Lex Talionis

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Early March, 1636


Marla Linder stopped. "What's that?" Her head tilted to one side.

"What?" her husband Franz Sylwester said. He moved a couple of steps past her in the snow, then stopped and looked back. "What?"

Marla turned slowly, head still tilted, almost as if she was hunting something. After a few moments, she stopped. "That," she said, pointing toward a nearby door.

Franz gave her an ‘are you jesting' look. "That's Walcha's Coffee Shop."

"Not that." She looked at him from under lowered eyebrows. "The music."

That caused Franz to close his mouth on the statement that was about to come out of it, and listen. After a moment, he could hear what Marla had evidently heard with no problems—a faint sound of guitar or lute music, apparently wafting out of Walcha's Coffee Shop. At that exact moment, the door opened for a patron of the shop to exit, and the music also escaped in larger volume. He still couldn't tell if it was guitar or lute, but whatever it was, it was being played by someone with at least some level of skill.

"I think I hear a cup of chocolate calling my name," Franz said with a grin.

"Ditto for a cup of coffee." Marla shivered. "C'mon."

Franz opened the door and ducked through the doorway after Marla entered. Walcha's was about half-full . . . not unusual for early afternoon. Anna the server waved at them after she set an order on a table, and Georg looked over his shoulder and grinned at them as he poured water into a coffee maker.

Franz waved back, but his attention was immediately drawn to the side of the room. Marla was drifting in that direction, and he followed. They settled at a table for two near where a man's head was bent over a down-time vihuela as he played it. At least, Franz assumed it was a man; legs were clad in trousers, shoulder-length disheveled hair hung about his downturned face, and large knobby-knuckled hands stuck out beyond short cuffs and moved so smoothly as to almost be caressing the instrument. Franz didn't recognize the music, but he did recognize the talent and craft. This was no tyro. For a street musician, this was rare skill.

Marla was focused on the performer with her usual intensity, so when Anna came by Franz just murmured, "The usual." Anna responded by mouthing "Coffee and chocolate?" That got a nod from Franz before he turned his own attention back to the music.

The music didn't sound much like a structured piece. But about the time their drinks arrived, Franz decided it wasn't just idle doodling, either. So he sat and sipped his chocolate, listening to the musician but watching his wife. Marla was leaning forward a bit in her chair, eyes focused on the player, head slightly tilted to one side. Franz recognized this; this was her "acquisitive" mode, where something had attracted her attention, and she studied it intensively. He'd seen it before, especially with music. And he was glad to see it now, as it was one more sign that she was getting over and moving beyond the trauma and loss of the miscarriage of their daughter Alison back in October.

The music shifted, and Franz realized that what he was hearing was an improvisation, an extended variation on a theme. His own interest rose, and he became as focused as Marla, setting his cup down and resting his arms on the table.

The player's fingers began to move faster, bringing forth ripples of melody, of moving lines and parallel sounds, of brightness, evoking images of flowing water. Fingers danced, notes followed, up and down the neck of the vihuela, until a final ripple flowed up the neck to end with a single clear high tone singing from the last plucked string.

Still almost crouched over the vihuela, the player sat motionless for a long moment, until the last resonance of that last note faded from the air. Then the tension fled his body, and he slumped to the extent that it looked for a moment as if he would slide out of the chair. But then he took a deep breath, rested the butt end of the vihuela on his left thigh, leaned the neck of it against his shoulder, and wiped his hair out of his face with his right hand. A couple of the patrons tossed coins into a hat on the table as they walked out.

Marla started clapping. The performer's head jerked around toward her, eyes widened, obviously startled, maybe even a bit alarmed. Franz felt that was a bit odd. Most performers welcomed applause. But there, the man was relaxing, so maybe it was just surprise.

Now that he had a clear look at the man, Franz found himself a bit startled. The visage facing him was heavily lined, with a network of wrinkles, for all that the hair surrounding the face was uniformly dark. This was not a young man; not by anyone's standards. Which might explain the skill that had been demonstrated.

Marla stopped her applause. The player embraced his instrument and inclined head and shoulders toward her. "My thanks, Frau . . ."

"I'm Marla Linder, and this is my husband Franz Sylwester."

Franz's mouth quirked as the player's eyes got very wide and round again. "Not . . . the Marla Linder?"

Marla's eyebrows rose, and she looked over at Franz. "Is there another Marla Linder in Magdeburg?"

Franz grinned. "I believe you're the only one, dear heart."

She looked back at the player, and Franz could hear the laughter in her voice as she said, "Well, if I'm not the Marla Linder, I'm as good as you're going to get here in Magdeburg. There doesn't seem to be another one around. And you are . . ."

Franz couldn't see how the man's eyes could have gotten any wider, but it seemed to happen nonetheless. "I . . . uh . . . my name is Karl." He swallowed. "Karl Tralles."

Anna came by, and Franz pointed to their near-empty cups and at Karl. She nodded and moved on.

"Well, Karl," Marla continued, "you play a mean guitar."

Franz had to chuckle at the expression that came on Karl's face. "She's an up-timer," he interjected. "They have some unusual figures of speech. She means you play your instrument very well. Where are you from?"

"Ha . . . Hamburg," Karl replied, still hugging his vihuela.

"Cool." Marla beamed at Karl. "I don't think we've got anyone from Hamburg in our group, do we?" She looked at Franz.

He shook his head. "A couple from Hannover, but no one from Hamburg."

Anna arrived with their drinks, which inserted a moment of break. Tralles started to push his cup away, but before he could say anything, Franz said, "I'm buying. Drink up." He smiled, and it seemed to put the other man more at ease, as he relaxed his stranglehold on his vihuela and lifted his cup to his lips. When he lowered it, Franz almost laughed at the sight of a bit of chocolate foam on his upper lip.

After burying his laugh in his own mug of chocolate, Franz picked up the thread of conversation. "That was a nice piece you just played. Yours or someone else's?"

"Oh, I didn't write that," Karl protested. "That started as a violin solo piece by Master Johann Schop, the best composer in Hamburg." His eyebrows lowered for a moment, as if thinking, then went back to normal. "In that part of the Germanies, for that matter."

"Schop, Schop," Marla repeated. "Don't think I've heard of him. We need to see if Master Schütz knows him."

"I heard of him when I was in Mainz," Franz replied. "We never played anything by him, though."

"He does very nice work for strings," Tralles said. "Anyway, I learned the piece while I was a violinist in the city players, then started trying to adapt it for the vihuela."

"You play violin?" Marla said, then snorted. "That was silly of me. You just said you did. I think what I meant to say was, are you as good with the violin as you are with that?" She pointed at the vihuela.

"I used to be better," Tralles said. "Somewhat out of practice now. But I love the vihuela more."

"Why?" Franz asked.

"I can get more voices than I can with a violin, even with a slack bow, never mind an Italian-style bow. The most I can get on a violin is three. I can get four or more on the vihuela, so it makes more complex music, more voices, more layers and complexity." A grin appeared on his face that lit it up. "I love that."

"True," Franz said with a nod, "but if that's your desire, why not an organ, or even a clavier?"

"Or piano," Marla added.

"Hard to carry on your back," Tralles' grin reappeared.

"Also true." Franz responded in kind. "So why are you here in Magdeburg?"

Tralles grimaced. "Hamburg got a new Kappellmeister, and . . ." He said nothing more, but Franz could read the rest of the story in his face. The new music leader had booted Tralles from the band of musicians for whatever reason—maybe his age—and he was left with no place, and being a musician, doubtless had little money.

"And so you came here?" Marla asked quietly.

Tralles nodded. After a moment, he found his voice again. "And so I came to Magdeburg. After hearing the stories of the music, after hearing the Trommler record of Do You Hear the People Sing, where else would I go?" He looked at Marla. "But I didn't expect to meet you . . . or at least, not like this."

"What did you expect?" Marla grinned at him.

"To see you in palaces, in mansions, in fancy carriages driving by. Not walking the streets or sitting in . . ." He looked around. ". . . coffee shops."

Marla laughed, silver voice flashing above the background noise of mingled conversations around them. "Oh, Karl, you set too high a standard for me. I'm just another musician. I walk in the same mud and slush and snow and dirt you walk in. I eat the same food and drink the same wine as you do. I have to please patrons just like you do."

Franz's eyebrows twitched for a moment as he saw Tralles waver in his chair. It dawned on him it was quite possible that the man hadn't eaten well in a long time. He looked around, saw Anna by Georg's counter, stood and made his way there.

"You need something, Franz?" Georg said.

"You have any soup today, and some plain bread?"

"Ja, some cabbage soup and both wheat and barley rolls."

"Three bowls of the soup, then and three wheat rolls. Our friend hasn't eaten in awhile."

"Ah. Say no more."

Franz returned to the table and listened as Marla and Tralles discussed the stringing and tuning of the vihuela. As he suspected, four courses of paired octave strings; common enough in the down-time. Luthiers had yet to standardize on the six-string guitar model, although Franz suspected that the samples of up-time instruments that came back through the Ring of Fire would speed that process up. He listened, sipping on his cooling chocolate, as they talked about that very thing. Marla's brother had played guitar, so she was more than familiar with the history of the instrument.

"You need to go to Grantville," she said as Anna appeared with a tray, "and spend some time with Atwood Cochran. He'll show you the modern designs and teach you the techniques to play them." Anna started setting bowls of soup out and small plates with rolls. Tralles looked confused and started to push his away.

"Eat it," Franz said, picking up his spoon. "You need it."

"I can't pay for it."

"I'm buying. Eat it."

Now Tralles looked distressed. "I can't pay you back."

"You don't have to. And before you tell me that you can't take it, the up-timers have this concept called paying it forward, where if you get help from someone today but can't pay them back right away, you just give similar help to someone who needs it in the future. There were those who fed me in my poorest days. I'm paying it forward today. You'll do it for someone else before long." Marla nodded as she took her spoon in hand.

Tralles didn't look convinced, but took up his spoon and began eating. It took some little while, as he spooned the soup up slowly and with care, pausing to take small bites of the roll which he chewed thoroughly. That spoke of previous experience with being undernourished. On the one hand, Franz was glad to see him not gorge himself to the point of triggering the inevitable vomiting. On the other hand, he was sorry that Tralles had had the experiences that had taught him that self-control. It was no fun to be brought to that point of hunger.

"So where are you staying tonight, Karl?" Marla asked.

He ducked his head for a moment. "They said I could sleep here tonight if I played for the patrons this evening."

"Take them up on it," Franz advised. "They're good people, and they'll let you stay a night or two. But you'll have to develop some other places to play as well."

"Try The Green Horse Tavern," Marla said. "It's just down the street here. Tell Ernst, the owner, that I sent you. He should give you at least a couple of nights to perform, and maybe let you sleep in the common room after everyone leaves at night."

Tralles nodded. "Thank you, Frau Linder."

"Call me Marla," she said with a smile. She pushed back her sleeve and looked at her watch. "We need to be someplace else."

Franz stood. "Leave word here where you will be," he said to Tralles. "We'll catch up with you."

"Good luck," Marla said. She patted Tralles on the shoulder, then led the way out. Franz lifted a hand in farewell, and followed his wife. He could hear the music again as he stepped through the door.

Half a block down the street, Marla muttered, "I really don't care for cabbage soup."

Franz chuckled. "It's good for you, and it was all they had. And if we were going to get him to eat it . . ."

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About David Carrico

David 2013-03-03 small

David Carrico made his first professional SF sale to The Grantville Gazette e-magazine in 2004. His stories have also appeared in the Grantville Gazette and Ring of Fire anthologies from Baen Books and in Jim Baen’s Universe e-magazine. Baen Books has published a story collection by David entitled 1635: Music and Murder, and two novels written in collaboration with Eric Flint: 1636: The Devil’s Opera, and The Span of Empire, which was nominated for the 2017 Dragon Award for Best Military SF or Fantasy novel. David is currently working on a solo project.