"We are getting old," said Lord Zathan with a quiet sigh. He set down his empty wine glass and looked at the warm fire in the fireplace.
"Better than not getting old," chuckled his guest. Yengol Warmpath was the emperor's bard, and also enjoying the wine and the fire.
"I will get to the point," said Lord Zathan, less quietly. "My town is growing. I need a noble to run its caretaker district. The town now has inns and restaurants, plays and concerts, barbers and doctors. Those who care for others need a noble to care for them."
Yengol laughed. "Not me, my friend. I make songs and poems, and fill the air with music and stories. I can make people feel happy, but that is quite far from caring for them."
Lord Zathan sighed more loudly.
"But I do know who you want," said Yengol. "Perhaps I will even give him to you. My seneschal, Ronyld, is a wonder. He runs my house, somehow keeping it tidy when I am home and warm when I return from my travels. He keeps my library. He curates my own bardic works. He visits and writes to nobles and bardic colleges to fill my calendar. He looks to my mail, sparing me much grief so I read and write only the letters I care about."
"He is a man of sound business who knows how to handle people," summarized Zathan.
"Indeed. Shall I call for him?"
The pair of old men talked more. Much later that night Yengol did call for Ronyld.
The steward arrived and stood quietly. He held a large book at his side: Yengol's appointments and calendar.
Lord Zathan waved no with a hand. "We do not wish to add to Yengol's calendar."
Yengol said, "Lord Zathan wants to make you a noble."
"Excuse me?" said Ronyld.
"Land. Title. Steward not for one bard, but a share of this town. A caretakers district. Some day thousands of people."
"My lord!" protested Ronyld.
Yengol added in a soft voice. "Ronyld, I am old. When I retire the emperor will pick a new bard for his court. Your work is superb. You could stay as the court bard's steward. But do not stay for me. I am old."
Ronyld stood in silence. The two old men waited.
Finally Ronyld turned to Lord Zathan. "My lord, you honor me. If I may speak plainly, Yengol has kept me very busy. I am a young man with no wife or heir. There have been many times a woman batted her eyes at me to try to get a place in Yengol's calendar." The steward patted the large book. "There have been a few times a young woman batted her eyes at me to try to get a place in my calendar. A few times someone even stole a kiss, or let me steal one. But what use is land and a title with no family or heir?"
Lord Zathan interrupted. "You need help finding a wife?"
"Beg pardon, my lord. Your fame in hunting monsters is great. Surely you know more about monsters than any man alive. But that is not the kind of wife I seek."
Lord Zathan almost spoke in protest, but Yengol chuckled.
"Oh, no, my lord. Only time. Will your kind offer remain open a week?"
"You will find a wife in one week?"
"My lord," Ronyld went on, "for many years I have spent my days in the courts and homes of nobles, at the bardic colleges, at fairs and festivals. Everyone loves Yengol and wants to speak with his steward. I negotiate everyone's fee for his visit. I watch everyone order workers or servants to set up the stage, and clean up after the show. I watch everyone try to sound wise and well-read when they invite him to the stage. I know who in the empire is careful with money and caring to people. I know who keeps a trim and tidy home. I know who speaks and reads well."
Yengol grinned. "I did not realize you were such a match-maker! That seems a job with more ease and fame than being steward to me or a district! We should not keep this a secret from the empire."
Lord Zathan looked at Ronyld's belt. It was a passportal belt, of course, with very many grommets. "So in a week you visit some places where kisses were stolen, to ask young women who are nobles and scholars if they will join you in Arlinac Town?"
Ronyld began to blush. Yengol said, "I think I know where he will start. The brightest mind at the largest bardic college. I could add some flowery compliments about her hair, skin, and lips, too, but am wise enough to wait in chance I must share a toast at a wedding."
Ronyld said, "You know me well, master. Yet I think my first day will be spent exploring this town and making lists and notes. Before I visit any woman who has talent with numbers and words, I should know which numbers and words matter most."
Lord Zathan gave Ronyld an odd look. "That is almost too practical." Then Ronyld was confused, and Yengol laughed his loudest.
Jularna was fed up. She wanted to kick her desk, so she did. She wanted to kick more things, but could not pick what. She wanted to be alone, and have all her work done. She wanted to get ready for the debate tomorrow. She wanted to go for a walk in the woods and forget about the college.
The door opened. Why was Ronyld here? She liked Ronyld, and thought he liked her too. Whenever Ronyld visited this bardic college he said hello to her. Once she had shocked him with a good-bye kiss on his cheek, which made him look lost when he said good-bye a second time.
Today he wore a big smile. He had plans. She wanted to smile back but her mood was too stormy.
"May I take you away?" he asked.
"For how long?"
"Maybe an hour. Maybe forever."
"What does that mean?"
"A noble made me a kind offer. I want to know what you think about it."
"I do not have time for games."
He held out his elbow to her. She snorted at him. She snorted at her arm load of books. She noticed that for the first time she had ever seen, he was not carrying the big book with Yengol's calendar.
She dropped her own books into her desk. She put her arm in his. "This better be good," she said.
"I am taking you to Arlinac Town," he said as they walked to the nearest portal stone. "I have found an amazing secret."
"I thought a noble had made you some kind of offer?"
"That too. But the secret is more fun."
In those days Arlinac Town was rough but beautiful. The town wall was still wood. More homes were plain logs, fewer had walls of lath-and-plaster or brick. The bank and town hall had not yet been built. The sea was blue, the river noisy, the hills of farmland lush, and Arlinac Mountain majestic in bold and green behind the town.
Jularna let herself be lost in the sights and sounds. "This is little more than a village. So much space! The homes seem lost in the big wall. Is that a zoo?"
"Lord Zathan founded this town. Of course it has a zoo."
"I want to see the monsters!" They stopped linking arms and ran to the zoo.
Later Ronyld said, "Lord Zathan decided the town needs a caretakers district. He wants me to be its noble. It would be so much work!"
Jularna patted his hand. "You could do it. You would be good at it. What does Master Yengol say?"
"Master Yengol said he is old, and the young should make such big choices for the young, not the old."
"I think you should! You, a young noble!"
"But so much work! To care for the caretakers. To help visitors forget their homes and locals forget their lives. To help troupes pick plays and singers pick songs. It will mostly be people who say they want to dream, but spend their time spilling their food, throwing up their drink, and wearing muddy boots into the inns. It will be keeping the taverns from becoming brothels and the brothels from becoming taverns, and the childrens' plays in the park from destroying the gardens."
"Your people would be well cared for. The town would love you. You would be like a steward to Yarnspinner himself, instead of steward to a man."
"I cannot do it alone. It would be easier with someone whose debate team has never lost."
"That is quite an offer. Now what is your secret?"
He led her to one of the more compact streets. It had inns and taverns, theaters and tea shops, barbers and doctors. They arrived at a door no one else in town seemed to notice. Above the door was a sign that said "Crashing Place".
She noticed the two of them were holding hands. When did that happen? Was it only because it seemed they were being sneaky and creeping up to this odd door?
He looked at her, then opened the door. They went in. The door led to a small entry hall with a coat room to the side. A door that went farther in was guarded by a very tall old woman with a very big and sharp axe who looked at Ronyld and said "You again! Yesterday you were alone. Today you are not."
"Indeed," said Ronyld. "This is Jularna."
The witch (for that is what she was) leaned forward and looked at Jularna. "Your heart burns even brighter than his brain," the witch told Jularna. "Be wary, dearie. Do not expect him to think in wonder as much as you, just as he should not expect you to think in facts as much as he."
Then the witch stood up straight and spoke in a very strict voice. "I have my rules. Only one may visit each day."
Ronyld looked at Jularna. But before he could speak the witch also looked at Jularna and added, "So kiss him, dearie." Later the witch added, "Enough, enough. Let him have air. Go on in, you pair."
Inside was a room too big to fit in the building. It had six walls. Every other wall had a fireplace. Every other wall had a door: their entry door, or a door to a hallway farther in. In the middle of the room was a bar selling all sorts of food and drinks. Someone was behind the bar, looking at the room with a frown.
"My lord," said Ronyld. "This is different from yesterday."
"Floor plans are a bother," said the barman, who was wearing a gold brooch. "I cannot make up my mind."
"Why pick only one?" asked Jularna, catching that she was speaking to Yarnspinner. "Change the room as often as you wish."
"A good idea," agreed Yarnspinner, smiling at Jularna. Then he asked Ronyld, "Why are you here again, young man? How are you able to see Crashing Place when it is not yet ready for visitors?"
"I have only a guess," said Ronyld. "I am here to ask if you would officiate a wedding? Perhaps as your grand opening?"
The next day Lord Zathan hired criers to share news with all of Arlinac Town. A much needed caretakers district would be formed by grant of land and title. A most capable young couple would be its lord and lady. And a surprising inn and innkeeper would have a most special grand opening.