Stage fright consumed me and I peered through the curtain, fist clenching my lute. Nervous sweat trickled down my hair as Bobo, regular as clockwork, fell on his arse. I barely noticed that something had been said to me until it was repeated with greater force. Blinking stupidly, I looked around.
"Now," the young squire growled. He stood before me, unduly muscular, with angular features emphasizing his dark skin, and decorated with the kind of goatee young men have because they can’t grow hair anywhere else on their face yet. "His Grace does not wish to wait. He requires your presence immediately."
"There must be some mistake," I mumbled. "I have to perform in a few moments."
He and his fellow squire exchanged a glance that said "musicians" in a wholly disparaging way. I opened my mouth to explain, but they grabbed me and pulled me aside. The subject was not open to debate.
"Look, you have the wrong guy," I stammered while being dragged away. "I have to go! I am scheduled to perform as soon as Bobo and Spanks finish their act ..."
Emerging from the backstage area, we meandered through the crowd of drinking, stinking patrons who were busy drowning their sorrows with similar wretches, pinching waiters and waitresses, and laughing at the antics on the stage.
"Oh Bobo, you’re sooooooo stupid!"
Consequently, no one paid much attention as we made our way past tables packed tighter than a Galanthian slave ship. My escorts stayed close to my side, but were polite enough to make it seem as if they simply happened to be going in the same direction as I was.
Boris, the owner of the Five Lions, looked up and raised his bushy eyebrows as I passed. His moustache twisted in frustration and his mug slammed onto the bar. I shifted my eyes to the two guards with me and Boris backed away, watching me suspiciously.
Bobo and Spanks’ routine continued on unabated. I knew that in a few moments, Bobo would be hit by the slapstick -- two long, thin boards held together at one end and open at the far end, which make a loud crack when applied to an appropriate posterior but which didn’t really hurt at all. Slowing my pace, I glanced over my shoulder.
The squires, surprised, spun around to stare at the stage as I ducked under a table. Frantically crawling past jutted knees and slopping through spilled beer, I squirmed my way towards the rear, my lute strapped to my back scraping against the undersides of the tables. The shouts of the squires followed soon behind as I scrambled to a half crouch and tried to sprint between two long tables filled with smelly sailors.
"Stop that bard!" Smallbeard yelled and a hand reached down to grab at my shirt. I dove under a neighboring table, slamming into the legs. It collapsed immediately, drenching me in a variety of intoxicating liquors as the table’s occupants sprang upright or fell backwards in their seats.
The clamor from the crowd drowned out Bobo and Spanks as everyone shouted at once, "What’s going on?"
"Maybe it’s an escaped convict!"
"Is there a reward?"
The word ’reward’ was all anyone heard, and the patrons spun around trying to locate the object of the reward, grabbing anyone who looked like a possible escaped convict and turning aside all available furniture to discover the whereabouts of the prize.
Quickly pulling myself up, I leapt onto the nearest table and started traversing the room, crossing stepping-stones over a river of spilled beer. "A reward! A great reward!" I shouted over the din, waving my arms enthusiastically. "There he goes now, out the door!"
There came a scramble of arms and legs as bodies lunged towards the front in order to catch the villain. I navigated towards the rear the best I could, knowing the back door waited for me.
Crossing the last table brought me to a quick halt as Smallbeard loomed ahead. Leaning across, he held out his sword and raised an eyebrow threateningly.
I paused for an instant, considered, and then took a careful step backwards. The now unbalanced table fell under my weight as the other end rose up to catch Squire Smallbeard under the chin with a satisfying thud. I jumped aside, not looking to see how he was, and dashed for the backstage area.
I had only run a few feet before mysterious words bellowed behind me and I fell to my face. Strange how my first thought was relief that I had not broken my lute.
I couldn’t move a muscle, not even my eyes, and so had no idea what was happening. Wildly trying to conceive of an escape plan, I was interrupted by suddenly being flipped over. I found myself staring into the eyes of the other squire.
"You’ve been a very naughty boy, Terin Ostler," she said.