Friday, February 14, 2020

Valentine's Day Special: Beauty and the Bard {Tiria}

Ok, so this is not actually a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but I was stuck for a title, so there you go. Anyway. For Valentine's Day, my D&D players requested that I write a short story about how two of the romantically-involved NPCs, Lady Tiria Serys (aka the chief quest-giver) and Ardent the bard (aka Bardent), met. (They all ship this couple to some degree or another. It's great and makes me SO PROUD.) Since I was already planning to write a Valentine's Day short story, I happily complied . . . and then, because I'm an overachiever, I decided to write two versions of the story, one from each perspective. You'll find Lady Serys's side of things here, and you can hop over to my other blog to get Ardent's version. (They're more different than you'd expect.) Hopefully, this will be reasonably enjoyable even for people who aren't in my D&D campaign.

Beauty and the Bard: Tiria's Story

Sometimes, Tiria wondered if elves thought humans had exceptionally dull hearing or if they knew and simply didn’t care.

All that afternoon — ever since she arrived in Kerath, honestly — the stares and whispers had followed her. She’d thought perhaps the gala this afternoon would be an escape. It was meant to be in her honor, after all, a welcome to the newest member of the ruling nobility in Croishaid. But if anything, the tide of hushed voices behind her back had swelled. And even with a group of court bards working their calming spells and songs, she felt the mingled shame and frustration bubbling and ready to burst.

She glanced up to see a trio of elven nobles bent together, staring at her. As she did, they hastily straightened up, spreading smiles over their faces as if to hide the fact that they’d been gossiping a moment before. Tiria’s grip tightened on her glass. A year ago, those same people had offered her sympathy on her father’s failing health and congratulated her on how bravely and faithfully she tended to him and the duties he could not attend. Yet now, when she only sought to carry on his legacy, they stared at her. Scorned her.

She couldn’t take this anymore. She set down the cup on the tray of a passing servant, spun, and hurried into the relative privacy of the hedge maze that surrounded the celebration pavilion. She felt the stares following her, and her emotions swelled as she passed out of range of the bards’ spells. What had changed between a year ago and now?

Foolish question. She knew what had happened. Her father — by adoption, not blood, but no less true for all that — had finally succumbed to a long, devastating illness and joined the Divine in the heavens. And she had turned from a perceived charity project taken a bit far to a ruling noble without a bloodline or heritage. To the elves of Kerath, she was a wild card; to the other human nobles, she was an interloper. And so they gossiped. They looked for rumors to discredit her. And false as she knew most of those rumors were, that didn’t stop them from stinging.

The music faded into the distance, and Tiria stopped and sank onto a bench to compose herself. Her shoulder shook with barely-contained frustration and anger. She shouldn’t have left, she knew. She should have stayed. Departing only fed the whispers. Only showed that they held power over her. But, calming spells or not, she didn’t think she could have held out much longer. Not with the things they’d said about her father, her mother. Not with her grief a mere four-months raw.

Deep breaths, Tiria. She shut her eyes and focused on that. On the in-and-out of every breath. Divine help me, will this be my life forever? Perhaps she should never have agreed when her father told her that he wanted her to be his heir, not just his daughter, back when the illness was new.

Jaunty music invaded her bubble of calm. Tiria’s eyes popped open, and she stiffened, looking in the direction of the sound. A moment later, a man rounded the corner, plucking the strings of a lute and humming, a pensive look on his face. He looked like the people of the Errance court — dark-haired and dark-eyed and copper-skinned. But his formal finery was gold and green, the colors of no nation, and he wore no symbol pinned to his tunic or short cape. One of the hired bards, then, or some adventurer friend of Lord and Lady Kerath.

“What are you doing here?” The words came out more snappish-sounding than Tiria intended. “The party is back there.”

He stopped walking, though not playing. “So I’m aware, oh lovely lady. But they have musicians enough there already. If I did not wander this maze, who would provide fine music for pretty ladies like yourself?” He smiled, then — audacity! — winked.

“Perhaps I do not prefer music just now.” With effort, Tiria schooled her expression into her best imitation of Lord and Lady Kerath’s imperious stares. “If I did, I should not be here, listening to your playing.”

“Ah, you wound me!” He did not look particularly wounded. “A poem, then? Or an epic tale? Or perhaps simply conversation? It’s hardly right that a lady like yourself should be left alone in distress.”

“And how do you know I am in distress?”  Tiria snapped. “Sir bard, if you are lost, the party is down this path. And if you are not, and you will not leave, then I shall.” With that, she picked up her skirts, brushed past the bard, and hurried deeper into the maze.

All she wanted was to be left alone. All she wanted was for one person to look at her as they had before she was Lady Serys, not Lady Tiria. Was that so much to ask?


A hum of conversation filled the teahouse as Tiria entered, her servants and guards stripping off from her at the door. A dark-haired young woman greeted her with a bow and escorted her to one of the low tables that filled the room, assuring her that tea would be out in the moment and inquiring if anyone would be joining her.

Tiria shook her head mutely, already aware of the sideways glances of the noble and wealthy sitting at some of the other tables. There were fewer of those than there had been last week — that was some blessing. Perhaps with time, all would accept that, regardless of her parentage, she’d been given this position fairly. Perhaps she could eventually earn their true respect. Eventually.

As she waited for her tea to be brought out, she studied the teahouse. A dozen delicate scents flowed through the air, pulled from cups and pots on round tables and trays. Elves, gnomes, and halflings dressed in pale blues, greens, and pinks wove through the tables, checking on guests. Eventually, her eye was drawn to the chairs in the corner set out for musicians. Though the quiet string piece suggested a quartet at least, only one bard sat there, strumming a lute. He seemed somehow familiar, dark-haired and smiling . . .

Tiria frowned as she placed him. The bard from the party. The rude one. Well, not rude, perhaps. But he had been a bit overly set on keeping her company when she just wanted to be alone.
The bard looked in her direction, met her eye. Tiria felt her cheeks redden as she realized she’d been caught staring now. She hastily looked away — because, of course, she had to make it even more obvious. Wonderful work, Tiria. Wonderful.

The tea tray arrived: a blown glass teapot, a wirework basket of leaves, a delicate teacup, a plate of fruit, teacakes, and such. The woman who’d brought it delicately placed the basket in the pot and poured boiling water into it from a second pot, this one metal with the telltale runes of a heat spell inscribed along its base. Tiria watched; she’d been told that the experience of coming here was half the pleasure, but for all the care and ritual, it still seemed like nothing more than a pot of tea and a plate of sweets.

The woman bowed and departed. Tiria picked up a strawberry and nibbled at it distractedly. She should have found someone to come with her. She was the only one here eating alone. Foolish, that it bothered her. Six months ago, even six days ago, it wouldn’t have. She’d have rejoiced in time to herself. Now the lack of a person — a friend, an ally, even an opponent — across from her felt as shameful as if she’d walked out without half her clothes on.

The music changed, shifting to another gentle, elegant tune. Tiria tensed — this was one of the most common songs used for a calming spell — but no suppressing blanket settled over her mind.
“Pardon me, my lady, but you seem to be drinking alone. Is that true, or might I be able to remedy that?”

Tiria looked up. There was the bard standing by her table, his lute on his shoulder and a smile on his face. “You again?”

“Indeed. I fear we started off on the wrong foot last time we met.” He bowed. “My name is Ardent, as in, ‘ardent admirer of your beauty.’ And your name, my lady?”

Ardent. The name, coupled with the face, seemed familiar for some reason. Or perhaps he had mentioned it the other day and she’d forgotten. “T- Serys.” Would she ever get used to introducing herself as her country first and her own self second? “Tiria Serys.”

“An honor to meet you, Lady Serys. I have heard about you — all good things, of course.” He gestured to the empty chair across from her. “So, may I join you?”

“If you must.”  Tiria raised an eyebrow at him the way her father so often had at her when she was younger and more foolish. “I would think you had work to do.”

“As you may see, my lady, I am on break and can think of no better way to spend it than speaking with a noble woman such as yourself.” The bard sat, stretching his legs in front of him with one knee crossed over the other. “I apologize for the other day. I thought to help, but instead forced myself upon you.”

“Your apology is accepted.” Tiria sipped her tea, watching the bard’s hands. The thought that he might be an assassin who wanted to poison her tea had just crossed her mind. “But — you force yourself upon me today instead?”

“I did ask today. You could easily have said no, or this bard is annoying me; someone call the guard and have him hauled off to a jail cell. I’m told that’s a perk of being nobility.” The bard grinned cheekily at her. “I quite appreciate your not taking advantage of that particular power just yet.”

“Yet.” Tiria took another sip of tea, then picked up a teacake from the tray. She nudged the tray towards the bard. “So why approach me again?”

The bard took a lemon teacake and broke it in half thoughtfully. “I enjoy making friends. And I thought perhaps you could use one, if you would give me the time of day.” He glanced over at her. “If I may say so, my lady, I’ve heard the whispers. I’ve seen the looks. It’s not an easy thing to suddenly find yourself the target of every gossip-monger and evil-eyed old noble in the city, let alone half the continent.”

“It isn’t, no.” The words slipped out before Tiria could stop them. She stiffened, pulled her reserve back together. What was she thinking? Being so open with a stranger? “And how would you know about that?”

“I’m a bard, my lady. It comes with the territory.” He sighed. “And I’ve caught my share of scorn for other reasons as well.”

A green-clad server approached the table carrying another cup and pot of tea. She set it down on the bard’s side of the table. “Your tea, sir.”

“Thank you,” the bard said, then, once the server moved off, he looked at Tiria. “Does my memory deceive me, my lady, or do I fail to recall your ordering tea for me?”

“I didn’t. You didn’t order it?”

“No.” The bard opened the lid of the teapot and sniffed the steam. He wrinkled his nose, made a few brief motions, muttered something. In response, the steam rising from the pot turned green. “Poisoned, as I thought. Do you happen to see the Ladies Errance anywhere about?”

Tiria scanned the teashop. “I see Lady Morrigan Errance just over there.” She nodded towards the far side of the tearoom, where the red-haired woman sat with a dark-haired man — Tareth Errance, Tiria was fairly sure, Morrigan’s husband of six months.

“Ah.” Ardent sighed. “That’s a pity. It seems that would be my cue to leave.” He stood and bowed. “Thank you for letting me share your time, my lady. I hope we’ll meet again sometime.”

“I imagine we will. You seem to have a knack for it.” Tiria watched him head for the door, eyes narrowed. What would Morrigan Errance care about a simple bard? He wasn’t bad enough to have offended her musical sensibilities, nor did he seem the type to have impugned upon the younger Lady Errance’s honor. Was he just putting on airs to impress her, making out that he’d gotten poisoned tea?

Maybe. Or perhaps . . . Tiria took another sip of her own tea. She needed a distraction from the whispers. A bit of research into the current generation of Errances would be just the thing.


The bard found Tiria again three days later, as she stood at the edge of Lord and Lady Kerath’s great hall, watching the dancers spin and step their way through an Elvish triavima. Without taking her gaze off the dance, Tiria addressed the bard. “I expected you would be away by now.”

“I had some business to finish. And I did hope I would be find a way to run into you one last time.” He stepped forward, into her field of vision, and bowed, offering his hand. “Will you deign to dance with a lowly bard, Lady Serys?”

“Wait until the next dance, unless you wish to have to drag me along.” Tiria shook her head wryly. “I don’t think the elves who invented this dance designed it for humans to participate in.”

“True. They didn’t consider that some people bounce rather than floating.” The bard laughed.

Tiria glanced at him, trying to decide whether to ask her question now or later. Later. When we’re on the floor. That will be safer.

They stood in silence until the dance ended a few minutes later and a waltz began. Then, the bard took Tiria’s hand and led her onto the floor. As they took their positions, Tiria said, “You know, after our last meeting, I began wondering why Lady Morrigan would bother trying to poison you. At first, I thought it was simply an odd way of putting on airs. But then I realized that you’d never told me your last name.”

“So I didn’t.” The bard nodded. “And that made you draw another conclusion?”

“That made me do research to refresh my memory. I had forgotten that Lady Morrigan had a brother. He disappeared three years ago, just after completing two years after the Bardic Academy here in Kerath City.” Tiria stepped into a turn. As she came back around, she looked Ardent in the eye. “It’s rather bold of you to use your own name when you’re in hiding, isn’t it?”

“I should have known you’d figure it out. You’re far too brilliant not to.” Ardent grinned sheepishly. “I admit that it would be wise to leave my name behind entirely, but I’m rather attached to it. Usually, I manage to vanish into the hills within a day or two of my sister’s arrival in any city, before she can make another attempt to secure her place as heir. But this time, I had something I wanted to do that I thought was worth the risk.”

“Oh? And what was that?” Tiria raised an eyebrow at him.

“Meeting you again, my lady.” He gave her a dazzling smile. “And it has, indeed, been worth the risk.”

Risking his life simply to meet her. That was odd. Almost unnerving. But . . . not necessarily a bad thing. Not when he’d shown no ill intentions towards her all this time. “I’m honored. And now that you have, in fact, met me on three occasions, what do you intend to do?”

“Depart again — as soon as this event ends, in fact. Much as I wish I could remain longer, I suspect that an extended stay would put others in danger — you included. Morri is, unfortunately, quite ruthless.” Ardent sighed. “It’s the wilderness for a week or two at least after this. After that, who knows? It’s a wanderer’s life for me.”

“I see.” The music began to draw to a close. Tiria took a deep breath. Before she could think too much about it, she said, “If you ever happen to be in Serys City and in need of a place to stay, a good bard is always welcome in my hall.”

Ardent blinked, staring as if someone had just dropped a dragon’s hoard before him and told him it was all his. “My lady . . .” He recovered, a smile spreading back across his face. “Thank you. Shall I take that as an indication that I haven’t offended you too much these past few meetings?”

“You’ve been a friendly face among too many hostile stares, even if you do have a habit of pushing your way into others’ business. Even at home, I can use another ally and friend.” Tiria quirked a smile “Should I expect to see you sometime, then?”

“Undoubtedly.” The dance ended, and Ardent bowed low, brushing his lips over the back of Tiria’s hand. “Thank you, Lady Serys. Goodbye for now.”

“Goodbye, Ardent. Until we meet again.”

Well, there you have it. What did you think of the story? Would you be interested in hearing more stories from the world of my campaign? Please tell me in the comments!
Happy Valentine's Day, and thanks for reading!
-Sarah Pennington

Friday, February 7, 2020

Elements That Make (or Break) a World

Hey'a, everyone! It is February, and that means it's Fantasy Month in the bit of the blogosphere that Jenelle Schmidt influences, including this blog! This year's themes are Worldbuilding and Fantasy Creatures, so most of my Friday 5s posts this month will align with one of those two things, or at least with the general Fantasy Month theme in general. And today, we're talking about worldbuilding elements that really make (or sometimes break) a world for me. These range from the big and mostly-obvious to the small and easily overlooked, but they're all things that, if done well, will take a world to the next level (in my opinion).

Also, on a side note, I'm still taking requests for a Valentine's Day short story over on my author Facebook page. I'm open to suggestions involving almost any character or couple from a story or book I've previously published or shared about in a book or blog, along with a situation or prompt of some kind. So, if you have requests, leave them in the comments on that post. Or, if you don't like FB, you can leave them on this post.

February is Fantasy Month:
Elements That Make (or Break) a World

  1. Language. I don't mean "inventing a whole new language," though if you can do that well, that's great. I'm talking about how people talk, the expressions and exclamations and slang and references they use. Besides setting the world apart from Earth, it tells you a lot about the culture of a particular location and what they value as opposed to other countries in that world. Also, because these expressions usually reference the lore of the world, they help keep significant figures in view and show you the impact those figures have had on particular cultures. Just as an example, you can look at the exclamations in the Tales of Goldstone Wood — in particular, comparing those used in Heartless, Dragonwitch, and Golden Daughter. In Heartless, of course, you have a great deal of "Dragon's teeth!" and "Dragons eat you!" (For those curious: that's where I got it from.) In Dragonwitch, which is set in the same country but significantly earlier, you tend to get "Dragons blast you" — similar, but slightly different. (At least, if I recall correctly you do.) But then in Golden Daughter, you have basically no mention of dragons in the exclamations. Instead, people tend to refer to Lume (who may have had a different name; but same idea). Why? For one thing, Lume is a significant figure in their culture, but more significantly, they don't have experience with dragons (which makes the events of the book even more significant).
  2. Lore. Ok, so obviously this one is important. You have to have legendary figures for your heroes to look up to. And you need to have a history of your world. But making that lore believable can be tricky; it has to be more than stories told by a bard or legends lost to time. The deciding factor? How people reference it and how it affects present events. Everyone isn't going to know every piece of lore perfectly well, and some people will have differing views, recollections, or interpretations of events. (On a side note, fantasy academia — like, real academia — makes me happy. Sanderson does this really well in the Stormlight Archive. You have Jasnah's research, of course, but you also get a lot of it in Oathbringer, even including a lot of research and scholarly debate snippets in the epigraphs, and it's awesome.) And those differing views will have effects on the current culture; a person regarded as a hero by one country may be considered the villain by another.
  3. Religion. Ok, this one is really hard to get right, and I fully acknowledge that I also don't do the best job of it. But I really appreciate it when fantasy authors put thought into the religions of their worlds instead of having a vague psuedo-Christianity or vaguer psuedo-paganism. If nothing else, put a name to the being that people are worshipping — but better still is when authors give an idea of how those beings are worshipped. Hilari Bell, author of the Knight and Rogue series, does a pretty fair job of this — she has two specific deities revered by the people, and she gives us an idea of some of the celebrations, rituals, and so forth involved in that. I'll also mention Leigh Bardugo and her Grishaverse books here. She doesn't always do an amazing job here — I'm still a bit confused about what the pumpernickel Ravka's spiritual situation is supposed to be — but the Six of Crows duology handles it a bit better, as you have two groups (the Djel and the people of Ketterdam) who acknowledge a deity and live in a way that's affected by that deity.
  4. Clothing, especially unique clothing. Speaking of the Grishaverse: I have read all the published books in this storyworld and I still have no idea what a kefta looks like, other than the fact that certain colors have certain significance, it's at least sometimes made of wool, and it can be low-cut. Beyond that, who knows? And that's an example of something that pulled me out of the story a little the first several times I encountered it. Contrast that with Sanderson and the clothing in Roshar. We have a few significant types of clothing in this world, most notably the havah. And in this case, I do have some idea of what it is because Sanderson gives us the essential elements (dress, formfitting upper, left hand covered) in the text, while also acknowledging variation in the styles. It's a small detail, but it helps make the world a little more real and tells me something about the culture. That said, even just acknowledging colors of garments can have an impact — Jill Williamson does this in various ways in the Blood of Kings series.
  5. Money. Which, as I was just discussing with Jenelle last night, next to no fantasy author actually pays a whole lot of attention to. That's kind of odd, but I don't do any better — we all tend to write characters who are utterly broke and wandering around the woods or who are so wealthy that money doesn't matter. As per the usual, Sanderson is the exception and actually does have reasonably explicit money systems in Scadrial and Roshar (not surprising in the former case, since it starts off with a heist). Interestingly, if I recall correctly, Hilari Bell also did a pretty solid job of this — again, not surprising since one of the characters is a former thief used to stretching his funds as much as they'll go.
Is it possible to make a great world that I'll genuinely want to visit without including all, or even any, of these elements? Of course. (I mean, the world of Howl's Moving Castle includes next to none of these until you get to the sequels, and Ingary is still one of the top worlds I'd like to have an extended stay in.) But they do go a long way towards making a good world really great.
What do you think? What elements of worldbuilding would you say make the most difference in making or breaking a world? Any Valentine's Day story requests? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)