by Nitai Poddar
“With what?” said the adulteress. “That zither on your lap?”
“None other,” said Elegy. She undressed the zither of its velvet covering, strumming a tenuous chord. Passion, sang the zither. Elegy adjusted the bridges, strummed. Deceit, sang the zither. Another adjustment. Adultery, sang the zither. Elegy smiled.
“Do you have children?” said Elegy.
Her fingers moved along the eighteen strings of her instrument in complicated gestures, purely improvisational. She twisted notes into chords, and chords into images, and images into feelings, until with her music memories bubbled unbidden to the surface of consciousness: little red shoes; laughter like bright bells; grass stains; wooden dolls, freshly painted.
“Yes,” said the adulteress.
The adulteress lifted herself upon her pallet with her manacled wrists in her lap, and her hair disheveled, her floral dress ruined. But her jaw was set, and she glared at her torturess with the stony superiority of a seasoned critic.
“Did you never stop to think of them?” Elegy played on.
Her music swelled with child-ness, bright and delicate and full of promise. And then, very gently, she introduced a countermelody--something dark and steady, thrumming like heartbeats, crackling like fire. Lust, sang the zither.
“I never stopped thinking of them,” said the adulteress. Her fingers tighten around her chains, but her expression never changed.
Elegy sighed. She’d dealt with stone-hearted prisoners before. They were always trouble--willful and defiant--and she was forced to fill her music with terrible things, to lash their senses with hallucinations and drown the psyche in painful memories. She never enjoyed it.
“Good,” said Elegy.
Her music shuddered and rolled, shot through with the sound of screaming voices. The adulteress didn’t flinch. Then she filled her music with the bitter chorus of shame. The adulteress said nothing. Elegy frowned. Secrets, whispered the zither.
Her performance dragged on. Ten minutes later the adulteress held up her palm.
“Please,” she said. “Just stop. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
Elegy drew her hands from the zither. Relief, sighed the zither.
“Are you sure you are an adulteress?” Elegy said.
“Are you sure you are a Muse?” the woman replied.
“My prisoners are usually in tears within fifteen minutes. And begging for mercy by thirty.”
“Your music made me think of my little girl. Is that supposed to make me cry?”
“Don’t misunderstand. Your music was full of lust and secrets and shame,” said the woman. She had a sly smile on her lips, amused in a way Elegy hated. “But those things don’t make me want to beg for mercy. Those things excite me. Lady Muse, do you have a husband?”
“No? Have you ever been in love? Then how can you know what adultery feels like? And how can you make a song about something you don’t understand?” The woman held up her hands. Her chains chimed. “I’m an adulteress. That doesn’t make me a criminal.”
* * *
Elegy left the Chamber of Sound well before three hours had passed. She made her way through the gardens, unescorted, with her zither wrapped in velvet and cradled in her arms. She held her chin high. She tried not to cry.
The guards watched her as she passed, her long black dress swishing against the pathway to the rhythmic click-click of her heels. Sunset played over the gardens, and the air was fragrant with apple blossom, rose petal, and the sound of music. Elegy walked past the Pavilion of the Four Muses and pretended not to notice her sisters there, dressed in gold and green and scarlet, filling the garden with songs of garden-ness and flower-ness.
“There goes Elegy.” Melody sang a single note that chased Elegy like the taunting of schoolboys.
“Two hours early.” Euphony played a complex fugue on her harp, which hung over Elegy’s head like a thundercloud.
“Little sister is losing her touch.” Harmony dragged her bow along her long-necked erhu. The note was short and vicious like a knife across a throat.
“Look at the way she’s shaking,” said Euphony. “Oh, what happened, dear? Was it stage fright? Couldn’t you torture one shameless strumpet?”
“Never,” said Melody. “Not our Elegy. The Muse of Misery!”
“The Lady of Lamentation!”
“The Songstress of Sorrow?”
“The Zitherist of … of …”
“Of Zilch, apparently!”
Elegy whirled in her step, and her black hair whipped across her face. “Harpies!” she screamed.
She ran from the pavilion, and the laughter of her sisters followed her into the palace halls, up the marble stairs, and into her bedroom.
* * *
Elegy reclined against her velvet cushions. She had no appetite for dinner. She spent an hour lying in bed, gazing at the folds of the canopy; another hour soaking in a copper tub; another, lounging in her balcony overlooking the gardens, and practicing her zither.
She observed herself in her dressing mirror, searching for outward flaws that might reflect some inward imperfection. Her hair was not arranged in the intricate knots and swirls of the courtly fashion, and unadorned with strings of pearl; it was merely black, and fell long and straight down slender shoulders. Pale skin, dark eyes and frowning lips. She wondered how she ever came to look so severe, so stern. She remembered a lovelier girl in the mirror. She remembered smiling when she played.
“Harmony is right; I am losing my touch, Mei,” she said.
Her handmaiden, her teeth biting hairpins, answered with a grunt. She dragged a brush through Elegy’s hair.
“I’ve never been so humiliated before. Not by my sisters. But that insufferable woman. Did you know I once made Half-Talent Jin and his entire gang of bandits weep? And Jin sniffled for his mother.”
“Hnn-nnngh,” said the handmaiden.
“Even his tattoos wept.”
Mei pulled the hairpins from her teeth and slipped them into folds of Elegy’s hair. “Harmony is a selfish and envious woman. She likes to see you suffer, Lady Muse, because she envies your talent.”
“Please,” Elegy snorted. “I’m losing my touch. There was a time I could capture sorrow itself in a single note. Do you know what I did? I’d attend the Noble Lord’s judgments. I’d listen to the women throw themselves at his feet and beg for clemency on behalf of their only sons. I’d watch the old farmers wring their hats and describe the way their wheat wilts on the stalks. I’d go to the gardens and listen to the gardeners talk about their poor boy who can’t find a decent girl.
“And then I would play. And I would search for the right melody, the right note. I would spend a whole night looking for that one note that said Sorrow, and the one that said Heartbreak, and the one that said Loneliness, and the one that said Desperation, so that when I played . . .”
“Tilt your head to one side, Lady Muse. I must fasten this brooch around your neck,” Mei said, lifting a scarlet-silk necklace to her throat.
“Mei! Are you even listening?”
“Every word, Lady Muse. Every word. I am your humble servant and so forth. But the Noble Lord has requested your presence during his shatranj game with the Shah of Sintal.
“And, Lady Muse, you are still a brilliant musician. It’s just,” Mei fastened the necklace. The brooch glimmered at the center of Elegy’s throat, all blue and gold. “How many songs about misery and sorrow can you suffer through?”
Elegy touched the brooch about her throat. She could feel her pulse against its cold metal. Bright, said her pulse.
“Mei,” Elegy said. “I don’t think I want to play for criminals anymore.”
* * *
The Shah of Sintal arrived two nights ago accompanied by his entourage, two elephants adorned with bronze plates on their trunks, and a shatranj board of ebony and jade. The Noble Lord was fond of the game, having cultivated a reputation for negotiating matters of state over a sixty-four square board, endless jugs of wine and the music of his favorite Muse.
Euphony tended to the Shah during the first round of games, and she coaxed sour-sweet movements from her harp, filling the Lord’s chambers with music that flowed like wine. When Elegy arrived to take her place, she could feel Euphony’s wine-song lingering in the air, like a drunken clef staggering across a bar.
“He’s drunk,” murmured Euphony as she passed by Elegy, giving her a quick once-over. Her smile seemed politely impressed, but her eyes mocked.
“Obviously,” Elegy said.
“The Shah is about to lose. Play him a funeral dirge?”
Elegy took her place at a cushioned pallet, her zither arranged before her. She kept her head bowed, as was custom, but stole fleeting glances toward her master and his guest. The Shah was heavy-set, broad shouldered with green velvet that fell in folds over his paunch. Her master sat across him, wrapped in the gold and violet robes of royalty. They clasped arms.
“Did you know that elephants speak to one another by clasping trunks?” said the Shah.
“Are you comparing me to an elephant, Sintal?” said the Noble Lord.
“Hardly, hardly. I was speaking to your lovely Muse.” The Shah winked at Elegy, who had the presence of mind to blush. She set her fingers to the zither, and played.
Elegy’s music, apropos of her namesake, was somber and slow. She filled her notes with plodding strokes of a funeral march, the tragic flutter of a tattered banner, imagery tastefully arranged to instill in their game a dash of melodrama.
And then, slipped between the notes of her music, almost imperceptibly, her zither said: Rukh B2 to Fil B7.
The Shah grinned to himself. Pieces clicked into place. “So much for your elephant, Noble Lord.”
Elegy played, and the Shah played, and the Noble Lord wrung his hands.
“Pardon me, Shah Sintal.”
“Are you apologizing for your uncharacteristically atrocious play, Noble Lord?”
He glanced over his shoulder, and caught Elegy’s eye. “No. I require a moment to dismiss my Muse. Her music is unsubtle tonight.”
Then Euphony escorted Elegy from the gaming chambers, with one arm looped around her sister’s own, squeezing a little too tightly. She glanced at the Shah and her Master over her shoulder, offering apologetic smiles, while marching Euphony out into the corridors. Her whispers echoed.
“Are you completely mad, Elegy? Is that necklace too tight around your throat? What could possibly possess you to toy with the Master’s game?”
“And cheating for the Shah! Do you have any understanding of the gravity of the Master’s shatranj games? Do you remember Lieutenant Chen? Challenged the Master to a game? Won the game, lost his head? You should remember. You played at his funeral.”
“Euphony, if you would just let me--“
“You have to admit,” said Melody. Elegy hadn’t heard her sisters’ footsteps, and yet there they were, ever-present, pale-faced specters in billowing dresses, “it was an impressive trick. Clever, even. Worthy of a poem, Harmony?”
“An ironic one,” said Harmony, closing in around Elegy. Her back pressed against the wall, and as they surrounded her, she could think of nothing more than three vultures, necks arched and beaks prying. She wondered if she knew the note for vulture.
Carrion, she whistled.
The sisters gasped.
“I’m just tired of singing elegies,” said Elegy. She wrapped her arms around herself. “Every day, I play for a new prisoner. A farmer cannot pay his tax collector, so I him play a song of starving children, just to punish him. They bring me a young deserter in chains, so I play him a song of the creaking of gallows. The Master can’t sleep without your music, Melody. But I can hardly sleep with mine.”
Harmony, Euphony and Melody shook their heads and clicked their tongues, and said:
“The Master clothes you, feeds you. The jewels at your throat and in your hair come from his coffers.”
“The banquets and the gardens. The pavilions. The servants.”
“If you don’t want these things, Elegy, then so be it. You can just--“
“--take your zither and walk out those gates--“
“--and live out your days in an opium den, giving men nightmares.”
* * *
Elegy slept little that night. She lay upon her bed while Mei fanned her with a fan of swan-feathers. Night fell over the palace, and from her windows, Elegy could see the garden lit by oil lamps, the bronze domes of the pavilions gleaming with moonlight and torchlight. She saw the shadows of men, hunched as they lay row after row of lamps across the garden, like workers trudging through a rice field.
“Try and sleep, Lady Muse? The sun will rise soon. Tomorrow is another day.”
“I don’t think I can bear to look at another prisoner.” Elegy turned to lie on her back. Her maidservant looked exhausted, the bun of her hair disheveled, with dark strands framing her sunken eyes.
“We all have our appointed duties, Lady Muse. If I failed in my duties to you, my sons would not eat, and a woman of my age does not marry twice.”
“You are a talented woman, Mei. Surely you would find some other profession, if you grew weary of this one.”
Mei shook her head. “With respect, Lady Muse. I’m not as young as you. I don’t have that choice. Please, consider the hour?”
Elegy did, and she allowed her maidservant to retire, after thanking her for her service, and spent the rest of her night with her zither, playing notes of no particular meaning.
* * *
The next morning’s convict was a horse thief. Elegy met him in the Chamber of Sound, though she arrived late, and found him pacing about in anxiety. Elegy introduced herself, sat down upon a cushioned mat and told him that she would play music for him, for the duration of four hours.
He stared at her, stammered.
“What is your favorite song?” said Elegy. “I can play everything from The Flight of Cranes to The Lament of The Sun Goddess.” Elegy tuned her zither, and smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone, if you won’t.”
* * *
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Fantasy is the oldest genre in the world. We’ve been telling fantasy stories since the first poets sang the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumeria. Whenever you doubt yourself, just remember that you are taking part in a tradition of storytelling as old as human history. Be proud, and write with pride.