots. her top looked to be immaculately frilly but with a contained less bombastic fraying style than a typical courtly outfit.

her face was lightly made up with her hair tied back tight with noticeable graying hair. Her face was that of a woman in her late 40's maybe early 50's with as three times as many wrinkles as she had scars lightly noticeable on her eye left eye and across her right cheek. Over top of her short dress she had purple stained leather straps with embedded golden buttons. The straps held in place a masterwork lance on her back and a matching sword to her side as high as her waste.

As the Queen walked her steps were exacting and powerful, while also graceful in equal parts. The entire courtyard bowed and curtsied as the woman approached. The Queen's gait stopped a short 4 feet from the two duelists. She spoke with a deep authoritative tone that would make you feel as though you had made a grave error.

"Remove your hat bard, you are in the presences of royalty." Zilo tenses, and realizes his error. He moves his arm to quickly throw his hat away to his companions. His grey hair frays a bit no longer held in it's place by the hat.

The Queen nods and says, "You all may rise, no sense in a contest without witnesses to view it." the court stands and the queen looks to her two subjects before her.

"Prince excellent form as always." Kranoc gives a quick curt head nod, and responds, "You are too kind, your Majesty."

"Bard, Zilo Realms as I have been informed."

"Zilo Realms, the Master of Strings, m'lady." Interrupted the fetchling.

"I'm to be addressed as her Majesty, then m'lady. you must show an understanding of my position before speaking in a familiar fashion."

"Familiar? That's the most formality I have!" Thinks the bard.

"Secondly, do not interrupt me simply to speak your own titles. My husband may buck such tradition, but I had to adhere to them in my days in court." Zilo begins to sweat as she tears into him.

"And lastly for introductions, your bowing form was deplorable, not only did you keep your hat on but your head didn't seem lowered to be in line with the ground and your return to a standing position was far too far spread. One must remain in full control of their body at all times."

Zilo breath heavy and spoke,"My apologizes, your majesty."

She continues to look at them both and then speaks, "I have no intention of keeping this meeting going very long. I was in the middle of planning out a military mission to find and remove the remainders of a defunct goblinoid faction a few days march from here."

The prince gives a quick bow and says, "I hope for a successful and swift mission m'lady."

Zilo's eyes widen and he says, "Oh are they the ones who were led by the wizard Artak?"

The Queen squints and takes a moment before speaking, "Beg pardon?"

"They lived in a cave network in the mountain range.  My companions and I hunted them a few months back." Zilo motions over to Maldrek and Aria before continuing.

"It was a close one too, there was a bugbear swordsman among them who nearly killed me as well, I still have the scar." Zilo pulls up his shirt from the bottom, To show his large scar across his waist from the attack that nearly ended his life. As he did so the entire courtyard gasped, either from the gruesome look of the wound, or the gal to show his midriff to the Queen.

The Queen remains stone faced and she shouts, "I have made my decision."

She looks to the prince and speaks. "Sir Kranoc is well mannered, doesn't speak out of turn, has a practiced natural air to him while still showing his fealty."The prince fights hard to hold back a smile.

She looks to Zilo and speaks, "Sir Realms has violated at least 10 customs of the court with his attire alone and seems as though he has never stepped into a court in his life." Zilo face drains and his gray skin looks to turn white.

"That being said. there are two things that make my decision easy."

The Queen glares at the prince, "This competition, as I have been told, has been called by the prince. In addition he is the one who called me to be here today as I have a higher position than he and have the president to judge both duelists equally."

She turns back to the crowd and behind her the prince winces and mutters a silent curse. She speaks, "To presume that your petty squabbles are more vital than the operation of the realm could be considered treason, and the prince should have considered this as I was working for the good of the realm at the time of this event."

The Queen looks to Zilo and continues, "Further more, in a courtly arena your past works to your advantage as much as your present. And the bard, despite his present, seems to be truly loyal to the realm, spilling blood and risking his life for the sake of the citizens."

The prince and Zilo swap roles, with Zilo holding in a smile and the prince losing his coloration. The Queen follows up, "No amount of Etiquette can affect the reputation one fosters with the nobility, otherwise I would never have made it from a foot solider to a Queen."

She finishes, "I deem The Master of Strings, Zilo Relams, victor of this challenge.

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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Master of Strings Ch84: Bump in the Road

Zilo and his corner of support looked to the prince's side. They had sent away 4 guards minutes ago for some purpose and now the two sides have just been waiting. At the start of the wait Leo claimed to have a guess as to what the next event was as he held the list of challenges and left. before leaving he said,

"I think his highness may be pulling a fast one. I got your back buddy." The magus took off back into the city.

After 10 minutes or so had passed the guard returns with two horses. Both horses followed the guard along, both clearly well trained, well groomed, and decorated in royal saddles and emblems. The prince smiles to the horses and says, "I'll use Highwind today, my opponent may use Swiftness."

Zilo's face sunk and Jin gives Zilo a playful punch, saying, "Lookin like it's gonna be a race."

"Not good." Said Zilo. He turns to Aria and Jin saying, "I've actually only ridden a horse a handful of times before."

Aria and Jin's jaws drop and Jin asks, "But you named our horses! What do you mean you've never ridden one?"

"I've always ridden in the cart! Normally Alaroc handles taking care of the two of them, I just like chatting with them!"

Aria nods and says, "fair point, they are good listeners, but either way you just gotta do your best."

Luther begins to shout the next challenge, "To the east, north and west sections of the city at the gate entrances we have positioned guards with red flags. duelists will ride their horses to each guard in that order then return here, first to return will be the victor."

Zilo shakes and looks to the guard escorting the horse Swiftness over to the bard. The horse is stock still, as though waiting for orders. The prince hops onto his steed and Zilo looks to the horse nervously.  as he begins to mount it he hears a voice behind him.

"Hey now, best let the man use his own horse!" Leo shouts as he rides up to the courtyard atop Vivace. Zilo looks to the horses and smiles. Vivace may not be as fancily dressed as the royal horses, but she looks excited to be out of the cart's harness.

The prince looks to the new arrival and shrugs, "As if that will make a difference. Feel free to handicap yourself with a lower breed." Zilo nods and heads over to Vivace. She excitedly flips her mane and Zilo rubs her face.

She does not calm as the bard hops up. Zilo nearly falls from the happy horse and speaks, "I know girl, but we gotta, Okay! Whoa! calm the-! Yehne stop shifting so- ! Ah!"

Aria shakes her head while pinching her temples before walking over to the horse. She snaps her hand up in front of the horse and speaks in a strong domineering tone,

"Vi! Whoa!" Vivace shivers a bit, but her attention narrows to Aria. Aria lightly strokes along the horse and speaks up to Zilo.

"I got this, hold tight champ." Zilo shrugs, but while he does so he let go of the reins, and Vivace begins to shift again, nearly dropping the bard to the ground again. Aria smacks Zilo in the thigh and shouts, "What did I just say! Hold tight!"

Zilo grabs back onto the reins and steadies himself. Aria snaps her finger back in front of Vivace's direction and continues to stroke her side. Slowly but surely Vivace calms and Aria returns to the front.

"There girl. I know, I know he doesn't train as easy as you." Zilo frowns as Leo and Jin both snicker from the side. Aria gently touches her forehead to Vivace's forehead and softly whispers,

"Keep it together til the race starts then let loose, follow Zilo's direction, don't let him lose." Aria leans back and Vivace shakes her head and snorts. Aria looks up to Zilo, and speaks,

"She's ready. Zilo she will do the hard part, long as you keep on the rein she'll go the way you lead. She wants to ride hard, but she might get reckless, keep to major routes, no short cuts."

Zilo is amazed by how much calmer the mare has become. The bard speaks, "Perhaps you'd have been a better druid than bard."

Aria looks back to Vivace and lays a hand onto her face, saying. "With how much ya'll are out adventuring, I need someone to talk to. Presto is better behaved, but Vivace is more energetic." Aria looks back Leo and says, "Good pick." Leo nods.

Zilo lightly moves the reins to the starting position and Vivace trots into position next to the prince's horse. The prince smiles as one of the guards takes up a spot to the side with a flag to way and signal with. After a quick three count the guard flaps the flag and shouts to begin the race. However the moment the flag is waved, Aria shouts out,

"Foot straps!"

The moment the flag is waved Zilo is floored without his feet properly secured. Vivace streaks out of the courtyard leaving the prince in the dust. Zilo tries to steady himself, but Vivace is having none of it, she gallops at full blast down the road. In a flash the first red flag flaps in Zilo's view. He's approaching the gate out of the city, and has no purchase on his steed.

Zilo manages to barely find a bit of footing, finally finding the right foot straps and whipping the reins to the left. Vivace skids by her hooves along the ground against the stone and manages to barely avoid slamming into a woman. Vivace streaks off once again toward the north of the city along the interior city wall.

Zilo finally manages to get into a manageable position with both his foot straps now secured. Vivace  continues to fly full force and Zilo takes a chance to glance behind him. He didn't see the prince, however that doesn't mean he's going to stay behind. Zilo looks back forward just in time to spot the next flag.

"Incredible girl! You're the fastest horse I've ever ridden!"

Vivace neighs back sarcastically.

"I so too have ridden other horses! Ask Presto!"

Zilo rounds the second flag, but then from behind he spots the prince exiting an alley way directly from the east flag. His horse didn't look tired in the slightest. All Zilo could do was look forward and keep riding along the wall of the city.

"Gotta stick to the wide street, no way I can keep Vivace controlled in alleys like that."

Just as he had before, the bard rode his horse along the wider streets along the inner wall, but upon the third flag both he and the prince arrived at the same time. The prince had once again cut into alleyways with his more easily controlled steed, and it came down to an all out drag race back to the castle along the main road.

The prince and his horse let loose finally and began galloping at full speed and Zilo and Vivace sped along in turn. The prince's horse had been biding its way until this sprint, but Vivace was beginning to breath heavily from nonstop speeding around the whole city.

Zilo worried about his horse, as she began to slow and the prince started to pull ahead, but then Vivace gained a second wind and blasted forward ahead of the prince. She came to a screeching halt after re-entering the courtyard, nearly tossing Zilo from her back in the process.

Zilo looked to the horse, wondering where her latent energy had emerged from, only to look down and see Aria feeding the mare an apple. Aria had left the castle and quickly purchased an apple to coax the horse faster along the line and distract her from how tired she was.

Zilo hopped off the horse and Aria smugly smiled and asked, "How'd it go?"

Zilo answered her with only a kiss.

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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Master of Strings Ch83: Measuring Up

With a loss on the record, Zilo bowed to the crowd before waltzing back over to his side and the prince returned to his. Both Maldrek and Luther also returned. Leo gave Zilo a high five as the bard returned and said, "That was incredible!? I didn't know you could play the flute too!?"

"I can't. That was the first time in years, last time I tried was still back at the academy."

"Well the rust doesn't show." Said Maldrek clasping Zilo's shoulder.

Maldrek turns Zilo to him as the wizard glances over his shoulder toward Luther and Kranoc's discussion. Maldrek grins and says, "Now that they know you are a bard they are likely to be more careful, but I don't think there's a single thing they could best you at."

Zilo smiles and raises an eyebrow, "You planned for this huh?"

Maldrek shrugs with a smile and says, "Let's just say that during the meeting with the tutor there and I, he thought he was in control, but he didn't do enough research."

Maldrek's face shifts and he says, "I know we have the disadvantage, but it's the only way for us to beat the prince and stay, and if you crush him completely and definitively with the court watching, then people will accept the truth over the lie that Luther comes up with."

"Dev-yous," remarks Jin with a swig from his tail flask.

Zilo lowers his head and says, "But he is still the prince, are you sure embarrassing him is a good idea? You said we need the next king to still like us."

Maldrek motions to the castle, "That was before they let me into the royal library, with the amount of magic works in there I could be done with my research in a year or two, tops. We don't need it anymore, besides what is wrong with teaching him a bit of humility."

"I like it." Says Leo with a thumbs up. A royal guard approaches the group and speaks to Zilo, "The next challenge is ready. Second, back to your spot, duelist here you are." The guard bows and offers Zilo a sheathed and decorated rapier.

Maldrek returns, and Zilo grips onto the rapier and moves it about a bit to test it's weight. The prince back in the middle of the court unsheathes his own blade and whips it through the air a bit before vertically raising it between his eyes.  Zilo left his own blade, bow and pack with Aria and walks up to his mark and unsheathes his own rapier and aims it downward along parallel with his stance.

Luther shouts from the side, "The two of you will fight until one side yields or is unable to continue! Combatants ready! Set! Begin!"

The prince leaps in immediately with a lunge forcing Zilo to backpedal. As the assault comes, the prince boasts, "You may have hidden skill with music, but I've  never met a man able to best me in fencing."

Zilo flicks his own flexible blade to veer away the stabs from the opponent. The bard speaks back, "True the rapier isn't my preferred blade, but I'm no novice to a fight." Zilo feints allowing the prince to overextend toward Zilo, and the bard punished this mistake with a solid kick to the gut, knocking the prince to the ground.

The prince coughs and says, "*HACK* *sputter* that move is ill- *cough* Illegal!" Zilo looks at him perplexed then looking confused shouts over to the side toward the seconds, "I didn't hear you say I can't kick! Did I mishear!?

Luther goes to shout then Maldrek cuts him off, "Nope, wasn't stated, but just stick to using the blade!" Maldrek smiles at the tutor and says, "You should be more clear. After all, he's just a commoner."

The prince stood back up, and once he assumed his stance again Zilo darted in and returned the assault that the prince gave him. The prince similarly backed up to compensate, but he managed to turn the tide after a few steps. This went back and forth for a few moves before the prince advanced in again at Zilo with a heavy stab.

Zilo lowered his blade to his hip and leaned to the side narrowly avoiding the thrust toward his face. A small scratch was left on his cheek, but Zilo's counter was far more damaging. Zilo had angled his blade up as the prince advanced and managed to plant his blade's tip precisely into the prince's forearm, then as the prince had come closer it made the sharp blade ride along the prince's arm and render his sword arm utterly useless.

As the prince's lunge ended he lost his grip and his arm fell limp, blood beginning to fall to the stone. The prince was horrified, and unable to react from shock. The crowd gasped and Zilo quickly assessed the wound before spinning on a dime and cast Mage Hand over his violin to yank it from Aria. Zilo quickly played a note and cast a Cure Serious Wounds to make the arm good as new.

Zilo spun about, throwing his violin back at Aria and kicked away the prince's blade. He raised his own blade to his eye line across his body with the point leveled perfectly to the Adam's apple of the prince.

"Do you yield?" Asked Zilo.

In a yelp the prince carefully nodded. Once again the crowd cheered and the prince retrieved his blade. As he sheathed the blade the prince inquired, "Why heal me?"

"Would have taken the second too long to use the scroll. You'd have lost to much blood and then you'd have no chance in the next rounds from fatigue. I want to win these fairly." The bard sheathed his own rapier after flicking away the blood and then threw the blade back to the guard that gave it to him.

Before long the prince and Zilo were ready for the third challenge thanks to Zilos' quick action healing the prince. Similar to the last round, it was a challenge of weapon proficiency, only this one wouldn't be against the other duelist. This challenge was much more in Zilo's ability though than swordsmanship. This was in archery.

The two men squared up and some guards set up three targets about 50 Meters away, taking up the full distance of the courtyard. The crowd came to the duelists sides to not be down range.

Luther shouted from the side, "The Archers will receive 5 chances to hit the 3 targets, allowing for only two mistakes each. First the prince shall take his shots."

The prince squared up facing the targets and steadied his arrow, his eyes flick for a moment then he loosed his arrow. He did a similar action for each and his shots all tallied a bout a foot to the left of the bulls eyes. He had needed no re-shoots.

Zilo looked about nodding and took up his mark after the guard returned with the prince's arrows. Zilo's given bow felt less robust than Harmony, but it was still serviceable and as he flicked his eyes up at a castle's flag his eyes widened and his aim adjusted.

Zilo's shots were superb. His shots landed nearly on the bulls eyes, the prince's eyes widened and he looked to him, Zilo smiled and pointed to the flag saying, "You're good, your form and aim was flawless, better than mine, but you made a mistake. You accounted for the wind."

"We are outside its natural to do so!" Shouted back the prince.

"True enough, but look around, prince." The prince looked about and in a moment he looked up to the flag. The flag was a top a tower, fluttering, but the courtyard was enclosed with the stone walls to protect it.

Zilo shrugged and said, "You fought wind that wasn't there. Guess that makes it three to nil."

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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Master of Strings Ch82: Royal Rhapsody

Zilo, Maldrek, Aria, and Leo approached the center of the city of Deneval. The courtyard of the castle looked beautiful as the wind blew and the petals of the flowers in the garden danced along the wind. Surrounding the edges of the courtyard were dozens of humans, a few half-elves and even a dwarf or two stood watching as the bard approached. Along with the nobles were just as many guards eyeing up those entering the court.

Zilo and his other friends watched as Maldrek walked to the middle of the courtyard. Out of a group of the human nobility walked Luther Strain, royal tutor of the prince. Zilo's eyes then stared along the humans before finally settling on prince Kranoc.

The young man was dressed much more like his title would imply. His outfit was slim and well fitted with a overcoat of purple and rope embroidered golden weave. His slacks where the purest white and his boots stained purple to match his coat.

The prince stood firm and resolute, not looking to Zilo in the same fashion the bard looked to him. Aria squeezed Zilo's hand, grabbing his attention away from the prince. The fetchling looked at his apprentice as her hand squeezed, a note of both worry and disgust lay upon her face with her unerring gaze.

Zilo moved his hand to her chin and directed her gaze up at his face. The bard gave his light smile and said no words. She understood his meaning. They hadn't spoken much since their argument days ago, but as the two of them smiled the past seemed so distance that it mattered little.

Maldrek and Luther shook hands in the middle of the courtyard and both turned to their duelists, once Maldrek arrived Zilo asked, "So, what's the verdict?"

Maldrek smiled to the bard and said, "It's on, no peace I guess you get your wish." Zilo smiled back and then followed up with, "Fantastic, how is it to be done?" Maldrek handed Zilo a short list. The bard looked through it and rose his head.

"Which one?"

"All, One by one until 7 have gone by. If you lose even one then the prince wins it all."

Leo and Aria's expressions widened and Leo exclaimed, "That's crazy! Zilo has no chance then who would agree to-"

"And I thought this would be too easy." Smiled Zilo handing the list back to Maldrek. Maldrek nodded and said, "I figured you'd think so. They name the challenge as it comes."

"So what is up first?"

At that moment the prince waltzed forward and addressed the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen of the court. The first challenge shall be one that the lowborn, such as my opponent, can hopefully keep up with me in."

Maldrek spoke under his breath, "Just as planned." and the prince looked to one of his servants nearby and motioned him toward him. The servant picked up a case a bit more than 2 feet long, the perfect length for a short dueling blade.

"Zilo's an absolutely devastating swordsman, this will be easy." Remarked Leo, but then the prince undid the latch on the case and out he produced a flute which he held aloft as he looked to Zilo. Toward the side Luther and Maldrek walked to line up and place the scroll of Breath of Life.

Luther grinned and looked to Maldrek, "What instrument will your employee like for the duel of music?" Maldrek smiled and responded, "No need to worry, Zilo is already prepared."

Zilo spun forward and kicked up his leg, freeing his violin from it's spot hooked on his leg. His lift also loosed his bo from his right metal boot. With his spin he snatched both from the air and he came out of the spin with a bow.

The prince hesitated, but Zilo reminded him of the competition and waved his bo toward the prince. The prince shook his head and began to make the first performance. He was practiced and had talent no doubt, but he was stiff, learned in too formal of a way. His melodies had no passion, not flow or adaptability.

As a musician he was skilled much as Aria was, but to a bard like Zilo he was only an amateur. Zilo and the crowd gave a short round of claps to the man and then all looked to Zilo. the bard smiled and spun his bo about before resting it on his violin.

Zilo stood stock still much like the prince did. His playing seemed stunted, his whimsy and vigor absent. The man seemed to not even be making used of his ability for Bardic Performances. That all said, Zilo seemed to be presenting tunes just on the level of the prince.

Aria frowned and spoke, "He's holding back, he's not even dancing or ghost performing at all." She turned to Leo who was in thought since the start of the performance. She then looked over to Maldrek who simply was smiling next to Luther.

Leo finally spoke up and said, "I think he's trying to tie the match."

"Ye'd be right bout dat." Said a wobbling monkey man from behind them. They both turned to see Jin who hugged onto Leo's back to stay standing and said, "Sorry I'm late, long night. What I miss?"

"Forget that, what do you mean I'm right?" Jin gripped onto both Aria and Leo and with his drunken strength he forced them both closer into a huddle, "Zilo tells me he wants tah tie de match so dat Swords and Sworcery don't go down burnin."

Jin explains Zilo's reasoning to Leo as Aria turns to the match again to see Zilo beginning to finish his performance. The prince returned with another score and Zilo matches him piece for piece. The crowd seems torn. After both sides are finished The prince grins and speaks, "Well that was quick."

Zilo raises an eyebrow to which the prince says, "I've already won, if that is the best you've got then I've got this by default. Can't see what that girl there sees in you with such meager skills."

"But we are evenly matched!?" Shouts Zilo.

"Please, like the crown prince would be equal to a common tavern worker." The prince says with a dismissive shrug. Luther and Maldrek grab the crowds attention. Zilo can't hear what they are saying, as he is thinking over and over.

"HE'LL WIN!?"

"That's not right!"

"It has to be a tie!"

"Why do I lose for holding back!?"

"ZILO!" Shouts a voice from the sidelines. Zilo turns to see the voice is Maldrek's. The wizard crosses his arms and states, "You didn't hear a word of that did you?"

Zilo rubs the back of his head with an embarrassed smile. Maldrek smiles and restates, "To settle this you both get 1 more round, if you are evenly matched once more then the prince will be declared victor." Maldrek gave a curt nod and a smile, saying, "There will be no ties."

Zilo looked to his second, shocked, but nodded in response. The prince gave another performance, it was clear he put more into this one, but he was still stiff, and he hadn't been trained to make use of his passion, making a few notes fall to the side. Zilo breathed heavy as the prince finished.

In a flash Zilo made a darting motion over to the prince, throwing his own violin into the air as he did. Zilo was too quick for the prince to react and the bard kicked the flute into the air. The prince was frozen in shock and Luther began to look back to the nearby guards. Maldrek put a hand to the tutor's shoulder and said,

"Fear not he's not attacking the prince." Zilo snapped his hand up at his violin and let loose a Mage Hand to hold his violin in place in the air.

"Then what on earth is he doing!?" Zilo flipped back and snatched the flute out of the air and stood with his body loose and reach to move with his tunes.

Maldrek smiled and said, "He's performing."

Meanwhile in another realm at the table that held these characters the man in the hat with Zilo's sheet looks to the man known as Jones and says, "If Zilo's skill doesn't win this the song he plays will."

The man known as Jones raises an eyebrow and the man in the hat presses play on a song he found "Game of Thrones Theme (Flute/Violin)," the man known as Jones smiles and bites his lip.

Back at the duel Zilo waltzes to the epic melody. His violin plays to his waltz, moving with him as though they are dance partners. Zilo's foot work hits every tune, dancing and stomping to each tune, but his movements still move as though planned and part of the single performance. The stolen flute is the weakest part of the three simultaneous performances, but Zilo's skill with it puts the prince's formal practice to shame.

Zilo whips about and lightly tosses the flute back to the stunned, and frozen prince who barley manages to catch the flute. Luther and the rest of the crowd like the prince are speechless. Aria, Leo, Jin and Maldrek had to be the ones to begin the applause.

As the clapping and cheering die down Luther grimaces and speaks to the Tiefling, "What kind of tavern worker is your man, wizard?"

Maldrek looks to Luther with a smug smile and responds, "The Umbral Bard, Zilo Realms, Master of Strings."

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Master of Strings Ch81: The Apprentice

Two weeks of time pass with Maldrek taking plenty of time to gather research from the royal library, making huge strides in his studies. Zilo, back at their tavern, asked Maldrek at the beginning of the week about the duel that he was to take part in, but the only response Maldrek would give was,

"There will be a few challenges, nothing you can't handle, just relax."

Zilo would just shrug and took up his time assisting Aria with refining her awakened Bardic magic. She would hold her Violin and he would lecture.

"Now that you can feel instinctively how the world is put together, you need to reflect that with your playing. Before you played to hit the notes, right now, I want you to play something new, that you never played before."

"How am I to play what I don't know?"

"Trust me, just start with a lone note and reach for the next, see where the violin takes you."

Aria sighed, closed her eyes, and began to play a note as she warily and slowly played into the next. The playing was notably somber as a result, and Zilo stood and placed his hat on the table he was seated at. He then spoke, "When you feel ready, try keeping your eyes open and letting the playing be almost secondary. Focus on my hat instead."

Aria slowly began to stop focusing as heavily on the music and simply let her arms move, while the rest of her body focused on the hat. Zilo smiled and said, "Good, next I want you to imagine a hand and-"

Aria in that moment accidentally hit a sour note and all her focus immediately went back to her playing and she stopped listening, She panicked and fumbled until she dropped her violin from her shoulder. Zilo snatched it before it hit the ground and shook his head for a second before she spoke,

"I'm sorry."

"It's fine, I'm amazed you could even play without focusing on the music, that's not an easy thing to do."

They both took a seat,in the table's chairs. Aria snatched his hat and placed it back on his head while Zilo handed her back her Violin. Aria looked to Zilo's violin at the bard's hip and asked, "Can you show me how its meant to be done."

Zilo looked down to his case and a magic hand formed, unlocked the case and reached in. The ghost hand lifted up the Violin and along with a second hand it began to play. Zilo's eyes don't veer away from Aria, his hand just simply makes a few subtle movements and Zilo speaks Mage Hand to activate the spell.

"I'll show you, but I I'll warn you that this is my specialty and you won't pick up much. All bards learn how to focus on other things while performing. It's how I assist the others in fights while playing my music to lend a hand." Zilo's violin begins an inspiration quick paced series of notes to play as he continues to speak.

"Playing while doing other things is something you need to get good at. Watching me won't help as it's not a thing you get off of technique or hand placement, it's something you get off of practice until it is almost second nature, do you get me?"

Aria looks to the floating violin then back to her boyfriend and nods as she says, "I'll try, I just need to practice right?"

Zilo nods and responds, thinking back, "Right, Like how you dance while playing when we first met, I'm sure you practiced that to pull it off but I was just adapting to what you did on the fly. Try new dance routines without planning your playing for a few weeks, then we can touch base again."

Aria scrunches her eyebrows and says, "No insane tasks? Just practice this?"

"You've graduated past the requests, they were only to trigger your Prelude."

Aria's eyes widen and her mouth gapes before she stops to think and nods understandingly, "That makes so much sense now. You were getting me more adaptable." Zilo smiles and flicks his finger across her nose and says, "Right on the money, I knew my student was smart. Anyway I'm gonna head out and practice a bit with the blade and bow, I wanna make sure Maldrek's new gifts feel natural."

Zilo motions to his Necklace of Natural Armor, his Ring of Protection, and his Cloak of Resistance. He waved her goodbye and walked over to here Jin already training. but as he rounded the side of the building to begin practice on the dummies there Aria grabbed onto him from behind. Jin looked over and gave a quick drunken hoot to the couple.

Zilo smiled it off and asked Aria, "What's up? I forget something?"

"I was just wondering, when do you think Maldrek will let me in the field again?" Zilo froze and turned back to her as she let go, he bit his lip and said, "About that, Maldrek thinks it'd be a good call for you to just keep practicing being a bard for a bit.

Aria stood firm with her hands on her hips and said, "No way! Do you know how worried I am every time you head off into Dema knows where while I am stuck watching the bar, May or Leo is just as able to bar tend as me, heck even Clay is getting good enough.""

"It's not the bar that has us worried, it's what happened last time, when we fought the goblinoids you were a liability."

"ME! You almost died!"

Zilo shook his head and said, "You aren't wrong, but still I can heal, you can't, please."

"Then teach me to heal." Zilo grabs her by the shoulders and says, "That's what I'm saying. I'll teach you to be a bard then you can go."

Aria crosses her arms, turns, and responds, "Fine then."

"Fine." Says Zilo as he turns in a similar fashion. Aria heads back inside Zilo is left with Jin. Jin giggles and asks, "Trouble at home?"

Zilo motions to the bar and says, "Can't she see I'm trying to protect her, She's not like the rest of us yet, she might get herself killed."

"You ain't wrong, but she don't see it dat way, She wants tah protect ya."

"I can protect myself."

"Physically and magically sure, but ya aren't de wisest of people."

Zilo begins practicing with his blade as he says, "I'm not?"

"Not by a mile, ya got a royal to hate ya, dat's not a place ya wanna to be."

"No big deal, It's not like I'm going to kill him, Maldrek said it won't be to the death."

"Dat's not the point, ya are carrying all of us and our fates here Zilo, ya gotta be careful here."

"Yeah I know Maldrek told me as much, if I beat him the business goes down, so I have an easy answer to that."

"What's dat?"

Zilo flows from strike to strike trying to let his new cloak avoid the blade and he continues. "The way I see it. If I win the kingdom hates us. If I throw the match then the prince will be even angrier and Aria might think even worse of me for not fighting for her. So I really only have one option.

Jin tilts his head as Zilo speaks with a grin, "I gotta make it a tie."

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Saturday, April 6, 2019

Master of Strings Ch80: Terms

Maldrek sat in his office, working on the next Ring of Protection for his employees. he was just about finished when Clay came to the door and knocked.

"Who is it?"

"Its me papa, that man you talked about is here."

"Show him in Clay, guests are to be respected."

"Okay."

Clay opened the door and guided the man in with his free hand before letting the door close and getting back to helping Aria with the bar. Maldrek offers the man a firm handshake and motions for him to sit in the client's chair.

The man is dressed in an elegant waistcoat of purple with frilly white and embroidered in gold along with matching purple pants and boots of white painted leather. He looks to around the age of 40 or so with minor amounts of grey streaks blending into his slicked back and tied off black hair. he has the face of a man of culture with wistful, uninterested, but intelligent brown eyes.

The man introduced himself during the handshake saying, "Luther Strain, royal tutor to his majesty, Prince Kranoc."

"Maldrek, CEO of Swords and Sorcery Inc. 'You pay'em we slay'em. Please have a seat." Luther raises an eyebrow as Maldrek in his monotone manner recites the company's motto before he turns and sits. Maldrek starts off the meeting saying,

"Thank you for contacting us so readily, makes this far easier to discuss this."

"It is only polite as the Prince has told me that he was a bit out of line that night."

Maldrek's eyes widen, he didn't expect that the Prince's side would give the first concession. It mattered little as Maldrek prepared with heavy breath and said, "In hopes to settle this quickly, my man Zilo wishes to apologize and avoid a duel."

Luther smiles and widens his hands. His eyes don't seem to flinch or move from their half closed condescending position as he speaks, "Fantastic news, the Prince doesn't wish an altercation either."

Maldrek smiles, rises, and motions out to the door, "Well this was easier than expected, can we get you a drink for your accommodating manner?" Luther places his hand up and motions for Maldrek to remain seated before speaking again, "Please we now have to discuss terms of the apology, after all there was still a fair amount of disrespect shown to the prince."

Maldrek sighs and sits back down, "Very well what is to be done then."

Luther motions around the office and says, "You see as you may have guessed the Prince was walking among the commoners the night of the altercation without his retainer's knowledge"

"That would explain his bland attire." Says Maldrek thinking back to the time 3 nights ago.

"Precisely, I was the one to recommend the outfit, as a Prince out drinking and making a fool of himself wouldn't be proper. However, he let it slip that he was royal, and that is an issue, as it cannot be known that the future of the kingdom made a faux pas."

Maldrek squinted, "What are you getting at?"

"Quite simply we need to ensure you all don't speak of that night"

Maldrek's eyes shoot open in fear as he quickly glances to his spellbook to the side of his desk. Luther notices and quickly waves his hand toward the wizard and says, "No, No, No. Not like that. My apologizes, we do not wish to do things as your sort would."

"My 'sort?'" Maldrek asked indignantly. Luther in response pointed to his temples and Maldrek remembers his horns from his devilish ancestry. Maldrek crosses his arms at the comment before saying, "Well for the record, my 'sort' make deals all the time, and we are very good at keeping them."

Luther waves down the air and continues, "I'm sure, I'm sure, but you must understand my position. I am the one the prince has trusted to ensure he keeps his record clean in this matter without having to resort to bloodshed, and I cannot take the risk of you all just keeping your word."

"If we don't keep it then you'd be able to exact punishment for it, I don't fear it as I know it won't come to that."

"Then there is the issue of why the crown decides to punish a local business owner out of the blue. People will ask questions, scandals theorized, blackmails are sent in the post. Can't have any of that happening." Maldrek eyes go firm before he grits his teeth and growls at the man,

"Cut your rambling and tell me what you want of us." Luther smiles and says, "You leave."

"Leave?"

"The kingdom, any rumors you can spread matter little that way, they would simply be attributed to propaganda and slander against a foreign ruler, a common enough issue to deal with."

Maldrek is shocked, speaking, "I'm... I... What!?"

"It is the best way I can see to handle this." Luther says with a shrug.

Maldrek rises and shouts, "The Prince hurts his bum leaving my bar and you think the most peaceful solution is to deport us!?

"Watch your tone, Tiefling." Says Luther like a cold toned mother scolding a child. Maldrek calms and sits with a quieter but still upset voice. "These terms are undo-able, some of my people here have lived here their entire lives. We have done nothing but good for the public and the kingdom while we've worked here. As the King, give him my name he will tell you what we have done for him."

Luther's face doesn't flinch before he says, "I do not represent the King, I represent the Prince. He wishes this problem to disappear. As his second I must do as he wills. That is how these problems are settled."

Luther swings his arm around slowly and lays it out, "If these terms are not agreeable then we may move to discussing terms for the duel-"

Maldrek sits and stops before saying, "Fine then lets-"

"-To the death." Cuts back in Luther. The statement throws Maldrek's rhythm away yet again. Luther smiles as he sees Maldrek flinch.

"As the seconds we set the terms for the duels, I want a duel to the death between Zilo and the Prince. Or you apologize and leave the country." Maldrek places his mouth to his face, thinking.

"I kid of course." Maldrek lets out another heavy breath. Luther continues, "But you seem a smart man Maldrek, you have to be aware that defeating the Prince, even in a nonlethal duel will not go over well with the populous. It is a new land or a destroyed business whichever way you look at it."

Maldrek looks to the man, his face hadn't broke the entire meeting and he held not just Zilo or Maldrek, but the entire company over a pit. Maldrek focused a moment then he heard Zilo's violin from the main room. He must have returned from his side job of removing a small band of monsters from a nearby farm.

Maldrek had his response. A gamble that would not only solve the problem, but make it into a gain.

"I can't come out empty from this, so I will make you another offer Luther. One that can earn your prince both reputation, and remove us from the country."

Luther's eyebrow raises, "What do you speak of?"

"Forgive me, but I am unfamiliar with the customs of your people's duels, but what we discuss in this room is for our ears only, correct. Even our duelist need not know?"

"You are correct, what do you play at?"

"Then we will bet on our men."

"I hold all the cards, why would I?"

"You pick the challenge."

"What?"

Maldrek leans in and explains, "I know that should the duel happen then we discuss the form of the challenge. I will allow you to name the challenge, we need not even know what they are until the day of the duel. In fact I will sweeten the deal."

Luther's face stoically takes in the entire proposal, "There need not be just one challenge, make it 3, 5, 10, as many as you and the Prince like, and your Prince need only win one of them."

Luther rubs his chin and after thinking it over he smiles, "I think I get your meaning here Maldrek, but confirm my thoughts, how does this remove you from the rumor mill?"

"If Zilo loses, we leave the country. If against all odds he wins, I want my butt covered with Zilo. So we don't leave, but also the Prince will admit his fault and clear him of wrong doing, that should keep my man none the wiser."

Luther's smile widens and he says, "This seems rather perfect for me and mine, but why offer this instead of leaving now?"

"I'm sure you may be able to tell, but I am a wizard."

"Explains your tome there."

"Yes, I'm here in this city to research magic and improve myself, and I must admit, I have already cleaned the city's library dry. However, the royal tutor would have full access to the royal library if I'm not mistaken."

Luther leans back, "I see, you want to hand me victory, but have a chance to go beyond your means for your trouble."

Maldrek shrugs before Luther stands, "Dastardly, throwing a man to the wolves and leaving like that. A shame you're leaving, you'd do well in the royal courts."

Maldrek rises as well and bows. "My 'sort' has a habit of making losing deals, since I came into this one losing, may as well try and get a win out of it."

Maldrek rises back up and shakes Luther's hand. Luther remarks, "I'll put together the challenges in exactly 2 weeks time, the duel or shall I say duels will take place at noon in the courtyard of the Deneval Castle."

"Showing off for the court?"

"Absolutely, until you are forced to leave the country I will inform the library to allow you access."

"That is more than enough time for me."

The two men smile to each other and simultaneously say with full honesty on both sides, "Pleasure rigging this fight with you."

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