With my third novel, Prince of Malorn, ready to publish by the middle of May, I'm conducting a series of "interviews" with my characters. This one is the sixth. Enjoy!
I meet with Arden the minstrel in the cozy sitting room of his little cottage near the edge of the city of Sazellia. He holds a stringed instrument that looks like a cross between a harp and a small guitar, idly stroking the strings and playing random little tunes while we talk.
“I’m sorry the furniture is a little dusty,” he apologizes as I take a seat. “I’m not actually here very often. I have a room in the palace, and lately it’s been so much more convenient to just stay there almost all the time, what with everything going on.” I assure him that I don’t mind a little dust, and pull out my list of questions.
Tell me about your family.
“Well, I grew up with my parents and four sisters. They were all quite a bit older than I and weren’t interested in playing with a little boy, so I spent most of my time reading and making up stories of my own. My father served on the king’s palace guard, and I think he had hoped his only son would follow in his footsteps. But I wasn’t the least interested in learning to fight, and I’ve always hated weapons. I still don’t know how to wield a sword – that is, I know just enough to write vivid battle scenes in my songs and stories, but I have no interest in learning the skill myself. Instead, I learned music from my grandfather. He not only played the malute, he made malutes for a living, and as a boy, I loved to spend time in his workshop. I’ve enjoyed music and stories for as long as I can remember, and the malute seemed the perfect way to bring both together.”
Arden smiles fondly at the instrument on his lap. “Grandfather paid me to help out in his workshop after school, and at first I just ran errands and swept the floor. But gradually he began to teach me how to use his tools – I wasn’t interested in them for their own sake, but I wanted a malute of my own so badly I was willing to do anything to get one. We spent months working on it, a little at a time, and he guided me through every step in the process.” Arden smiles again, remembering. “I learned more patience and attention to detail at that time than ever before or since. Everything had to be perfect. If I made the tiniest mistake that couldn’t be corrected, we threw the piece of wood into the fire and started again. But in the end, my malute was perfect, and it’s lasted me all these years.” He gives the strings a loving thrum.
I understand that you knew the late King Kerman back when he was still a prince. How did you meet him?
“I mentioned that my father was a guard. He once saved the king’s life when angry citizens were rioting in protest of a controversial new tax law. Afterward the grateful king told my father to name his reward, and Father asked if his son could be educated in the palace along with the prince. I was thirteen at the time, painfully shy and small for my age. Combine that with my complete lack of skill in mathematics and the sciences, and you can see why school was unpleasant for me in the first place. The thought of switching to a new school was agonizing, let alone a tiny one where the other pupils would all be royalty or the sons and daughters of nobles. But my parents were determined to seize the opportunity and secure the best possible future for me, and I had no choice.”
Arden chuckles. “I can still remember how terrified I was that first day, walking into the palace schoolroom where Prince Kerman and five of his noble-blooded peers sat around a massive oak table. They were all around my age, but every one of them was taller than I, and much more intelligent and good looking, at least in my teenage mind. They had known each other all their lives, and I was the newcomer, the odd one out.”
He pauses, lost in the memory, and his fingers wander over the strings of his malute. The tune he plucks out feels awkward, reluctant, much like the scene he is describing.
“The prince welcomed me courteously,” he goes on, “but at first I knew they were all laughing at me behind my back. I was hopelessly far behind the rest of them in so many areas, I’m surprised the teacher put up with my being there at all. Sometimes he assigned us work to do in twos or threes, and no one ever wanted to be partnered with me because they would usually end up having to explain the concepts to me all over again. It didn’t help that I daydreamed in class – there were just so many more exciting places for my mind to be than in that room. But soon as I found out I was allowed to visit the palace library, and that made it all bearable. I used to go there every afternoon after lessons were over and read books until my father got off of work. I always brought my malute with me, and if no one else was in the room, I would pull it out and play as I read. I never could hear a good story without imagining how it would sound put to music, so I would make up my own little tunes to go with what I was reading. Sometimes I would rewrite a scene in rhyme and turn it into a song.
“One day in class I was assigned to give a speech about the history of Malorn’s Western Wilderness. I dreaded the thought of standing up and speaking in front of my noble-blooded classmates, but at the same time, history was one subject I excelled in. It’s full of so many interesting stories, and the Western Wilderness has seen far more than its share of battles and noble adventure. My classmates had all been making speeches about the different regions of Malorn over the last few days, and most of them had been dreadfully boring. It was a tragedy, considering that most of the events they described were quite exciting, or they could have been if they had been told about properly.
“So, as nervous as I was about taking my turn, I was determined to do the history of the Western Wilderness justice. The class was surprised when I took up my malute, and I’m certain they had never before heard a speech like the one I gave. I had prepared it in a style that was a mixture of a poem, a story, and a chant with musical accompaniment. I’d worked hard for several days on the music, creating a tune that was fast-paced in the exciting parts and slow and sad for the scenes when I described death and desolation. I heard some snickers as I began, but it didn’t take long before the class quieted and I had everyone’s full attention. I knew I was doing it right when I heard them gasp at all the right moments and chuckle once or twice where I put in some humor; and I saw tears in a few people’s eyes in the tragic scenes.
“When I had finished, even the teacher was speechless for a long moment. Then Prince Kerman rose to his feet and began to applaud, and everything changed after that. Nobody laughed behind my back anymore or looked at me as though I didn’t fit in. From that time on, the teacher let me do a good many of my assignments in the form of poetry or songs; I found out years later that the prince took him aside and asked him to. He also requested that I provide part of the musical entertainment at his birthday celebration the next month, and when that went well, my confidence increased immensely. I started getting invited to social events and asked to perform for many of them. The prince loved a good story, and the two of us had a real connection from then on. But more than that, I appreciated his kindness; he was the first person who made me feel that I had actual talent instead of just a hobby that took my attention away from my schoolwork.”
Arden chuckles. “I’m sure that was a much longer answer than you wanted, but it’s hard for me not to turn everything into a story.”
What is your idea of success?
A dreamy smile crosses the minstrel’s face. “A perfect poem, every word just right, married to the perfect melody. One where every note, every pause, infuses the words with a depth of meaning they never could have achieved on their own. And a rapt audience, breathless, in tears, on the edge of their seats, their minds so intertwined with the song they scarcely know any other reality, the malute strings binding them to the world the instrument and I have created.”
Have you ever been in love? How did that work out?
Arden doesn’t answer right away. His eyes are distant and his fingers dance softly over the strings of his malute. “It was a long time ago,” he replies finally. “Prince Kerman had begun to show special interest in one of our classmates, Aleris, and romance was developing between several of the others as well. I suppose something was in the air that spring; I fell head over heels in love with a girl who lived in my parents’ neighborhood. Jiana and I had known each other for years, but suddenly everything was different. I composed dozens of romantic poems for her, mostly on the back of my parchment during mathematics lessons, much to the entertainment of my classmates when the teacher confiscated them and read them aloud. She and I were married the day after I finished school.”
The music he is playing grows dreamier. “We moved into this cottage with the help of money I been earning performing at city and palace events. We were young, and life was perfect. Just perfect. Neither of us had ever imagined it was possible to be so blissfully happy. Looking back, that was by far the most wonderful period of my life, but it didn’t last.”
His fingers move more slowly, and the tune he is playing grows so sad that I find myself blinking back tears. “Jiana died of a fever less than a year after our wedding. I was devastated; I felt as though my world had ended. I spent most of my days in the graveyard, weeping and composing sad songs. Prince Kerman, who was married by that time too, was concerned about me. He and Aleris regularly sent servants with food and drink and implored me to come in out of the cold as winter tightened its grip on the land and on my broken heart. But nothing could pierce the darkness my soul had fallen into.
“Finally, after months of lonely grief, spring spread its warmth across the land. As I huddled in my cloak beside my beloved’s grave, I found the topic of my melodies turning more and more to the new life I saw emerging around me: thirsty flower petals unfolding to sample the dew at dawn, a hard-working robin building its nest in the sunshine, crickets chirping messages to their friends in the falling dusk. And slowly, my heart began to heal. At last one day when Kerman came in person and begged me to move into a room in the palace, I accepted. He convinced me to start playing for special events again, and gradually I found that I could go on with my life. But my heart has never forgotten my first love, my only love.”
What do you do for a living now?
“Words and melodies are still my livelihood as well as the outpouring of my soul. From time to time I perform for events around the city, but I spend most of my time in the palace now. I’ve always written songs for banquets and special events, but shortly after Kerman’s father died and he became king, he and I discovered that my music can have a more practical purpose. I would sometimes join him in unofficial meetings or for informal conversations with people, sitting at the hearth or in a corner of the room and trying to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. While the others talked, I would play little tunes that I made up on the spot, much as I’m doing now. But I would tailor my music to the conversation and try to use it to make people do or think certain things. It’s difficult to explain how it works, and to be honest, I don’t fully understand it myself, but let me give you an example. Once a serving girl approached the king and queen to reveal a traitorous conversation that she had overheard between two members of the palace staff. The poor girl was trying to do the right thing, but she was so timid before their majesties that she could hardly speak a word at first. I remembered what that was like, and I played a soothing melody that I knew would have calmed my own quaking heart had I been in her shoes. Sure enough, her confidence grew, and in a few moments she was able to stop trembling and speak clearly about what she had learned.
“Another time, Kerman told me that he feared a certain messenger had lied to him, but he had no way to prove it. We sent for the man, and the king questioned him again while I played. This time I made the tune a tense one, such as I would have used to make the audience nervous at the point in a ballad where a character was about to land himself in trouble or fall into a trap. Sure enough, the messenger began to stammer and shoot glances around him as though afraid of some danger. As the king’s questions grew more pointed, I poured more emotion into the music, until my own heart was pounding and the very air in the room seemed to throb with tension.”
As Arden speaks, his fingers move more quickly over the strings, and I can feel the tension he is describing growing around us. My own breath starts to come more quickly and a sense of anxiety builds in me as he goes on.
“Well, the man started to stumble over his words and contradict himself, and then finally he broke off, dropped to his knees, and blurted out the truth. As he confessed his lies and begged, in tears, for the king’s mercy and forgiveness, I realized for the first time that music could be a far more powerful tool than any sword.” The tense tune fades into a slow and peaceful melody, and my pulse returns to normal as the anxiety fades.
If you could go back in time and change anything, would you? If so, what?
Arden nods soberly, and his music turns more serious. “In hindsight, I believe the royal family and I were naïve. I was never privy to many government matters, except for the kinds of conversations I mentioned when I was asked to play in the background, but I knew that some in the government opposed King Kerman’s decisions. An influential High Councilor named Rampus had begun growing in popularity and causing increasing frustration to the king. When Kerman took ill one day, we all thought he had simply eaten something that disagreed with him. The entire city was shocked when he passed away that same night. Queen Aleris was certain he had been poisoned and that Rampus had something to do with it, but nothing was ever proven. Kerman and Aleris had two children by then: Kalendria was eight and Korram was thirteen. Since the prince was still too young to rule, the High Council voted to make Rampus regent of Malorn until Korram came of age. I can’t see how anyone could have changed what happened, but if I could go back in time, I would do all I could to find a way.”
How have your job and your relationship with the royal family changed since King Kerman’s death?
“The widowed queen continued to provide me with a salary, and I continued to provide the palace and the royal family with music,” Arden explains. “I became almost like family to her and her children after Kerman’s death. While Queen Aleris struggled with her own grief and concern for the kingdom, young Kalendria took to sobbing for hours on end while Korram would fly into furious rages. I tried to set my own grief aside as much as I could to help them through theirs, and my music was able to bring some peace to their troubled hearts. But as the years have passed, the family has grown more worried. Rampus’s power has been growing, and we fear he has no intention of giving it up in a few months when Korram turns eighteen.”
The malute sounds worried too, anxious notes spilling out around us. “The trouble is,” Arden continues, “Rampus has his fingers in the military, as well as in every major business and industry in Malorn; and most of the nobility see him as a worthy and capable leader. Our options have grown more limited as the regent has grown more powerful, so we hide our suspicions and pretend to think we are all on the same side, hoping he will see no need to remove anyone else from his way. In our long, anxious meetings, my malute and I have counseled the royal family as much as we could.”
“I hear you have become a trusted advisor,” I say.
“Perhaps, but I often feel inadequate when it comes to knowing the best course of action,” Arden confesses. “When in doubt, however, I simply imagine what I would have my characters do if this were a story. Sometimes that ends up being impractically daring, but often it turns out to be the right move. That’s how I came up with the idea of Korram’s recruiting his own personal army to protect him from Rampus’s schemes; hence the prince’s current mission in the Impassable Mountains. Korram has always loved adventure stories, and he jumped at the idea.” Arden sighs. “Still, I worry that it will turn out to be one of those unrealistic quests that sound wonderful in a ballad but cannot succeed in real life. I suppose only time will tell.”
Click here to find out about Prince of Malorn, the third book in the Annals of Alasia, and read more interviews with the characters in it.