March 2020

Adagio: Canta

Sona, on a quest for vengeance, has enlisted help of the Six Named to play a piece of heretical Music composed by his mother, the Lady Kristyk. Shailani found Sona harbouring a second secret, a device of his mother’s design, able to capture and replay any Music it hears, but the Music that Sona has brought is eerily familiar to her; containing elements of her own people’s holy songs, Music she was sent up north to preserve. On their way out of the Six Named land, Sona’s family, the House Deathsinger, caught up with them, and takes them back to the Capital under the watchful eye of Sona’s half-sister, Canta Deathsinger.

Are you still unhappy about the Six Named? asked Canta. Sona did not answer. They were on deck, the other sailors keeping a respectful distance from their commanding officer. Canta sighed, fogging up her flying goggles from the inside of her helmet. This one smelt of stale grease and a stranger’s sweat; Sona was still wearing her good helmet. Both she and Sona’s guest wore airship spares. Her brother had his back to the railing, turning his head to the side to watch the farmlands and roads a mile below, the landscape spread like a drawn map. The winds nearly drowned out the sounds of the crew.

I had no choice, brother. You did not lose five lives, you gained two. Father told me that I had to hunt down a traitor to House Deathsinger, a Six Named agent working against us, said Canta. He trusted me above all others, because anybody else could be bought, but you can’t buy me.

She could see Sona’s hands tighten on the railings, then relax and drop to his sides, ready. No expression there, and she couldn’t read his eyes through the smoked lenses.

The Empire is sick, brother. The army bleeds the treasury; the only way it survives is through rapine and pillage. We can do better. Father has set our House on a trajectory upwards; we and our friends can take back power from the Emperor.

I wasn’t suited for the army. I’m even less suited for your plots and subterfuge. I’ve been around the Empire since the Academy, Canta. Those that thirst for power are often ill suited to wield it. You’d do well to think about that, before you get caught up in something worse, said Sona.

It will be different, Canta said, hands growing more energetic. The world had seemed a much emptier place without her brother. Her father had begun taking her into his confidence when she started at the Central Academy, grand plans about taking down the rotten core of the Empire. Sona’s death had ripped a hole in her, and what had come back didn’t quite fill that space left in her soul. You could help, she said.

I’m not sure father has me in his plans anymore. He did send you to hunt down a traitor, did he not? asked Sona.

I’m sure he has his reasons. Empire factions have ears everywhere; best to keep it a secret, she said.

Even from you? asked Sona.

Even from me. The helmet stays on you at all times, whether or not my crew knows your face, she said.

How much longer to home? he asked.

Another week, perhaps, with a stop for supplies. Plenty of time to catch up, she said.

Maybe, he replied. It’s been a long time.

It had, and Canta felt further from her brother than ever. Do you remember when we used to race in the Skydock? she asked.

They weren’t races, I won most of them, he said.

I’ve beaten you before, Canta said, remembering the thrill of the chase and the wind rushing past her ears.

The week before your birthday? That was a gift.

It’s not my birthday next week, brother.

We’ll see if you’ve gone soft with the Capital, Cannie. When we get home, he said, and smiled for an instant, the brother she knew appearing for a heartbeat before he turned to face the wind.

The Skydock was the pride of the Capital. Spires of the palace might have been taller, but the flotilla of vessels at the dock, both military and civilian, was visible for miles around. The Angelfall had lines that distinguished her from the run of the mill brigantine, but Canta ordered her colours stowed and the ship berthed far from the Deathsinger piers anyway. Anything helped. The music carrying the brigantine aloft faded into silence, but the ship did not fall. All around them, audible even through the padded brass flying helmets they all wore, were the plodding tones of the Symphony of Industry.

The Skydock tower had an intricate system of organ pipes and whirling gears that ran a mechanical set of instruments, a horological marvel. The strong winds around the tower found their way through funnels and spun multitudinous windmills, flooding the entire Skydock with Sound, keeping all the vessels afloat in the air. Even the pull of the ground was lighter here. Canta could jump twice her height without even trying. Below, the Capital Sound covered the ground; from the grand palace in the north to the market quarter in the south. If she strained her eyes – and her eyesight was very good indeed – she could almost make out the Deathsinger manor on the edge of the Capital. People went about their business far beneath her, like so many ants. She sometimes wondered what it would be like to open up cannon fire from the Skydock, painting the streets below with hot iron projectiles. Holding people’s lives in her hands, it felt very much like being a god.

Her crew got busy unloading her ship, coaxing her brother’s multipede down the gangplank with some difficulty. He had always had a soft spot for those things. She sent the Far Islander ahead with her crew. Canta had business with her brother. She found him waiting for her at the bow, looking out at the hundreds of airships across the Skydock, bobbing with the ebb and flow of the deafening Symphony. He was wearing the spare helmet now.

We should get going, home is waiting, Sona said.

We haven’t spoken in years, brother. There’s never been anything we couldn’t tell each other, Canta replied.

Everybody grows up.

Things used to be simpler. The world used to be smaller. We knew how we fit in it. I wish we could go back, Canta said, her sigh misting the inside of her goggles. You said you wanted to see if the Capital had made me soft. Let’s see if the Periphery’s done the same to you. I need to know if my brother is still in there. Canta pointed to the far end of the Skydock. The tower radiated piers like spokes on a wheel, with berths for paying customers. Other airships jostled for space, illegally lashed to each other to keep them from drifting away. The harbourmasters overlooked anything, for a price. Urchins and feral child gangs had a game; a footrace from one end of the flotilla to the other, making death-defying leaps bolstered by the same Sound that kept everything in the air. It was not foolproof, and a few children were lost every year. Lost but not missed. Not just the poor though; Sona and Canta used to run those races on days they were meant to be schooled in the science of Sound and the glorious history of the Empire. But their tutor had favoured strong drink at least one evening a week, preferring to set them reading dusty books and sleep away his hangovers.

The stakes? asked Sona.

Your story, if I win. The truth, she said.

And if I win?

Freedom.

I didn’t know I was a prisoner, Cannie, Sona said.

Canta left that question in the air as she sprinted towards the stern of her ship. This was stupid. Beneath her. She had command of a ship, perhaps the best in House Deathsinger. A single misstep could cripple or kill her, the musical safety net notwithstanding. But here she was with the only person alive that really understood her. Time apart had thrown a wall up between them. Maybe she needed to go back to the beginning to see if they could ever be brother and sister again.

She imagined that Sona would be close behind. He had always been quick, but not as quick as her. Sona had indeed been the winner in most of their encounters, the competition equal parts a sprint and a puzzle of navigating the shortest route through moving airships.

The Capital opened up beneath her feet as she took a fifteen yard leap between two decks, the spread of ramshackle buildings a rot on the plains below. Her heart was pumping, sweat pooling inside the rough fabric of her flier’s gear. She could see Sona catching up, his route diverging from hers. Canta was playing it safer, staying near the central spire of the Skydock, where the ships were densely packed, guaranteeing her next steps. Sona, on the other hand, was taking greater risks for a route which let him run at full speed, where the ships were less occupied and wider spread. His gambit was paying off. Canta was faster than she’d ever been, having spent most of her last few years amongst the clouds on ships like the Angelfall, and her footing on the bobbing decks was sure. Still, Sona had covered more ground than her, his tight frame allowing him to navigate the cluttered airship decks and swearing sailors.

Canta had a clear route to the finishing point, the end of the furthest pier from her ship. She put on a burst of speed, hoping to catch up with Sona. What she saw made her snort with laughter even as her breath dragged at her throat like a whetstone. Sona’s gamble had failed him. As the ships grew sparser along his route, he was forced to make increasingly longer jumps. Until he skidded to a halt. A ship had launched, leaving a gap even beyond what his Sound enhanced bounds could cover. Landing in between ships was not without danger; the momentum of such a leap would surely punch him straight through the gentle lift of Sound carrying them all, and send him to his death below.

Canta pressed on, narrowing the gap. She was just about to catch up when Sona threw something from the ship he was trapped on. It looked to be a hatch cover he’d teased loose from the ship, flung in a mighty two-handed swing like a giant stone skipping across a lake. The wooden square spun slowly, buoyed in the air by Sound. Sona took a running jump, only managing half the distance between himself and the finishing line. Canta gasped as Sona hit the hatch and made a second jump, sending the wood to the ground below and pitching him to the finish line just before Canta crossed it.

Her brother was doubled over and wheezing with the effort, and Canta did not feel much better, collapsing in a heap at his feet.

What now? she asked, considering her options, wondering if Sona had kept up with his unarmed combat. Wondering if she could overpower him or if she even wanted to.

You’ve gotten faster, he said, pulling Canta to her feet, his grip firm. His journeys had not softened him, much the opposite.

Nice move. You could have died out there, she replied. Your travels haven’t made you any smarter.

Spoken like the same girl who couldn’t stand losing, said Sona. He paused, as though considering a dilemma of his own. Her brother drew a sheath of folded paper from his coat. Canta recognized his neat, compressed writing, filling each sheet from edge to edge.

Every month I was away, I wrote you a letter. It’s all in here, he said.

You won, you know, she said, her Fingerspeech slowed by the numbness of her hands after the run.

Maybe, he said. I’ve changed my mind about the prize. What I want is for you to trust me. Come on, it’s been a long time since I was home.

“So you’ve never been to the Capital?” asked Canta, while walking Shailani through the Deathsinger grounds. Sona had been holed up in the guest quarters since they arrived the day before and the Lord Antius was not expected back for some days yet, and she thought to get to know Sona’s companion a little better. Unless Canta was mistaken, the ornaments holding up Shailani’s braided hair were sharper than they had a right to be. Shailani had traded the Six Named outfit for clothes in the Empire style; not the court dresses, but the comfortable training clothes of Deathsinger initiates.

“I’ve never been this deep in the Empire.” When the grey-haired woman spoke, her tones had the twang of the low counties. Army, then; all conscripts spoke that way.

“Deathsinger lands are on the outskirts of the Capital. We’re far out because this used to be a fortified lookout, so the rooms are just shy of comfortable. It used to have its own spring, proof against any siege, even if the Capital has grown far beyond the old borders. Look,” said Canta, pointing at mossy stone bricks overgrown with twisting vines and hairy nettles. “The spring has dried up, but the old aqueducts remain. Sona and I used to get into that one all the time. It leads all the way out of the grounds. One of the only exits that the guards don’t know about.”

“That’s an odd thing to tell a guest, Lady Canta, let alone a prisoner. You’re treating us well, but I have not seen or spoken to your brother since we arrived here. Nor have I been out without an escort.”

“The Capital is a dangerous place, especially for members and guests of the Houses. My brother is unpredictable. When we docked, I thought I had him back, but he’s retreated into himself since he’s been here. My father is not a forgiving man. My brother may need your help getting out.”

Canta forced those last words out; her father was not infallible, but she’d not doubted or defied him. Even this small betrayal took effort. The Lady Shailani was silent until they reached the fortress proper now. The night chill clung to the stones. Servants and singers alike bowed their heads when they passed Canta. She took care to acknowledge them with a nod or a smile as they went about their business. The other woman seemed unwilling to pursue the earlier conversation.

The Lady Shailani brushed the brass tubes snaking along the walls. “These look like those you have on airships,” she said.

Canta nodded. “Speaking tubes, the latest in artifice for these grounds. Speak in one room, hear in another. Much better than anything you’ll see down in the Far Isles. What is my brother to you, Lady Shailani?”

Lover? She didn’t seem like Sona’s type. If he even had one. Her brother was always so serious. Partner in crime? Perhaps. But what crime, exactly?

The older woman took slightly too long to answer. “Six of us were captured by Periphery brigands. Sona proposed a trade, my service as a translator for an opportunity for my five companions to escape.”

“My brother fell in with brigands?”

“He was doing the accounts.”

Canta allowed herself a small laugh. Her brother had always been good with numbers, one of the top students at the Western Academy. She had been better at the physical disciplines; even music theory was beyond her. She’d still been within the top three students at the Central Academy, at least in combat trials. Her father’s choice of schools for his two children still puzzled her. Even with his impediment, Sona could have had the best pickings of the army or maybe in the government with one of the Maestri. Not within House Deathsinger, there was no place with one with his shortcoming in a choral House. Certainly not in the labyrinthine plots of the insurgency that her father had been plotting. Too much deference to authority in her brother. He’d never be a leader, but he’d be the best damn second in command anyone could ask for. Too much honour as well, but honour was only a cheap excuse for those unwilling to make hard choices.

The Lady Kristyk, now that woman had been a leader. Canta felt her loss even more keenly than she did her own mother’s. Canta’s mother had been high born as well, a distant relation to the Maestro of Order. Raised by governesses, she had taken the same dispassionate approach with Canta, fobbing the growing girl off to tutors or playmates. Not so the Lady Kristyk, and her two foreign born attendants (Canta had often heard Chun and Fong refer to the Lady Kristyk by her foreign name, but much preferred the refined tones of her Empire name). The Lady Kristyk had been more of a mother to Canta than her own; Canta’s eventual success at the Central Academy had as much to do with the Lady Kristyk’s foundational blade training as talent. She still kept a locket with the Lady’s hair around her neck, thinking perhaps that she’d braid it into her own if she ever grew her hair out. Perhaps after she gave up flying.

The Lady Shailani gave up no more secrets on the rest of the tour, and the conversation tired Canta. She bid the other lady goodbye at the guest quarters, and nodded to the guards standing watch.

The Lord Deathsinger was due in hours. Sona remained closed to Canta, giving nothing and only asking for a single favour of her. A simple package for the Lady Shailani, but for what purpose he would not say. But first she needed to win the Lady Shailani over.

Canta led the Lady Shailani past the various studies, the sitting rooms, until they reached a small vestibule, lushly decorated in a bid to hide the practical and martial nature of the place. It had previously been the room where she and Sona took their studies before their academy training. Sometimes with tutors, other times with the Lady Kristyk. Canta fingered the abacus the Lady Kristyk had brought over from the Six Named land, eliciting glittering dust and the clack of stones within a wooden frame.

“Sona always did like his numbers. There’s a small library in the next room. Would you believe Sona found one of the old passages there? A treatise on geometry hid a lever. Disappointment that the book wasn’t real outweighed curiosity at the secret path.”

“And you’ve delivered him to the one place he doesn’t want to be.”

Canta couldn’t yet piece the two versions of her brother she saw. The one on the Angelfall, so eager to be back in the Deathsinger manor, and this reticent one that the Lady Shailani was describing. He’d always been the schemer between the two of them, the brains behind their joint mischief. His little sojourn had made him complicated, made his plans inscrutable. Again, she felt the keenness of the absence of the brother she remembered, as though he hadn’t really returned and the glimpse of the old Sona at the Skydock had been a daydream. She needed to know more. Both about her brother and the outlander.

“Oh, Lady Shailani, only my brother’s word kept me from leaving you with the Six Named to feed the carrion birds. He’s home. He told me as much. Now, my House sent me to retrieve a traitor. I track him for half a year and it turns out to be my brother. I’ve not failed my House before, and I’m not about to start now. What I want to know is why my House branded him such and didn’t tell me. Now, Far Islander.”

“I think that’s between you and your House isn’t it? Your job is done. They say Sona’s a traitor and your succession is clear, is that it? That’s how you do it in the Empire?” asked the Far Isles woman, her soft slur all the more mocking, half twitch at the corner of her mouth. Canta felt pressure in her temples and behind her eyes, her left hand dropping to a sword hilt that wasn’t there. She had to earn the Lady Shailani’s trust, for her brother’s sake, but she’d be damned if she’d let an outlander talk down to her.

“Look at you, wearing Empire clothes, flown over by the power of Empire music, living under Empire masonry. Shall I go further? Fighting in the Empire style, the civilization of your people an Empire gift. Your writing, your government. Empire gifts. That is how we do it in the Empire, we give.”

The foreign woman was suddenly livid, not a raging forest fire, but a furnace fire. Not just one that could eat wood, but one that could melt steel. Yes, this Lady Shailani had killed before, of this Canta was sure.

“It’s the contrary, Lady Canta. The Empire takes. Its hunger is endless. All the gifts you speak of, that’s what Empire shits out after it eats the good in every place. Seribu would have found the good it needed in its own time,” said Shailani, and her tone would have made the Lady Kristyk smile.

Seribu. Oh, the Far Isles. Names were confusing to Canta; the sciences and histories were Sona’s area of expertise. She sighed. She was no closer to understanding Sona, and the Lord Deathsinger was due home soon. Canta worried for her brother. Her father was a complicated man, and shared little of his plans, even with Canta. She trusted her father, but she’d been sent up north to kill. Sona was too stubborn to take her help. So she needed a fallback. Sona needed a fallback. Shailani was all she had.

“Lady Shailani, you are here, in House Deathsinger. Things are in play. You are meeting my father in three hours. Sona has his own plan, but he needs someone to watch his back. What binds you to him?”

“Blood debt, for the five sisters he saved,” said Shailani, but Canta discerned the split second of hesitation there. The Far Islander wanted something more, but as long as it kept Sona alive, Canta could not have cared less.

“Good. Sona wanted you to have this,” Canta said, handing over the things her brother had given to her, sheets of music wrapped around what seemed to be a waxed cylinder, scored through with fine lines. Finding out her brother was still alive had been a ray of light for her, a promise of family, somebody that could look at her without weighing her usefulness to the cause of reforming the Empire. Even her father saw her that way, a tool, unique in her loyalty because of her lineage, and all the more useful for the most delicate, the dirtiest work. She’d read through the music. It looked choral, but nothing like she’d ever seen before. Canta was complicit in Deathsinger plots, but the Houses plotted all the time. The secret histories whispered between the nobles said as much. But this, this new endeavour of Sona’s was of a different order. Unsanctioned composing, heretical music. This undermined the very basis of the Empire. Still, Sona was her brother, and better his life than the Empire. She allowed herself her second smile of the day when it hit her that Sona would always be ahead of her; in succession, in the academy, and now, in treason and rebellion. Uncharted territory, but following Sona into trouble was blessedly familiar. Some things were impossible to grow out of, she supposed.

Canta escorted the pair to the audience room, where the Lord Antius Deathsinger held court. He was due back from the central Capital any time, and Canta had to ensure the audience was set up correctly. Sona had been sequestered in the guest quarters since he’d arrived, Canta seeing to his meals and needs herself. His requirements were blessedly small, a benefit from his travels. Nevertheless, the servants were already talking, and the secret could not be kept much longer. Sona walked beside her now, still in flier gear, with a servant behind him, bearing something Sona wanted to present to father, some complicated contraption with gears as small as those of clocks, moving spindles, and the like.

The audience room was ornately decorated, fashioned after the more opulent trappings of the Maestri, but only superficially so. The furs here were more common, the tapestries less vibrant, the silks more coarse. Father saved the Deathsinger purse for the cause. The chamber was guarded by Deathsingers, outside and within. Six inside, each a product of ten years of hard training, able to kill with voice, weapon, or empty hands.

Lord Antius entered the room behind them, making his way past the guards, down the length of the room, past the waiting trio and Sona’s assembled device. He took his seat at one of a pair of large, carved chairs at the head of the room. Far Isles wood, dark as blood under the moonlight, harder than the jaws of termites. The other chair was empty, and had been so since the death of the Lady Kristyk. Canta smiled at her father, who did not smile back. She could see herself in him, but not in Sona. Tall and severe, hair turning to grey at the temples, Lord Antius was thinner than he used to be, but imposing nevertheless. These days, he subsisted less on sleep and food than on his machinations with his conspirators, but he had never had more energy.

Sona, he said, you can take that off. I knew your sister didn’t have it in her to kill you.

The flier helmet hit the ground. Canta always wondered, as she did again, about the potency of Six Named blood, so different did her father and brother look.

Father, said Sona, his Fingerspeech slow and deliberate, are you sure you want to have this conversation in front of Canta and your attendants?

She can stay. She deserves to know and to be tested by knowledge. How else will she build a new Empire? asked Antius.

Was the Western Academy a test? The murder of your wife? asked Sona, taking a step forward. Antius held up a hand. The guards stopped, the fastest of them already past Canta. What was Sona accusing her father of? Sona had claimed Empire involvement in the razing of the Western Academy, but there were children of all Houses there. Of all the Houses, the double tragedy that befell House Deathsinger at the massacre put them the furthest from suspicion. Or so she’d believed.

The Lord Antius signed to Sona, but his gaze was on Canta. Another test, everything was a test. The ascendancy of our House was not easily won. Power comes with position, and with continuity. Continuity of blood. House Deathsinger would not have the support of the older Houses if the mantle would one day pass to you, Sona. Your mother was a remarkable woman, even if the Six Named streak in her was never tamed. Few things keep me awake at night. Your mother’s death is one of them, he said.

Canta felt the same vertigo, the same ground sickness she felt after a long flight, as though the flat earth itself were rolling and yawing. Sona’s expression had relaxed, as though a weight had been lifted from him. Shailani on the other hand, wore something much more inscrutable, a small frown of confusion.

Sona had reached his device. Canta had checked it herself. No blades, no darts, no poisons. Nothing capable of touching the Sound either; no bells, no strings. What was that thing?

Not as mother spoke to me, Antius. No Fingerspeech. I want to hear you say it, said Sona.

“Sona, we need not go through this. I loved your mother. I have no enmity towards you. Your death would have been quick, under the guise of a larger raid, to be blamed on separatists and insurgents. House Deathsinger would be inherited by Canta, Empire blooded and highborn,” said Antius. His voice, unlike his body, had not withered and possessed the same low baritone that he could use to crush rock or pulp bone.

“Your own son?” asked Canta, drawing all eyes around the room.

“Honour is only for those that are too weak to make the hard choices, girl. The future of the Empire and of the House is paramount. I did this for you. What I do next, I do for you.”

Hold, Lord Antius, a trade for my freedom and that of my companion, said Sona. The Lady Han sent me to complete her work, work that she only fed you crumbs of. You believed, against the catechism of the Empire Sound, that music could be trapped, and replayed. This is the player. The recorder will be sent to you when our freedom is assured, and you will never see me or Shailani again.

The Lord of House Deathsinger drew himself to his full height and advanced on his remaining kin. “So, she finally completed it. You needed me to speak and not use Fingerspeech because your machine both traps and releases Sound. You would have made a better Lord Deathsinger, I think, but betrayal is a skill that you’ve not practiced.” He nodded to the guards, who drew their weapons, clucked to clear their throats to deploy Sound.

In a heartbeat, Sona and his companion would be dead. Canta just hoped, as she lobbed the pair of double-walled glass ampoules at the ground between them, the volatile mix igniting and producing acrid smoke, that the Far Islander was worth whatever she was being paid. The opening bars of the guards’ deadly songs turned into coughs and choking sounds. Quicker on the uptake than most, the Lady Shailani covered her mouth with a sleeve to filter out the smoke. She had already drawn out a black cylinder from the contraption, swapping it for another from about her person. Was that the one that Canta had passed to her? Sona had already liberated a sword from one of the coughing guards, despatching the guard with quick cuts to the hamstring and shoulder, turning to face those recovering from their convulsions.

Canta met the eyes of her father, looking down at her over steepled fingers. Sona was good, but not good enough for these odds. Her hand rested on the hilt of her short sword. The weapon was the perfect length for fights on airships, short enough to swing in the tight corridors and decks without snagging, but here the guards had the advantage in arms. She’d already sealed her fate when she smoked out the singers. Wetting her blade was just an afterthought. The Lord Deathsinger already knew what she was going to do, and he looked away. He had tested Canta, and she had failed. Of the two Sonas she brought back from the Six Named land, this was the true one. The one that the Lady Shailani saw, the one that was going to betray House Deathsinger. Her father had told her the truth – she had brought back a traitor. But still she could not let her brother die. She drew her sword just as the music started.

Canta had never heard its like before, and part of her academy training had been the study of all four major Symphonies and the minor pieces that made up Empire canon. This was something completely new, and that meant a Composer outside of the Empire’s control. What heresy had her brother wrought? His device was clever, but this? A new composition, outside of the will of the Emperor? That chipped away at the very foundations of the Empire. There was a reminder in the very naming of the Empire Sound – that the Empire drew its power from Sound and that all Sound belonged to the Empire. The music itself had a numbing effect, the air itself vibrating. It reminded her of the times she had taken her airship over deserts or the sea, and seen the mixing of layers of air, the flow warping and distorting the view of everything beyond it. Guardsmen and women were coughing, still trying to clear their throats of acrid smoke. Canta gave one last look at her father and stepped forward to defend her brother. That was when the Far Islander began to sing.

The words were less familiar than the tune. They must have been in Shailani’s own tongue. Canta’s blade dripped. The heretical music grew in volume and in effect; she felt the power of it in her bones. The ebb and flow of combat threw her beside her brother. She looked into his face for the slightest sign of guilt, of any regret for bringing this monstrosity into their home. There was nothing there, nothing but the concentration of a man fighting, not desperately, but with little more passion than he’d put into sword drills. He’d planned this. Maybe not the sequence, but that here, in front of their father, he would unleash something dark and forbidden. Canta wanted to scream, to turn her blade against her brother, to deploy her own Sound against her blood. Nothing came out. That was when Canta saw her.

Indistinct at first, a heat mirage of a woman. The outline fleeting and wavering at first, but her form emerging, as though she were stepping out from a fog. A woman made out of the same distorted light that the Sound was blanketing the room in, visible in form the same way an eddy or a whirlpool was visible, composed of fluid but given shape, and that shape was of the Lady Kristyk. Her approach stilled the fighting, as both the guards and Sona stared at the woman made out of Sound.

The Lord Deathsinger was on his feet, and there should have been fear on his face, as there was on the faces of all the guards, unsure of whether to advance in the face of this strange and perverted Sound. Instead there was something serene in his visage, something Canta had not seen before.

“I’m sorry,” said the Lord Deathsinger to the apparition. And it was a day for firsts, because Canta had not heard those words pass his lips all her life.

And the woman made of Sound spoke, and when she spoke it was with the foreign words of the Far Islander, it was with the crash of the musical instruments of the land of her birth; the clang of metal, the wail of strings, the blaring of trumpets. She looked at the Lord Deathsinger, engineer of her kidnapping and her captivity, and she said that she forgave him. She leaned in to kiss him on the lips, and when she drew back, the man was dead on his feet, a single tear of blood welling up from one eye and rolling down his cheek, a trail of crimson against his white skin.

Sona was up beside his father, rushing past him, not to catch the collapsing man but to activate the speaking tubes to the rest of the fortress. His face was twisted at the sight of his mother, as though he had not expected the music to call her back. The Far Islander, Shailani, was clawing at her throat, the words coming out ragged but still drawn from her involuntarily, as though the music sat unhappily on her stomach and was only now coming forth in a continuous stream of bile and lyrics. Canta still had her sword in her hands, and she took a step towards her brother.

The Lady Kristyk was less kind to the guards; her touch was gentle but the effects were not. Bone folded in on bone, the snaps like cannon fire in the enclosed space, white shards erupting from liveried uniforms. Then there were four in the room, the traitor, the singing foreigner, the angry ghost of a woman she would have once called mother. And her, heir to House Deathsinger. Outside, the screams were just starting.

Her death stalked her, through the swirling dregs of the smoke on the floor, around the corpses of the guards. The Lady Kristyk, with murder in her eyes and killing in her touch, gaining on her. Soon she’d be cornered, the same fate for her as for her father and the guards. She faced her reckoning on her feet, back to a wall and with her sword ready. Until Sona put himself between her and his mother.

He said something, something that she couldn’t see from behind him. The Lady Kristyk was not to be appeased, halving the distance between her and him in a single surge. She was nearly upon him when the crash of wood and metal onto the ground brought the music to an end. The apparition vanished.

Sona spun around, palms up and open, weaponless.

This was not what I wanted. I can explain, he said.

House Deathsinger in ruins; the dream of reform dead and cooling on flagstones like her father. The entire conspiracy, headless and lost, until the Empire’s spymasters closed in, putting them each under question and torture.

“No,” said Canta, finally finding her voice, remembering her brother’s hand on the speaking tubes. “It’s exactly what you wanted.” She stepped forward and put her sword in his gut. Another second more and she would have twisted her blade, spilling his bowels out onto the floor, to join her father’s blood and her own tears.

Was she crying for the father taken from her or the brother she had lost?

Sona looked away, unwilling to meet her gaze as she killed him. No matter. She tensed, ready to finish it. Shailani hit her from the side, coming in quick from her blind spot. That woman knew how to fight, her first kick a heeled stomp to the side of Canta’s leg. Something in her knee gave way. But Canta didn’t need weapons to kill, her voice had always been her most potent weapon.

She was still inhaling when the knife edge of Shailani’s hand struck her in the throat.

##

Codetta: Sona refrain

The chills woke Sona up, his fevered body soaked with sweat. His torso would not obey him. Under the blanket, he found bandages, damp with sweat and sticky with blood. A hunched man was nearby, wringing out a damp cloth into a metallic tray. Shailani was beside the bed, dozing while slumped backwards on a chair. The man laid the cloth on Sona’s brow and shook the woman.

Shailani sniffed, cleared her throat and spat on the floor. The man grimaced.

“You’re awake,” she said, her voice still ragged from the strain of the Lady Han’s song.

Where are we? he asked, signing with one hand while the other pressed down on his stomach. The pain was coming in waves now.

“Old military network, hospital for pensioners and veterans. Very discreet for those who’ve served,” Shailani said, showing Sona the colours of the Sixty-Seventh she had tattooed over her forearm.

How did we get out? asked Sona.

“Your sister had a plan, a failsafe. She showed me a way out. Of course, she didn’t expect to stick you through the belly first. Wasn’t a need to sneak out after your Music had done its job. Thank the spirits for that multipede of yours; I don’t think I could have hauled your ass out of that forsaken fortress.”

Sona lay back on his hard pallet, the muscles in his middle complaining and aching.

I didn’t think that was what the music would do, he said. When he closed his eyes, Sona could see a woman made out of Sound tearing through the guards, parting flesh like so much wet paper. He did not want to remember his mother like that.

“You had some idea after the festival.”

Sona folded his arms, remaining silent. He had, of course. The Empire had reduced the Sound to its martial components but there was more to it than any Empire Composer understood. The Lady Han had not grown up within the Empire canon. She had other ideas, melding the baser musics of her homeland into an Empire symphony, and touching parts of the Sound that had never been delved before.

Did anyone see us flee? he asked, not ready to discuss his mother’s music.

Shailani stretched, arching her back like a cat. “I honestly didn’t have time to check, being busy with running for my life and you leaking blood all over me.” She paused. “Probably. They’ll be questioning those left alive.”

Canta? he asked.

“Alive, probably. I didn’t kill her. Spirits knew she deserved it for what she did in the Six Named land. She was dear to you, though.”

I thank you for sparing her, although she’ll make us regret it someday.

“Empire’s a big place. Hell, so’s the Capital.”

Canta can be very single minded. She found me once, after all. Not just her. My father had allies here. Friends in the shadows. The Capital is a dangerous place for us now. Thank you for saving me, said Sona, turning his head to look at Shailani. It gets muddled after she stabbed me. What happened to the device?

“Destroyed. Though it took more strength than you know for me to have done it. We could have used that to save the dying language of my people.”

So those were the words you sang, said Sona.

“Your Music, my words. It’s something… sacred to my people. The Six Named recognized it as well. When Canta gave me the music, I was sure. It’s the same music my sisters were trained in, something to ease the passing of the dead from this world to the next.”

We wouldn’t have gotten out without it, Sona said, and snorted. So I’ve won, I’ve thought long about bringing justice to my father, and now that the House has fallen. All it cost me was my sister. Maybe my father and I are not so different after all.

Shailani put her hand on his arm. “You fought your own war. We all carry something out.”

Even retired sergeants? asked Sona.

“Even us. Where to for you?”

I’ve been on the move so long, nowhere feels like home. I can’t stay here. The Six Named land will not have me. Maybe Pendulos. There’s still my mother’s research there, things I can do. Her plan for me was never revenge, or to follow in her work. She was uncovering things forgotten by the Empire, in the music she was writing. Something you helped me see when you completed her Music. Or the devices she had people working on, like the piece I brought here. It would be nice to build something again.

“You’re always running away to tinker with things. I once asked you if you wanted to change the world, and you opted for vengeance. Even your sister believed in building a better world.”

Sona paused. Of the sacrifices he thought he would have to make on his quest, he had never considered his sister. He’d taken everything from her, and all while she trusted him.

Revenge has already cost me the only family I had left, he said. He could not meet Shailani’s eyes and his hands were shaking. But I did what I had to, right?

“Good. You’re growing up. And do you harbour your family’s ambitions?” asked Shailani.

I’m not like Cannie, thinking that I can save the Empire, or jostling for power with the other houses. I’m a child of the Empire, but I’m done growing in its shadow. I’ll never be Six Named. I’m not going to be Empire. I’ll find my own way, answered Sona, and that seemed to satisfy Shailani.

She left the room and a familiar tinkling tune followed her back in. Sona was pleased to see the multipede again. He’d grown attached to the thing and missed the banal little ditty that kept him company up the Periphery.

“You say you’re not Empire, but you still put yourself at the centre of the world. There’s nothing more Empire than that. Do you realise you’ve not spared a word to ask about me since you woke up?”

The last words were spoken loud enough to bring the attendant from the next room. Shailani waved the man away. Sona was unaccustomed to guilt, or perhaps his heart only had room for the guilt of letting his mother save him. He wouldn’t have finished his own journey without Shailani. Each of her words felt like a blow.

Sona winced as he swung his feet off the bed onto the floor. It’d be some time before he healed. Shailani’d repaid her blood debt many times over. More than that, she was the closest he’d come to having a friend since he started his journey.

It has been a long road for me, Shailani. It has been difficult to trust anyone since the Academy. You’ve done more than I asked at the Periphery, and asked for nothing in return. You’re even further from your goal than when we started, he said.

Shailani was still for a moment, the room silent, as though everything held its breath for her answer. “I was bound by honour for a while, but we only agreed that I’d help until you left the Six Named.” She looked up. “For a while, I was hoping to steal your machine, bring it back home for my people. Maybe I just wanted to see you beat the Empire, or at least a little corner of it,” she replied.

Thank you for getting me here. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a friend, he said.

“I can’t stay in the Capital. Like you said, I’m further away from the other Keepers than I ever was.”

Pendulos is too warm for my liking at this time of the year. You might need someone who’s been around the north, he said. Shailani smiled, and it was a rare thing to see her face crease up with joy.

“You needed bandits as tour guides.”

You were kidnapped by peasants, he said.

Shailani offered him a hand and helped him to his feet. “To the north?”

North it is.

Your thoughts?