Lilies hung about the market square, tied up with black cloth, hanging their heads and weeping white petals onto the cobblestones.
Pushing his hair back, Liam shaded his eyes from the midsummer sun. “That doesn’t look good,” he muttered.
The wagon rattled over the cobblestones, jostling the players as the wooden wheels hopped across the ruts. As they reached the center of the square, two of the three other players squinted and looked up. Fergal tugged on the reins. The oxen came to a stop between the well and a thrashed wooden platform. Upon the platform, the city’s pillory silhouetted against the late-afternoon sky. Glaring through three holes like an imprisoned sun reaching out for mercy, white-gold sunlight ignited a headache between Liam’s brows.
Sweat drizzled down the groove of his spine as Liam scanned the square. He sighed and shook his head. They had ridden into Cynegil in high hopes for an audience. The men had consumed the rest of the food that morning, while striking camp.
“What happened?” Fergal asked as he looked about the square. “Who died?”
The flowers hung from every pole and lintel. Limp and translucent, they had not yet curled up and browned. They were no older than a day. The strips of black cloth hung straight down, stagnant in the hot and humid air. Lilies everywhere except the pillory. Nothing beautiful ever hung from the pillory.
Hamish tugged on Fergal’s long, auburn braid. “Go find out, Beautiful,” he said, then propped his palms on the rails of the wagon and vaulted down onto the ground.
Fergal tilted his head back and gave Hamish a look of disdain. “Stop calling me that.” He tossed the reins over into Liam’s lap. Fergal climbed down from the wagon in a much daintier manner than Hamish did, scooting over to the edge of the seat then dropping one foot to the ground as if testing its stability. He lit onto the cobblestones and brushed his hands off against his thighs. Flipping his braid over his shoulder, he started to walk away.
“Wait,” said Hamish, and Fergal stopped. Hamish rummaged through the props in the bed of the wagon and pulled out a voluminous scarlet garment. “Put on your gown.”
“Right. Good idea.” Fergal tugged his dusty tunic over his head. His slender, pale chest glared back in the sunlight. Hamish had suggested exercises to expand his chest muscles and fill out the gown a bit, but Fergal worried those would also expand his shoulders. Sliding the gown over his head, he shimmied beneath it until his head emerged from the neckline and his hands passed through the cuffs. The full skirts nestled down around his breeches.
Hamish released a low whistle, earning another glare from Fergal. Holding his skirts up over his boots, Fergal skipped off into the square.
“Liam.” Hamish shoved at Liam’s side. “Liam. Here, do something while you just sit there.”
Liam looked away from the lilies and blinked sunspots out of his vision. Feeling the neck of his lute press into his palm, he wrapped his hand around it and settled the instrument on his lap. He strummed the lute a few times. The southern humidity had not slackened the sinew much. Good. Strings were expensive.
He picked out “Faire Laird Findlay,” as he had done daily on the road. The troupe’s most popular tune, he had memorized it long ago. Liam no longer needed to watch the strings, or even listen to the song, to play it flawlessly.
Hamish spread his muscled arms and observed the market square. “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Do you see any other players here? I surely don’t.” He turned and dipped into an exaggerated bow, waggling his eyebrows at a young peasant woman. Dark stubble stenciled his jaw as he gave her his chiseled smile.
“They’re in mourning,” Liam said as he glanced back down at the lute strings. His fingers had become chapped and callused. Maybe they could stay in the city awhile, and he would not have to dig so many fire pits. He needed good hands to earn his money.
“For who?” Hamish demanded, but didn’t wait for the answer. “Some noble. Well, we just won’t expect any nobles at our performances for a few weeks. Peasants don’t have to observe mourning periods unless the king died.”
Frowning, Liam glanced back up at the lilies then at the growing crowd. Burghers wandered into the market square, pointing and smiling at the gaily-painted wagon and the players in their bright costumes. Reaching a pause in the song, Liam tugged on the long liripipe tail of his hood, pulling it from his light brown hair. He flashed a quick smile at the crowd then returned to his song. Finishing “Faire Laird Findlay” with a flourished strum on the strings, he nodded his thanks as the growing crowd clapped and cheered.
Last year, the troupe had played for King Amergin’s court for two months, earning enough money to buy food for three seasons. This year, they couldn’t afford to patch their their costumes. Hamish needed a sum more than the rest of them did, just for the shaves and haircuts that kept him looking like the dashing hero he played.
Hamish swaggered back over to the wagon and pounded his fist on the side. The pile of costumes shifted and groaned. Hamish pounded again. “We’re here,” he said as he yanked aside another of Fergal’s colorful gowns.
Kieran cursed and brought a stubby hand up to cover his eyes.
“Don’t you think we should wait to find out who died?” Liam asked, watching more burghers wander into the square from their shops and market stalls. Children skipped around the wagon, watching him with wide eyes. Liam ran his fingertips along his tongue to moisten the ragged edges, then plucked out a spry planxty. As the little children clapped and danced around, clasping their pudgy hands as they turned circles, Liam broke into a grin.
“I’m sure we’re fine,” Hamish insisted as he leaned over the wagon railing and hefted crates down onto the cobblestones. “You worry like a little girl.” He shuffled through the props still in the cart, tossing them about and hitting Kieran with obvious intent. Kieran grumbled and sat up, shaking his shaggy, trollish head.
“Am I the only one excited to be back in Cynegil?” Hamish demanded. “Look, Liam. You saw the fields between here and Kylemore. The grapes are fat. The fields are so full of wheat that you can’t see a vole if it’s right in front of your face. Once the nobles are out of mourning, they’ll pay us, and they’ll pay us well. We can stay here.”
There was no dissuading him. There never was. Hamish’s view of reality only included what he allowed himself to see, what he allowed himself to become. A city in mourning sat before them, but all Hamish saw was a city of tile roofs and marble statues.
Dropping another crate on the street, Hamish leaned back, flexed his shoulders, and sighed. “It’s nice to see stone again. We’ll be prosperous this year.”
Peasants lived in wattle and daub, willows woven together and crammed with mud then topped with bundles of straw thatch. From Kylemore to Cynegil, nobles built their estates out of blocks of sandstone, multi-roomed houses with tile roofs. Smoke curled out of real chimneys as goat roasted in hearths set into the walls. Ladies stitched tapestries in their private chambers. Lords entertained sycophants in great halls.
“Players!” Hamish called out. “A penny for a song, a tuppence for an act!” He turned to the same peasant girl, who dallied beside the cart and watched him work. “For you, cailín, I’ll sing for free.” She giggled nervously. Hamish’s persona had long ago bloated his ego.
For all the gaiety, the fake jewels dangling from Fergal’s ears and the stylish edge of Hamish’s haircuts, the players only knew comfort when they entered a noble’s hall. Until the nobles ended their mourning period, the players would sleep on the street.
“Cynegil,” Hamish gushed. He leaned against the wagon and drew in a deep breath. “I missed- Damn, what is that smell?”
“Growth,” Liam said. “The city gets bigger each year we come.” He finished his song and set his lute aside, though the audience complained. Dropping down from the wagon, he led the oxen over to the weathered platform and tied the reins around one of the stout wooden legs. The pillory, Cynegil’s favorite device of public punishment, loomed over him.
Kieran pulled the pins from the wagon and the sides clattered down to extend the bed of the wagon into a platform. Liam thrust tall poles into holes in the wagon then hung lanterns from them. Right before the pillory, they changed the wagon into a stage. Guildsmen stopped working to watch. Kieran tossed some of Fergal’s scarves over the frame, splashing the funereal square with gaiety.
“That’s not big enough. We can do better.” Hamish ripped down one of Fergal’s scarves. “Move the wagon behind this, to hang the backdrop.” He vaulted up onto the platform and draped the scarf over the two boards of the pillory, hiding the three holes.
“Ai, damnu air,” Liam muttered. “You’re setting up the stage on that?” The man had stones to try that.
In response, Hamish gave him a cocky grin and leapt down to retrieve more props. “It’ll fetch their attention.”
Fergal’s scarlet gown flared among the drab peasants. As Liam took up his lute once again, Fergal picked up his skirts and ran toward them.
“Wait,” Fergal cried out, “Stop! We can’t play.”
The other three players froze as Fergal ran up to the wagon.
“The king died!”