Siege drums struck the town just before daybreak – whaleskin stretched over hollowed out tree trunks, varnished and polished until the drum bodies were darker than a moonless night. War Music was the province of the Empire military, and was not often employed by the Periphery patrols. Early morning mist clung to the ground, warping and distorting as the waves of force sped from the siege drums, propagating through the Sound and smashing into the town walls. Periphery grass was stiff, tough as wire, sharp enough to break the skin, same as the folk that lived on the Periphery. Unyielding, it shivered as if unsettled by a storm, though the still air held nothing more than music.
Sona didn’t have to fight, but was up early to watch. Watching Sound in action reminded Sona of lazy evenings back at the academy, Sona watching others with more talent at instruments practicing. The Periphery was a great distance from the regional imperial academy where Sona had schooled, finishing as one of the top students in numbers. Accounting was hardly his calling, but his services were valuable to Grimheld and his band, and allowed Sona to tag along as the band made its way up the Periphery highway. The patrols were ostensibly aligned with the Empire, but far from the centre, the line between bandit and enforcer was faint, varying as capriciously as the weather.
Grimheld’s band held a selection of siege drums, some trumpets, and a single bruised violin; barely a street corner ensemble back in the Capital. Out here, Grimheld fancied himself a Conductor, even if his motley assortment could manage nothing more than sections and movements from the Symphony of War. None of the great war machines, with their giant gears and pulleys operated by Sound. No air navy, with flyers held aloft by hot air and pushed upwind by huge propellers dancing to war music. Nevertheless, even a little war music put Grimheld and his men a cut above anyone else in this stretch of the Periphery. That and a little old-fashioned brawling was all they needed. Banditry in the Periphery worked similar to the collection of tolls or taxes. Some roughnecks held roads, preying on travellers. Others, like Grimheld, controlled swathes of territory, bleeding the inhabitants slowly.
The town’s fortifications were ramshackle, guarding against the predations of normal bandits and thieves. Calling them walls would be generous; they were certainly not proofed against war music. As the drums played, vibrations travelled through the walls, sending ripples across stones larger than the head of a man. The wall heaved and bucked, masonry moving like waves on the high seas. A man’s scream crept between the notes of the musicians. Someone had gotten too curious about the music, looking over the edge of the wall and taking the express route to the ground fifteen feet below. The movement reached its peak. Sona knew the staccato push and pull of the piece set up sympathetic vibrations in stone, the solid mortar liquefying and running like sand in an hourglass. All it needed was the push at the crescendo of the piece.
The music surged, and the walls came tumbling down.
Steel ringfenced the townsfolk, more edges around the weak and old than around the fighters; Grimheld knew how to control a crowd. The battle had been surprisingly bloodless – just two casualties from the town, falling off the wall. A few of the townsmen had blooded their blades, putting up a spirited defence and giving the raiders the odd scratch. Nothing that stitching and wine couldn’t cure. Sona finished tabulating the ledger for the nameless town (surely the town had a name, the least of things had a name, even if it barely merited the ink it took mark it out on a map). The band had done well, turning out the limited riches of the town onto the dirt; imperial coin, other currency from up north; tarnished silver, verdigris-crusted brass — probably dowries or festival gifts.
Enough to feed the Empire, when they sent their people up here to get the pickings from Grimheld. The Capital turned a blind eye to the excesses of bands like Grimheld’s, as long as tax kept flowing. Thieves, Sona had discovered, were particular about fairness, and he took care to split the spoils evenly. The townfolk watched in silence as their belongings were catalogued and divvied up. Empire game, Empire rules. If you played by the rules, the Empire always won but nobody got hurt. If you didn’t, the Empire still won and everybody got hurt.
The accounts were presented in a hidebound book; the cut of the paper was amateurish, the pages oddly sized. But it held together and it worked, much like Grimheld’s men. The Conductor himself was a small man, wiry and bristly like the most resilient of terriers. Those who tried found him quick for his fifty years, accurate with both rapier and dagger and, despite his formal title, devoid of all but the most minuscule musical talent.
“So this is your last town with us,” said Grimheld, licking a finger and running it down the column of tiny numbers. Sona nodded. This was for show; Grimheld was both illiterate and innumerate. The previous quartermaster had skimmed the spoils, his own personal tax. Grimheld had eventually found out and the band had gained a barely competent, one-handed cook. Sona became the new quartermaster, appointed despite being unable to speak since infanthood. So the young man dressed in the scarves and high collars of the Capital rose from part time instrument tuner to full time accountant.
Sona winced as Grimheld scored the rough paper with a facsimile of the characters that comprised his name, his signature never twice the same. “I have something for you, come.” At the older man’s gesture, Sona followed, leaving the ledger on the makeshift table wrangled from a hearth or kitchen, adjusting with wind numbed fingers the dirty scarf around his neck.
The Conductor brought Sona past the townsfolk to a set of six prisoners, wrists manacled. The six did not wear the braids of the Periphery, but instead covered their hair with silk headscarves. Though faded with distance from home, the six women still wore the sun of the Far Isles on their brown skin, and were dressed in rough travelling linen after Periphery fashion. Sona bit his lip. Slaves. Slavery was banned in the Empire Sound; apologists pointed to the Empire as offering a fairer rule for all men, but the truth was much more prosaic. Slave revolts were as messy as they were common, and paying servants was cheaper than paying soldiers. Far away from the capital, where swords far outnumbered slaves, principles were harder to come by.
“You’ve been honest with me, and that’s a rare thing on the edge of the world. So you get to choose. Choose and keep, but just one, mind you. I’m not that generous,” said Grimheld.
Five had fresh parchment skin, teenagers but with soldier’s eyes hooded and perched atop dark pouches. Number six was past her middle years, with a strange focus to her gaze. Like the other five, she’d seen war and pain. But she’d come out of that shared experience hard. Hard and angry. Sona was going further north, up into harsh steppeland. A translator, if any of the six were so inclined, would be useful. He just had to find those that understood Fingerspeech.
Fingerspeech was common in the Capital. As many as two in five were fluent, and all who were at the sharp end of the Empire Sound spoke it; deafness was rife amongst those who dealt death through war music, common amongst the workmen that wove music into the industry that pulsed through the arterial roads, airways, and seaways. But Sona was climbing up the fringe of the Empire, far from the active fronts. Soldiers were rare, Imperial Common took on the throaty slur of the north, and Fingerspeech was barely to be found. Grimheld was off to the side, joking with the guards, something raucous and bawdy. Sona kept his hands low. It would not do him any favours for the mercenaries to see how Sona chose his payment.
Of the six, only the oldest blinked twice. Sona had found his translator.
A quartermaster had privileges, privacy being one. Sona’s tent smelled of sweat, and of the animals that carried it up the Periphery roads, but it was his and his alone. In a crowded encampment, this was a luxury. In the middle of the room sat his travelling chest, a bespoke thing of inlaid mahogany and teak, bound within the guts of a brass multipede. The musical multipede was the centrepiece of the room. It served as workspace when fully expanded, but was now locked in the dismount position, its eight legs folded, double jointed like a beetle’s, brass pistons and copper gears oiled and dormant.
We have some time to discuss the terms of our arrangement before they will expect noise, Sona said, continuing to converse in Fingerspeech.
What arrangement? Am I not a slave? she asked back. We do not even have each other’s names.
The Empire has no slaves, said Sona. You can call me Sona.
Sona for Sound? Empire name, Empire lies. But not Empire skin, she said.
Half Empire. My mother was of the Six Named, he said over his shoulder, using one handed Fingerspeech, the tactical sort favoured by soldiers. The blood of the Six Named was strong, not easily watered down. His skin remembered the harsh sun of the Northern Steppes, his hair black and wavy. He wore Six Named blood on his face: his nose wide, forehead broad and eyes dark. But Sona did not hold himself like the horse-riders of the north, his posture stiffer and crisper than a dress uniform; a far cry from the soft slouches of his mother’s people, bodies bent to absorb the constant footfalls of the shaggy beasts that carried them.
The woman shuffled in front of him, the chains of her restraints dragging like a tail. Sona pulled at his filthy scarf, showing the scars at his neck. There’s no need to get in front of me. I can hear just fine; these scars are all that is left of my voice. We have business to discuss, he said.
“State your business, Sona of the Empire. Don’t you even need my name?” the woman said, switching to Imperial Common, the tongue spoken through much of the Empire and its vassal states.
There’s no need, I can’t call your name. We are to go north, to the Nation of the Six Named. I have business there at the Festival of Names. You will speak for me, and you will be compensated for your time, he said, laying a stack of Imperial crowns on the edge of the multipede’s gaping maw.
“And if I refuse?” she asked, voice low, hoarse. Sona went back to packing, kneeling in front of the multipede.
I cash out my last payment from Grimheld’s band, you join your companions. They will sell them and you, and Grimheld has no hold on his men to keep them from sampling the merchandise, he said, not even looking up.
Sona managed to get one hand in front of his windpipe as the woman slipped her manacled wrists in front of his face. “What is to stop me from killing you in your sleep, or right now, Sona of the Empire? My time is worth more than a handful of crowns, and there is not enough money in the world to pay me to do Empire business.”
There was no sound in the room, save the woman’s heavy breathing as she pressed her knee into Sona’s back, cutting off his air with her chained wrists. At least the guards wouldn’t be suspicious at the sounds from his tent. Sona tipped his head back, exposing his neck, tempting the woman to double the pressure. There was a click as the manacle popped open, the iron bracelet barely clearing Sona’s chin as the woman lost her footing and stumbled backwards.
If you will not take coin, then a blood debt instead, Sona said, holding up a slim key, with his free hand.
“I’m listening,” she said. Sona tossed her the key, she snatched it out of the air with her free hand without looking.
First amongst the animals in bravery is the field rat, a creature that will feign death if caught. So strong are their wills that they will not flinch even if an animal takes a bite from their living flesh, all the while waiting for the right time to bolt. I need at least one of your companions to be that brave. All will die otherwise, he said to the unchained woman.
“The least of them is that brave. But why should I trust you?” she asked.
Because you have no choice.
“I am Shailani. We have an agreement.”
Journey by multipede was perhaps one of the worst ways to travel. The multipede took her toll on the backsides and spines of her riders. Instead of steaming breath, the multipede was powered by Sound. A marvel of horology and music, the rider simply pedalled, driving a mechanism which played an extract from the Symphony of Industry, just a few bars, but enough to provide the force to run the gear shaft which pumped the legs of the multipede. Gearmusic, the horologists called it. Musicians and Composers in the Empire treated it with disdain, but mechanical music was the backbone of Empire industry and the Empire war machine. Sona had never liked gearmusic much; he resented the soulless tedium of the repeated notes.
Solitude was a companion Sona had missed. He had been content to travel alone between Empire cities. At least there, field justices appointed by the Emperor kept brigands in check. He had taken the long road from the clock city Pendulos, where he’d lain low after fleeing the Western Academy, as his mother had told him to. There, as new skin grew over burnt flesh, he plotted, immersing himself in his mother’s research, before setting out for the Periphery. Mingling with the tradespeople and pilgrims, the Empire road had been boringly safe. The road along the Periphery to the Steppes up north was equally long but infinitely more interesting. Sona had been forced to choose between being victim of the uncontrolled banditry of the trade highways or of the controlled banditry of Grimheld and his contemporaries. Bartering his services to the strong had been Sona’s only way of paying for safe passage.
The slow travels around the western reach of the Empire and up to the northwest had grated on Sona; all the more so when he was carrying his prize. In Pendulos, he had taken up his mother’s research, melding the clockwork sciences of Pendulos with the theory of Sound. But tinkering was not enough for his plan. The Six Named land was the next step; the conversion of knowledge into power. And with power he could strike back. Back at the Lord Antius Deathsinger, the man who had made Sona what he was. Sona was uninterested in the machinations and intrigues of the Houses of the Capital, about revolution and power, but he was owed blood, and he would collect.
Dust clouds bloomed under the multipede’s brass feet, flat and splayed like those of a camel. Shailani drew her headscarf across her nose and mouth, one hand still holding onto the multipede’s saddle for support. The chains had been off since they’d put two days’ ride between them and the town. Sona hadn’t bothered to learn its name. In his accounts he’d just numbered towns off on a map, reducing brutality to a series of columns and sums.
We should eat, he said, bringing the multipede to a halt, tune dying to silence. Shailani wobbled as she took her first steps. Multipedes did that to you, pounding away your sense of balance, step by shaking step. While she swayed, one hand on the brass fittings of the multipede, Sona laid out their shared provisions, noting that both water and food had dipped below the halfway mark. Hard bread, hard cheese, hard jerky. The water which he poured into two stained copper cups was itself stale, and had taken on the sharp bite of metal from its receptacle. Shailani looked at the sun nearly overhead, turned to the right so that her shadow was behind her, knelt, and bowed twice, leaving a smear of grey dust on her forehead.
You are a captive in a strange land, and still you give thanks for your food? he asked.
“I am not hurt, and my portion is the same as yours. There is much to be thankful for,” she said.
And the two bows? he asked, before sawing at the bread with a short dagger. The blade was barely a finger’s length, and had seen combat. If Sona looked closely enough, there would still be blood crusted at the choil, but he hoped Shailani wouldn’t notice.
“Thanks to the spirits. Once for me, and once for you.” When Sona’s eyebrows raised, she carried on, “I’m a captive, not ill-mannered.”
We don’t have gods in the Empire, Sona said.
“It must be lonely, then,” replied Shailani.
Gods are for the weak; the land is here, the Empire is powerful because of the strength of people, not because of any spirits.
“Ah yes, Empire strength. Greatest in the continent. Can your Empire sing the sun to rise in the morning? Did it sing creation itself into being? The Empire has no soul, and that is why it will end.”
Without an answer, Sona pushed Shailani’s portion of bread and cheese towards her. He said, If we had returned to camp, I would have offered you mango jam from your Far Isles.
“My sister-children have never tasted sweet mangoes; the best of our lands is taken to garnish the Empire’s tables. I think the bread is enough for me,” said Shailani.
Empire wheat, milk, and pig, Sona said, gesturing at the food in turn. Nothing from Far Isles here. Anyway, we don’t steal from the Isles. We trade with your Sultanate. The Sultanate was the de facto power over the raucous, archipelagic Far Isles.
Shailani winced as she bit. The crunch of the stale bread was audible, doubtless rattling her teeth in her head. She drizzled water on her bread, softening the chunk. A soldier’s trick.
So how does a Far Isles woman become proficient in Fingerspeech? asked Sona. Tactical Fingerspeech too.
“The isles are only far when one considers the Empire at the centre of everything. If you honour me, you would at least call my homeland by its name,” Shailani said, her cheeks colouring, crumbs spraying.
Sona chose his words, fingers moving over each other deliberately, each gesture perfectly crisp. Your land has no other name in the Empire, he said. You are of the Sultanate, are you not? Nominally so, since nearly every island in the region had its own tribe, with very particular ideas about whom it owed allegiance to.
“Those the Empire cannot conquer, it befriends. But Empire only knows Empire, and its friends are very much like it. Before the Empire came to Seribu, the Sultan only ruled half the territory. He bartered aromatic woods, gemstones, and rare beasts for imperial instruments. Now the Sultan controls it all. Including my people. Have you heard of the Sixty-Seventh regiment?”
That word you used? Sona asked.
“Seribu? It means ‘the thousand’ in my tongue. The true name of the Far Isles. You don’t even care enough to have a name for it in Fingerspeech.”
And then she was silent.
So Shailani was from the Sixty-Seventh – the Irregulars. Sona looked her over again, taking in the details he’d missed earlier. The way Shailani moved, light on her feet and balanced. She’d kept the woman’s robe of the Periphery, but sashed it tighter around knee and elbow, making sure the voluminous cloth wouldn’t trip her.
Deserted? Sona asked.
“Discharged after twenty years, with full colours. I made sergeant. You know what happens to deserters.”
So, a decorated veteran. The Empire military was one of the few that had women serving. All the way since the reign of the Emperor Regent Ophelia some thirty years prior. With most of the heavy lifting done by Sound, physical strength was only valued for close quarters brawlers and cavalry. Still, prejudice ran deep and few women made sergeant, fewer lieutenant, and none above in a generation. Getting as far as sergeant meant that Shailani had other skills besides Fingerspeech.
And you got captured by a mongrel outfit like Grimheld’s, said Sona.
“Trading us lessened the toll on the townsfolk. I had five to protect and no good options. You would have done the same,” Shailani said, and when she tore the last of her bread in half, her knuckles were white under skin.
You don’t know me. You are far from home. I assume you have business up north, pressed Sona.
Shailani made a show of chewing the tough bread, jawline sharp under her headscarf. “You’ve yet to tell me your business, Empire boy.”
When it is time, said Sona.
“Taking without giving in return. You’ve not got Empire skin, but you’ve got Empire bones. Let me guess. You’re not tall, but that’s the Steppes in you; good bones means good nutrition. So you’ve seen money. You can stop me anytime I’m incorrect.”
Sona began packing, keeping his hands busy to avoid answering.
“You have tools and ride a multipede, so you’ve got some craft in you. Maybe apprenticed to a horologist. Falling in with a band of mercenaries isn’t straightforward, so I assume you understand war. Not enough scars to be battle tested, so I’d guess academy training.”
Sona hated reminders of the time at the academy. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the smoke.
The Western Academy was in flames; the burning front was a living thing, leaping from tapestry to rafter and back again, cutting off escape. His mother, the Lady Kristyk, was visiting. She’d found her way to his dormitory, past raiders, past fire. Not unscathed. One arm was blackened and peeling, the other holding one of her blades, the point tracing a scribble in the air.
“They’ll not tell one body from another in the ashes. Leave your necklace and rings.” Her voice a rasp from the hot smoke. Sona did as he was told. Shouts down the corridor, getting closer.
You go ahead, mother, I can manage the corpse, Sona said urgently, smoke obscuring his Fingerspeech. His roommate was a year younger, but Sona had always been small for his age.
“Hide on the Steppes, never come back to the Empire. There must be no doubt of your death. When you get there, tell Fong that the debt is repaid. Go.”
We have to go, said Sona now, fingers crisp and sharp, the memory of acrid smoke making his nose itch and his eyes water.
The village could barely be called that, the stones that made up its walls rough and irregular, the inhabitants likewise. Harsh wind, hot off the Steppes, blew ochre grit into tiny vortices and curlicues, blasted it into wall and face alike. Hot food was a bonus, but the bread was not much better than the chunks they’d been eating on the road. The stew was a lumpish grey, root vegetables boiled down into a powdered mush, meat either clumps of gelatinous, wobbling fat or thin strips of gristle.
The innkeeper introduced himself as Druck, showing a mouthful of teeth at odd angles and with a time limit on their tenancy in his mouth. Sona and Shailani retired to their room. He gestured to Shailani to take the bed; he’d grown too used to hard ground on the road and even the straw filled mattress would leave him with a backache. Besides, he had work to do.
They struck in the early hours of the morning, at least an hour past midnight, but the Periphery lacked good clocks and time here was malleable.
Two of them, by the moonlight coming in through the window Sona had left open despite the desert chill. Gesturing to Shailani’s sleeping form, the pair did not notice Sona emerging from beside the doorway, not until he’d brought the pommel of his short knife down forcefully on one shadowed head.
The man dropped with a grunt, and his partner spun, longsword at the ready. Few of Grimheld’s band had fighting experience outside of bar room brawls and the gutting of unarmed innocents. This lent itself to flamboyant gestures, like bringing field weapons for indoor fighting, and, when confronted with the slumped body of a comrade, demonstrations of strength, like a two-handed overhand strike with a longsword.
Sona darted in quick, mindful of the body at his feet, one stiffened forearm a roof over his head, ready to shunt his attacker’s strike down past his side. Unnecessary, since the tip of the sword bit deep into the thatched rafters and stopped. The tip of Sona’s dagger found its way, through force of habit, to the armpit of his opponent, the spot traditionally uncovered by plate armour. Not that anybody could afford armour out here anyway. The attacker’s eyes rolled up in his head. Brum. A pity. Brum had always been polite and good for a game of dice. The ledger was in Sona’s favour, if he recalled. Perhaps the man was pettier than he’d let on.
Sona was still wondering if the spray from removing the dagger would dirty his travelling clothes when someone tackled him from behind. His head struck the edge of the bed on his way down, vision going white at the edges before he hit the floor hard. Breathing was impossible. Something on his back, maybe a knee. A rough hand flipped him around, and Sona felt the pressure of a dull blade at his throat, his assailant pinning him down by the simple expedient of straddling him, pinning arms by his side, squeezing air from his lungs; the cook, and former quartermaster, was a large man. Apparently, the band was out to settle all accounts with Sona before he left Empire territory.
“Hello Sona,” said the cook. “Been waiting a long time for this. Not so chatty even without your tongue up Grimheld’s arse, are you? Oh, I forgot.”
Fingerspeech required at least one arm to be mobile; Sona was at a disadvantage and merely made a rude gesture with each hand.
“You’ve cost us five slaves. We knows it was you that done it. Nearly got them back, we did. Managed to get one in the leg with an arrow drum, but she was smart, that one. Lit a campfire all on her own and let her sisters sneak twice the head start on us.” The cook drew the tip of the rusty knife down Sona’s neck, dimpling skin. If the cook had been any more disciplined about upkeeping his blades, Sona’s skin would have parted easily. “Maybe I’ll be quartermaster again after yer gone. Cookin’s not my style and dressing meat’s hell for a man with but one hand. I should get some practice in.” The tip of the knife drifted down, pressing through Sona’s clothes; a shallow stab, just enough to keep Sona’s attention.
A meaty slap cut through the silence, Shailani’s fist appeared at the side of the cook’s neck. The man shuddered, flesh jiggling. “Up now, big boy and lose that little pig sticker you got in my employer,” she said. “What you have in your neck is something we call a lintah, a leech blade. More of a tube than a blade, really; a lot like a spigot in a beer barrel. You’re going to want to get your hand up here.” She clucked at the cook when his hand twitched, pulling his head back to make her point. “Slowly. Good. When I take my hand off, you’re going to want to put your thumb over the hole. Good. Hold it there and we’ll leave the beer inside the barrel, eh?”
Sona teased the blade free from his chest. Blood leaked but did not spurt. Good; he hadn’t travelled this far to be laid low by a man like this. He nodded to Shailani. She turned her attention back to her captive, circling around him.
“The leech can bleed you fast or slow,” she said. The cook took a half-hearted swipe at her with his other arm, the one to which he’d fitted an evil looking hook sprouting from a leather harness. His motion elicited a spurt of fresh blood from the knife in his neck. “Don’t move, don’t talk. I just need you to blink, once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that for me?”
The cook blinked. Sona had seen the man dish out his share of cruelties on the band’s victims. Many of them looked a lot like the cook did now, sweat beaded on a furrowed brow, eyes white all around, breath shallow and rapid.
“The four others, are they being pursued?”
Blink. Blink. A single tear leaked from an eye, followed the furrow of an old scar, got lost in the half globe landscape of his sweaty chin.
“The one that was wounded, did she die unsullied?”
Blink. A rapid calculus of the costs of deception. Blink.
“Good boy. One more question, if you please. Did you partake?”
“Thank you,” said Shailani, and kicked the cook’s hand.
I thought they searched you, said Sona. They were downstairs packing up. The innkeeper was in his own bed, eyes wide and dry, divining the secrets of the ceiling, throat ragged and open to the night air. Cook and friends had been too clumsy to sneak by the innkeeper and too cheap to pay him off. Shailani pulled her headscarf back, revealing greying hair knotted into a simple bun. Even in the half-light, Sona could see the fan of thin tubes, leech knives as hair ornaments.
Not soldier’s weapons, Sona said.
“Anything that kills is a soldier’s weapon. We should stock up,” she said.
That would be stealing, said Sona, before gathering his belongings. His Fingerspeech was barely discernible past the shaking of his hands.
“It’s funny you say that, just after killing a man.”
You’ve killed before, he said.
Shailani looked away, breaking line of sight and silencing Sona. “Enemies. Friends. It’s just meat. No memories, no family, just meat. Easier that way, helps me sleep.”
She turned back. “I need more than guesswork. You let me have the bed because they’d go for it first. I know your type. We had Empire officers in the Sixty-Seventh, but only the commissions who couldn’t pay their way out of the front. Most were snivelling little snots. When we sent some of the bodies home, not all of them had wounds in the front. So let me ask you, Sona of the Empire, what is your business with the Six Named?”
Sona paused, then exhaled a week’s worth of tension in a long sigh, shoulders slumping. He waved Shailani over to the multipede, brass legs folded and compartment gaping. Grunting, he lifted several heavy boxes out of the way, eliciting metallic clangs of complaint. Those boxes were individually locked, by coded mechanisms rather than by keys. Their secrets were not for Shailani, not yet. His mother’s secret masterwork, perfected by Sona and the horologists the Lady Kristyk had paid to hide Sona after her death.
Another hidden panel hid Sona’s treasures. Two stacks of paper. The first, a stack of letters unsent, written in script so neat it might as well have been printed. The pile grew more slowly the further Sona got from the Capital, the less he thought of his sister. Letters never to be sent, not as long as those behind the Western Academy fire thought he was dead. There was a spike of guilt when he thought of Canta. Although just a half-sister, they were close enough in years that they had been tutored together. His sister had inherited his father’s height, her laugh booming and free, her punches faster and stronger than their teacher’s. He wondered, as he always did, what terror she’d be up to back in the Capital, where they used to sprint across the moored airships at the Skydock. Sona pushed the letters, and his memories, aside.
Instead Sona drew forth the second set of papers, sheet music in the hand of the Lady Kristyk, her other masterwork. The rustling of the papers and the guttering oil lamps made the notes dance on their ordered lines. Sona paused. He was taking a risk here, disclosing this to the old soldier woman. Shailani would be the first person he’d shown the music to. Yet trust had to be won somehow. His fate would be in her hands when they got to the Six Named land. Better to start now.
There is a time of gathering up north for the Six Named. All manner of people, he said, one-handed, holding the music out for Shailani to see. The woman scanned the music with the quick glances of one skilled in reading music. The Festival of Names was an annual affair, something he’d only heard of from his mother. Each sept would send their elders to consult the Book of Names, to choose names for the newborn and to strike off the names of the dead.
“Looking for a wife?” Shailani asked, showing a little too much interest in the music. Sona jerked the sheets back. The festival was a time for unions as well. There was no better time to leave one sept for another, save that they did not bear children with any who shared one of their Six Names. Everything else was fluid – rearing of children, hunting, farming, border patrols, craftsmanship.
It was not marriage Sona sought, but music. I need this played for me. Played by people I can trust. People not of the Empire, he said.
“That’s a lot of music, a full movement. Which Symphony?”
Not one of the four, he said. The Symphonies of War, Industry, Order, and Flow were the backbone of the Empire Sound. Each held the movements of music that ran battle, agriculture, the artifices of the city, and physical combat. Each symphony the province of one of the Maestri; each Maestro lording over a House with the power of a small country.
Sound was all around the world, a force of nature; even animals had use of it. But nobody on the continent used it like the Empire, and the tools of the Empire were the Composers—the few souls in with the talent to pluck notes from Sound, and weave those notes into music, and the music into each of the Symphonies. The Symphonies were the property of the Empire, and those that could command it even more so. Sona was a player of average quality; perhaps suited for industry or the civil service. His strength lay in his tinkering with gearmusic and with the music of the Symphonies. The Lady Kristyk had guided him with his tutors, careful for Sona only to demonstrate average facility in musical theory.
All empires gestated the seeds of their own undoing, although most were more subtle about it than the Empire Sound. It was an act of conceit that the Empire took its name from Sound; a power available to all, a power that it abused and feared. And because the Empire feared, it controlled, forbidding all music but that of the Symphonies. The Empire assigned each of the four Maestri a Symphony, each great house controlling the Composing and use of all Sound within its Symphony.
“Dangerous business,” said Shailani. “Illicit Composing is sedition, high treason against the Emperor himself.” Sona said nothing, but slipped a tiny assassin’s dagger from his sleeve and palmed it.
You’ve got an eye for music, said Sona. Not just some foot soldier.
“Battle choir, section leader. I know my Music, Empire boy.”
Now you know what I need done up north, are you still with me? asked Sona, waiting for Shailani to hesitate, to give him a single reason to mistrust her. None came.
“My sisters are still free. Our agreement holds. Hide your music. You can see to provisions. One of your old friends is still alive in the next room.” She stepped up to Sona, close enough for her breath to tickle his lashes. When he retreated, she seized his hand and relieved him of his dagger. “You get this one for free. Best get used to killing, boy. Looks like your business will see more before it’s done.”
Stay tuned for part II of Sonata in February!