Don’t you understand? I only ever wanted to make you proud.
This is dawn: fields shading from black to grey, flicker-fading starlight, our voices raised against the wind and the red scarves whipping our faces. Our song levitates us ten feet in the air, above dirt roads packed down by wagon wheels and chariots: Carl Lang’s Canter, an ode to unseen horses and sunrise and longing. When we sing—as long as we sing—our feet do not touch the ground.
The town in which we finally stumble back to earth is a tiny nest of weathered homesteads: cows collared with slow-tolling bells, a rooster’s crow, the smoke of yesterday’s fires a thin scrape against the air. A wooden pole stands in the main square, dark with carvings—poems, its makers would claim, never songs. I have seen dozens like it, windblown as excuses.
We surround the faded house to which Maestro has directed me, shivering against the wind. The sky teeters on the brink of rose and indigo; in the rising light, our robes glow like ghosts.
“For the Great Sound.”
I raise my gloved hands against the cold. Seven pairs of eyes meet mine—an octet, two singers for each voice part. Each of us newly minted lieutenants, eager to prove to the Empire our worth.
“For the Great Sound,” they murmur in turn, and adrenaline arches through my body.
I was born for this. Have trained all eighteen years of my life for this.
I sing our starting notes—a high clear D minor triad, no pitch pipes, not with us—and our voices call down fire.
This town. One of the Emperor’s spies heard a violin, its sweet unmistakable lilt escaping through the crack in a window, laughter muffled but not silenced by cold stone walls. The instrument itself is not strictly outlawed—only voices bend the earth, the air—but where there is a tune, there are songs, and where there are songs—
Foolish, these people. It has been a hundred years. They should have known.
We learn four songs for fire, one for every two years we spend in the Conservatory.
Ember, to warm.
Spark, to illuminate.
Flare, to signal.
Inferno, to destroy.
We discover, today, that the Inferno blazes red as the brightening sky.
I discover, today, that I can hear the violinist’s screams as she burns, even through her walls.
We touch down before the Conservatory wall as blush-streaked clouds pearl to white, our robes still dusted with ash. We could sing them clean, of course, and we do, for performances. But this is different: this is the blood streaked on the sheets of a first wedding night, this is the battle scar lanced across a once-soft hand, this is our only trophy when traitor and house have burned to ground.
“I hate when we hear them.” The second tenor—Cas. He leans into his roommate as we pass beneath the Conservatory’s marble watchtowers; the fog of their exhales curl into a single creature.
“Why?” I ask, and the two of them stiffen in tandem, feet lifting a beat too long. “The town is better off now than it was before.”
“You’re Hanwa,” the roommate tries—eyes lingering too long on my black hair, my olive-toned skin—and shrivels under my glare.
“The Empire honors all who serve it.” I stride back to barracks ahead of them, my red scarf flashing behind me, and hum the first few phrases of Inferno—my part only, and therefore harmless—over and over.
I wonder if you blame yourself.
I wonder if you think that first piano a mistake: the chipped ivory greyed with sweat and age, the wooden contraptions you strapped around my feet so that, at age four, I could work the pedals but not walk away from the bench. I wonder if you regretted sending me to the church elder who twisted my ears, or the sawdust-grubbed coins you slipped into his pockets as I pounded my fists on the piano bench and screamed.
I will not blame you. There is no fault to be found in a dark man in a pale empire, who only wanted the best for his daughter.
But what did you expect, stranger in a strange land? What did you think would happen?
When the soldiers came, whose song did you think I would sing?
“Bravo, Vitka,” Maestro tells me, one hand on my shoulder. Our steps echo off fluted columns, the wide marble hallway with its blue pools of floored sunlight, and my breath catches again—the Darbaum Conservatory, and I am inside, eye to eye with its commanding officer, addressed by the Imperial name I chose. “Cas tells me the house was but a smudge of ash by the time you were done.”
At least that boy gave credit where credit was due. “Yes, sir.”
We walk shoulder to shoulder through the mahogany double doors, thrown open to fresh winter air, then down the sweeping staircase. Maestro’s epaulets glint red and gold—four stripes like a future.
“There is talk,” he says, “of your company touring this season.”
A second dawn blooms in my chest. “Is there?”
He looks at me sideways. “I’m only telling you what I’ve heard.”
Darbaum has twenty companies of fully trained Kor, nearly two hundred voices. Ours is one of the smaller ones, but we never needed to be many, only the best. I would know—I chose them myself. I incline my head. “We would not be worthy of such an honor.”
At the base of the staircase, we pause. An old man stoops beside the adjoining road, robed in brown. A stranger, not a soldier, whom the guards have somehow allowed through.
When he looks up, his eyes widen, and he calls me by my Hanwa name.
That man is not you. That man—bony-shouldered, twig-thin arms, white wisps of hair strewn over balding shine—cannot be you.
“You,” he says, his outstretched finger trembling, and I sing of crushed lungs and fleeing air until he sinks to his knees.
I do not kill him.
I do not kill him, because the Empire has not yet decreed it, because it is not my place to decide whether he is deserving of life or death.
I only let him fall, and as a couple second-years drag him away, grey robes fluttering, I watch Maestro’s eyes crinkle into a smile.
The stranger dies later, in the infirmary, fists clutched to his heart.
Again, you said, your breath heavy on the back of my neck.
There were never any blisters on my fingers—only an ache in my wrists and elbows, fear charring ash on the back of my tongue. I always got it right ten repetitions too late: ten lashes, two more hours stiffening on the cold bench, wincing every time I didn’t reach high enough.
Again, you said, and I watched a tear slip silver between the keys, burning a new vein like weakness. And I think, now, that you had no song but this: the shout and the lash, your arm weighted with all the lives you never lived; your insistence, in this country where you were suddenly nothing, that I live them all instead.
Crimson curtains rise on a mahogany-paneled amphitheater, a sea of silent faces. The Empire does not like to loose its hold over political prisoners, even after the labor camps; our people are too weak to handle the truth of governing, and rebellions may spark at a few overwrought stories.
And so: this room, velvet-swathed and trimmed with gilt, the prisoners’ wrists bound to their chairs and lined up like an offering. Pink trails leaking out of their mouths, from tongues excised by sixth-years in grey.
I raise my arms, hum an A and then D-sharp: the devil’s interval.
Song of Dissolution is dangerous even in pieces—we have only ever rehearsed in twos or threes, lest the world begin to twist—but in its fullness, every part will slip between three others at a time, echoing, amplifying, modulating. Accidentals will fall like stones in a stream—ripple through the main thread until the entire melody shifts, pulsing and perfect, and dissolves every living thing within its parameters to sand.
No one ever leaves this song alive—sometimes, if they’re not careful, even its singers.
Cas’s gaze meets mine. Behind him, another five hundred glares, heavy with apprehension. My palms tingle; my throat pulls taut. Ghost tongues lick the shells of my ears.
Behind me, I hear my Hanwa name.
The amphitheater goes liquid and slow, my hands frozen in the sign of universal surrender. Beyond the stage, half a thousand souls suck in the last oxygen they will ever breathe, blood sliding acrid down their throats.
Focus. One slipped note and the song’s power will ricochet. We will have to start over, if we have not already crumbled to powder—begin again and again until the fabric of the world bows, burns.
I hold the F-sharp behind my tongue. My pulse roars.
I am Kor, I tell myself. I am unbreakable.
My hands rise of their own accord, the old dance beaten into their bones, and on the count of four they fall like blades.
You arranged that first and only gathering—gathering, not a performance, because performances were events attended only by the Emperor and his entourage and cause for execution for anyone else. This gathering only a wind-beaten barn on a hillside, steeped in sunlight and old hay; the blacksmith’s sons grunting the piano up the hill as I stood quietly under a blossoming redbud. Only the slow plink of other children’s attempts, their mothers’ dry coughs and light clapping after.
And then. Then. The creak of the old bench, the linen rustle of my new white frock, and my hands danced across the keys as if they had been born knowing, and this was my language: not the stilted sounds I forced out in the schoolhouse, swamped by boys’ laughter and tainted with every word you spoke to me; not my head ducked in silence as the town ladies pursed their painted lips.
This, dark wings curled inside my ribcage. This, singing out of my hands.
No one would quite meet my eyes, after.
You must be twice as good, you said, and I was. I was.
Our octet sings of autumn: leaves red as proclamations, sun sunk cold beneath turning ground, high hills sharp with the melancholy of coming snow. It is a melody to tug at your heart and your bones; to take you apart, particle by particle, until all that is left of you is dust.
The prisoners listen, impassive at first. Then Ana slides into the arc of a soprano solo, the rest of us fading on a minor triad, and the darkness loosens like a sigh.
My hands, conducting, go still. From the seats, sand drifts upward, snow-soft, glittering under the lights. Hands disintegrate to nubs, pull out of manacles—except by the time the first man thinks to flee, he has no feet to stand on, then no calves, no knees.
Their eyes are the last to go: pinpricks of light, inscrutable as stars. Some of them, perhaps, the same brown as mine.
When we finish, quiet fills the amphitheater like a sunlit afternoon. Sweat gleams on our foreheads; my throat is a dry scrubland. I meet my singers’ eyes one at a time. We survived. We survived.
Then Cas, the idiot, chuckles—and we fall to our knees, howling with a laughter that should not be.
Maestro meets me outside the green room. His hair is dusted white—the third-years’ clean-up Whirlwind not terribly precise yet—but his uniform is starched ceremony-sharp.
“The Council would like to hear you in Kelsburg,” he says, both hands clasping mine, and a strange vertigo twists inside me, as if I have left my body. “They’ve commissioned a new octet from Carl Lang. Mountains and Night Sky. Absolutely sublime.”
The old man’s face ghosts the edge of my vision, his eyes flashing a warning. No.
But he has no power over me. Not anymore.
“Perfect,” I say, and smile so hard it hurts.
The morning after the gathering, the soldiers came to our town.
Flash of white at my bedroom window, song trailing the air like the first breath of summer, and I slammed out the door, my heart a bird thumping between my ribs.
“Take me with you,” I shouted, and my voice slapped the walls of other houses, cracked through my neighbors’ open windows. The blacksmith’s curtains flicked. I didn’t care. “I’m ten, I play the piano, my father wants me to go to university for it but I’d rather learn to sing—”
The Kor stopped in midair.
Two towering pillars of white, golden hair and eyes of lightest ice. Angels, I couldn’t help but think, come to answer the prayer sung by my hands.
“How old did you say you were?” the one to my right asked, and even their voice was a melody.
I lifted my chin. “Ten.”
“Then we will have you tested for the Conservatory.”
They did not ask my name. One of them nodded over my shoulder—to you, stooped in the shadows of the house, the lines of your face deepened with many hours beneath the sun. You, who had seen me run; who were already stooping under the weight of having raised a traitor.
You touched your interlaced fingers to your forehead in the old manner—I had seen you, some nights, thus salute the shrine in the corner of our bedroom—and bowed.
“Do as you wish,” you said softly, your mouth moving as if you knew some poem, some song, that would not gutter out like a candle in the sweep of the Empire’s storm. You did not look me in the eye. “Be good, child.”
You did not say my name, either.
“I will,” I said solemnly, my feet already turned toward my saving angels, and I meant it, and it was that easy.
Curtains rise on arches of stone. Chandeliers slant the walls amber, paint the air honey-thick. This is the Kelsburg Cathedral: a marvel of marble and glass, a prism of glitter when the earth turns toward dawn. Premiere stage for the Great Sound, and for us.
Our audience is eager this time—all powdered wigs and lush velvet cloaks, song-paled faces and bosoms crooned to voluptuousness.
“Sing!” they cry as we circle onstage, our white robes glowing from recent serenade. “Sing!” As if our voices could not kill them in a minute. As if they are not playing with fire.
But we can sing beauty, too, and Mountains and Night Sky carries us to the top of the Empire’s highest peak, the Milky Way flung high into the dark. Out beyond the velvet folds of sound, someone begins to weep.
Come back, you say, and then you are standing beside me on the peak, hand outstretched, and it’s really you this time: dark-haired, broad-shouldered, your mouth hardened the way it did when my fingers slipped yet again on the keys. This is not what I wanted for you.
The song wraps me in gossamer, a silken swath of stars. I keep conducting; my voice skims along roads I have paved in midnight rehearsals and traveled in dreaming. If I stop now, the illusion will wither, cast us as a company of fools. And there is Darbaum to consider: we will not be the first of its graduates to have slipped a note, but Maestro will know, and everyone listening. The school will lose face.
Not now, I think, but you shake your head.
You don’t know what they will ask of you next.
My throat moves in reply. Spit shoots down the wrong path, and shock lances my fists as I choke, try to swallow, breathe, breathe—
Instead, I cough, and the stars break.
“Vitka,” Maestro says, and his eyes are so kind. Cas stands silent and knowing behind me; a crimson bandage wraps Ana’s ear where the thwarted song lashed out mid-phrase. “Are you all right?”
Sleet spatters our foreheads. We are huddled outside the cathedral, cold seeping through the cracks in our boots, waiting for a carriage. No songs of unseen horses now—the rest of the company is too afraid to try.
The people dashing past us to ice-slick carriages pay us no mind, as if we have become one with the sopping hedges.
I raise my chin. My throat is dry, now. My knuckles warm with the echo of fingers wrapped around mine.
You used to hold my hand, when we walked into town. As if you could keep me safe.
“Yes, sir,” I say.
Maestro’s gaze flicks to my scarf, and it is my turn to be afraid. “Good.”
The next week, Maestro tells me of a whole town, singing. The Empire’s command: Inferno in the broadest parameters we’ve ever cast, a mile-wide radius of destruction.
No, you say, as I grin.
We sing, we break.
Grandhalls crumble; horse-drawn carriages stagger and burn. A treasonous composer collapses in his ivory tower; seditious dukes gasp their last breaths in Oslar, drowned in oceans of sound and fury. Nobles stop to greet us in the Conservatory halls; Maestro begins to smile once more.
With every song, I tongue the fear at the back of my throat and vow: never again.
But even so. Even so. Your face darts through the fringes of my dreams. Your gravity bends me in an arc around your will. Your voice plunges into the soft place beneath my sternum; slashes down, spilling warmth.
And I feel myself crumble, hourglass-slow, into the shape you always wanted me to be.
So I sing louder. I break faster and for an hour, a day, I drown you out.
Our last stop is the Emperor’s palace, Mountains and Night Sky ghosting our inner ears alongside a new commission from the Emperor himself. This stage is its own world—colored glass threads the high beams, wrist-thin stone columns shoot up to a high crimped ceiling; as we arrange ourselves for sound check, sing a few experimental phrases, I think about the time you rode the carriage with me to Hettgart University, folded your hands as I craned my head up at centuries-old frescoes. The Emperor’s commission today is just that: Glory. An alto-tenor duo like a herald-march of trumpets, bass lines austere and forbidding as mountains touched with winterlight. Broken midway, its parameters incomplete, the song will whiplash as utter void.
B, D-sharp, F-sharp. My absolute pitch does not fail me. My hands do not shake as they rise. The eight of us breathe in together and soar from phrase to phrase, harmonies bloomed spring-bright and sparkling with dew.
Halfway through—a golden swell beneath my ribcage, clean scent of ocean, the Emperor’s distant inhale like a catching sob—your voice blows warm in my ear.
I love you.
You know that, right?
My throat closes.
In the silence, I watch my hands fall.
I love you.
I don’t know if you did. If you do. I don’t know if this weight you thought was love simply failed to translate, or how much of your strength was desperation, or whether it was a thing you used to know, the way one learns a poem by heart and then loses it to the slow grind of time. I don’t know if I can forgive you for once holding my hand, or myself for needing you to.
Only this: that I was never your promise to keep. That my future was never yours to bequeath me. That you wanted, and I ran, and maybe our need outpaced both of us—yours to sing through me, mine to be more than your song.
But I was always going to be your daughter. I could never have run away.
This time, when the song recoils, it shoots straight for my heart. As if it knows.
© 2023 by P.H. Low
P. H. Low is a Rhysling-nominated Malaysian American writer and poet with work published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Fantasy Magazine, and Death in the Mouth: Original Horror By People of Color, among others. P. H. attended Viable Paradise in 2019 and participated in Pitch Wars in 2021, and can be found online at ph-low.com and on Twitter and Instagram @_lowpH.