Sarya sat on a small rise on the gently rolling prairie with her battered lute in her arms, picking out a new melody that she could hear in the wind. The breeze was sharp with coming winter, and the grass was dry and brown. With the cold weather coming on, it was time to head south again.
She hadn’t done as well in the northeastern provinces as she had hoped. The region’s rich farming and herding had suffered from the last several years of increasingly long and harsh winters, and though the northern prairies weren’t as poverty-stricken as the bleak and destitute Burnt Hills, where she had grown up, there were still few coins to spare for a traveling minstrel.
She turned her thoughts away from the grim mining town of her childhood and the poor prospects ahead of her, back to the haunting music that teased at her mind. She had always been able to hear music no one else could hear. When she entered the Skola at Sucevita when she was fourteen, she had learned that these melodies, called tropes, were part of the natural world and could be used to control the world. Then, several years ago, she had begun to hear music that couldn’t be found in any of the collections of naturally-occurring tropes. Along with this new music came disasters unlike any ever before seen: long, dry, scorching summers and harsh, bitterly cold winters; great shakings of the earth, unheard-of since the Days of Creation; outbreaks of bloodthirsty hostilities between previously peaceful nations; plagues that ravaged entire cities. Neither the known tropes nor any newly-Composed chants, which should have been able to counter these disasters, had any effect at all.
And then there was the last wedding ritual that Sarya had Arranged. A protective chant she had Composed had not only failed, it seemed to have brought about the very calamity it was supposed to prevent.
What had gone wrong with the wedding ritual? And what was going wrong with the world? These questions had been troubling Sarya for months. The only answers she could think of were that the chants were losing their power or there were new forces at work in the world that the chants couldn’t influence.
But both of these were impossible. The music that controlled the world was a gift from Eshalarian the Creator, which He had given to mankind before moving on to new worlds and new creations. It was perfect, eternal, and unchanging. It couldn’t fail. And unless Eshalarian had returned His attention to this world, no new forces could come into existence. Surely, if the generous and loving Creator were to return to His work here, He wouldn’t do so by bringing death and destruction.
A gust of icy wind rushed across the prairie, blowing strands of wheat-gold hair into Sarya’s eyes, and she lifted her hand to brush the hair away from her face. As she did so, the wind rippled across the lute strings, bringing forth in its fullness the melody she had been hearing. Her breath caught at the beauty of the music even as its power chilled her heart with fear.
Something new was indeed at work – or something so old it had long been forgotten. If there were answers to be found, it was time to go find them, before the terrifying promise of the music she was hearing in the wind became reality. Sarya slipped her lute back into its worn-out case and then, instead of heading for the warmer weather and promise of easier living on the southern coast of Msaka Dolna, she turned west towards the great city of Sucevita and the Skola, where she had thought she would never return.
***Eight months earlier***
Sarya put her pen down, rubbed her eyes, and stretched. Rostan Kuhe, the Choirmaster’s young assistant, stood on the other side of the cluttered work table, fidgeting anxiously with the sleeves of his gray Skola robe. “Master Jiu wants the rest of those parts now, dyr-Rusac,” the boy said. “He’ll eat me alive if I don’t come back with them!”
What time was it? Sarya wondered. Here in this back corner of the Neumatorium, walled in by high shelves filled with books, she couldn’t tell if it was night or day outside. Hours or even days could have passed while she was absorbed in arranging tropes into a wedding ritual that would be as beautiful as it was powerful. “He can have this Arrangement done quickly, or he can have it done right,” Sarya said, irritated at the interruption. “The Naita and Arascas families had a lot of requests and I’m trying to fit it all in so the ritual doesn’t last half a day and sound like cats fighting.”
“Don’t you have anything I can take back to him? Just so he won’t shout at me?”
Sarya sighed. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that Master Jiu was impatient and short-tempered. She hated giving out parts to sections she was still working on, but, knowing the Choirmaster, Rostan was facing a good scolding at the least, and probably several days on kitchen duty, if he came back empty-handed. She searched through her papers and handed several sheets to him. “Here. This should keep the choir busy long enough for me to finish this. Tell Master Jiu that I said the rest of it will be ready in the morning, and that’ll still give him a full day to rehearse before the wedding. If he has a problem with that, he can take it up with me.”
Rostan looked even more unhappy. “I’ll tell him that.” He left with the handful of parts.
Sarya dug the master copy of the unfinished Arrangement out from under the papers she had scattered, dipped her pen in ink, and set to work again.
She was adjusting the tropes in the next section of the ritual into a more pleasing arrangement when she heard someone approach her table; Rostan, most likely, back to torment her some more on behalf of Master Jiu. Reluctant to break her concentration, she ignored whoever it was.
Then a soft, accented female voice said, “You are Sarya dyr-Rusac, no?”
Sarya let out an impatient sigh and set her pen down hard on the table. “Yes, that’s me.” She looked up to see two women standing across from her. Their faces were draped in embroidered lace veils after the custom of the eastern coast of Msaka Ras, the great southern island-continent. One wore the colorful lace of a matron; the other was draped in the white lace of a young unmarried woman.
“I am sorry to disturb you,” the woman in colored lace said. “I am Sinora Naita.”
Sarya could have guessed that; the only people from Msaka Ras she had had dealings with recently were members of the Naita family, whose daughter’s wedding ritual she was working on – or trying to work on – at this very moment.
“And this is my daughter, Sinorina Babiri,” Sinora Naita said. “We are glad you are the one who is Arranging her wedding ritual. We have heard you are the best.”
It was far from the first time Sarya had received such praise, but she still felt a little jolt of surprise and disbelief each time, especially since most of the people who had occasion to compliment her abilities were so far above her in birth, wealth, and station that they might as well live on different worlds. She doubted that the people who praised her Arrangements would still feel the same way if they knew how low her origins and background really were.
“Thank you.” With that, she hoped they would leave.
“May we sit?” Sinora Naita asked.
Never be rude to the patrons was the second rule of the Service. Most likely, the bride and her mother were just anxious to know how the Arrangement was progressing. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that in their anxiousness to know, they were only impeding its progress, and it wasn’t Sarya’s place to tell them so. She gestured at some extra chairs off to the side of the worktable. After a moment’s hesitation, as though they expected a servant – or Sarya herself – to move the chairs, the women pulled them over to the table.
When the two women were seated, they unveiled their faces. The bride, Babiri, was lovely, with smooth brown cheeks and full lips touched with a natural rosy color, large, dark, long-lashed eyes, and long glossy black curls. She looked younger than Sarya had expected, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. The mother was an older version of the daughter, her face not quite as soft and rounded but still unwrinkled, with only a few threads of silver in her black hair.
“I need to ask you a favor,” Sinora Naita said.
This was exactly what Sarya had been hoping she wouldn’t say. “I’m sorry. It’s far too late to re-open negotiations on the ritual. As it is, I’m barely going to finish it on time.” She picked up her pen and started writing, hoping the women would take the hint and leave.
“No, please. Listen to me,” the mother said more insistently. “This is not a matter for negotiations – we dare not have negotiations in this matter.”
Making unnegotiated changes to a wedding ritual was illegal as well as being against the rules of the musical Service, and, normally, Sarya would never even have entertained such an idea. But an edge of desperation in Sinora Naita’s voice caught her attention. She put her pen down again and looked at the two women. The mother’s face was filled with pleading that matched her words, and tears shimmered on Babiri’s eyelashes and cheeks. Even though it was her wedding, Sarya realized, the girl had probably had the least say of anyone in the negotiations. “All right, I’ll listen,” she said, hoping she wouldn’t regret it, “but I can’t do anything on my own.”
“Say nothing – no promises – until you’ve heard me out,” Sinora Naita said. “When you know what is at stake for my daughter, then you can make a decision.”
“Go on. But don’t take too long – I’m already late with these parts. And, really, I can’t make any changes to what’s already been agreed on.”
“Thank you,” both women said at once, disregarding her cautionary words. Sarya wished she hadn’t agreed to listen to them, after all. Whatever it was they wanted, she was going to have to disappoint them.
“In the last five or six years,” Sinora Naita said, “three of Babiri’s cousins have gone insane upon reaching their seventeenth birthdays. The usual curative chants have had little effect; their cases are very difficult. This has been kept quiet; the poor girls who were afflicted were secretly taken away to a private hospice before anyone outside the family could know what had happened.
“Now, here is the difficulty – my daughter’s wedding will take place the day before her seventeenth birthday. We would have had the wedding a few months later, to continue treating Babiri with protective chants until the danger was past, but the wedding day was chosen as being convenient for the Arascas family, and three Oracles confirmed that it was an auspicious day.”
Of course there would be Oracles involved, Sarya thought. Oracles, a superstitious remnant of the old Sirduccean Rite, remained popular in certain countries and cultures despite efforts to stamp them out over the last hundred and fifty years, mainly due to the support of their wealthy clientele, who could afford to pay them to say what they wanted to hear. “And you believed those Oracles?”
Sinora Naita shrugged. “It was convenient for the Arascas family to believe them, so we could not say otherwise.” A note of deep pride entered the woman’s voice. “Though our family is well beneath the Arascases in name and influence, my Babiri caught Zigor Arascas’s eye at a ball near our home last summer, and he fell in love with her, and would have her in spite of all his family’s objections. He is the heir, and must marry as high as he can – they were hoping to attract a bride from the nobility for him – but he refuses to marry at all if he cannot have my Babiri.”
The bride blushed prettily, and her full lips curved into a smile. “I love him too,” she whispered, her blush deepening.
“So, you see, Mistress dyr-Rusac, how fortunate my daughter is, to be making a love match that is also so advantageous for our family, and how delicate our position is. The Arascases would snatch at any excuse to break the engagement, even now that everything has been agreed upon. We cannot let them find out about this infirmity that has come upon our family, and my daughter must be protected against the insanity. So I have come to ask you – to beg you – to put a chant to prevent the insanity in the wedding ritual, that will bind to her with the rest of the wedding chants and protect her for the rest of her life.”
Although Sarya could understand Sinora Naita’s desperation, it was no small thing she was asking. “There’s no way for you to continue to have protective chants sung for her after she is married?”
“She will be departing on her wedding journey immediately after the ceremony. The healers have told us that, from a distance, and without knowing exactly where she is, the chants would not be effective in this difficult case. And were she to bring healers with her, or request such chants after she is married, it would raise suspicion and could even give her husband grounds for divorce. The Arascases would cast her off and humiliate her. Our whole family would also lose face, and our good name would be tainted. But mostly I do not wish to see my Babiri’s heart broken.”
Tears shone in the girl’s eyes again. Sarya chewed her lip, considering the problem. It would be a tragedy for someone so young, with such good prospects ahead of her, to lose her mind. It would be almost as bad for the girl to be publicly rejected; the Arascases would certainly make the reason for the broken betrothal public, so as not to be held at fault in the matter.
Of course, with the Naita family money, the embarrassment could be hidden away – the girl could take refuge at a private resort until the whole thing blew over, and a perfectly suitable replacement husband could be bought with her dowry and her beauty.
But Sarya knew what it was like to desperately want something better in life than she had ever thought possible, and what it was like to suffer public rejection and humiliation. Rich and beautiful the girl might be, but she was as powerless to determine her own fate as Sarya had once been. A familiar mix of emotions began to burn within her: hurt, helplessness, shame, and resentment of a society ruled by customs, traditions, and laws that took away all power from some people and gave it to others regardless of fairness and justice or of dreams crushed and hearts broken.
She was probably going to regret this. It was against the rules, but there were more important things than rules, and if no one ever stood up for those things, nothing would ever change. “Any really effective chant to prevent insanity will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the Rite,” Sarya said. “There have been members of the Arascas family in the Service here in Sucevita and probably in other places too. I would have to use something less recognizable, even though it would also be less powerful. But I’ll do the best I can.”
“Thank you!” mother and daughter said together, their joy nearly raising their voices to a level that could be heard beyond Sarya’s private corner of the Neumatorium. Babiri covered her mouth with her hand, looking chagrined, and Sinora Naita immediately dropped her voice to a lower level. “And you won’t tell anyone about this?” she asked.
“I won’t. I can’t.” Never mind the Naitas; she didn’t even want to think about what would happen to her if this was ever discovered – a week of Penance, at the very least, possibly even imprisonment. She was a fool for even considering doing this, but she couldn’t pass up this chance to strike back against the unfairness of the world. So she would just have to make sure it wasn’t discovered.
Sinora Naita seized one of Sarya’s hands and kissed it. “Angels bless you, Mistress dyr-Rusac!”
Angels, another superstition left over from the Sirduccean Rite that was too deeply ingrained in certain cultures to be completely stamped out. Supposedly, angels were beings who had assisted Eshalarian in the Creation, but the Oradean Rite, which had replaced the old, error-riddled, corrupted Sirduccean Rite a century and a half ago, taught that it was sacrilege to believe that the Creator had required any help at all.
Still, superstition aside, Sarya decided to accept the sentiment in the spirit in which it was intended. “I’ll do the best I can,” she repeated, wondering how good her best was going to be in these circumstances. Already she was trying to decide whether it would be better to search the Neumatories for an obscure trope that would work or to Compose a new one especially for this situation.
“We thank you so much,” Sinora Naita said again as she and her daughter veiled their faces and rose to leave. “Because of you, my daughter will be the happiest bride in all the world!”
Sarya watched them as they left the Neumatorium. She had never really thought of her work as making people happy, but she supposed that was one way to look at it. Arranging wedding rituals that would ensure successful marriages certainly made people happy, and it was the closest she would ever come to enjoying a similar happiness herself. With that thought in mind, she began roughing out a new chant that would serve her purposes.
* * *
It was nearly dawn when Sarya put the finishing touches on the voice parts for Babiri Naita’s wedding ritual. She had Composed a new chant that resembled the calming tropes customarily included in wedding rituals to soothe a young bride’s fears and anxieties, but that also had anti-insanity properties. Hopefully, no one would notice that an additional calming chant had been included in the Arrangement. To further disguise the new chant, she had set the same text to it that would be sung with the real calming chants. Words had no effect on the power of a chant; the music’s power lay entirely in the mode, pitches, and contours of the melody and in the power of the human voice that sang it.
The only problem was that for this anti-insanity chant to have the greatest possible effect, it would need to be sung by someone with a powerful True Voice. Sarya had assigned the part to Adan Muari, the strongest True Voice in the Great Choir, with two altos to accompany him, and had given his solo from the same section, the only place where the added trope would fit, to his friend Lefin Adaska. Losing his solo would sting Muari’s pride, of course, and he would probably complain. Sarya did feel some regret about taking the solo from him; it was perfectly suited to his voice, and would have sounded magnificent – not that she would ever tell him that, of course. But the purposes of the ritual had to take precedence over artistic considerations, and Arrangers had the final say on how their Arrangements were to be performed.
She capped the inkwell, straightened up the sheets of music, then lay her head down on the table for a quick nap. The Great Choir would be gathering for rehearsal in just a few hours, and she didn’t want to risk getting too comfortable in her room and oversleeping.
It seemed like her eyes had barely closed when someone shook her awake.
“Dyr-Rusac!” shouted Rostan, her persecutor from the day before. “Master Jiu wants those parts, and he wants them an hour ago!”
Damn. Sarya straightened up and rubbed her eyes, which felt like they were filled with sand. Her head pounded and her stomach growled; she hadn’t eaten dinner, or even had anything to drink all night, in her push to finish the Arrangement. “All right,” she muttered to the boy, who was bouncing up and down impatiently. She put on her gray Service robe, which she had draped over the back of her chair so the sleeves wouldn’t get in her way as she worked, gathered up the stack of sheet music, and followed Rostan out of the Neumatorium, across the courtyard at the center of the complex of buildings that made up the Skola, and into the vast, cold, dimly-lit Shrine.
A series of stairstepped platforms built of the same gray stone as the Shrine filled much of the north apse. The Great Choir stood assembled on the risers, singing through the parts of the wedding ritual she had sent over with Rostan the day before. Sarya’s arrival with the long-overdue parts distracted a number of the singers, and the performance fell apart.
Thus alerted to Sarya’s presence, Master Jiu turned to glare at her from under his thinning bush of frizzy gray hair. “What took you so long?” he demanded. “I needed the complete ritual two days ago!”
“I could have used another month to work on this,” Sarya said. “It’s the most complicated ritual I’ve ever had to Arrange. Last night I came across something I’d forgotten to put in, and I couldn’t make it fit. I had to re-write some parts.”
“I’m not interested in your excuses, Sarya dyr-Rusac. This is the most important wedding of the year!”
Ignoring Master Jiu and his temper, Sarya stepped up onto the risers and began passing out the parts. The choir members leafed through the pages she handed them, exclaiming or complaining at what they had been given.
“What’s this?” a fine masculine voice demanded. Adan Muari held out his new part, staring at it. “I can’t sing this. It’s too high. What happened to my solo?”
“I know your range,” Sarya said. Adan Muari, tall, handsome, well-built, auburn-haired, heir of a family that owned nearly a quarter of Msaka Ras and a substantial portion of Msaka Dolna, possessed a True baritone voice of divine quality and extraordinary magical strength, and an equally extraordinary opinion of himself. She hated adding to that opinion. “I need a strong True Voice on that bit, so I gave it to you. Lefin Adaska can handle the solo.”
“I can’t sing this,” Adan said again, shoving the sheet of music back towards her. “I’ll sound like I’ve been gelded.”
She pushed the page back at him. “Don’t tempt me.”
“Yeah, Muari,” his friend Rabac Luca said from the tenor section. “Better not give her any ideas. She might bite them off.”
The other tenors laughed, and Master Jiu scolded, “Please! This is neither the time nor the place for such vulgarity!”
Sarya stared flatly at Rabac. “You are disgusting.” She turned back to Adan. “Just sing it.”
“Sarya dyr-Rusac!” Master Jiu protested. “You cannot change soloists so close to –”
“I’ve been up all night working on the damned thing. I’m the Arranger; you have to perform the Arrangement however I damn well tell you to.”
Master Jiu drew in an outraged breath, but Vidette Fabara cut him off. “Well, you certainly told us.” Vidette, the soprano soloist, was as rich and stunningly gorgeous as Adan, with gleaming, curly chestnut hair and a generously-curved – and generously-shared – body. “Your word is law, right, dyr-Rusac?” Her voice dripped with scorn.
Sarya chose to ignore Vidette and the snickering that accompanied her emphasis on the patronymic that was all Sarya had instead of a proper family name. It was nothing she wasn’t used to. The Service was the only socially acceptable outlet for musically-talented young people from the wealthy and noble classes; while art music and musical theatre enjoyed widespread popularity among the upper classes, those who performed it were considered little better than confidence tricksters and prostitutes. Being educated at a Skola and singing in a Service choir was a much more respectable endeavor, and the Skolas and Shrines were happy to accommodate the talented offspring of the rich and highborn in exchange for their families’ generous support. To get to where she was now, Sarya had had to work ten times harder than those daughters and sons of the privileged classes, and she had no intention of allowing the taunting of a spoiled bitch to make her back down.
She handed out the last of the parts in silence, then, as Master Jiu called the choir back to order, she left the Shrine in search of breakfast and her bed.
* * *
The next day, Sarya slipped into a back row seat in the Shrine just before the wedding began. The bench in front of her, like all the benches in the Shrine, was made of highly polished red-gold wood from the rainforests of Msaka Ras and had a brass plaque affixed to the back engraved with the words, “Gift of Lasan Muari.” Just a small token of the Muari family’s appreciation when Adan was named a soloist in the Great Choir.
The Shrine had been transformed overnight from the cold, gray, cavernous monument to Eshalarian into an elegant wonderland. Pure white candles burned in every candelabra and candle niche. Endless lengths of costly white silk and lace swooped between the columns surrounding the interior of the Shrine, held in place with bouquets of white flowers that, judging by the sweet scents that filled the vast space, had to be fresh. Sarya had no idea what kind they were, or where such a bounty of fresh flowers had come from in the gray, icy, slushy depths of late winter. She would probably never know; the rich had resources she couldn’t even imagine.
Whenever she could, Sarya attended the ceremonies she had written the Arrangements for, listening to the results of her work and picking out every place where she could have done better. It wasn’t by accident that she was the best-regarded Arranger in the Service at Sucevita, the greatest city on Msaka Dolna. She had worked hard to get to where she was now, and, even though she had achieved a measure of respect for her work, far more than she ever would have expected, given her low birth and background, she couldn’t afford to ever let up on her efforts to improve her skills and her reputation.
The choir, dressed in elaborate white ceremonial robes, filed into the north apse, behind the altar. Master Jiu took his place in front of them, then Hierarch Sobot, the Hierarch of Sucevita, entered the Shrine and walked over to stand before the altar. As the intricate opening of Sarya’s Arrangement floated out through the Shrine, the groom, accompanied by his mother and father, entered from the west apse and came to stand before the Hierarch. All three Arascases were resplendent in purple and black velvet, silk, and lace. Then the bride came in from the east apse with her parents. Babiri Naita was draped from head to foot in white lace that glittered with tiny crystals, while her parents were richly clad in blue and green, their family colors.
The long ceremony continued. The choir sang two more sections of the ritual, then Hierarch Sobot pronounced the couple’s vows and heard their responses. After the exchange of vows, the Hierarch bound the couple’s right hands together with a length of white silk ribbon while First Chanter Predu sang the marriage chant, accompanied by the choir.
Sarya watched and listened, a tiny, bitter feeling pricking at her heart. A wedding like this was not for someone like her; she would never have white lace, jewels, a silk ribbon to bind her to a man who wanted nothing at all if he couldn’t have her. Weddings like this were for beautiful rich girls who could bring money, status, and social connections to the marriage, who could run a wealthy household and bear heirs of suitably elevated bloodlines; girls who hadn’t had to fight their way out of the mining towns of the Burnt Hills.
Not that it mattered. She had had enough of men and sex at an age before most girls knew what was what. The Skola was her home, her place in the world; she had worked hard to earn the right to be there, and she had no reason to ever leave.
The longest part of the ritual began, the chants that would ensure good health, good fortune, happiness, health, and fertility for the couple. Turning her mind back to her real reason for attending the ceremony, Sarya listened carefully for any flaws in the intricate flow of the music.
Try as she might, she couldn’t find any fault in her Arrangement. It was as close to a perfect ritual as she had ever written. Then the choir came to the part where she had added the new chant above the baritone solo; if there were going to be any flaws in the Arrangement, they would be here.
Adan Muari’s glorious voice, like burnt sugar and cream, filled the shrine with the solo while Lefin Adaska and the two altos sang the anti-insanity chant. Normally during one of Adan Muari’s solos, Sarya would close her eyes and let his voice flow over her, and wish it didn’t sound like everything she could ever desire. But now she sat fuming, barely hearing the perfect blending of the melodies.
Whose decision had it been to change her assignment of parts? Had Adan refused to give up his solo and take a part less suited to his voice? Or had Master Jiu placed more value on his own aesthetic judgment than on Sarya’s knowledge of the properties of the tropes in the Arrangement? Either way, the result was the same: the disguised anti-insanity trope she had Composed was not sung with the strength it would need to have the greatest effectiveness.
A silken soprano joined Adan’s voice and the two solo lines twined sensually around each other. For some reason, Vidette and Adan’s duets always ended up sounding like an intimate conversation between lovers, no matter how Sarya tried to arrange their lines to not have that effect. The fact that they were lovers – though their relationship was far from exclusive – probably had something to do with it.
Enough, she decided. This was the best Arrangement she had ever written, but she couldn’t stand to listen to another note. Already stewing over what she was going to say to Muari when she got the chance, she stood up and slipped out of the Shrine.
Copyright 2014 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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