February 2020

Allegro: Shailani

This is part 2 of L. Chan’s novella, Sonata. Part 1 ran in January 2020. What has gone before:

Sona has travelled north, up the lawless swathes of the Periphery of the Empire Sound. He’s enlisted the help of Shailani, a former soldier with the Imperial Army, on her own journey to the north. After an ambush by jealous bandits from a gang Sona used to serve, Shailani learned that Sona was carrying something forbidden by the most basic of Empire law – a piece of illicit Music, far outside the reach of the Empire and its Composers. Their journey has taken them to the border of the Six Named land, country of his mother, and the composer of the heretical Music, the Lady Kristyk.

Their first greeting in the land of the Six Named was a pair of whistling arrows, tracing rainbow arcs up into the sky before the hollow bores through the arrows channelled the wind, augmenting the flight of the projectiles with Sound. They hit the earth like cannon fire, throwing dirt and divots of sparse grass yards into the air. Small craters marked their passing, the fragile wooden arrowshafts obliterated.

She could not see their attackers, and doubted that Sona could. The ground here was thirsty, the grass washed out and beaten low by strong winds. Hills and mountains in the distance, but distances were impossible to estimate across the windswept plains. No trees grew here. Shrubs and bushes, the few that there were, clung to the ground in desperation, their stems green and swollen with hoarded water. The expanse made her skin crawl, her head spin, as though she’d fall into the sky, so clear and cloudless was it.

She’d served with Six Named in the Sixty-Seventh. A taciturn people, well used to hardship. Few others who could march quite as far on half rations, function on as little sleep. They were horse folk, well used to living flesh beneath them, and so never served in the navies, whether ocean going or sky sailing, nor the armoured divisions. A Six Named would sooner sever his own legs than ride on the larger cousins of the multipede the Imperial Army deployed.

Both the Six Named land and Seribu had submitted, in their own fashions, to the Empire. The Six Named land fared better. Both countries had ceded territories and concessions to the Empire, but there was little in the Northern Steppes that the Empire coveted, the ground being hard enough to dull shovel blades, the plants mostly unscented and dry, good for neither furniture nor Empire weapons.

The complexities of treaties between countries was somewhat lost on Shailani as she brushed the dirt from the arrow’s impact off her face. At least the Six Named were polite like her own folk; killing strangers was considered rude.

Sona pointed, his eyes sharper than hers after all, to a plume nearing in the distance, a border patrol. The multipede’s gears wheezed under the scorching heat. Shailani made out seven riders, with recurved horsebows carved from alabaster ashwood, white as bone. When the riders came to a stop, Shailani met impassive gazes of the riders past steady arrowheads in front of taut bowstrings. Having seen the effect of whistlers on the ground, Shailani much preferred not to see their efficacy on her flesh.

“Sona of the Empire Sound and Shailani of Seribu seek passage to the Festival of Names,” said Shailani, even-voiced. Seribu, Shailani mouthed to herself, the thousand. The Far Isles in Imperial common. She revelled in the use of the true name of her birthplace, rather than the soft mouthed interpretation the Empire had given it. Stay long enough in the Empire, you’d forget your places, your home. But you’d never forget your place in the Empire, no. They’d remind you; in the theft of your names, in the weaving of your sacred cloth into their tea dresses.

A ripple went through the patrol at the unfamiliar sound of Imperial Common. The lead took his horse forward, a shaggy piebald beast almost as tall as a man at the withers. He dismounted, landing lightly on his feet. Like Sona, the patrolmen of the Northern Steppes were compact, making an easier carry for their steeds – leanly muscled, worn down by sun and wind till there was nothing left but hardness, striated muscles on every visible inch.

“The Six Named have no quarrel with Empire, the Six Named have no quarrel with the Far Isles. But the Festival is for our people and our people alone.” His voice was loud and sharp, well made for vast and open spaces, carrying clear across the scraggly grass and ochre dust.

“He claims his right as one of your people,” said Shailani.

“Does he not speak for himself, or does the Empire not lower itself to speak to the natives?”

“He lost his words as a child. He was born of the Lady Kristyk, known to you as Lady Han. She was born of Zhi and Liao, they of the sept of the Thundering Hills.” Foreign names rolled, unfamiliar in her mouth, like strange fruit. The north was particular about names, and she’d spent an hour practicing under Sona’s tutelage.

“Three names are not enough, Shailani. We need Six. It is our way. If he is of our people, he knows that. What are the others?”

Shailani paused, looking towards Sona. There had been long moments between them when they’d rehearsed, when she found out who his father was. Sona nodded. “He is half Empire. His father is the Antius, Lord and Choirmaster of House Deathsinger. He was born of Typhus and Sybil, they of House Deathsinger.” Those names, even more so than the foreign words, felt alien in her mouth. House Deathsinger, last she heard, before returning to Seribu with her discharge papers and pension, was ascendant, with a clear route to taking one of the Maestro positions, unheard of for a minor house, albeit one that dealt in assassinations.

Of course, the genealogies and succession of the houses didn’t trickle down to the military outposts and regiments, but no son of a lord should be out in the Periphery earning his keep through banditry and accountancy. Nor should he be travelling to the edges of the known world with nothing but a retired soldier for company. Not to mention that the darkest of those with Empire blood would still be fairer than the skin betwixt her arse cheeks. Sona carried himself like a noble, but not even outdoor labour turned Empire folk his colour. Shailani had nothing against those of mixed blood. The two spirits knew there were enough bastard children of nobles in the Sixty-Seventh. But a genuine scion? Not a chance. This young man was playing a dangerous game, laying claim to names like that.

They had spoken of many things whilst the multipede juddered their behinds into giant bruises. The military, the weather, the current state of the Empire, the weather, the terrible blandness of the food, the pain of their behinds, the weather again. The young man was a closed book with a plain cover, but Shailani would have put money on one thing – he was pure Empire regardless of how much Six Named blood he had.

The leader of the border patrol sucked at his teeth. He likely had not mounted his horse this morning thinking he’d either have to refuse blood rights or let an Empire agent into the greatest annual event of the Six Named. In the end, he held out his arm towards Sona. “We will escort you to the Festival, and the leaders will decide on the strength of your claim.” Sona smiled and took the leader’s hand, pumping it enthusiastically twice. The leader turned to Shailani. “You too, I suppose. It would be a confusing trip otherwise.” She clasped her hand around his forearm, and he hers. Shailani had learned the Six Named greeting back in the army. Sona, despite his birthright, had not. The leader nodded his head at her, a slight dip of the chin, the misplaced greeting evidently bringing him to the same conclusion about Sona. Six Named skin, Empire heart.

The Festival of Names presented itself in the distance as a sea of pennant flags, each in the colours of one of the Septs. Every art and skill the Six Named practiced was on display and held in competition. Even Music. The Six Named did not use Sound as profligately as the Empire, but its judicious application allowed skill alone to determine a person’s role in a sept. Of course, the annual gathering was not without its share of feasting and celebrations. Around her, Shailani could see the richness of the land in the people that lived off it. The Six Named were dressed in riotous colours, in the manner of a field of wildflowers. Their tools, weapons, and instruments were exquisitely made, and could have held their own against Empire craft, in utility if not in beauty.

Distance from the muggy jungles of her people pulled at her, a loose thread that would slowly unravel stitching. Truly she’d spent more time conscripted than as a resident, but barracks and quarters were no home, not with the carvings of previous occupants on bed frames, the mingling of her blood with theirs in the bloated bellies of bedbugs. The distance between her and her previous travelling companions was more urgent, more pressing. Again, Shailani revisited her decision to accompany Sona, justifying to herself what she knew to be right. They’d started out as six, charged to keep the songs of their people free. Six Keepers, five groomed from birth to be servants of their people, trained in forbidden songs, charged by their people to be a repository for their shared language — living dictionaries holding the tongues of their kinfolk, that the Sultanate was so busy erasing in its quest to unify Seribu. Not just a thousand islands, but a thousand people and a thousand languages; not easy to rule. One language, one thought — that would be easier, and the Empire was helping the Sultanate to that end. A single people gave much better tribute and trade, after all. Though her appointment had been a matter of expediency, Shailani counted herself amongst the Keepers as well. Her experience in the military helped her; she could fight, and more importantly, she had once led a battle choir. That advantage had given her a headstart on picking up the sacred songs of her people. Songs to ease the dead over to the other side, songs to welcome squalling babes into this world.

She wondered how far the four surviving Keepers were from the northern reach — the mountains where legends said that caves existed with walls of crystal so perfect that a single sound could echo there for eternity. Deep enough into those caves and it was rumoured that the Songs of Creation still echoed, the music by which the spirits had hewn the world out of nothing. Shailani had been across half the continent with the army. She’d seen fortresses reduced to rubble by war music, watched death rain down from skyships, but not seen the scantest proof of the legends the tribe talked about. The entire thing smelled like a fool’s errand to Shailani, the last ditch effort of their cornered tribe, to send five of their brightest up North with nothing more than myths and legends, and the hope that the words and songs of their people would live, even after the Sultanate took their lands and children. A bad hand to be dealt, too bad folks didn’t get to sit out rounds of cards in life. She had to get back to the other Keepers, no matter what dreams the elders had sold to the girls.

Sona had his own demons to wrestle with, it seemed, drawing further back into himself the deeper they got into Six Named territory. Surrounded by those that looked like him, Shailani had figured that Sona would open up like a flower drinking the sun, quizzing his hosts about all that he had missed. Definitely more Empire than Six Named, then. The same thing had happened to her when she was discharged from the Irregulars, a stranger in her own land. Yet Shailani was only an adoptee of the Empire; Empire was a skin that she shrugged off, scraping in places, once she’d been discharged. It would be more difficult for Sona to shed.

The Festival was as colourful and loud as a marketplace, and truly it was one. Not all of the Six Named were horsefolk, it seemed. Some brought cloth dyed in pounded clamshells dredged from rivers, the weaves bluer than the cloudless sky. Others brought preserved produce and dried harvests to share, everything from fruit to dried mushrooms that brought visions and madness.

Their escort deposited them at the edge of the forest of tents that made up the festival, springing up from the dirt like mushrooms after the rain, each the light earthy brown of fresh horse leather.

“I will present your case to our council,” he said, showing them to an empty tent. Shailani entered first, Sona second, leading the multipede by means of a hand crank, a soft tune forcing the many-legged chest to trot slowly after them. “Help yourselves to the clothes in the guest tent.” He showed himself out. Shailani could tell from the conversation outside and the long shadows cast at the tent’s doorway that she and Sona were not precisely guests.

The clothes were in the style of the Six Named, linen trousers and shirts, with buttons of knotted cloth, heavier riding jackets with cinched sleeves to fit into leather bracers for horsebows. Shailani shrugged off her headscarf and top. When she shook her clothes, dust from her journey clung to the air, sparkling as it settled. She turned to see Sona, flapping his fingers at her, wide-eyed.

What are you doing? he asked.

“Changing into something clean,” she replied, keeping her face towards him to read his Fingerspeech and enjoy his discomfort. “Don’t be a baby, not all peoples share your Empire’s allergy to the sight of breasts, and even those luxuries are not afforded to those in the Emperor’s armies. Besides, I figured you’d have peeked on the way here.” She pulled on the Six Named clothes and lowered her tone. “There must be no mistrust between us, Sona. We don’t have time to be squeamish. You’re playing with your life and mine, just to play some illegal music.”

Not just any music, my mother composed it, he said.

“So your mother was a Composer, but not in service to the Maestri?” House plots, far beyond the ken of a simple retired sergeant on a mission to save a dying language. What did Shailani care about nobles and their Composers?

My father took her to wife from the Six Named. Empire wisdom has it that only Empire blood is pure enough to wrest Symphonies from the Sound. He thought otherwise. Hidden away, she would secure House Deathsinger’s rise, he said.

“House Deathsinger. Is that how you name things in the Empire, just take words and bang them together?”

You know what we do, he said.

“Kill people, yes, I gathered. Your mother wrote a piece of music. How does that help your House?”

It doesn’t. She wrote this in secret. My mother knew better than to hand my father that kind of power. She only gave the House baubles. Enough to secure their ascent. Me? I was an embarrassment, not just of impure blood, but unable to speak, and so unable to join the ranks of the Deathsingers. An inconvenience to the lines of succession for my father and my sister, Sona said.

“Sister?”

From my father’s second wife. There’s a lot about me that you don’t want to know. Power was very important to my father. He used to go on about changing the Empire stripping the Maestri of their control. In the end, I became too much of a liability for his plans: a mute, impure son of a House of singers. He torched the Western Academy to kill me. My mother died so that I could escape. If they knew I was alive, they’d tear the countryside up just to hunt me down. Sona took a breath before continuing, Tell me what you know about Sound.

Shailani watched the rush of Fingerspeech, almost too fast for her to understand. Confessions were a lot like water behind a levee, only emerging as a flood. She’d gamble that this was the first time he’d told anyone about it. Sona was assembling something, fingers silent but dancing, screwing, joining, and aligning a complicated series of small mechanisms from the boxes he’d always kept tucked in a corner of the multipede. When he was done, he had a complex assemblage of brass minutiae mounted on a box of ornate rosewood, topped by what appeared to be the flared mouth of a trumpet, blooming like a flower. Into this he slotted an amber cylinder before sealing the box back up.

Shailani pulled the Six Named shirt over her head, cloth buttons snapping tight. “What’s there to say? Just what they teach us in basic training. The Sound exists like a drum skin or harp string beneath our world. The right tones agitate the Sound, and it pushes back on our world.”

Sound is everywhere. You don’t need Empire instruments or machines to use it. Look at the whistling arrows. The Empire’s power is in Music and the Symphonies. More than that, the horologists created gearmusic, with gears and springs playing Music, but there’s a limit to what they can do. Gearmusic is only snippets. It moves the multipede, floats airships. Nothing compared to what a choir or an orchestra can do, Sona said. My mother was of one blood, but a child of two worlds, I am the opposite. Because she was of two, she always sought to see unions, intersections. Six Named Music, Empire Music, and more besides. Any Music she could get her hands on. Horology, Sound. If Sound causes something to move, could movement cause sound instead?

Sona depressed a button on the box. It began to play the same bouncy tune that drove the multipede. Their ride began to stir, gears clanking into motion before the music eased.

A perfect replica of any Music played to it. I will take my mother’s symphony back to Pendulos with this. My mother had people there, sworn to her service. They helped me complete her work, and now they will help me bring my father to justice, he said. Shailani’s head spun. Sona had trapped Music in a box. The Empire worshiped no gods, but their veneration of Sound was as near religion as the Sultanate’s temples and minarets, as heartfelt as Shailani’s own prayers to the two spirits before her meals. The device in Sona’s hands held music not beholden to the hordes of trained musicians, without the need for the massed assortment of brass and wood and animal skin that comprised an orchestra.

Shailani had a mind shaped by war, and the flow of her thoughts ran back to combat like spring rivers down channels carved into rock. What damage could they wreak, with this enslaved music? With something like this, the Empire’s advantage in musicians and Composers might be nullified, the old borders reinstated. Better yet, it could be applied to Shailani’s own mission, and that of her sisters. Why travel to the edge of the known world on the rumour of a legend to preserve her people’s language, when the means for doing so was right before her? She shook her head, clearing her mind of the whispered temptation to slip a lintah into Sona’s neck then and there, and make off with the device. Shailani weighed that against the lives of the four that Sona had bought her service with. Not now, not until her debt was discharged. Afterwards, there would be no guarantees.

“You could change the entire balance of the Empire with that,” said Shailani. Sona was already disassembling his creation, returning it to component boxes. “If the Empire found it, they would be unstoppable.”

They would destroy it, he said. Sound is everywhere. Only the stranglehold of the Maestri props up the Empire. This breaks that control. The Empire will eat itself from the inside.

“Why stop it? All Empire does is eat; and when there is nothing left in the world, it will eat itself. You’re holding something that could shift the world. And all you can think about is revenge?”

Let me tell you about revenge, Far Isle woman, he said. I’m told that when a normal person thinks, you think with your voice. It’s different for someone who’s never heard their own voice. If there’s a voice in my head, it can only be someone else’s. If it’s Fingerspeech, it can only be someone else’s hands. How far would you go, to avenge a loss you feel with every single thought that goes through your head? Revenge is my world now.

Festive singing welcomed them to the Council, the singers a mix of teenage children in woven skirts, and trailing ribbons ten or more feet in length. If the song was meant to achieve anything through Sound, the effect was so minor as to be unnoticeable. The Council was more than a score strong, one representative from each of the septs. Seated in a raised dais above a cleared dust arena, they witnessed displays of skill, strength, and beauty. Those that did well brought honour to the septs, and to themselves. The best of the contestants were highly sought, their talents bartered across septs in a complicated exchange of young persons in marriage.

The dress of the Council demonstrated the distances ranged by the Six Named. The Six Named were famed for the sleek riding gear that Shailani and Sona wore. Seldom seen by the rest of the world was the looser flowing silks of those who mastered the loom, the elaborately beaded dresses of those who appeared to be scribes. There was even one, and Shailani could not help but return her gaze to him over and over, that was wearing the overcoat of the Sixty-Seventh regiment. And in the colours of a commissioned officer no less. There had never been combat this far north, so it was not a trophy. Yet there was no way there was a lieutenant amongst the Six Named. Commissions were reserved for Empire only.

“I am Qin. We have heard your claim,” said the man in military dress, his facility with the Common Speech obviously rendering him the spokesman, though his tongue had the slurred accent of the north. “We have not yet heard your petition.”

Shailani read Sona’s Fingerspeech, translating. “Sona petitions the council to fulfil the last wish of Lady Han, to hear her music played.”

“Let the boy speak for himself,” said Qin.

“He does not speak,” said Shailani.

Let the boy speak for himself, repeated Qin. Evidently, the overcoat was not for show; the man had seen service.

These are my Six Names, said Sona, Lady Han, of Zhi and Liao. Lord Antius DeathSinger, of Typhus and Sybil.

“The scion of the prodigal returns. What did the Lady Han achieve in the Empire?” asked Qin.

My mother is dead, but not gone. I have her masterwork, the union of her raw talent in Composing, sharpened by Imperial academics. A symphony, the form Empire but the soul Six Named. In her memory and as one of your people, I seek that it be played here, in the land of her birth, Sona said.

“You have yet to prove who you are, Sona of Empire,” said Qin. “Skin and a story are not enough.”

The Festival was host to many contests, including those of martial prowess. Oiled men and women grappled, cheered on by crowds. Others showed their skill with bows whilst riding or standing. And then there were the contests of weapons.

Shailani was surprised at Sona’s decision. He seemed a planner, a tactically minded sort. Certainly he had the benefit of academy training, and growing up well fed. The one time she’d seen him fight had told her all she needed to know about his skill – he’d never fought outside of a curated match. His decision to do so now seemed like overconfidence. Shailani had seen her fair share of Empire brats with that, but she saw the look on his face when he chose his weapons and there was something else at play. Sona could have done something with music; the Six Named allowed for those contests. Yet he had chosen these two swords; Six Named weapons. The Academy would have offered lessons in arms, any weapon the Imperial Army used, but not these. The Empire man had something to prove.

Sona’s choice of weapon was a pair of butterfly swords, stubby blades just over a foot in length, thin handguards and upswept quillons to protect and trap. The Empire favoured cavalry cutlasses and longer blades, and his selection was meant to cement his claim to the blood. His opponent was to be the same guardsman that had escorted Shailani and Sona to the festival, Lo, his name was, a veteran of border skirmishes and pursuit of the bandits that nipped at the heels of Six Named traders. Lo’s favoured weapon was a long spear, blood red tassels dangling beneath the base of the spearhead. The contestants bowed to the council and then to each other.

Lo dropped into a stooped stance, thighs coiled to give his spear a longer lunge. Sona had one blade forward, the other drawn back; attack and counter, ready for any eventuality. Steel met steel.

Shailani had been invited next to Qin, watching with the council. “Lo tells me you spent time in the army. Sixty-Seventh?” asked Qin, and under the Six Named drawl Shailani could make out the musical twang of the low counties, southern farming stock whence the Sixty-Seventh drew the bulk of its recruits. Much of the Empire’s army was replenished by conscripts, but its appetite outstripped the fecundity of its women. Its conquests, vassals, and allies stepped in to fill the gap. The Empire inevitably sent conscripts to the Sixty-Seventh, and that regiment was always on active fronts. That was the cost of Empire friendship.

“You too?”

Qin nodded. The two combatants were feeling each other out, steel kissing steel like neophytes at a dance, tentative, hesitant. Up close, the elder Six Named was more weathered than most, the dark furrows of wrinkles mixed with the lighter patchwork of faded scars. “I didn’t think they gave commissions to outlanders,” said Shailani. Foreplay over, the combatants got into it. Lo made up for Sona’s twin blades with the reach of his spear, using darting thrusts to keep the younger man at bay.

“Field commission at Angel’s Fall. General Olivia valued skill above blood, and besides, everybody else was dead.” Even a decade away from service, Shailani shivered at those names. Olivia, the Steel Angel, had been the one and only woman to ever attain a general’s stars, during the reign of the Regent Ophelia. Angel’s Fall was the name given to her most famous defeat, a failed bid to rescue stranded Imperial forces deep in enemy territory. The authorized history Shailani had garnered from her military training explained the Steel Angel’s rise as illicit; the woman herself the Emperor Regent’s paramour. Regiment tradition had it otherwise, Olivia as competent a leader as the next five generals put together, the incursion part of a master plot to see her disgraced. Either way, the loss of two thirds of her men at Angel’s Fall had bought her a court martial and execution. The only mercy granted by the Emperor Regent had been a soldier’s death, a sword through the heart, rather than hanging or dismemberment. “And yourself?” probed Qin, forcing the conversation past Shailani’s open mouthed silence.

“Sergeant. Battle choir section leader. Discharged, full colours.”

The two bare chested men were glistening with sweat. No contact had been made yet. Sona was tiring more quickly, the two swords heavier than he was used to. “So, a singer. Impressive, for not just an outlander in the Sixty-Seventh, but a woman to boot, and without Ophelia’s edict to protect her. Would you consider marrying into my sept? You would be a welcome addition.”

Shailani snorted. “I like my boys pretty and my girls hard, but you, sir, are neither. I’m afraid that I would be of little use to a sept. Nothing issues from my womb but dust.”

Qin laughed, the medals on his overcoat jingling. “There’s more than that for a treasure such as you. Teaching. Train my warriors, educate my tacticians. We are a rich sept, you know. Forgive an old soldier for being forward.” He turned back to the display. “Your boy fights like a man who has memorised a dictionary, but cannot string together a sentence.”

“He’s holding his own. You must excuse his reticence. Sona has the skills, but not the heart for killing.”

“Most of the Empire have it reversed. I’ve seen enough,” Qin said, and raised his hand to Lo. The Six Named fighter lunged, his spear extending its full eight feet to bury its point into the dust at Sona’s feet, the force of the strike curving the shaft of the spear like a bow. Sona dodged the telegraphed move easily, taking two steps backwards. Lo smiled at the young man, poised to make a counterattack, and pulled the tip out of the ground, the tension in the shaft releasing all at once, sending a fistful of grit into Sona’s face. The breath’s space it took for the younger fighter to clear his vision was enough for him to find Lo’s spearpoint at his throat.

Sounds of the Six Named orchestra tuning up filled the arena. Shailani always marvelled at the discordant tones, at odds with the polished Sound they would soon produce. Or attempt to. Six Named instruments were not the same as the Empire’s. Drums they had. Their trumpets and flutes carried higher tones, with an odd vibrato missing in the flared brass of the Empire. Instead of violins, they had little drummed cylinders topped by a single finger-thin wooden stem, played similarly with a bow.

The previous two days had seen Sona mobilizing the few within the Festival with any talent at composing, feverishly coaching them to transcribe Empire script into the complex notation used by the Six Named. Musicians practiced their parts whenever they got fresh sheets of music. It was impressive to behold.

Shailani took her place next to Qin as the orchestra prepared to play. “You’re helping Sona, even though he lost?” Shailani asked Qin.

“We asked for him to prove himself, not beat our warrior. A demonstration of his skill sufficed.”

“He could have gone through the forms.”

“Kata is to combat as masturbation is to lovemaking,” said Qin.

Sona was setting up his recording device on a wooden platform in front of the orchestra, near where the Conductor would stand. Maybe they would be able to play it, maybe they wouldn’t. The Six Named musicians were barely an orchestra by Empire standards, even the truncated ones that served in the army. Qin pointed at the mechanism. “What Empire devilry is that?”

Shailani stared at the elder for a while, looking for guile or subterfuge, and only found the eyes of one tired of killing. “A new form of horology, something that allows Sound to be trapped, and released at your whim.” Qin absorbed the news of the world-upending mechanism without blinking, one bare foot hitched up on his chair, picking at yellowing teeth with a fingernail. “A full orchestra’s sound in something no bigger than a travelling chest! You could push the Six Named borders back into the Periphery.” Shailani kept her voice just above a whisper, not trusting the other elders to be as circumspect as Qin, though she’d only known him for less than a day, and the chances of anyone else speaking the Imperial Common were low.

Qin looked beyond the orchestra, beyond the grassy steppes, beyond decades of discharged service and he shook his head. “The standing army of the Empire is half again as large as all of the Six Named combined. A beast so huge that it can only sustain itself by gnawing at the rest of the world. Do you know what happened after Angel’s Fall?”

She shook her head.

If it were possible, the lines on the older man’s face seemed to deepen, as though the recollection tore at old scabs and drew fresh blood to skin. “Our armies were reinforced; the Capital Sound sent another two regiments to the east. History is the story of the victors, but no one won in that campaign. Stories are told by those who are alive and unashamed. After the eastern purge, there were neither.” Shailani’d heard of the campaign of vengeance the Empire waged in the east after their initial defeat, the annexation of lands a full fifth of the Empire’s controlled span. No treaties, no surrenders. Just slaughter and parcelling out the lands to the campaign officers, and to the Houses of the Capital.

“We in the Sixty-Seventh were at the tip of the spear, led to believe that the easterners were less than human, the architects of Angel’s Fall. It was a massacre. We were blood drunk. Villages. We torched homes, farms. Women, children. Old. Young. We didn’t question a thing. At least not until it was over. Sure, I had doubts. It didn’t take a general’s stars to tell that a couple of old men with farm tools weren’t a threat. But the Sixty-Seventh were the incoming tide and I wasn’t about to get in front of it. When it was over, I was an anomaly, an outlander lieutenant. I retired back home. It’s taken me these decades to be able to sleep more than half the night without being woken by screams.” He turned to scrutinize Sona’s device. “No, Shailani, the Six Named will not stand against the Empire, not even with your heretical machine.”

Sona fussed, ensuring that his clockwork machine was running, angled optimally to capture the Sound from the orchestra. The young man nodded at the Conductor. If he was excited at the fruition of his life’s work, his clipped gestures did not betray it. The music started.

The similarity was faint for Shailani at first. In tone, Lady Han’s symphony took after a dirge, somnambulant and with the strings and winds keening across the open plains. Drums maintained a steady pace, heartbeat slow. The players grew restless, their instruments taking on a mechanical urgency that drove their playing fingers, wrists, arms, and lungs harder and harder. Only when the piece began to pick up did Shailani recognize it, given that her own people had given her naught but the briefest exposure to it. Ninety-nine in a hundred of her people would not have recognized it, but Shailani was a Keeper; she kept the words and she kept the songs. And this was one of the songs of the dead. Somehow, it had travelled the distance of the whole known world and was being played for her by a full orchestra instead of sung reverently by Keepers.

Something else grew in the space before the orchestra, a heat shimmer, a desert mirage. The patch of bare dirt wavered, as though seen through warped glass. Panic spread amongst the musicians, faces twisting as their individual parts poured from their instruments. Shailani was not sure if they were playing the music, or the music was playing them.

When it stopped, it was the pause after thunder, the stunned silence after a breaking wave. There were tears in the orchestra, others nursing cramped arms. Qin was as shocked as the rest of the council, but military training kicked in and he was soon barking orders in the sharp tones of the Six Named language. When others had stepped in to help, he gestured at Shailani and stormed towards Sona. There was a fire in his eyes, and Shailani no longer doubted that the old man with his clumsy propositions was the same one who would, without question, kill a mother, a child, a newborn. This was a man who would do all these things, and not call it murder, so bright was the fire.

“What has the Lady Han done?” he asked.

I’ve not heard the piece before, said Sona, quickly withdrawing the waxed cylinder from the device and stowing it about his person. Qin surged forward, drawing a phalanx of guards behind him. His genial features were knotted, chest heaving as though choking. Shailani circled to the side, gauging if she had enough time to get in between the guards and Sona if they attacked, wondering if she owed the man that much, or she should just let the Six Named deal with Six Named business, and get on with her own. The guards were ready to draw a variety of weapons; the Six Named favoured choice above standardization, and so there were stout axes, short swords, even a war club whose design she recognized a thousand leagues from home.

“Enough with your deception, outlander,” snapped Qin. “The Lady Han left us more than two decades ago, one of our brightest. And what comes back? You think we didn’t recognize our Music? The husk of it is there, but it’s been twisted, just like everything the Empire touches.”

My mother’s transgressions are not mine, pointed out Sona. I only came to hear it played, to see what it could do.

“Knowing this, young Sona of the Empire, what will you do with the music?”

Our arrangement was for the music, not my plans, Sona said. He leaned in closer to Qin, even though hardly anyone in the Six Named knew Fingerspeech. I’ve been running for a long time. No longer. Now I’ve got something of value. Something to use against those that hurt me. Better yet, something that can rattle the foundations of the Empire itself. I know people back in the Empire. People sidelined by the order of things, who will trade me power for this; we will strike, they at the Empire and me at House Deathsinger.

Holding the power to help millions and swearing to kill thousands. You are a little Empire unto yourself, Sona, said Qin, employing Fingerspeech again. You’re more Empire than Six Named. This nation withdraws her hospitality. You will leave the festival and Lo will escort you from our lands.

The Festival was nothing more than a smear of colour on the horizon.

Sona, reserved at the best of times, was even more so now, the hoofbeats of the shaggy northern horses and the multipede song the only conversation the party had, in contrast to the chatter of the inbound journey. Sona had saved his mother’s music, but to what end, and at what cost? Shailani’s own journey had already claimed one of the girls. She’d take her payment and leave, just as soon as they hit the border.

Shailani was alone with her thoughts, and she itched to be back with the other Keepers. To the Six Named Land and back, and she had delivered, regardless of Sona’s success. Leave him to his machinations, his schemes, let the two spirits take him. She’d already shirked her responsibility to her people for too long, and no matter how skilled they were, the other Keepers didn’t have Shailani’s grey hairs and cautious eye. Of the four others, only Ashikin had spent time out of Seribu. If Shailani hurried, she could pick up their trail, notwithstanding that her own quest seemed even more naive than the boy’s. That was her first instinct, the visceral need to protect, the soldier in her obeying an order. Instincts won fights. Shailani needed more to save her people. Like that device Sona was carrying. Force was an option, so was larceny, but both left her with an intricate contraption that she might not know how to work. She needed a little more time to learn its secrets.

“Why do you think your mother’s music didn’t work?”

The multipede stumbled when Sona ceased pedaling. I don’t know, he said over his shoulder.

“I think you do. She left the symphony incomplete.”

No one in the Empire can complete it. Those with the skill will not see the music, those with the music do not have the technique, Sona said.

“A child of both worlds could do it. You understand the Six Named, you have academy training. You were apprenticed to the horologists, you made your recorder. This is the Lady Han’s design.” This the half lie, much smoother a blend than the whole truth. Truth was bitter, lies too sweet, neither palatable on its own. Shailani had never been an assassin or a spy, but she’d seen her share of lies. She needed Sona’s plans and she wasn’t above perpetuating the lie Sona had been living. The other Keepers were trekking northwards, chasing a baseless legend. Shailani had never seen caves which trapped sound forever, but nestled in the multipede was a device that could. If only she could get her hands on it. No point in telling Sona she recognized his mother’s symphony. Maybe even knew what it was missing. Shailani couldn’t puzzle out why the Six Named and her people would share common songs when they were on opposite sides of the continent, but she stowed that conundrum with all of the other problems a soldier couldn’t solve.

“You want to kill the Lord Deathsinger, don’t you?” asked Shailani. Sona did not answer. “What kind of man was he?”

Aloof. Distant. Not just to me, to my sister as well. Less like a person and more like an ideal wrapped in skin. I don’t think he even saw people as people, just as tools for his plans and counterplans. Even as he planned to kill me, he made sure I was educated in both Sound and war. Just in case he needed me.

The Empire had a lot in common with a barrel full of hungry rats. Those at bottom were crushed by those at the top; those at the top were either fierce or lucky and if you stuck your hand in the barrel, you were likely to lose all flesh down to the bone. The Deathsingers were the rats on top, along with the other lords and ladies of the Houses, great and small.

“Can you kill him, when the time comes?”

Sona held his hand up, fingers extended to show Fingerspeech for yes, but he balled them back into his fist and hid it.

“You’d best not hesitate,” Shailani said. “He won’t.”

Do you hear that? asked Sona, peering into the distance.

Shailani called for Lo to hold up, dismounting to join Sona in his inspection of the horizon.

There, he said, pointing at a speck in the sky. His ears were sharper than hers, having not spent time in the military, but even Shailani could make out the tuneful refrain of an airship at this distance. Noisy beasts they were, suspended under a bladder of heated air, hulls extruding oars that terminated in canvas stretched over frames of wood, looking like the fins of a fish, paddling through the air, powered by Sound. Over the distant whine of the music bearing the ship aloft, there was something else, a high pitched whine of rapidly increasing volume.

“Cover, cover!” screamed Shailani, army instincts taking over, dragging Sona behind the multipede. The cannon shot struck the ground somewhere behind the group, kicking up divots of dirt and embedding itself deep within the ground. “Nobody move,” she said, pointing at Lo’s men, who’d already unslung their bows and notched whistlers. “That was just a rangefinder and a warning shot. If they wanted us dead, we’d be chunks on the ground before you notched a second arrow. Stand down. Return fire and we are all dead where we stand.”

Lo came up to stand with Shailani and Sona behind the lowered multipede, using the butt of his spear to prod at a clod of dirt that had been thrown twenty feet clear of the shot’s landing point. “Air navy or privateers?” he asked. Shailani shushed him. She heard the faint tones of gearmusic getting clearer the closer it got. The rhythmic mechanical cadence of notes forming the Symphony of War. Military, then. The speck had grown large enough that she could make out the sails and oars that propelled the craft through the air. They were pushing their crew hard, if they had all hands on deck instead of simply relying on the wind. She didn’t recognize the flags that the ship flew.

“Military,” she said. “What business does the Imperial Air Navy have with Six Named? There is no war here.”

Sona held up his palm, signalling for silence.

Not military, he said. They’ve finally caught me. Those are Deathsinger colours.

The airship landed just beyond whistler range. From that distance, it appeared a brigantine, a mid-sized airship. A single windsailor emerged, wearing the padded helmet and brass goggles of the profession; gearmusic kept it aloft, the tune holding it up in the sky mingled with the clanking of mechanisms that played it. The combined effect was deafening.

“They must be confident to send just one to negotiate,” said Lo.

The rangefinder shot was a warning. We are wholly within their power, said Sona.

The windsailor broke into a jog, and then a full on sprint, raising puffs of sand and dust with every footfall. Only Lo’s upheld palm kept his patrol from picking up their bows. The windsailor ripped off their helmet, revealing a ruddy cheeked woman, barely twenty, if even that. Her hair was cropped short, alabaster Empire skin showing through auburn stubble. The generous would have called her passing pretty; through most of the Empire, health was conflated with beauty, as it was wherever times were lean.

“Sona?” the windsailor asked, and Shailani detected the vocal control of one trained in the Symphony of Flow, the last of the great symphonies. A choral symphony, adherents of the Flow could use their voices as weapons or worse, with greater versatility than any single instrument. War choirs were dangerous, if limited in range; Shailani’d been in charge of one in the Irregulars. But if the sailor came alone and unarmed, then she was probably trained as a solo, a virtuoso. She’d seen a single virtuoso take down eleven enemy men-at-arms in battle; training for virtuosos was perhaps the most rigorous of all the musical disciplines. Many broke, but all cracked. Where, Shailani wondered, would the cracks in this one be?

Sona, for once, was at a loss, mouth agape and fingers silent. The woman stood taller than Sona and Shailani by far, easily able to look most men in the eye. The sailor pulled Sona in for a hug so fierce that it swept him up to the tips of his toes, but her face darkened when she let him go.

You’re dead, she said to Sona, her Fingerspeech so fast that Shailani could barely keep up. They told me you died at the Western Academy. You never contacted father. You never contacted me.

It was dangerous, he responded. The official story was raiders, but how did they get by the guards? They had Empire uniforms, sister. I saw them. I thought it safer for the House that I completed my training and work outside of the Capital Sound. I am done now, and have discovered something of great import to House Deathsinger, Sona said. Shailani frowned at the lie, though neither of the pair in front of her noticed. Shailani bit her lip. She was a soldier, not a spy, and she had no idea what game Sona was playing, nor what rules he was playing by. Which was an unenviable position, considering the airship had cannons pointed at them.

Shailani, said Sona, this is my sister, the Lady Canta. Cannie, this is Shailani of the Far Isles. She is currently my bodyguard and translator in the Six Named lands. Shailani saved my life on the Periphery.

House Deathsinger is in your debt, Lady Shailani, said Canta.

The Imperial Army had few interactions with nobility. Was she supposed to curtsy? Salute? Canta solved the problem for her by seizing Shailani’s hand in two of her own, the clasp warm and firm.

We must thank you in person back in the Capital, said Canta. Shailani half thought to refuse, to pick up the trail of the Keepers and catch up, but she looked over to Sona, who met her eye in a way that suggested that going to the Capital would be a very good idea indeed. Shailani turned to speak to Lo and the patrol. “Sona and I will take the airship. We will be safe. Your mission is complete.”

“We will keep watch until your flier crosses the border, not a moment before,” Lo said. He nodded at Sona. “No hard feelings about the fight?”

Sona signed to Shailani. “He said that he learned something new and is better for it,” she said. The two men clasped forearms. Sona did learn fast.

Canta tossed Sona the flier helmet. If it is dangerous for you to be known, she said. Shailani started the multipede, the mechanical beast tinkling and clanking as it followed, while Sona and Canta walked ahead.

When they were halfway between the watching escort and the airship, Canta took a scuffed brass box the size of a child’s fist from one of her multitudinous pockets. She tilted it, aligning the box to her long shadow across the wiry steppe grass. Operating a catch with her thumb, she sent mirrored flashes over to her waiting airship. Blinks came back in response, followed by a barrage of cannon fire, and then the screams of horse and man, shredded by hot flying metal.

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