The Heart of Owl Abbas

A composer in an unstable city-state accidentally discovers the perfect singer for his work—a clockwork man—and sows the seeds of revolution.

 

 

Once, before the great Empire of Else enveloped the land between the red mountains and the quiet sea, the city-state of Owl Abbas was a mere bird-haunted forest temple. But protected by treaties, suffocated by safety and benevolent neglect, it had swollen and grown in upon itself, roiling and fomenting, so slowly that only (perhaps) a few dust-dry wraiths of abbots hanging motionless in enclosed footings of the Palace Aster would have marked the change from one century to another.

The gains and losses of its citizenry had been gradual. Its resentments and injustices oozed like moisture down the dank wall of a forgotten reservoir, unremarked by either the clustered, crushing commonality or the Little Emperor, cloyed and gorged in his great gilt chambers. Drip, drip, until the dark water was high against its bowed, ill-repaired walls. Until it lapped at the foundations of palace and hovel alike.

 

In all Owl Abbas, before it burned (after the Falling but before the Cartographer’s War and the Recurrence of Owls), there were among its many windows only two that need concern us.

The first was fogged with spider webs. It belonged to a garret, precarious above the spring-carts and spirit-lamps of Petty Street. Behind it was installed a wretched scribbler, who eked out a living writing songs for the populace. Let us call him Excelsior, for that is the name with which he signed his work.

Across the cobbleskulls and flints, and a full other storey over that abyss of jam merchants and glove-skinners that was Petty Street, above the hanging signs of teahouse and slop house, workhouse and whorehouse, higher even than the knotwork of laundry-, bell-, delivery- and ladder-strings, was another, airy casement.

The tenant of that room was only recently arrived to Owl Abbas—itinerant, mendicant, but admitted at the Mountain Gate because of the journeyman’s seal it bore on one exquisite brass shoulder. Even had the gate guards consulted the annals of the Elevated Guild of Horologists and Artificers, they would have found no reason to turn aside the masterpiece of an obscure craftswoman whose exile was self-imposed. Wonders, then, were a daily import of the palace, and—hemmed in as the city-state was by ancient vows and the benign disregard of the Empire of Else, in whose armpit it festered—the peace of the Little Emperor of Owl Abbas was threatened by nothing but thieves.

Excelsior, who seldom ventured even to his window, let alone to the street, had never seen this neighbour, whom time would call the Nightingale. From his lower garret, Excelsior could glimpse only a ceiling painted with blue dove-shadows and rose-gold candle-glow.

He could, however, hear the Nightingale’s voice. Pure and high, discs of spinning glass singing against chamois, it fell like tumbling bells, like spilled silver wires.

It sang “Love Like the Guillotine,” “The Too-Taut Heart”, “When I am Duke of Petty Street (You Shall Be the Clown)”—all the choruses bawled by rampant youth loitering over gutters below, trilled by the delivery boatmen in the oily, olive canals, hummed even by agued ancients scrubbing the pearl-floored halls of the Palace Aster. Cheap songs. Excelsior’s.

He could have written a dozen more like them in his sleep, for his scribbling of lyric and melody, accompaniment and refrain was a mechanical task, calibrated to please the fecund and fickle tastes of the crowds of Owl Abbas, their perennial lusts and losses.

And what appetites for music that city-state had then, for all its decay and poverty! Forgotten were the bone groves and the quietude of owleries that once nested where the city had grown. The last owl-abbots were long starved in the gutters where they had begged, their skulls cambering the roadway. The owls had departed the sleepless streets for the zoological gardens of Else and the monk’s-fringe forests of the red mountains. Now, though the finest delights were reserved for the Little Emperor, balladuellists caterwauled on roofsheets; ladies’ cantating parrots swung in brass rings; lovers in teahouses threw coins into the throats of cheap songboxes, to wind the gears that set the teeth that struck the notes from the spinning metal tongues, sending slivers of copper to Excelsior, that he might buy ink and nibs and spirit-oil, cheap paper, wine hard as a fist and, when he remembered, a little bread.

Rough songs he wrote, like all the lesser scribblers of Owl Abbas. Raw songs, tunes to dull sense and sensation, ditties to hem in a little portion of pleasure between hunger and the grave.

Excelsior had never crept out of his garret to crouch at the outer palace walls to hear rare notes escaping from an Imperial Performance. Nor had he attended the Collegiate Academy of Guilded Instrumentalists, which existed to supply the artful music of the palace: formal stylings for sleep and dressing and every course of a dozen served at each of the eight tables laid daily for the Little Emperor. Even had Excelsior done so, he would not have heard anything to match the Nightingale’s abilities.

He listened to the deconstructed threads and parts, the wheeling, rewriting rehearsals, the little broken, mended, rough-edged fantasias with which the Nightingale warmed and amused the bright apartment, there above Petty Street, in that merryloud quarter of Owl Abbas where surely no one who mattered could overhear. The Nightingale, learning the music of the streets, the heartbeat of the city.

Bells and wires and strings, keys and barrels and tumblers, reeds and pipes, skin and wind. Melody, harmony, disingenuous discord. The heart and throats of caged larks, of free birds, of trained choristers. All these were in the voice of the Nightingale.

But the voice carried, as the bounty of the palace never did. From Petty Street to the knotted alleys of the Maresnest, from Agnes Lane where once a disgraced clockmaker had kept her stinking workshop, to the last nested hovel before the avenue of guildhalls. Though neither understanding nor caring, the denizens of Owl Abbas stepped a little more lightly, laboured with an ear half-turned, unwitting, to those strains.

Excelsior eked out the end of the daylight, the nightlight, the moonlight, the ghostlight. He scrimped and slaved until he gathered courage and words enough to light a fire-inch and burn a whole pennyweight of ground copper. He offered the coin to the Phantom of the Window-sash, and summoned that obscure spirit almost to its full weight of feathers and claws.

The Phantom of the Window-sash was not a shade that embraced change. It had once had its own antique, unmusical views on such matters as songlust and bodymusic. But those, like the shade itself, were the shabbiest of memories.

Summoned by the soul of coins, it obeyed its commission without remark. Clustering Excelsior’s rolled onionskin to its vanishingly sharp breastbone, the phantom fell from the garret sill—fell, then lifted on a gust of oil-spiced laughter to the glowing window opposite and there dissolved before the Nightingale could question it, leaving its dry burden to flutter on the floor.

Excelsior could not watch.

He hauled closed the leaning shutters and pulled down the sash, cross-latched it and rubbed drawing gum along the edges. He etched more webs into the panes, spitting glass like flour from beneath his good penknife, that his garret might look tenantless. He raked the curtains across, pinning pumice-cloth and blotting paper over the moth holes.

Then for good measure he put out writing-lamp, hearth-glow, bed-candle and moth-pilot, closed his eyes, and waited.

He waited for three clock-unwinding days, feeling the long springs of his world loosen, while the ink crusted in the glass well and the nibs began to rust in the little moisture from the breath of creeping rats or spiders.

On the third day, a thrill stirred the dull panes, the curtains. Excelsior could not have told when it had begun. He crouched, resolutely unhoping.

The insinuation became a hum, a melody. Excelsior heard what had never been heard before, except in the signs and symbols of his dark garret, in his private equations: the song he had composed in the light of the last of his lamp-spirits, for which he had burned the last coin; the paper words for which he had sent the phantom winging.

The Nightingale’s voice, now, was a high, thin curling, like the frost on a glass of Abbas-White, or like red snow curling off the tops of the mountains. It was melody uncomplicated by harmony or the thrilling trills of ornament, tentative only in its simplicity, the singer’s questing guided by all the confidence of the supreme master of an art.

Over and again that voice followed Excelsior’s script, the words seeking notes, notes seeking paths as water flows across a dry land. Then gradually that glass-and-golden voice found a pattern, gathered force, rilled and frothed along the edges of its new-cut banks, built undertows and laughing sprays of sound. It poured down through the alleys where craftsmen and labourers starved, trickled through Agnes Lane where a young clockmaker had once studied the grafting of metal to splintered bone, curling into the inlooped ways of the great warren of the Maresnest.

High over Petty Street, the Nightingale sang for the first time Excelsior’s composition—not a commission, not a command, but… Well, even the scribbler could not have said whether it had been gift, or tribute or sacrifice.

The Nightingale sang and Excelsior, weak with waiting, listened.

He wrote another, immediately he had revived. It was unworthy. Dissatisfied, he broke it apart into bare penny-shave popular ditties. Ragged and rancid, he did not care to take them down himself, but sent them by errand urchins to the punch-shop, where they were pricked relentlessly into parchment rolls and delivered to tea shops and pleasure warrens, fed into mere pinching, playing songchests, which nipped fingers as well as paper, and singly-minded cranked out Excelsior’s abandoned tunes.

Love, love,” sang the high-painters in their blood-dipped, paint-dripped hats.

You are a far dying star,” sang the menials toiling with bow-bent spines and mole-fur cloths along the Palace Aster wainscoting.

You test the hearts of the court, and find them wanting,” sang the xylophone-ribbed parrot trainers, chorusing from cage to cage, that their clients’ birds might have the newest tunes.

Excelsior, having ill considered how his words might be mis-sung, covered his ears against the rattle and racket of the streets, uncovered them again in terror that he might miss the Nightingale’s next effusive variations.

The copper slicings rattled up in the delivery basket. There, thought Excelsior. He could fit a new song to that high, rhythmless beat.

 

The ghost of a sigh is a weighty thing. The Phantom of the Window-sash unfolded itself heavily into the haze of the copper-burnings, not in the least elevated by music.

It gathered up the onionskin in layers of ether and slunk to Excelsior’s window, sagged over the sill, bore itself by grudging degrees up layers of garlic breath, pipe smoke, midden scent, fresh soap, crushed leaves, and wet feathers to the higher floor, opposite.

If Excelsior could have seen, he would have watched in affront as it uncoiled, graceless, and spilled on the ruddy tiles his heart’s offering, his hope of immortality.

Now, ghosts are little more than animate nostalgia. New songs in old patterns were a sop, a soporific, and old songs by new singers no more than reinforced the rule of the city. But so fine a thing as the scribbler and the singer together might make was a danger to the unquestioned squalor, the eternal twilight, the restlessness without ambition, the struggle over no more than bread and beds, which were the groundwork of the Little Emperor’s reign, the foundation of the false peace of Owl Abbas.

The phantom lay unspooled on the cool tiles until the Nightingale, shod in shell and horn, clicked and bent to it and lifted spirit and onionskin together.

The sheets of music, raw as bone, fresh as blood, lured the singer, but the spirit was a tragedian. How it dangled and feinted.

Sensibility is the stock-in-trade of any performer, long dead or unliving. The Nightingale set the song aside and attended the messenger.

Burnt feathers revived the spirit a little, burnt copper restored it, a dusting of finger-chalk to better reveal its form the phantom found quite unnecessary. It arched itself grateful and looping around the bronze joints, the magnificent alabaster throat of its benefactor.

“Strange spirit,” said the Nightingale. “Were you bird once? Are you, then, the heart of Owl Abbas? If so, I have been overwrought, and you were easier to capture than my maker thought.”

No, its spasm of ghostly laughter implied. It was a humble ghost, dusty and old. Far below the notice of such as the Nightingale.

The Nightingale’s maker had never been interested in spirit, only in the melding of metal with flesh—had, indeed, taken her leave of Owl Abbas when the Guild mocked her designs for a Patent Brass Hip, a Magnetic Hand, a Better Limb, as an affront and bastardisation of their craft. The phantom’s claim therefore satisfied the Nightingale. It turned to the onionskins and began to try the first notes, the melodies.

How great, how grand, the lingering spirit insinuated with little shivers and purrs. How marvelous to be heard as one was intended to be. The homage of the scribbler is only to be expected, but your voice was not designed to be let fall where it might, on night-dust-carter and tea-carrier alike. You are a creature of artifice and ambition, your voice made to refract from mirrored maze and chandelier.

Turn away, the phantom’s mummery suggested. Turn your back on this window, with its view over bird- and ghost-encrusted roofs to the ghastly blue fields and untrustworthy scarlet mountains. Turn instead to that opposite. Look to the chimney-forests, the peacock-strutted valleys of lead and copper, the waxen glowing domes of the Palace Aster, set like a weight of jewels at the centre of the city.

One might, it implied, draping affectionately about the mark of the Nightingale’s distant maker, one might even say the Nightingale had been purposed and designed for such delights.

Sing Excelsior’s little offerings in that direction.

The Nightingale saw the force of the argument. Its throat, the chords strung within, these articulations of wrist and jaw, had been crafted and calibrated for a high purpose: to seize the heart of Owl Abbas. Where else might a city’s heart be found?

So it was towards the Palace Aster that the Nightingale sang.

 

Excelsior, having at last in hope opened curtain, sash and shutter, did not at first notice the added distance in the Nightingale’s voice. He lingered, nib held clear of the thirsty paper, and drank in the tentative, tender explorations, the strengthening resolve, the removal of magnificent veils of possibility to reveal the song more truly than he had written it.

Petty Street had proved an impassable chasm before this, even to those robust enough to dare its buffeting. It was possible, in the scheme of the city, with its streets like the whorls of an ear, branching like veins, looped like a brain, that Excelsior might never see the Nightingale. He believed he did not care. It was the voice that captured him, reverberating in the hollows of his thin chest, fluttering and rebounding there like a second soul.

Abruptly anxious, he cleaned the crust of ink from the pen, the settling dust from his paper, and began again.

Hark how glory falls,

Tumbling from Owl Abbas walls.

No.

Send gold-and-silver crowns

Tumbling in the street,

Enough to cover the copper path

Laid at the singer’s feet.

Again, he scratched out the words.

Aster and rose will never bloom

Like the light in my love’s room…

That was awkward, presumptuous, and wrong. Excelsior nearly tore up the paper, but the thought of copper arrested him. Coins meant ink and nibs, castor oil and onionskin and the services of a courier.

Out went the lesser tunes, into the kettle-arcades and the dance-alleys, out to the earnest, workaday singers who would seek no subtlety or layers in words that had been dreamed up for nothing except nuance. Out to listeners who, unwitting, had already been half-woken by the Nightingale’s art, and whose nascent hunger other scribblers, other singers—themselves starved—hastened to fill with words not of old complacencies but with a mimicry of Excelsior’s dim longings.

At last, like the heart of a thistle, the pure, bitter core of a song emerged from the peeled-back pages. This, thought Excelsior, was fitting tribute and sacrifice.

Out in the streets, languishing, lusting idlers and iron-bitten, fire-calloused labourers hammered out his ballads with all the delicacy of a beam on a bell. Excelsior took his thin levy of their trade and burned it to the Phantom of the Window-sash, which, for once, appeared with alacrity, an eager whiplash of air.

“Take this to the Nightingale,” Excelsior bid it, as if the spirit did not know where all his thoughts were trained.

 

The Nightingale’s voice had been borne by breeze and breath in through the windows of the Palace Aster, where it reached the ring-heavy ears of the Little Emperor, as he lay on his back in his vast bed at owl-light, as was his custom, weighted with ennui, calcified with alarm. The fears of the Little Emperor were many: that he might never know delight again; that the vast Empire of Else would outstrip him in its discovery of luxuries; that emissaries from a distant land, consumed with envy, would break into the storerooms of the Palace Aster and find a jeweled gown, a pearl cup, a marvel from which he had not wearily drained the last honeysuckle spasm of pleasure.

“That music,” he said, startling the doctors who, beaked and embroidered, bent over his bed, tempting him with rarities. “I want that.”

“It is the windharps in the hanging gardens,” said his courtiers. “It is the song of the cocoon-tenders lulling their charges to sleep. It is the breeze in the vines where Abbas-White is grown.”

The Little Emperor was become petulant and particular with a surfeit of pleasures. “Then bring it to me!” he said.

They sent runners out into the streets, the gardens, the acre-width of tilled treaty-land that bordered Owl Abbas, and had windharps, silk-herders, vine-cuttings brought to the palace. All fell silent in the presence of the Little Emperor, but the miraculous voice continued.

The nobles went out themselves, questing and questioning, soft and perfumed and quilted, pomandered against the exhalation of rotting lungs, parasoled against the filth that spilled from windows. The grimy populace, more sullen and shouldersome than had been their wont, would not or could not tell them whence the song came. Above them, the soot-lunged chimney-urchins leaped and leered. So many shifts of them had tumbled and burned since the clockmaker of Agnes Street had proposed, to denouncement by the Guild, her Mechanical Bellows Suitable to Reside Within the Living Chest. But Excelsior’s words and the Nightingale’s song rang in their boxed and smoke-blocked ears, and as they spat down on the velvet caps fluttering with imported owl-feathers, the shining, circleted heads of the prim nobility, the urchins thought among themselves that those heads would never fall to form the smallest cobbleskulls.

At last, as the Little Emperor grew restive, voicehounds were sent out. They went about the streets, leaping runnels of beery bravado. They heard, dismissive, Excelsior’s adulterated choruses rousing bottle-room and tap-house, they ducked unperturbed beneath the debased and stirring phrases whistled by rat-cullers and spring-winders. They clicked up the fingerstairs and along the cobbleskulls until they crowded together on Short Street, which runs beneath Petty Street, all their ears cocked to the sky, their small, weeping eyes turned to the garret where the Nightingale sang.

Arpeggios and wandering scales spilled like largesse, rich and fragrant on their collars and livery.

 

The Phantom of the Window-sash, delivering its latest commission, let the onionskin spill like so many kitchen-sweepings over the Nightingale’s unclenching hands, to catch in the breeze and flicker out into Owl Abbas.

There. The little ghost coiled meaningful at the pulsing throat of the Nightingale, although each tremor, each tremolo shook it a measure further out of the world. Make ready.

The Nightingale had little to prepare. The tiled room was already bare of all but the meanest necessities. The red lamp was put out, and brick and tile thus returned to their native pallor, all Petty Street and no memory of the far red mountains.

And thus, to the satisfaction of one insignificant spirit, the Nightingale was quit of Petty Street, and Petty Street was rid of the Nightingale.

All would be as it ought to be, as (to the frail, fond memory that was the phantom) it always had been. The singer would go to the Palace Aster, be admired, neglected, rusted out, and thrown into some storeroom, as is the fate of all fine things; the scribbler would go back to composing his cheap, satisfactory songs. At least, of these futures the ghost convinced itself.

 

Excelsior gripped the sill like the jasmine-hawks in the highest towers of the Palace Aster, and listened. He tinkered a trumpet out of an abandoned horn, the better to funnel down to his garret the thinking murmurs, the trialled whispers of the Nightingale. He turned to that higher floor like a koncheomancer pressing against a shell for some rumour of the sea.

He heard the thin thunder of doves under slate, the earthquakes of spring-carts striking cobbleskulls, the rising roar of barter and banter, flattery and fatuous talk, threaded throughout with the discontenting repetition of his own words (tankards beating time like marching feet, lungs breathing defiance of harmony and melody alike, a formless rising tide). But no Nightingale.

Excelsior wore out his hopes and heart, burned all oil, spilled all ink. He crafted song after song, and even through his desperation he knew he had never written anything so fine. But the rare and blessed music was ashen beneath his pen.

Had it been this word, this note, this barest suggestion of weight or fire? In some way he had miswritten, misjudged.

Cautious even in despair, Excelsior shredded the gossamer spell into cheap sentiment and tramping rhythm, and sent it by nip-fingered courier below where, unintended, the words fell like fire-inches, like sparks in kindling.

The rooms of roses burn,

The lanterns are turned high.

Petty Street, long starved for light,

Lifts a ravening eye.

 

Few souls huddled in the dense miseries of Owl Abbas had ever mustered the will, the flash of flame, to strike out against the rule of the Palace Aster. What else, after all these centuries, had they to compare it to? They laboured, and they died. Even the clockmaker had only left, the better to complete her masterpiece: a singer that would conform faithfully to the restrictions and requirements of the Guild.

And then she had sent the Nightingale into the heart of Owl Abbas.

Oh, Petty Street and Agnes Lane, the Maresnest and the guildhalls had not listened. But they had heard. The Nightingale’s voice had threaded through the work of commoner singers, lulling and lilting, softening the singeing qualities even of Excelsior’s misdirected ditties.

The abrupt absence of that voice was like a sinkhole in a street, a sucking emptiness tearing the fabric of Owl Abbas. The citizens did not know what they had lost, but they knew it was something vast: the view of the red snows which only the nimblest chimney-urchins had seen from afar, the rustle of star meadows through which none of them would stride, all the miles and idly strewn space the clockmaker had seen on her journey out of the city, the bright air and the silences of hills.

Through Owl Abbas, the rumour of loss spread like the slow groaning of an overburdened beam, the creak of a rookery from whose footings one stone too many has been scavenged. The city-state, close-pressed, was a bone-pile at the base of which one littlest vertebra, or smallest knucklebone, had crumbled to dust, with a breathy sighing-out of its ghost, threatening to bring the whole tumbling down. And into the silence, the strident notes of Excelsior’s thoughtlessly outflung songs rattled like dice.

“Where are the rose rooms? Whose are the star walks?” asked brewers and road-wives, wakening to the words. The catacomb-filers, who saw the paintings on the deepest, oldest walls, said, “Surely these images aren’t a dream. They are just there, within our reach. Did not we have them once? When the city was owl-quiet and the stacked houses were groves, when the Little Emperor’s Council was a parliament of birds, and their auguries guided us more fairly than this?”

The workhalls, the orphan-rows murmured with Excelsior’s songs—not the only songs of the city, but sudden-sharp and bracing—and pennies rolled into the mouths of the crank-singers. Barwashers hummed even as they watched their wakening clientele askance. Gross-bakers stamped the words with chalk-gravel and sawdust and the heels of their hands into the heavy half-day bread. Petit-bakers stretched and rolled them into the cobweb expanse of their thousand-layered sugar-dough. Seamsters and oxen-harriers who had never seen Petty Street built the words into the pattern of their bitternesses, knotted them into the whipstring lacing of coats, threaded the lyrics through the murmurations they took from door to door with barrelled oil and saffron.

The rooms of roses burn,” they sang.

The words had been handed down with no thought to discontent and discord, untrimmed for any fire but that which lit Excelsior’s midnights.

Those who sang them did not look to the Nightingale’s room above Short Street and Petty Street (home now to three little, starved seamstresses such as might have welcomed a Mechanical, Light-Widening Eye like that the clockmaker had once proposed, and the Guild had rejected). The populace looked instead to the towers where the jasmine-hawks dozed and the Palace Aster peacocks preened themselves ghost-bright on the patterned tiles; their hands tightened on the tools of their many ill-paid, bloodied trades, and their eyes grew keen.

 

Meanwhile, Excelsior’s dulling nib and clotting ink scraped on, as if they could abrade the imagined offence.

But when Excelsior next burned his coppers, the phantom, slippery as a cough, refused the commission. The Nightingale had gone too far away. Even if Excelsior had set fire to pearls and gold—even had the reluctant ghost known beyond rumour what they were—it was too thin to waft the distance to the Palace Aster unaided, let alone freighted with music.

The banks the Nightingale’s voice had carved in Excelsior’s soul grew dry and the riverbed parched, weeds of ditties rank where willows of song had trailed.

Even the customary rattle and beat of Owl Abbas had grown sick and strident. The overwound springs of cart and boat shrieked, the middens steamed and smouldered.

A fever found its way into Excelsior. He could not rest. The ink dried, but he scribbled on in oil and soot; the nibs broke, and he scraped out staves with wire and nail; the paper slid from his table, the copper lay neglected on the floor and the music went to seed, etched on board and beam, glass and door.

The Phantom of the Window-sash watched, dispassionate. This would pass, and if it did not, then this scribbler would die and another take his place. Madness took scribblers just as falling took pigeon-gatherers, as cogs took mill-workers, and time took phantoms.

 

Once a simple temple in a grove, the Palace Aster had grown decadent and cancerous over grass and tree, over its own simpler stylings, over even the first streets of Owl Abbas.

Through gates and corridors, ballrooms that had been market squares and parlours that had been common greens, where silk and wax flowers hung now in silver baskets from gilded gallows, the Nightingale was led.

The faint messenger-spirit was wise, thought the Nightingale. This, and not the citizenry, was what the Nightingale had been designed to capture.

Through corridors the walls of which were lined with facades of plundered houses, under arched roofs painted like forgotten skies, the voicehounds brought their quarry, and handed the Nightingale over to the nobles.

They brought the Nightingale to the heights of the Palace Aster—galleries and balconies, lace bridges, the roof-walks where the denizens of the Imperial Aviary strutted and fluttered to the accompaniment of flautists imported to teach them better musicality.

Into a chamber scrubbed clean of its last inhabitant the Nightingale was taken, and there washed and oiled, polished and gowned, clad in velvet the colour of the mountains, the tint of the light that had burned in the little room above Petty Street.

“We have found the voice you sought,” the courtiers told the Little Emperor, while the voicehounds, ignored, circled and grumbled among themselves, gnawing out their bitterness in the words they’d heard sung in the streets.

The finest composers (brought long since to the Palace Aster and left to languish in corners and gardens) were discomposed and discommoded, divested of sheets of chorales and anthems.

These were finished, polished things, every nuance of voice directed, and for all the Nightingale’s powers the music had the staid elegance that Excelsior’s lacked.

But only the voicehounds noticed anything amiss. The Little Emperor was already bored.

 

Lust and love and loss; hopeless naïveté and ground-down wisdom; soot-etched, fire-branded, blade-cut, wheel-crushed, ill-rested, underfed. Thus the merry folk of Owl Abbas.

To them, the high, dying falls, the heart-cries Excelsior had intended for the Nightingale, took new meaning. This is what the songs proclaimed: the lily-towers, the jasmine-hawks, the Little Emperor and the Palace Aster must, should, would fall.

Excelsior, racked by sickness, heard voices raised in Petty Street. It was music, he realised, of a sort. A passion greater than that of youth, more violent than that of love.

I could write for this, he thought, tracing twitching marks in the dust of his garret floor, barely alarming the little spiders that had begun to blanket him.

Excelsior, so poorly fitted to be a revolutionary, such an unwitting conductor of dissent, tapped on the floor a martial drumbeat that only the Phantom of the Window-sash, frowning, felt. If a musical affair high above the streets might have disturbed the rooftop dwellers, a burning of roofs—whether in a fit of revolutionary enthusiasm or political retribution—was infinitely more to be deplored.

The ghost was dimly aware that this, after untold years and hauntings, might be its end: sifting as ash down on broken spring-carts. That this was likely also to be Excelsior’s end did not overly concern it.

But oh, this had been too great a mischief.

Having mustered a faint discontent, it slipped out by the window and wafted over the greasy canals, through slums and barricades, borne on the breath and voices of marchers, lifted by the songs of bakers (their long, heat-hardened bread-boards carved to spears), tossed by the shouts of dungmen redolent with ire.

Through gardenia paths waxen with bodies and over palisades spiked with sabres, it drifted into the Palace Aster. It blew like the dust of cobwebs among marvels and mosaics, unmoved by the unmaking of wonders.

Withering, it thought at last of the view from the room in Petty Street, and of the high widowing-walks of the palace, where one might see a mountain glowing red as a lantern.

Finer than thistledown, the phantom tumbled in the currents of bonfire-warmed air up the twisting stairs, and sighed, finally, against the finely turned ankles of the silent Nightingale.

Set free to haunt the Palace Aster with every other creature, curiosity and concubine marked with the Imperial seal, fragmenting its talent in the mirrored arcades of the Palace Aster, the Nightingale knew nothing of revolution.

It had been sent to win the heart of Owl Abbas. First, yearning back to its maker’s mountains, the Nightingale had believed itself shaped merely to capture that heart with beauty.

Then the singer had thought itself to be kidnapper and assassin, but here it had reached the centre and found nothing to bear away. The Little Emperor was merely a man, and could contain the city-state only by letting it slip endlessly through his hands. An ear and heart so lightly lifted were as easy to grasp as smoke. Ringed as they were by flame and riot, they would soon become smoke in truth.

Now, the Nightingale lifted its visitor like a snowflake, save that a snowflake would not have melted moment by moment on the cold brass of the singer’s palm.

“Strange spirit,” said the Nightingale, tuneless. “My maker-mistress sent me to bring back the heart of Owl Abbas. But it is too vast for me to carry, and too bright. See how the walls shine, like my lantern.”

The voice that had never before spoken without singing scraped the Phantom’s being like steel on porcelain. It writhed a little, weakly.

“I listened to you once, and here I am,” said the Nightingale. “I will not say you led me astray. It was I who was not adequate to my task. Am I to follow you again?”

They left the Palace Aster of the heights and followed the groaning of draughts through tower and tunnel. They departed the halls and salons where mirrors splintered and paintings bubbled, and crept into the lowest palace, that composed of cellars and basements, new and old and ancient, and each filled with the surfeit of every beauty, every luxury, every excess, and somewhere—who knows?—the dusty reliquary that contained the bones of the last idle owl.

“Perhaps the heart is here,” said the Nightingale. But there was riot and looting overhead, and no time to search those unnumbered cells and dungeons.

Through storeroom and oubliette, sewer and gutter they hastened, phantom and Nightingale. They slipped past the guards, the crowds, they elbowed through mob and melee. Buildings burned around them, the cobbleskulls ascended in bone-smoke while spirit-lamps, bursting, gave up their ghosts. Once only they paused, on the street of guildhalls, to take the great signet of the Elevated Guild of Horologists and Artificers from the rubble. Then they hastened on.

Fire melted the Little Emperor’s seal on the Nightingale’s shoulder, and wisped shreds from the phantom like steam. And as they fled, they heard, beaten into blunt weapons, into anthems and banners, the songs of Excelsior.

 

Excelsior did not know what he had wrought.

There are feet upon the stair, he thought. People will want words. But he had none left. The ink in its well had dried to dust, the nibs rusted on the floor, spiders spun in his hair. It is chill. Perhaps they want paper for their hearths, he thought. They will not find enough here. For all the fire below, he saw frost in the window, curling from the webs he had etched there in his first passionate shyness.

They will take the copper-shavings, he thought. Let them, someone may get use of them. He did not even have strength, now, to burn them for the faithless ghost as a last legacy.

The door latch lifted, and a creature walked in.

The Nightingale’s palace robes had been eaten away by spark and flame, threads of precious metals imparting the briefest of strength to the Phantom of the Window-sash, which clung still around the throat of silver and mahogany pipes.

The bonfire light danced like drums through the Nightingale’s hollow cage of ribs, the sliding sheets of ebony and quartz that shielded bellows and bells.

The Nightingale looked about the garret, read singingly the ravings etched into bench and board.

“This is the hand that wrote the songs you brought me, strange spirit,” said the Nightingale. “Yet these are the words the people with torches sang, all through the streets. I heard these in the idle-rooms of the Palace, and this in the tearooms past which the voicehounds brought me. You led me a dance, spirit, but perhaps this is the room on which Owl Abbas now centres, after all, and I shall have earned the signet seal we took.”

Kneeling with a beautiful spinning of weights and wires, the Nightingale peered at Excelsior and said, “It cannot live longer, I see, as people live. Can it live as you?”

The phantom undulated impolitely.

“No,” agreed the Nightingale, without reproach. “I see it lives as you do even now. Wishing nothing to change, wishing power beyond what it was built for.”

The long decorative fingers, designed to accompany music and elaborate a beat upon the air, now probed the skull, the throat, the diminishing softnesses that still enclosed Excelsior.

“How does one get in?” the Nightingale asked the phantom. “How were you drawn out of your shell?”

It could not answer the question, even if it had cared to. Hatred, love, unstretched wings, habit? They had all eroded so long ago.

The Nightingale calculated. It had never had cause to be fitted with the knowledge of where ghosts come from. They infested the city in much the way of the seasonal senates of ash-pigeons and the sub-kingdom of rats, but now all the nests and roosts were in disarray. The city was rearranging itself, and who knew what would pour into its new emptinesses, as a singer stretches the air to let the listener’s heart fall in.

“Ah, that at least I have done before,” the Nightingale said. “It is all I have ever done.”

Among the broken nibs, the slivered coins, the fraying quills, the Nightingale sought fragments that would fit its need: glass shards and a penknife not entirely rusted.

“You will understand,” the Nightingale said to Excelsior. “There is fire below the stairs. Owl Abbas is shedding all that was. So, too, are you. But like a clock I must hasten time a little.”

“Are you death?” murmured Excelsior. “I thought death would be an old thing. But for all the soot on you, you shine.”

“You know me, songwriter,” said the Nightingale. “Listen, and hurry.”

“I cannot move,” said Excelsior. “What can I do?”

“You will understand, and know the urgency,” said the Nightingale.

Carefully, counting its own seconds, the Nightingale unpicked the lock in its own breast, and opened first the cage of its ribs, and then the cabinet its master had installed there. It drew out the little drawer, cushioned in velvet. And as it did so, the Nightingale sang.

It was only a slight essay in scales, simple and hampered by the smoke in the bellows, the discord in a wire that had been jangled in the crowds.

“I know that music,” sighed Excelsior, and his fingers wandered over the dust of the floor. “I had meant to write such songs for you as would spill the city over with meaning, and pull hearts from their moorings.”

“You did,” said the Nightingale. “Now, I must unmoor your heart.”

“You already have,” Excelsior began to say, with no more volume than the watching ghost. But the Nightingale parted his ragged shirt and with careful, unshaking hands opened flesh and muscle and bone. How little blood, and how thick, spilled on the floor. Not enough to save even a small phantom, though it chased several even older wisps, of the sort that flutter in the dust about bedposts, away.

“Your heart alone would fulfill my errand,” said the Nightingale, lifting out that flinching organ, “but we might make something new entire, you and I: a thing I was not built to invent and you would not live to try. What my maker will make of that, I do not know.”

To the third member of their company it said, “Will you show him how to be as you? For he must learn quickly.”

The Phantom of the Window-sash, however, had no interest in further expiating its sins against Excelsior. It rumpled itself to the sill and floated in the air above the fires, breathing for the deaths of coins, ascending to the garrets-above-the-garrets, to bother pigeon-parliaments and rat-scouts a little longer, before it vanished altogether from sight.

The Nightingale stowed Excelsior’s gory heart and gathered up the trailing threads of his horrified, bewildered spirit, tucking them neatly in place amidst the staining velvet that it had once, mistakenly, intended for the heart of the Little Emperor.

Then the Nightingale latched closed the cabinet of its chest. “There,” it said, patting the metal and the panels of quartz and beaten horn. “Rest a little. I shall carry us for now.”

 

In time, new scribblers would arise from the ashes, as would a new city and a new emperor, of whatever stature, to take the place of the one who (it would be said) had lain in state, arms full of treasures, while the Palace Aster blossomed into flame.

But for now, the city rioted and burned, and neither then nor later did it know or care that the author of its rebellion was carried out of its bounds, rocked within the ribs of the Nightingale.

“I shall learn to write songs through you,” murmured the Nightingale to its little burden, as it strode out of the city gates in the shining night, and between the blue fields at dawn, “and you shall grow to sing them through me.”

They reached the foothills in a glowing afternoon, where the leaves flamed copper. And it was in an evening that, singing softly a song entirely new, they climbed into the scarlet haze of the mountains and vanished at last from the history of Owl Abbas.

Copyright © 2018 by Kathleen Jennings
Art copyright © 2018 by Audrey Benjaminsen

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