Jason had not been mistaken when he said that Amelia’s voice would be a great addition to the ensemble. He had not counted on her harp as well, often joking that he had hired two musicians for the price of one. News of the red-haired harpist with the silvery tones raced ahead of them, and the taverns they played were packed with curious crowds wanting to hear and see what all the fuss was about. The troupe played a concert, moved on to the next town and played another. Occasionally there were idle days in between, but the musicians didn’t like to stay in one place too long. It cost money for accommodations and that was still one thing that was constantly in short supply. However, if they had no pressing need to travel, Jason gladly accepted the many requests to play at weddings or other celebrations. The extra coins were most welcome if it meant riding in a carriage rather than a wagon or staying in an inn instead of a hay loft.
When they had too much time between performances, a few of them would busk in the village square and collect coins in their hats or instrument cases. Thus they were able to buy food and pay for lodgings. But there never seemed to be enough food. Amelia soon understood why her fellow musicians were so thin and noticed that her own cheeks were becoming gaunt and her clothes roomier. Victor didn’t have to “uglify” her as much; the rigours of the road were doing it on their own.
However, Amelia continued having nightmares. She would awake crying or struggling against invisible bonds, panting and perspiring. Frederick was always there with soothing words and a kiss on the forehead to ease her back to sleep, but one night she woke up in a cold sweat, weeping uncontrollably
When he first entered her she felt a sharp pain which was followed by an intensity that made the soles of her feet tingle. As they began moving together, Amelia whispered, “Kiss me!” Frederick obediently pressed his mouth against hers and they entwined tongues while the motion of their hips brought them both to climax. She cried out at the sudden sensations of pleasure and release and wrapped her legs around Frederick’s, holding him deep inside her. When they both relaxed, she snuggled into the crook of his arm and fell asleep with her head on his chest. He stroked her hair and whispered, “Sweet dreams, dear one.” When they awoke in the morning, he was still holding her.
After they became lovers, Amelia’s nightmares lessened. She still had them, but not with the frequency or intensity as before, and was rarely wakened by them now. Instead she felt an inner peace unlike anything she had experienced before. Frederick was not only her lover and musical companion, he also became her best friend. They talked for hours into the night, and she told him about Lorenzo and her grandmother and the life she had lived before running away from her village. In turn he talked about himself, how he was sent to live with relatives in town after he recovered from the illness which had rendered him blind, and given an old harp to play as a way to amuse himself. When he showed an aptitude for the instrument, his uncle found him a music tutor.
“He was retired, quite aged, looking to pick up a few coins by teaching, else my uncle wouldn’t have been able to afford him,” said Frederick. “I think his eyes were barely better than mine, for he made a lot of mistakes placing my fingers on the strings.”
Amelia giggled as she imagined the near-blind teaching the blind. “But he must have had some talent as a teacher,” she offered.
“Oh, yes,” averred Frederick. “He loved music and recognized that I had a passing affinity for the instrument. I think he liked me, too, for he used to come around and tutor me in other things. He wasn’t completely unable to see, and he would read to me from his favourite books. Else I believe I would be completely ignorant.”
“Did you never go to school?” asked Amelia.
“No. None of my brothers or sisters did. I don’t believe my parents could read, even. I remember Master Philip scratching the alphabet in pieces of wood for me to trace with my finger, and that’s how I learned my letters. He quite took me under his wing, for which I think my uncle and aunt were grateful.”
“Were you lonely, separated from your family?” Amelia asked, thinking of her parents and wondering if they missed her.
Frederick sighed. “I did not miss my parents. I barely knew them, really, and they always seemed to be so disappointed in me because I was so useless to them. But I missed my younger sister, Belle. She had always been my favourite.” He fell silent and Amelia waited until she thought he may have fallen asleep. “I still miss her,” he finally said.
“Where are your brothers and sisters now?” asked Amelia. “Are they still on the farm?”
“Some probably are,” answered Frederick. “But Belle married and moved to town and would come to visit me at my uncle’s. I was already playing in a local troupe in one of the taverns, so I was more or less earning my keep, which is why I hadn’t been thrown out on the streets yet. Otherwise I’m sure Belle would have taken me in.” Again he lapsed into silence.
“And?” Amelia prompted.
“I’m sorry,” said Frederick. “I haven’t spoken of this for a long time and it’s still difficult. Belle died in childbirth with her first baby.”
It was Amelia’s turn to offer comfort now. She pulled Frederick close to her and kissed him, tasting the salt of his tears.
“I’m so sorry, love,” she murmured as she held him.
Besides playing his instrument, everyone in the troupe other duties. Jason took care of the finances, booking concerts and making travel arrangements. He also ran the rehearsals and chose the repertoire, somehow finding time to write arrangements and compose his own tunes as well. Amelia marvelled that he never seemed to run out of energy. Victor and Conrad were the musicians’ publicists. As soon as they arrived in a new town, the two set off together to spread the word to ensure an audience. Amelia suspected this involved visiting several taverns, but the brothers never seemed drunk when they returned from their sorties. They treated Amelia like a younger sister, and she was not surprised to learn that they had several sisters at home. They were happy to regale her with stories of their family, and especially tell extravagant tales about each other as boys. Amelia was sure the brothers exaggerated their escapades just to laugh at her shocked expressions.
Alex was the one troupe member with whom Amelia felt least comfortable. He had not welcomed her into the ensemble with open arms, as the others had, nor did he try to make her feel at home as they did. When she and Frederick invited him to rehearse with them, he demurred, saying he had to meet someone or rest, and sometimes during performances he would continue singing the lead melody when it had been arranged beforehand that Amelia would take a solo. When Jason asked him about it afterward, he would claim that he had forgotten. But it happened often, and Amelia suspected his memory was not all that bad.
Alex always had one eye out for pretty girls in their audiences. He was extremely handsome with an easy manner that put the girls he approached at ease. Amelia noticed that he would often disappear immediately after a performance with a woman and reappear at breakfast, looking like the stork who’d caught the biggest frog. Sometimes she caught him staring at her with a speculative expression and made sure she was never alone with him, instinctively not trusting him, even though he had never said or done anything to give her alarm. Quite the contrary; he seemed to avoid conversation with her and generally gave her a wide berth.
However, she had noticed that recently he had been hovering near, looking for opportunities to talk to her alone. One day, as they were gathering up their gear after a rehearsal, Alex pulled Amelia aside.
“What do you want, Alex?” she asked, hoping to get away and join Frederick for a nap before supper.
He herded her toward the wall, away from the others, and said in a low voice, “Amelia, why don’t you ever spend any time with me?” He lifted her chin up with his left index finger and looked into her flawless face. “I could show you a really good time,” he oozed, and slid his right hand up from her waist to cup her breast as he bent to kiss her lips.
Amelia could not move back, she was already pinned against the wall. She could not slip out sideways for he had hemmed her in. In an outrush of anger, she put both her hands against his chest and pushed. “Let me be!” she yelled.
Alex spun around as Jason put his hand on the handsome man’s shoulder. “What’s going on here, Amelia?” he asked. The girl was trembling with rage, her eyes blazing and her teeth bared. “Alex?”
Alex pulled away from Jason and sputtered, “Look at her! She’s gorgeous! And she’s with Frederick who can’t see what he’s got in front of him! It’s not fair!”
Frederick faced Amelia’s attacker, looking right at him with his clear blue yes. “I can see what’s important,” he said in a dangerous voice, “and right now I see a rat in the granary.”
Jason put a restraining hand on his friend’s arm and stared at his guitarist for a long moment, a hard look in his eye. Then he said quietly, “Alex, you’ve been with me for a long time. You’re not a bad musician and I’ve put up with your womanizing without saying anything, but this is going too far. Amelia is a member of our troupe. If she is with Frederick, it is her choice. If you can’t respect that, then there is no room for you here. We can do without a guitarist. You are free to find work elsewhere,” and he held out his hand to Amelia, who gratefully took it, and stepped away from Alex. She could tell by the set of his jaw that Jason had come perilously close to punching the other man, who was rubbing his chin as though he had, in fact, received a blow.
“Right now? I’m not to play tonight’s show?” Alex called after him.
Jason did not respond. He merely continued walking away. Amelia rushed to Frederick, who held her as she shivered in his embrace. Alex looked at Conrad and Victor, but they would not meet his gaze. He quickly packed his things and left with one last, dagger-filled look at Amelia encircled by Frederick’s arms. The tavern door slammed shut after he shouldered his way out.
Jason turned back to face the remaining musicians, who were standing in shocked silence. “No one here plays the guitar, do they?” he asked. The others didn’t answer. “No, I thought not. Amelia, Frederick, can you incorporate some of the guitar parts into your own playing? We can improvise until I write some new arrangements. We’re still going to put on a great show tonight!”
The performance that night was tense. The musicians were put on the spot to fill their erstwhile companion’s place, and Amelia looked out into the audience with a nervous eye lest he return and make trouble for them or, specifically, for her. Once she thought she saw him at the back of the crowded tavern, drinking a large tankard of ale, but then she thought she must have been mistaken. At any rate, he didn’t harass them that evening.
After Alex’s departure, Jason visibly relaxed. Amelia found out through conversation with Frederick and the two brothers that Alex had been a wild card in the group for a long time, and Jason was always worried they would have to make a speedy exit from town when the fathers or brothers or husbands of the women the guitarist brought back to his room caught on to his lecherous ways. He had also been worried about Amelia’s presence in the group, although he had been relieved when it was obvious that she and Frederick were a couple. That still hadn’t deterred Alex from trying to seduce the red-haired singer, though. At first Amelia thought it was her fault that they had lost him, but Jason adamantly said, “No, it was mine. I should have kept a better eye on him. Besides, we don’t really need him now that we have you. Good riddance to bad rubbish!”
They continued on their tour. Victor became quite adept at camouflaging Amelia’s good looks. He experimented with small scars and moles. Once he painted a very realistic-look
Jason had to rearrange all their music without guitar now, and Amelia’s knowledge of notation allowed her to assist with the preparation of parts. She taught the others the songs she had learned from her grandmother and Jason started incorporating them into their set lists. She also tried to arrange a few of the more classical pieces she had played with Lorenzo, and found that some were suited to their ensemble. Jason encouraged her to improvise and then write her own tunes. She found it exhilarating and deeply satisfying when she made her own arrangement of an original song and the group played it in concert to shouts of “bravo!” and “encore!” from the audience.